Mountain Meadows

The 150- by 50-foot wildflower garden at Mountain Meadows

The 150- by 50-foot wildflower garden at Mountain Meadows

Imagine receiving a gift of 113 acres on Tussey Mountain.  That’s what happened to Mike and Laura Jackson back in 1988 when Laura’s parents, Richard and Phyllis Hershberger, gave them a portion of their farm.  The Jacksons named their property Mountain Meadows and built a home with large windows for wildlife viewing.

Part of the land had been pastured.  Twice the woods on the higher slopes had been high-graded — “taking the best and leaving the rest” in forester parlance.  Then a gypsy moth caterpillar outbreak dealt the final blow to most of the remaining oak trees.

But Mike and Laura, who have devoted their lives to educating themselves and others about the natural world, were undaunted by the challenge of reclaiming their land for wildlife.  Experimental and innovative, they have learned from their mistakes as well as their successes.

On a bright, breezy day in late October my husband, Bruce and I bumped over the cattle guard across their driveway and into their three-acre yard, which is enclosed by a five-foot-high fence.  There we joined 20 other members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society on a guided tour of Mountain Meadows.

Laura showed off the 150 foot by 50 foot wildflower garden they had established primarily to attract butterflies and other invertebrates.  Although they had hoped to find a native wildflower seed mix suitable for their south-central Pennsylvania site near Everett, they had to settle for a northeastern United States wildflower mix that included cosmos and zinnias, both natives of Mexico, as well as coneflowers, lupines, scarlet flax, tickseeds, larkspurs, cornflowers, wallflowers, Shasta daisies, corn poppies, evening primroses, New England asters, foxgloves, and golden yarrow, only some of which are natives of Pennsylvania or even the northeastern United States. The day we visited the garden displayed a colorful blend of cosmos, zinnias, and cornflowers.

Mike Jackson shows off a red mulberry tree

Mike Jackson shows off a red mulberry tree

Mike then pointed out a few of the many trees and shrubs they have planted for wildlife.  In the past, they had planted non-natives such as buddleia, Calgary pear, burning bush, and Japanese honeysuckle without realizing they were invasive.  Calling the knowledge of natives versus non-natives “a steep learning curve,” they finally established a rule that “if it is invasive, remove it.  If it is not native and not invasive and provides food and/or cover for wildlife, then we might plant it within our fence,” for example, “blue spruce, holly, and annuals that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds,” Laura said.

Inside their fence, which is a deer exclosure, they can plant trees and shrubs without protection.  Outside the fence, every tree and shrub has a wire fence or plastic tube around it.  But now they use exclusively wire fencing.  The five-foot-high tubes produce “wimpy trees,” Mike said, because the trees grow too fast in the moisture and heat-trapping devices. On the other hand, in wire fences trees grow slower and stronger. The tubes also attract paper wasps, which bears love, so they tear apart the tubes to get at the insects.

Every spring the Jacksons order tree saplings from a variety of sources.  During our visit, Mike sang the praises of red mulberry (Morus rubra). These wind-pollinated trees produce dark purple, edible berries in July that are eaten by eastern box turtles, and mammals such as gray and red foxes, gray and fox squirrels, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks and opossums, and once the Jacksons watched black bears mating below the mulberry trees.  More than 20 species of songbirds are also attracted to red mulberry fruit.  In the words of Charles Fergus, from his wonderful and informative Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast: “To observe frantic avian activity, stand in a mulberry grove when the fruit is ripening in early summer.  Birds will be everywhere, gobbling down the sweet crop: grackles, starlings, cardinals, robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, waxwings, woodpeckers–even crows, clambering about clumsily on the springy boughs.” Unfortunately, such a sight is increasingly rare because red mulberry, which grows across the southern half of Pennsylvania, “has declined greatly in abundance over the last 200 years,” write Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive Trees of Pennsylvania.

