Take a walk into the forest and close your eyes. Do you hear something? Anything? Wind rustling through the fallen leaves, maybe a bird overhead, a deer trotting nearby, but do you hear the trees? They’re talking to one another: communicating their needs with their mother, sharing resources with a sibling and perhaps sending a warning out to a distant cousin. It’s all happening right before your ears and eyes my friend, right below your feet! The trees are talking!
This communication system has been around longer than we could even imagine. Paintings, stories and other folklore regarding talking trees date back to ancient times. If you think back to most of the stories from your childhood, I would bet there is some reference to talking trees or even trees in general. Alexander the Great was said to have visited a talking tree that told him how he would die. Willow trees played a large part in English folklore and in Ireland the trees were said to help one find a leprechaun’s gold (although usually to no avail). Forests themselves provide a certain aesthetic of wander and enchantment, making a great setting for a nursery rhyme or folktale. The Japanese have always had a deep appreciation for nature, including trees in particular, and often wrote of them with great detail and appreciation in their poetry and stories. Even before official scientific research confirmed it, the Japanese believed that inside each tree was a spirit, or kodama, and that the trees (or spirits within them) would communicate with one another.
A great communication system exists right below our feet that is even more widely used than the World Wide Web and perhaps even more important. It is sometimes referred to as the wood wide web. A network of thousands, if not millions of root systems connected via fungi, that transmits resources and information to different trees throughout the forest thriving beneath our feet. This is called a mycorrhizal network.
Each tree has its own root system that works to transfer minerals and moisture to the tree. Within the root system of a tree, two types of roots exist: woody and non-woody. The woody roots provide overall structural support for the tree as well as the transportation of minerals and water and the storage of carbohydrates. The non-woody roots are found closer to the ground’s surface. These non-woody roots absorb the minerals and moisture and are also where one might find mycorrhizal fungi. These are a special fungi found on the smaller, non-woody roots and whose body resembles tiny threads. These threads reach out even beyond the root system of the tree and stretch out across the forest floor. These threads are called mycelium. Mycelium “infects” other trees’ root systems, connecting one tree to another, creating a network of connected trees. This is the mycorrhizal network and it can span thousands of acres and connect entire forests.
Because of this connection to one another, roots can share resources such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. This network is very similar to a computer network as it consists of hubs, or mother trees, and nodes, which are younger trees. Mother trees will share nutrients with the younger trees to help them grow. Ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered the interworking of this system of the Wood Wide Web two decades ago and through field experiments, was able to prove that the trees are indeed sharing information in the form of different nutrients and that when trees were not a part of a mycorrhizal network they tended to not do as well as those that were.
Mycorrhizal fungi trade their host tree minerals for glucose as well as connect them to other trees, thus assisting them even further in their growing process. Hyphae, or tiny thread like fibers, extend from the mycelium and “dig” holes into surrounding rocks which release extra nutrients that help the tree grow. If you’ve ever been digging around in the dirt in or a near a forest, you may have noticed the dirt being stuck together by a web like system of roots. This is the hyphae and it usually exists throughout the forest floor. In fact, just a pinch of dirt can contain over thirty thousand feet of hyphae!
Along with allowing trees to share resources that help them to flourish, the mycorrhizal network also provides the connected trees with a defense system. Through this wood wide web, trees within the network are able to warn each other of pending danger. For example, a tree that is bitten by an insect can release a chemical signal out to other trees in its network enabling them to prepare themselves by releasing a bitter tasting compound that make the leaves taste less appealing to the insects. This is pretty amazing!
Did you know that trees can be social? Well, they don't meet at coffee shops for a chat but what happens to one tree in a network can affect those that are around it. For instance, if a tree within a network dies, others around it may suffer. If a few trees in a network die, this may cause the surviving trees to experience hardship and those trees may also die if they are not able to establish a connection with other healthy trees. Trees that are close to one another can be quite friendly and will even grow branches away from each other, allowing all of their “friends” to thrive.
