Katie Fallon Reflections
Chemistry: Twin Bridges
Bird-loud: goldfinches, blue jays. Red-shouldered hawk circling overhead, crying. The hey there song of a black-capped chickadee. Downy woodpecker. Flicker. I wind along the light-dappled trail from the parking area, slowly, listening, enjoying the loneliness of the afternoon. I watch my feet step along the path. I smell the sun in the newly fallen leaves.
Walking the trail to Twin Bridges, my senses are filled with the forest’s details but my thoughts churn — nagging thoughts, the familiar anxieties, the questions that keep me from slowing down. My daughters, three-years old and one-year old, are somewhere with their grandparents, running, shouting, falling, eating, wailing, wanting to nap, spilling, tossing: the chaos that has become routine. I’m rarely alone; sometimes I’m not sure where my daughters end and I begin, and while I crave and cherish time I have to myself, I find it difficult to not think about my children. Perhaps this is how reflection works: while living a moment, it’s difficult to understand that moment. Understanding requires distance.
I learn from an interpretive sign that when an Eastern hemlock tree falls, if the conditions are right it can become a “nurse log.” The nurse log provides nourishment for new sprouts, which reach up from the fallen trunk towards the sun. The nurse log doesn’t really have a life of its own anymore; where once it stood tall, confident, important, now the tree lies quietly on the forest floor, on a blanket of its own fallen needles, while its riotous children suck all of its nutrients and grow stronger, taller, and more brazen, dancing on the back of their decaying mother.
I don’t mean to be sexist — I’m sure one could personify a nurse log as male — but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last three years nursing my human children. I can relate to those Eastern hemlock nurse logs, reduced now to humps of soil in the forest around the Twin Bridges. Most days, I feel like a nurse log myself, both figuratively and literally. I nursed both my children; I am still nursing my younger daughter.
Before my first daughter was born, we attended a birth class. I don’t remember many of the details, but some of the reading material the hospital distributed suggested that new mothers keep a breastfeeding diary — what time the baby eats, for how long, and how often — in other words, a nursing log.
I didn’t keep a nursing log. I thought about it, and I bought a blank journal for that purpose, but instead, I began writing letters to my new daughter on the crisp pages. I recorded some practical information (“today you tried to roll over,” “last night you woke up seven times”) but most of the entries conveyed my thoughts about being mom and about how loved my baby girl was, by me, her dad, her grandparents, and especially our old dog. I wrote about what toys were piled in her crib, books we read to her, what birds were outside at our feeders while I sat on the rocking chair as she nursed. I wrote about how I grew her inside my body, and about how now my body was producing the only food she’d need for months. It’s amazing, really — how a body pulls nutrients together, concentrates them, then passes them to a child.
The interpretive sign also told of a family who lived near the Twin Bridges LTERP site in 1870 — E. W. and Barbara Erb and eight children. Eight. I have two children, and caring for them requires nearly every ounce of my physical and mental energy. They run me ragged. I imagined the mother of eight lying on the ground, with all of her children standing on her body, rooted to her, shouting and reaching towards the sky, drinking the rain, shaking snow from their shoulders, while their moss-covered mother sunk further and further into the dark soil.
Of course, it’s unlikely her children were octuplets, and I assume her older children were approaching their teenage years while the younger siblings were still in diapers. Perhaps the older ones would’ve helped raise the younger ones, while the middle children fended more or less for themselves. But even with help, the mother is the one who nurses.
I’m walking on the wooden bridge before I notice someone sitting on its edge, her feet dangling above the water. Surprised, I jump a little and laugh. She looks over her shoulder and smiles. I see a camera cradled on her lap, its long lens pointed towards an active group of goldfinches. The bright birds flit from the branches of a small tree to the swampy water below the bridge, fussing to each other, consumed by whatever it is they’re doing. Foraging, bathing. Vying for territory. I think about the moments the woman on the bridge might capture with her camera. A story of lives, of survival. Perhaps these goldfinches will live on in her photos, even after their bird-lives end and their bodies return to their elemental parts — carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus — nourishment for what springs up next.
I am reminded of nature writer Loren Eiseley’s haunting and beautiful essay “The Judgment of the Birds.” In one section, while hiking in the Badlands, he contemplates extinct animals, whose “eyes had looked out at a world real as ours… Now they were still here, or, put it as you will, the chemicals that made them were here about me in the ground.” When a group of migrating warblers flies past him during these thoughts, he observes, “There went phosphorus, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings.” Although it can be difficult to look at something so bright and filled with song, so alive, and imagine it as a bundle of chemicals and elements, it’s what goldfinches are and will remain in the future. It’s what we are, our bodies, our bones and flesh. We will be consumed and reconfigured and reconfigured again and on until the end of the universe, if there can be an end to the universe.
I continue my walk along the creek, beneath the hemlocks, and find a cool spot to sit, with the world decaying around me. I hear a faint scratching and see a chipmunk, tawny with rusty brown stripes, searching for something around the exposed roots of a hemlock. She disappears and reappears, and she knows I’m there, but perhaps, since I don’t seem threatening, she continues with the business of the day. I don’t know much about chipmunk biology, but I imagine she’s finding food, perhaps to add to a hidden cache for the winter. This little ground squirrel is made of hemlock woods, made of the life that was here before. The elements reordered, perhaps, but these logs nursed her, too, just as she nursed young chipmunks.
I run my hand over a blanket of moss that covers a fallen log next to me, and I think of my daughters again, and wonder what they’re doing. And I sort of wish they were with me, although this experience would be very different with them — shouting, grabbing, splashing in the creek. They wouldn’t be the first children to scramble under the hemlocks; if I listen closely, I can almost hear the echoes of those eight who lived here more than a hundred years ago, of their parents, of the logs felled, of breast milk’s calcium, of the calcium in the dark soil beneath me. I take a deep breath, inhale the smells of damp forest, tree needles, creek, pull oxygen into my lungs, exhale carbon dioxide, the chemicals swirling through me, around me. I’m not sure where I end and the trees begin.