Laura Jackson leading a tour of Mountain Meadows

Laura Jackson leading a tour of Mountain Meadows

Other native trees the Jacksons have planted are not as uncommon as red mulberry, for instance, the 50 to 60 eastern redbuds or Judas-trees (Cercis canadensis), which thrive in the southern part of the state and produce a haze of lavender-rose blossoms in early spring.  The primary larval food for Henry’s elfin butterflies, their small, pea-like flowers also provide nectar for Henry’s elfins, eastern pine elfins, spring azures, duskywings, and other early butterflies as well as for honeybees.

Sweet American or wild crabapple (Malus coronaria) is our only native crabapple tree and another species the Jacksons planted to attract wildlife.  Grosbeaks, foxes, ruffed grouse, skunks, opossums, raccoons, deer, and black bear relish the yellowish-green, sour fruits that mature in autumn, partially fall on the ground and partially remain hanging from the branches throughout the winter.

Washington hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), another tree the Jacksons planted, is one of many confusing hawthorn species. This native produces fruits that furnish food during the fall and winter for deer, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, ruffed grouse, and songbirds.

In the former log yard, they have planted a variety of apple trees but, Mike said, they have to pick the apples before they mature and put them on the ground so the bears don’t rip the trees down to get the fruit.

The Jacksons also wanted to increase nut-bearing trees on their property.  Because the American chestnut tree is functionally extinct, they planted Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) instead.  They also planted sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutissima), an Asian native, because they grow fast and produce acorns much sooner than our native oaks.

Native shrubs that are wildlife attractants on the Jacksons’ property include both red-osier (Cornus serocea) and silky (C. racemosa) dogwood.  These thicket-producing shrubs provide both food and cover for many birds.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), still another choice of the Jacksons, has bright red fruits in September or October that often remain on the branches throughout the winter, hence its common name.  Ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, and other winter birds harvest the fruits.

The Jacksons also put in a hybrid of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which produces sweet, edible nuts that are almost immediately harvested by squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, deer, and ruffed grouse.

In addition to planting trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract wildlife, Mike constructed an enormous, tepee-shaped wildlife brush pile in their woods.  At its base he has a hole big enough for a hibernating bear to crawl into.  Although he set up a trail camera near the brush pile and caught a sow and her cubs on film, so far no bear has hibernated in it.

Mike is an avid deer hunter and has built a huge tree stand in his woods.  During our walk along their woodland trail, we saw many mature shagbark hickory trees, two healthy butternut trees, and an enormous white oak that took three people — their arms outstretched — to reach around its trunk.  Mike also showed us his American Woodcock Habitat Site where he has to remove dozens of invasives to make it viable for woodcocks.

Showing off the woodcock habitat area at Mountain Meadows

Showing off the woodcock habitat area at Mountain Meadows

Back in 2002, the Jacksons joined the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and, working with their Service Forester, drew up a plan for their property that emphasized attracting wildlife.  They have documented their work to improve their land under the stewardship program in a loose leaf notebook, complete with photos.  More recently, they have added American mountain ash and witch hazel to the tree species on their property.

As former teachers — Mike taught fifth grade in the Everett elementary school and Laura taught advanced biology and environmental sciences in Bedford High School — they have been keeping lists of the plants and animals on their property.  Of the 37 mammal species, a Russian wild boar was the most distressing and a bobcat the most exciting.  They’ve also recorded 117 bird species, 29 shrubs, 13 vines, 14 coniferous trees, 78 deciduous trees, 8 snakes, 4 turtles, 8 frogs and toads, 4 salamanders, and, so far, 92 insects, and 8 spider species.

Mike takes special interest in the eastern box turtles and timber rattlesnakes he finds.  One notebook is devoted to the turtles.  He photographs each turtle’s shell and plastron and files a notch on the edge of its shell.  That way, when he sees a box turtle, he can figure out whether it is new to him or a repeat.  Just before we arrived, he recorded box turtle #90 — an astounding number.  Once he watched a female lay eggs on a path that they planned to dig up.  He moved the eggs into a raised bed in their garden and fenced it. He and Laura kept a close watch on it and saw hatchlings emerge from it late in the summer.

