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Archive for February, 2009

Crow’s Nest: Looking for Spring

We've started hearing and seeing red-winged blackbirds in trees and near the cattail marsh. And last night in the warm rain I heard the first tentative peeps of spring peepers.

I finished the winter's mowing of meadows. We spread it out over six weeks, taking advantage of cold early mornings when the ground is frozen. By the time the sun hits a field, even if the air is cold, the ground surface begins to melt. The mowed meadows are not as pretty as the tall waving grasses, but the meadows won't stay meadows without some intervention. We set aside three meadows that will be burned instead of mowed; we'll do that in about a month.

Crow’s Nest: The third sense

In the list of senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we overlook some more than others (and even our language, "overlook," expresses this bias). We encourage the use of all senses when visiting the preserves, except for taste—you'd be surprised how many plants contain alkaloids or other toxic defenses against predation! And of course also use caution with touch: we do have stinging nettle and poison ivy. But you will find your experience richer if you are open to more ways of experiencing nature.

We rarely observe skunks on the preserve, though I saw one the other day—but did not detect an odor. More often I smell the pungent musk of fox here. No doubt there are many messages conveyed in scent that I cannot detect. Our dog enjoys reading the wind, like the one in the Jane Siberry song.

In the summer a strong scent is released when you walk through (or mow a foot path next to) mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum).

My favorite smells on the preserve are sassafras, spicebush and Eastern red cedar. When some sassafras (Sassafras albidinum) gets run through the chipper (as it would when a limb comes down) the air is filled with its fragrance. Likewise, when I prune some spicebush (Lindera benzoin) where it has grown into a trail I enjoy its sharp aroma. Years ago I had some spicebush tea, where small twigs were put in the percolator of a coffee maker. It is these volatile oils in the leaves and stems that make spicebush resistant to deer browse, so much so that a woodland dominated by an understory of spicebush is probably an indicator of undesirably high deer density. Interestingly, several sites on the web suggest that spicebush also makes a good seasoning for deer meat.

(Today I will also be hanging fresh bars of Irish Spring soap from our garden fence—a folk remedy to keep deer out. While I think that a deer that is hungry enough will ignore the strong odor, those that have plenty of alternatives, as they do at the preserve, will choose to go elsewhere. The end of winter is a hard time for food resources and deer are looking everywhere. While there isn't anything in the garden yet for them to eat I don't want them to get used to stopping here.)

An Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) came down recently on the Horse-Shoe Trail where it passes the edge of the preserve. Even though the tree was dead (likely shaded out by the maturing forest that has grown up around it) the chainsaw released a scent that took me back to the airtight cedar closet ("never play in there!") in my grandparents' basement. The saw also revealed that lovely pink stained wood that, alas, fades with exposure.

A while back I wrote about the human health benefits of the chemical compounds released in forests, a topic introduced to me in Joan Maloof's book "Teaching the Trees of the Forest."

More recently an article crossed my desk about research that provides clinical evidence of these benefits. Here's the citation from the Journal of Physiological Anthropology in 2007: Park, Bum-Jin, et al. "Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku (Taking in the Atmosphere of the Forest)—Using Salivary Cortisol and Cerebral Activity as Indicators—" Volume 26, pages 123-128. I think it's fascinating that Japanese has a word for "taking in the atmosphere of the forest"! So come on out to Crow's Nest and experience your own shinrin-yoku.

More local events…

There will be a forum this Saturday, February 21 from 1 – 4 pm at the Chester County Historical Society entitled "The Future of Open Space in Chester County." Featuring a keynote by Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Michael DiBerardinis, there will also be community discussion.

Also, the Habitat Resource Network of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Penn State Brandywine will be holding a homeowner wildlife habitat class on Saturday, March 7 from 8:30 am to 3 pm at Penn State Brandywine. The course includes how to restore habitat providing food, water, and shelter on your property, the importance of native plants to our local ecosystem, and how to design for people including children. The cost is $40/person or $50/couple and includes lunch and course materials. 

Mariton – Power to the People

Because of the high winds on Thursday, I wasn't surprised when we lost electricity at 4:00 p.m.  We used to lose power frequently, so Maureen and I have made preparations because we know it will happen eventually.

We have the wood stove which will heat the house at temperatures of 20 F and above.  Below that temperature, we can warm the house by opening and shutting doors to target heat flow into certain rooms.  I also keep spare propane for emergency heat and for the grill.  So, we can cook and heat water on the wood stove.  We can also use the grill, or the camp stove out side on the porch. 

Camping a lot makes living without electricity  less complicated.  We keep over 10 gallons of drinking water always ready.  Two 5 gallon jugs are always filled, and I recycle the water regularly to keep it fresh.  We can get buckets of water from the spring for flushing toilets.  Non-scented baby wipes, that we take camping, make a very good substitute for a shower. 

Because we camp so much, Maureen and I are nuts about flashlights.  We have an array of lanterns, headlamps, and wind-up flashlights, along with a selection of different Mag lights.  Maureen is great about keeping a closet stocked with batteries to power everything.

So, when it got dark last night, we were ready.  We called neighbors, emptied the fridge, set out a tray of food, lit candles and lanterns, put a CD on the battery powered radio, and then talked and ate for hours in front of the wood stove.  

This morning, when the power was still off, I hooked up the generator.  Years ago, I decided that a generator was a worthwhile investment (and it has been!).  We had the breaker box rewired so that we could connect simply and safely to power the essential circuits.  So, I flipped on the water pump and furnace and we took showers.  Then I charged the freezer and fridge for a while.  When that was done, I shut down, gassed up, and put the generator back in storage all ready for the "next time."  Sure we could have survived the 20 hours without electricity – we have done it before.  But it is nice to know you are prepared.  Preparation is power.