Complicated. Simple. Amazing whichever way you see it. I suppose there was more truth to James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar. Those who have seen the movie may remember that on planet Panodra the roots of the trees are all interconnected. The trees communicate with one another and the people of planet Pandora, known as Na’vi, are able to communicate with the trees as well. The trees on Pandora are vitally important to the Na’vi people. They provide them with homes, a means of communication and a religious connection to the Eywa (the Na’vi people’s deity). The Na’vi people worship the trees and treat them with the utmost respect because they understand that these trees are vital for their survival. The people on planet Pandora can even communicate with the trees by plugging in their tails.
Here on planet earth, most of us humans do not have tails that would work well plugged into a tree, but perhaps we can still learn from the people of Pandora. Maybe we can learn to treat our trees with more respect and be grateful for the bounteous fruits that they supply us with such as oxygen, food, shelter and medicine. We must also learn to reduce our consumption in order to preserve our natural forests. And perhaps as a society, we can even take notes from the wood wide web and learn to work better together to help each other and our beautiful planet thrive.
-Alesia Gallo, Environmental Educator
A pandemic causes all of us to look at many aspects of our lives and this COVID-19 is certainly not an exception. All of us have had our lives changed in numerous ways. As we practice social distancing and isolation from family and friends, many of us are drawn to nature to help us cope and in some cases heal. This is evidenced by the parking lots at trail heads throughout the area on every nice and sometimes not so nice day. I recently drove through PA State Forest Land in Pike County and each trail head had at least one and in many cases multiple vehicles parked there. It was a welcome sight but one in which I was not accustomed to. Does it really take a pandemic for us to realize the healing powers of nature? I hope not; people have been using the healing powers of nature as a cure for many things throughout time.
What does nature have that drugs and shots and vaccines don’t? Balance and harmony. Walk down a forested trail and you are treated to a cornucopia of sounds, smells and sights, that can overload your senses as well as ease your mind. Who cannot appreciate the call of a chickadee, the sight of a spring wildflower, or even the smell of a rotting log? There are so many things present as we walk along allowing us to take our minds off of the world around us if we chose. The walk doesn’t have to be far; in fact it doesn’t have to be a walk at all. Sit on a bench surrounded by nature or at an overlook where you can take in a broad field of view and nature’s natural healing powers will do their thing. It won’t cost you anything but time, which is something we all have a little more of in today’s world.
Nature has been healing people for thousands of years since the first indigenous people walked these lands. Don’t get me wrong; nature does go through changes some of them natural and some more recently man-made. But through it all, the natural world has maintained its balance and therefore its mind blowing calmness that cures all our ills. You may have heard of “Forest Bathing”, it’s a new term for the old principle of using nature to heal us. It can be done alone, with someone else, family, friends whomever, and there is no set time or place for benefiting from its powers. Sometimes five minutes is all anyone needs to feel the effects while at other times, several hours can be enjoyed in its surroundings. And the best thing about it is that it is guaranteed to work every time. That’s right, every time! It can be the same location each time or you can explore the many different “nature drug stores” throughout our area and beyond. Another good thing about it is it doesn’t require any special or expensive equipment. Proper clothing for the weather and comfortable shoes is all you really need. Don’t burden yourself with today’s technology, and fancy equipment for hiking, it’s not necessary; in fact it works better if you leave your phone turned off.
If you find a spot near water the benefits will be even more pronounced. There is something about the sound of moving water from either a current or the waves slapping against the shoreline that enhances the healing properties of nature. That is where I like to go to be healed, near water. I am very fortunate there is a beautiful, clear stream running near my house. It is fascinating to watch the water moving over rocks and gurgling past the shore. If I am lucky I will see a few of the residents that inhabit the area. Songbirds in the trees, amphibians along the water’s edge, fish swimming by, insects hatching over the water and on occasion a Bald Eagle, river otter, or maybe just a squirrel. They all play a role in the healing process. Nature and all its creatures require nothing from you except your presence to be healed. There are not many things in this world we can say that about.