Mike, with the help of Laura, is also adept at handling rattlesnakes.  Each year he captures every rattlesnake he sees and measures it.  So far, the eight he has captured have been between 36 and 45 inches long.  He also sexes and photographs them.  When I asked him why he does this, he said, “Because I’m curious about them. Are any returning? How many do we have? How much do they grow every year?”  And once again, he keeps meticulous records on them.

Did I mention that they were wildlife rehab assistants under a local veterinarian for ten years?  In that time they rehabbed 54 orphaned opossums, 34 gray squirrels, 17 red-phase and 16 gray-phase eastern screech-owls, and 7 American kestrels, in addition to barred owls, a beaver kit that the PGC gave them to raise, and a baby flying squirrel.  Laura particularly enjoyed raising owls, but she told a funny story about the flying squirrel.

“We had it in a bird cage, never realizing that it could squeeze through the bars of the cage.  We searched high and low for three days, but never found it.  On the fourth day, I found it… snuggled in a laundry basket full of dirty clothes.  Fortunately, when I decided to wash the clothes, I sorted them one by one and didn’t just dump them into the washing machine.”

The day of our visit their bird feeders hosted three male purple finches and a female.  Their turkey pen held wild turkeys that they raise.  Water lilies bloomed in a water garden in front of their home, which contained green frogs, a painted turtle, and a bullfrog.

Mike Jackson files a notch on a box turtle's shell

Mike files a notch on a box turtle shell to distinguish it from the others on the property

Laura has taken a part time job, since she retired, as Director of the Bedford School District’s Environmental Center, but both she and Mike have taken on an even more monumental volunteer position. As founders of SOAR (Save Our Allegheny Ridges), they are trying to educate people about the detrimental effects of industrial wind farms on wildlife.  Although they are not opposed to wind farms if they are appropriately sited in states “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” and even on such devastated areas as former strip mines, they are appalled that for a possible one percent of the electric power we need, plans are afoot to put them on many of the mountaintops in northern and central Pennsylvania.  These mountaintops contain some of the state’s last unfragmented habitat for wildlife.  Already the Jacksons have documented with photos the problems this so-called “green power” is causing on our mountaintops, namely, erosion, despoiling of Class A wild trout streams, and providing, on land that has been cleared for access roads and around the windmills, ATV trails.

Fishermen and hunters are alarmed to see still more of our wild land and waterways compromised.  Studies by wildlife biologists have already documented incredible bat kills during migration as they are chopped up by the enormous windmill blades.  The blades are also a danger to migrating songbirds and raptors, all of which use our ridges as migratory corridors.  Canada has many industrial wind farms, but they have a law that forbids building them on mountaintops.  Too bad we haven’t followed their example.

Every day, it seems, the Jacksons send us notice of still another problem with the siting of industrial wind farms. The Jacksons always thought of themselves as conservationists, but now they have become environmentalists in defense of wildlife.  Wish them luck in their venture.

All photos were taken by Bruce Bonta.


IRFD badge by Jason,

IRFD badge by Jason,

Never underestimate the power of the Internet. That’s what I thought last Labor Day weekend when folks from around the world participated in International Rock-Flipping Day.

You say you’ve never heard of such a day? Well, neither had anyone else before August 22. That was the day our son Dave announced it on his literary blog Via Negativa. Another blogging friend, Fred Garber of Factory Town in Iowa, suggested it. Dave e-mailed Bev Wigney from Ontario who maintains an excellent blog — Burning Silo — that often concerns itself with the insect world. She agreed to help promote the idea, and Jason Robertshaw of Cephalopodcast in Florida designed a handsome badge for the event complete with a pill bug.

The rules were minimal. Flip over rocks and record, with camera and pen, what was beneath. Then return the rocks to their original positions. Send in photographic results to a Flickr Group pool or to Bev and/or Dave. They would also promote links to any blogs that covered the event. In addition, Dave offered a “grand prize” to anyone who photographed an animal flipping rocks. He figured that no one would score. How wrong he was.

“The point,” Dave wrote, “is to have fun, and hopefully learn something at the same time.”

Morgan, Devon, and Marcia flipping rocks

Morgan, Devon, and Marcia flipping rocks

Photos, videos, poems, and essays poured in the day after the event. Altogether, bloggers from 14 states, eight countries, and four continents posted their results online, providing hours of entertainment for everyone who participated and those who read their blogs.

