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 

This is a male praying mantis. I saw him fly, which only males do. The egg sack of the female makes her much larger than the male, and unable to fly.  He is a Chinese mantis, with characteristic facial stripes and colored both green and brown. This species, one of only sixteen found in North America, was discovered at a plant nursery outside Philadelphia in 1896. 

Mantises look like grasshoppers on steroids, but are more closely related to termites and cockroaches. They are considered a neutral presence in a garden because they will eat anything they can catch, insects both destructive and benevolent. 

They are “sit-and-wait” predators. They may be brown or green or both, as camouflage. They can rotate their heads almost one hundred and eighty degrees. Their attack form is so efficient it has inspired two schools of Chinese martial arts. 

Praying mantises have unusual and interesting movements, which is why they are among the few insects kept as pets. A closer look reveals that, on their own terms, they are relatively terrifying. If they were ten feet long they would be much scarier than alligators.  The 1967 film “Son of Godzilla” agrees, as the mutated dinosaur protects his son from giant flying mantises. 

The female kills and eats the male after about twenty-five percent of mantis couplings, further contributing to their terrifying reputation. The female prefers smaller males as they are easier to subdue. The male in this photo, still alive in the late fall, near the end of the mantis life cycle, is big for his gender and has thus far beaten the odds. I’m sure I saw him at least twice after this photo. 

It is unsettling to begin to recognize an individual insect. Equally unsettling is to consider that he might also be recognizing me. “Geez, that’s the third time that guy with the crazy dogs has peered down on me. I thought you got a photo the first time,” the mantis said to himself, or so I imagine. “Leave me alone. I’m workin’ here.”

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

When I was in Mrs. Wilson’s fourth grade class every student made a notebook of pressed autumn leaves. The goal was to have as many colors represented as possible, and to pick the most colorful. I really got into it. 

I began early in the fall pressing yellow and golden leaves but soon discovered that these were the most plentiful. As the season progressed, other colors appeared: orange, many shades of red, even purples. I thought the most spectacular were those with many colors, some as bright as a tie-dyed tee shirt. I don’t remember if we were graded, but I do remember that ever since I have looked more closely, and with greater appreciation, upon the autumn leaves, just before they fall to become humus for the tree and a winter home and shelter to many vital creatures. 

We were all certain this fall would be among the most colorful. Something we could agree upon. We had perfect conditions, which are, according to the U. S. Forest service, “a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights.” A wet spring followed by a dry summer also helps. We also avoided an early freeze, which stops photosynthesis before the factors that contribute to color depth and variety engage. 

In the early fall trees stop making chlorophyll and photosynthesis begins. As this green chemical slowly slips from leaves, yellow colors appear. Yellow is the color of the leaf once the chlorophyll is gone. More colors appear when new chemicals begin to be manufactured in the leaves. An early chill keeps these chemicals from being made, so years with early frost will have mostly only yellow leaves, which fall earlier. 

This time of year even the most ordinary errand or stroll becomes a spectacular, joyous experience. Which is more beautiful, the single tree bursting with reds against a background of yellow and gold, or a panorama of the mountains, an impressionist’s dream? Our embattled psyches are healed briefly as we behold at last a fall event that has some familiarity with those of our memory.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Another member of the fall forest orchestra, the katydid, along with locusts and cicadas, provides the droning percussive sounds that foreshadow winter. This one is about two inches long. We had a staring contest through our window. I lost. 

I wonder what he saw? Did he perceive a fellow creature? He gave no response, though he seemed to be looking at me and held his gaze. Maybe he was obsessed with the smooth glass surface, which must have felt quite different from the usual leaves and branches. This one is male. There is no ovipositor, which is quite prominent in the female. Their only real defense is they look like leaves, some species more than others. Their life cycle is about a year. 

There are over six thousand varieties of katydid, which are cousins to grasshoppers and are called “bush crickets” in most parts of the world. There are two hundred and fifty-five species in North America, and over two thousand in the Amazon River basin. This is why the Amazon is so important. It provides not only much of the planet’s oxygen, but also many varieties of plants and animals, some found only there. 