Almost Lost: The Chestnut Plantation
My mother is a retired children’s librarian. She began reading to me when I was still in the womb; after, she filled my crib with books. She tells me that I could recite The Tale of Peter Rabbit by the time I was three and could read before kindergarten. It’s no surprise that I first heard of a chestnut tree in a poem my mother read to me often: Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands; / The smith, a mighty man is he, / with large and sinewy hands… Scenes filled with sensory details unfold — a muscled, sweaty man with long black hair, sparks flying from his anvil, swings a sledgehammer from dawn until dusk, bending metal into horseshoes. He has several children, and they all go to church on Sundays; there, even though he’s a large, rough man, the smith remembers his dead wife and cries. The poem is “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; I remember huddling next to my mother while she read it, wondering what “sinewy” meant, and wondering how a “spreading” tree would look. At that time — the early 1980s — I didn’t know that nearly all of our chestnut trees were gone, or that the ones remaining would never grow tall enough for a blacksmith to “swing his heavy sledge” beneath their limbs.
According to the American Chestnut Foundation, this species of tree “reigned over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Florida…until succumbing to a lethal fungus infestation, known as the chestnut blight, during the first half of the 20th century. An estimated 4 billion American chestnuts, up to 1/4 of the hardwood tree population, grew within this range.” Folklore claims that a squirrel could climb into a chestnut tree in Maine and travel all the way to Georgia without ever touching the ground or a different species of tree. But in 2016, just a few wild, mature individuals can be found in Appalachia; young chestnut trees still spring near old stumps but succumb to the blight before maturing.
I walked along the tall fence of Penn State University’s Chestnut Plantation and blinked away the spring rain. New leaves filled the branches of many of the trees before me, and a few even sported burrs — large seedpods covered in spikes. Inside the burrs gleamed smooth, shiny chestnuts, subject of song and story, once food for cattle, hogs, and humans — roasted on an open fire, of course, for the latter. A sign posted near the fence said this plot was planted with chestnut seedlings in 2003, and that “data collected from this chestnut planting will be used to help develop disease resistant American Chestnuts.” The American Chestnut Foundation and research partners across the continent had developed a tree that was, genetically, 15/16th American chestnut and 1/16th Chinese chestnut. I wondered if some of the trees here were these hybrids, crossed in the hopes that the trees would “act” like American chestnuts while retaining the Chinese chestnut’s resistance to the blight. The hybrids offered the hope that one day the American chestnut — or at least a tree that was almost an American chestnut — would return to the eastern United States.
The chestnut trees inside the wire fence weren’t tall — the tallest was perhaps fifteen feet and most seemed shorter than that — and grew next to colored or numbered stakes. The leaves were shiny, and their edges toothed like saw blades. The leaves drooped in clusters from the branches, perhaps weighed down by the rain. While some of the trees were thin, many reminded me of fat Christmas trees — longer branches on the bottom, and the branches shortening and shortening as they moved up the trunk, giving an almost triangular impression of the tree as a whole. But some defied this shape and instead resembled a child’s drawing of a tree — a very short trunk with a round, cotton-ball shaped blob upon it.
In his poem “The Mending Wall,” Robert Frost famously wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / that wants it down,” but his neighbor insists, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The fence around the chestnut plantation is here in part to keep out white-tailed deer. I’m sure it’s necessary, and while the fence makes the deer “good neighbors” to the young (and probably expensive) experimental chestnut trees, I am one of the “somethings” that doesn’t love a wall. I wanted to touch the young chestnut trees, to feel the smoothness of the shiny leaves. I noticed that the bottom branches of many of the trees grew low to the ground, in fact, almost parallel to the ground. Ladder rungs, maybe, for a gentle foot. I considered scaling the fence and trying my luck at climbing one of the larger trees, although I’m not sure the thin branches would’ve held me. Perhaps a larger specimen — like the “spreading chestnut tree” that shaded the village blacksmith — would’ve invited climbing. I bet a person could’ve gotten lost in the branches of a tree like that. Not me, though. Those days are gone. Those trees are gone.
Standing at the fence, staring out at the rows of young chestnut trees, I felt like I was visiting a zoo. The lives that populated the exhibit weren’t wild, necessarily, but they weren’t domesticated either. Of course, these trees didn’t pace like caged lions or bat beach balls around like captive bears, but they were similar. Still here, but diminished. Fenced. Modified. What do the trees know? They breathe, they sway, they push energy into catkins and burrs. You hear about wild, remnant chestnut trees occasionally, the way you sometimes hear about ivory-billed woodpecker or Eastern cougar sightings. Once, at a festival dedicated to American chestnuts in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, I’d been lamenting the loss of this species when a gray-haired man, bent and thin with arms like gnarled branches, pulled me aside. “There are some still out there,” he said, almost whispering. “Big ones. They’re not gone.”
I don’t know if I believe him, but I enjoy picturing a forest filled with American chestnut trees, the trunks shooting skyward as the branches spread, yellow-white catkins exploding from the twigs. The burrs, those spiky green golf balls, would swell on the trees before dropping and cracking open, spilling their seeds. Deer would eat them, and turkeys and bears. The passenger pigeon, extinct by 1914 but perhaps once the most numerous bird on the planet, depended on American chestnuts for food. Maybe, in a hundred years, scientific advances will have saved not only the American chestnut but will have brought back the passenger pigeon as well. I hope that in a hundred years there will be no need for this fence, no need for chestnut plantations, because we will have solved the blight. And wild trees will flourish. Perhaps villagers will be able to gather under beneath the trees again as they spread across the mountains, reclaiming Appalachia’s soil with their roots. Perhaps children will swing their legs up-over the low branches and pull themselves higher and higher, until they are lost among the leaves of a tree that once was almost lost itself.
Ghosts: Dark Cliffy Spot
I’d saved the LTERP site with the most ominous-sounding name — Dark Cliffy Spot — for afternoon, in the hopes that the weather would have cleared by then. It hadn’t. I found the trail near Lake Perez and followed the blue-blazed trees.
