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

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

A platoon of cleomes is making its way from our shady garden fence to the light. It has taken years. The vanguard has advanced to the gravel driveway, where they thrive due to my weeding laxity. 

Cleomes are also called spider flowers because tendrils jut from their white, pink and purple flower balls. They are also called bee plants, as they are excellent pollinators. There is significant buzzing all along the sidewalk. 

These cleomes are descended from a very few we planted at the fence. They produce a very large number of seeds. They grow best in full sunlight. Thus they have gradually volunteered down the hill and along the sidewalk to a driveway that has the least shade of any space in our part of the forest. 

They are deer and rabbit repellent, emitting a scent that is sometimes called minty and sometimes skunky. If they are bent from foot or storm, they will likely bounce back to their height, which can be as much as five feet. They came to this continent from South American and the West Indies in the nineteenth century and were very popular for decades until cities and suburbs required smaller flowers for smaller gardens. More recently they have regained popularity. 

The cleome doesn’t need much help, just plenty of sun. It can thrive in a drought. It can overwhelm a garden if it isn’t controlled, requiring more care with restricting growth than encouraging. Eighteen inches is the ideal space between plants to keep their volunteering from becoming an invasion.  If their spread is controlled, cleomes can be helpful additions to vegetable gardens, repelling pests and attracting pollinators. 

 The cleome inspires one to impute a deeper meaning in its journey toward the light. One should take caution from the last words of Goethe, which were “More light!” While there is a temptation to interpret his words as the desire to take one final leap into metaphysical speculation, scholars are divided. Some affirm the leap. Others conclude that he was simply asking his daughter to raise the blinds.



Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I enjoy walking our dogs at sunrise, listening to the concert of the birds. One morning the sound changed, as though the first violin had been replaced by a car alarm. It was a rooster. That new backyard shed two doors up the mountain was a henhouse. 

For weeks the rooster was a featured player in the sunrise symphony with several mid-day practice sessions. Eventually he calmed down and his arpeggios were less frequent and lower volume. Roosters crow to announce territoriality and alarm. Our new neighbor had become more secure. 

Chickens are the most prevalent bird on earth, with about three for every person. They are everywhere. Their role in the ecosystem is extremely varied.

That rooster reminded me of the wild chickens of Kauai, the most isolated of the Hawaiian Islands, where we were fortunate to visit in February. 

Beautiful, multi-colored chickens are everywhere on Kauai. They arrived centuries ago with the Polynesians, but their currently large and increasing numbers are attributed to Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which blew down many chicken coops, releasing their inhabitants to breed with the wild stock. Every morning one is greeted with an entire orchestra of very secure roosters. 

I spotted this hen and chicks behind a hedge at a restaurant. She kept gathering the chicks to her, as they tried to explore, which would expose them to the dangers of a sidewalk and human feet. She succeeded, and as we were leaving, everybody seemed ready to settle down for the night. I have eaten no chicken since. 

Last week the morning chorus had added another car alarm. Neighbors two doors down the mountain had also acquired chickens. This is part of a national trend, inspired by a fear of food scarcity, I suspect, with a little “off-the-grid” strategy mixed with some back to nature aspirations. 

Stereo roosters feel a bit like Kauai, which is nice. If there are more to come, I suspect they will begin to remind me less of that beautiful island and more of the Ohio of my boyhood. Chickens are everywhere.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This photograph is not an attempt at art, but rather to reveal the barred owl hiding in our neighbor’s trees. Among the most common owls in North America, they hunt small animals by sitting still, if not quietly in tree branches, then swooping down.

They fly away at the least disturbance, so this was a rare opportunity to get close. Yet barred owls are also curious about people and can be surprisingly mild and engaging.  Their calls are so loud as to be heard across their entire hunting territory, which can be as large as seven hundred acres. 

We heard this owl days before we saw him, usually at dawn and dusk, as is typical. “Who cooks for YOU? Who cooks for you-ALL” is how the call is characterized.  The final syllables are an emphatic “HOOT!” Barred owls are also called hoot owls. 

My not yet two years old grandson’s favorite book shows drawings of animals. We read to him that the cow says, “Moo.” The pig says, “Oink.” The owl says, “Hoot.” He also has little stuffed toys of various animals. Have we led him to believe that cows and chickens are the same size, as are his toys? Such are the oblique concerns of grandfathers. 

