Scott Weidensaul Reflections
SITE 1: Interpretive sign [Twin Bridges]
The interpretive sign, dusted with yellow hemlock needles, says “Reading the Shaver’s Creek Landscape,” and it talks of pillows and cradles, of nurse logs and wind throw. But when I look around and read the history of this spot, I see a landscape sculpted not by storms, but by four sharp, bright orange incisors.
It is an early evening in late August, a time of the day (and a time of the year) that is a winding down, an ending of things. The light streams in from the west, low across Lake Perez, and the wind that blew through the day has all but died. Only the leaves in the highest branches of the tuliptrees still waggle in the slim breeze; the maples hang motionless, unimpressed, and down near the ground the air is heavy and still.
Like the solstice at some Bronze Age stone circle, the sun cuts a perfect line up the middle of the small creek, illuminating the narrow avenue of meadow that lies among the hemlocks. From where I sit, the jungly growth is backlit, dragonflies with wings like shards of ice coursing among the drooping seedheads of bulrush, and the purple masses of joepye with their stalks of whorled leaves; the white gauze of boneset, splashes of crimson cardinalflower, lacy goldenrods, the fuzzy leaves of deer-tongue grass, cobalt lobelias and cattails.
Through the center of this vest-pocket meadow rise a line of dead hemlocks. From the sagging, skeletal branch of one, a flycatcher launches itself to snag a bug, both bird and prey leaving an afterimage of blurred sunlight on my retina as they intersect and merge. The bird perches, green-gray, anonymous. An alder flycatcher, or its look-alike cousin, the willow? No way to say which species, since the bird isn’t singing, no fitz-bew or ree-be-o to declare its allegiance to one branch of the family tree or the other.
Those dead hemlocks are the key to unlocking the recent history of this place. Hemlocks love little streams like this one, the cool, acidic soil that they further steep with their tannic needles, while darkening its banks with diffuse, deep-sea-green shadows through which only a few, confused sunbeams penetrate.
But dam a stream, as the beavers once did – bring that water up just a few feet, saturate that soil, and the hemlocks die. A hemlock is wasted on a beaver, which turns up its flat nose at the bitter bark, but that won’t stop them from killing the hemlocks, flooding them or girdling them to open up the canopy for alders and other more toothsome growth. So the hemlocks drowned, grew leafless and largely branchless, casting their reflections in the dark, still water of the beaver pond. The stream slowed, pooled, its current lost to hunger, to chewing, to an obsessive rodent obstructionism that finds the sound of flowing water anathema that must be plugged and silenced. The hemlocks died, but the bluegills were happy.
And presumably so were the beavers, for a time. But food never lasts forever, and neither do beaver dams. The colony ate itself out of hearth and home, as they always do, and left or died. No beaver came snuffling after the leaks to plug them, no one stopped up the hateful trickles; the dam grew more porous, until the spring rains took it out. By then, though, the orange teeth that first cut the wood and girdled the hemlocks were scattered in the muddy bottom of Lake Perez, fallen from the sightless skulls of long-dead beavers. The stream cut down through the muck that had accumulated over the years and found its channel again, and the thick bed of silt that remains blooms with an exuberance that makes me think it’s making up for lost time – and maybe in foreknowledge of how limited its own run will be.
Of course, the real busy beavers in this valley were Laurence Perez and his colleagues, back in 1960, moving tons of earth to plug Shaver’s Creek with a dam a little more permanent than the maple logs and alder branches of the beavers. But only a little more permanent. One day, maybe far off in the measure of humans, that plug will be pulled, too; the stream will find its old channel, not just for a year or two while engineers tinker with the dam, but for good. The rich silt will bloom, and the plants will give thanks for the steel teeth that made their meadow. The forest will bide its time, as forests can afford to do, knowing that like beaver dams – like human dams – meadows are not forever, either.
SITE 2: Rudy Family Sawmill
Shaver’s Creek is a ghost of its spring self, its bones laid bare, only capillaries of water flowing between the dry stones of its bed. Its desiccated voice is hushed by drought. But the mill race that runs in from the east – the straight, shallow swale through forest – lies entirely mute, robbed of its water by time.
The old Rudy family sawmill sat on a dry bench about fifteen feet above the creek, sited with an eye to worst of times, high enough to avoid all but the worst floods. But it wasn’t high water that did it in. Except for some scattered wall stones, nothing remains except the channel of the mill race, softened by history and shadowed by a forest of young hemlocks and older hardwoods, the ground sparsely covered in Christmas ferns, ground cedar, the glossy ovates of Canada mayflower leaves, and a few tall jack-in-the-pulpits.
I find the hemlocks an ironic touch.
