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

Last week the Naif in the Forest was the Naif in Florida, but fear not, I have returned in time for the sub-zero weather. While basking in the very rainy but sixty degree grayness which locals described as “the worst weekend here in four years,” my wife and I enjoyed the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach during a brief sunny interval. We saw a snowy egret walk very, very slowly across the path. He peered into the bush and stared for a long time, completely still. 

Suddenly, he pierced his head into the bush and emerged with a wiggly lizard, desperate to escape. He turned his beak upward and the lizard gradually slid down and down, still wiggling. One could see his journey down the egret’s slim neck, wiggling no more. The reptile disappeared into the egret’s stomach. The bird then moved equally slowly to another bush and another lizard. Finally, he turned around and briefly stared right at me, before he returned to the side of the path I had first seen him. That stare, given what I had just observed, was terrifying. 

As he stared at me I thought, “I’m really glad this bird isn’t eighty feet tall,” because if he were, I’d be headed for the fate of the lizards. I recalled that these guys had once been dinosaurs. Even T-Rex was only about 20 feet tall so I might not have been swallowed whole, but still. 

Our stroll through the gardens was very meditative and restorative, except for that one incident of nature’s insistent brutality played out before my overactive imagination. We adjourned for lunch to the beautiful restaurant overlooking the gardens. 

I ordered a bento box, a traditional Japanese lunch, including shrimp, salmon and chicken. In one lunch, without having to hunt, fish or kill, at least not directly, I devoured far more creatures than the hungry egret. My wife ordered the vegetarian alternative. I should have either done the same, or at least not have recoiled so from the gaze of the lizard-swallowing egret.




A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Our first autumn in the forest, my wife asked me to plant daffodils.  I accomplished this several times in the suburbs. I dug my little trowel six inches into the ground, cleared a space slightly bigger than the bulb, then covered. The most interesting aspect was placement: three bulbs at the corner of the house, five or six near the sidewalk. Spring imagined, as winter approached. 

I carried bulbs and trowel to our new back yard. A clump on either side of the clearing would be good. I stabbed my trowel into the ground. It penetrated at most an inch before I hit solid rock. My wrist, then arm, then shoulder recoiled from the resistance. This was my intimate introduction to the Marcellus Shale. The photograph shows an outcrop. Outcrops are gray because the sun has burned away the carbon that makes the underground shale very dark. 

The more than 90,000 square miles of shale that comprise this formation and covers a significant portion of the state, ends at the Delaware River. It varies in thickness from five to 250 feet and was formed approximately 390 million years ago. While much of the Marcellus Shale is a huge reservoir of natural gas, I am led to believe by informed, if not expert, opinion that none of it is under our part of the forest. Natural gas formation requires a specific cooling process. Our shale cooled too slowly. All the gas burned off. 

I bought my first pickaxe. I swung it mightily, again and again. At last I created a space in this most formidable mountain large enough to plant a tulip bulb. I repeated this until all the bulbs were planted. I celebrated with my favorite anti-inflammatory and a long, hot bath. We have since spread several loads of topsoil, making future plantings less of an ordeal. 

What lies beneath a task can be harder than what one anticipates, and the effort required to attain success far greater. I never appreciated daffodils as much as I did those that, the following spring, bloomed in the shale.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Violet the Corgi is an avid, if easily distracted fetcher. When she wanders from the task, I fetch the ball. This is not easy, because the tennis ball is the same color as much of the forest.

I started playing tennis during the Kennedy administration, when tennis balls were white. When did they become green, I wondered? In 1972, I discovered, but they did not become green, but yellow. What? 

Yes, the official color of a tennis ball is yellow, though there is an endless controversy, as many people see it as green. The balls turn greenish as they age, and we fetch mostly old ones. 

The photograph shows how similarly colored the tennis ball is to this moss, making tennis ball foraging difficult. That is, if it is moss. It might be a liverwort, a heartwort, a lichen or fungi. It looks like the escarole I left in the refrigerator too long. I’m calling it moss. I’m open to other opinions, almost any of which would be more informed than mine. Hey, I thought tennis balls were green. 

