Itís the end of the year and the weather is very mild for the Cape in winter. For nearly three decades I have walked the trails around the Crocker Neck salt marsh in Barnstable. My visits are are at least twice a week and so Iíve become familiar with the subtle, but seasonal changes of this dynamic system.
Today a heavy fog has made Poponessett Bay practically invisible until I walk near the waterís edge, so calm and peaceful. A small flock of black ducks see me first and take flight to what they perceive is a safe distance. Itís winter so the cordgrass is golden brown and matted in places where the recent high tides and waves occurred. The remains of a few marine animals lay scattered on the small beach. The shell of a quahog, the claw of a blue crab, and the carapace of a horseshoe crab lay entangled in a mat of sargassum and rockweed.
Itís raining slightly though I hardly notice. The lichens on the pitch pines seem to glisten more brightly as they absorb the moisture from the air. Long gone are the bright flowers of summer including the purple sea lavender lining the edge of the marsh, the orange milkweed along the trail, or the numerous white and yellow asters.
Yet when I look carefully I can still observe some color along the trails. These are the shiny red berries on the wintergreen and bearberry groundcover plants. Other fruits become more visible such as the grayish clusters of poison ivy, the dried, brown fruits of sumac, and the blackish-purple berries lingering on greenbrier.
Though the silence is broken primarily by the falling rain on the branches of trees, I am soon accompanied by a noisy scolding from several crows in the area. Iím not sure what is bothering them. Possibly they expect to be left alone this time of year and resent the presence of any intruder into their domain.
The mild, moist weather has resulted in a surprise for me. In a small path that cuts through a grove of pitch pines, I see three small earth stars that have emerged from the soil. These fungi are a kind of puffball and their center id swollen with spores ready to be released in the rain and wind. I leave them alone in hopes that they will be successful in their productivity, and that other earth stars will grow in this area again.
I am still waiting for this yearís first snowfall. Though late, I know it will inevitably occur and the muted dormancy now seen throughout Crocker Neck will metamorphose into a deep slumber. The marsh is beautiful at any time of the year, but the resting stage known as winter carries with it the hope of renewal and growth that will once again emerge a few months from now.
For more information about Crocker Neck see Gil's book:"The Ecology of a Cape Cod Salt Marsh."
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.