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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 

 “Should I pull this? 

 “No. It will have a nice little flower. Let it be.” We did. 

 As it grew I recognized it as a familiar adornment at the side of roads. It is Yellow Rocket Cress. By the time the flowers appear, the leaves are too bitter to eat. They provide several vitamins. They were once called “scurvy cress,” because it could cure scurvy. It should have been called “anti-scurvy grass.” 

It is a great pollinator, especially for bees. It grows best in the sun, which is why it seeks the side of roads and vacant lots where shade has been cleared. Rocket Cress likes moist soil; we can expect more of it in this year. It is found almost everyplace in the world, is slightly invasive but, like many plants, this depends on the beholder. One gardener purchases the plants for cultivation, while another pulls them as a nuisance. 

They are part of the mustard family, sometimes called the cabbage family. It is a big family, over four thousand species, including seemingly unrelated plants, from fancy salad ingredients like arugula and watercress, to homey greens like collards and cabbage, as well as the mustard plants whose seeds are used for the condiment. Some are international, like bok choy and Brussels sprouts. Throw in turnips, rutabagas and broccoli and you have a family that covers a lot of taste, textures and contexts. In fact, the exact definition of this family is still contested among biologists. The one thing they have in common is at least a slight bitterness, which makes them almost universally hated by children. 

With genetic testing increasingly common, humans are discovering more about their families. Not all of the information is welcome, as it can reveal that families have at least as much diversity within them as differentiate cauliflower from horseradish. 

Humans are part of the family of Great Apes, including Chimps, Orangutans and Gorillas, which some seem to find insulting or impossible. I wonder if there is a mustard that considers itself the superior vegetable of its family?

** Warning: Please do not pick & eat any wild plant without the advice of an expert.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The dogs were interested in the back of our neighbor’s shed. They did not bark, but were staring with ears up. They knew there was somebody there and wanted to meet them. I knew there was somebody there and did not. 

The next day our neighbor told me it was a momma red fox and kits. For a week we avoided the shed, which was not easy, requiring of me some strength with the leashes that I usually have and some leadership in where we go, which I usually have not. 

I repeatedly looked toward the shed and never saw a stirring. Then one morning I saw her through the kitchen window. Momma held watch about five feet from the hole she had dug under the shed. One kit crawled and tumbled around her. After a few minutes two more joined. For a half hour they frolicked around and over each other, while momma stayed alert and kept them from straying. We had heard the mournful, banshee-like cry of a lone coyote in our part of the forest of late, and certainly she had, as well. 

Foxes are not usually prey to coyotes, but competitors, and momma would fight to protect her kits. A lone coyote could find plenty of prey much easier than heading for that shed. The kits would be ready to leave in a couple of months or so, but might stay. Foxes often gather in large holes as extended families, though I surmised that this would be unlikely, as they, like everybody who tries to make a home around here, would run into solid shale about three inches below the surface. That’s why they went for the shed. The foundation and basement had already been prepared. 

This photo makes the shadowy images of Big Foot look like they were taken by Ansel Adams, but it was the best we could do, as momma went hunting one morning. I didn’t want to venture closer or disturb the kits. This was one kind of social distancing I was happy to accommodate.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Here is Topaz the mini Aussie looking through a large glass slider on our deck. Last week I was upstairs when I heard a definite but indeterminate “thud” followed by a loud barking frenzy. Topaz and Violet the Corgi had been disturbed by an event more interesting than a UPS delivery and less threatening than a bear. 

As I approached the sliders I saw nothing until I looked down. There was a beautiful, large pileated woodpecker, chest down on the floor of the deck, breathing heavily, blood escaping his mouth and nostrils. Soon the breathing stopped. 

He had flown into the glass slider. I wept. I fetched a shovel and a cardboard box, placing the bird carefully within. I carried him to the base of a tree far from where the dogs run. Digging was not easy, but I excavated sufficiently for the occasion. I placed him carefully, covered the grave with dirt, leaves, twigs and rocks, as secure as the shale allows. 

