Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for the ‘NATURE’ Category


I am not a politician. I am not a scientist. I am not a botanist nor a biologist nor an ornithologist. I am not an expert in history, neither natural nor human. I am not an ecologist nor a professional conservationist.  I drive a hybrid, but I also travel by air. I try not to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or weed killers in my garden, but I also have no intention of pulling out poison ivy by hand. I compost and recycle, but I use my garbage disposal. In other words, I am a regular citizen, with all the contradictions that entails.

When I first moved to South Jersey in 1981, I had never heard of the Pine Barrens. I knew nothing about Elizabeth White and her cultivation of the first commercially viable blueberries. I had never heard tales of the Jersey Devil. I had never visited Atsion Lake or Batsto or driven on a sugar sand road or seen the Caranza Memorial or climbed the fire tower on top Apple Pie Hill. Wharton to me was the name of a graduate school of business in West Philadelphia.

I then read John McPhee’s The  Pine Barrens and so began my fascination with this incredible treasure in our backyards.

I am not naïve enough to think the Pine Barrens we know and enjoy are the same ones that existed when the Leni Lenape were the only human inhabitants of the area. Forests were clear cut to provide timber to fire the forges that produced cannon balls for Washington’s army and decorative fireplace surrounds for the industrialists who owned those forges. Rivers were dammed to create the lakes that provided the water power for mills. Cranberry bogs were dug and houses were built – small cabins for the workers in company towns and huge mansions for their bosses.

But in November, 1978, the US Congress through the National Parks and Recreation Act, created the Pinelands National Reserve.  Only three months later, in February, 1979, the Pinelands Commission was established, followed in June by Governor Brendan Byrne’s signing of the Pinelands Protection Act. By January, 1981, both Governor Byrne and the US Secretary of the Interior approved the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. In 1988, the United Nations formally recognized the uniqueness of the Pine Barrens by designating the area a Biosphere Reserve.

Because of the vision and the political will of Governor Byrne and others like him, we are able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pine Barrens. If not for those actions almost forty years ago, we would now be sitting in the midst of a sprawling urban enclave, complete with a supersonic airport, shopping malls, a city, and miles of concrete and asphalt.

We cannot undo the mistakes of the past centuries – the destruction of the original old-growth forests, the damming of the rivers, the creation of factories and farms – whether they were done through ignorance or greed or even the need to survive. But you, as the officially appointed stewards of the Pinelands National Reserve, can prevent the repeat of these errors. You have within your power the ability to prevent the degradation of the land and the dismantling of the intentions of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan by voting NO to the installment of a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands. Please vote your conscience, not expediency.


I’ve been lax about updating my blog entries because whenever I decide to share an insight or event, whether personal or political (aren’t they the same?) or book-related, I post it on Facebook. I’m aware that not everyone who reads my blog is a Facebook friend or follower, so I decided I’d collect the comments and pictures I had posed during an incredible three-week trip Gary and I took in August to Seattle, Vancouver, southwest Alaska (on a cruise through the Inner Passage with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay), Denali, and Fairbanks.

But I discovered a problem when I began to write my travelogue: a written description of a trip, even complete with pictures, is boring. Remember those old film strips teachers would show in class? Boring. Remember going to dinner at some elderly (to you) relatives’ house and later having to sit through an interminably long slide show of their vacation? Boring. Remember bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend and having your parents pull out all your baby pictures? Boring. Not to mention embarrassing.

I was on the trip, and I can assure you the reality was terrific. We were never bored. We did things we didn’t think we’d ever do, saw things we’d never seen, had experiences we’d never imagined, reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen for forty or more years. But when I read what I had written, I was bored. I was bored while writing it. Even the pictures were boring – after a while, all mountains volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.

Doling out the information, complete with my wryly humorous (to my mind anyway) observations, in short bits once a day (more or less) may have been entertaining. Putting it into a running narrative is … have I said this yet? … boring.

So instead of a travelogue, here are some life lessons I culled along the way. In no particular order. And without relevant pictures.

