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 

A spider was resting in our bathroom sink last week. The reality was less scary than this photo, which is an extreme close-up. The spider was maybe a half-inch long. As is my way, ill considered as it is, my first impulse was to escort him outside. He clearly did not want to climb upon my piece of paper, and scurried away with surprising speed. 

Considering I have been bitten by a wasp, a bee and three deer ticks this year, I now wondered, after I tried to pick him up, if he were venomous.  A web search for “very small black spider” was unhelpful.  I then exercised my paranoia and searched for “most poisonous spiders” and didn’t see him among that list, either. I concluded that its bite at least was unlikely to be fatal. 

The next day my resident expert in the forest, Richard Paterson, identified this Parson spider, named for its white abdominal markings, said to resemble the cravat of an eighteenth century cleric. It is very common from Nova Scotia to Florida, is found under rocks and logs, though frequently resides in houses. 

It feeds on various common pests as an ambush predator, due to its extreme quickness and agility, which I had already witnessed. Yet it doesn’t gather in such numbers as to itself become a pest. Its bite can be painful but not lethal. It can cause allergic reactions, to which I am very prone. I was lucky he ran away rather than take a bite. They are unlikely to bite unless trapped, though perhaps being alone in a bathroom sink would qualify. They are active year round and live up to two years. A female will produce about three thousand eggs during her life. 

When I returned from the web search to the sink, he was gone. I was more scared now than I was when he was in the sink. With his speed and agility he might be anywhere now! He might be hiding in a bed or a rug or a dog or my sock. We fear what we imagine more than what we see.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Our driveway twists and turns with gullies on both sides and not enough room at the top. Everybody hates it. I knew that in order to take our trash and recycling containers to the curb with freezing ice everywhere, I should attach crampons to my boots for the first time this year.

I am grateful for crampons. Who invented such a useful addition to footwear? Prehistoric ice trekkers attached pointy things to the bottom of their feet. Celts used iron spikes over three thousand years ago. My little rubber attachments date to the early twentieth century.

Oscar Eckenstein was the Lebron James of mountain climbing when his group attempted to ascend K2, the second highest mountain in the world, located on what is now the border between China and Pakistan, in 1902. He might have succeeded were Aleister Crowley not part of his crew. Crowley was an expert mountaineer, eccentric and self-promoter. An experienced practitioner of the occult, he was an early adapter to psychedelic drugs, cult leader and writer. His image is among the many on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” He fell ill with a variety of ailments from malaria to snow blindness while ascending K2. He also complicated the expedition by insisting on taking several dozen volumes of poetry.

Eckenstein decided he needed two things to have succeeded: to have left Crowley in England and better traction. The latter he attained by inventing the crampon in 1908. It was forged from iron but comparatively sleek, making it much lighter and more useful than previous devices. Its name comes from a symbol in German heraldry, a long “z” figure with a slash through it that resembles Eckenstein’s design. He showed his invention to Henry Grivel, whose family had been blacksmiths in the Italian Alps for centuries. Grivel marketed the first ten-point crampon in 1910. My crampons are an updated version. The Grivel family still runs the Hotel Crampon in Courmayeur, Italy.

I walked down the icy driveway with no fear of slipping, sliding or Aleister Crowley. Well, maybe a little fear of Crowley. 


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This photograph of the new Battery Park City was taken on my last visit to Manhattan, in the fall of 2019. The World Trade Center peeks from behind the skyscraper on the right. The dark, small, cylindrical edifice is an entrance to trains and subways.

Until this year my friend Pete and I enjoyed long walking tours of the city at least once a season. We chose this location because we had not yet walked through the new parks and residences of this neighborhood. Battery Park City had been conceived back in the 1960s to replace the moldering remains of the shipping industry, which gave the area all the charm of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Long in the making, and with a financial structure more complex than the architecture, it was finally a reality.

