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

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.


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.




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