By Sheri Qualters
At the beginning of a hike to observe the first day of spring, Boot Boutwell led the group over a snow-packed path and pointed out the unopened flower buds, or catkins, on an alder tree. Although the pollen-crusted buds were a tangible sign of the new season, they made for a vivid contrast with the morning’s wintry conditions.
The half-dozen or so participants bundled up in down coats, hats and mittens to tramp through the woods for the March 20 Celebration of Spring hike at Bellevue Pond. They walked for about two hours, amid temperatures that hovered around the freezing mark.
Boutwell explained that because the alder is wind-pollinated, it flowers before it leafs out so that the pollen can easily float away. He then contrasted the dead leaves that remain on some trees all winter—called marcescent or “withered but persistent”—with other signs of life. He picked a pussy willow branch in full bloom and explained that the plant had blossomed last summer; small pieces of the brown scales that protect the buds throughout the winter remained on a few buds. Close to the ice-coated edge of the pond, Boutwell showed the group a Multiflora Rose and observed that it had started to leaf out too early.
The hike covered a lot of ground in terms of both distance and topics. Participants heard poems and tales about spring and facts about the vernal equinox, or one of the two days a year that the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, causing daylight and night to be of nearly equal length around the globe. They learned about identifying trees by their leaves and branch patterns and about how needle-cluster patterns differ among evergreens.
After explaining that the leaves of a Hop Hornbeam’s leaf had far more teeth than veins, and indicating the bark’s separation into long and narrow rectangular plates, Boutwell revealed that it was also known as “ironwood” in earlier generations because its trunk yielded uncommonly durable material suitable for tool handles.
In a later anecdote, Boutwell explained how Native Americans managed to boil sap in hollow tree trunks to make maple syrup. Because the trunks would burn on top of a fire, the people placed heated rocks into the liquid to quickly raise its temperature.
The group ultimately meandered up Pine Hill to Wright’s Tower. Thanks to Park Ranger Supervisor Mike Nelson, who ensured that the tower was open, they were to get inside the frequently locked door and climb the stone stairs. The sunny morning allowed for clear views in all directions, including out to Boston Harbor.
On the way down the hill, the group fanned out, giving some the chance to walk alone for a while and listen to the crunching of the snow under their boots and the wind softly whistling past the trees amid the dim light under the overhanging boughs.
Near the end, Boutwell offered more instruction about identifying tree buds. “Sugar is sharp,” he reminded them while pulling down a Sugar Maple branch and noting its short, pointy buds. He closed the event by reading from the Old Farmer’s Almanac about a beloved rite of the season also associated with walking in the New England woods on brisk March days, harvesting maple syrup.