Soon, Eastern hemlocks enveloped me. A leggy evergreen often found along streams, hemlocks always reminded me of some of my favorite hiking trails: the Virgin Hemlock Trail in Cooper’s Rock State Forest near my home in West Virginia; the Falls Trail in Rickett’s Glen State Park, near where I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania; and the War Spur Trail and Overlook, not far off the Appalachian Trail near Blacksburg, Virginia, where I lived for several years. If you unrolled a map of Appalachia and put your finger on Rickett’s Glen, you could slide it down the page southwest and hit Cooper’s Rock, and keep sliding, and you’d hit Blacksburg. You could add Stone Valley to that list, as well. All places where hemlocks and rhododendron rise from stream banks, beside quick waterfalls and cold swimming holes. Where yellow-throated warblers and golden-crowned kinglets sing. Where, maybe, brook trout lie in still pools. And the ghosts of elk and woodland bison drink.
I walked the trail, the hood of my rain jacket pulled tightly over my hat, my shoes still heavy with the morning’s rain. As I trekked deeper into the woods, I began to feel a stillness, like I was being watched. I looked over my shoulder, expecting someone to be behind me on the trail. But I was alone. It felt a little like this place might be haunted. I stopped, looked around me, and considered heading back to my cabin, to read or work on my reflections, to become warm and dry. Yes, warm and dry. I took a step or two back, and then almost laughed at myself, and turned again. I would continue down to the trail until I reached the “dark, cliffy spot” — and then I’d hightail it back to the cabin.
As I walked, all I could hear was water — the creek near the trail, running fast and full, and drops of rain on the leaves. Moss and lichens clung to fallen logs; I imagined this place was always damp. A Louisiana waterthrush, unseen, suddenly sang from the edge of the nearby creek. Seep, seep, seeup. I wasn’t alone after all. Sometimes, going on solo hikes makes me nervous. Not because I’m afraid of wild animals (the opposite, in fact — I hope to encounter them) but I’m afraid of encountering other humans. I expected someone to step from behind a tree at any moment. Hemlock woods are always dark and a little foreboding; for me, they lack the cheer of a hardwood forest, the sunlight of oaks and maple — they are a mossy, damp yin to a sunny ridge-top’s yang. But they feel like home, and of course, like many of the environments that I love, the hemlock woods along these creeks are in danger.
The phrase “hemlock wooly adelgid” sounds as if it may describe a soft, fuzzy animal that lives in hemlock trees (I first imagined that it looked like a flying squirrel). Unfortunately, it’s an invasive insect from Asia that sucks the lifeblood from hemlocks. Most trees infested with the adelgid eventually die. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the insects’ egg sacs, which resemble white fuzz, cluster along the ends of branches; when they hatch, the nymphs feed on the tree’s starch reserves, which hemlocks need to grow and survive. There are several options for controlling adelgids — chemicals, culling trees, and biological methods. Biological control methods involve releasing “natural enemies” of the adelgids: predatory insects native to Asia. While this method of control has been successful, releasing additional non-native creatures makes me nervous. But if it saves our hemlock trees, perhaps it is worth the risk.
Standing dead hemlocks resemble upright fish skeletons, their bleached white branches reaching like thin ribs. I remember sitting on a sun-drenched rocky outcrop — southwest Virginia’s War Spur Trail Overlook — and staring down at a valley filled with dead hemlocks. Green, forested mountains rose above the ghostly grey-white swath. On either end of the line of dead trees, embattled hemlocks still stood, greenish but fading. My husband and I our dog would eat picnic lunches on the sunny rock and lament the dead hemlocks below; I imagine by now the rest of the hemlocks in that valley have died, too, and many of the skeletal standing trees have toppled into the small creek that twisted around their roots.
Lost in thought as I walked the damp Stone Valley trail, I was surprised to arrive at the interpretive sign standing near the creek: “This Dark Cliffy Spot Has Stories to Tell.” I turned a slow circle; this spot was indeed dark, and rocky cliffs rose from the opposite bank of the creek. The tall, straight hemlock trunks were black and soaked with rain, and fallen trees and exposed roots were slick and black as well. Bright green moss covered some of the rotting logs. Ferns sprouted between gray rocks, and I crouched down to take a closer look at the forest floor. Between my water-logged hiking shoes, a tiny hemlock rose from a bed of decaying leaves. It stood only about six inches tall. I ran my fingers along its tiny branches and soft needles. The tree seemed so vulnerable, so small, among its towering kin. But each of these tall trees had begun this way — tiny, soft, almost helpless.
I stood and took a step back to avoid inadvertently crushing the baby tree. I hoped it would grow and grow, its trunk becoming thick and strong. Maybe by the time this tree took its place among its towering relatives, we will have solved the adelgid problem. Maybe a future LTERP-er will comment on my tree’s strong trunk and impeccable needles while golden-crowned kinglets creep among its branches high overhead. Or maybe it too will become a ghost, along with every hemlock here and throughout our region — standing skeletons left to haunt Appalachian stream banks. I shivered, wished my little tree well, and began dragging my soggy feet back up the trail, back to my warm, dry, ghost-less cabin.
A New Sound: Bluebird Meadow
Adorable signs marked the Bluebird Trail: wooden squares with a raised wooden bluebird in the center. My constant companions on this rainy morning included wood thrushes, ovenbirds, red-eyed vireos, and an occasional scarlet tanager. Rain pooled in the center of mayapple leaves, and it occurred to me that perhaps this was the reason for their broad leaves — to funnel rainwater down the stems, to where their milky white flowers bloom. About half of the mayapple leaves sheltered flowers, a single flower per plant. They grew together at the bases of trees, among ferns. Some of the ferns were still un-fiddling, still unfurling — it had been a cool, rainy spring. Deer tracks sank deep into the trail’s mud. I stepped around and over them. Next to me, a vine winding down a gnarled tree trunk moved. Not a vine: a black snake, thick and slow. The snake slipped down the trunk, flicking its tongue. We made eye contact, but I don’t think it saw me; its eyes were milky. Soon the snake would shed that old itchy skin, growing larger still.
