Outdoors with Tom Venesky: A learning process with no end

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
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When I was growing up, I spent most of time exploring the woods and flipping rocks for crayfish in the stream behind my house.

Aside from oak and maple trees in the woods, and wild brook trout and creek chubs in the stream, I really didn’t know much about the flora and fauna that surrounded me. Admittedly, I was oblivious to the wide variety of trees, plants and aquatic life that inhabited the woodlot that shaped my childhood.

It wasn’t until I read Ned Smith’s book, “Gone for the Day,” that I became interested in learning more about the place I explored on a daily basis.

Yes, I was very aware of the trees and plants that surrounded me in the woods and the bugs and minnows I found in the stream — but what species were they?

Back then, even though Smith was an accomplished writer and artist and I was just a kid, we both shared a passion for nature. Just as Smith enjoyed a simple walk in the woods, so did I. But there was a difference.

When Smith went for his walks, he could identify every tree, plant, bird and everything else he encountered. Those descriptions made “Gone for the Day” such a fascinating read, and I soon followed Smith’s lead by learning everything I could about the natural world.

And I quickly found out that once I could identify particular species of trees, plants and wildlife, the woodlot I loved to explore became a more fascinating place, on a grander scale.

Soon, I could tell the difference between red pine (two needles) and white pine (five needles).

I learned that the towering tree where I often stood waiting for deer during archery season was a tulip poplar.

And the ridge where I always encountered a bevy of gray squirrels and an occasional turkey flock was dominated by not just oak trees, but chestnut and white varieties.

And for good measure, I identified a stand of pin oaks at the base of the ridge where the soil stayed damp from a nearby stream.

During my walks, I found serviceberry growing at the edge of an old logging road, highbush blueberry in a grassy swamp and sweet fern where the forest understory was open.

But I didn’t just rely on field guides to discover the inhabitants of the woodlots. Often, I turned to Smith’s book, studying his sketches and analyzing his descriptions. Sometimes, I would flip through “Gone for the Day,” find an interesting plant or animal that Smith had drawn, read what he wrote about it, and then set off to see if I could find it in the woodlot.

Some of the things I found during those challenges included a pine warbler, an ovenbird and a Louisiana waterthrush that bobbed its tail every time it called — just as Smith described.

With the ability to identify some of the plant and animal species I found in the woods, my walks became more interesting.

More purposeful.

And I didn’t just apply my new-found knowledge to summertime hikes.

During the fall and winter as I hunted for grouse, turkeys and deer, I spent as much time identifying the things around me as I did pursuing my quarry. As the seasons changed, so to did the species I encountered.

During the winter months, I identified nuthatches, black-capped chickadees and pine siskins in a stand of hemlocks, common redpolls in the forest, an occasional cedar waxwing.

And when there was snow on the ground, I studied Smith’s sketches to differentiate between the tracks of a red and gray fox when I encountered them throughout the winter.

I always appreciated the forest and nature while growing up, but thanks to Smith’s book I now had an idea of exactly what I was seeing. Now that I actually could identify what I was finding and had an understanding of how nature worked, the woodlot became a more fascinating place.

It’s a learning process that has never stopped. With 480 birds and mammals and approximately 200 tree species in Pennsylvania, it seems I discover something new every time I venture out.

And needless to say, that copy of Smith’s legendary book still serves as a valuable guide, even if it is a bit worn.

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By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky