July 11, 2011

Overlooked Beauty

By Program Intern Brittany Mielcarek

I find that it can be easy to forget about the natural beauty around us. My internship here at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center has been five weeks of reconnecting with nature and its amazing beauty.

Something as simple as a pinecone tells a great story, but only if we take the time to notice it. Education Program Director Amy Yeakel, took me and the other interns for a hike up Mt. Fayal as part of our professional development. We came across a pinecone and Amy explained something we might find on the forest floor. Red squirrels pull the exterior scales (bracts) off a pinecone to get to the underside for food. When the squirrel is finished, a bare pinecone is left surrounded by bracts. If you happen upon this in the forest, it is a sure sign of red squirrel activity.

Senior Naturalist Dave Erler and I cleared the white tailed deer exhibit of stinging nettle. Stinging nettle is a plant covered in fine hairs that contain irritating chemicals. They can grow up to 2-4 feet tall. When animals brush up against this plant, these hairs stick in the skin of whatever animal may be passing by. This creates an itchy feeling that is almost impossible to resist. When scratched, the hairs release the irritating chemicals into the skin and the itching becomes more intense and lasts much longer. Before Dave showed me what stinging nettle looked like, the deer exhibit looked like a blur of green and brown. Once I took the time to distinguish between one plant and another, the picture changed. It was no longer a mix of colors.

I passed a tree the other day that had grown in a wavy pattern. I have seen trees like this before, but I had never known the cause of this wavy pattern. I learned that there is an insect that eats the apical buds off the tops of trees. Apical buds produce hormones that are responsible for vertical growth in trees. In order for the tree to continue growing vertically, there must be a small amount of lateral growth first. The insects eat the apical buds and the tree continues to grow up and then to the side. The tree ends up looking like a wavy piece of curly hair growing into the sky.

This week I have been assisting with Wild Art, a Guided Discovery program. One of our first activities created field guides for Kirkwood Gardens. Page one was a general view of a group of plants. There was little detail but many colors blended together. The next page involved closing in on one plant or one flower and painting in the details. This was a reminder to me about the importance of fine details. Not only is the big picture important, but each individual aspect is equally as important.

The trees and plants around us have stories to share if we take the time and care to pay attention. If we take time to actually see and learn about the natural world around us, we can truly benefit from all it has to offer.

Remember that every part of nature has a purpose. A dead tree is just as important as a live tree. Each and every organism serves a purpose, although we may not understand it at first. I would like to encourage you to take time to reconnect with nature. Spend an afternoon outside with friends and family. Your backyard can be as much as a natural adventure as a hike to the top of a mountain. You just have to take the time to find it.

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