I was sad.  There are more woodpeckers this year, perhaps because of the mild winter. More at the bird feeder in winter. More recently chipped away fallen trees. More rat-a-tats in the air. I loved seeing them, hearing them, discovering their handiworks. 

This was the third bird that met his demise at those sliders over the eight years we have intruded ourselves into the forest. The others were small, a finch and a chickadee. I mourned them also, but perfunctorily. This woodpecker by comparison seemed a tragedy.

 I knew the sliders were a threat to birds. The little deaths proved it years ago. Now, finally, I was moved to act. Several web sites agreed that vertical pieces of cord about four inches apart would dissuade birds from flying into the glass. Soap or a pen that works on glass could be used to draw vertical lines. Birds will still see their reflections in the glass as rivals to attack, especially in spring, but will perceive the vertical lines as difficult to fly through and will turn away.  I ordered a pen.

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Last week I saw two wasps on the laundry room floor. One was dead; the other injured or tired. They were brown paper wasps. I wrote about them in the fall. Only the females sting. They are not aggressive and sting only when the nest is threatened. 

While wasps in the fall do not survive the winter, these have most of their year’s life span ahead of them.  I found two small pieces of cardboard. I used one piece gently to nudge the struggling wasp upon the other. The wasp cooperated, sat quietly while we approached the door, and flew away as soon as she could. 

The next day there were more, and the next. I lost count of the days and the wasps. Most flew away immediately, others crawled away slowly onto the sidewalk. They were always gone the next time I looked. 

Only fertilized females survive the winter in their nests, which are often built in nooks and crannies of human abodes, under sills or in eaves. There must be nests nearby. Some wasps get lost and find themselves in our basement, not a good place for them to live and prosper. No wonder they not only did not sting me, but seemed actively to cooperate with their rescue. Once on the cardboard, they never tried to fly away while indoors, only when they found themselves outdoors. Even those that appeared traumatized or took some time to find themselves to the cardboard, eventually righted themselves and escaped. 

Social isolation is wearying. In this war it appears I am a hostage. Helping the wasps, as trivial as that may sound, bestows a kind of agency. I was contributing to the world, even as I was withdrawing from it. This is not trivial to the wasps. 

There may be a great many more paper wasp nests in our part of the forest this spring. They will eat a lot of insects that prey upon our garden. I hope they remember that I am not a threat to their nests, but the guy who helped them through a difficult spring.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The first daffodil shoots bursting above ground are usually a welcome sign of spring. But when these appeared on February 15, I was disturbed. That is way too early, disturbing rather than reassuring. I feared a return to seasonal post-freezing temperatures would doom them. The freeze never came and we had blooms on St. Patrick’s Day, weeks ahead of other years.

One of my favorite websites, howmuchwillitsnow.com, says that our part of the forest has received 70% less snow than normal. Our treacherous driveway needed only two plowings instead of the normal six or so. While I root for as little snow as possible, I found it difficult to feel good about a winter this warm.

Now I’m sitting in what we call social isolation, which, except for avoiding the new virus and constantly being reminded that my age and lungs make me particularly vulnerable, is not that different from my ordinary lifestyle. If my life were a bad novel, which I suspect it is, the way-too-early green shoots would be a foreshadowing of the virus. The same ecological disruptions that skipped winter in the Poconos enabled a virus to jump from bats to humans, like the Chinese butterfly with wings flapping causing a hurricane in Texas. This virus appears to be a hurricane that swirls everywhere at once.

My forest meanderings often focus on parts of the great cycle of life: a caterpillar that may or may not survive to fly, an acorn’s very small chance of becoming an oak tree, the invasive plants and the fragile ones, the heroic migration of the monarch, the stolid march of the wooly worm, deep slumbers of bears and chipmunks. Always behind my observations are the unvoiced questions, “Where do I fit in? What of my species?”

For many centuries, starting with Aristotle, humans put themselves at the top of The Great Chain of Being. Medieval Christianity built a penthouse for God and angels. I suspect the other species never saw us that way, but rather as just another hungry mammal trying to survive and best to avoid. They were right.

 

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