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A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

Shortly after we arrived here, we planted a redbud tree where the backyard becomes the forest. It is small even by redbud standards, maybe ten feet tall and one might unkindly call it scraggly. Some sources don’t even call redbud trees, but rather large shrubs. It has never thrived, but persisted. Today is part of that two or three weeks when its colors brighten a spring that is cold and late. A more precise name for it would be “mauve bud tree.” 

Its range falls short of us, barely encroaching upon Pennsylvania, but they are plentiful here, if not common, both wild and planted. They are in high demand for green houses across the state. Its flowers can be eaten and are often used as seasoning for wild game. It is sometimes called a spicewood tree. 

Today the vivid buds were stunning against the green of the larger trees and the bright blue sky above. I felt fortunate to see it. With the tree far from a road that itself is itself far from busy, my wife and I would likely be the only humans to see it. That made me seem important, as though I had a special responsibility to appreciate this beauty, lest it bloom unseen and unappreciated. 

Its color is not seen by squirrels, rabbits, foxes or deer, none of which can discern green from red, let alone mauve. Foxes are as colorblind as dogs. Birds can see our spectrum as well as ultraviolet, a far more spectacular view than ours, unlikely to focus anywhere for long. From all the creatures in the forest, only humans see the redbud as it appears in the photo. 

Does the redbud need my eyes, or care that it is seen? Or are the gray buds the fox sees sufficient? Or does implying or hoping for sentience in the forest a bridge too far beyond reason, if not poetry? Or is this all just philosophical meandering around the plain fact that I feel blessed to see this tree, at this time, in this place.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

“What is the name of that flower?“ I asked. 

My wife/photographer answered, “Snake head.”

 “Yipes,” I replied, noting that it did look like a snake’s head, from the its shape to its color pattern resembling scales. 

It also has several other names, only some of which are less threatening. Chess flower, frog cup, guinea hen flower, toad lily, dropping lily and leper lily, because in full bloom resembles the bell once carried by lepers. Unlike some varieties of lilies, and despite its name, it is not poisonous. It is found all over Europe but is becoming endangered in the wild, as the damp meadows where it grows have fallen to cultivation and other developments. 

Do not confuse the snake head flower with the snake plant, a common and rugged indoor plant which resembles not a snake’s head, but its body, being long and tapered. This also has some colorful common names, most prominently mother-in-law-tongue. 

There is some debate as to whether the current wild snake heads are descendents of the original wetlands wild flower or have found their way to freedom after being planted in gardens. Such flowers are said to have “escaped.” They are sold as annuals, but some return and even multiply, especially when planted in the moist, slightly shaded areas where they thrive. 

They are the first delicate flowers to bloom in the spring. Daffodils, primroses and wolf’s bane all look tough enough to survive the last gusts of winter. Their flowers appear relatively thick. Their stems are flexible, prepared to bend without breaking. They grow in clumps, providing shelter to one another. The snake head by comparison is much smaller and appears fragile. They grow mostly as single plants, sprinkled among more hardy neighbors. 

Those other, earlier bloomers only appear hardier. The snake head blooms not long after the others, so must also be resistant to freezing temperatures and the occasional April snowfall. What appears to be more delicate and vulnerable in the forest or garden or elsewhere may in fact be very well prepared not only to survive, but to thrive.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

This is a rainbow peeking through the trees, a rare phenomenon here. We don’t have lot of sky to see unless you look straight up, where rainbows never appear. Our weather seems not to change fast enough to make rainbows, which require droplets of rain and sunshine to share the sky. 

A rainbow is not a real object, but an optical illusion, requiring very specific events to manifest. They appear only at forty-two degrees from the direction opposite the sun, and require a human spectrum of visible light. The most rainbows I ever saw were over San Francisco Bay, where the weather changes constantly and the sky is vast and open. Only humans see rainbows. Also, black and white photographs of rainbows are impossible. 

