December …

I have mixed feelings about this month. All of the leaves are off of the trees, it is dark so wp-1480631152283.jpgearly in the evening and the landscape is a weird dull grey. It gets to me, I will admit. Just like the bareness of the trees, I feel like I become more vulnerable this time of year too, stripped of all the things I can hide behind.

I can’t hide behind the delicate spring flowers or the amazing bursts of a summer thunderstorm or even behind the beauty that autumn brings. Winter gives me a time to think … I have to be careful here – It could pull me out into the vast abyss of space and scariness where I am alone for too long with my thoughts. Why is it that the thoughts this time of year for me are typically negative or sad? 2016 has been a rough year but letting those thoughts over take my mind isn’t me …  I need to pull myself back. There is a quote from one of my favorite authors that always comes to mind – “Imagine that the universe is a great spinning engine. You want to stay near the core of the thing – right in the hub of the wheel – not out at the edges where all the wild whirling takes place, where you can get frayed and crazy. The hub of calmness – that’s your heart. That’s where God lives within you. So stop looking for answers in the world. Just keep coming back to that center and you’ll always find peace.”

wp-1480629702884.jpgI need to stay with what is near and dear to my heart and it will all be OK. Sounds very simplistic, but for me it works. Focus on my family, my friends, pets, a beautiful job, and of course this amazing place we get to call HOME. So that’s what I do today, I go out in search for IT. For something that will bring me back to my center – and there it is, an old friend, Burdock.

It is an amazing plant, and I am sure that I have photos of it in bloom, but here it is just like me, stripped down to its barest winter form- the seed. Without the seed there is no survival.

The amazing thing about this seed is how it moves around … it is the best hitchhiker I know! Take a look at the amazing “hooks” on the ends – a wonderful tool to attach yourself to a white tail deer, dog or unsuspecting human as they walk by.

This hook inspired an idea! “In 1948, Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer George de wp-1480629647941.jpgMestral went hiking in the woods with his dog. Upon arriving back at his home, he took note of the burrs that clung to his clothes and he wondered if such an idea could be useful in commercial application. He studied a burr under a microscope only to discover that they were covered in tiny hooks, which allowed them to grab onto clothes and fur that brushed in passing. After more than eight years of research and work, he created what is known now today as Velcro, a combination of the words “velvet” and “crochet.” Made up of two strips of fabric, one covered in thousands of tiny hooks and the other with thousands of tiny loops, the materials gripped together firmly while still allowing easy release.”

Winter is what you make of it and I need to embrace what comes with it. Soon enough there will be billions of sparkles with the first significant snowfall. Tracks of animals that are here will weave delicate paths across the yard. Winter birds will visit my feeder and the beauty they behold will be much more noticeable because of the bareness of the winter landscape. I will watch the eyes of my neice, nephews and children I teach come alive with the innocence and joy that the holiday season will bring. I need to remember that even though things are bare and exposed now, that this too shall pass – and that I come from some pretty amazing people, family and friends alike. Sometimes for me to understand where I am headed I have to remind myself of where I came from. Understanding and rembering this is an important part of continuing to be ME. 

The Mysterious Mushroom

It never fails that I find something that I have no idea what it is – I LOVE that!

I found this amazing red mushroom a few weeks ago. And when I say red – I mean like a red I have never seen before. The tint of other red mushrooms has become familiar to me so this one was one the forest floor screaming “Look at ME!”. Not only was the color magnificent, but the shine and shape was something else (It looked and was about the same size as an ear). I did some quick internet searches with no luck on a proper ID.

I had to find someone that would know .. and one particular person came to mind. Adam with Learn Your Land will definitely be able to share some information. If you are not following him on Facebook or subscribed to his newsletter (bottom of the page) you can do that just by clicking on the links. He provides a wonderful opportunity to learn!

Here is what he had to say about my new find. “Wow! What a gorgeous specimen. It is a Ganoderma species of some kind (aka Reishi). It all depends on which host tree was nearby. If there was an eastern hemlock, it’s probably Ganoderma tsugae. If there was a hardwood, it’s most likely Ganoderma curtisii. They’re variable in color when young (whites, yellows, reds), though as they mature they turn a deep red, lacquered color.” This mushroom was definitely not near an evergreen (our hemlocks are in pretty bad shape).  “It’s closely related to Ganoderma lucidum (the ling zhi mushroom), and many people might even call it that. However, the most current research suggests that G. lucidum doesn’t occur in North America… even though many species look just like it here. Mushrooms are a confusing bunch.”

