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

It has been brought to my attention that though I had never seen a gravestone with a squirrel motif, many exist, like this wonderful creation at Clover Hill Cemetery, Harrodsburg, Indiana. I am happy that there are some people out there who appreciate the little fellows’ contribution to the cycle of life and to the mighty oak. My thanks to my research assistant, Jeff Rosalsky.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Receiving an oak leaf cluster is a military honor. In heraldry, the oak leaf indicates independence, the acorn fertility. Gravestones have used oak leaves and acorns as decorations, indicating the cycle of life. In mythology the oak is the tree of both Thor and Zeus. In 2004 the US Congress declared it the national tree. 

When I wandered through the forest recently, and saw a lot more acorns than last year, I wasn’t just seeing nuts that squirrels, deer, jays and turkeys depend on. I was seeing the bounty from the tree of the gods, the tree of military and national honor. 

Acorns are plentiful in alternating years. Oaks work very hard one year and rest the next. Humans once depended on the size of the acorn harvest because acorn flour was a staple. No wonder oaks were sacred. Native Americans particularly valued them. Many communities still have or remember “council oaks,” where important tribal meetings were held. 

If the oak has long been of vital importance to everybody in the forest, the squirrel is vitally important to the oak. For an acorn to grow into a tree, it prefers to be in the earth sixty to ninety feet from the parent, away from shade, with a source of underground nourishment that is not consumed by the parent. Squirrels are the primary vehicles for transporting acorns. 

Squirrels have a very good memory for where they have cached food, but it isn’t perfect. Some squirrels don’t survive to eat all they have stored. Only a miniscule percentage of acorns grow into oaks, yet enough to keep the forest replenished. 

Thus the tree of Thor and Zeus and America needs squirrels. Yet nobody calls squirrels the rodent of Thor. Valiant soldiers are not decorated with brass and silver squirrels. Squirrels are not the official nut gatherer of the United States. I have yet to see a gravestone with a squirrel motif. We find once again that the work of the smallest is required for the mightiest to survive, yet goes unheralded.

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I found turkey tracks in the fresh snow by the edge of the road. Three large toes point forward, one small toe points back leaving barely an indentation. The tracks indicated three birds. One ventured down our driveway before retreating. 

Wild turkeys are not the impressive specimens depicted through generations of Thanksgiving decorations in countless elementary school classrooms. Maybe the turkeys I see haven’t had enough to eat, or they had come upon hard times as a species, and the impressive birds of my youth were no more. Turns out these formidable birds still exist. I have probably seen many, just not in the proper circumstances. 

The traditional holiday image is a male turkey in his full display of dominance, ready to mate with as many females as possible and fight other males for the privilege. It is only in this mood that the turkey gobbles. It is his mating call. Turkeys also make a number of other sounds, including clucks, cackles, purrs and whines. One is unlikely to see turkeys in a mating and dominance mode while foraging along a road. 

The strutting male turkey is no more typical of turkeys than is Teddy Roosevelt, his chest expanded, astride a mighty steed at the Museum of Natural History, typical of Americans. 

Turkeys have a large number of predators. Both males and females fight valiantly to protect their eggs. They have been known to attack humans, alligators and bears, and fly fast enough to discourage hawks. They don’t migrate and forage for nuts and berries year round. They sleep in trees, and in groups of a dozen or more. They have excellent sight in the day, but poor night vision. They find safety in numbers and the lower branches of trees. 

Like so many species, including the human, the turkey is often represented only by a dominant male. A more realistic depiction would be to show both males and females with feathers at rest, foraging in a clearing, caring for and protecting their young, looking for food and trying not to be eaten.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

My favorite “White Christmas” is the Drifters’, with Clyde McPhatter on the high part and Bill Pinckney on the low. Now that Christmas is behind us, I’m dreaming of a brown January. There is no song to celebrate this dream. 

The photo that appeared here recently, with icy branches sparkling like jewels against an impossibly bright blue sky, could only be seen as beautiful if you didn’t have to walk or drive through it. Even in the summer our driveway is a challenge. Snow and ice raise the stakes from challenging to dangerous. There are usually several winter days I hope arrive with my calendar empty. I support the local custom of staying home when weather requires. 

Therefore, among my favorite holiday gifts this year were several days with temperatures in the mid-forties. All the dangerous beauty melted, revealing many shades of decaying brown, upon which it is perfectly safe to drive, walk, play with dogs and transport one’s trash cans to the road. The hibernating bears, skunks, snakes, groundhogs, bats, turtles and chipmunk might even get fooled. In fact, who actually hibernates and who just sleeps really, really well is a debate among scientists. 

An examination of winter colors other than white reveals beauty and variety not commemorated in song or celebration. Purple vines cross the bright greens of lichen and moss. These colors don’t need the sun. They are vivid, though often hidden, like shy children. The landscape appears soft, countless shades of gray and brown. Streams and creeks are melted sufficiently for dogs to splash, cold enough for them not to linger. No wading, but no slipping and sliding on ice, either. 

The days lengthen, but only astronomers notice. The rest of us ease into the light a few extra minutes each day. Today’s palette of earth tones will be covered and exposed by several snows before new sprouts appear and animals return to action. Until then I will enjoy the activity of brown days, and try to accept the inevitability of the white.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I spotted this green ground cover with red berries as my wife and I finished the McDade Trail near route 209. “Is that a variety of holly?” I asked. 

“No,” she replied. “Wintergreen.” 

Its deep green leaves and bright red berries, still vivid in late fall, caused me to mistake it for holly. There are many differences. Wintergreen is a useful medicinal plant. Native Americans brewed a wintergreen tea to relieve a number of complaints. It has a chemical similarity to aspirin. Holly is, biologically speaking, a noxious weed. Wintergreen is a “creeper,” that is, ground cover. Holly is a “climber,” growing upward. 

Wintergreen, which is the older name for “evergreen,” has a proven scientific benefit to humanity. Holly’s value is mostly symbolic. Because it continues to stay green while many of the trees around it succumb to the season, it has long been considered to possess special powers. Holly adorns the garlands of the Druid priest, the candle-lit braids of the Swedish festival of St. Lucia and the Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol.” Even Harry Potter’s wand contains holly. Christians display the holly wreath as symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns, with the berry representing blood, a relatively recent spin to the much older pagan rites. 

Wintergreen does all the healing and holly gets all the attention. This may be because holly is a hardier plant, a small tree or shrub, while wintergreen is a leafy ground cover. Wintergreen is too delicate for foot traffic, growing best in forests or hollows that get lots of moisture but little sun. 

Most critically, holly dries well, retaining its firmness, shape and color when cut. Wintergreen clipped and brought indoors simply wilts. You can’t deck the halls with wintergreen. Thus, everybody knows holly and only the discerning recognize wintergreen. 

If you want to be noticed, it is better to be a climber than a creeper. It also helps if you can be displayed to good advantage. Meanwhile, the healers stay close to the ground.

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