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

The fall colors had been disappointing. Endless rain and cloudy days are not conducive to fall colors. Our terrible summer, which followed a spring too late to earn its name, which followed a winter where we lost power for nine days, was ushering in an autumn that was not going to be in any way redemptive.

Additionally, I wasn’t in the forest for the middle of the month. By the time I returned last week, I had missed a peak that I could not confirm had even happened. I was frankly a little disappointed at the so-called wonders of nature.

Last week I walked with Violet the Corgi, intentionally to find what vivid colors of the year I might salvage. A bit of sunshine broke through, for which I was more than usually grateful, it being so rare of late. I discovered, much to my relief, that fall colors were indeed everywhere, wonderful as always.

They were a bit past their peak, but so am I. They might not be as vivid as usual, but for this year’s lack of showiness, there was textured ochre in endless variety. The further we walked, the more colorful it became. Here was a tree quite spectacular. There was a sprig of red, contrasting vividly against the pines. Our driveway was golden. A drive to Milford presented a number of huge trees, any one of which deserved their own filming and framing.

Maybe the fall had been a little disappointed in me. “Hey, buddy. We did our thing,” said the forest. “We turned from green to all the usual colors, and you weren’t even present for the show. You show up in the bottom of the eighth, don’t expect to see every hitter.”

There are a few days left of fall, and even more before winter really asserts itself, I hope. It’s not enough for the colors to appear, it seems. I also need to take the time, focus my attention, to see them.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

During this very wet summer there was more moss than ever in our back yard and the surrounding forest, especially the kind that looks like a tiny pine forest. I think this is one of a number of mosses that are called pincushion moss.

I first saw them as a little boy in the swampy forests near Lake Erie. It was like the moss was a pine forest and I was a giant or in an airplane or something. Only an anthill could give me that same feeling of “I am so great and you are so small.” What size deer and bears would live in that tiny moss forest?

It was not until I was 18, in my first airplane flying between Cleveland and New York, that I saw pine forests that looked like pincushion moss. I was right. Pincushion moss really looks like a tiny pine forest. A pine forest, from the window of a plane, really looks like moss.

Pincushion moss is the home of countless invertebrates, the equivalent, I suppose, of tiny deer, bear or even people. Occasionally one might find an Eastern Red-backed Salamander hiding in a patch of this moss. To those invertebrates, a salamander wandering through moss might seem like Godzilla terrorizing Tokyo.

There is a concept in medieval philosophy, “As above; so below.” It means that the largest and the smallest creatures, plants and natural formations conform to a greater pattern of unity. The forest and the moss, the mountain and the anthill, conform to one another, require each other.

Where do I fit in? Looking at the moss, I feel very large. Looking at the pine forest from an airplane, I feel very small. It seems like I am in the middle of everything, the focus of everything. Yet, as I grow older, it seems that “I” am not really there at all. All that is, is the moss and the pines, and the consciousness that answers to my name.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Violet the Corgi was on full Squirrel Patrol recently, when she stuck her snout into the roots of a dead tree. She frequently becomes sufficiently obsessed following her nose as deeply as it can penetrate that I must lure her away with cries of, “Violet. Want a treat?” This time it didn’t work. I followed her to the tree.

While she was trying to identify the varmint who lived there, I noticed a human artifact that shocked me. Wrapped low around the tree’s trunk, three or four times, was a coil of barbed wire.

We had passed that tree countless times and I never saw the wire. I was surprised that my immediate reaction was revulsion, I assume because of my association with barbed wire in war and interment camps, rather than as a way of keeping my livestock on my property.

How did it get out here in the forest, where the only signs of humanity are “No hunting” signs and brightly colored property line ribbons? Had someone sometime felt such an emphatic need to keep others out or their own animals in that they needed this? 

How long had it been there? My forensic knowledge of barbed wired being nonexistent, I placed its age as somewhere between 7 years, when we started walking past it, and a hundred and thirty years, when it came into wide use.

It transformed the vastness of the American west. It allowed armies to channel the advance of enemies, so they could be more easily shot. It allowed governments to more easily inter their undesirables. It does such a great job at what it was designed to do, that barbed wire today is no different than that of a century ago.

 This tree was dead before the wire adorned it. The wire hung loosely near the roots. Had the tree been alive, it eventually would have surrounded the wire, taken it into itself, absorbed it. Its barbs would no longer signal danger or inflict pain. Thus nature, if given the chance, heals.



A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Recently I wrote about the rare bright orange colors found in the forest: an orange newt and an orange mushroom. Proving that “Naif in the Forest” is accurate, I now discover, thanks to the diligence of a careful reader, I was mistaken.

What I had identified as an orange peel mushroom is in fact a Jack O’Lantern. Or, at least, that is my current understanding, unless I get yet another opinion from a more advanced expert. The orange peel is actually a fungus. I was confused by photos of the fungus, where I could not see it lacked the gills and stem of the true mushroom. As I describe these details, you may find yourself dozing, the hobby of mycology being rather less exciting that say, Formula 1 auto racing.

Like racing, mycology is occasionally a matter of life and death, or, more frequently, life and vomiting. The orange peel fungus, as I reported, is bland but edible. The Jack O’Lantern mushroom, which I wrongly identified as the harmless orange peel, is poisonous! I trust that no readers, motivated to find an orange mushroom and eat it, mistakenly ate an orange fungus.

The premise of the blog holds, even if the examples have been bungled. Bright coloration by itself is no indication of what is inside, though, bright orange does indicate that which is often poisonous, or at least in bad taste.

I am thankful for my error being called to my attention. I learned some lessons in fungi identification, which is new to me, and another lesson in the limits of my expertise, which is not.

I stand by my naifness and will continue reporting on it. This error reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Often attributed to Mark Twain, it is more likely to be from John Billings, the second most famous humorist of the 19th century, just as my Orange Peel was, in fact, a Jack O’Lantern.

** 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

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.



Additional information