Witch Hazel blossoms. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ROAMING THE WOODS IN OCTOBER is glorious and anticipatory. Several migrating yellow-rumped warblers were snacking on still available insects and the numerous poison ivy berries. Toward the back of the woods was the real treat for the day, Hamamelis virginiana, or witch hazel, in bloom. This is the last native woody shrub to flower in our area, a defiance of the coming winter. The flowers start to form in late September or early October and may persist on bare branches into freezing November, long after the leaves have fallen. The branched shrub or small tree is about 10-15 feet tall (sometimes up to 30 feet), has almost equal width, and likes moist acidic soil.

The leaves are oval and large-toothed, and turn lovely clear yellow in fall. The really interesting characteristics are the flowers, fruit, and medicinal properties. The flowers have four thin, inch-long crinkly petals making them look like yellow spiders! The branches also hold the nut-like dried fruit from the previous fall which contains the edible seeds. These will eventually “pop” and shoot the seeds up to a distance of 30 feet! This is a warning to those who might want to take the branches into the warm house.

Early settlers used the flexible witch hazel branches for dousing water and metals and learned that Native Americans revered the witch hazel for its astringent and medicinal properties. Theron T. Pond gathered this information and about 1850 started selling a witch hazel extract called “Golden Treasure” that became “Pond’s Extract” after his death. It was a real miracle drug, and the extracted or distilled leaves and bark were used as an astringent, styptic, tonic, and sedative, internally and externally to stop hemorrhage, it was a wonderful treatment and pain-killer for hemorrhoids, and was used for bruises and inflammatory swellings, diarrhea, mucous discharges, nose bleeds, varicose veins, burns, scalds, bites of insects and mosquitoes, inflammation of the eyelids, the skin, and is still in general use today. Read more…

THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS: The canyon at High Falls

THIS IS THE LAST in a short series of columns about the High Falls Preserve in Philmont, managed by the Columbia Land Conservancy. We have already learned about the bedrock geology and the volcanic history here. Now, let’s learn more about the falls and their canyon. See our first photo. It shows a steep and narrow canyon. How did that form? Perhaps you have learned over the years, something about Niagara Falls. The highest strata of those falls are composed of very dense rock called dolostone. That horizon of rock is solid stuff, and it makes up what is called a capstone and it is that cap which supports the falls. But the strata underneath the cap are much softer rocks. Those horizons are easily weathered and eroded. Over time those soft horizons retreat and this leads, periodically, to collapses of the capstone

In this manner Niagara Falls has been observed to have been retreating these last three centuries. The falls have been painted and photographed repeatedly since the late 1600s and from studying those images we can demonstrate that the falls have retreated several hundred feet in that time. See our second photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Since the end of the Ice Age, geologists think those falls have retreated many miles. Read more…


MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER, “Gram,” was a wonderful person. She may not have had much formal education, but she was very good at running her household, and knew how to do all kinds of practical things. Since the farm income and family survival depended on the animals and barns, emphasis was on them and a lot less on the house. If something needed to be repaired she would get out her kitchen tool kit from its drawer, get the jar of nails and screws and take care of it. In the process I learned from her and took over some things she could no longer do. She had arthritis and a bad knee, so I did what I could to help her.

She was only a mile from our farm so I spent a lot of time with her and she in turn was our baby sitter and often helped my mother. When we got to her house she had a list of chores we were asked to do. As I got older the chores got more involved. In fall we had to prepare for winter. There were a dozen or more large trees around the house so there were almost endless sessions of raking and piling leaves. My grandfather, “Gramp,” joined us and it was a fun time. Our reward was making giant piles of leaves and jumping or tunneling into them, usually accompanied by the black cocker spaniel. I think she enjoyed it more than we did. Nothing ever went to waste so we used baskets to move and place leaves all around the old farmhouse foundation. It was good “organic” insulation and boards held them in place until spring. We carried cases of canned goods into the kitchen pantry, 5 lb. bags of sugar plus at least 25 lbs. of flour for the big crock with the wooden lid.

Home grown potatoes and other root vegetables, the vinegar barrel and other foods went into the cool cellar. My uncle Harold and grandfather sawed up trees from the woods which were piled up in the old carriage barn just west of the house. This building helped shield the house from the persistent west wind and some of the drifting snow. It was a snug structure so it was a more comfortable place to split wood and kindling for the kitchen wood stove than being outside. Read more…

THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS: Philmont was once in very hot water

LAST WEEK WE INTRODUCED you to the bedrock geology at High Falls in Philmont. That’s one of the locations preserved by the Columbia County Conservancy. One of us, Robert, will be leading a geology walk there on October 22 at 10 a.m. Last time we learned that the bedrock here dates back more than 443 million years to a time when Philmont and much of Columbia County lay beneath the waves of a very deep ocean, the Iapetus Sea. That bedrock was originally mud at the bottom of that ocean. This time our focus is on some peculiar features that can be seen in this, the canyon of Agawamuck Creek.

Take a look at our photo. That’s a boulder from the bedrock of High Falls. Notice the striking white stripes that cut through it. These are veins of quartz and they have a story to tell. They take us back several hundred million years to when there was volcanism going on beneath our region.

We don’t know exactly when this happened but it was likely during a mountain building event. There have been several episodes of mountain building hereabouts. The mountain building fractured the bedrock, and with time enormous masses of extremely hot water forced their way upwards along these faults. Hot waters can carry a lot of dissolved minerals, and when they cool those minerals can crystalize. In this case the mineral is white quartz. This is how the veins we see formed; they are called hydrothermal injections.

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Photo contributed High Falls in Philmont was once at the bottom of a deep ocean. Learn more October 22 at 10 a.m. Photo contributed

ONCE AGAIN, we are working with the Columbia County Land Conservancy. One of us, Robert, will be leading a geology walk at the High Falls Preserve in Philmont on Saturday, October 22 at 10 a.m.

High Falls is a pretty waterfall with a surprisingly complex geology. Our group will walk up the canyon there and learn about its geological history. The rock unit here has been mapped as the Elizaville Formation. We read about it in a book by our friend, the late Dr. Don Fisher. Maybe you knew Don; he ran the rock shop in Kinderhook.

The Elizaville Formation is mostly a black shale, and we can deduce a lot from that. Before it hardened into shale this was a sediment of black clay and silt. That is something that usually accumulates at the bottom of a very deep ocean or even an abyss. It’s stagnant down there so there is no way that atmospheric oxygen can get into those waters. With no oxygen, there are relatively few bacteria. That means that biologic material does not decay, and the shale is black, the color of fine particles of biologic material.

What a remarkable thing this is; we are looking at Philmont when it was at the bottom of that ocean, called the Iapetus Sea. Don estimated that this was a bit more than 543 million years ago, a time called the Proterozoic. Read more…