poetry and prose about place

Posts Tagged ‘Usnea

songs in the grey woods – northern parula

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A friend, a knowledgeable wetland biologist, has been helping me learn some new bird songs. Last week, I identified the song of the Northern Parula. This is a bird I have never seen, though I scan those tree tops with the binoculars until my arms ache. I have heard its song so many times and always wondered what it was. The song is a long whirrrrr, flowed by a short, upward flipWhirrrr -flip. Whirrrr- flip. This morning it was the first song of the morning bird chorus!


May 20, 2016 'Northern Parula' Jane Tims


It drives me crazy to hear him sing, be able to find the tree he is perched in, but not see him. My painting is how I think he must look, based on descriptions on the net.

The Parula is a blue-grey bird with a yellow throat, and a yellow and white breast. He has a white crescent above and below his eye and two white wing bars. A bright and beautiful bird! He has an association with a lichen I love, Usnea subfloridana, Old Man’s Beard. He uses the lichen to build his hanging nest.


Usnea subfloridana on the snow

Usnea subfloridana on the snow – usually found hanging in our maple, spruce and fir trees


Copyright 2016 Jane Tims


Written by jane tims

May 27, 2016 at 7:00 am

harvesting colour – beautiful brown!

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I will never see brown with the same eyes again!


Today I finished a batch of alum-treated raw wool and I was ready to try my first experiment with dyeing animal fibre.  The alum, you will remember, is a mordant, added to the fibre to increase its colour-fast and light-fast qualities.  In some cases, it also makes the colours brighter.


Remember my gathering of Old Man’s Beard lichen? (


jar with Old Man's Beard lichen, water and ammonia

jar with Old Man’s Beard lichen, water and ammonia


The lichen has been ‘fermenting’ in ammonia about a week and developed a lovely brown colour with tones of orange, reminiscent of root beer.


a sample of the dye obtained from the Old Man's Beard lichen

a sample of the dye obtained from the Old Man’s Beard lichen


I sieved out the lichen and added the dye to my dye pot.  I added a little vinegar to neutralize the alkalinity since basic solutions can harm the wool.  I put about one once of the alum-treated wool into the dye pot and added water, to cover the wool.  Then I increased the temperature very, very slowly since sudden changes in temperature can damage the texture and weaken the fibres.  I left the dye pot on simmer for about an hour and then left it to cool slowly.  Now the wool is drying on the line in my dining room.


The result may seem like an unimpressive brown, but to me it is the most wonderful brown in the world.  Reminds me of the ice cream in a root beer float!  My first effort at dyeing wool, and obtained from a lichen of the palest green.  I feel a poem stirring!


to the right, my lichen-dyed wool, and to the left, my un-dyed alum-treated wool

to the right, my lichen-dyed wool, and to the left, my un-dyed alum-treated wool


Copyright  2014   Jane Tims

Written by jane tims

April 4, 2014 at 6:40 am

‘niche’ above the ground

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Around us are spaces so familiar, we don’t pay attention to them anymore.  I remember this when I walk in the woods near our house.  On the ground, at my feet, are layers of leaves from last autumn, the carpet of mosses, the plants of the understory. 

And then I remember to look up and see the space above me. 

This space is the realm of the trees.  It is a space shaped by their canopies, the needles of the Balsam Fir and White Pine, the leaves of Red Maple, and the dead branches and twigs of the spruce.  Most of the trees reach upward, roughly perpendicular to the ground.  They stand together, parallel, the masts and rigging of a sailing ship.  Others have succumbed to decay and gravity and wind, and have fallen.  Their trunks make diagonal slashes through the spaces above and leave gaps in the canopy.

snowshoe trail and sap bucket on maple

These are spaces I cannot access, since my tree-climbing days are over.  But I can move there, briefly, in winter.  When the snow builds on the ground, it lifts me into the trees.  I am reminded of this when I see the empty tap holes in the trunks of the maples along the trail.  These are the holes left behind when we pull the taps at the end of maple syrup production in the spring.  When we collected the sap, the taps were about three feet above the surface of the snow, so we could access them easily.  Now, snow gone, the tap holes are above my head.  Our snowshoe paths were elevated into the space above the ground.  One winter the snows were so high, we had to trim the branches along the trail.  Next summer we could look up and see our winter path, traced by the absence of branches in the space above our heads. 

There is no soil up there in the above ground space, but there are many species who occupy this challenging ‘niche’.  White-throat sparrows sing “I love Canada, Canada, Canada” from the tree tops, ghostly grey spruce budworm moths flicker through the canopy, and the lichen Old Man’s Beard (Usnea subfloridana) droops from the dead branches of the older conifers. 

Usnea subfloridana Stirt. is a lichen often found growing on old and stressed trees in coniferous woods. The common name, Old Man's Beard, refers to the matted, stringy appearance of the lichen, hanging in clumps from tree branches. Lichens are made up of two species, an algae and a fungus, living together symbiotically.

Old Man’s Beard is my favourite space-maker in the canopy.  It hangs, light as thistledown, gathering the moisture it needs from the fog and rain, absorbing nutrients from the air, creating a home for insects and tiny spiders in need of shelter.  It paints the spaces with strokes of palest green.   
Old Man’s Beard transforms the spaces it occupies.  On the road between Saint John and Fredericton (New Brunswick, Canada) is a well-known picnic site and escarpment, called Eagle Rock.  The climb above the parking area  is steep, but at the top of the cliff the terrain flattens in an old growth of spruce and fir.  The ground is thick with reindeer lichen, Cladina rangiferina and Cladina arbuscula, and the trees are draped in Old Man’s Beard.  The effect is a frosted forest, as though these spaces were eternally in winter.  And I am lifted into the ‘niche’ above the ground.
Next time you are outside, look up.  What is in the space above you?  What are its qualities?  How does it shape your life?


Old Man’s Beard     

             Usnea subfloridana Stirt.

you and I

years ago

            forced our ways

            bent through the thicket

            of lichen and spruce


                        caught in your beard

                        and we laughed


                                    us with stooped backs

                                    and grey hair?

            found a game trail

                        a strawberry marsh

                                    wild berries 

                                                crushed into sedge

                                                stained shirts


                                    and fingers


                                    dusted with sugar

                                                washed down with cold tea

                                                warmed by rum


an old woman


lost her way in the spruce

found beard

            caught in the branches

and cried


Published as: ‘Old Man’s Beard’, Summer 1994, the Fiddlehead 180

© Jane Tims

Written by jane tims

August 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm

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