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 

Was winter finally breaking? My wife said, “We should think about taking down the bird feeders this weekend.” The anxious interval between bear arousal and the final retreat of the snow was upon us. We don’t wish to abandon the birds before their natural food supply returns, but neither do we desire repeating last year’s experience of meeting a black bear eye to eye as he was exiting our deck. The pole was bent from vertical to forty-five degrees, the feeders scattered. 

At eleven-thirty that night, Violet the Corgi’s barking woke everyone in house. From my years of interpreting her barks, she was saying, “Okay, be calm. There is a bear outside. He’s not on our deck. Yet.” The “Bear on deck!” bark last spring was considerably more urgent. 

I switched on the deck lights. No bear. I walked onto the deck and shined a flashlight around the grounds. No bear. Everybody went back to sleep, until about two-thirty, when Violet gave the same bark. I did the same inspection with the same result. No bear. 

I concluded that, while Violet might have been barking at some shadows earlier, she was not likely to have been fooled twice. Nor were her alarms likely to have been stimulated by lesser varmints. I have never known her to use that particular cadence and volume without a bear being within her smelling radius. I removed the feeders from the pole. Violet was silent the rest of the night. Everybody slept until morning. Bird feeding is reluctantly suspended until the hummingbirds arrive. 

Today, I examined footprints in the slushy snow near the deck. Were these Corgi footprints close together, or something larger? I assume it has been warm enough to rouse a bear from torpor. Every print was indistinct, shadowy. I don’t think any were bear tracks. The bear might have been far enough away not to leave tracks near the deck, but close enough for Violet to pick up the scent. 

Which is scarier, the bear you see, or the bear you don’t see?

 

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The finch turns from gold to gray, leaves from green to red and orange, moss fades, the ground itself wears a white blanket then throws it off. The bright, pink plastic ribbon around the tree never changes. It blends with the fall, stands alone as the only color in winter, reflects like psychedelic neon against the angle of the setting sun in any season. 

It doesn’t fade or bloom or wilt or open because it doesn’t live, so never dies. It wraps around trunks, dangles from branches, flies from rebar spikes hammered into the ground. It gives new meaning to the first line of Woody Guthrie’s most famous song: “This land is your land. This land is my land.” On one side of the pink tape is your land. The other side is mine. 

Flagging or surveyor’s tape does have something in common with birds and leaves. It comes in many colors and one needs to know the code for proper identification. In most cases, red means power lines, orange communication, yellow utility, green sewer or drains, blue potable water, purple reclaimed water or slurry. 

White may be the most ominous, often indicating future excavation. The tapes can also be used in forestry for indicating trees that need to be taken down, or not. Hikers, hunters and paint ballers use them to indicate trails and directions. 

These human intrusions are the only colors in the forest that seem out of place and crudely rendered compared to the subtly and variety of organic color and form. I am fortunate that in my part of the forest no one cares if Violet the Corgi and I venture onto their property, as we often do on squirrel patrol, to visit the creek, chase a tennis ball, or just stretch our legs and enjoy nature. 

Near us there are only pink property line indicators. Nobody removes the tape. We respect private property. This land is my land. That is my neighbor’s. Good to know. Good also to remember that the forest doesn’t care.

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

When March arrived without a trace of spring, I began to look for subtler signs. I found some on the golden yellow of the pine siskin, applied as an accenting coat, streaked randomly along tail feathers, breast and wings. It is a cousin to the goldfinch, who now also begins to turn from its drab winter coloring to bright yellow. 

I find both around our feeders constantly. I recently discovered everybody isn’t a goldfinch. Their differences are obvious, once you see them, though both are finches. Our siskins and goldfinches have more golden yellow feathers today than four days ago, when this photograph was taken. 

Feathery gold is accumulating now, each day more and brighter, a seasonal optimism. While the goldfinch doesn’t migrate, the siskin sometimes does, depending on weather and food availability. The golden colors of both birds return gradually. The siskin flies north, though ours seem to stay all year; the finch molts in place.  

Robert Frost wrote: “Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.” Gold and brightest yellow in nature seem ever receding, as Frost states in the final line of the poem which is also its title: “Nothing Gold can Stay.” However, I have a prosaic codicil to add.  

It is, “Sometimes gold returns.” It returns with the siskin. It returns with the spring molt of the goldfinch. Even gold, immutable, is subject to eternal return. You just have to know where to look for it.

 Photo by Kathleen Lyon

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

Two cords of wood are stacked under our deck. This will get us through the winter and into the fall. Having enough firewood is a comfort. 

The delivery truck backed up our driveway, an impressive feat, dumping the wood close to the deck. Then came the job of stacking. 

I’m a tad obsessive. I fold clothes. I adjust crooked picture frames. I recently arranged the contents of our pantry according to container: boxes on one shelf, bags on another. Transforming a pile of firewood into a stack calls to me. 

All wood deliveries are not equally easy to stack. Some cords arrive with uniform pieces. Others have various sizes and shapes. These bring greater challenges and frustrations. 

The most frustrating aspect of wood stacking now is that I simply can’t complete the task. Or, more precisely, completing it would take too long. I need the wood under the deck before the next snow arrives, which will be soon. 

I am reminded of Mr. Winifred Chestnutt, my neighbor when I lived in North Carolina during the Carter administration. He was 92. Every day he would be on his land, falling timber, cutting and stacking. I asked him how he could do this every day at his age. “When I get tired, I stop. When I feel better, I go back to work.” 

I’m not good at either. I usually work too hard and then give up. I phoned my friend and neighbor, who stacked the wood for a fee far less than the chiropractor would charge to get the kinks out of my back, would I be so foolhardy as to try to finish the task. With the next storm imminent, my only choices were to work too hard or find someone else to work too hard. 

Next year I’ll try another strategy: work smarter. Order more wood, sooner. Next year I hope to have time to stack the wood myself into an orderly, properly obsessive stack before the storm arrives. I might finally attain the Zen woodsman consciousness of Mr. Winifred.

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

While driving home from the city last week, I noticed that the recent thaw allowed a rare winter landscape in colors other than white. The mountains glowed with rich browns, bright yellows and deep greens. They were repeated in my part of the forest, especially when the sun was out and the grasses and long-fallen leaves were painted with cadmium and Naples yellow. 

The colors surprised me. I had assumed a winter landscape in the Poconos that was not white would be drab and lifeless. When the sky is cloudy, as it is so often, it appears exactly that. When the same bright sun that melted the snow stays long enough to shine on the colors of the dormant landscape, the result can be as beautiful as the brightness of spring or the vivid array of the fall. 

If spring is dominated by colors of budding plants and fall by their demise, then the winter landscape is dominated by the earth. Plants have receded, allowing the deeper ochre, umber, sienna, Payne’s gray and almost black to have their moments among the rocks.  

An earth color or tone is sometimes described as any color with some brown in it. Many earth tones are named for animals, like fox, lion or buckskin. “Taupe” is French for mole. The sap greens and viridian of the pines show the mature needles at the end of life, rather than the lighter, brighter hues of new growth. 

I was beginning to enjoy this rare palette when the next snow arrived and again white covered everything, a more natural order for this place and season. By the time we see the earth’s surface again, it is likely to be during a false spring in a disappointing and annoying March, or when again we discover that, much as we love spring, baseball in April is a trial. 

Then new buds will be visible, daffodils more than a dream. Planting will demand its annual urgency. The earth colors will recede like grandparents at a graduation party, the foundation of all the activity, their work complete.

 

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