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

“Is that a spotted lantern fly?” Kathleen asked a few weeks ago. She was referring to an invasive species that has been seen as nearby as Berks County. It destroys grape, fruit tree and logging harvests. It is not a true fly, but a planthopper, using its wings only to strengthen its jumps. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture requests sightings be reported. This would have been their first appearance in Pike County and reason for alarm. 

“No,” I said. A friend in Berks County had posted photos of the spotted lantern fly. I knew this bug, though sporting a big spot, was not. Therefore, I did not kill it. 

Later I searched on line to identify this orange flying bug with pretty, dark blue and yellow-orange coloring, a big spot, and very long antennae. I failed.  My descriptions were too general. I had overlooked its most identifying feature. 

Richard Patterson, my friend and expert in the forest, immediately recognized it as a net-winged beetle, named for the ruffles and ridges on its wings. This name covers a large number of beetles of considerable variation.  All they have in common is their wing texture. One looks like a very small ear of corn.  

The net-winged beetle is like a big firefly with no lights. It has no stinger, is slow in flight, eats moderately and harmlessly, is not invasive and protects itself only by expanding its wings and tasting terrible. I’m glad I knew enough not to kill it. 

Suppose, however, I knew only that bugs with a spot or spots might be heading our way to be destructive, but didn’t know what they looked like? With a little paranoia, poor impulse control and excessive confidence in my ability to do the right thing without good information, I might have killed it. 

That would have been bad for the beetle and bad for the forest, which needs diversity. I too, would have been harmed. I would have taken one step closer to trusting fear rather than facts, not a good strategy for any species’ survival.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Everybody here has photographs of deer. We have seen as many as seven traveling together. The dogs run themselves to joyful exhaustion in their futile but determined chases. 

Our deer are white tails, the most widely distributed large animal from Canada to Peru. Males grow and shed their antlers annually, according to individual hormone cycles. There is no “shedding season.” Antler tissue is the fastest-growing tissue known, as much as one inch per day. 

White tail deer are matriarchal; mothers lead with offspring and males following. They reach speeds of forty miles per hour and can cruise at twenty-five. They are strong swimmers, can clear a fence nine feet high and a stream twenty-five feet wide. This is no surprise to anyone who has tried to keep them from their garden. 

They are prodigious eaters. They are a ruminant with a four-chambered stomach and eat five to ten pounds of food a day from a very wide and diverse menu. Thus these beautiful, shy and sensitive creatures are also pests. We have carefully tried to plant flowers and bushes that deer don’t find delicious, and it isn’t easy. We have also built high and sturdy fences around our vegetable garden. 

Plants and bushes of the forest have no such protection. Our ground cover has a fraction of the diversity and resilience one would find in a well-balanced ecology. Deer season has a worthy environmental goal in addition to sporting and commercial motivations. 

Deer came even closer to our home when we lived in a New Jersey suburb where a nature preserve was close but no hunting allowed. When some hunting was contemplated due to the increase in the herd, the strategy was met with resistance, controversy and limited success. While hunting here seems natural, hunting in a densely populated suburb is problematic. 

Deer over-population is a good example of how hard it is to solve local environmental problems locally.  When your problem runs forty miles per hour, jumps nine feet and eats ten pounds of the forest and your garden every day, it is even harder.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. It has six principles of design: balance, contrast, dominance, proportion, scale and rhythm. This photograph shows our attempt at gourd arrangement, the decorative autumn art of the Poconos. I have at least suggested each principle, except perhaps dominance. This principle is expressed in another seasonal gourd presentation, the Jack-o-Lantern. 

A gourd and a squash are basically the same thing, at different ends of how humans use them. A gourd looks good. A squash tastes good. The butternut squash therefore is both squash and gourd. It is delicious, but its smooth surface, when dried, allows for painting and carving. 

In searching farm stands for gourds, I found several new shapes, sizes, colors, stripes, bumps. There were greenish-blue pumpkins and elongated shapes that might have been created by Dali. Some were pricey. They seemed like designer gourds. I wondered if this was a new thing. A web search found only one listing for “designer squash,” a photograph of a variegated pumpkin by New Jersey photographer Linda Stern. She told me that the title and the pumpkin were a one-off phenomenon to her, though perhaps we had discovered the beginning of a trend.

 Just as various breeds of dogs have been combined of late to the attraction of people with allergies, these new gourds seem designed for a similarly exclusive audience. Laboradoodle gourds. This must be a hot topic with at least one group, The American Gourd Society. 

 Founded in 1937 when the Depression inspired the need to organize, it has its own website and, until this year, hosted many events for gourd growers, artists and yes, designers. Some twist and turn their growing gourds into pretzel-like shapes, gourd bonsai. There is a Pennsylvania chapter. 

As fall turns into winter, our gourd/mum arrangement becomes performance art. The mums wilt with the first hard freeze and take their place among the compost. Then the gourds soften. Mice, chipmunks, birds, whoever is still awake, gets a nice meal before hibernation. When the gourds are gone, winter has arrived.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I finally achieved a marginally decent photograph of a chipmunk. He is exploring a covered deck chair. I had so despaired of capturing an image of these tireless scurriers that my previous blog about them resorted to a photograph of Violet the Corgi stiffing where she believed a chipmunk was hiding. 

Our deck has provided several photographs of critters that I otherwise could not get to slow down, sit still or present an unguarded moment. Among them are crows, wasps, spiders, caterpillars, squirrels, gold finches, moths and, had I the proper equipment for night photography, a bear. 

When we sit on our deck, beginning in April and continuing into November with the help of blankets and a portable heater, we enter a liminal space, where humans yield a portion of our imagined sovereignty. The deck is where the wasp bit me after I disturbed his nest under the arm of the chair. It is where mother mouse gave birth under our grill and that unfortunate woodpecker met his demise for enacting a variation of the myth of Narcissus, mistaking his image for a rival. 

We grow flowers, herbs and vegetables on the deck. We attract birds and hummingbirds, futility attempt to chase away squirrels. Years ago there were raccoons. The deck blurs the border between ancient forest dwellers and newcomers from Jersey City. 

The deck also acts as a re-entry into the forest for creatures that find themselves inside our house, mostly by accident. I have escorted many moths, spiders, stinkbugs and assorted unknown fauna back to the forest by helping them onto the deck. I either capture them by hand or entice them onto a piece of paper. Some seem to know immediately that this is helpful. Others seem not to consider it help at all. 

Eventually we close the sliders and return to the environment heated by electricity and a wood stove. The place where wi-fi rules. The forest shouts its silent indifference, appears to tolerate this brief interval when our species seems supreme, if only to itself.

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