* * * * *
This would have been a forest of tremendous hemlocks, two hundred fifty years ago. Something like the Alan Seeger Natural Area is today, across the way a few miles – one of those teasing scraps of old-growth for which we’re grateful nowadays, big trees but not gigantic ones (monstrous trees were a feature of western forests, not the East), an understory of rhododendron, light gaps where some decrepit ancient had cracked in a storm and smashed to the ground.
Somewhere nearby, a footpath that rose out of the Standing Stone Creek valley passed north over the ridge and into the Shaver’s Creek valley, where it would have threaded its way beneath those big hemlocks and white pines, the ground perpetually damp, perpetually shaded.
How long the path existed is anyone’s guess – and mine would be, a damned long time. There a hint of that path shown on Nicholas Scull’s 1759 map of the Pennsylvania frontier; on his grandson William’s map, a much more detailed version drawn in 1770, there is no doubt about the route. It runs from Huntingdon past “Tusseys” Mountain, ending at “Bald Eagle’s Nest,” the white name for Wapalanewachschiechey, the village of Woapalanne, the Munsee chief known as Bald Eagle.
But I doubt the Munsee first blazed this particular path; the lay of the land, and therefore the best route from point A to point B, doesn’t change when one culture supplants another, and I imagine that Paleo-Indians hunting Columbian mammoths and American mastodons through the grassy tundra of Ice Age Pennsylvania would have followed much the same course when they came up this way ten thousand years ago. Likewise the first white settlers, and then the wagon-road builders, and still later the first highway crews pouring macadam, because they all knew a good thing when they trod it.
One of those taking the Standing Stone path north, perhaps with a creased copy of Scull’s map carefully tucked inside his linsey-woolsey shirt, was George Rudy, a York County Revolutionary War veteran, accompanied by eleven children, his fecund (and, one would imagine, tired) wife, and by his brother Barney.
The Rudys made a place for themselves in Woapalanne’s old domain, and may have felt a little smug about that fact; old Bald Eagle had sided with the British, after all, raiding frontier homesteads during the war, before he died at the hands of the brother of a young man Woapalanne himself had scalped.
The Rudys began populating the land with descendants, opening up the forest – grubbing up the saplings, girdling off the big trees and planting between their dead trunks. At some point, the settlements grew prosperous enough for farmers to want not just a mud-chinked cabin, but a house of milled lumber. And the Rudys were ready to oblige; by the 1870s, the Barree Township map shows a mill on Shaver’s Creek, and tax records indicate it was owned by George’s grandson, Martin Rudy.
This would not have been a quiet, green-lit forest then, but an open, noisy, dusty place around the mill shed, the air acrid with the smell of sap and sawdust, and the sour, back-of-the-throat bite of fresh-peeled logs; loud with the clank of machinery, the rattle of chains, the whinny of draft horses, the bellowing of oxen. Across the creek stood the Erb homestead; more sunlit fields, the smell of milk cows, wood smoke hanging in the air.
And the rush of water out of the mill dam when the sluice gate was opened, the wet slapping the flutter wheel starting to turn, the saw blade beginning its up-and-down journey, twice each second, biting into the logs that the sawyers fed it. It was hard, sweaty work, wrestling green logs into the teeth of the blade, and it could be dangerous; one New Englander observed that a vertical saw could “pound the unwary into the floor like a shingle nail.” But it must have seemed a miracle of gentle technology to the old-timers who knew the tyranny of working a whipsaw by hand – bad enough to be the top sawyer, standing on a squared-off beam guiding the long, flexible blade along a chalked line, the sun beating on your neck, the muscles in your arms screaming. But worse by far to be the pitman, stuck down below the log in an airless hole, your nose and lungs full of saw dust. And speed! Why, when the sluice ran full and the wheel was spinning, a team could cut forty or fifty boards in a day, six or seven times the lumber that even the best whipsaw artists could produce.
We don’t know when the Rudy’s mill was first built, though it shows up on local tax rolls in 1861, and disappears from the accounts about twenty years later. Why it closed, I think, is no mystery: The logs ran out. The forest that seemed endless when George and his brood arrived retracted quickly, and by the 1880s, the old trees must have been a long wagon drive away from the little mill. The big trees were being cut to the north and west, up along the upper Susquehanna, in huge, highly mechanized operations – teams of professional “wood hicks” to fell them, railroads to haul them, steam mills to cut them on their wickedly efficient band saws, in quantities that beggared the imagination. It may finally have been easier and cheaper to buy lumber from away than to mill it along Shaver’s Creek.
The mill dam filled in and the mill shed fell to ruin; the piles of sawdust incubated rat snake eggs in the sun until the fast-growing saplings shaded it out, and rot returned it all to the soil. The Erb family place fell to ruin, and the hardwoods of the resurgent forest filled in the once-open land. A two-foot-wide tuliptree stands now in the middle of the dry mill race, and the hemlocks crowd in around it. Already, one sees the remains of birches that lost the fight for sunlight with the hemlocks. One day (at least in the normal order of things) the conifers should overtop the hardwoods, and reclaim a place that already looks more like a spot that Woapalanne would recognize more easily than Martin Rudy.