Sharon Brogan of Watermark: A Poet’s Notebook from Montana wrote a serious poem that began:

For years I sat with people as they
turned over boulders in their hearts.
Millipedes, centipedes, scorpions;
snakes and roots and cockroaches.

Silvia of Windywillow from Ireland was more irreverent. “This is flippin’ great fun!” And she found a wood louse, worm, slug, and crane fly.

Tai Haku of Earth, Wind, and Water from somewhere in the Caribbean, who describes himself as a “scuba-diving, tree-planting, bird-photographing nature fan living and blogging in a tropical paradise,” went into the rainforest to flip rocks. He found an “elegant-looking cricket and a giant millipede” and added that “Questing through the forest gave us a good excuse to scale the island’s highest peak and also gifted us with three other great sightings of animals not under rocks: an Antillean Racer, a pair of beautiful Red-tailed Hawks and nicest of all bird tick #74 — a Bridled Quail Dove ambling through the forest.”

Rose Connors of Fate, Felicity, or Fluke looked under rocks in an Oregon tide pool and posted striking photos of a starfish, sea anemone, purple crab, sea snails, and mussels.

Bev Wigney discovered mating millipedes and a woolly bear caterpillar with its newly-molted husk nearby. Pablo at Roundrock Journal in the Missouri Ozarks turned over his first rock and carefully photographed the coiled northern copperhead beneath it.

And there was a grand prize winner — Fred First of Fragments from Floyd who photographed a raccoon flipping rocks in southwest Virginia’s Goose Creek.

raccoon on Rock-Flipping Day, by Fred First

raccoon on Rock-Flipping Day, by Fred First

Here on Brush Mountain we tried several different approaches to rock-flipping. Early in the morning, Dave flipped a rock on our scrub barrens habitat of lowbush blueberries and huckleberries, scrub oak, mountain laurel, sweetfern and bracken on our small, hundred-year-old, powerline right-of-way. What he found was a handsome, coiled, red and black Narceus millipede, in his words a “superabundant composter of forest litter throughout the northeast, where they apparently serve as a significant reservoir of calcium and phosphorous in otherwise acid, well-drained mountaintop soils.”

In mid-morning, Dave and I sallied forth with our ultimate weapons, two enthusiastic seven-year-olds — my great niece Morgan and her best friend Devon. Our plan was to flip rocks in and next to our barely-flowing stream.

wood frog found under a rock beside Plummer's Hollow Run

wood frog found under a rock beside Plummer's Hollow Run

Both children plunged in, turning over rocks, and after an hour and a half, we had compiled a pretty good list — several northern dusky salamanders, a wood frog, mountain dusky salamander, ground beetle, crayfish, and earthworm, which circled Morgan’s thumb to her great delight. Under rocks on our dry road bank, we uncovered tiny ants guarding their eggs.

Unfortunately, the kids’ attention flagged sooner than mine did. While I continued compulsively flipping rocks, they climbed up and down the road bank in search of wild mushrooms. Devon, who is a devotee of the Food Network, was desperate to eat them, but I told him we could only do so if we found chicken mushrooms.

In that way, rock-flipping metamorphosed into mushroom-hunting. We had no luck that morning and, as promised, I took them up to the spruce grove for a picnic lunch. This is Morgan’s favorite place and she wanted to share it with Devon.

“What is this peaceful place?” Devon asked about the dark, cool, and quiet spruce grove. Child of the New Jersey suburbs, he had never been so far from the sidewalks. He kept relating his experience here to computer games and television shows and I, who have neither played computer games nor owned a television, had no idea what he was talking about. His other passion was race cars, a passion he shares with his father and one that I have absolutely no affinity for.

When we found many inedible mushrooms under the spruces, Devon kept picking and throwing them with boyish bravado. He also collected a deer leg bone there with true reverence. Morgan tried to play house with him as she often has with me, using natural materials to stimulate her incredibly active imagination. But Devon was having none of it.

chicken mushroom

chicken mushroom

Finally, we headed down to our house via our wooded trails. Once we stopped to pull apart a rotten log and found a northern slimy salamander, a species I had hoped to find during our rock-flipping morning. I picked it up, admired its handsome, white-spotted black body, and showed the children the sticky residue it left on my hand. As a salamander-lover, I found it difficult to accept their refusal to pick up that salamander and the many we had found during our rock-flipping morning. They also wouldn’t hold any of the crayfish we uncovered, although Devon had delighted in actually finding crayfish burrows under the rocks.

Devon, who possessed more energy than balance fell and bounced back up several times as he climbed fallen trees, swung from low branches, and ran full-tilt down the trails. Once, Morgan ran after him, tripped, and fell. Because she was close to crying, we sat on a log to rest. I glanced casually over into the woods and on a large, fallen tree trunk, I saw them.

“Chicken mushrooms,” I shouted, and Morgan, forgetting her upset, ran as fast as Devon and I to harvest what turned out to be ten pounds of bright orange and yellow chicken mushrooms. I filled my large backpack with them, and an enthusiastic Devon, bent beneath the load, proudly hauled the pack on his back to the house.

Morgan and Devon were delighted with the mud under the rock bridge

Morgan and Devon were delighted with the mud under the rock bridge

Before dinner, Dave orchestrated the Flipping of the Bridge with the help of my husband Bruce and the back hoe on our tractor. Back in 1994, Bruce had bashed the ten-inch-thick, four-foot-long Juniata sandstone from our road and Dave had installed it with the tractor’s help, dropping the rock over the drainage ditch as a bridge from our lawn to the driveway. Dave wanted to see what was under it.

We all stood breathless and watching — Devon, Morgan, our niece Heidi and husband Jeff — as Bruce clawed the rock loose with the tractor’s backhoe and turned it on end.

Mud, thick, dark, and wet, was all we saw. And then Dave lay down on his belly and looked underneath. Something moved. A northern fall field cricket — Gryllus pennsylvanicus — clung to the underside of the rock. But the big machine impressed the children much more than the cricket, especially when Bruce gave Devon a ride.

For dinner, Dave sautéed the chicken mushrooms with fresh green peppers and served them in a delicious sauce as a side dish, making Devon, who ate like a horse, supremely happy.

So our rock-flipping day was a gastronomic treat as well and wild and woolly from beginning to end.

Annie of The Transplantable Rose in Austin, Texas, who found earwigs, cutworms, earthworms, a millipede, ants and ant eggs, summed up the experience for all of us with some light verse:

Flipping rocks and flipping stones,
Whatcha think we found there?
It can be a big surprise
What’s living in the ground there!

* * *

Marcia holds a slimy salamander she found on IRFD

Marcia holds the slimy salamander she found on IRFD

To find links to all of last year’s entries and to see Dave’s photos of our experience and his account, see here (especially this post). To see the dozens of photos posted by many of the participants, visit the International Rock-Flipping Day Group on Flickr.

This year International Rock-Flipping Day is set for September 7, and we encourage everyone who is interested to participate. We especially urge you to take a kid or two along. (Public school classes that wish to participate may celebrate IRFD two days early, on September 5.) As Pete McGregor of Pohanginapete in New Zealand wrote, “I acknowledge how important rock flipping used to be to me, and how exciting it is for kids in particular. Have you ever noticed how, in a child’s mind, the larger the rock the more wonderful the things that must live beneath it?”

Last Children in the Woods?

witch hazel 1“I’m not afraid of snakes any more,” six-year-old Morgan declared.

After spending a rainy day indoors with adults glued to computers and/or movies, she was ready to go outside. Remembering previous visits when I had taken her on walks, she knew that I was the adult she needed to impress.

And I was impressed. She had been visiting us since shortly after her birth to my niece Heidi and her husband Jeff. Heidi had her own happy memories of visiting here and playing with her three cousins when she was a child, and she wanted Morgan to have similar memories. But instead of playmate cousins her own age, she had me.