As I have gotten a little older, my time in nature has not decreased but has taken on a slower pace. It has actually allowed me to reap more of the benefits of the process. By taking things a little slower while out in the natural world the calming effect of nature has been more pronounced. I appreciate its beauty as well as its simplicity. Everything has a place and everything has a purpose. Its sounds and smells and sensory smorgasbord are a perfect elixir for a hurried and sometime chaotic world. It asks nothing but our time and gives so much in return.
When the weather warms in a few weeks I will again get to immerse myself into my favorite healing ritual with nature, “creek sitting”. This is something I stumbled upon a few years ago as I started to slow my pace down and it is something that works wonders for everything that might ail me. All you need is a folding chair, and a stream with moving water preferably not over a foot deep. Plop the chair down in the middle of the creek facing upstream and then have a seat. Make sure you take off your shoes so you can feel the water between your toes. Put your arms out to the side and dip your hands and fingers in the water and just watch and feel the stream flow by. There is no set amount of time you need to do this you will know when it is working and you will know when you are “healed”.
In today’s world, which is very different than it was even 3 months ago, we need to remember what nature can do for us and how it can be an escape from the hectic world around us. We must also remember that everyone needs this opportunity so we must protect open spaces and public access. We know we will get through this current pandemic eventually and being able to go out in nature will certainly help the process. But please remember we should not go back to where it was before and only use nature in a time of crisis. It is always there patiently waiting to soothe our minds and feed our souls. I encourage you to get outside and feel the power of our natural world and when it gets a little warmer maybe I will see you “creek sitting” along the way.
Something very special is occurring next week; an extraordinary celebration of humanity’s challenges, successes, and commitments to a greater good. A day to consider the word “home” in the broadest definition possible. Fifty years in the making, it’s a global holiday like no other. Here at Kettle Creek Environmental Education Center, it’s our favorite holiday and celebration of the year!
We are talking about Earth Day of course! Earth Day is observed every year on April 22, starting on that fateful day in 1970. What began fifty years ago as a “national teach-in on the environment” inspired by anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s has morphed into a global celebration of environmental education and appreciation.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in modern American history. Americans were becoming increasingly aware of suffering and injustice around the world, of both fellow humans and the planet. Some folks became suspicious of the current narrative of the time that the Earth belonged to humans to plunder carelessly as needed by whoever was rich and powerful enough to do so. Rachel Carson’s prophetic 1962 bestseller Silent Spring raised the curtain on the harmful problems of pesticides, helping to bring environmental concern and conservation to the forefront of Americans’ minds and the national agenda.
At the time, there were few legal consequences for factories that polluted the air and water. Large, gas-guzzling cars were advertised as a status symbol for success and prosperity. Then, in 1969 Americans witnessed Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River literally catch on fire due to all the chemical waste dumped in it. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest US oil spill in history at the time, ravaged the coasts of California. These tragic environmental disasters helped to catalyze the already growing environmental consciousness, channeling the momentum of the anti-war movement to put environmental protection and public health on the front page.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, knew it was time to convince the United States government that the planet and public health were at risk. Nelson envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” He selected the date – April 22 – because it fell between spring break and final exam week at universities around the country. The Senator’s dream became a reality when on that day, 10% of the American population rallied in the streets, parks, and schools to advocate for a healthy environment and a sustainable future.
Environmental Education Coordinator Roger Spotts remembers that dramatic day 50 years ago:
“It was April 22, 1970 and I was a fifth grader at Dalmatia Elementary School. We were all very excited because we were having an assembly about something called Earth Day. My Science teacher, Mr. Adams, was organizing the event and for someone who was always a calm person he was definitely excited. As a fifth grader, I did not totally understand what Earth Day was all about. Growing up in a rural community we did not really see the environmental pollution other people were seeing in the more urban areas. The assembly did not last very long and I don’t remember much about it but I do recall that it was about saving the environment and protecting the plants and animals living in it. I was all about making the environment healthy for animals so I was on board to help the cause.
