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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 

Another member of the fall forest orchestra, the katydid, along with locusts and cicadas, provides the droning percussive sounds that foreshadow winter. This one is about two inches long. We had a staring contest through our window. I lost. 

I wonder what he saw? Did he perceive a fellow creature? He gave no response, though he seemed to be looking at me and held his gaze. Maybe he was obsessed with the smooth glass surface, which must have felt quite different from the usual leaves and branches. This one is male. There is no ovipositor, which is quite prominent in the female. Their only real defense is they look like leaves, some species more than others. Their life cycle is about a year. 

There are over six thousand varieties of katydid, which are cousins to grasshoppers and are called “bush crickets” in most parts of the world. There are two hundred and fifty-five species in North America, and over two thousand in the Amazon River basin. This is why the Amazon is so important. It provides not only much of the planet’s oxygen, but also many varieties of plants and animals, some found only there. 

This player has its North American name because its three-syllable sound is thought to resemble “Kat-e-did.” They quit singing when the temperature gets much below 50, though the warmer it is, the faster they sing. Counting the number of syllables in fifteen seconds and adding thirty-seven will give the listener a reasonable approximation of the temperature. 

Their sound is their mating call and varies among species. Katydids tend to sing together in small groups of about four, like Beatles. These smaller groups in turn often synchronize with others, giving the listener the familiar unison rhythms of the fall. The louder and more fluent the call, the more attractive the male is to the female. That is, more Allman Brothers than Kiss; more Ferrari than Camero. There has to be some subtly, some clarity, some nuance. It can’t just be loud. Good advice for males of many species.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

We have many string beans this year. “String” is an obsolete term. They are now called “green” beans. Apparently contemporary beans are still green but not stringy. We have both yellow and green beans. They are the same except for color and since it sounds silly to call something a “yellow green bean,” the yellow are called wax beans. 

We have pole beans, as opposed to the bush beans. Our vines curl around and around, except that we don’t have poles. We have strings. So our green beans are, once again, string beans. They are nutritious and as copious as zucchini without being annoying. Except when I pick them. 

I see no green beans. I see wax beans, easy to pick because their color contrasts with the vine.  I see tomatoes. Anybody can pick a tomato. You pick it when it is red. Really stands out. Green beans require greater scrutiny, focus. 

Look for shape, not color. At first I see none. Then I see one, two. I see four or five growing together. Now I see green beans everywhere. I pick eagerly. Then they are gone. I think I’ve picked all the good ones for today. Then I look away, and peer in again. 

There are a lot of beans I missed the first time! I pick many more. Then they, too, are gone. I refocus. More beans. Refocus and pick. Finally, I seem to be finished. I’m sure I have not seen some, that, when I return will be too big to pick, having gone to a scaly, almost reptilian skin and of size too large to be anything but bitter.

 Picking green beans requires patience, a discriminating gaze that does not settle for nor draw conclusions from first perceptions. Look at the same vine from different angles. Look all the way to the top of the vine, and all the way to the bottom. Accept that there might be more to see. Then take that green bean picking acumen and apply it to all situations when superficial conclusions can be mistaken and a second look rewarded.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

By my imprecise measure, this is the 100th chapter of “Naif in the Forest.” Thanks to Jeff Rosalsky, Executive Director of PEEC and Janine Morley, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator, who support and encourage this effort and have from the beginning. Thanks and hugs to my wife, Kathleen, for her editing, wise suggestions and excellent photographs. 

If I post a photo that should be in an art gallery, it is likely to have been taken by Brad Berger, who also contributes knowledge of wetlands and musk rats. Richard Paterson is an Expert in the Forest and my technical advisor. Violet the Corgi and Topaz the Mini Aussie take me into the forest several times a day. 

Two years ago I told Jeff that I felt like a naïf in the forest, having moved here full time after years of partial residence. Jeff thought that would be a good name for a column. A couple of robust stouts later, the “Naif” was born. I wasn’t sure I could get through an entire year. Then I wasn’t sure about two. I am currently unsure about three. The limitation is within the naïf, not the forest. 

