Katherine Myers Reflections


Twin Bridges

Walking across Twin Bridges in boots makes resonating clunking sounds that remind me of the town playground when I was a kid. I’m sure that these bridges have served as a playground for many children over the years who came to learn about the natural world. I can imagine hyper elementary school children with nets running back and forth over the bridges laughing and trying to catch aquatic insects. Thick hemlocks block the view of a nearby road, providing a buffer that, like childhood, offers some protection from the harsh realities of the world.

Unfortunately, this area has been far from immune to disturbance. A nearby sign provides a reminder that this forest has been logged in the past, probably to collect tannins for the tanning industry. At one point there was also a saw mill up the creek. Rusty sediment is a tacit reminder of the iron ore that was once mined and purified in Central Pennsylvania. Much of the naturally occurring ore was probably brought to the iron furnace just up the road. Today, invasive multi flora rose abounds around the bridges, especially prominent in the thick patches between the bridges that choke out other species.

Despite these historical and current incursions, life abounds here. Above the water pileated woodpeckers have made holes in dead trees that other cavity nesting birds can use. Under the water newts and salamanders swim and hide under rocks. Thank goodness nature is so resilient.

Sawmill Site

What makes the sound of flowing water so comforting? Is it the biological need we have for fresh water? I like to think that it is the sound blocking quality of the white noise that streams produce. The sound makes us feel that for a little while we can relax in our own safe little bubble, removed from the loud noises and bangs of the world.

There is something distinctly wonderful about the smell of a creek surrounded by hemlocks on a damp spring morning. I could have sat propped up by a tree trunk there all day if the demands of the world didn’t have their hooks in me so tightly. A group of rocks nearby made a natural fountain, sending water half a foot into the air. I suddenly knew the reason why so many people enjoy fishing in creeks such as this. It is not all about catching a fish; it is about having an excuse to just sit in such a great place for awhile.

I wonder if the creek could still be heard when the old sawmill was in operation. Had the workers had cool shade and friendly tree trunks to enjoy during breaks, or had the forest been clear cut right up to the creek? Was the water still drinkable at that point? Wood is needed for homes and furniture, but I wish we could find ways to get what we need without losing our special places.

Chestnut Research Orchard

The American Chestnut Foundation’s chestnut research orchard is situated in a cleared field surrounded by a fence to keep the deer out. Stumps and piles of charred wood show that this clearing was created by humans. The field is surrounded by forest that would reseed the area if given a chance. Some saplings of ash and red maple are present that will eventually need to be removed. Inside, chestnut saplings reside in plastic tubes held straight by plastic pipes. Some tubes were empty, so presumably those saplings died after the original planting. When I visited the tallest saplings were maybe 4–5 ft high. They seem to be doing well at present, but since the blight does not take effect until later in the life cycle there is no way to tell if the trees will survive long term. It is hard to tell if this is one of the pure American chestnut orchards or one of the hybrid orchards. The American Chestnut Foundation plants both kinds.

Pathetically, I knew nothing about the chestnut blight until my senior year in high school when I had an internship with the New Jersey Forest Service. The blight caused such a drastic change in forests all along the Eastern coast that I can’t believe I had never heard of it before. At the same time, if one took a poll of current high school student in most parts of the East coast, I doubt many would know what happened to the chestnuts. Most college students probably don’t even know. How many of our parents know or even care?

Maybe people think that one tree is as good as any other, and as long as the forests still remain we have not lost anything. I disagree. How many organisms that specialized on chestnut trees have been lost? Most people do not care what happens to fungi, tiny insects, and bacteria even though scientists are coming to learn how wide spread intimate relationships between organisms (symbioses) are in nature. We depend on symbiotic bacteria in legumes and cow stomachs to provide valuable food. At the same time, 90% of plants form associations with fungi in their roots that help them gather water and nutrients. We no longer have the ability to say that an organism’s existence does not matter if it is not cute and fuzzy.