* * * * *
The last trees to fall in northern and central Pennsylvania were the hemlocks – after the white pines, which had more valuable lumber, after the big oaks and chestnuts, which were sparse on the high ridges and the Allegheny plateau. The wood was of middling quality; brittle, hard to work, prone to rot and coarsely grained, and the most valuable part of a hemlock was on the outside. A lot of the huge trees, the five-hundred-year-old behemoths, were felled mostly for their bark, stripped off and leached in long, brick-lined pits with hides, the great tannery operations whose stench would blanket a county.
Hemlocks fueled the last great lumber orgy in the state; in just one year, 1896, 1.3 million board feet of virgin hemlock was cut. By the time it was declared the state tree in 1931, there was almost none of the old-growth left.
The hemlocks along Shaver’s Creek have quite a ways to go to reach those proportions, and they may not make it. They were victorious over the crosscut saw and the mill, over the homesteader and the plow; they have restored the cool bluish shadows, the spring flush of fresh green growth like fireworks on the ends of the branches, and the gentle fall of yellow needles in autumn. But it remains to be seen if they will withstand the insidious drain of a new pest from Asia. In my part of Pennsylvania, three hours to the southeast, the hemlock woods are a gray and lifeless shadow of themselves. The bug is here, too, in Stone Valley, if for the moment still below the radar, like a virus in the last hours of incubation, before the fever rises.
Extract a core sample from a mucky bog in the Northeast and examine the nearly indestructible fossil pollen grains entombed within, and you’ll see that in the post-glacial landscape, hemlock was clearly among the most common trees – until 4,800 years ago, when its pollen vanishes. Completely. Hemlocks must have all but disappeared across their range. No one knows why, but presumably a pest (some suspect a looper moth) got here from Asia. Sounds familiar.
After a thousand years, hemlock pollen reappears in the strata of Northeastern bogs, and the species – having made its peace with whatever force brought it low — soon reasserted its dominance in eastern forests. The hemlocks clawed their way back then, and they may weather this storm as they did the saw and ax. But a thousand years is a long time to go without the shade of a hemlock forest, and I don’t think I can wait that long.
SITE 3: Chestnut Plantings
So here’s the question I’m wrestling with: Is a glass half-full always better than one that’s empty?
All my life, I’ve been enthralled and crushed by the story of the American chestnut. The loss of the hemlock is my generation’s forest tragedy; the loss of the chestnut was my great-grandfather’s. When I was in college and he was in his early 90s, I would take him for long rides through the country, listening to his stories of logging the Broad Mountain in the 1890s with his father, cutting trees for mine timbers. He told me about how he’d spotted the first deer in the Hegins valley seen for a generation (and how his father, thinking thye boy was telling a fib, threatened a whipping until the old man saw the heart-shaped tracks in the dust), about the Sunday afternoons in fall when the family, back from church, would take their burlap sacks up to the mountain and go nutting, hurling their long, curved sticks into the shagbarks and butternuts to knock down the bounty, their hands stained brown from shucking walnuts. Grandpop always brought us doubled-up paper grocery bags of walnuts when I was a boy, the brown stains seeping through; when I complained that shucking the hulls left my hands looking like I’d played in tobacco juice, to the mockery of other kids at school, he looked at me with unconcealed disdain.
And the chestnuts, of course. Grandpop was in his last years, when even in the toughest men emotions can hover just beneath the surface, but it wasn’t only age that brought tears when he talked about the chestnuts, the sweet kernels, the way the mountains turned creamy white in June when the big trees exploded with flowers. It was a deep grief, and one that I thought I understood.
I knew the old stumps, a few big fallen trees left by the blight and fighting off rot, but to me the chestnuts were mostly an historical tease, saplings rising from old rootstock – the same long, lanceolate leaves, sharply serrated, that my great-grandfather knew, but none of the height or breadth of the pre-blight forest. I’d never sit beneath the shade of a big chestnut, kicking away the porcupinish burrs for a comfortable seat, and peel the smooth, silky husk from the raw nuts like he had, and pop them into my mouth. The rare times when I found a viable chestnut seed, I didn’t eat it. I planted it.
I keep a photograph, clipped from a magazine, to remind me of what I missed by a couple generations. Two tiny human figures stand between the enormous trunks of virgin chestnuts, somewhere in the southern Appalachians a century ago. It would have taken eight or ten people with outstretched arms to encircle either tree. The bark is corrugated, like a big tuliptree’s, but with more grace. The ground is littered with old burrs; the trees must have dropped nuts by the literal ton.