  1. It’s very hard to take decent pictures with an iPhone. But it’s even harder to take pictures without it, as I learned one day when I didn’t get a picture of a Bald Eagle posing close by. I had left my tote bag with my wallet and phone in the trunk of the car of a lovely Seattle couple who took me birding one day. I was wearing yoga pants (hey, they’re comfy – I’ve never even tried yoga) and a tee-shirt, without pockets. Fortunately, the couple had a very good camera and emailed me the picture.
  2. It’s harder to take pictures from a moving train. Particularly when it’s raining. And I have the blurry pictures to prove it.
  3. It’s hardest to take pictures of wildlife, especially when they’re far off and moving. And the train is also moving. Wildlife photographers must have infinite patience – and very high quality cameras. And very fast (or is it slow?) exposure to get pictures of Orcas and Humpbacked Whales when they are breaching.
  4. It’s fun to get out of one’s comfort zone, as I discovered on a solo trip to Mount Baker, in a rented car, without cell phone reception. Fortunately, it was a direct route from Bellingham, where I visited some friends. (Notice, I didn’t say it was a straight route.) But it’s also a good idea not to be too reckless, which is why the following day I took a bus tour to Mount Rainier.
  5. And it can be rewarding to try – and succeed – at something you didn’t think you could do. On the way to Mt. Baker, I took a side trip to Nooksack Falls. For the first time in years, I was able to go down (and back up) a fortunately short but extremely steep rock and tree root strewn trail to the waterfall. I got to the vantage point to discover I was too short to see over the chain link safety fence so I could take pix, but I managed to climb up some rocks to see over the fence. I was so proud of myself, I texted Gary, who was a presenter and participant of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies in Seattle, and said, “Look what I did, all by myself!”
  6. Sometimes, it’s nice to be taken care of. After we went through customs at Vancouver and boarded our cruise ship, we didn’t schlep our luggage again until we left Fairbanks to fly to Seattle and then home. The luggage was already in our cabin on the ship and in our rooms in Denali and Fairbanks.
  7. You can find a minyan anywhere. There’s an episode of “Northern Exposure” in which the Jewish doctor who has been assigned to the interior of Alaska is looking for a quorum to say Kaddish, the Mourners’ Prayer, for his uncle. He has a dream in which he rounds up everyone named Cohen (even the writers/directors the Coen brothers). We did the same thing, but in our case it was done through eavesdropping and then corralling anyone we heard speaking Hebrew so I could say Kaddish on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. We even found an American who, after the three of us kept staring at each other, turned out to be an acquaintance from our graduate school years in Philadelphia. A couple of days later, we all got together again and held Shabbat services (interrupted by a sighting of a pod of sea otters) and had dinner together.
  8. And you never know who lives in far-flung places. We had dinner in Skagway with a rabbinic colleague who lives in Israel but visits his kids in Skagway every summer. And we had dinner in Fairbanks with a classmate from my undergraduate days in Boston who has lived in Fairbanks for several years.
  9. Global warming is real. Just ask any Alaskan, at least the ones we met. If you’re not convinced by their apologizes that the waterfalls aren’t as spectacular as usual because of the lack of snow the past few winters, then read about how the glaciers are receding at an accelerated rate.
  10. You think you’ll remember where you were and what you saw. You won’t. It’s a good thing I filed all the pix as soon as I could into folders on my iPhone or the only reason I would have been able to tell the difference between Mount Baker and Mount Rainer is I saw the former, but the latter was hidden by clouds. (We did get a distant view of it from the Seattle Space Needle.) As I mentioned above, after a while, all mountains, volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.
  11. It doesn’t matter if everything blurs together; there’s always Professor Google to remind you of the difference between the taiga and the tundra.
  12. I can survive quite well without Wi-Fi, but only if I have cell phone reception and can check emails, texts, news notifications, and Facebook several times a day. Otherwise, I suffer withdrawal symptoms, as evidenced by my checking every few minutes to see if we had reception yet.
  13. Even if you can’t remember all the details, the pictures – even the blurry ones – still show the splendor of the planet.
  14. Finally, if you bump into me and don’t think you’ll be bored, I’ll be happy to show you all 399 of my pictures.


As my former classmates at Simmons College back in the late ‘60s may recall, this is the time of year when I would wander around the quad declaiming, in a loud voice, the immortal words of that well-known poet Ann Ona Muss:


Spring has sprung.

The grass has riz.

I wonder where da boidie is.

Some say da boid is on the wing,

But dat’s absoid.

Everyone knows da wing is on da boid.


And I’m not even from the Bronx.


Here in South Jersey, spring has definitely sprung, several weeks early. I was picking up supplies at a local wild bird store today, when the temperature was near 80, and found out that someone in my town had already seen a ruby-throated hummingbird – almost a month earlier than usual. I usually put out the sugar water feeders on April 15. I was thinking about doing it this year on April 1. Now I’m going to do it tomorrow, March 24.