Overwhelmed with information? Me too! I began to look up this mushroom with the information he gave me – a confusing bunch is right! I am glad to know that there are people out there (like him and the Western PA Mushroom Club) that are interested in mushrooms. Their willingness to help us all learn to appreciated!

Here are a few more links if you would like to learn more. Wikipedia, Mushroom Observer and Midwest Mycology.


Hunter’s Moon

Have you seen it? We have been fortunate to have some really nice clear evenings to see the Hunter’s Moon. It was so nice to walk outside in the dark after your eyes adjust to the low light. We walked up to one of the power line right of ways and there was not a cloud in the sky. Most of the photos that I have been taking for this project have been with my cell phone, but I did break out the bigger point and shoot for this one. I need a tripod for moments like this! The photos aren’t perfect and I am actually ok with that – for me it was about the experience and not about the photos.


I don’t know much about the stars and the moon cycles so I found a few short and helpful articles to help.

From the Farmer’s Almanac – “This full Moon is often referred to as the Full Hunter’s Moon, Blood Moon, or Sanguine Moon. Many moons ago, Native Americans named this bright moon for obvious reasons. The leaves are falling from trees, the deer are fattened, and it’s time to begin storing up meat for the long winter ahead. Because the fields were traditionally reaped in late September or early October, hunters could easily see fox and other animals that come out to glean from the fallen grains. Probably because of the threat of winter looming close, the Hunter’s Moon is generally accorded with special honor, historically serving as an important feast day in both Western Europe and among many Native American tribes.”

From NPR – “At its closest point this weekend, the full moon will be 222,365 miles from Earth — on average, it’s 238,855 miles away, according to National Geographic. It will also “appear 16 percent larger than average and nearly 30 percent larger than the year’s smallest full moon.”

This kicks off three straight months of supermoons — you can also catch them on Nov. 14 and Dec. 14.

The November moon is set to be a real show-stopper: According to NASA, it is “not only the closest full moon of 2016 but also the closest full moon to date in the 21st century.” And it won’t be this close to Earth again until 2034.”


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The Beauty of Small

​A little jewelweed in the evening sun. 

This is one of my favorite late summer/fall flowers. You can find it in 2 colors – yellow and orange. The juices from its stem are a natural combatant to poison ivy and the leaves turn a silvery color when submerged in water. (Droplets of water can collect on the leaves making them look like they are covered in tiny jewels.) It shoots its seeds with little built in catapults. Pretty amazing for something that doesn’t look like much. 

Life is full of beauty. Feel the wind, smell the flowers and admire the insects. Never underestimate the power and beauty of something small. 

Is that a Wheel?

It has been an amazing few nights here with the weather so last night I decided to take a walk and make a phone call to a friend to catch up. While walking I spot something out of the corner of my eye. It was lingering near some goldenrod and another white aster-like plant. It was big in terms of bug standards and as I got closer I see it, the very distinctive wheel on its back. I have found The Wheel Bug, or Assasin Bug, it is one of my favorites!

The Wheel Bug is about 1.5-2 inches long with a very distinctive wheel on its back. It has a long hinged mouth part that allows it to pierce and paralyze its prey. The Wheel Bug then sucks out all of the soft tissue of its prey for its meal. They are a good insect to have in your yard – they eat a lot of the bugs that can damage your flowers, vegetables, etc. Don’t get too close or try and pick up these guys with your hands – that piercing mouth part can hurt you too (they say it is worse than a bee sting).

I say this all the time about things in nature (and more and more often I am saying it about bugs) – they are fascinating and terrifying all at the same time.

The photo on the left is one from earlier in the year and is a nymph. The photo on the right is the one I found tonight!

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Not a Fungus, is it a Flower?

Super excited to have found these little ones on one of my walks up the driveway this past week! This is a plant called Indian Pipe. I remember my first time seeing it – how can this be? It looks prehistoric or like it belongs in the deep depths of the ocean. It has no chlorophyll to use for photosynthesis and to make its own food (which is why it is white) but it is actually a flower with a stem, bract-like scales in place of leaves, and a single flower at the end of the stem.

