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 

My cousin Brad snapped a rare photo of a muskrat in the open at Maumee Bay State Park, a few miles east of Toledo on the shore of Lake Erie, where Brad and I grew up. With fewer people visiting the park, the usually shy muskrats are free to roam. 

These rodents are not of the same genus as rats, being more closely related to voles, lemmings and mice. They are much larger than a rat and smaller than a beaver. They make lodges and are found in marshes and wetlands throughout the United States and Canada. Their presence is a sign of a healthy, diverse and balanced ecosystem. 

They were central to the lives of Native Americans and their fur, dyed and marketed as “Hudson Seal,” became popular in the nineteenth century. They are resistant to carbon dioxide buildup, thus have less to fear from the ecological future than most of us. Males are extremely competitive and sometimes fight to the death over mates or territory. 

The first Europeans to arrive in what was called The Great Black Swamp were French Catholics, trappers who survived by learning from Native Americans. Later German Protestant farmers like my family cleared and planted the land south of where the swamp flooded. The trappers were called “Muskrat French” by the Germans, as both a description and a pejorative. At one time Catholics in this area were given special dispensation to eat muskrat during Lent and other fast days. The Germans considered the French to be uncivilized and too close to the native peoples. 

Once German farmers started digging irrigation ditches, they began trapping and eating the muskrats they found in them, just like the French.  I grew up eating the large rodents, at home and at special suppers at the VFW, American legion or churches. These remain popular events. 

Eating muskrat is no longer an ethnic divider in the swamp, but a broader cultural marker. Those who partake are familiar with and affirming of local culture. Whether such affirmation enhances or lowers one’s status is hotly debated.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Last fall a weakened brown paper wasp struggled on our basement floor. They are relatively harmless unless their nest is threatened. I gently nudged the wasp onto a piece of cardboard. It seemed to cooperate. It was very still until outside, then flew away. 

Over the next month I escorted several dozen struggling wasps to freedom. Only queens are around in the fall. They shelter over the winter and build nests in the spring. 

As the weather warmed more wasps appeared around our deck. I left them alone and vice versa, while looking to make sure there were no nests on the deck. The warmer the weather the more wasps I saw. Perhaps this was because I had saved so many queens in the fall. Yet others reported more wasps this season, too. This unusual year has brought an increase in several species to our part of the forest. 

No wasp ever bothered me. I fantasized that some of them might even be thanking me for saving their queen. I felt like the wasp whisperer. 

Then one afternoon I had no more sat in my deck chair than a wasp appeared and bit me without warning! My left arm swelled like a bratwurst. 

We searched for a nest but found nothing. The next day my wife was stung in exactly the same way! Her sting was no more than a mosquito bite, while mine took five days of steroids to subside. 

Kathleen, the scientist of the family, began a systematic search for the nest. Then she found it, or them. There were small nests under the arms of our deck chairs! It was like the wasps were following the script of a Hitchcock movie with the culprit found literally at the arm of the victim.

 We disposed of the nests. Days later I found a large nest had fallen to the ground, empty, from its perch under the far side of our deck, where I had previously neglected to search. 

Apparently these wasps did not remember me from the fall, nor had they been informed of my good deeds.

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

A platoon of cleomes is making its way from our shady garden fence to the light. It has taken years. The vanguard has advanced to the gravel driveway, where they thrive due to my weeding laxity. 

Cleomes are also called spider flowers because tendrils jut from their white, pink and purple flower balls. They are also called bee plants, as they are excellent pollinators. There is significant buzzing all along the sidewalk. 

These cleomes are descended from a very few we planted at the fence. They produce a very large number of seeds. They grow best in full sunlight. Thus they have gradually volunteered down the hill and along the sidewalk to a driveway that has the least shade of any space in our part of the forest. 

They are deer and rabbit repellent, emitting a scent that is sometimes called minty and sometimes skunky. If they are bent from foot or storm, they will likely bounce back to their height, which can be as much as five feet. They came to this continent from South American and the West Indies in the nineteenth century and were very popular for decades until cities and suburbs required smaller flowers for smaller gardens. More recently they have regained popularity. 