I seemed to be the only human on the trail this morning, but I was far from alone: the birds, the snakes, the unseen deer, black bears, certainly small rodents, insects and spiders of course, and the spreading, blooming, leafing-in diversity of plant life. The trail began to climb, then switched back, and then switched back again, between thick tree trunks, moss, more mayapple. A wood thrush sang, close. I heard the gentle trill at the end of his song, and another counter-sang from further uphill. I stopped and placed my palm on a thick sugar maple trunk, leaned in to the rough bark, and inhaled deeply. I heard the raindrops hitting the leaves above me and suddenly I was grinning. This magic place. These wet woods, ferns, ethereal birdsong. This is what holds me in Appalachia.
I began walking the narrow, muddy trail again, thinking about my relative alone-ness. Although the space around me was absent of physical humans, other people were here with me in the forest. In his groundbreaking book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben uses a metaphor of a chain saw to illustrate this phenomenon. While hiking alone in the woods, he sees “nothing to remind [him] of human society… But once in awhile someone will be cutting wood further down the valley, and the snarl of a chain saw will fill the woods. It is harder on those days to get caught up in the timeless meaning of the forest, for man is nearby.” Because humans have altered the earth’s climate, McKibben claims, “[T]he noise of that chain saw will always be in the woods. … Even in the most remote wilderness…the sound of that saw will be clear, and a walk in the woods will be changed — tainted — by its whine.” He argues that the idea of nature as something spiritual, something beyond-human, has come to an end because we have changed the “most basic forces around us” — atmosphere, temperature, weather. “We go to the woods in part to escape,” McKibben writers, “But now there is nothing except us and so there is no escaping other people.”
Although the way humans have changed the climate seems wholly negative and the damage almost insurmountable, McKibben finds other signs of humans “almost comforting, reminders of the way that nature has endured and outlived and with dignity reclaimed so many schemes and disruptions of man.” On his walk, McKibben discovers old stone chimneys, plastic chairs set along a creek for fishing, and evidence that sections of the forest were once farms. He calls these “ruins” “humbling sights, reminders of the negotiations with nature that have established the world as we know it.”
When I assign excerpts from The End of Nature to my Writing Appalachian Ecology students at West Virginia University, almost universally they find McKibben’s outlook bleak. I understand why. I agree that the text isn’t overtly hopeful in regard to climate change, but I think it’s important for us reflect on the ways we affect and alter our environment in general — not only in regards to the climate, but also in the ways we use the land, construct our homes, produce our food, and impact the other animals with which we share ecosystems. It can help us understand how we got here, and allow us to realize the part we play in an ongoing, unfolding story. Here at Shaver’s Creek and Stone Valley, the land-use history is sometimes on display for us — at Twin Bridges, for example, and the Rudy Sawmill. There, families forged a living, and left their marks on the land. We can still see them more than a hundred years later. On McKibben’s walk, he sees trees dying from acid rain and it reminds him that “presidents of the Midwest utilities who kept explaining why they had to burn coal” and the “congressmen who couldn’t bring themselves to do anything about it” were walking with him in the forest, too. Here, on this damp morning, pulling myself up switchbacks beneath the wood thrush, I walked with the four Rudy brothers, who turned felled trees to posts, and with the civil engineers who raised the dam that made Lake Perez, and with Rebecca Erb and her eight children near Twin Bridges.
I kept walking the crowded, lonesome trail, wondering if the red-eyed vireos that sang from the dripping trees today were the grandchildren (with one-hundred greats) of red-eyed vireos that sang above the Shawnee, above the Susquehannock. Ghosts seemed to float in the mist around me, but before long the air sweetened, and I emerged into a meadow lined with autumn olive and young pines. Grey clouds hung in the sky above thin trees, still leafing out, and clumps of dense shrubs that were taller than I was. In grassy clearings between pockets of brush, nestboxes stood on posts. An interpretive sign explained that the boxes were erected in 2002 as part of an Eagle Scout project to aid the faltering Eastern bluebird population. I heard one of this meadow’s namesakes singing from a small tree above the shrubs. The early successional habitat in this area was popular with several bird species in addition to bluebirds; common yellowthroats and Eastern towhees sang — wichity witchity witchity and drink your tea! — and — there, that buzz again — golden-winged warbler?
I began stalking the buzzing bird, following the edge of the meadow, moving slowly. The bird sang unseen among the autumn olive, and it was difficult to tell if branches trembled beneath a bird or a drop of falling rain. I passed a jumble of cut stones, and I realized it was what remained of an old foundation. Someone’s home had been here. Did they farm this meadow? Or had this plot still been forest, then? I wondered what made them build a home here; what did they love about this land? I knew what McKibben meant about these being “humbling sights” — reminders of someone who’d been here and would always be here, “negotiated” with nature, altered the landscape and left it altered. Beautifully altered, I thought; I liked the way the stone slabs had slid off one and other but still retained the rough shape of a home, still gave enough clues to make me wonder about who had been here before. They walked with me now, too.
I heard the buzzing warbler again and set off, this time leaving the trail and wandering into higher grass. The rain-drenched blades soaked my pant legs, but I trudged on, doing my best to be quiet. Bzz — bzz — bzz! It seemed as if the bird taunted me. I hadn’t brought my binoculars because of the rain, but I continued to creep carefully after the bird, and I recorded its song on my phone. (Later, Doug and Jon at Shaver’s Creek decided it could have been a golden-winged warbler, a blue-winged warbler, or a hybrid. But without a visual we couldn’t say for sure.)
