A week ago, I watched Carrianne Petrik-Huff take the temperature of a skunk cabbage. The thermometer, held inside the curl of the young plant, read 36 degrees — almost 20 degrees warmer than the outside air.
Later in the season it will spread broad breen leaves in swampy places, but in March Symplocarpus foetidus emerges as a bulb tapering to a point, dark purple flecked with green. It comes out in the snow — and melts its own way through. The plant can warm itself as it breathes.*
Early in the season, skunk cabbage is a warm place with a scent that gets it names like polecat weed, and it shelters early pollinators: flies and bees. Even in these raw days between winter and spring, life moves in mysterious ways in the Berkshire woods, and Petrik-Huff wants to share the marvelous weirdness of it.
She is the engagement manager for Southern Berkshire County with the Trustees of Reservations, and she spends a lot of time bringing children into the woods. She has found, she said, that the best way is to bring their families in with them.
She also spends time looking for springs and trading threads of water into wider brooks and rivers. She has walked long stretches of swampland along the Housatonic.
She has hiked in the uplands at McClennan Reservation, crossing a stream to reach wooded forest, high meadow and beaver swamp. For her this may be the best-kept secret in all the Trustees properties, she said in a conversation late last fall. And she loves the old-growth forest at the Bryant Homestead in the stillness of winter. Snowshoeing takes a solid base of snow, more than an inch or two, and the snow will last longer higher up — Notchview in Windsor still has snowshoe and ski trails open. The Trustees gives daily updates on the conditions there, which can change unexpectedly in a season when February can bring a thaw and March can start with a storm.
Plans may change with the weather, Petrik-Huff said. She has found that at times a group who will come for a snowshoe will feel less interested in a winter walk or hike.
But the cold season when the trees are bare is an amazing time to get to know the forest as a landscape, she said. Walking outdoors this time of year can draw people to focus in and expand out. Bartholomew’s Cobble will hold up a lens this weekend, in a photography workshop on March 25, looking closely at light and shadow.
In this season, people can see farther, she said. They can understand the shape of the land and how the landscape flows as a whole.
People see details they may overlook in summer undergrowth or fall leaves — the shapes of trees and patterns of bark, the seedpod of a milkweed and the shaggy shapes of squirrel nests. They hear the birds that live here all year. Different colors catch the eye, silver birches and evergreens.
“You ask different questions about your world,” she said.
The late snow and the mud also reveal animal tracks.
“It’s the best time to see who your neighbors are,” she said, “the way you see who comes to your bird feeder” in the cold months.
At the Cobble, she may find signs of deer, coyote, maybe a weasle, skunks, fishers, and smaller creatures like mice. Last summer, in the dry season, they even had a moose looking for wettter places along the Housatonic.
“It’s always exciting when people start seeing large prints,” she said, “and remembering we share our home.”
It moves her to know who lives here.
“It’s an incredible thing to pick a place and make it yours,” she said — to find a trail or a pond, an area of land, and get to know it familiarly, like the words to an old song. Know it under the ice, or in the mud, or in the dark.
“People should go out on the full moon,” she said.
At the Cobble, she has led full moon hikes up Hurlbut Hill even in January.
“To stand in the full moon in the snow is a magic, sparkling experience.”
* That warming is called thermogenesis, Petrik-Huff explained. Mitochondria within the plant’s cells create heat as the plant takes in sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into energy, release oxygen on the way.
I talked with Carrieanne in late fall for a sidebar on snowshoeing in Berkshire Magazine, and our conversation ranged deeper into the woods. My thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer. In the photo at the top: Freeze and thaw, the weather has left beads of ice on stems by the Hoosic River. (Photo by Kate Abbott)