And now I sit on an old red pine stump, outside the eight-foot-high deer fence that surrounds the experimental chestnut plantation off Scare Pond Road, pondering history, genetic purity and my muddled feelings about the effort to restore the chestnuts. Inside are ragged rows of trees in their plastic tubes – maybe half the tubes empty, many of the others sprouting tuliptrees or oaks, planted to provide a growth benchmark. But most of them sprout chestnuts, part of the American Chestnut Foundation’s almost twenty-five-year effort to create a blight-resistant hybrid that could, with a straight face, be called American.
I have always felt immensely ambivalent about this project, though I salute its goals and those who have spent so much time and money to make it a reality. Their passion is more than admirable, and so is the meticulous way they’ve approached the project. The part of me that mourns the lost chestnut groves, that stops in silent respect before each scrawny, blight-stricken tree that grows long enough to shed a few prickly burrs: that part wants chestnuts now, to see them growing straight and well before I die.
But despite the occasional boasts of genetic engineers who promise to reach into the chestnut’s genome and patch the evolutionary oversight that left it defenseless before the Asian blight, or to tinker with the disease itself and render it harmless, as the European form of the blight has been rendered by nature, the only realistic hope is the ACF’s backcrossing experiment, which uses the age-old techniques of plant husbandry to hybridize Chinese and American trees, then patiently sift out all but the Chinese genes for blight resistance.
They are, if I have kept accurate track of these things, in the first intercross of the third set of backcross generations – six years for each backcross generation, in which hybrids are pollinated with pure American chestnuts to restore lost traits for size and growth form, then another five years for each intercross generation, in which 15/16ths-pure hybrids are crossed with each other to bring back (it is hoped) the blight resistance diluted by the last backcross. And a ruthless winnowing out of every seedling that shows a deviation from the ideal to which the project strives. A tree breeder needs the patience of Job, and there are lots of us out here in the woods without it; we want chestnuts now. So the foundation sends out each new wave of hybrids for testing, and some of the current crop are below me, to see how they fare in the real world, planted among pure American, Chinese and European chestnuts included for comparison.
I am outside the fence, because I had hoped to find a wild chestnut in the woods. You can find millions of them across Pennsylvania, usually a single thin sapling surrounded by a ghost thicket of dead poles, all growing from the same hardy rootstock that predated the blight, and which somehow manages to survive it. I wanted a pure American chestnut leaf with which to compare to the welter of chestnut seedlings on the plantation. Some of the hybrids I’ve seen look more or less like an American, the same elegantly long, tapered leaves. But others have leaves that to my eye are too fat, too glossy, too upright instead of drooping. The ACF says it is one more intercross generation – about five years – from having blight-resistant chestnuts that can be planted into the wild. I assume -I hope — that they will not look like most of these; too Chinese, too foreign, too wrong, in a dopplegänger kind of way.
So, half full or half empty? Am I willing to trade genetic purity for ecological restoration? The peregrine falcons I now see routinely have a far more addled lineage than hybrid chestnuts; they can trace their bloodlines to Scottish peregrines, Peale’s peregrines from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, birds from Spain and Chile and Argentina. All subspecies of Falco peregrinus, it is true, while the chestnuts are interspecific crosses, but Tom Cade and his crew at Cornell simply used whatever they had in their mews in the 1970s, when the eastern falcons were all dead and gone and the newborn Peregrine Fund decided to breed up replacements. Does that alter the excitement when I see one of today’s urban peregrines tear apart the sky in a dive over Philly or Harrisburg? Most of the time I would say no – but when I see a golden-headed peregrine, a young tundra bird hatched in the high Arctic, whose great-great-grands never sat in the breeding barn at Cornell, I’d lie if I said there was no difference at all.
In the end, I suppose I am willing to make the trade, maybe eager to do so, if the Appalachian mountainsides – like Tussey Mountain off there to the north – can again turn white with the chestnut bloom in early summer. But as I hunt the woods around the plantation in a fruitless search for a wild chestnut, I wonder what difference it will make, the smallest part of the smallest part in those trees that won’t be American chestnut.
I can’t say. Perhaps like the peregrine, almost is close enough, and we can trust to the heavy evolutionary thumb of natural selection to mold, in time, the raw material to the landscape. But something tells me this whisper of American-chestnutism may be more important than we, in our rush to fix things, give it credit for being. If the foundation is successful, and the hybrids have the genes to fight the blight and the vigor to grow, there may be one undeniable victim of their success – the genetically pure trees that now exist only as rugged rootstock and meager saplings, which will, I expect, be crowded out of the remade forest.