Finally, the bird stopped buzzing, and I decided to return to the path. I turned in a slow circle and scanned the trees for the small wooden squares that marked the Bluebird Trail. I didn’t see any, so I tried to follow my footsteps back through the wet grass. I stumbled upon another set of old stone foundations, and from somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. I was reminded again of Bill McKibben’s chainsaw. The rain picked up, and tightened my hood over my hat. It felt cleansing, renewing, and natural. But, McKibben asks, “how can there be a mystique of the rain now that every drop…bears the permanent stamp of man? Having lost its separateness, its loses its special power.” I understand his point, and I feel that spiritual loss too. But perhaps, ultimately, it’s better for the forest if we understand how intimately linked our actions are to its health — to these trees, this meadow. We’ve altered the soil here, the vegetation. We’ve trimmed things to encourage other things to thrive. We’ve put up boxes to mimic tree cavities. We blazed a trail, designed a sign, encouraged reflection. Perhaps with the knowledge of how our lives can alter the very forces of “nature,” we will learn to be better residents, better caretakers — both in permanent and temporary ways. Perhaps we will still hear McKibben’s chain saw wherever we go, but maybe we’ll also hear a wood thrush, and a golden-winged warbler, and raindrops on sugar maple leaves. Maybe this music can harmonize to produce a new sound — one we couldn’t have imagined when we worked here a hundred years ago, perhaps one we haven’t fully figured out yet in the present — but a song that those who come after us will sing with confidence because they will have learned the notes.
I glanced up at the gathering storm clouds and noticed a wooden bluebird sign on a tree — there, my trail. I joined everyone else and walked into the forest alone.
The sounds of a party — a wedding — float across Lake Perez in Stone Valley. Bursts of laughter, children calling to each other, and the low, bubbling murmur of conversation. I don’t know who’s gotten married, or where they’re from, but love is in the air. And this is my favorite time of year: mid May. Appropriate for weddings, for renewal, for rushing into bloom.
I sit on the opposite bank, just down the hill from the cabin where I’ll be spending the night. Before me, nighthawks wheel and boomerang above the lake’s glassy black surface, their long wings cutting the air. The birds’ movements are fluid, elastic, easy, and graceful. They swoop low, then climb, swoop low again, like giant, agile bats, hawking insects. Each long wing bears a distinct white stripe, which looks like a strip of reflective tape from below, and each bird’s white throat patch gleams against the darkening sky. Perhaps the nighthawks are fueling up before the storm we all know will come tomorrow, the rain so common in an Appalachian spring. Perhaps they’re pushing on ahead of it, migrating still, making their way north from their South American wintering grounds. I want to call across the lake to the folks at the wedding, to get them to look at the bird show overhead. Instead, I watch in wide-eyed silence.
Nighthawks and their relatives — whip-poor-wills, oilbirds, frogmouths, pauraques, and nightjars — are odd, secretive, mostly crepuscular or nocturnal birds. On the wing, a common nighthawk is acrobatic and incredibly sleek. In the hand, however, its wings seem too long, its body squat and strange, its eyes dark and clear as a mountain lake at dusk. A nighthawk’s tiny black beak hides an enormous mouth that resembles a bullfrog’s when it opens. Because they eat and drink while flying, this oversized mouth is useful for trapping insects and skimming lake water. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that these unusual birds used their huge mouths for another purpose: drinking milk from the teats of goats and sheep under the cover of night. According to the lore, a goat suckled by a nightjar met an unfortunate end — blindness and then death. Of course, the birds do not engage in this behavior, but the belief earned their family the name Caprimulgidae, or “goatsucker.”
As Stone Valley darkens, I retreat to my cabin and recline on the bench outside the door. Birds around me sing to the fading day: an eastern wood-pewee (the first I’ve heard this spring), a wood thrush, and chipping sparrows below the pines. Frogs along the lakeshore join the chorus, but my mind is still soaring with the nighthawks. My first encounter with a nighthawk had been more than fifteen years earlier. I’d just started graduate school and had moved to West Virginia with my boyfriend (now my husband), Jesse. He dreamt of going to veterinary school one day, so two evenings a week he volunteered at local small animal clinic. We also began volunteering together at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and injured birds of all sorts began to find their way to us. Shoeboxes and dog carriers would appear at the clinic, containing limping geese, twisted ducklings, cat-attacked robins, and, one evening, a small bundle of brown and black feathers with long wings, a mini beak, and glossy black eyes. Someone had found the strange bird stunned on the shoulder of a road and scooped it into a box. Radiographs showed a wing fracture, but it wasn’t badly displaced. We wrapped the wing to the bird’s body and would wait for it to heal.
We soon realized that caring for an immobile nighthawk would be difficult. Three or four times a day I cupped the bird in my hands while Jesse gently pried open its beak and pushed a cricket or mealworm or soggy piece of cat kibble inside. It was labor intensive and stressful for the bird (and us), but we all soldiered on. I remember how warm the bird was, how its feathers were impeccable. Jesse and I worried it would lose too much weight, or that our insect-and-cat-kibble regime wasn’t appropriate. We kept the box clean and warm, lined with soft cloth. We cooed over the bird, we stared into its black eyes. Of course, we fell in love. With the nighthawk, and with each other.
Weeks passed. Finally the bone was stable, calloused, and it was time to for the bird to exercise. But how? The wildlife center didn’t have a flight cage with small enough mesh, and the veterinary clinic didn’t have a spare room. Our apartment was too crowded with animals already. So we improvised. Behind the animal hospital was a wet, swampy meadow, filled with high grass and cattails. At dusk Jesse and I would head out there, stand facing each other, and slowly, gently, toss the nighthawk back and forth. Every evening we stood further and further apart, and the bird’s strength returned. The last few evenings, it wheeled over our heads, and we turned and sprinted after, following the bird to the place it finally landed. Then one evening it happened; I gently tossed the nighthawk, and the bird beat its long wings and lifted, lifted, lifted into the darkening sky, much higher than it had flown before. Jesse ran but it was futile. The nighthawk kept going, higher and farther, until it was out of sight. We cheered and cried, hugged, and collapsed, laughing in the meadow.
