Back to Nature (Published on - Nov. 29, 2007)
Taking time for the pileated woodpecker
A pileated woodpecker.
The fog of the crisp winter morning floated heavy along the shallows and into the bogs.

In the distance, a silhouetted form moved slowly ascending the west side of a large tree trunk. I raised my binoculars to get a better look. Through the mist I could see a pileated woodpecker.

It pounded deep into the bark, extracted an insect and moved over a couple of inches and repeated this action. Abruptly it bolted to the ground and snatched what seemed to be a large, lubber grasshopper.

I lowered my glasses to gather my bearings and saw him hanging upside down from another branch. Confused, for a brief moment I wondered how it could have moved so quickly then realized I must be viewing a pair of pileated woodpeckers.

Through the thick canopy, I attempted to locate where the pair might be nesting, but the nesting site was either very well hidden or the fog was too thick. I soon gave up, content just to sit and observe the gatherings and activities.

Although common in the Southeast, this woodpecker prefers to be secretive and remains shy. Most often, despite their large size, the pileated woodpecker is heard loud and clear way before they are ever seen by their raucous calls; wuk, wuk, kuk, kuk, kuk and loud banging against wood. Their natural habitat is dense, mature forest, but with the encroachment of human development and the logging of ancient forests the pileated woodpecker has had to adapt in order to survive.

The recognizable pileated woodpecker is 16 to 19 inches long, with a wide wing spread in flight, a bright flash of a flaming-red crest, a white stripe down the sides of the face, white under-wings, and white bases to the primaries. The female’s crest is slightly smaller. They’re most often observed in our tall oaks and fruit trees where there is an abundance of insects, especially carpenter ants.

As well, they eat acorns and fruit. Fortunately I had plenty of time to sit unnoticed; since this busy pair was preoccupied, working cooperatively while taking their time foraging and harvesting, just as many of us humans are doing at this time of year.

This is a season of honor and giving thanks. This is the time to take a moment to appreciate our good fortune and be grateful for our loved ones.

I’m reminded of my mother who often said “Life is a celebration.”

As well, at this time of the year, religion and tradition bring out opposing theories on which holidays should be celebrated or whether to banish all holidays so as not to offend any one group. When I raised my children this same issue came up in the schools concerning celebrations. One group felt it was sacrilegious to celebrate Halloween. Another group felt it was offensive to celebrate Christmas. Another group dug in their heels: “What in the world is Kwanza? Why should my children have to celebrate something they have never even heard of?”

The community’s final response and decision was to celebrate all traditions and holidays. Wrap lesson plans around the traditions of all peoples. Integrate science, math, reading, writing, history, language and the arts by utilizing the literature, history, inventions, technology, folktales and myths of all cultures. Their decision was based on the open minded theory that life is an opportunity of a myriad of little joys and celebrations.

Most holidays are in their very essence nature based: the coming of winter, planting time or the end of summer and harvest, the longest day, the longest night, equal daylight and nighttime, springtime, new years, mid-winter and so on. Civilizations have created ritual celebrations around these naturally occurring events. Why not make room in our lives for all life’s festivities?

Allow yourself to dance to the beat of many cultures. Bake a batch of pumpkin cookies and put fresh seeds out for the birds. Wear your skirts of calico and I will wrap in soft leather. Light eight candles in remembrance and I’ll light my sage. Walk with the saints while remembering natural healing and joy. Burn your incense, send up your prayers, while another makes tobacco prayer ties and hanging them in a memorial tree.

As a people we need spirituality in our lives. We need hope to survive and to practice tolerance. Beyond bricks and mortar, machines and tar, beyond window panes and closed doors, beyond medical mysteries and marvels, as human beings it is necessary to believe in the undaunted human spirit, the life force that moves through us as a species.

We can learn a lot by observing the natural world and being human ... back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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