By Maria and Rob
Early spring is a wonderfully unique time of year to go for a walk in the woods. The landscape is still mostly draped in browns and grays, but here and then, little blushes of green glow from thickets and undergrowth while fat little buds tentatively wait to burst from the ends of tree branches. Last weekend, we went on such a walk at a nearby park, just to see the magic in progress, and we were not disappointed!
It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green. There were already plenty of birds flittering through the thickets. I can just imagine that they are all looking for the perfect place to build their nests–a little home hidden from the threat of predaators and surrounded by resources like food and water. Oh to think of baby birds!
Oh snap, wild garlic! Tastes…like onion. Members of the Allium family, which includes both wild and cultivated onions, garlics, leeks, scallions, and ramps. (Note, there are some non-edible/poisonous look-alikes out there. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t smell like an onion, it’s not an onion.)
We also saw deer tracks! Can’t escape those in Western Pa 😊
We saw plenty of lichen! Like Hagrid’s interestin’ creatures, lichens are an underappreciated weirdness of the wild world, in our humble opinion. Lichens are actually algae or bacteria and fungi living in a mutually beneficial relationship (a symbiotic relationship.) So a “single” lichen is almost like a little community.
Of course, the world may look drab, but under the surface, life is still stirring. Here we see the green of life just under the bark of a vine (don’t worry, this was an invasive vine – I wouldn’t purposely go around destroying a park). Did you know that many woody plants can perform photosynthesis in the first layer under the bark?
But the dragon…
As our title notes, though, the spring does indeed bring magic, but human activity often leaves behind problems in a habitat. Smaug the Dragon of Tolkien fame was known for his greed and destruction – we don’t want to resemble that, now do we?
Dragon 1: Invasive Plants
This entire hillside is covered in an invasive vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata). As the name implies, the vine grows very quickly—possibly as much as six inches in a single day. It can take over habitats by growing over existing trees and shrubs and blocking out the sunlight from them. Originally from Asia, mile-a-minute was introduced to the US sometime around 1930, and in our environment, it lacks the natural checks and balances that would keep it from over-growing like this.
This particular park actually hosted Allegheny GoatScape this past summer in an effort to start getting the invasive plants under control. Allegheny GoatScape is a non-profit that uses goats to help manage landscapes that are difficult for humans to access (e.g., steep hillsides or rocky terrain) or contain an overgrowth of plants that are concerning for humans to manage (e.g. poison ivy.) A crew of goats is brought in, along with their guard donkey, and they are fenced in a large area to start eating away at the problematic plants! In the time they were here, the goats certainly made a dent, but they will have to come back to continue working on the problem.
Dragon 2: Litter
We saw plenty of litter left behind, which was disappointing. Can we all just take responsibility for our trash?
Well, ok, so this one was kind of interesting—someone lost a Tupperware container, but when we flipped it over, it must have been a mini greenhouse under there!
Dragon 3: When Should the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Come Back?
The silent concern on that walk in the woods was the impact of climate change. Scientists first began publishing on the notable changes in nature’s sense of timing (phenology) back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Phenology is the study of the timing of bird migrations, flowering times, pollinator emergence–all of those little things we take for granted. When humans are mindful and respectful of the natural world and its processes, it can continue to function as God created it to. When we act as though our actions have no consequence, though, we can disrupt things.
But in the end…
Nature brings out a sense of peace like few other things can. Designed by the Greatest of Artists, there is so much beauty, and yet so much power and wonder in every glimpse of a forest, a mountain, an ocean wave. Spending time away from the built environment is refreshing to the soul and just all-around good for well-being!
On the flipside, though, in the book of Genesis we humans were charged with the stewardship of this home. It’s not ours; it’s a loan. Do we want to act like dragons, or be responsible stewards and ensure that future generations have a chance to see the beauty and magic of an early spring walk? We vote beauty and magic! Every time.
P.S. we actually really like dragons…no offense to all the dragons out there.