Finding God, self, and community in wild spaces. The better we know our wild neighbors the more we'll discover ourselves.
A vision informed by Henry David Thoreau’s interpretation of sauntering, Jesus’ understanding of neighbor, Aldo Leopold’s concept of thinking like a mountain, Rachel Carson’s prophetic voice and John Muir’s way of capturing the beauty and uniqueness of wild neighbors with words.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Wild Neighbor: Walking Fern

Today's big surprise at Little Pine State Park: walking fern
Upon cresting the hill near the top of of Panther Run Trail at Little Pine State Park we worked our way along a ridge top boulder field, weaving through 300 million year old rocks that were formed during the carboniferous period. These old sandstone and conglomerate rocks comprised of layer upon layer of hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old shallow ocean bottom sediment are now home to diverse communities of mosses, lichens, and ferns (and I understand, in the summertime, timber rattlers).


I have a habit of "geeking-out" a lot when I spend time in wild spaces. Sorry Erin!  In case you're wondering, this means that I have the gift of turning a three-mile hike into a four-hour adventure if you let me as I pause to get excited about every amazing wild neighbor along the trail.

Left to right: Christmas fern, marginal wood fern, evergreen wood fern.
First it was the golden-crowned kinglets foraging among the branches of nearby pines. Then it was three species of evergreen ferns growing in the same two-feet of space providing an incredible comparison of evergreen wood, marginal wood, and Christmas ferns!

In another "geeking-out-on-the-trail" moment, I sat at the base of one of those giant boulder rocks admiring the stratified layers of ancient ocean-bottom sediment and the plants that colonize its surface present day.

Something caught my eye. It was a leaf. Heart shaped at the base with a long narrow tip. I knew I'd seen that somewhere. In a book.

Just two days prior I remember leafing through my fern identification guide, and I recall saying to Erin, "I hope to find a walking fern eventually. It's just that its such a unique species. It says here that they are a rare though, so probably not anytime soon."

She may have responded to me with something along the lines of "you're a rare species."
Walking fern: note heart-shaped base with narrow long-pointed tip.

Regardless, here I was two miles into the woods at the top of a rocky ridge with a small colony of walking ferns clinging to the base and to the side of the sandstone boulder before me. Amazing!

The thing I find most captivating about walking fern is that it has a unique habit of putting down new roots from the tips of its leaves. Over time an old walking fern will develop a spread of long tipped leaves which take root and produce new leaves that reach out even farther all the while remaining connected to the parent plant in the middle. An old-old walking fern would look like a big circle with leaves arched from the middle reaching out in every direction. Pretty cool, right?

I think this particular group of walking ferns might be a young colony since there is not yet any leaf-tip rooting that I could find. Maybe these leaves will be rooting out in the springtime.
Walking fern fertile frond with spores.
For several more minutes I rested in the presence of this very interesting wild neighbor.

I got to reflecting. As so often happens, reflections in wild spaces become reflections on life in general. Here's one of those thoughts.

I noticed that they share this rocky face with polypody ferns, at least three species of mosses (probably more) and at least five species of lichens (again, probably more). Beyond that, from rigetop, to hillside, to stream-cut, to lake far below this whole space is filled with a rich variety of living things. In short, this wild space is shared space.

Speaking of sharing; we teach our children the value of sharing, that there's joy in sharing, and that sharing good things is an expression of love.

Where is the joy in sharing this good earth with as great a variety of other living things as possible?

Go spend a day walking about or sitting in wild spaces and you tell me.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thankful for Liverworts, Lichens and Fungi

Liverwort means "liver-like small plant."
It's Thanksgiving and I'd like to express my thanks for liverworts, lichens and fungi.

Liverworts, because around 460 million years ago these strange leathery textured plants emerged as the probable link between green algae and terrestrial plants. Liverworts, having an affinity for moist habitats are still around today. Thank God for our Wild Neighbor liverworts!

Lichens on a rock overlooking the Canyon.
Lichens, because 395 million years ago these symbiotic organisms which are a delightful partnership between algae, fungus, and cyanobacteria began to eat rock. Yes, you heard correctly. Lichens have the miraculous ability to turn barren rockscapes into places where terrestrial plants can thrive. This phenomenon can be observed in places like the Alpine Tundra of the Adirondack High Peaks among other places. Thank God for our Wild Neighbor lichens!

At least two species of fungi work on decomposing a fallen tree.
Fungi, because 560 million years ago fungi made life on land possible on planet earth...and because 90% of plants are dependent on the mycorrhizal networks of fungi today. Fungi made life possible many millions of years ago and still do today; helping plants and trees obtain the nutrients that they need from the soil, and performing an invaluable role in the decomposition process through which things that were once living become nutrient-rich soil again. Thank God for our Wild Neighbor fungi!

Each of these three groups played critical roles as life evolved into what it is today over the course of a long, long, long, long long...long time. Fungi and lichens are so easy to overlook; yet both are vital to the health of ecosystems near and far, wild and domestic.