From my bench outside my cabin in Stone Valley, I smile at the memory and look out over Lake Perez. Fish lip the water, leaving concentric rings on the surface. The robins settling in the pines sing abbreviated songs. The wedding’s voices and laughter continue to float across the lake, though muted now, softening. Nighthawks still dance in the twilight, their reflections flickering on the dark water. I will never know for sure if our nighthawk’s repaired wing was strong enough to fly to South America and back, season after season. Perhaps the bird ended up on a road again, or succumbed to any one of a number of dangers during migration. Perhaps, ultimately, the life of one nighthawk is insignificant; perhaps our human lives are insignificant, too. But no matter how small, on that day’s end, as the sun slipped below the horizon, what returned to the sky was made of love, was buoyed by love. The same love spins in the air tonight and fills the valley. Long may it fly.
I Remember a Bird: Raptor Center
I remember a bird: a red-shouldered hawk, scooped from a ridge-top pasture in West Virginia. Bleeding. The end of her wing an angry wound, a nub, coagulating and swollen. I remember closing my fingers around her scaly, pale-yellow legs, holding her hooked head, while my husband Jesse examined the wing. I remember the way her heart drummed within her speckled breast. I remember her long barred tail, each feather impeccable still, despite her being grounded. Grounded, forever.
Radiographs revealed a dusting of lead in the wound: gunshot. A federal offense, now, but that doesn’t always matter to someone alone in a field with a rifle. I don’t understand what motivates someone to shoot a hawk. Probably a deadly mix of cruelty and boredom, although chickens the answer more likely given. Poet Robinson Jeffers famously wrote, “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk…” I can relate.
Working in wildlife rehabilitation is heartbreaking. But we do it anyway. Perhaps because of guilt or obligation or love or kinship. We could have — should have? — killed that hawk. Eased her out of this life gently, first inducing sleep and then giving the injection to quiet her wild heart, reducing her to limp feathers, slack talons. But we didn’t. Using a wooden tongue depressor, Jesse spread a glob of gooey salve on the hawk’s wound and then bandaged it carefully, slowly, while his brows ran together. For weeks we nursed the wound, changed the bandage, medicated, fattened her on dead mice. Watched the wild eyes watch us.
More than ten years have passed since I first met that red-shouldered hawk, and now I see her again. I’m sitting on a sun-warmed bench in the back row of the outdoor amphitheater at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. It’s September. A warm breeze tumbles fallen maple leaves; they rustle like the pages of a book. Enclosures on the amphitheater’s perimeter hold birds of prey: eagles, hawks, owls, vultures. Across from me is the red-shoulder. She grips a turf-wrapped perch with one foot and tucks the other beneath her. She cocks her head to watch the pine trees that surround us. Her wings, black and brown flecked with white, with red splashed across the shoulders, are folded comfortably over her back. Her long tail hangs straight down. She appears relaxed; I’m glad, relieved. A decade ago, we’d reached out to Shaver’s Creek and asked if they had space to provide a permanent home for our damaged hawk. We’d made the three-hour drive from West Virginia, bird tucked inside a dark cardboard box. And she’s still here, today, sharing an enclosure with a short-eared owl, enjoying the September sunshine.
A small boy, perhaps four-years old, rounds a corner and approaches the hawk. He reaches up and grabs the interpretive sign in front of her enclosure, pulling himself higher. The hawk turns her head to watch him. An older man, his grandfather, I imagine, walks behind him and reads the sign. The boy leans back, looks up, and locks eyes with the hawk, a creature from another world, a piece of wild woods and sky. The universe holds its breath. The boy releases the sign and looks away. He picks up a stick and hops down the path and around a bend, with grandfather strolling behind.
The universe resumes, exhales, begins to roll again. I exhale too, and realize that I’ve just witnessed a change, a different future now unfolding. How much different it will be — who can know? But I am certain: whatever universe would have unfolded without that moment between hawk, boy, grandfather, and September day: we will never know it.
A hundred years from now, what will that boy have done? Cradle another hurt hawk, perhaps, plucked bloody from a pasture or from a roadside, stunned? Maybe he will simply notice hawks, notice birds, look skyward more often than he would have in a different future. Maybe his capacity for empathy increased. This hawk changed me, too, and changed Jesse, who is now a veterinarian, caring for hawks daily. And here I am, recording my reflections at Shaver’s Creek, having written two books about birds and ecosystems and still in love with the world. My hawk-inspired words are free, wild, and hopefully they’ll keep flying even after I’m gone, after boy and grandfather, after hawk.
Across the amphitheater, she wags her barred tail, looks up, then looks at me. No, she looks past me, above me, at something in the sky, something soaring.
The Lake Trail
The rain picked up just as I entered the woods. I drained the last of the coffee in my thermos and pulled my jacket’s hood up over my hat. Pine needles blanketed the path and the dogwood was still in bloom. Ovenbird, scarlet tanager, red-eyed vireo. Some of the trees here had blackened trunks, and others had cracked and fallen down. I remember seeing a sign on a tree near the Chestnut Plantation that warned about an upcoming “prescribed fire”; perhaps one had taken place here, too. Sitting on my desk at home is a large cone from a longleaf pine that I’d gathered during a visit to the Carolina Sandhills several years ago. Longleaf pines require the heat of a fire to reproduce, and many other forest ecosystems benefit from fire, as well. A fire can open up the canopy and allow light to enter, encouraging sun-loving plants to spring up and flourish. The early-successional habitat created by a fire may attract a variety of birds, including the Eastern towhee, chestnut-sided warbler, and golden-winged warbler.
The trail left the forest, briefly, and followed the edge of a clearing up a slope. A power line ran through the clearing’s center, and everything here smelled great — autumn olive, although invasive, has a lovely perfume, and its small, yellowish flowers hung in clusters from the branches around me. Suddenly, I noticed bird activity in a nearby shrub. I froze and peered into the leaves. The falling rain made it difficult to tell if thin twigs were trembling because of a bird or raindrops. My binoculars weren’t waterproof, so like a fool, I’d left them back in my cabin. I admit I had golden-winged warblers on the brain already because of the habitat, but I wasn’t expecting to see any in this dreary weather. I caught a glimpse of a black throat patch and my first thought was chickadee. But then: a tinny bzz bzz bzz. I held my breath. Bzz bzz bzz. The birds were at eye level, still fussing in the same shrub. Bzz bzz bzz. I fumbled to unzip the pocket of my rain jacket and pull out my iPhone. By the time I’d found and opened the recorder app, the birds seemed to have moved on. Of course. I recorded several tracks of Eastern towhees singing, but I didn’t hear the buzzing again.