Over the last 50 years of my life I now fully understand why that first Earth Day was so important. I can look back now and realize that even though I did not know it at the time, the local streams near my house had acid mine drainage problems as well as sediment from agriculture, things that were addressed as part of this movement. The awareness and concern for our natural environment created by that day have allowed us to actually have a cleaner planet to live on in 2020, fifty years later. We certainly still have our environmental issues but without that first Earth Day 50 years ago I am not sure where our planet would be today. I am grateful for the interest Mr. Adams showed in this event and the impact it has had on not only me but people all over the world.”
Now, 50 years later, the concept of protecting the environment and regulating our shared natural resources is ingrained in the public consciousness. People all over the world understand that humans suffer when our environment suffers. People thrive when the environment thrives. That’s no coincidence. Mankind is not separate or above nature, we are a part of it and we play an essential role in caring for it. All of our actions on this planet have consequences, even if those consequences occur in the long term. Future generations will pay the costs and bear the burdens of our short-term gains and conveniences. There is sound science to back up these widely accepted insights and observations.
A history of conservation is something Monroe County in particular can take pride in. Over the last 50 years, the county has enacted policies and programs that ensure the protection of our natural resources and quality of life for residents. Because of strong leadership and the will of the people (agreeing to tax ourselves), we can all enjoy the lush green valleys, dark rich forests, dramatic rocky ridges, exceptional value streams, and flourishing wildlife within the Pocono region.
This was no easy feat to protect and expand public lands all while the county was undergoing rapid changes in population and demographics. It’s a real achievement that we’ve managed to maintain and even enhance our quality of life while still allowing for development of businesses and communities throughout Monroe County.
In fact, parts of eastern Monroe County along the Delaware River could very well have been underwater right now. The federal Tocks Island dam project would have flooded the Delaware Valley from just above the Delaware Water Gap to Port Jervis, NY. A total of 72,000 acres were acquired or condemned under eminent domain for the project.
However, local citizens, under the wise leadership of two local women, protested and fought back. Nancy Shukaitis and Ruth Jones formed a group called the Delaware Valley Conservation Association. They attended government hearings and meetings about the project and became the faces of the county’s growing conservation movement. Eventually, scientific analysis proved how this project would not be feasible or beneficial in the long term. Years later, those lands were transferred to the National Park Service to establish the scenic and popular Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Grassroots conservation organizations, intergovernmental cooperation, and the vote of the people is why the Pocono Mountains still touts some of the healthiest habitats and finest freshwater ecosystems in the nation. Monroe County’s open space properties have protected unique natural features and miles of clean streams to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and enjoyment. Monroe County Conservation District has helped local municipalities implement land-use planning efforts that take into account modern conservation design principles and stormwater management. We have accomplished all of this because we now understand how our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the natural world that sustains us.
We have come a long way in 50 years since the first Earth Day. Nevertheless, as we evolve, our challenges evolve as well. As we all deal with this unprecedented pandemic, it gives us a chance to reflect on our priorities in life. With our current world and our environment seemingly out of balance, it’s never been more important to connect with each other and with nature while staying healthy.
Perhaps we can reconsider how we treat our planet and all our fellow creatures that dwell here. We can reconsider systems and traditions that exploit wildlife and habitats for greed and pleasure. With greater understanding of our Earth comes greater responsibility to preserve it, which ultimately protects ourselves as well.
By now we all know simple ways we can each have a lighter impact on our planet. Recycling, composting, donating, turning off lights and faucets, installing efficient light bulbs, using less gasoline, taking shorter showers… the list goes on and on. Indeed, while these suggested actions certainly help, they don’t go far enough to address the systemic causes of environmental harm and injustice.