Aristotle and Seneca studied rainbows in ways that eventually branched into both science and mythology. The science became optics and astronomy, while the mythology began with the rainbow after the flood in Genesis and continues to the present day, being used as symbols of Gay Pride and the end of apartheid in South Africa. 

The most popularly enduring rainbow symbol is the Irish leprechaun promising a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and never delivering. It is a complex myth of greed, hope that exceeds reason, and the power of self-deception. 

Rainbows are likely to remain a powerful symbol of human emotions as wide as the spectrum of colors found in them. One person, standing at the proper angle at the proper time, has a spectacular vision.  Another, arriving a moment earlier or later, or in a slightly different position, sees nothing. Their dogs think both of them are deluded. 

What are these two persons to do? They have completely different perceptions of reality. They are both correct, depending on their perspectives. They would both be wise not to defend the truth of their own perceptions, but rather to recognize the human limits of their perceptions. The rainbow both exists and doesn’t exist, balancing at the edge of reality, depending on where one stands.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

I had been looking forward to spring even more than usual. I was getting the vaccine; the last of winter’s fifty-seven inches of snow was almost gone. In a few days I would be looking for the first daffodils. Then I tripped on the last step to the basement. My spring was postponed for longer than any cold snap. 

I barely left bed for two weeks. The large boot became my constant companion as I began a recovery that was slow but ought to be complete. From the bedroom I saw the thermometer hit seventy a couple times. I could see the daffodils break though, then bloom, but could not touch them. The day I finally was able to venture outdoors, the temperature once more was hovering near freezing.  I had intended to take a photo of the daffodils to celebrate spring, but found them sadly drooping, a sight too depressing to photograph. 

Hiding near the deck stairs I spotted these primroses still fighting the good fight nestled among spotted dead nettles, a ground cover whose name is almost as depressing as this weather. They are called “dead” because they are not toxic to the touch, unlike stinging nettles that are called “live.” Why this harmless cover is not called “nice” or “friendly” or “welcoming,” I don’t know. 

The primrose also suffers from bad public relations. They bloom about the same time as daffodils but because they stay close to the ground, they are not as readily seen. Nobody awaits the first primroses of spring, just as nobody remembers the second person that ran a four-minute mile. Yet here they were, their very close-to-the-groundness enabling me to find a not depressing scene, at a time when the daffodils looked like they had gone twelve rounds with Mohammed Ali. 

The primroses reminded me that what I had experienced was indeed, nothing more than a false spring, a temporary setback, both seasonal and ambulatory. Hang in there, say the primrose. Soon even the daffodils will lift their heads again and spring’s promise will be kept.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

T. S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month and this is certainly true in our part of the forest. Plan for an April picnic; get a snowstorm. Spring baseball practice is an act of optimistic endurance. When to take bird feeders inside and put seeds in the ground is a mystery.

March by contrast is the month of low expectations. The equinox announces the return of the sun, but does so with a whisper. All we ask of March is that it be better than February, which is like asking a Ford Pinto to be better than a Chevy Corvair.

This photo is an example. It shows the first time I’ve seen the ground in months. Weeks of melting finally dwindled the depressing piles of snow that have covered everything. The snow still dominates, but this patch shows is on the run. The dogs love being able to sniff and dig in dirt again. It is not the end of winter, but is a harbinger of the end, the first evidence of the equinox approaching. This otherwise drab patch of desiccated leaves and pine needles is beautiful to me, not for what it is, but for what it promises.

This promise has been celebrated in holy days and rituals around the world. The key part of rituals inspired by the equinox is that humans do not save themselves. They depend upon forces far greater than themselves. Both Passover and Easter show God saving people who could not do it alone. In older rituals, Ishtar returns to the Babylonians, Jamshid to the Persians, Ostara to European pagans, so that humans will not starve in the dark.

This year the hope of receding gloom is about more than snow. It is about surviving contagion and ecological disaster. It is no longer sufficient merely to call upon the sun to shine. Unlike years and even centuries past, what humans do or fail to do now has a determinative impact on human survival. It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.

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