Days of flowers and fungi, part 2

On Tuesday afternoon, I walked up the drive to find the geese swimming in the backyard, delightedly dunking themselves in the water as they swam in wide circles. After sunset, Blanchard’s cricket frog and bullfrog calls bounced off the second floor windows. Fireflies flickered over the water, their reflections doubling their numbers.

It was beautiful. The trouble is, we don’t have a pond on the farm animal sanctuary.

What does flow through the Quarry Farm, through the nature preserve, is Cranberry Run, a fairly narrow tributary to Riley Creek which in turn empties into the Blanchard River. From June 12 to June 15, the local Weather Guy reported 3.34 inches of rain, much of it all at once. Beyond that, the National Weather Service has noted 2 more inches around these parts. In a nutshell, for about a day and a half, most of the Quarry Farm became one with the old stone quarry.

Tiny mothOvernight, the waters receded into the stream banks and the quarry itself. The geese splashed in the floodplain puddles. Donkeys, goats and potbellies were a whole lot happier than the day before with their full salad bar reopened.

The creek itself is brown with runoff from open fields to the south. Given a few days, the preserve trees and grasses will do their work and filter the creek to a clear flow again. Everything is green and lush above the water line, with various mosses growing on the water-soaked deadfall and logs from the the 2012 derecho, a fungi forest in the making. Seems like a good time to play catch-up and post part two of forage expert Tammy Spillis’ spring visit.

Fungus Amongus

In addition to snake root, rue, wake robin, ginger and other wild flowerings of both the native and nonnative sort, the trail walkers who turned out on May 2 found several types of fungi on the Quarry Farm.

Thorny locusts line the path on the northeast rim of the quarry wetland. Their four-inch-long-and-counting barbs were used by women to hold their shawls together, said Spillis. What wasn’t their on Saturday were a shelf mushroom host-specific to the trees.

In the floodplain south of the quarry sits an oxbow of Cranberry Run. Or it once was part of the stream until it was cut-off in the 1950s in a mad dash to engineer every minor waterway in Northwest Ohio. Since that time, the “cut-off” and it the running creek have been working their way back to each other. Until the time that they do rejoin, the oxbow is a deep wetland that is home to fairy shrimp, a variety of amphibians, brooding wood ducks and fungi.

Irene and TammyThe first we found was a little brown mushroom, one that requires a thorough handwashing if held with bare hands. “Little brown mushroom — leave it alone,” made it into my journal.

Then a cluster of pheasant back mushrooms, a beautiful edible, grew alongside mosses on a decaying log. It was marked with a feathery pattern of browns, exactly as its name implies. Another brilliant-skinned namesake, a leopard frog, hopped across the path as Tammy bent to take a sample.

Whether wild or storebought, Tammy told us that we derive the most benefit from mushrooms that are cooked. “The outside persists because of the protein keratin. All the nutrients, Vitamin B and Pheasant's Tailothers are held within those cellular structures. So when you cook them, you release them. The only benefit you get from raw mushrooms is water and Vitamin C.”

Then there’s the risk that wild mushrooms, when eaten raw, can carry delightful little parasites onto the plate. Tammy said a little wild mustard or something in the horseradish family can dissolve the outside layer on the parasite, if you just have to have your fungus served raw.

She added that cooked mushrooms have tremendous power in fighting tumors. “Your body says, ‘A mushroom just went through me. This mushroom is normally hard, and it has this protein thing.’ And then your body starts attacking other things that are similar to that, stimulating an immune response.

Inky capsThe last fungus we met was a bed of little gray-brown caps held by black stems. These “inkies” were used to make ink during Thomas Jefferson’s day.

On the return route we learned that, should we run out of water in late summer, plenty of thick, tangled wild grape vine ropes fresh water through the trees and across the paths. Tammy showed us how to wrap a plastic bag around a nicked vine so that it will fill with sweet, clear water.

“Always leave a grape vine in your woods in case your well goes dry,” was her advice. Sounds like a lovely sentiment to weave into a tapestry. I see a workshop in the future.

welcoming Spring

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It’s Monday and snow is falling outside the window. The temperature is low enough that the white stuff of winter is sticking in clumps on trees and on what new grass there is. Two days ago it wasn’t much warmer, but it was still the first full day of spring. And even though the morning blew in on a cold northwest wind, Spring is great cause for celebration after a polar cold winter that began prematurely with snow on October 31.

IMG_9108We planned a March 21 ‘Welcome Spring’ Family Day three months ago by placing the event announcement in our winter newsletter. It was an optimistic move, one which dreamed big of turning over logs to find salamanders and the first bloodroot leaves curling up from the ground around the old homestead well north of the 10-acre grassland.

The forecast looked promising for Saturday, with sun and predicted temps in the high 50s. As noted two paragraphs ago, what we got was cold wind and gray. Laura switched the refreshment menu from cookies and lemonade to doughnut holes, cookies and a selection of hot beverages which we thought would consumed by those of us who live close by.

Instead, we were joined by three families, all hat-and-coated and ready to hit the trails. Most were return visitors, so they knew that the wind chill would drop once we entered the nature preserve with its tree lines of defense.

Two Canada geese stayed put on the melted quarry surface, at least long enough for us to watch them lift off. We saw plenty of signs of movement, from a variety of tracks to wild turkey feathers. And since this walk was one to greet Spring, this group inaugurated the vernal pool trail for all future guests.