After long searching, I finally find one knee-high chestnut, its long leaves fanned out like a grouse’s tail. They are lovely to behold, but they answer none of my questions. Even as I pluck a leaf for my comparison, I find myself thinking that I might be willing to give these long-suffering roots, millions and millions of them up and down the long mountain ridges, a little more time to make things right.
* * * * *
Just the other day, I happened across a woodworker’s display at a country fair, a fellow from Bedford County who builds lovely cherry tables and chairs. But what caught my eye was the big, dark table in the back corner, its surface scarred and pitted, like something from an old tavern and an earlier age.
“Four years ago, I sent my father-in-law to a farm sale,” the guy told me. “Elderly couple going into a retirement home, so they were selling everything at auction. The farm was in the family for four generations, no indoor plumbing, only one light bulb in the whole house. The ad in the paper said they had cherry and maple wood. If I buy from a dealer I pay through the nose, so I told him, just buy everything they have. It wasn’t until I went with the truck to pick it up that I found this.”
Not a table. No, what the family had, tucked up in the rafters of the barn, was a twelve-and-a-half-foot-long board of rough-milled chestnut, more than twenty inches wide. It was breathtaking, the furniture-maker told me. “There’s almost no insect damage, so it was cut before the blight – all the chestnut from after the blight is wormy. So figure it was cut sometime before 1905. And from the size of it, that was a hundred, hundred-and-fifty-year-old tree when it was cut. So we’re talking about more than two hundred years of history in that board.”
It took him three years to work up the nerve to do something with the board, knowing it was irreplaceable. Finally, his wife told him it wasn’t doing anyone any good sitting squirreled away now in their rafters. So he cut it in half, capped the ends with chestnut from another board, and attached good oak legs to make a long, wide table. Except for a light sanding and some finish, it looks as it did when it came out of the barn; you can still see the arcing marks of the saw blade across its face, and the dings and scratches. Underneath, out of respect, he left the wood completely untouched, still with a bit of barn dust in the rough surface.
I’d rarely seen chestnut boards that wide, but I could imagine the tree from which they’d come, picture it clear in my mind. Tall and straight, the bark corrugated into graceful lines with no hint of the coming blight, the canopy of lanceolate, serrated leaves flickering in the September breeze. And below it, a kid in knickers with a burlap sack, flinging a curved oak stick into the branches, to bring down a shower of nuts. My great-grandfather.
The table went home with me.
SITE 4: Wood’s Route (“Mini Canyon”)
I am fish-watching, from a kingfisher’s-eye view six feet above the stream – not that there’s much of a stream, after almost two months of hard drought. The stream is silent, its trickle audible only when I crouch beside the water, a thin, sibilant gasp. Although its only August, the black birches are calling it quits, dropping their prematurely yellow leaves, which lie along the water line below dull, crackly moss.
Beneath the rock wall, the pool has shrunk to a clear prison barely six feet wide and at most a foot deep, stretching along the curved rock face for ten or fifteen yards. But it is still and crystalline, and with my binoculars I can see all of the inmates perfectly.
The largest are five or six creek chubs, each about three or four inches long – blunt heads, forked tails, dimly striped along their lateral lines, keeping to the nominally deeper water where the bedrock has fractured into serrated blocks. With them are one or two black-nosed daces – the same general paint job, but with more contrast and sharper snouts, a brassy wash along the sides and a hint of red in the pectoral fins.
Chubs and daces are old friends of my childhood, and it was strange that on a hot, dry day, the sight of them brought a memory of slushy snow and cold water. But these were the quarry I pursued with nets and buckets in the muddy valley streams where I grew up, and I couldn’t begin to guess the hours I spent chasing them, especially in late winter, when the snow, short days and the entrapment of the classroom had pushed me to the edge of winter-madness, and I needed to mess around with living water and living things. I’d tramp out through half a foot of rotting snow, my feet cold inside rubber hip boots, a seine net smelling of dry rot over my shoulder. The water was even more frigid as I waded down the creek holding the net poles splayed before me, reaching back with one foot beneath undercut banks to flush out whatever might be in there.
At the end of an hour, my toes now numb beyond feeling, I would have a bucket full of small, flashing fish – chubs, daces, a few tessellated darters, and an assortment of mayfly, caddisfly and stonefly nymphs, all floating in the dingy water. I’d carry them home with deliberation, not sloshing or spilling, my right arm aching and my left hand, gripping the sodden net, now matching my toes for cold.
In my bedroom I had an aquarium ready, full of the coldest water I could run from our tap. To it I added the infinitely colder water from the stream, which flowed in with a faint but distinct brownish tinge. There was always this discoloration, no matter how slowly I had tipped up the bucketful from the stream, careful not to stir the bottom silt. I simply accepted a little mud as the accustomed state of a valley stream that flowed through fields and woodlots, picking up the runoff.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned all these creeks had once flowed pure, filtered by the forest – and that the fish I caught were the robins and gray squirrels of the aquatic world, able to thrive in a world degraded by humans, too warm in the summer, too muddy when the storms came, seasoned with agrochemicals and road salt depending on the season; these were the kinds of streams into which the state might dump disposable hatchery trout, meant to last a couple of quick weeks when the April season opened, but doomed when the first summer heat wave came. Put a native brookie in there at any time of year, and its eyes would roll back in its head before it died of mortification.