We were impressed. We strolled between high rises in parks carefully designed to provide residents with both nature and community. The underlying principles of the project were those of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist who successfully saved Greenwich Village from the highways and high rises of Robert Moses. One third of the area has been reserved for parkland.

The dominant feeling on the sidewalks is serenity, a rare emotion in Manhattan. One sees all the large, new condos, shopping areas and restaurants, but only as background to trees and playgrounds. It is as though the trees are a cover, making it impossible to focus on the buildings beyond their entrances and shrubbery. I took this photograph as we prepared to return home on New Jersey transit.

When I saw it, I saw a reality the landscaping had obscured. The one-third area reserved for parkland is square footage. The cubic footage of human construction dwarfs and obscures what is in fact a comparatively small amount of greenery. From any perspective beyond submersion in the project, one sees how the buildings dominate. Manhattan’s trees still grown in the shadows of the skyscrapers, but at least they are becoming part of the conversation, if only in a whisper.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I recently discovered a German word that describes what I experience during walks in the forest. It is waldeinsamkeit. Wald means forest. Einsamkeit means primarily loneliness, but also solitude, depending on one’s state of mind. 

Waldeinsamkeit is intended to mean solitude in the forest, a feeling of oneness, of being part of nature. It is the experience that brought most of us here, and motivates local folks to stay. We need not spend a lot of time describing this experience to each other, as it is so fundamental to forest living. The person experiencing waldeninsamkeit as loneliness will soon be heading for a suburb or a city. 

This German concept has been expressed by romantic poets for centuries. It is especially used by those who walk in the Black Forest, the setting of many fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. There is a suggestion of enchantment as the cares of the world outside the forest fade away. 

A modern Japanese discipline is similar, if adorned with New Age connotations. Shinrin-yoku is a form of ecotherapy, or healing through contact and communion with the natural world. It was conceived in the 1980s and is one of many disciplines that seek to recover health and vitality from the earth itself. 

It means “forest bathing,” walking through the forest and intentionally doing exercises to enhance one’s state of mind and body. It may seem strange that one would need a therapy or exercises to be invigorated by a walk in the forest, but when one considers how estranged many humans have become from the natural world, intentionality and discipline might be needed to recover. 

If, however, one finds oneself in the forest without the benefits of a shinrin-yoku practitioner, I suggest you take a dog. A dog will enhance your nature bathing like a loofah enhances a Jacuzzi.  A dog will reconnect you to the natural world and open you to its healing power. A dog has the power to banish loneliness while enhancing solitude. This is a special form of the German concept that I just invented, waldeinsamkeit mit hund.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The first day that snow was on the ground I noticed a plant standing tall and strong when every other splash of green was either on the limb of an evergreen or limply hanging onto a branch like overcooked kale. It is a Lenten Rose. 

I knew the Lenten Rose was the first sign of green and color in the spring. Its first flowers pop through the snow well before the more heralded crocuses.  It is so early I have come to think of it as a harbinger of false spring. There will be more snowfalls after this bloom and real spring lags well behind. It is helpful, however, to those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, to whom false hope is better than none at all. 

Now I discover the same plant that brings the first bloom of spring also lingers longest into the winter. This is like an athlete winning both the hundred meter dash and the marathon: a constitution requiring the both the fastest speed and the greatest endurance. What kind of super plant is this? 

The Lenten Rose is one of several species of Hellebores, an herb whose name comes from the Greek words meaning, essentially, “bad food.” Aptly named, every part of the plant is poisonous. Rabbits and deer won’t eat it. Touching any part of the plant invites an allergic reaction. It was used in ancient Rome and Greece to treat a variety of ailments, none successfully. 

It is classified as an herb, though it doesn’t fit easily into any category. Herbs are usually medicinal or enhance the preservation and taste of other plants. Herbalists over the centuries have used Hellebores to both cure and induce madness. As late as the twentieth century an expert on the plant suggested that hellebore cuttings tossed in the air or spread on the ground and walked upon would induce invisibility. I intend to try this in the spring, remembering to wear gloves while scattering.

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