I turned and ambled up the soggy trail, muttering to myself and drying my iPhone screen with the hem of my tee shirt before stuffing it back in my pocket. The forest enveloped me, and I was once again surrounded by lush green and the delicate, clear song of a wood thrush. The peace here softened my disappointment about not recording — or clearly seeing — the warblers. Although the American Birding Association accepts “heard only” birds for listing purposes, I wasn’t completely confident about identification in this case. My heart said golden-wing, but my head said how could you have left your binoculars behind?!
The golden-winged warbler is one of the fastest-declining Neotropical migratory songbirds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their population has dropped by about 66% since the 1960s. In 2016, the only songbird declining as quickly was the cerulean warbler. Each species probably included about 400,000 individuals. Like the cerulean, the golden-wing faces habitat loss throughout its range. In North America, the shrubby habitat favored by the species for nesting and raising young is becoming less available. Fire suppression and forest regeneration allow their preferred shrubby habitat to mature, reducing opportunities for nesting.
The news isn’t much better in their tropical wintering grounds. Golden-wings spend the winter in Central America and in the northern Andes of South America, where, since the 1970s, their habitat has been disappearing and being replaced with full-sun coffee plantations. Although the traditional way to grow coffee in the tropics is to leave the forest’s canopy trees and plant coffee shrubs in the shade beneath them, the beans on these plants take longer to mature than coffee grown in the full sun. As the demand for coffee increased, farmers began to convert farms from forest to full sun. When a tropical forest is razed, so is the winter home of many of “our” Neotropical migrants, including several of the species I’d heard on the Lake Trail: wood thrush, scarlet tanager, ovenbird. And of course golden-winged warbler. By the 1990s efforts to protect forested habitat in the tropics were underway, and in 2000 the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center introduced their Bird Friendly coffee certification; certified coffee is grown in the shade of a native forest canopy, using organic methods. Drinking Bird Friendly, shade-grown coffee is an easy way to help conserve Neotropical migrant songbirds, such as my illusive friend the golden-winged warbler.
Although habitat loss is a problem for many songbirds, for the golden-wing it’s only part of the story. Climate change seems to have caused a range shift for both the golden-winged warbler and the blue-winged warbler; now, individuals of the two closely related species come into contact with each other more often, which sometimes results in the birds of the two species breeding with each other. The hybrid offspring are called either Brewster’s warbler or Lawrence’s warbler, and these hybrids are fertile. Hybridization of blue-wings and golden-wings contributes to the decline of the golden-wing, who is perhaps out-competed by the blue-wing and the hybrids. Ongoing genetic research hopes to shed more light on this complicated phenomenon. I hope the conservation efforts underway today succeed and the species can be restored; It makes me sad to think that in a hundred years, when a future LTERPreter ventures through a patch of scrubby young forest in Stone Valley, there will be no golden-winged warblers flitting in the shrubs. Perhaps only hybrids, or perhaps no songbirds at all.
As I continued along the Lake Trail, my shoes becoming more and more waterlogged, I passed a charred and twisted sugar maple with two trunks; one side seemed to be alive while the top of the other had broken off and fallen to the forest floor. Woodpeckers had excavated holes in the charred trunk; I kept hoping to see a screech-owl peeking from a hollow in the wood. Near the base of the maple, dozens of May apples were in bloom. Each plant stood about a foot high, and its large, flat leaves acted like an umbrella, sheltering a single white flower from the sun, rain, and wind. Viewing the flower — milky white petals with sunshine-yellow stamens and carpels — required stooping and bending. By the end of summer, each flower will have become a fruit, and each umbrella, withered.
Overhead, a wood thrush trilled, and a red-eyed vireo quipped Where are you? Here I am. Can you hear? Ahead of me, a male and female Eastern towhee foraged on the trail. Such flashy little sparrows! I suffer from warbler-lust and sometimes take other kinds of species for granted. But as the trail wound around closer to the lake again, a Baltimore oriole began to sing above me, his clear, whistled notes piercing the gray sky. Baltimore orioles are another species that may over-winter in a shade-grown coffee farm, sharing the habitat there with golden-wings and wood thrush as well as tropical residents such as toucans, parrots, woodcreepers, and other exotic-sounding species.
By the time I reached Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, I was thoroughly soaked. Water dripped off me and pooled on the floor of the gift shop. The raptor center’s Assistant Director, Jon Kauffman, was working behind the counter. Jon sometimes led bird walks on the trails around Stone Valley and Shaver’s Creek, and I was curious to hear his thoughts about my potential golden-winged warblers. In the area of the Lake Trail where I thought I’d heard them, Jon told me he’d once seen a hybrid — a Lawrence’s. And in another area of the property, along the Bluebird Trail, he thought he’d heard a golden-wing but when he located the bird, it was a blue-winged warbler singing the golden-wing’s song. We played the songs of both birds over and over again on my iPhone’s birding app, listening carefully with our heads bent towards the phone. According to my app (and our ears) one of the blue-winged warbler’s alternate songs sounded almost indistinguishable from a golden-wing’s. I thought the birds I’d glimpsed in the shrubs had black throats, which blue-winged warblers lack; however, both golden-wings and Lawrence’s had black throats, and both could sing similar songs. When Shaver’s Creek’s program director and naturalist Doug Wentzel joined us at the gift shop’s counter, he complicated things further by reporting that he’d seen golden-winged warblers both in the area I thought I’d seen them and in the area where Jon had seen the blue-wing singing the golden-wing’s song. Whatever species I’d encountered, just being a part of this discussion thrilled me. This is one of the joys of birding — puzzling out what species you’d stumbled upon with like-minded friends, shrugging and laughing at the possibilities.