While I have learned much from my extremely superficial research, I have no illusion that I will ever become an expert in the forest. I have great respect for those who know which mushrooms to eat, what bird is singing, which insects pose no danger to humans and which are poisonous or venomous. I also learned the difference between poisonous and venomous. 

I will never master the particulars of nature, but I now hold a greater appreciation of the whole. I am constantly awed by the interconnectedness of squirrel and oak, monarch and milkweed. I have illustrated this chapter with the clear blue sky, taken early in June, a sky made clearer and lighter by the decrease in human activity.

In a time of fear and uncertainly a clear sky above and a natural order below that seems to know what it is doing even if we don’t, is a kind of comfort.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

There are two large pots in the corner of our back deck behind the Adirondeck chair. For all of spring, summer and most of fall, the leafy succulents therein are about as colorful as broccoli. Then, just as the spectacular flowers of summer are gone, and only the last of the cleomes and daisies remain, beautiful pinkish mauve bundles emerge behind the chair. What had been playing a supporting role suddenly dominates the esthetics, like that rare moment in a symphony when the cello has a solo. 

This plant which performs the welcome chore of extending color into sweater weather is a form of sedum known as Stonecrop, which sounds like the name of a 70s prog rock band but is not. They are easy to plant perennials, withstand draught, heavy rains and full sun, attract butterflies and other pollinators. Some, like this one, grow tall and are excellent corner accents. Other varieties are ground cover. They need little care, are sometimes called “live-for-ever” and are dependable and adaptable. They remain attractive through the winter and are deer and rabbit resistant. 

“Stonecrop” is the name of a group of spectacular gardens, not far away in Cold Spring, New York. It is accepting a limited number of visitors even now. It surely got its name from this hardy plant, which could thrive on a site that has been described as “a rocky and wind-swept hill.” 

This particular variety is not precisely a sedum, but a hybrid called “Autumn Joy Stonecrop.” Its biological name is hyloteliphium, meaning “woodland distant lover.” What a great name for a plant that one ignores until, one day, it has become beautiful, just as all the color from the showier plants have faded. 

Some readers may recall that “Distant Lover” is the name of a song from Marvin Gaye’s iconic album, “Let’s Get It On.” A wistful, slow dance of a song, it is about separation. This woodland distant lover, emerging after months of waiting, is about returning. Once again the beauty of its color manifests just when the world seems to be going gray.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

During this delightful unnamed season between summer and fall we have in our part of the forest, one begins to see a red-capped mushroom that seems to have a gelatinous topping. It looks like a Madeleine with strawberry jelly on top that a Jane Austen character would include with tea. 

That would be a mistake. This apparently yummy fungus is an Emetic Russula, also known by the more emphatic names of Sickener or Vomiting Russula, as that is the consequence of eating it raw, when it has a distinctly unpleasant peppery taste. Parboiling or pickling eliminates the taste and illness, but renders it relatively tasteless. Nobody suggests eating it. 

The Russula’s red pigment is somewhat soluble in water, gradually fading to orange or pink as exposed to sun and rain. Its edges can curl up into a small cup or bowl shape. There are over a thousand Russula species worldwide. It was first found and classified in Bavaria and central Germany in 1774. Russula is derived from a latin word meaning “red.”  

It is often found under or near pine trees, with which it is in symbiosis. The Russula provides nutrients for the tree, and improves its ability to retain moisture. The trees provide carbohydrates and a shaded place to reproduce. 

Not all mushrooms and trees have symbiotic relationships. The very edible Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom, which is also considered to give a boost to the human immune system, is a parasite to the oak, rotting its wood. The equally edible Honey Mushroom is even worse. It is a forest pathogen which uses white root disease to kill the trees that give it shade. 

I commented to Kathleen that it was ironic that these bitter mushrooms help their hosts, while some edible and useful ones cause harm. She replied that perhaps the trees arrange this so their friends don’t get picked and the hurtful do. 

“You just blew my mind,” I said. Never underestimate the wisdom of the trees. 

** Warning: Please do not pick & eat mushrooms, or any other forest plant, without the advice of an expert.


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