What type of tree is most likely to get struck by lightning in this area? That was one of the questions on the "Tourist Test", which was designed by the Wilderness Awareness School to see how well you know the area where you live.
It's not a question you can answer by reading a book. It's not a question that can be answered at all unless you have been outside a lot and paid close attention to what is happening.
There is no right answer. What someone sees in Dunkirk may be different than what someone else sees in Warren. It's a question whose answer changes by region and terrain.
For me, the answer is Black Cherry. I don't know why, but the only trees I have ever seen that were struck by lightning were Black Cherry trees. I've found them on Audubon's trails and as far south as Marienville in Pennsylvania.
The "Tourist Test" goes on with 133 more questions of differing difficulty. Name 5 poisonous plants that look like edible ones. What's the difference in tree cover on a south facing slope compared to a north acing slope? What are five common birds in your area that you haven't named yet?
These questions may seem hard, but they were designed to show off how connected or unconnected we are to the world around us. The world we often spend the most time in is seen through car windows, parking lots, and television. Our direct, real experience may be small.
The landscape of our region often passes by as a blur. We see trees and snow. In spring, we see trees and plants. In summer, there are trees and some berries. It's nice to walk through and drive through, but details are irrelevant.
The world passes by like a landscape painting. It's pretty and attractive, but something to look at, not spend time in. We don't spend the time to walk through the landscape and notice all the different trees and flowers and bugs and mushrooms and birds and more and more and more than we can even imagine.
If a plant went extinct in this area, would you notice? How about if a frog disappeared forever? What if all the flying squirrels keeled over dead one night? Would you notice? Would anyone?
It's a good question, because there are fewer and fewer people each year who are out looking for things, especially the rare things. If something disappeared, it might be years before it was noticed. Some things may already be gone.
We are a long ways off from the people who settled here 150 years ago. We don't depend on the land and we rarely pay attention to it. People then needed the extra food nature provided, from both animals and plants. They noticed what was happening outside because if everything around them started to die, they could have been next.
We don't have to worry about that. If we can't find food, we go shopping and can buy food from around the world that is almost fresh. We don't have to wait for the dandelion greens in the early spring to have a salad. We don't need to dig up lily bulbs to eat in the fall. We don't have to store up hickory nuts for winter.
We are only a step in time away from people who did those things. Your grandmother or great grandmother may have gathered nuts for the winter or gone out to get the first spring greens for food.
Not us. Not now. And because we don't have to go outside, many of us don't. Forget about knowing the trees. Some people only see them passing by. We are tourists in our own backyard, noticing only the bright and obvious things and then moving on.
We could transplant our lives to a new area with hardly a blip. The same box stores and restaurants are everywhere and nature only provides the background.
It feels like our society has lost something, a basic connection to the place we live in. With that connection lost, the respect for the land and knowledge of how the land works is also being lost.
So today, start by noticing some of the little things in your world. Where are the hills and valleys in your drive to work or the store? What tree is most likely to have a hawk or woodpecker on it? Where is an opossum most likely to get hit by a car? Where are the squirrels going? How big is the moon today?
On the hike with my family, I kept stopping and mentioning the flowers that would bloom here in the spring. Not the flowers in that forest, but the flowers in that spot we were walking over. This is where the pinesap will bloom next summer. This is where the huge patch of dwarf ginseng will be. Here is where the ragged fringed orchid blooms.
I can visualize the land under the snow and know its potential. I am familiar with the trail we hike regularly, and yet there are always new things mixed in. Nature is a kaleidoscope of changing seasons and changing patterns, but some things stay the same. It just takes time to get to know a place, and I've been glad to get to know this area that I call home.
Jeff Tome is Senior Naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, which is located on Riverside Road just off Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. For more information, call 569-2345.