At first, she had been fearful of going beyond our veranda. Then I had shown her, one spring, a nest of eastern phoebes in our garage and another in the springhouse. To reach the latter, we had to walk through tall grasses that were as high as her shoulders, but after her first brave venture, tightly holding my hand, she lost her fear. From then on, whenever she visited, the first place she wanted to see was the springhouse.

She also learned that getting muddy was not only allowed but fun one hot summer day. Our granddaughter Eva was visiting, and I agreed to take the girls wading in the stream. Once again, Morgan held back but Eva, who is four years older, plunged in and encouraged Morgan to do likewise. As I watched from the stream bank, they spent happy hours trying to build a dam of rocks and mud.

Then, shortly after she turned six, she started asking me to take her on walks. She quickly learned that I would let her lead, and I would follow, which was as close to unstructured play outside as I could allow. Like most young children today, she is closely guarded due to what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls “fear of stranger-danger.” He goes on to say in a recent article in Orion magazine that, “conditioned by round-the-clock news coverage, they [parents] believe in an epidemic of abductions by strangers, despite evidence that the number of child-snatchings (about a hundred a year) has remained roughly the same for two decades, and that the rates of violent crimes against young people have fallen to well below 1975 levels.”

Elanor at the big birchAs a mother of three boys in the 1970s, I didn’t worry that much about stranger-danger, although I did give them the usual talk about taking rides with strangers. Because of our unique situation — living on an isolated mountaintop — I could send them outside on their own, and I did.

In the 1950s, I was raised in a south New Jersey town, and my mother, even though she gave us the “rides with strangers” talk, allowed us freedom few parents would dream of today. I often led platoons of neighborhood kids on hikes in the extensive tract of woods and lakes at the end of our road. My younger siblings built tree houses in those same woods, and one brother spent most of his time fishing in the lakes. But sadly, those woods were razed for housing developments the year I left for college. This loss of wild habitat and, more recently, even vacant lots close to neighborhoods, is another reason why few children play outside on their own today. In some cases, housing developments, where many children live, have become virtual prisons with every backyard fenced and the children confined within it.Worst of all, though, is what the Nature Conservancy, in a recent study, calls “videophilia,” which they define as “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media,” i.e. television, home movie theaters, and computers. As one suburban fifth grader told Louv, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Well, Morgan has plenty of electrical outlets in her life. So do our granddaughters Eva and Elanor. But all three prefer to be outdoors. And luckily all three have several adult mentors interested in nurturing their natural biophilia, defined as an innate love of nature.

logSo on that overcast, damp day in early September, Morgan and I set off in late morning for a walk down the road. Her waist-long, straight golden hair reminded me of Alice in Wonderland illustrations, only Morgan’s wonderland was our mountain.

She wanted desperately to climb up the road bank and off trail, as she had on previous walks with me, but her flimsy shoes were not waterproof. Despite staying on the road, though, her shoes and socks were quickly soaked through.

A quarter mile down the road at the forks where our deceased neighbor Margaret’s road meets ours, we stopped to watch the stream as it flowed beneath our plank bridge.

“Can’t I wade in the stream?” she asked.

But it was too cold, and her thin, pink, pedal pushers and light jacket barely kept her warm. She didn’t complain, though.

Suddenly I noticed what looked like a large growth on a dead garlic mustard stem, but instead it was a woodland snail. For once, nature repeated itself. The snail emerged from its shell as I held it and climbed over my fingers just as one had done many years ago when our sons were young.

We rushed back to the house to show it to Cousin Dave so he could photograph it. At first, Morgan was hesitant to let the snail climb on her hand until her father Jeff set the example. Then she offered her hand, and the snail slid over it.

Morgan with snailAfter the photo session, we returned the snail to where we had found it, and then walked up the steeper driveway that led to Margaret’s derelict house because Morgan wanted to climb up hills, this Jersey child from the flat lands.

I started turning over rocks on the road bank in search of insects and salamanders. But Morgan turned over a rock in the middle of the driveway, a most unlikely place to find anything, or so I thought. Then she exposed a sluggish, cold, mountain dusky salamander.

“Oh, it’s cute. Can I hold it?” Morgan begged in contrast to her earlier hesitancy toward the snail.