It gets its nutrients and food to grow from the decaying matter under the forest floor (but it’s not a fungus!). I think of it like this, Indian Pipe is a hitch hiker, it gets its food by absorbing some of the nutrients provided by tree roots and surrounding decaying matter. It has a mutually beneficial relationship with a fungus in the soil where it grows. In scientific terms (and seems to be the most agreed upon label) a myco-heterotroph epiparasite.

Some sources say that this is a rare plant to find but fortunately for us here in Western PA we get to see it quite often and I am so glad to have found it at home!

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A Birthday Remembered

I have been putting this off. Because if I write it, if I put it down on paper, then it is real. Soimg_20160620_132505.jpg
real that my heart will break again and all of the memories will fill my head not allowing me to separate one from another. I will never get to hear her say “Well hello there” in that amazing distinctive English accent. I will never get to hear stories of her youth and younger days. Even now as I write, the tears come and don’t stop. On June 24 she decided that her work here was done. She is gone.

img_20160630_195253187.jpgThere are certain people in your life that there is an immediate connection. For me, I feel like it was my grandma. My Nana. I could walk into her house and regardless of what was bothering me or weighing on my mind she would tell me stories. Stories of her youth, the local town, current day politics or the drama that always resides within a large family. Her strength will always be something that I will strive for. I will miss her. I do miss her. And now the anger has arrived. I hate the fact that her house needs to be emptied and that she will never be there. Ever again. That I won’t be able to show her my photos that she loved so much. That I can’t get her side of the story to all of the negatives that I still need to convert to photos. I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t get more done.

I am blessed that we shared an interest in our family history. I have amazing wonderful things in her handwriting that she wrote to me about her life. What it was like to be a kid (one of 8) in the hard times of war in England. Stories of hiding under school desks when the Air Raid sirens would go off and times of no heat or food. Descriptions of the English countryside and following the train to grab coal that falls off the car. Of being scared but always feeling safe “as long as Mum and Dad were there.” (Her parents were always an amazing source of strength. There were photos of her parents, my great grandparents, that hung in her living room, always in her sight. They are now in my possession and along with her journal and my grandfathers negatives are some of the most cherished things that I have the honor of caring for.)

In 1947 it was decided that the family needed a new beginning, a new start in America. Some of her sisters had already made the journey. She saved up her money and in April of 1948, at the age of 18, she set sail on a 4000 mile voyage that she made alone – to a new land, a new culture and to a new family. I cannot even image. She writes about being sea sick for almost the whole journey. By the time she was feeling better the voyage was almost over. She tells stories of getting to sit with the captain at the Captains Table for dinner one night. She met her sisters in New York. (A few years ago I was able to go to Ellis Island and call her as I was standing looking out on the bay. I cried and cried trying to relive in my own head, with no possible comprehension, how she did it.) Later in 1948 she married one of her first loves, my Grandfather, and had 4 beautiful daughters. The young family lived and grew in Maine and New Jersey and were very involved with the Boy Scouts. During this time she worked hard to save up money to help her parents and other brothers and sisters make the journey to America.

And for me, that is where it all began. Growing up I could sense her strength and the role that she played in this family. I will never forget a Christmas Day that the house was full of people and holiday chaos. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old and while walking the hallway I spilled a drink. I was embarrassed and scolded for not being more careful. I hid on the staircase behind all of the coats that were resting on the banister. She sat up and told me to come sit next to her. She pulled me in close and looked up, gave the hairy eyeball to my scolder and said “It is a spill, I don’t care. Accidents happen. Sit here with me and noone will talk to you like that”. This past week I was in her house with my niece and nephew and had an instant flashback as they climbed those stairs. The feeling of sadness and embarrassment of that childhood moment overwhelmed me. I told them the story and how grateful I was that Grandma stood up for me. She, unlike no other, could speak in such a way to certain people that demanded respect and tolerance. Those are some pretty amazing shoes to fill.

Once I started to write, as infrequent as it may be, I knew that the words would always end up crossing her path, usually with the help of my mom. One of the best comments that I got from her about this was “she writes like her grandfather”. I am so proud to be her granddaughter. I am so blessed to have shared this life with her.

On the day of her passing we found an amazing gift – a handwritten note from her for this very day. A day that we are all so sad that this amazing spirit has left us.

“I want you all to know how much joy you have all given me and all the love I have felt from all of you in all your different ways. Shed no tears for me but smile at all the times good and bad that we have shared. I shall be with you always, all my love, forever.”