He must also be disabused of the idea that all owls say, “hoot.” Besides the barred owl, the screech owl’s call ends in a hoot, preceded by a sound that is indeed a screech. Otherwise, most owls express the vocal equivalent of a metal lathe or automobile brakes seriously in need of fluid. Other “hoots” may originate from mourning doves, who emit a more melodious, softer hoot than any owl, the Kenny Gee to the screech owl’s Ornette Coleman. 

While my grandson’s book is now a valued part of his education and enjoyment, he will move on to more complex and accurate representations of owls. Otherwise he would be seriously misled into a stereotyped belief that all owls say the same thing. In fact, (please forgive me), most owls don’t give a hoot.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Nobody names a child Mugwort. “Where the Mugwort Grows” is no state’s official song because it is a terribly invasive and homely weed that grows everywhere. Nobody wonders that it might be a flower. 

It is historically one of the most widely used medicinal plants all over the world. One can purchase many preparations of mugwort from capsules to essential oil to dried leaves, both online and in drug stores. 

It is of the genus Artemisia vulgaris, which contains hundreds of species, from the intoxicating and toxic wormwood from which absinthe, the favored inspiration beverage of European artists of the Victorian age is made, to the homely sagebrush. One might name a child Artemisia, after the Greek godess of the moon, the hunt, and women’s health. Artemesia II was a Greek queen of the fourth century B.C., a botanist and medical researcher. “Mug” derives from its use in flavoring beverages, which are held in mugs. “Wort” is an old word for plant. 

Mugwort is sometimes offered as a cure for hangovers, nightmares and as a bringer of sweet dreams. It repels insects, aids stomach distress, anxiety, high blood pressure and is second only to Vicks VapoRub as a versatile comforter. All agree that it is bitter and toxic in large or prolonged doses. 

Mugwort continues to be a valued component of herbal healers and various shamans. Because of its use in women’s health, it has often been the special province of women practitioners. These practitioners were sometimes called witches and were treated by authorities in the familiar fashion. 

Unlike digitalis, aspirin, quinine and countless other helpful medicines found in plants, mugwort still stands outside the door of scientific acceptance, despite many controlled experiments. It is hard to find a control group or placebo to test if a substance cures nightmares and brings sweet dreams. 

Those who swear by mugwort may some day get a scientific validation. I can’t use the cliché “time will tell” however, because time, in the form of centuries of folk medicine across many cultures, has long ago made up its mind. 

** Please do not pick & eat any forest 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

 Near our back door among a variety of unwelcome and uncultivated weeds I saw these beautiful buds on long, thin stems. “Is that a flower or a weed? It sure looks like a flower to me.” 

“It’s columbine,” my wife said. 

I recoiled from the buds I had admired a moment before. “Columbine” still carries a terrible association with the Colorado high school of that name, which suffered a mass shooting in 1999. 

The school shares the name of the Colorado state flower, but remains such a morbid tourist attraction the superintendent has considered closing it and razing the building. 

 Columbine derives from the Latin word for dove. The five buds, like those in the photo, are said to resemble five doves. The flower is also called Granny’s Bonnet, while the name of the species is based on the Latin for eagle’s claw. Clearly the flower allows for widely divergent interpretations of its shape. 

The appearance of these plants on the other side of the house from where the seeds were originally placed shows that columbine is self-seeding or self-sowing. 

Because of its beauty and because it travels but doesn’t endlessly multiply and drive out other plants, it is a flower, not a weed and is not invasive. 

It can be found in many colors, is deer-resistant and a popular pollinator for bees and butterflies. One might add a flower or two to a salad for color and sweetness, but don’t add any seeds or roots. These are very toxic and also carcinogenic. 

“Where the Columbine Grows” was written by Arthur Flynn and adopted as the Colorado official state song in 1915. It is difficult to believe it was written over a century ago. Here is its third verse: 

“The bison is gone from the upland,
The deer from the canyon has fled,
The home of the wolf is deserted,
The antelope moans for his dead,
The war whoop re-echoes no longer,
The Indian's only a name,
And the nymphs of the grove in their loneliness rove,
But the columbine blooms just the same.”

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

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