I mourn the loss of the chestnuts as canopy trees, as well as the loss of all of the other species that depended on them. Maybe some day through the efforts of the American Chestnut Foundation I will be able to go out into the woods with my children or grandchildren and collect chestnuts like so many families did in ages past.

Hemlock Grove

This is one part of the Shavers Creek Stone Valley area that looks untouched by humans. I sat on a fallen log close to the edge of the bank and tried to soak it all in. A tree had fallen down the steep slope on the other side of the stream. Maybe its roots had been undermined by natural erosion. The edge of the bank near my feet was covered in bare fibrous roots that were probably exposed as water ran into the stream. The hemlocks provided ample shade while the movement of the stream provided beautiful music. When I got up to check on the hemlocks I did not see any wooly adalgid.

My brother came along to help me fine the spot using his GPS that he uses to go geo-caching. Watching him stumble through the woods and smack into branches reminds me of how I was a little over three years ago when I began my internship with the New Jersey Forest Service. I wore a nice sweater to my first day because our teacher said we should dress up a bit. I found out how much of a bad idea that was when the knit caught on what seemed like every passing thorn. It is amazing how much I have experienced since then. Much of that learning has taken place at Shavers Creek and Stone Valley. This will always be a special place for me.

Both in New Jersey and in Pennsylvania, my favorite place to be in the woods is a hemlock stand. Since the shade tolerant leaves go all the way down the tree, hemlock seems to be a much more personal tree than pines with their needles high up in the canopy. Even in the dead of winter, a hemlock stand is a riot of green, especially if rhododendron bushes with their evergreen leaves are there as well. It is a welcome change from a wood that can seem lifeless and frozen. Hemlock stands are a welcoming oasis for the winter-weary traveler.

Blue Bird Meadow

The problem with research is once you begin it takes over your point of view. I did not see any blue birds in the blue bird meadow, so I became absorbed by the plants growing in the field. My research is about the dispersal of two species of invasive thistles in old fields, Carduus nutans and C. acanthoides, so I spend a lot of time in abandoned fields in the summer. Even in early spring the dead stalks of several well known invasive species were evident: Japanese knotweed, spotted knapweed, and the remains of an invasive thistle.

Spotted knapweed and thistles spread rapidly on the wind to colonize new areas. They are opportunists commonly found in old fields and disturbed sites where sunlight is high. Each plant may produce thousands of wind dispersed seeds. Most seeds fall close to the parent plant, but a small percentage may be released during particularly favorable weather conditions and travel long distances to invade other high light intensity habitats.

In the thistles I study, seed release is affected by weather conditions so that seeds are more likely to be dispersed during favorable conditions: warm, dry days with turbulence caused by the heating of the ground during the day, which may send a seed up into high altitude winds. The flower receptacles hold the developing seeds tightly until the seeds mature and the receptacle dries. At this point tissues on the bracts covering the receptacle shrink, causing the receptacle to buckle away from the seeds. Also if the pappus filaments, the circle of hairs on the end of the seed that allow it to ride the wind, are wet they stick together and prevent seeds from leaving. Wet or cold Carduus acanthoides heads hardly disperse any seeds in wind tunnel trials. These characteristics favor the release of thousands of seeds at the time when they have the best chance of founding a new population of thistles.

While my invasive thistles seem to have nothing to do with bluebirds, there is a connection. Past human activities have lead to the decline of blue bird populations as well as the increase of populations of invasive species. The blue birds are now making a comeback through human efforts; hopefully we can also find ways to control the problems we have made for ourselves through the introduction of invasive species.

Parts of Lake Perez may be modified to accommodate humans, but it does not seem to be doing the water quality or wildlife any harm. This is a place that people can come to experience the joys that their grandparents once had in their backyards. In this world of computers, television, and i-pods it is nice to know that there is a place where mud, frogs, butterflies, and birds can inspire and capture the imagination.