For it’s not just our individual day-to-day actions that we need to consider to improve our Earthly home, it’s the commitment to those actions. We must pursue a lifestyle that is mindful of how our actions affect others; how our consumer decisions and eating habits influence what kind of future we will have, for us and our children. We must reevaluate the way and the rate at which we treat, utilize, and commodify the living things around us and the habitats we all share.
Citizen protest and forward-thinking progress is exactly how Earth Day began and how conservation got on the radar in the first place. We are again at a critical point in human history where we can potentially gain better control over our human destiny. We can insist on a society where the less fortunate and the voiceless mustn’t suffer a larger burden of environmental destruction. We can be a society that appreciates and celebrates diversity, both of people and of wildlife. We can demand that polluting businesses and corporations pay their fair share for the harm they are causing and that they do everything within their power to mitigate it. We can petition for a transition to smarter energy systems and infrastructure to ensure a sustainable future. We can assert the value of human life and quality of life over profits. We can hold our leaders in government accountable for their decisions affecting the rest of us. We can each keep in mind that we all deserve a home that we can feel safe in and be proud of. That one and only collective home for all of us is Earth.
This Earth Day, I hope you can look around and feel eternally grateful for what our home provides for us. We can breathe, we can drink, we can eat, we have shelter, and we are cared for. We can behold the existence of all the natural beauty of our world. I encourage you to go outside and experience it firsthand.
We may still be reeling from this current traumatic event, but we will move on from this. And when we do, we need to move forward in the right direction and challenge the status quo that perpetuates these dire situations across the globe.
Sadly, and understandably, we cannot hold our countywide Earth Day celebration this year. I will miss seeing you all there. The support of our local community for our environmental efforts truly warms my heart like nothing else. We may not be able to hug each other right now, so feel free to go hug a tree instead.
Cheers to you, Earth, and to all of you too. Happy 50th anniversary! We can only wonder where we’ll be in another 50 years!
-Brittney Coleman, Environmental Educator
“A walk in nature walks the soul back home.” - Mary Davis
Hiking is probably one of the most enjoyed recreational activities there is to do. It’s fairly simple, and on any given day, you will see people of all ages out on the trails enjoying the benefits of nature. But there are definitely some risks to consider and this article is here to provide some tips that will make even the most novice hiker feel more confident when hitting the trails.
1. Clothing/footwear - When you are out hiking, it’s best to avoid cotton when you can. Cotton tends to hold a lot of moisture so when you sweat, or even get stuck in an unexpected sunshower, your clothes will remain wet and heavy and can lower your body's temperature to dangerous levels, especially in colder temperatures. Synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and merino wool are excellent cotton substitutes that will wick away moisture and stabilize your body temperature.
If you want to go hiking, and enjoy every step of the way, it’s important that you have the right footwear (see what I did there?). Not all hiking requires you to have a bulky waterproof boot or even a lightweight minimalist shoe. Most of the time when I’m out hiking, I’m wearing some type of trail running shoe and a good pair of merino wool or polyester socks (no cotton!) which will work just fine for most beginner hikers.
The most important factor to consider when choosing the right footwear would be the shoe’s fit. You want to make sure that your heel doesn’t raise up when you’re walking on the trail and that there is enough room in the toe box so your toes don’t get scrunched when walking down steep declines. Having good fitting footwear is key to ensuring your hike is as enjoyable as possible.
Wear Blaze Orange - According to a 2013 article from the Quality Deer Management Association PA has the most deer hunter density in the whole United States! That’s good for wildlife management, but it can cause some concern for people using state forest lands to just enjoy a nature hike. Even though deer season tends to be when most hunters are in the woods, it’s still important to know that hunting in general is very popular in Pennsylvania and some animals, like coyotes, are allowed to be hunted all year round.
It’s best to make sure that some part of your apparel has the classic blaze orange color so that you can easily be spotted by a potential hunter. I made sure that the daypack I purchased was blaze orange so that way, I always have that color with me whenever I am out on a trail.