After refilling my empty coffee thermos, I headed back into the rain. The hot coffee warmed me despite my soaked shoes and jacket. Could the beans that had made my drink once heard the buzzing of a golden-winged warbler in the tropics? Could it have been the very same golden-wing that I may have heard here at Shaver’s Creek? Unlikely, perhaps, but the possibility was enough to make me smile and look forward to a return trip to the Lake Trail. Next time with binoculars.
Rudy Sawmill and the Three Bears
I emerged from my cabin near Lake Perez and headed into the driving rain. The day before, the rain had been gentle and cleansing, a spring soaking to get the flowers going. But by this morning — day two — the rain had lost its charm. I’d up-ended my hiking shoes on the heater the night before, but they were still damp. No matter, they’d be waterlogged again in minutes. A few of the other cabins were occupied, but no one stirred within them yet. No one fished along the lakeshore, and no cars parked in the lot.
I splashed along the road in front of the cabins and headed towards the water. My destination this morning was the site of the Rudy Sawmill, and I planned to pick up the trail beyond the parking lot where the woods met the lake. The silent morning was broken suddenly by a loon calling — I’d heard yesterday that a common loon had been spotted on Lake Perez, but I hadn’t seen it. I scanned the lake and located the large bird, cruising effortlessly in the center, sounding its haunting yodel. The loon would be moving on soon to breeding grounds in the north, and I needed to move on, too, instead of standing in the rain gaping at a bird.
I turned and walked and in a few moments I reached the trail, but to my dismay, I couldn’t cross a muddy, rushing creek. I contemplated how to get around it, and decided it best just to walk along the road until I happened upon another way to enter the woods. I slogged along the tree line to the edge of the road and stopped. No — I’d had enough of the rain. I would get in my car and drive as close as I possibly could to Rudy Sawmill. The lazy way? Perhaps. But I was thoroughly soaked already and growing crankier with each drop of rain.
After a brief (and mercifully dry) drive down the road, I pulled off near a trail marker and tumbled out into the wet again. I left my camera and binoculars on the passenger seat, but I stuffed my “Rite in the Rain” notebook in a back pocket and zipped my iPhone into my jacket. As I slipped into the green, soggy forest, I began to feel better. Despite the pounding rain, an ovenbird sang from the underbrush nearby, and overhead, a great-crested flycatcher cheer-uped and then growled. What an odd-sounding little bird — and they always seemed to sing during rainstorms. A wood thrush trilled slowly. No one answered.
The trail itself had become a creek — not water pooling but water moving — flowing, rippling, carrying nutrients from Stone Valley towards the Chesapeake Bay. Bits of debris, soil, rock, insects, bone, flower petals, all pushed oceanward. As I stomped through the trail-creek, I thought about the sawmill that stood on this site from 1861 until 1882, and of the associated mess. Although I don’t think I’ve ever visited a proper sawmill, whenever we needed to cut down a dead tree or chop firewood for camping, the act created particles of wood in a range of sizes, from large chunks and chips to fine dust. Breathing would be difficult in air thick with wood dust. And in heavy rain like this, flecks of milled trees must have washed into the creeks, clogging ephemeral streams. What would water-bound wood dust do to a trout’s gills?
I reached the site of Rudy Sawmill and stepped off the trail. Just a few mounds of earth showed where the mill had been — only a slight disturbance, perhaps unrecognizable if you weren’t looking for it. The wood chips and dust I’d been imagining had long ago sunk into the forest floor and rejoined the nutrient cycle. I glanced at the wet tree trunks that surrounded me; perhaps, 130 years ago, this area was clear, a meadow along the creek, its trees felled and processed, and these trees today newer growth — springing up from the dust and ashes of their predecessors. It’s amazing how healed this place seemed, how “natural” and at peace — raindrops loud on spring-green leaves, the gentle rush of water, a wood thrush’s ethereal chime. During the days of the mill, it would have been quite the opposite.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and tried to shield it from the rain while I snapped a few pictures, and I wondered what the folks laboring at Rudy Sawmill more than a hundred years ago would think of everyone carrying cameras around in their pockets today. Or telephones, for that matter — Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in 1876, during the time the Rudy Sawmill was operational. How quickly technology has developed. I fear the cyber-trash of our era will leave more than just a few gentle mounds in a forest. I stuffed my phone back in my pocket and pulled out my notebook, ready to write profound thoughts about this experience, but just then the rain picked up again. “It’s pouring,” I wrote in pencil, then underlined it and drew a sad face. I turned and slogged back to my parked car, grumbling.
Rudy Sawmill was the last LTERP site I had left to visit, and although I wanted to change out of my wet clothes, instead of driving back to my cabin I decided I’d head to the Shaver’s Creek Visitors Center and say my goodbyes. The road was deserted — what foolish person other than myself would be up this early, hiking in a downpour? My car crested a gentle hill and I slammed on the brakes — a dog was in the road, a black Lab. No, not a dog — a bear. Three bears, a mother and two very small cubs, scooted from the woods on one side into the woods on the other. I fumbled for my proper camera, which was still sitting on the passenger seat next to me, and I managed to take a few shots of the mother bear as she glanced back at me. And then she disappeared into the dense green.
I hadn’t been the only one hiking the trails this morning after all! I stuffed my camera back in its case and idled in the road a moment longer, watching the woods and the rain. The bear sighting seemed like the perfect way for me to end my Shaver’s Creek LTERP adventure — it was almost as if the forest didn’t want me to leave with a scowl. It worked; when I drove away, I was grinning.
Katie Fallon is the author of the nonfiction books Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird and Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, and the co-author of two books for children, Look, See the Bird! and Look, See the Farm! (forthcoming 2018). Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines. Katie is also one of the founders of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds through scientific research; outreach and public education; and rescue and rehabilitation. Katie’s first word was “bird.”