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

When countless trees were felled by last winter’s high winds, this tree was the one we watched. Our house would be significantly demolished if it toppled toward us. It did not. It seems to be not only the tallest, but also the strongest and most resilient tree in our part of the forest. 

It is an eastern white pine, pinus strobus, the tallest tree in the eastern United States. Many are over 200 years old, some over 400. The Iroquois Confederacy called it “the tree of peace,” yet it helped spark a revolution. 

Its long, strong trunk was highly coveted for the masts of sailing ships. This made them particularly attractive to the British Empire in the eighteenth century, for both commerce and war. Great Britain, however, had forested their own land to near bareness, and looked to their colonies. 

A law was passed making it maddeningly difficult for colonists to harvest their own white pines, but allowed confiscation by the crown. This led to the Pine Tree Riot of 1772. The British sheriff of Hillsborough County, New Hampshire was awakened in the middle of the night by colonists angry about his arrest of a local logger. They beat him with switches and small logs, and ran him out of town. This discouraged the British from enforcing the law and inspired a similar event called The Boston Tea Party. 

Long, strong logs are no longer in high demand for the conduct of commerce or war, having been replaced by oil, various metals and perhaps, in the near future, that diminishing but essential natural resource, water. Who knows what the next world power will find essential for their empire, or where they will find it. 

Having lost their high strategic status, white pines are now allowed to grow tall over their neighbors, though they are still in demand for the strength and size of their wood. Perhaps, since they are now used extensively as Christmas trees and holiday wreathes, they can even reclaim their Iroquois status as a tree of peace.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Was winter finally breaking? My wife said, “We should think about taking down the bird feeders this weekend.” The anxious interval between bear arousal and the final retreat of the snow was upon us. We don’t wish to abandon the birds before their natural food supply returns, but neither do we desire repeating last year’s experience of meeting a black bear eye to eye as he was exiting our deck. The pole was bent from vertical to forty-five degrees, the feeders scattered. 

At eleven-thirty that night, Violet the Corgi’s barking woke everyone in house. From my years of interpreting her barks, she was saying, “Okay, be calm. There is a bear outside. He’s not on our deck. Yet.” The “Bear on deck!” bark last spring was considerably more urgent. 

I switched on the deck lights. No bear. I walked onto the deck and shined a flashlight around the grounds. No bear. Everybody went back to sleep, until about two-thirty, when Violet gave the same bark. I did the same inspection with the same result. No bear. 

I concluded that, while Violet might have been barking at some shadows earlier, she was not likely to have been fooled twice. Nor were her alarms likely to have been stimulated by lesser varmints. I have never known her to use that particular cadence and volume without a bear being within her smelling radius. I removed the feeders from the pole. Violet was silent the rest of the night. Everybody slept until morning. Bird feeding is reluctantly suspended until the hummingbirds arrive. 

Today, I examined footprints in the slushy snow near the deck. Were these Corgi footprints close together, or something larger? I assume it has been warm enough to rouse a bear from torpor. Every print was indistinct, shadowy. I don’t think any were bear tracks. The bear might have been far enough away not to leave tracks near the deck, but close enough for Violet to pick up the scent. 

Which is scarier, the bear you see, or the bear you don’t see?

 

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The finch turns from gold to gray, leaves from green to red and orange, moss fades, the ground itself wears a white blanket then throws it off. The bright, pink plastic ribbon around the tree never changes. It blends with the fall, stands alone as the only color in winter, reflects like psychedelic neon against the angle of the setting sun in any season. 

It doesn’t fade or bloom or wilt or open because it doesn’t live, so never dies. It wraps around trunks, dangles from branches, flies from rebar spikes hammered into the ground. It gives new meaning to the first line of Woody Guthrie’s most famous song: “This land is your land. This land is my land.” On one side of the pink tape is your land. The other side is mine. 

Flagging or surveyor’s tape does have something in common with birds and leaves. It comes in many colors and one needs to know the code for proper identification. In most cases, red means power lines, orange communication, yellow utility, green sewer or drains, blue potable water, purple reclaimed water or slurry. 

White may be the most ominous, often indicating future excavation. The tapes can also be used in forestry for indicating trees that need to be taken down, or not. Hikers, hunters and paint ballers use them to indicate trails and directions. 

These human intrusions are the only colors in the forest that seem out of place and crudely rendered compared to the subtly and variety of organic color and form. I am fortunate that in my part of the forest no one cares if Violet the Corgi and I venture onto their property, as we often do on squirrel patrol, to visit the creek, chase a tennis ball, or just stretch our legs and enjoy nature. 

Near us there are only pink property line indicators. Nobody removes the tape. We respect private property. This land is my land. That is my neighbor’s. Good to know. Good also to remember that the forest doesn’t care.

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

When March arrived without a trace of spring, I began to look for subtler signs. I found some on the golden yellow of the pine siskin, applied as an accenting coat, streaked randomly along tail feathers, breast and wings. It is a cousin to the goldfinch, who now also begins to turn from its drab winter coloring to bright yellow. 

I find both around our feeders constantly. I recently discovered everybody isn’t a goldfinch. Their differences are obvious, once you see them, though both are finches. Our siskins and goldfinches have more golden yellow feathers today than four days ago, when this photograph was taken. 

Feathery gold is accumulating now, each day more and brighter, a seasonal optimism. While the goldfinch doesn’t migrate, the siskin sometimes does, depending on weather and food availability. The golden colors of both birds return gradually. The siskin flies north, though ours seem to stay all year; the finch molts in place.  

Robert Frost wrote: “Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.” Gold and brightest yellow in nature seem ever receding, as Frost states in the final line of the poem which is also its title: “Nothing Gold can Stay.” However, I have a prosaic codicil to add.  

It is, “Sometimes gold returns.” It returns with the siskin. It returns with the spring molt of the goldfinch. Even gold, immutable, is subject to eternal return. You just have to know where to look for it.

 Photo by Kathleen Lyon

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Two cords of wood are stacked under our deck. This will get us through the winter and into the fall. Having enough firewood is a comfort. 

The delivery truck backed up our driveway, an impressive feat, dumping the wood close to the deck. Then came the job of stacking. 

I’m a tad obsessive. I fold clothes. I adjust crooked picture frames. I recently arranged the contents of our pantry according to container: boxes on one shelf, bags on another. Transforming a pile of firewood into a stack calls to me. 

All wood deliveries are not equally easy to stack. Some cords arrive with uniform pieces. Others have various sizes and shapes. These bring greater challenges and frustrations. 

The most frustrating aspect of wood stacking now is that I simply can’t complete the task. Or, more precisely, completing it would take too long. I need the wood under the deck before the next snow arrives, which will be soon. 

I am reminded of Mr. Winifred Chestnutt, my neighbor when I lived in North Carolina during the Carter administration. He was 92. Every day he would be on his land, falling timber, cutting and stacking. I asked him how he could do this every day at his age. “When I get tired, I stop. When I feel better, I go back to work.” 

I’m not good at either. I usually work too hard and then give up. I phoned my friend and neighbor, who stacked the wood for a fee far less than the chiropractor would charge to get the kinks out of my back, would I be so foolhardy as to try to finish the task. With the next storm imminent, my only choices were to work too hard or find someone else to work too hard. 

Next year I’ll try another strategy: work smarter. Order more wood, sooner. Next year I hope to have time to stack the wood myself into an orderly, properly obsessive stack before the storm arrives. I might finally attain the Zen woodsman consciousness of Mr. Winifred.

 

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