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

Milo is almost eighteen years old and has spent his entire life as an indoor cat, except for a few anxious moments in his youth, one of which required the hook and ladder crew of the Millburn, New Jersey Fire Department. On September 27, 2017, he moved with me to the forest.

He arrived as an indoor cat. One wall of our bedroom is almost all glass sliders, leading to the back deck. This was Milo’s first view of the great outdoors, having previously been confined to sitting on various windows sills and looking out.

By the time he was venturing into the kitchen, living room and even the loft, winter had arrived. He clearly wanted no part of snow and ice. As spring arrived, late as it did, he resumed his intense gazing. We opened the sliders, leaving the screens shut. He could smell the outdoors, feel the breeze, and look upon everybody but him sitting on the deck. He began mewing longingly. I knew what to do, though it did not come without risk.

I looked at dozens of harnesses on line, finally deciding on the best one for Milo, one that seemed confining enough to prevent escape, but not so much as to annoy him. I followed the advice of various experts and squirted catnip spray on the harness, placing it near where he sleeps. A few days later I wrapped him in. Milo was curious, but did not resist. After a couple days walking around the house, we ventured out.

He was a combination, or so I imagined, of scared and fascinated. I now walk him once a day, weather permitting. He only wants to be out about fifteen minutes and then he walks to a door and stops in front of it. Sometimes he walks a fair distance, other times he only wants to explore a small area, just like me.

 It took Milo and I most of our lives to find the freedom of the forest. Now it is home. We are a combination of scared and fascinated.


Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

 My wife is the gardener of the family, being the only one with actual knowledge of plants. I am enlisted for tasks too heavy, repetitive or boring. This includes controlling Japanese Stiltgrass.

Microstegium vimineum came to Pike County by way of Tennessee, where it was used as packing material for Chinese porcelains a century ago.  Some live seeds were included and took root. It is an invasive plant that thrives along roadsides, trails, anywhere native plant life is disrupted. Uprooted soil from winter storms and over-grazing deer also aid stiltgrass growth. I have no idea why a plant from China is called Japanese. Life has its mysteries.

 I was given the job of keeping this invader from our property. Over the years I have asked neighbors and others how to control stiltgrass.

 I have discovered 1) there are many ways to control stiltgrass and, 2) none of them work.

 Each year I return to the various “how to control stiltgrass” web pages. Every year I better understand when an expert explains why a particular strategy is futile, and try another. So far this has produced intimate knowledge of every corner of our property, which is good and useful. I have also learned how to corrode several sprayers beyond repair by using a formula consisting mostly of thirty percent vinegar. What I have not learned is how to control stiltgrass.

 I have come to identify with Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote, whose objects of frustration lie always in sight, yet always elusive. I have not yet come to identify with Sisyphus, who in the Greek myth is doomed to forever push a boulder up a hill, only to have it forever roll back. This may, however, lie ahead.

 Working fulltime this summer for the first time, I may, all humility aside, have fought stiltgrass to a draw. I won’t know until next summer.

 What I do know, after many hours and much labor, is that in the forest, devotion and futility live as close to each other as stiltgrass and columbine.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger 

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

One of my first purchases upon finding myself a weekend forest dweller seven years ago was a bright hunter orange hat and vest. I also bought vests for my dogs. It makes sense to tell everyone who might see us rustling about, especially in the fall, “Leave me alone. Don’t shoot!” So far, so good.

Hunter orange is a good color for this, as the eye picks it up so quickly, and it stands in such bold contrast to the rest of the forest. That’s why I’ve always wondered about those few strokes of bright orange that appear in nature, in places other than fall foliage.

One is a little fellow, at most about two inches long, that is common around creeks and streams. This photo was taken, however, right at our back door. The added rain must have allowed this little juvenile eastern newt to wander farther from his hometown in Hornbeck’s Creek.

His coloration does the same for him as hunter orange does for me. It says, “Leave me alone.” Me, because I’m not a deer. The newt, because his skin is toxic. His orange utilizes aposematism, or “warning coloration.”

With luck that newt will live 12-15 years. Like most of us, Eastern Newts are more vivid as teenagers. The orange will fade to a dull olive or green in adults, though they will become as long as five inches.

The brightest orange mushroom around here is the aleuria aurantia, or orange peel mushroom. However, this orange is a false signal, like a deer wearing hunter orange. Sometimes called orange fairy cap, they are edible, though without much flavor or nutrition.

Most of the forest resolves into a mottled taupe, with rare, vivid exceptions standing or slithering about. The young eastern newt’s coloring is a protective warning. The orange peel mushroom’s is deceiving, having little to offer beyond its eye-catching appearance. The newt survives by being poisonous, the mushroom by being bland. Thus the forest neighborhood is much like any other.

** Warning: Please do not pick & eat mushrooms, or any other forest plant, without the advice of an expert.




A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Violet the Corgi has a perfunctory bark for the UPS van. She has a more annoyed one for any squirrel that attacks the bird feeder on the deck, or any deer grazing in the yard. Twice I have heard a much louder and more urgent report that turned out to be directed to a raccoon at the feeder.

One particular night in late spring I assumed her bark was caused by a considerably larger and more annoying raccoon. I opened the door so she could scare it away, and followed her onto the deck.

I saw the feeder in pieces, the iron rod that had held it bent to a forty-five degree angle. I heard a rustling to my left, at the end of the deck, about ten feet away. Then I saw the bear, and the bear saw me. We locked eyes briefly. He executed a Fosbury Flop over the railing to the driveway below. He disappeared into the night.

In the foyer at PEEC there is a stuffed bear close to his size, 250 pounds or so. In the following days I received much good advice about bears. Don’t put out bird feeders in the spring. Keep your garbage cans inside after the snow is gone. Secure garbage cans with bungee cords. Everybody here has a bear story or several.

My wife and I have been weekend people in Dingmans Ferry for seven years, taking our garbage back to the city. Since I retired last fall and moved here full-time, we consider the bears as never before. My first encounter required only a bit of adrenaline, no blood. Violet was proud to have scared the moocher away.

I now feel like a real resident of the forest, no longer a visitor. Though I am a beginner and have much to learn, I have passed the local rite of initiation: I have encountered a bear, eye to eye.


Newark Students conduct enzyme field research at PEEC with University of Tennessee


High school students from Malcolm X Shabazz in Newark spent 3 days at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) conducting field research with Dr. Andrew D. Steen from The University of Tennessee.  The students collected and tested water samples looking for five different protein degrading enzymes, which are key in the conversion of plant material into carbon dioxide (CO2) and are important for understanding the global carbon cycle. This was cutting edge research the students actively worked on, as four of these enzymes had never before been measured in freshwater.

The field research at PEEC was funded by a Teacher Innovation Fund Grant from the Foundation for Newark's Future.

Attached is a video of Dr. Steen interviewed by Saskieya A., a senior at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School:


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