The hummers probably won’t show up in my yard until later in the summer, after the trumpet vine blooms. What’s left of the trumpet vine, that is, after most of it was torn out when we had to replace our old fence, which was being held together by trumpet vines and bird droppings. But we did have two hummers most of last summer, and they tend to return to the same feeders every year, so I want to make sure I’m ready for them if they come back early.


I have to keep reminding myself we still have to get through another week of March and half of April before we can be fairly certain it won’t snow. And our official frost-free date isn’t until May 15, although I don’t recall a frost after mid-April for the past few years, a recollection confirmed by a Google search. It’s hard to think about the possibility of snow, though, when walking around outdoors in sandals in March.


There’s a downside to all this nice weather, though. Just talk to any owner of a ski resort or a snow removal company or a hardware store that stocks ice scrapers and sleds. I doubt they’re happy about this past winter.


And neither are the farmers. They are worried that fruit plants that are blooming too early – peaches and strawberries, for example – will suffer if there is a frost. And it is sad to see the magnificent blooms on a magnolia tree turn black overnight when the temperatures drop.


Farmers – and those of us susceptible to bug bites – are concerned, too, that insects whose numbers are controlled by their dying off over the winter have been enjoying the mild weather as much as we humans, meaning we may have a bumper crop not of plums but of mosquitoes and cabbage loopers and grubs and root worms and brown marmorated stinkbugs and ants and termites and ticks and  . . . well, you get the idea. And I’ll get the calamine lotion.


Is this winter a precursor of things to come? Is it evidence of climate change, or just a weather glitch? We won’t know for several more years. But in the meantime, I plan to enjoy every minute of it, even this weekend, when it’s going to rain and be in the 50s. But at least we don’t have to shovel rain.






In the past forty years, since I moved to the Philadelphia area, I only missed attending the Philadelphia Flower Show once. It was in 1978, and I had a good reason – Gary and I were living in Jerusalem for the year.

This year may be the second time.

It’s a major decision for me not to go. I even went once when a major blizzard was forecast. The snow had already begun when I caught the PATCO train from New Jersey to Philadelphia, was deep by the time I got home. The next day, the show was canceled for the remainder of the week. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had at the show – no crowds.

For the last several years, I have thought about not going. Every year, I go. Every year, I am disappointed.

It’s not that the show isn’t beautiful. It’s not that I’ve gotten tired of gardens (although my body has gotten tired of gardening). It’s not that I don’t come home inspired and broke from having bought too many plants I have nowhere to put.

It’s that I never look at one of the exhibits and think, “I could do that in my garden.” Every year, there are fewer and fewer native plants or replicable ideas. Instead, there are more and more exotics. Ireland, Paris, Italy, New Orleans, and, this year, Hawaii, have all been featured. None of those places have native plants that thrive in South Jersey, except in greenhouses or indoors with a lot of humidity and light. (Well, maybe Ireland is the exception.)

My philosophy of plant care, indoors or out, is best described as benign neglect. If it’s outdoors, I let Mom Nature take care of the watering (except the container plants); if it’s indoors, it gets watered weekly, whether or not it needs it. I believe that with enough time, a dead plant will come back to life, which is why my outside garden contains a lot of bare-branched bushes and my indoor plants includes pots of dirt. (Some of them actually do recover; the others eventually are replaced, with hardy outdoor native plants or with hardy indoor ones that thrive on being watered weekly. Or even weakly.)

I miss the former Flower Show venue in West Philadelphia. It was on a lower level, reached by a long, steep escalator. As you went down, the entrance to the Show would slowly appear. There was always a “wow” moment as the full panorama was revealed.

Now, you go up an escalator, down a long hallway, through a door, and . . . well, it’s impressive, but not “wow.”

Over the years, too, the vendors have stopped offering as many tools, seeds, plants, or cut flowers (there are still some, of course) in favor of items that only tangentially have to do with gardens – decks, outdoor furniture, water features – plus even more that have nothing to do with gardening – jewelry, mops, replacement windows, condiments. It doesn’t stop me from buying, but I liked it better when I struggled home on the train (or, at an earlier time when I lived in Philadelphia, the bus) under the weight of unwieldy spider plants, pussy willow cuttings, and bags of bulbs, rather than . . . I can’t remember what I’ve bought besides plants.