I’ve never yet known a child who didn’t instantly like salamanders. I picked it up and handed it to her, and she held it gently for a few minutes before we replaced it under the rock where she had found it.Next, I uncovered red ants guarding their eggs, always a fascinating find for youngsters. I also showed her a Daddy-long-legs or harvestman on a grass stem and showy, gold and black locust borers on goldenrod. As we wended our way homeward across First Field, she was especially excited to see a monarch butterfly because she had been learning about their migration in her kindergarten class.

After lunch, I dug out a pair of rubber boots that Eva had outgrown. They fit Morgan perfectly. We packed a bag of snacks, and with Dave’s old camping pad under my arm, we headed up to the spruce grove to play “camping out.” During a spring visit, Morgan had discovered the joy of playing house there, accompanied by her ever-compliant great aunt. Then she had imagined a kitchen and bedroom. I had reclined in the latter while she covered herself and me with fallen spruce needles. She also molded those needles into a variety of household items.

On this autumn day, she had hoped to find her “house” just as she had left it five months earlier, but time and weather had altered it. Still, she enjoyed lying on the camping pad, peering out through an opening in the densely packed spruces, and eating her snacks.

snail 6Later, we walked to the “store,” outside the grove, and passed an Allegheny mound ant hill, which had a few sluggish black and red ants working on it. At the “store,” in the deciduous woods, we found brilliant orange bracket fungi clinging to a dead tree. Their glow seemed to lighten up what had remained a stubbornly overcast day. Impressed by their beauty, Morgan wanted to take one home and show her parents. As she pulled a fungus off the tree, she squeezed it, and water oozed out like a sponge. The orange also stained her hands.

“This must be what the Indians used to paint their faces,” she said.

On our way back down First Field, I pointed out both bear and coyote scat, and she proudly found more coyote scat on her own. I also told her we had hiked two miles altogether, which was quite an achievement for what used to be a timorous little girl.

Later, over the Christmas holidays, Morgan confidently led her eleven-year-old California cousin Courtney up First Field to the spruce grove and remained the “in-charge” nature person throughout Courtney’s visit. I can only hope that my mentoring, and that of several other adults in Morgan’s life, will help her to remain connected to the outdoors throughout her lifetime.

After all, “research indicates,” ecologist Patricia Zaradic says, “that children who experience nature with a mentor develop an appreciation of nature as adults.” For that reason, it is important that all of us who love nature and the outdoors should be mentoring our young relatives and friends. I know from experience with our three sons that such mentoring leads to a lifelong commitment to conservation and an abiding interest in the natural world.

in the woods

Postscript: People around the country have been rallying behind a no-child-left-inside campaign, according to Richard Louv, the ground-breaking author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In his book, he quotes James Sallis of the Active Living Research Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who says that “an indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental health problems.” It is also linked to problems with childhood obesity. Louv was one of three speakers at the Governor’s Outdoor Conference that was held in State College, Pennsylvania in March. Policy makers, business representatives, sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations, and representatives of the health and education sectors gathered to talk about ways to connect citizens of the commonwealth to nature. This led to public meetings in Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton in late spring where concerned citizens voiced their own ideas and recommendations.

The conference attendees want to address the following statistics: (1) According to the Kaiser Foundation, in 2005 the average United States child spent six hours a day watching television and playing video games on a computer. (2) Most state and national parks report a ten to 20% drop in visitors over the past few years. (3) The organization “Playing for Keeps” says that 80% of children under age two and more than 60% of ages two to five have no access to daily outdoor play. (4) Hunting license sales in Pennsylvania have declined by more than 11% between 1995 and 2005. Fishing license sales are also down from 1.1 million in 1991 to 833,000 in 2006.

For more information about the conference, visit

Web-only bonus: Here’s a video Dave shot on our barn bank earlier this month, when we had a couple of young visitors. (For background, see his post Chasing dragons.)

All photos in this post were taken (by Dave) on our mountain, though only the fourth and fifth ones actually depict Morgan. Mouse-over the photos to read the titles, and click on them to view at larger sizes.