The cleome doesn’t need much help, just plenty of sun. It can thrive in a drought. It can overwhelm a garden if it isn’t controlled, requiring more care with restricting growth than encouraging. Eighteen inches is the ideal space between plants to keep their volunteering from becoming an invasion.  If their spread is controlled, cleomes can be helpful additions to vegetable gardens, repelling pests and attracting pollinators. 

 The cleome inspires one to impute a deeper meaning in its journey toward the light. One should take caution from the last words of Goethe, which were “More light!” While there is a temptation to interpret his words as the desire to take one final leap into metaphysical speculation, scholars are divided. Some affirm the leap. Others conclude that he was simply asking his daughter to raise the blinds.



Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I enjoy walking our dogs at sunrise, listening to the concert of the birds. One morning the sound changed, as though the first violin had been replaced by a car alarm. It was a rooster. That new backyard shed two doors up the mountain was a henhouse. 

For weeks the rooster was a featured player in the sunrise symphony with several mid-day practice sessions. Eventually he calmed down and his arpeggios were less frequent and lower volume. Roosters crow to announce territoriality and alarm. Our new neighbor had become more secure. 

Chickens are the most prevalent bird on earth, with about three for every person. They are everywhere. Their role in the ecosystem is extremely varied.

That rooster reminded me of the wild chickens of Kauai, the most isolated of the Hawaiian Islands, where we were fortunate to visit in February. 

Beautiful, multi-colored chickens are everywhere on Kauai. They arrived centuries ago with the Polynesians, but their currently large and increasing numbers are attributed to Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which blew down many chicken coops, releasing their inhabitants to breed with the wild stock. Every morning one is greeted with an entire orchestra of very secure roosters. 

I spotted this hen and chicks behind a hedge at a restaurant. She kept gathering the chicks to her, as they tried to explore, which would expose them to the dangers of a sidewalk and human feet. She succeeded, and as we were leaving, everybody seemed ready to settle down for the night. I have eaten no chicken since. 

Last week the morning chorus had added another car alarm. Neighbors two doors down the mountain had also acquired chickens. This is part of a national trend, inspired by a fear of food scarcity, I suspect, with a little “off-the-grid” strategy mixed with some back to nature aspirations. 

Stereo roosters feel a bit like Kauai, which is nice. If there are more to come, I suspect they will begin to remind me less of that beautiful island and more of the Ohio of my boyhood. Chickens are everywhere.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This photograph is not an attempt at art, but rather to reveal the barred owl hiding in our neighbor’s trees. Among the most common owls in North America, they hunt small animals by sitting still, if not quietly in tree branches, then swooping down.

They fly away at the least disturbance, so this was a rare opportunity to get close. Yet barred owls are also curious about people and can be surprisingly mild and engaging.  Their calls are so loud as to be heard across their entire hunting territory, which can be as large as seven hundred acres. 

We heard this owl days before we saw him, usually at dawn and dusk, as is typical. “Who cooks for YOU? Who cooks for you-ALL” is how the call is characterized.  The final syllables are an emphatic “HOOT!” Barred owls are also called hoot owls. 

My not yet two years old grandson’s favorite book shows drawings of animals. We read to him that the cow says, “Moo.” The pig says, “Oink.” The owl says, “Hoot.” He also has little stuffed toys of various animals. Have we led him to believe that cows and chickens are the same size, as are his toys? Such are the oblique concerns of grandfathers. 

He must also be disabused of the idea that all owls say, “hoot.” Besides the barred owl, the screech owl’s call ends in a hoot, preceded by a sound that is indeed a screech. Otherwise, most owls express the vocal equivalent of a metal lathe or automobile brakes seriously in need of fluid. Other “hoots” may originate from mourning doves, who emit a more melodious, softer hoot than any owl, the Kenny Gee to the screech owl’s Ornette Coleman. 

While my grandson’s book is now a valued part of his education and enjoyment, he will move on to more complex and accurate representations of owls. Otherwise he would be seriously misled into a stereotyped belief that all owls say the same thing. In fact, (please forgive me), most owls don’t give a hoot.

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