This green or yellow tennis ball, ignored by Violet the Corgi, landed very near this moss or whatever. I mused that this artificial object created solely for the recreation of humans and sometimes dogs, should blend so perfectly with the natural environment. The color for this object, chosen precisely so it would contrast to the background of a tennis court, happens to be the color most ubiquitous in the forest. 

Some differences of opinion can be settled objectively. This moss or whatever has a name, one of which is correct and all others are not. Other differences are of perception. You see a yellow ball and I see green. Upon such differences worlds have been shaken. I propose an alternative. Expand one’s definitions and the names one gives to one’s perceptions. For instance, it is clear that the ball is neither green nor yellow. It is chartreuse.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Yesterday I discovered a fallen tree that had been subject to serious recent excavation. There was a pile of uniform wood chips, as if they had been cut with a chisel. There were two holes in the wood, one in a deeply cut circular pattern, another a larger rectangle. There was similar work in the stump.

I emailed photographs to several friends, forest experts among them, asking what creature did this. A bear would not be so precise. A beaver would not venture this far from the creek and woodchucks are rare. The answer was swift: a pileated woodpecker. This was confirmed by instructors at PEEC, and made clear once I saw photos of “pileated woodpecker destruction” on line.

We have seen pileateds every year, if not frequently. They are the size of large crows. “Pileated” is Latin for “capped,” as their red crested head looks like a cap. They feed on carpenter ants and wood-boring beetle larva, often at ground level of fallen trees. With all our recently fallen trees, we ought to see more of them soon.

They carve huge nests with multiple entrances, abandoning them to other animals after one season. They don’t migrate and are attracted to suet feeders. They may turn their attention to wooden houses, if the wood contains insects. Their rate of pecking is 11-30 per second and can be quite loud.

Film cartoonist Walter Lantz and his wife Grace Stafford were kept awake on their honeymoon in 1940 by a woodpecker attacking the roof of their cottage. This was the inspiration for Lantz’ greatest creation: Woody Woodpecker, who began each cartoon by pecking through the screen, exclaiming “Guess Who?” followed by his signature maniacal laugh. In later years Lantz’ wife did the laugh. 

I always wondered, if your spouse could do Woody Woodpecker’s laugh, would this be a good thing or a bad thing? I suspect this would depend on the circumstance, much as the holes carved by pileateds. Are the holes in a dead tree, creating homes for themselves and others, or the roof of your honeymoon cottage?


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This is a grey squirrel. For once I feel confident in my identification. This one is munching seeds fallen from our bird feeder.

They can be destructive, eating away at vegetables, insulation or taking up residence in chimneys. However, they also played a role that was important to me when I lived in the city. They brought a bit of the forest to me.

Violet the Corgi hates squirrels, or so it seems. She takes every opportunity to chase them and is especially outraged when they appear on our deck and eat seeds that she would prefer to eat herself. She stands three inches from the glass slider and barks loudly and constantly until we let her out. Three seconds later the squirrel has leapt from the deck and the natural order has been restored. She is Captain of The Squirrel Patrol.

I’m beginning to think Violet does not, in fact, hate squirrels, and that her constant alarm and pursuit of them connotes instead amusement or entertainment. After all, she doesn’t hunt them, merely chases. She has never come close to catching one, which, if she were truly focused on doing, she surely would have done by now. Of the countless squirrels she has chased, the odds are enormous that there would have been at least one who was really slow, or injured, or otherwise vulnerable.

Likewise, I suspect that squirrels might even enjoy being chased. They repeatedly present themselves to her, unlike rabbits, which scurry away before Violet can smell, let alone see them. Squirrels have no fear of her, what with their perfect record of escape.

Could it be that Violet and the squirrels actually enjoy each other? That all the barking and running and scurrying and climbing are, in the end, something they do for the endless fun of it? I am beginning to suspect so.

The forest can be cruel and scary and implacably oriented to the cycles of life and death. It can be also, at least sometimes, just silly fun. As proof I offer: there are squirrels.



Additional information