This player has its North American name because its three-syllable sound is thought to resemble “Kat-e-did.” They quit singing when the temperature gets much below 50, though the warmer it is, the faster they sing. Counting the number of syllables in fifteen seconds and adding thirty-seven will give the listener a reasonable approximation of the temperature. 

Their sound is their mating call and varies among species. Katydids tend to sing together in small groups of about four, like Beatles. These smaller groups in turn often synchronize with others, giving the listener the familiar unison rhythms of the fall. The louder and more fluent the call, the more attractive the male is to the female. That is, more Allman Brothers than Kiss; more Ferrari than Camero. There has to be some subtly, some clarity, some nuance. It can’t just be loud. Good advice for males of many species.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

We have many string beans this year. “String” is an obsolete term. They are now called “green” beans. Apparently contemporary beans are still green but not stringy. We have both yellow and green beans. They are the same except for color and since it sounds silly to call something a “yellow green bean,” the yellow are called wax beans. 

We have pole beans, as opposed to the bush beans. Our vines curl around and around, except that we don’t have poles. We have strings. So our green beans are, once again, string beans. They are nutritious and as copious as zucchini without being annoying. Except when I pick them. 

I see no green beans. I see wax beans, easy to pick because their color contrasts with the vine.  I see tomatoes. Anybody can pick a tomato. You pick it when it is red. Really stands out. Green beans require greater scrutiny, focus. 

Look for shape, not color. At first I see none. Then I see one, two. I see four or five growing together. Now I see green beans everywhere. I pick eagerly. Then they are gone. I think I’ve picked all the good ones for today. Then I look away, and peer in again. 

There are a lot of beans I missed the first time! I pick many more. Then they, too, are gone. I refocus. More beans. Refocus and pick. Finally, I seem to be finished. I’m sure I have not seen some, that, when I return will be too big to pick, having gone to a scaly, almost reptilian skin and of size too large to be anything but bitter.

 Picking green beans requires patience, a discriminating gaze that does not settle for nor draw conclusions from first perceptions. Look at the same vine from different angles. Look all the way to the top of the vine, and all the way to the bottom. Accept that there might be more to see. Then take that green bean picking acumen and apply it to all situations when superficial conclusions can be mistaken and a second look rewarded.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

By my imprecise measure, this is the 100th chapter of “Naif in the Forest.” Thanks to Jeff Rosalsky, Executive Director of PEEC and Janine Morley, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator, who support and encourage this effort and have from the beginning. Thanks and hugs to my wife, Kathleen, for her editing, wise suggestions and excellent photographs. 

If I post a photo that should be in an art gallery, it is likely to have been taken by Brad Berger, who also contributes knowledge of wetlands and musk rats. Richard Paterson is an Expert in the Forest and my technical advisor. Violet the Corgi and Topaz the Mini Aussie take me into the forest several times a day. 

Two years ago I told Jeff that I felt like a naïf in the forest, having moved here full time after years of partial residence. Jeff thought that would be a good name for a column. A couple of robust stouts later, the “Naif” was born. I wasn’t sure I could get through an entire year. Then I wasn’t sure about two. I am currently unsure about three. The limitation is within the naïf, not the forest. 

While I have learned much from my extremely superficial research, I have no illusion that I will ever become an expert in the forest. I have great respect for those who know which mushrooms to eat, what bird is singing, which insects pose no danger to humans and which are poisonous or venomous. I also learned the difference between poisonous and venomous. 

I will never master the particulars of nature, but I now hold a greater appreciation of the whole. I am constantly awed by the interconnectedness of squirrel and oak, monarch and milkweed. I have illustrated this chapter with the clear blue sky, taken early in June, a sky made clearer and lighter by the decrease in human activity.

In a time of fear and uncertainly a clear sky above and a natural order below that seems to know what it is doing even if we don’t, is a kind of comfort.

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