2. Know Where You’re Going - Fortunately, we live in an area where there are a lot of state parks and forests with clearly marked trails that are easy to navigate. Still, it’s a good idea to make sure you look and carry around maps of the area with you at all times. Alltrails.com is a great resource to use not only to find places to hike, but also to read what other hikers have written about the trails. Oftentimes, reviews are written frequently enough that knowing important information like recent trail closures or locations of hidden trailheads, is pretty current, and could help you feel more confident before heading out to hike.
Another thing to consider is whether the area you’ve been eyeing up on your commute home is actually public or private land. As of January 2020, Governor Wolf passed a law that would allow property boundaries to be delineated with two purple paint hashes. The paint is here to replace the old “No Trespassing” or “Private Property” signs that often need replacing because of how quickly they deteriorate being exposed to the elements.
It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary
3. Ticks - There’s no way that I can write an article about hiking in NEPA without talking about the dreaded pest, ticks. Ticks can easily cause great concern when you’re out on a hike, and rightfully so. There are numerous diseases that are transmitted by ticks including, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme, however, you could still enjoy the great outdoors as long as you take the proper precautions before and after your hike to avoid getting bitten by a tick.
For starters, a good bug repellant that contains deet has always been suggested as a good defense against tick bites. It is stated that insect repellent containing deet is safe to use on the skin, however, I’ve always just applied it to my clothes and have had great success. Another option would be permethrin which is something you would apply to your clothes only, and will remain attached to your clothes for weeks and will even withstand multiple washes in the washing machine.
Another suggestion from experts is to tuck your shirts into your pants and your pants into your socks. If a tick can’t get to your skin, it can’t bite you. But this technique is not always fail safe because ticks can be extremely small (like the size of a pencil tip) and could sometimes squeeze themselves into the tiniest openings.
The next best thing to do is to check yourself regularly throughout your hike. If you are hiking with a partner, it’s a great practice to keep an eye on each other to make sure there are no ticks crawling around on the other person's back. As for my kids, I can’t help but to check them as often as possible. Areas to pay special close attention to are areas on the body that are usually dark and warm, like between joints (arms, knees, legs).
For more information regarding tick safety, I highly recommend reading this article from Dylon Stuntz at American Forests.org so that you feel prepared to hike without letting the threat of a tick stop you from getting outside.
4. Hiking Etiquette - As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post, hiking is probably one of the most enjoyed recreational activities that people do. With that being said, it’s a good idea to keep a few basic hiking etiquette tips in mind to ensure a great time is had by all.
Leave no trace - While it’s important that you stay hydrated and energized throughout your hike, it’s also important that anything that you take into the woods with you comes back out with you as well. Not only is garbage on the side of a trail unsightly, it could also become very damaging to the wildlife. Make sure to keep a small trash bag with you and properly dispose of all trash after you leave the trails.
Music - Most of the time, people are out on the trails to escape the everyday routines of life and to enjoy the sounds of nature. There is great debate about whether people should be listening to music while on the trails, and while I don’t want to wedge myself in the middle of the argument, I do want to suggest that if you are one who enjoys listening to the sounds of Wu-Tang on your hike, be sure to keep the volume to a minimum or you may even consider listening with headphones.
Passing - Just as you would use a blinker when you’re going to pass someone in a vehicle, it’s just as important to give the person you are about to pass one the trail a signal as well. Calling out “coming up on your right/left” or even a simple “hello” could do the trick. Just try not to startle them!
5. General Safety - Although all of the aforementioned information could constitute good general safety tips, it might not be a bad idea to take additional measures to ensure your safety on the trails. Some of those measures may include; checking the weather forecast before heading out, letting close friends or family know where you are going to be hiking, carrying a whistle for emergencies, and making sure your phone is fully charged. With all of these practices in mind, there really is no reason as to why you can’t start out on the trails to begin your adventure today!
Stay safe and enjoy your time with nature!
'And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul’ - John Muir
-Matt Giambra, Environmental Educator