Chester County Keep Farming First

A week from Saturday there will be the annual Chester County Keep Farming First conference at Octoraro High School. The keynote speaker and breakout sessions will address Alternative Energy and Energy Conservation Options and there will be a lunchtime session on issues important to local farmers.

Crow’s Nest: 3-year apple tree rejuvenation plan

Apple trees

There are a half dozen neglected apple trees, a pear and a peach on the new land that we added to Crow's Nest last year. I invited Paul Claypoole, Preserve Manager at Natural Lands Trust's Idlewild Preserve, to help me plan their rejuvenation. Take one look at the well-tended apple trees at Idlewild and you'll know he is a good person to ask.

I have limited experience with apple trees, having planted three a few years ago near the visitor center and lightly pruned them each year, using Michael Phillips' The Apple Grower as a guide. Apple pruning is a little different than pruning other species, and pruning overgrown ones is a special skill.

In the fall I cut the vines and multiflora rose that threatened to engulf the apple grove and we picked a few boxes of apples. This winter's pruning goals are to remove dead wood and damaged and crossing branches.

In future years the pruning goals will be to let more light and air circulation into the trees, prevent branches from getting too heavy and splitting when in fruit, reduce the number of apples (thereby increasing their size and quality), and reduce the overall height of the trees to make harvesting easier.

We don't know what varieties these trees are but they're not one of the four you'll find in the supermarket. Apples are not a native species here but they're not invasive and offer wildlife benefits.

I also recommend Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire for its discussion of Johnny Appleseed, apple trees' provenance and their role in the growth of our nation.

Mariton – Movie and a Walk

This Friday, Mariton will feature the film Pennsylvania:  Conserving Nature's Diversity.  Produced by PA's Wild Resource Conservation Fund, this film looks at the different key habitats in the state, and explores the roles that they play, as well as the things that live there.  It also does a great job explaining what Bio-Diversity is, as well as why it so important life on Earth.  The movie is about thirty minutes long. 

After the movie, we will walk in the snow and the moonlight.  It should be beautiful, and the there is always the chance that we will hear owls, foxes and other nocturnal forest dwellers.

The movie starts at 8 p.m. on Friday.  Call if you plan to attend (610-258-6574).  We will be making popcorn.  Dress appropriately if you plan to join us for the walk.

Mariton – Step Away II

Snow 2.04 001 Yesterday morning; the plowing was finished.  I came into the office to post a photo of the sunrise on snowy branches, and to encourage people to get outside.  Dan had already beat me to it with his post Step Away From the Computer.  I thought to myself:  "Thanks Dan."  So, I put the boots, hat and jacket back on and took his advice.  It was a gorgeous day. 

Snow 2.04 004 After lunch, Ryan (the Stewardship Assistant) and I checked the trails.  The main purpose was to strengthen Ryan's winter tree ID skills.  NLT's Preserve Managers are darn good at identifying trees.  It is part of our job.  I think it is also part of our job to make sure that the Stewardship Assistants know their trees, as they will probably be Preserve Managers someday.  Ryan has learned a lot in the last year.  Jim Thompson, at Paunacussing Preserve, has been tutoring him also - a lot apparently. 

So why are Preserve Mangers so good at tree ID?  Just a guess, but I think we all spent a lot of our childhood climbing trees.  You can learn a lot about a tree when you trust it with your weight (and even more when you fall).  The Latin and identifying characteristics came later.  From my experience, I entered my first Dendrology (study of trees) course with an established jiz for tree ID.  In Dendro, I just learned the tricks that helped me hone that awareness.

Finding the Fire Tower

Our neighbor Doug mentioned yesterday that one can see the old fire tower in French Creek State Park from a spot just a few feet outside of the preserve. We were talking about how hard it is to judge where a distant ridge leads, given our jumbled local valleys, twisted roads, and vistas limited by the deciduous forest. I've lived here almost 13 years and never knew you could see the tower from this direction.


Turns out it's pretty hard to see unless you're looking for it. It shows up much better in this photograph (with 12x zoom) than anything I could see when I was taking the photo. (That's it in the upper left next to the cell phone tower.)

The fire tower was built in 1935 by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry as part of a network of towers where lookouts could watch for lightning-sparked forest fires. Nearly all of the towers have been replaced by newer technologies, but for some of us there remains a spare romance associated with the solitary vigil there. (Perhaps this was from reading Jack Kerouac's accounts of his time in towers out west.)


The tower is closed and the structure limited in what it can hold, but in 2006 Crow's Nest campers had an opportunity to climb it (two at a time) with a forester from Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Here's a view from the top, looking north (Crow's Nest would be to the east and southeast but largely hidden by a ridge in between).

If you look very closely you might see a little bump on the far ridges that is the fire tower on Blue Mountain in Weiser State Forest between Reading and Pottsville, about 30 miles away. It's almost directly below a speck that is a hawk or vulture in the photo—and not a spot of dirt on your screen. With better optics and a lower-humidity day the tower would be more visible; this is how the network of towers provided complete coverage for spotting smoke over a very large area.

I'm just pleased that now I have a reference point to a known place and its relationship to where I am located.

See the bloggers speaking live

This site's bloggers, Tim Burris and Dan Barringer, along with Dr. Andrea Stevens, Director of Natural Lands Trust's Center for Conservation Landowners, will be speaking live at the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society conference on March 10 in Hershey. The talk is designed for municipal recreation board members and park staff. We will discuss managing parks for natural diversity: converting turfgrass to native warm-season grass meadows, controlling invasive plants, managing deer, and where to turn for more help.


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