This little run along the Wood’s Route trail has the flavor of those boyhood streams of mine, though I suspect the water quality is better these days than it would have been in decades past; the maturing forest through which it flows would assure that, if nothing else. But all the streams hereabouts went through an ecological keyhole within the past century, and only the rugged few generalists like the chubs and the daces made it through to the better conditions today.
Well, perhaps not today. I can imagine it in full throat, running with snowmelt, but today even the lisping fall of hemlock needles is louder than the stream, its lips parched and cracked. The only water flowing into the pool comes through the rocks at its head, barely one step removed from a damp patch. But it deceiving, because when I try to calculate – how long do I think it would take for that trickle to fill my one-quart water bottle? – I realize it’s coming in at a rate of about a gallon every two minutes. What that equates to in cubic feet per second I don’t know, and it’s obviously far below normal for this little tributary; across the channel a hemlock root snakes down the rock wall and ends in a broken, water-smoothed stub two feet above the dry, broken shale. Even if that’s the mean high-water mark, it’s a helluva distance to fill.
Crayfish wander in and out of the shafts of sunlight, red brown, their first pair of legs in perpetual motion as they sift the thin coating of silt covering the rocks for anything remotely edible. I’m watching one when another nearby lunges at a puff of silt – a darter that, well, darted away, never really in any serious jeopardy.
That gallon-per-two-minute flow is the lifeblood of a small school of little dace fingerlings, hanging in two inches of water, their tiny pin bodies so thin they are translucent, wriggling like sperm to hold position. Perhaps the stream’s passage through the rocks, seven feet from the tail of next pool upstream, imparts a little more dissolved oxygen; if they are lucky it may bring some minute fleck of food to them. But I think they hang there mostly because it offers safety in a shrinking world – and because when the rains come, the rising water will arrive here first, lifting the fingerlings and all the inmates at last to freedom.
SITE 5: Bluebird Trail
For all the other locations in this ecological reflections project, I was shown to a particular spot, or asked to write about a general area, like the Lake Trail or out on Perez Lake itself. But here along the Bluebird Trail, I was given the pioneer’s right of first choice – told that I was welcome to plant my flag anywhere that caught my fancy along the path, and that would remain the reflection point in perpetuity.
Well, now…like a homesteader weighing his options, I wander back and forth, up one hillock and down the next. I spend an hour here, half an hour there, watching the world go by, looking for some augury that would tell me I’d arrived at The Spot. But the universe is mute, so I finally make my choice based on the simple pleasure of sitting in first little meadow north of the environmental center, just above a short, steep hill falling to the stream. (Having come from the opposite direction, it was actually the last of a series of small openings and fields through which I’d passed, and all of which I’d considered.)
Peaceful enough here when I return early the next morning, dew-wet but warming fast with the sun, meadow katydids already giving their stuttering, buzzy calls. I settle in, admiring the canvas of the meadow – the grasses and forbs, greens and ochres, splashes of color and muted pastels of late summer; the clumps of shrubs, the layers of taller seedlings and saplings around the margins, the textured blending of grassland and forest.
It’s such a tranquil and visually appealing spot that for quite a while, as I sit and jot random notes, it blocks a simple fact that should always be at the forefront of a naturalist’s mind when in such an ecosystem – the belated recognition that this meadow isn’t a peaceful tapestry, but a battleground, a tug-of-war between grass and tree, herbaceous and woody.
Here are the troops. On the side of the grassland are, of course, the grasses and sedges, but there are surprisingly few of them; it’s mostly forbs in this meadow, plants like goldenrods of various flavors, yarrow and clover, cinquefoil and strawberry, henbit and Queen-Anne’s lace, butterflyweed and three species (that I can distinguish) of thistle, dogbane and bush-clover, black-eyed Susans and great blue lobelia.
The forest stands close-hemmed and overshadowing, for the opening is small, at best fifty yards long and maybe fifteen wide. The highest rim is comprised of mature pitch pine and white pine, a few droopy Norway spruces, one big red pine and some walnuts; the next and lower tier is made up of black locust and dogwoods, some young ashes and oaks, and some youngsters of the canopy species.
But the shock troops, trying to win back the meadow for the woodies, are autumn olives, chest-high and scattered by the dozens. They are fast-forwarding the inevitability of the battle, but the slower fighters are there, too – seedlings of white pines like little green bottlebrushes; scragglier pitch pines, sprouts of dogwood, knee-high walnuts and ashes.
