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Spanning the year: From winter gray to holly green

| Sunday, Dec. 29, 2002

It's winter.

The season officially began at 8:14 p.m. EST Dec. 21. That moment marked several annual circumstances. First and foremost it was the shortest day, lasting only 9 hours and 17 minutes. Actually it was one of two of the shortest days of the year. On Dec. 23, the days started to lengthen – two more minutes of daylight. A short day of course means a long night. Since I am not one that enjoys darkness, I didn't take the time to calculate that period.

With most plants dormant, fewer birds, creatures hiding or hibernating, and waterways frozen, I have to ransack my brain a little harder for subjects to write about. That means sitting in front of a blank white computer screen waiting for inspiration.

Well, this year I decided to look back over the year and see if there was anything profound to be added to what I've already written. I spread out all 23 issues of Focus magazine from 2002 and skimmed the articles all the way from January and the grays of the winter woods to December and the greens of mistletoe and holly.

As I reviewed the calico spread of words and pictures it came to me that I wasn't as interested in a particular topic as I was reminded of your reactions. For every article that I unfolded, I remembered a particular e-mail, letter, or personal comment that you provided over the past year. I realized that for me, the most exciting part of writing these articles is your reaction – the comments, questions, and corrections that you send or tell me personally.

So, this end-of-the-year-wrap-up is about you and your responses to “A Natural Life”.

In March, I highlighted some of the numerous and beautiful waterfalls in western Pennsylvania. Several readers sent me descriptions, directions, and pictures of other waterfalls throughout the region. Most of the letters included invitations and directions to the cascades that I hadn't mentioned, and most were places that I had never visited. Thank you, all of those are high on my list for this coming spring when the water is cold, clear and rushing – the best time to experience these prominent geologic features.

In May, I took you along the Great Allegheny Passage trail in Somerset County. That was just the first of several trips I made on this exceptional trail for bikes, horses, walkers, strollers, hikers and anyone else that wants to experience the wild beauty of the Casselman and Youghiogheny River valleys. Over the year I rode the full length of the Great Allegheny Passage from Meyersdale to McKeesport several times. That included a two-day, 100-plus-mile trip, which became an article in October sharing my experiences of a rapidly changing season.

There was one article about the Great Allegheny Passage that didn't get written. In midspring I rode from Meyersdale to Confluence – a distance of around 30 miles. The day was beautiful, the birding was great, and there were wildflower galore. The only problem was that I punctured a tire on a black locust twig. That put me near Markleton in Somerset County, along the Casselman, with a flat back tire and only halfway through the ride. I will sheepishly admit that I was not prepared for this situation. I didn't have a patch kit or extra tube. The rest of the ride was a grueling ordeal riding on the rim with the tire flapping around like a limp rubber band.

I learned two things. One, cell phones don't work in the depths of the Casselman River gorge, and two, never ride without a patch kit.

My favorite article for the year was in June. It introduced you to my youthful experiences as a “little kid” in a patch of woods where I grew up in West View in Allegheny County. The subject was learning about the beauties of the common garter snake. However, I used the opportunity to poke a little fun at the “big kids” who shared the woods and thought they knew everything. Well, after nearly 50 years I thought I could poke fun at the “big kids” and finally get away with it.

Little did I realize that “big kids” are forever.

I got e-mails from a couple of the same “big kids.” Their message was simple. I was still a “little kid,” and I should be careful at whom I poke fun! Actually it was great to hear from friends I hadn't encountered in nearly a half-century. We reminisced about summers in the little woods, garter snakes, and shacks built out of old boards and branches. They also reminded me about the valley on the other side of Pioneer Street which was known as the big woods. I'll share some of those stories with you sometime this coming year. However, I promise not to make any remarks about the “big kids” – especially now that I know they're still keeping an eye on me.

The most distant question award goes to a reader in Mt. Holly, N.C.! The July article featured jewelweed and its fascinating seedpods. These little green firecrackers explode on contact, thus the common name touch-me-not. The mechanism in the fruit catapults seeds several feet away from the parent plant and is a way for the plant to slowly, very slowly, move into new areas. Aside from the uniqueness of this seed dispersal, it's fun to trigger on a warm July afternoon. I've spent countless hours finding ripe pods and lightly tapping them to set off the botanical explosion.

A hiker from North Carolina discovered some spent jewelweed pods with the distinctive curled outer casings, but wasn't sure of the species from her field guide. Through the Internet she did a search that turned up the Focus magazine article and my e-mail address. After a couple electronic exchanges we were able to verify the species long distance.

I regularly get e-mails and letters about plants and animals that readers find here in western Pennsylvania and are not able to identify. Usually, after a couple of questions, we are able to pin down the species, and we both learn something new.

In August, I offered the opinion that zoologists were far ahead of botanists when it came to lyrical collective nouns. I suggested we all begin to use more poetic terms to describe gatherings of plants, including sprays of skunk cabbage in early spring and flutters of butterfly weed in summer. Several readers took up the challenge and suggested some wonderful additions including a float of water lilies, nodding of sunflowers, catch of trout lilies, and barrel of oaks. I especially liked the proposal of a bat of ash trees. This wasn't readily apparent at first and I thought that it might be a typo, but then it became clear.

North central Pennsylvania is famous for growing tall, straight, strong white ash trees. These are prized for lumber, but they are also used to make baseball bats. I'm not sure if it is still true, but at one time, all of the bats used in the major leagues were made from white ash grown in Pennsylvania.

Not all of your responses are questions or suggestions. Some time they are corrections. Typos I blame on the spell checker in my computer, but one glaring error got past me as well as my wife who proofreads all the articles. The gaffe of the year occurred when I introduced you to the phrase MAD Buck. This was presented as a way to remember all of the trees in Pennsylvania that have opposite leaves – Maple, Ash, Dogwood and Buckeye. There was no problem with the phrase, but I described MAD Buck as a pneumonic device.

A very kind reader caught it and gently suggested that pneumonic is “of, affecting, or pertaining to the lungs”; it has little to do with phrases or trees. The word I should have used was mnemonic – “a device, such as a formula or rhyme, used as an aid in remembering.” Imagine a brilliantly red face smiling from the picture in the upper left hand corner of the page – that was how I looked when the e-mail arrived.

To the lovely person that so gently pointed out my mistake, thank you. It most likely won't be my last and I'm glad to have people reading my work closely and pointing out my mistakes. It's the way we all learn, and I hope never to stop learning.

One last thing crossed my mind as I looked back over the articles and reviewed the photographs as well as the text. I asked myself which of the images I liked the best, and more importantly, which was the one that I would like to be using my camera to take the same shot right now. That wasn't a difficult choice. The picture that appears above is from the Great Allegheny Passage on the west side of Ohiopyle State Park, in the area where the Youghiogheny River begins to cut a deep water gap through Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County. It was an overcast fall day, but the muted colors and soft light in the gorge was particularly mysterious. I could have stayed right there for hours.

Looking back on that place I now think about the verdant beauty of the wooded landscape and realize that those slopes define much of western Pennsylvania. At the same time the gorge illustrates the abundance of water this region enjoys. Together, woodlands and water give us a richness of life that is always the underlying subject of my articles. Even more, the natural bounty of this land is an abundant source of pleasure, joy and inner peace to me – and, I hope through these words – to you, my readers.

Paul g. Wiegman is a writer, photographer and naturalist born and raised in western Pennsylvania. Write to him c/o Tribune-Review, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601; or e-mail him at pwiegman@ix.netcom.com .

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