85k acres of live shows

Imagine a movie in which you could walk around among the characters and activities. You can reach out and touch them, talk with them, and see them interact with each other.

Wandering in the forest is like that, where you’re an actor in a perpetually changing story, where trees are the stars of the show, providing the environment for the panoply of other characters.

Last weekend, we visited one of my favorite wandering places, stopping first at a vernal pool in which, last year, I watched as a thousand, more or less, tadpoles flitted about a tiny pond, eating, near as we could tell, algae on the submerged leaves and twigs.

My niece poked her finger in the water and remarked how scared the critters seemed not to be. Many of them would almost let her pet them. “How many frog mommies do you think laid those eggs?”

I wasn’t certain, but I suspected one or two.

A vernal pool, for the uninitiated, is a pool of water, usually in the forest, that exists only in the spring, and only as long as water from snowmelt and spring rains keep it wet. In the case of the tiny (about three-feet wide) “lake” we visited Sunday, a small stream seeps from the uphill bed of leaves, fills the depression that is the lake bed, and provides a rich environment for the, hopefully, future frogs.

Last year, I discovered that pool near the first of April. It was then, I measured, about six feet in diameter, and near full of the tiny future frogs as well as a nice population of mosquito larvae I surmised was intended to be tadpole food on the hoof. Or under the water.

“How many mommy frogs …?”

I spent a bit more than a month watching the pond and building my collection of underwater images of the submarine life. The last photos I took were dated May 20. I would be seeing tiny sprouting legs within a week or two, I thought. A couple of days later, we hit a hot spell, the tiny water trickle dried up and so, apparently, did the crop of future frogs.

Maybe I will be luckier this year. So far, according to my generally anecdotal meteorological record, my area of Pennsylvania has been wetter than last year. Of course, winter was warmer than the past several, and we had virtually no snow. So while conditions seem right – now – for keeping the pool more watery, there may well be less runoff available.

The current pool is less than half the diameter it was last year at this time, and the population of future frogs is considerably more sparse.

Watch this space for more reporting on the relative densities of tadpoles and water, at least at that one pond in southern Michaux State Forest.

Leaving the pool, we headed farther into the trees, noticing broken trunks and one fairly huge pile of rocks that is an exposed portion of a ridge that is our portion of the Appalachian Mountains. Alternating winters and summers have been exposing and chiseling and eroding for the approximately 12,000 years since the last Ice Age retreated into the Artic and allowed this part of Pennsylvania to thaw.

Waterlogged topsoil, turned to mudslides in those long-ago spring thaws, had carried the pieces of chiseled ridge rocks in long rivers down the steepest sides of the mountains. Michaux State Forest is a larger than 85,000-acre stage with different shows playing every few hundred yards. Except for the tax-funded prepaid ticket we all bear, admission is free.

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