For the Nature Observer in us All 

I will never forget the moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I was sitting in an senior year high school Ecology class and it hit me, just like that, like a brick wall, that this is the kind of thing that I could do forever. Up until that point I had wanted to be a teacher and little did I know that I would eventually be led back to that via a path of loop-de-loops and U turns.

During my junior year of college I was walking through a hallway of one of the buildings and saw it. The ad for an internship working at Moraine State Park (through a non profit organization) helping with their Osprey Reintroduction Project. This was another one of those turning points that you can look back on and realize that my life will never be the same. I was fortunate and received the internship for 2 summers, It led to experiences that truly did change my life.

With the internship I was engrossed with other aspects of the Environmental field, and specifically Environmental Education. Different people began to routinely cross my path and I took note. Some of these people were brief blips in my life and others, even to this day, are mentors and most importantly good friends.

One of the educators/naturalists that was always there in the background of my early career was Chuck Tague. He was one of those names (just like Esther Allen) that when you saw a program they were offering you did all you could do to be a part of it. We briefly met a few times and I was in awe. He was excited, participants were excited, he took amazing photographs, wrote a newsletter all about nature in Western PA and I am pretty sure at one point he had an owl. To a young intern just finishing up college I realized – I wanted to be just like him.

It has been heavy on my heart to hear of his passing this past week. I was thinking about the impact that he has had on so many of us in Western PA. A few years ago at a PAEE conference there was a silent auction. Someone had donated years and years of his publication, Nature Observer News for the auction. I HAD TO HAVE THEM. I am a little embarrassed to say that I even told a much younger girl (don’t worry I knew her) after she put her ticket in that I would tackle her if she won. I was the proud winner! And now I am honored to have them in my possession. I spent some time reviewing the past June issues and will leave you with this:

 (issue dated June 10, 2000)

The Summer Solstice occurs on June 20 at 9:48pm eastern daylight time. With the first days of summer begins a magnificent succession of colorful displays that will last through the frosts of late October.

During the next few weeks the sun will shine longer over Western Pennsylvaniathan on any other days of the year. But soon the periods of daylight will begin to decrease. On each day there will be only a minute or two difference, and for awhile, it will go unnoticed by people. However, there will be a profound effect on the plants and animals.

As the days continue to get shorter, the objectives of the plants and animals will change, from a strategy reductions and rapid growth to one of preparation for the hardships of winter. The trigger for all these changes is the change in the amount of daylight, or the photoperiods.

As the days get shorter the woodchucks get fatter, and each the chorus of bird song will have fewer and fewer voices. The work of the trees and shrubs will change from attracting pollinators to dispersing its seeds. Lavish display of flowers will be replaced by berries to feed small mammals, then energy rich fruits for migrating birds, nuts to be buried by squirrels and finally winged seeds to be carried by the wind.

The timing of the flowers is also strictly controlled by the photoperiods. Each species will only bloom when the sun is shining for the proper number of hours and minutes each day.

Now is time to take morning walks in the field and meadows, while the long days provide the maximum energy, the diversity of flowers I open place will reach its peak. The diversity of species in bloom will be reflected in the variety of colors that are sprinkled and splashed around the fields.

As you walk through the fields, patches of white – daisies, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace – are scattered everywhere. Pastel blue chicory flowers stand tall along the edges, while bright yellow flowers are at a variety of heights; low clumps of birds foot trefoil, spindly stems of hawkweed, St. John’s wort, evening primrose and tall bushy sweet clover. There are deep orange circles of orange hawkweed sticking through the low grasses and the bright orange of butterfly weed emerges from spots of bare soil. Bits of magenta from the heads of red clover dot the field. Purple crowned spikes of thistle pop up sporadically, as do fragrant clumps of milkweed.

Variety of flowers in early summer attract a diverse group of pollinators. In midday the fields have an electric quality fo the constant buzzing of insects. Butterflies in an assortment of colors that rival the flowers, flit from one nectar source to the next.

The multi colored mosaic of the summer fields is just one stage in the changing color scheme as the seasons.  Soon the many small splashes of bright colors will be replaced by the uniform clumps of golden sunflowers, highlighted with the purples of Joe Pye weed and ironweed. This will give way to expansive stretches of goldenrods, and in early fall the goldenrods will be followed by the lavender and white of the asters. Each stage brings us closer to one of the most spectacular displays of color in nature, the changing of the leaves.

