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 

Some people like to judge fall’s colors compared to other years. I love what happens every year: the vivid colors, and also the subtle shades as winter approaches. The only constant is leaves dropping everywhere. 

I consider this gradual process a blessing, a final gift from nature before winter. As the final leaves fall I’m ready to fire the wood stove. I’m never ready to shovel snow. 

This process is not gradual for all leafy trees. Ginkgo trees lose their leaves all at once, or nearly so, taking an hour or two, usually on one of the first days of heavy frost. They use a unique chemical process to sever the connection with their leaves. Other trees begin with low, smaller branches and end with those nearest the sun. 

Ginkgo trees are living fossils that shared the earth with Tyrannosaurus Rex. They have no surviving relatives and, because they repel most animals, have little means of propagation. They are dependent on humans to plant and tend. Long thought extinct in the wild, small groves were recently found in Chinese forests. 

Because of their resistance to animals and also urban pollutants, they are often found in cities. They have become a monoculture in some, leading to lack of plant diversity that, in turn, weakens animal and plant diversity. 

They grow in most places in North American except the most southern tips. There are a few in Newton Square. I don’t know if they have dropped their leaves this season. 

While it is good to know that an ancient life form has survived, I am glad that most trees lose their leaves gradually. Think if all our forest lost all their leaves in a few hours. It would seem like a catastrophe.  Our rituals celebrating the change of season from fall to winter would be much different, probably scarier and not for kids. Nature would be viewed as less gentle, more insistent, even cruel. 

Seeing such an abrupt change every year might help humanity understand the urgency of responding to changes in nature, and not waiting until the last leaf falls.

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This spider will become far less scary when I tell you it is barely an inch long. I found it on the top of a cardboard box delivered to my door. I tilted the box and the spider crawled away. No spiders or humans were injured. 

I had no intention of touching it or trying to get it to crawl into my hand. I learned better recently from the sting I received from the quill of what I assumed was a harmless green caterpillar. Moreover, I feared this was a dangerous brown recluse spider. It was brown. It had a design on its back as I vaguely remembered of recluses. 

I was wrong again. Brown wolf spiders are often mistaken for recluses, whose back design is violin-shaped and similar to the wolf’s stripes. A conclusive fact is that the nearest habitat for a recluse is near Cincinnati. 

The wolf spider will bite if provoked, its venom no more dangerous than a bee’s. I assumed picking it up might be considered a provocation. I let it dismount from the box at its own pace. 

Wolf spiders like woodpiles and outdoor lights that attract prey. The female carries eggs and young on her back, and has excellent vision from two large eyes and six small ones. It does not spin a web, finding its food by outrunning it, which is why it is named for the wolf. Males live a year, females two or three. 

Its primary defense is camouflage, its brown coloring blending into woodpiles and cardboard boxes. It also helps to look similar to a very venomous spider. The wisest way to interact with a wolf spider is to leave it alone. I’m discovering this is the wisest approach to many plants and animals of the forest. 

I learned long ago, during my years in Manhattan, that “leave it alone” is also wise when encountering members of one’s own species. This is especially advisable for those of us who have relatively weak stings and depend on trying to look more venomous than we are.

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

 Violet the Corgi is convinced there are chipmunks living in these pallets. She can smell but not see them. I can’t photograph them. She’s been telling me they are everywhere this fall. 

Chipmunk populations increase after mild winters and an abundance of acorns and seeds. They also increase when you build special housing for them. Our recently completed stone walls provide countless condos for chipmunks, toads and, small snakes. Recently Violet chased a chipmunk into a small space between stones. I looked into the space with a flashlight. The chipmunk had completely disappeared. 

Chipmunk tunnels can be as long as thirty feet. Their homes are divided into bathroom, pantry and bedroom. They are not true hibernators but sleep away most of the winter, awaking only to eat. They make three kinds of sounds, all variations on a “chit” translated roughly as “danger,” “Danger!” and “DANGER!!” 

They can gather well over a hundred acorns a day, appearing mostly at dawn and dusk. Their excrement spreads seeds, which is good for tree growth. They also eat bulbs, dig up gardens, and, unfortunately, eat the eggs of songbirds. 