The shrubs and young trees are crowding the bluebird boxes that stand in pairs, conjoined at the back, barely rising above the tide of vegetation. Another year or two, and the olives will have won, at least as meadows are measured in bluebirds – though I suspect whomever watches over these fields will soon bring in the brush-hog and raze the upstart woodies to the ground, resetting the clock in the meadow’s favor.
A permanent meadow is a human conceit. Instead of allowing it to move across the landscape at the whim of fire and wind, or disappear altogether, we tie the meadow in place, as we also tie it down in time, freezing it midway through the march of succession. Our ecological tunnel vision and short attention span lead us to repeatedly try to chain ephemera to one place, be they meadows or barrier islands, always exercising our too-human desire for control and predictability.
How would this meadow be different if, instead of a mechanical brush-hog chewing up the dried goldenrod and shredding the woody plants, it were maintained by fire? We have belatedly come to the realization that fire was an essential component not just of southern and western forests, but also of Appalachian systems; where else did the golden-winged warbler find its nesting jungle of low brush in the old days, the chat and the yellowthroat? Where did the heath hen nest, except in the blueberry scrubs of the Poconos and the coastal plain? Big fires that killed the canopy, low fires that cleaned up the undergrowth, ridgeline fires that maintained pitch pine and scrub oak barrens. Fires from lightning, fires from Indians, but fire reshaping the land.
I’m out of my depth here, but I must make a note to ask friends of mine who wield prescribed fire for a living – exactly how do flames tip the balance in the tension between forest and field, and especially within the plant community of the meadow itself? I know that burning is especially beneficial to little bluestem, for example, which is clumped here and there in this meadow, and that while it is death to many woodies, others like huckleberry and sweet fern that spread by root clones can thrive with annual fires.
Of course, even the choice to use a supposedly more natural system like fire to maintain a meadow is another conceit, because a meadow is always straining toward becoming a forest. What if we let the normal course of succession unfold all the way through? But that’s no less a decision than brush-hogging or burning, no more natural an outcome than actively managing for bluestem and bluebirds. We can’t take ourselves out of the equation.
And take a look at that list of characters on the meadow’s side – from a natives versus aliens perspective, the meadow may be the worse end of the bargain. Yarrow, autumn olive, Queen Anne’s lace, henbit, chicory, birdsfoot-trefoil – the meadow is overrun with exotics, and as I move my gaze from the field as a whole to the small scale of the patch surrounding my feet, the trend holds. Looking down, I see plants I’d overlooked among the wider view: dandelion, English plantain, common plantain, crabgrass, field hawkweed. Despite the mobs of frittilaries and monarchs dancing on the Rudbeckia blossoms, this is Eurasian ground.
Yet how flawlessly native is that forest? I stroll over to the woods at the east end of the meadow, step twenty-five paces into the trees, and look around with a critical glance. I’d already noticed, with a sour eye, the Norway spruces along the meadow’s edge, but the rest of the trees are fine – pitch pine and ash, mostly, some red maple and black locust. (That last species is a native by default, since it moved itself out of the Southeast a century ago and is as much a newcomer to these hills as the spruces.) An understory of flowering dogwood and striped maple; dense thickets of white pines which, from counting their annual whorls of branches, appear to be ten to seventeen years old.
But look lower; Japanese stilt grass grows wherever the sunlight slants through, cheek-by-jowl with the hay-scented ferns; there are burdock, dandelions, scruffy autumn olives, barberry and Norway spruce seedlings among the teaberries, patridgeberries and wild sarsaparilla. The balance is more firmly in favor of the natives within the woods, but the invaders are everywhere. The tug-of-war isn’t just between competing ecosystems, but between competing hemispheres, competing regimes, competing epochs in the history of the land — and the mongrel present is winning.
SITE 6: On the Lake
The canoe slips over calm, dark water that mirrors a few wisps of cirrus in the sky. But then a shape catches my eye, something below the surface, and I look beneath the reflection.
We are gliding over ghost trees rising dimly from the deep water, truncated limbs straining toward the sun they last felt half a century ago. A wispy fur of orangish algae cloaks them, hanging motionless as we pass above, as if we are sliding across a photograph, or something cast in ice.
It’s then that I feel a chill on my spine, thinking that somewhere down there, in the muck and the mud among this spectral forest, there must be ghostly deer tracks, too.
SITE 7: Raptor Enclosures
I’m a raptor guy; always have been. It’s an almost tidal pull with me, and wherever I am, I look up, scanning the air. At a zoo or a nature center, I always end spending a lot of time with the sky hunters.