All this is to say, as you and I celebrate the beauty of today and the gift of biodiversity, let us each take a moment to thank a lichen, a fungi, and a liverwort for the gifts they bring.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Turkey-tail fungi


My finger next to a liverwort for scale.

Source material:

Lichens of the North Woods. Joe Walewski. Kollath Stensaas Publishing; Duluth, MN, 2007.

Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada. Timothy J. Baroni. Timber Press Field Guide; Portland, OR, 2017.

Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth. Ina Stradins, Editor. DK Publishing; New York, NY, 2012.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Wild Neighbor: Polypody Fern 11/26/2019

For the final hour of daylight I enter the land of ravens along the West Rim of the Pine Creek Gorge once again. It never ceases to amaze me how a person can revisit the same patch of forest again and again and each time find something new! I'm at Barbour Rock Trail. I can hear the ravens calling overhead, but my eyes are glued to the forest floor. I'm attempting to relocate and make a positive identification of a particular wild neighbor I've encountered here on a number of occasions. As I make a right turn off of  Barbour Rock Trail's gravel path onto West Rim Trail I see it tucked in a cozy nook at the base of a large red oak tree!

I've encountered this particular fern in all seasons. It's clearly evergreen. It's fronds are leathery to the touch, and I almost always see it growing out from beneath the bark of the trunks of mature red oaks. I've occasionally seen one anchored in the bark of a maple, chestnut oak, or some other tree; but the vast majority of the time, its red oak. I wonder, why the preference for red oaks?

It's a fern with a simple yet attractively beautiful frond. The bottom of the leaf on one side of the rachis (stem) connects with the top of the leaf on the other side. One can look at it and imagine a cascading waterfall from top to bottom. Maybe you'll see what I mean when you take a look at the picture below.



Sitting on the ground next to the fern at the base of that big red oak along West Rim trail I consulted my field guide, Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America.

After flipping a few pages the fern identification key helped me to narrow it down to one of three species; resurrection fern, Appalachian polypody, and common polypody.

According to my guide, resurrection fern should have dark-centered pointed scales on the underside of the leaves, which it didn't have.

The frond of Appalachian polypody is widest at the base with narrowed leaf tips, while common polypody is widest near the middle with blunt leaf tips.

Common polypody was the match.

Of common polypody fern, my field guide says, "Thoreau refers to the 'fresh and cheerful communities' of the Polypody in early spring that form a lustrous mantle over rocky surfaces. This common, evergreen, and vigorous fern greens up the rugged contours of rocky woods, even in winter." (Cobb/Farnsworth/Lowe. Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America, Second edition. The New England Flower Society. New York, NY 2005. Page 194)

Here is a fertile frond with brown spores on its underside.
Ferns are fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which is that they employ a reproductive strategy (releasing spores) that predates that of the seeds of flowering plants by about 235 million years! They are like ancient relics, having evolved 35 million years after lichens and 360 million years prior to today.


In our churches we sing about eternity when we can’t comprehend a thousand years let alone a million; and science shows that life has been evolving on planet earth for more than 2 billion years!!!

Our time on earth in this lifetime is precious and limited. To exist in the company of such amazing living treasures as polypody ferns and other forest dwellers is a gift. When I consider the call of Jesus to love my neighbor as myself I think there can be no act so profound as to use the relatively short span of life I've been given to be a link in the chain, preserving the full diversity of life as much as possible for the sake of a world that God loves.

Biodiversity is a good gift from God 2.5 billion years in the making; and when we consider the evolution of the cosmos, longer than that. To think that we infinitesimally insignificant humans in our incredibly brief span of life have the power to nurture or to squash this priceless gift...wow...our presence does not seem insignificant at all. Lord help us to cherish the gift of biodiversity and honor the call to love all of our wild neighbors.

Often loving our wild neighbors is as simple as giving them space. This is why I'm content to visit the polypody when I spend time at the canyon. I don't want to pick, collect, or relocate it. I also want to advocate for the protection of its forest home. Keep it wild for the sake of preserving the good gift of biodiversity.

Remember that I said ferns have been around for 360 million years? Well, its thought that hominids have been around for about 7 million years and Homo sapiens (that's us!), about 150,000. We are a young species who find ourselves as necessary caretakers of life billions of years in the making. As a species we have a patchy track record when it comes to being a blessing or a curse to the gift of biodiversity. We've been known to destroy 350 million year old life forms for immediate gain without a thought that the most invaluable treasure is the great variety of life itself.

Those who understand this gift of biodiversity have a responsibility to work for it's protection.

We are watchmen for a season, stewards of God’s riches. How will we honor the gift?

These are my scattered thoughts from an hour spent with a common polypody fern at the edge of the Pine Creek Gorge.

And now the sun is setting, the forest is growing dim, and the monotone chirps of a hundred chipmunks fill the air as I make my way back to the Barbour Rock Trailhead parking lot.






















Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lichens of Locke Mountain

It was a calm and sunny morning in the folded mountains of Pennsylvania. Erin and I stood at one of the quartz sandstone outcrops on the north side of Locke Mountain; we could see the valley far below and the start of the Allegheny Plateau on the horizon.


I'll say this up front. We cheated. We got into our car and drove to the top of the mountain. Locke Mountain Road goes right up to the top and down the other side. We parked at the pull-off at the peak of the long ridge.

From our parking spot we made our way along the trail which contours the ridge. 

Sometimes the trail is a place for reflection. Today I began reflecting on the many reasons why I have ascended mountains thus far in my life of 33 years. As I list my reasons perhaps a few may resonate with you, or maybe your reasons for ascending mountains are all together different than mine, and in that case I'd love to hear yours!

I've ascended mountains to explore the answers to these questions:

What’s below?

What’s above?
What’s beyond?

I've taken to steep and jagged landscapes in order to say that I've conquered mountains.


I've ascended various peaks because it is a test of strength and because it shows character. 

I've ascended mountains for the joy of it.

These are most of my reasons, but there is still one I've not mentioned yet. We'll get there.

What’s above and what's below? To the poet, heaven is above, the earth is below, and the mountaintop is a thin space betwixt the two. But what if it’s as Elizabeth Barrett Browning says; 
“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” ― Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If we approach the mountains as explorers we should also approach the mountains as neighbors; as neighbors to the wildlife who call the mountains home and as neighbors to the mountains themselves. After all, wildlife and wild spaces are dependent upon people treating each with the love, kindness, compassion and care that is due a neighbor.

My favorite reason for going to the mountain trails is to find out who lives there. Sauntering up mountains is a great way to find the joy of getting to know our wild neighbors. The better we know our wild neighbors the better equipped we are to be a neighbor to each.

Where the mountains are high enough, the one who saunters up them is likely to come across different habitat zones, and each habitat zone containing a unique species composition.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy the Adirondack (ADK) high peaks so much. At the base of the ADK high peaks its predominantly deciduous forest. As a person makes his/her way along the trail that is increasing in elevation, eventually there are more pines and less oaks and maples. Farther and higher still is the spruce-fir zone. Above that is the Krummholz zone which is marked by stunted windswept spruce-fir forests. Higher still is the Alpine tundra, a habitat zone marked by the absence of trees, rocky peaks, and low growing vegetation. Each habitat zone in the mountains hosts a different composition of animals, plants, insects, etc.

But today I was not in the ADK's, I was on top of Locke Mountain a few miles to the south-east of Hollidaysburg. 

There was no alpine tundra, Krummholz, or even a spruce-fir zone to be found on Locke Mountain because the elevation change simply isn't there. However, there are at least two to three habitat zones that I did note while we were there.

First was the lowland deciduous/mixed forest in the valley extending about 3/4 up the mountain slope. Second was the stunted deciduous/mixed forest at the top of the ridge extending about 1/4 mile down on either side. Third were the rocky outcroppings just shy of the top. Each of these hold many of the same species but each of these three habitat zones is home to a unique species composition.

I mostly enjoyed the rocky outcroppings which were marked by a significant diversity of lichens.  Lichens are an organisms that consist of fungus and algae living in a way that their pairing constitutes something altogether different.

This is an oversimplification, but the algae part of the lichen makes energy from sunlight by way of photosynthesis. The algae part of the lichen is surrounded and protected by the fungus part of the lichen which has the ability to absorb water and nutrients in the air. Lichens readily absorb pollutants from the air as well. In addition, some species of lichen are more tolerant of pollution than others. As a result, lichens can serve as indicators of air quality and the greatest diversity of lichens can be found where the air is the cleanest (lacking pollutants of any kind).

Lichens generally grow on soil, trees, logs, rocks, and can be found on almost any surface.

Lichens are grouped into three major categories; foliose, fruiticose, crustose.

Foliose lichens have a leafy appearance and texture. Fruiticose lichens look like vertical projections. Crustose lichens have the texture and appearance of being embedded in the rocks to which they cling.

Here are some of the lichens we found on Locke Moutain. As you'll see, its fairly simple to determine if a lichen is foliose, crustose, or fruiticose. I've attempted to identify some of them, but I have much to learn when it comes to lichen ID. I'm about 75% sure of the ones I did make a species ID on.


FOLIOSE LICHENS


Greenshield lichen

Toadskin lichen

CRUSTOSE LICHENS








FRUITICOSE LICHENS

Powderhorn lichen
Trumpet lichen



Reindeer lichen


Reindeer lichen (zoomed in)


Some words from my field notebook:

Way up high where the air is clear,
Atop the ridge of Locke Mountain, 
Where bright golden sun shines in sapphire sky,
Where birch bows down giving way to prevailing wind,
Where lichens cling to rocks of scree in great diversity,
Hard and crusty they've become,
But a drop of water then they'll be,
Full of life in vibrant shades of gray and green.
As chickadee and downy woodpecker work the ridge,
We rest with comfort on a gnarly birch,
Enjoying a beautiful mountain day.