Steve gathered two water samples from the largest pool, an oxbow that was once part of Cranberry Run prior to a brutal 1950s attempt to ditch the natural, wild creek. The oxbow is home to frogs, dragonflies, woods ducks and a variety of turtles. Saturday, most burrowed deep and our enthusiasm sent anything with wings away, but the net did yield scuds, a tiny crustacean akin to shrimp.

We pondered scat in the upland grassland, talked about the sharp hawthorn that sometimes stores a shrike’s lunch and made maple leaf angels on the main hardwoods trail.

Up and out again, and several donuts and hot chocolate cups later, the south Cranberry Run trail led us to the farm animal sanctuary where Buddy, Beatrice, Johnny, Marsh and Mister Bill led the pack in a high-five. Turkeys Inigo and Humperdink paraded their splendid selves about, puffing and drumming as their heads mottled from pink to blue to purple and back again.

IMG_9146It was the first visit with guests for Mister Bill, a very, very, very large Boer goat, and he was tolerant until he’d had enough and wandered away to chew on a spruce. We took the hint at high noon, the scheduled departure time anyway, and were escorted to the gate by turkeys, goats, Buddy and Beatrice.

A warmer spring walk, one fit for wildflowers and light sweaters, is in the works for April.

Stay tuned.

Life lessons

One of the primary goals at The Quarry Farm is to increase understanding, to educate. Sure, we provide sanctuary to animals in need, have established a preserve for the area’s wildlife and offer folks the chance to just kick their shoes off and relax. But, during every interaction that takes place in the name of The Quarry Farm, the primary goal is to provide, and learn, new insights. Arguably, the topic that gets the most attention is water quality. We have a number of programs that we present on the subject, everything from simple, on-site discussions of the various aquatic habitats that help make up The Quarry Farm, to Small Streams, a project that allows us to set up aquatic microhabitats in schools and community centers. During any presentation on streams and rivers, the question that invariably gets asked of us, and that we in turn ask of visitors or classrooms, is this: What’s the biggest pollution problem facing the waterways in rural Ohio?

The responses to that question nearly always include garbage, oil (or some other petroleum product), manure, chemicals, litter and, inevitably, dirt. The correct answer is included in that list and it’s having a profound effect on everything, from the Great Lakes to the shortest of creeks, like roughly five-mile long Cranberry Run, a stretch of which runs through The Quarry Farm.

In the 1950s, and again in the ‘80s, Cranberry Run was channelized, engineered by officials in Putnam and Allen Counties so as to more quickly move water north and ease local flooding concerns. The stream bottom was dredged and the tops of the banks widened; a latitudinal cross-section of the resulting waterway would resemble a wide-mouthed “V”. Cranberry Run was also “straightened”: oxbows were bypassed, as were any extreme serpentine meanders. Anything that could possibly impede the free flow of water was eradicated, including trees and bushes that grew along the banks. What was once a historic waterway, a vibrant habitat for a host of aquatic animals and the myriad species of birds and mammals that depended on them, was reduced to what locals dismissively referred to as “Smith Ditch.”

stream4In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Gerald and Laura Coburn, after years of civil protest, negotiated an agreement with the counties that would allow Cranberry Run, or at least that portion of the stream that ran through their property, to reacquire a more natural presence. Within the first decade, the four natural stages of a waterway – riffle, run, pool, glide – reestablished themselves. Trees rooted on the bank, grew and began to provide shade, cooling the passing water and creating a more hospitable environment for all manner of aquatic insects and fish. Today, Cranberry Run snakes its way for approximately one-half of a mile through The Quarry Farm. The meanders in the stream bed slow the water flowing through here enough that sedimentation occurs and, on most days, the “Little Cranberry,” as it is affectionately known, runs so clear that visitors can’t help but comment on its clarity.

Cranberry Run as it approaches its terminus, Riley Creek.

Cranberry Run as it approaches its terminus, Riley Creek.

And that, returning to the question of “what’s the biggest contaminant,” should help provide the answer: dirt. Dirt is our greatest concern and the biggest problem facing all of the animals that live in the water, from insects to mollusks to fish. Not only does dirt, suspended in solution, absorb the sun’s rays and increase water temperatures to dangerous levels for the animals that live there, but it carries with it chemicals bonded at the molecular level and creates an environment in which aquatic organisms find it increasingly difficult to breathe. Imagine standing downwind in the smoke of a brush fire, not for a minute or for an hour or for a day, but perpetually, forever. For gilled animals living in highly turbid water, they may as well live in the smoke generated by an eternal tire fire.

Pictured above and below  is the point at which Cranberry Run enters Riley Creek. Efforts made within the boundaries of The Quarry Farm, and upstream by like-minded neighbors, have nearly erased the sediment load in the waters of Cranberry Run.

Pictured above and below is the point at which Cranberry Run enters Riley Creek. Efforts made within the boundaries of The Quarry Farm, and upstream by like-minded neighbors, have nearly erased the sediment load in the waters of Cranberry Run.

At left is Riley Creek as it flows northwest to the Blanchard River; the clear water to the right flows from Cranberry Run as it meets and enters Riley Creek.

Efforts on the part of private individuals and organizations, and through governmental programs sponsored by state and federal agriculture departments, are beginning to have an effect. Public awareness of the issues is critical in creating healthy environments in which all forms of life can prosper.

creek chubs