On the Trail: Peer into the Shade

 

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Summer has begun and in the northern hemisphere that usually means hot and sunny especially if trails are above tree line. But in the northeastern United States we are lucky that miles and miles of hiking trails remain well shaded as they traverse forests under a canopy of millions of maple. birch, hickory, oak and beech leaves, among others. The shade is a balm on a hot and sunny day.

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Running through a shady trail last week, I thought about the challenges of life in the shadows. For plant and tree life dependent on sunlight for photosynthesis, shade would seem to a be a punishment, like half rations for a prisoner, or no rations at all. Yet, the understory of forests, the part that is mostly in the shade, does teem with verdant greenery. Indeed, some trees, notably the striped maple, inhabit only the understory and do not ever breech the forest canopy. Other trees, however, are shade tolerant. That is, they can survive in the shade, for years if needed, until they have an opportunity to leave the understory and poke their tallest limbs into sunlight, perhaps after a nearby taller tree topples over, clearing a space in the forest canopy. And, many plants, even in our own gardens, flourish only in the shade.

How does life tolerate the dimness of the daytime darkness, the absence of direct sunlight, especially when that light is a currency of life for most plants and trees? There is no one answer. Instead, plants in the shade use a cornucopia of adaptations for their survival.

Think of common shade plant in many home gardens, Hostas. Notice that they have large leaves, an adaptation to collect as much sunlight as possible. In addition, the chloroplasts in the leaves of shade dwelling plants and trees are larger than in trees and plants that live in full light and their epidermal cells are better designed to maximize light. Also, shade trees and plants have no waxy layer on their leaves, something that trees in full light use to help reflect away unneeded light. And, in addition, shaded plants can change the angle of their leaves to maximize any available light during the day.

Shade is not only sunlight blocked, but rather potential not yet realized, growth untapped, waiting for opportunity. Shade tolerant plants, though, have it figured out. Do not wither during lean times. Adapt and be patient. If you find yourself struggling out on your trail, peer into the shade for inspiration, then continue on your way.

The sunlight, it is a coming.

Howard E. Friedman

 

(for more information about shade apaptations, visit : http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au)

 

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On the Trail: One Dose of The Escarpment Trail

Sunny Morning on the Hudson, Thomas Cole, c. 1820 (explorethomascole.org)

On the last Sunday and Monday of May I was fortunate to backpack 19 miles of the Escarpment Trail, a footpath dating back in parts to the early 1800s, which climbs up, and down, and up and down as it traverses the eastern most ridge of the Catskill mountains, providing a commanding view towering 2,000 feet above the Hudson River valley and the self-same river seven miles in the distance. The escarpment, a rocky buttress which extends for more than 30 miles in all, inspired many American painters in the nineteenth century who carried their easels from the southern section of the trail up onto the rocks overlooking nearby North-South Lake and river and valley below, garnering the name for themselves, Hudson River School painters.

Our path began in the town of Windham, NY with a three mile climb to Windham peak at just over 3,500 feet elevation. Our trail followed due south, cresting Blackhead Mountain, 3,950 feet elevation before dipping back to lower elevations. We camped along the ridge top after completing 11 miles, setting out early the next morning to continue our journey, stopping to refill water at a piped spring gushing water from a sandstone massif. The trail transects several types of flora along its course, from Northern hardwood forests of birch, beech, maple and pine trees to Alpine type forests of primarily Balsalm Fir, which fill the air with the smell of Spring itself. The forest than changes to large stands of primarily birch trees along the way. Splashing the trail with colors on either side of the single track footpath were abundant amounts of Purple Trillium flowers (also called Wake Robin) along with Canada Violet, Spring Beauty and Wild Columbine.

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

My mind was still playing back scenes from the Escarpment Trail days later when I read about new research that found that modest exercise in senior citizens can help them maintain their mobility. These findings were reported on May 27th, 2014 at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference and published in the recent Journal of the American Medical Association . Researchers found that a daily walk of only 400 meters, or once around a high school running track, was sufficient to keep older, primarily sedentary people mobile. Of course, everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But, we don’t really know how much is needed to get results.  This study establishes that for this group of 1,635 sedentary people, ages 70-89, walking only four hundred meters could be considered one “dose” of exercise. And according to Wendy Kort Ph.d. from the University of Colorado, who reviewed the study, this research begins to refine the notion of what is an appropriate “dose” of exercise.

Our backpacking trip was necessarily short to accommodate work and family responsibilities. We left at 8:30 Sunday morning and returned home around 5 p.m. Monday but, with travel, our time on the trail really extended for just a bit over 24 hours to cover the 19 steep, rocky miles and allow time for eating and sleeping.

Black-and-white warbler, photo by John McKean (www.allaboutbirds.org)

While the trip was short we did manage to traverse most of a well established hiking path, packed with beauty on the trail including not only wildflowers and shifting forest types, but vistas of the horizon, including the Hudson River, views of other Catskill peaks and even an unexpected close-up view of a black and white warbler only several feet away, perched on a spruce branch. The trail does include one macabre reminder of the power of windy downdrafts along a 2,000 foot escarpment: the well preserved fuselage of a Cessna plane that rests feet from the trail, exactly where it crashed in this mountainous area decades ago, killing its pilot.

This trek into the woods I would say, was one dose, or perhaps a double dose, of immersion into nature untamed. Time will tell how long it will last before I will needs prescribe myself another dose.

Howard E. Friedman