Lake Perez

The dam that holds in the waters of Lake Perez is broken, which has caused water levels to plummet. This led to a unique opportunity to walk out onto a peninsula of ground that would usually be underwater. Weighing in at over a hundred pounds, I sank perhaps four to five inches deep with every step, but the much lighter water fowl and small mammals that left behind their tracks hardly sank in at all.

Doug Wentzel (one of the Shavers Creek bird gurus) worried that the lowered water level would disturb the spring migration of water fowl that stop at Lake Perez, but we have been very lucky. One rainy day Doug took our class down to the lake to observe the wide variety of migrating birds that had been brought down by the storm. As new birders, we did not know that the combination of bird species was unusual, making it a red letter day. A common tern, common loons, American coots, long tailed ducks, ruddy ducks, Bonaparte’s gulls, and a variety of swifts were all present. My short birding life list expanded significantly. Stay around Doug long enough, and he will turn you into a birder, too. That is one of the best things about Shavers Creek. Everyone who works there is passionate about what they do.

Raptor Center

As a kid who only saw a red tailed hawk flying along the highway once in awhile, the Raptor Center blows me away. Seeing these powerful and majestic birds up close is a treat every time I come. I thought I was in heaven one day when I helped two of my best friends clean out the enclosures, even though I was scrubbing mouse intestines off posts. I have never seen an owl in the wild, but at Shavers Creek I am on good terms with one of the three convalescent screech owls. I could hold one of them on my hand and study it for hours if no one came to see the bird of prey program.

It is shameful to think of what we humans have done to these glorious birds over the years through persecution, DDT and other pesticides, habitat loss, and accidental injuries. All of the birds at the Center can never be released back into the wild because of some grave injury. Both bald eagles were found shot (our national bird!); the golden eagle was accidentally electrocuted; one of the screech owls was hit by a car… How can we not care about the birds we are hurting?

The bravery of the birds at the Center is amazing. They will never fly free again. Instead they live in enclosures much smaller than the stretch of the sky of which they were accustomed. I do not know if I could live that way, but they do it every day.

Though they may not know it, their suffering is not in vain. Hopefully seeing and learning about these amazing animals will inspire people to try to protect raptors living in the wild. Maybe due to the tolerance and courage of the birds at the Center fewer birds of prey will be injured or killed by humans in years to come.

Lake Trail

Walking around some secluded parts of the lake it is possible to ignore the heavy recreation use of Stone Valley. A host of woody plants that enjoy wet feet surround these lake borders: black, alder, red osier dogwood, slippery elm, and cucumber tree. Deer scat was present right on the trail. I even saw what could have been fox scat. It was certainly a predator, because it had hair in it. A group of sparrows was moving around so fast in the bushes, hopping from one perch to another, that I could barely keep them straight. Maybe I frightened them.

At other parts of the lake, human influence is obvious. Mowed lawn borders the lake here as well as roads, a lodge, a boat house, cars, boats, picnic tables, cabins, a visitors’ center, power lines, and of course the dam. It is ironic how much people depend on fresh water for so many services, yet how polluted much of the world’s water has become. One would think that we would know better. However, despite the heavy use the water of Lake Perez is relatively pristine. Caddis fly larvae survive in the adjacent wet area, which are indicators of good water quality.

For a lot of today’s citizens, coming to a place like Stone Valley or Shavers Creek to observe nature has become a get away recreation experience rather than the way of life that living with nature was in the past. I suppose that much of the change comes from the need to live in a relatively populated area where there are abundant jobs and good school districts. Two hundred years ago a farmer could live just about anywhere. Unfortunately, I think that with the present need to actively seek natural areas people are becoming more and more disconnected from the natural world. Some people, like Richard Louv, writer of Last Child in the Woods, think that this separation actually hurts children’s development. Certainly if today’s children do not understand the beauty and complexity of nature they might have few personal reasons to save it in the future. Without the magical experience of watching woodcock mating behavior, who would care about this sentinel of the coming spring?

LTERPreter: Katherine Myers, April 21, 2007.