Celebrate the solstice. Soon it will be autumn.

For the Love of the Land

Sometimes things don’t go as they should. Even when you prep and plan and set up meetings and have conversations. I have learned a little bit about myself this past week when things didn’t go as expected or as planned with some of our land.

Late wintertime we received a certified letter from the power company and their forester stating that maintenance work was to be done under the power lines. I called the company, discussed our requests and even met with a forester to confirm. This was months ago when the weather was still cold.

This past Friday I received some shocking photos from The Bubbas of our land and what they had done to it. I was mortified. I was shocked. More than anything I was heartbroken. Look at what they did …


My heart ached for all of the little souls that were using the five foot tall brush for cover and nesting sites. They had no chance of getting out alive. I spent over an hour on the phone, my frustrations certainly showing and getting the better of me. Tears were shed. Everything that I asked, requested and prepped for was not done. We discussed that I completely understand that they have a job to do but we do need to compromise a bit. They own the right of way, they do not own what lives and grows on it.

img_20160604_133333600.jpgFirst and foremost we need to know when you will be here. No notice. Next and most importantly you will not clear-cut in the middle of baby wildlife season. During our meeting in my driveway that cold early spring day you looked me in the eye and said you wouldn’t. You said you would trim the larger saplings and start a wildlife fence along the edge of our trees. You said you wouldn’t clear cut … and yet you did. I felt blindsided and helpless. I teach about nature, I claim I am an advocate of this land, most importantly I promised her I would take care of this property. I made a lot of promises to her – that I would always be her friend, that I would love her son and that I would protect what she worked so hard for. It has never been a second thought to me that she knowingly did things before she left this world so that we would be able to live here. It is my job (and honor) to protect it.

I spent a good part of Saturday surveying the damage. I walked the path twice. I found their tractor. I also found some yellow lilies and some blooming blue-eyed grass. Most importantly I found dragonflies. Ever since she left us I have been fascinated and in awe of the amount of dragonflies we have on the property. The first year I cleared out the rock garden there must have been a hundred that I disturbed. It was an amazing sight. Ever since then when I see them on our property they remind me of her. The dragonflies followed me up and back the cleared path and landed just briefly enough for me to snap a picture or two. I apologized to her.

The weekend passed and because it takes 2 business days for the complaint to be processed I have had the opportunity to calm down drastically. I have changed my stance to that of rage and disgust with tears to confident and assertive and friendly enough that you want to listen and acknowledge my concerns. I have talked to about 5 different people who were a part of this mess and they all had no idea of the previous conversations and claimed to be sorry for the miscommunication. They are looking into how that could have happened and I am awaiting that phone call. They have agreed to clean up their mess where they let things lay (including the helicopter mess from last fall). Tree work is scheduled and we are to be notified 24 hours prior. I tend to always see the good in people so lets hope that happens.

I can’t change what happened but I can learn more about the process and talk to numerous people who can at some point help and honor our requests. I feel like this has allowed me to still be angry but in more of a controlled environment. I am hoping that I have come across as an educated woman and as an educator.



All About the Polkadots!

One of my most favorite things to do is to take my early morning coffee outside onto the patio and let the early morning sun warm my skin. I can sit and watch the birds as they react to the early reactivation of the bugs that have spent their night in the trees. Nesting is in full swing, my hummingbirds are back and the little phoebes have hatched.

This past Sunday was no different. It was a little bit chilly so I put on my fluffy polka dotted robe and headed outside with my coffee. I became intrigued with the little flittery birds that were zipping in and out of the tree tops when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Something … something TINY had landed on my shoulder.

What is THAT? I have never seen this amazing little butterfly … no wait a minute – it’s a MOTH! It landed on one of the black polka dots on my robe and was adorable and less than an inch long. It kept putting out its little tongue (proboscis) on the dots looking for food. It was on my shoulder which made it difficult for photos but I was able to move it (via the belt) to a better photo position. What caught my eye was not the polka dots of its own but the little orange spots on its front legs. At first I thought they were pollen pockets like we see on some of our bees but on closer investigation they were hairs! Another blogger called them “leg warmers” and it describes the spots so well that I am stealing it. Turns out the little tiny hairs are a distinguishing feature of the Eight Spotted Forester Moth! Who would have thought that my polka dotted robe would lead the little one directly to me!

For more information on this little one take a look here.