Another deciding factor was discovering the New Jersey Flower Show, in Edison, about 60 miles from Marlton. It took me under 90 minutes (including parking and walking from the remote spot) to get there on a Sunday with no traffic on the NJ Turnpike. The 12 miles to Philadelphia can take as long, especially as I usually miss the train and have to wait for the next one. Then I have to walk several blocks. Or, I could drive, get caught in the traffic heading to the show on the one-way narrow streets, then pay $20-$30 to park in an outdoor lot even further away than the train station.

The NJ show was crowded, but manageable; there was free parking; there were chairs to sit on when you got tired. There were not nearly as many exhibitors as in Philadelphia, but the ones there were “accessible.” There may not have been any “wow” factors, but I hadn’t expected any. I looked at the exhibits and thought, “Yeah, that could work.” Okay, not the waterfall or the tree house, but many of the plants and layouts. I even confirmed the identity of a bush in the front of the house (I never save the plant sticks with the names): a mahonia. (It’s hard to search on-line when you’ve no idea what you’re looking for.)

My biggest complaint is the vendors had even fewer plants for sale than in Philadelphia, and even more irrelevant items. But at the end of the show, many of the vendors were selling the plants from their exhibits.

I even had a nice chat with a master gardener from Rutgers, who confirmed what I had suspected: the only way to get rid of a groundhog is with a .22, although he didn’t recommend it as a method. Basically, he just shook his head and wished me luck.

So, will I go to the Philadelphia Flower Show again? Probably. But maybe not.


Ah, yes. February 2. Groundhog Day.


Oh, I can figure out why it’s in early February. Groundhogs or woodchucks or whistling pigs – there’s no cultural, geographic, or linguistic reason why different people call them by different names, at least none I could find – are “light” hibernators. If the winter weather warms up for a day or so, as happens during “normal” winters unlike this one, when the weather has been unusually warm all season, they’ll pop out of their burrows to have a snack. Judging by their summer eating habits, the snack will probably be one of my favorite plants rather than poison ivy or pokeweed or Jimsonweed or some other noxious, invasive weed. Before they return to their solitary burrows to go back to sleep, though, they’ll also engage in a bit of amatory reproductive activity. In that way, by the time the kits (or are they pups?) are born, it will be spring and food, aka my favorite plants, will be in abundance. Deer do the same thing, which is why they run amok trying to mate with cars during the early winter.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: If Punxsatawney Phil or another local celebrity groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy out, there will be an early spring.

Huh? Six weeks from February 2 is March 16, which is pretty early for the winter to be over. In fact, it’s a few days before the Spring Equinox, which is the astronomical spring but not the meteorological one. In this area, the frost-free date used to be May 15 – it’s now closer to May 1 – so anything before, let’s say, mid-April is already an early spring.

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Phil sees his shadow.


Why my fascination with groundhogs/woodchucks/whistling pigs? I have an on-going battle with them. Or, rather, with it. There’s only one at a time in my yard – they’re solitary creatures, except during mating season, as they’re not into parthenogenesis – but I can’t tell if it’s the same one all the time or several different ones. The only time I could tell one was a female was when Mommy came with her two babies, Chuckles and Chucklet, to show them the free salad bar.

Why am I at war with it? It digs holes. Deep holes. The exit holes from its burrow aren’t too noticeable – just a nice, neat round hole, exactly the right size for me to put my foot into. This time of year, the holes are filled with leaves, making them effectively camouflaged. I don’t fill them with stones to block Chuck from using them, because it will just dig another one. At least I know where the current ones are. I still step in them, but I know where they are. The entrance holes, on the other hand, are surrounded by piles of excavated dirt and easy to see. I’m thinking of using the hillocks as raised flower beds. But the plants will undoubtedly get eaten.

That’s my other problem with Chuck. It eats my plants. I no longer grow veggies. It’s an exercise in futility. Containers aren’t the answer, as Chuck climbs the steps onto the deck, pulls itself into the container, and sits there munching away. Coneflowers are beheaded within hours of going into the ground, although to be fair, it may be the chipmunks eating them.

One year, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, I asked someone at the Rodale exhibit how to get rid of woodchucks. “You mean non-lethally?” he asked. He went on to say that if I could find a way, I’d become a millionaire. Even that incentive wasn’t enough to help me come up with a technique.

So I live with Chuck. I watch it emerge in the spring, sleek and hungry, and gradually become plumper, as my plants dwindle in number. By the end of summer, Chuck can barely waddle across the yard. But it has no problem digging holes.