Real chipmunks share the qualities of that unavoidable Christmas ditty sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks, logically titled “The Chipmunk Song,” of being both cute and annoying. Maximum annoyance is reached in late fall, when bulbs are being eaten and the lyrics “Christmas, Christmas time is here,” is heard before Thanksgiving. Alvin and the Chipmunks are the best-selling children’s recording group of all time. 

The other famous chipmunks are Disney’s Chip and Dale, who first appeared in a cartoon in 1943. Chip is brown, has a black nose and two teeth set closely, while Dale is tan with a red nose and two gapped teeth. Chip is the clever one, Dale not. 

Today I saw a chipmunk run a very fast and zig-zaggy pattern before diving into a space between rocks in our wall. I could not discern the color of its fur or nose, nor its dentition. It neither sang nor chitted an alarm. It did seem rather clever.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Two Ponds is my favorite trail at PEEC. Its water is horizontal. My wife prefers Tumbling Waters, where the water is vertical. To me, it should be called Tumbling Hiker. I find it too challenging, not for my knees or heart or lungs, but my brain. I often fail to find the right place for my next step. 

Our last visit to Tumbling Waters was worse than usual. A hard rain fell two days previously. We did not anticipate that shaded parts of the trail would still be damp. Like a road still dangerous when slightly wet, the trail was a laborious one-step-at-time-it-might-be-slippery experience. When a shady portion happened also to be exposed shale, my uncertainty increased. I decided, since I could not replace my knees, heart, lungs or brain, I would replace my boots.

My erstwhile “new boots” were ten years old. The tread was dead. A visit to outdoor supply stores enlightened me about Vibram. When I tried the boots on, I wanted to test them on an incline that resembled shale. A small and reasonably slick little incline was available. I ascended. It felt like my feet had suction cups. If I didn’t feel secure as Spiderman, at least I no longer felt like the Silver Surfer.

In 1935, Vitale Bramani lost six friends in the Italian Alps who could not descend quickly enough, perishing in a sudden storm. The soles of hiking boots then were leather or felt with hobnails or cleats. Mr. Bramani surmised that rubber, treaded soles would enable quicker and safer climbing, as rubber tires improved upon wooden wheels. Italian tire magnate Leopoldo Pirelli provided the capital and Vibram soles were launched. They were an immediate success and still make the sweetest sole music on many surfaces, including trails and mountains.

I would never think of driving around my part of the forest on worn tires, but I had been hiking on worn soles. On my next hike, whether the water is vertical or horizontal, I will be more confident I will be vertical.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The open milkweed pod with its cottony seeds was an annual fall decoration in the schoolrooms of my early education. Milkweed was among the first plants I could identify. “See,” my father said, “it’s called milkweed because if you break it open it has this fluid that is white, like milk. But don’t taste it! It’s poison.”  I have followed his advice in this case, at least. 

One of the world’s great pollinators, milkweed is host to over four hundred kinds of insects, including, as I have written previously, the monarch butterfly, which eats only milkweed. Milkweed flowers are very complex, allowing many ways to pollinate. A rapid rate of growth enables it to survive the many caterpillars that love it. 

It is not exactly a weed and not exactly invasive. It spreads easily and has no other uses in the garden other than pollination, though milkweed flowers are attractive as well as complex. Through the ages it has been used medicinally and as a substitute for down, feathers and insulation. 

Recently we wanted to attract monarchs and bees, so we planted some. It grew quickly and abundantly, as promised. We pulled some when it began to dominate its neighbors. 

In the summer we saw that milkweed was indeed the most popular plant in the garden. Everybody wanted a seat at its table. As fall progressed we understood that the monarchs we saw were to be part of the great migration of that species, taking them all the way to Mexico. Other butterflies and moths were abundant compared to previous years. 

Then came the caterpillars. We saw many varieties, including the toxic green Io moth caterpillars, one of which stung me as thanks for trying to keep it from being squished in our doorway. The curious tussock moth caterpillar and some with even stranger appendages bustled about. They first reduced the milkweed to stalks, and then began feasting on other plants. Our kale and Brussels’ sprouts apparently are as tasty as milkweed. 

The moral of the story is, as my father might have said, “You wanna watch the butterflies, you gotta feed the caterpillars.”

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