I sit in front of the bald eagle enclosure, watching the two enormous birds inside. One of them is a partial amputee, and from the eagle’s right side, the missing wing permits a view of the white feathers of the rump and undertail coverts, which you’d never see on a wild bird. When the eagle fixes me with one of those piercing looks that raptors do so well, I feel vaguely embarrassed, as though I’d been caught staring at her underwear.
The other eagle twists its head almost upside down, looking at something in the sky high overhead. This is another alarming trait of raptors; they have more retinal cone cells on the upper half of each eye than on the lower, the better for spotting prey down below, so when they want to look at something above them, they often turn their heads upside down — a wretchedly uncomfortable-looking position but one they achieve effortlessly.
And when they lock onto a subject, they see it far more clearly than we do – not, as commonly assumed, because they possess some sort of natural telescopic vision, but because of those retinal cones again. I have about two hundred thousand per square millimeter in my eye; this eagle likely has five or six times that number, which means it doesn’t have to squint, as I do, to make out that tiny dot way up there in the milky haze of a summer afternoon.
Ah, I see now; it’s a turkey vulture, wings canted, moving east. The vulture’s hardly visible to me but the eagle is staring raptly, watching until the it drifts behind the trees. Then the eagle rights its head and gives its plumage a rattling shake.
It’s hard not to read something into the eagle’s intense interest. I’m sure most of the people who stand before these enclosures feel a pang of regret on the raptors’ behalf, a lament mostly for their lost mobility, the chance to fly free like that vulture. And so do I. I’ve seen so many free-flying raptors in my life that it’s impossible not to draw a painful contrast with the captive’s life – sharpshins coursing down the Kittatinny Ridge on a brittle autumn day, three hundred thousand Swainson’s hawks in a single, galactic mass moving across the Mexican landscape, a gyrfalcon slicing the midnight sun on the Alaskan North Slope. And bald eagles, of course, thousands of them from the Aleutians to the Florida Keys, pinned high against the blue on those great, flat wings.
However, I also suspect this is a human tendency more than a reflection of some animal need; we associate wheeling hawks with the freedom of the sky, and our own spirit hunches, abject, at the sight of the cage walls. I’ve cared for enough permanently injured raptors to sense, in many of them, a certain complacency with their lot; three squares a day, a roof when the rain and snow get bad, and no worries about having a great horned owl take off your head in the middle of the night. Life in the wild is no picnic, and from that perspective, maybe it isn’t such a bad tradeoff.
But as the vulture swings back into view again, and the eagle’s attention is once more locked onto it, I think about something that hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe the greatest constraint on a caged bird isn’t on its movement, but on its vision. The outside world – the neighboring birds, the spring warblers in the maples and pines, the migrant hawks passing over in fall — exist only through a screen of mesh, and narrow bars of PVC pipe. Perhaps that’s the secret grief of a caged bird, that eyes that should know no limit except the horizon can look no farther than we allow.
SITE 8: Lake Trail
Morning on the boardwalk, and it’s all about birds.
Amy and I have spent the week in one of the lakeshore cabins, and this morning at daybreak we’re moving quietly along the Lake Trail. The sun is just cresting the top of the trees, and a downhill breeze is pushing the mist west across the lake.
At the boardwalk, we move quietly, stepping on the balls of our feet, trying to avoid echoing footfalls. A dozen mallards feed in the shallows, all of them in the drab plumage of eclipse, the drakes distinguishable from the hens only thanks to their slightly rustier breasts, and clear yellow-green beaks that lack the hens’ dark smudges. A single hooded merganser floats against the far shore of the cove, similarly dull brown with the end of the breeding season; the crest likes folded against its nape, and I can’t see if it has a tinge of chestnut like a female, or is the unrelieved color of walnut like a male. Then the duck dives, and before it surfaces, our attention has wandered.
Understandably, too, for not far from us, the water has suddenly begun to roil, as two big snapping turtles roll and scramble in the muddy shallows. They flail with such violence we can’t, at first, determine if they’re mating or trying to kill each other – two actions which, in snappers, can look remarkably alike. But judging from their long, tapered tails (which slash through the air as they surface and lunge) these are both males, locked in a territorial dispute that goes on for fifteen minutes.
Interestingly, the mallards a few yards away pay absolutely no attention, which I find striking, given how many ducklings are lost to snapping turtles each year. Perhaps to a duck, a snapper churning up the surface is a harmless snapper; it’s the one lurking below, hungry, that’s the worry. Or maybe mallards simply don’t understand that when so many of their siblings were yanked down into the water in the first weeks out of the nest, it was one of these antediluvian beasts below the surface.
We sit in the rising sun, riveted by the battle, until the turtles break apart with no apparent resolution and sink from sight. We go back to watching the birds; hummers dart through the dew-drenched jewelweed, a yellow-billed cuckoo with rust on its wings streaks down from the hill and disappears into the alders. A pileated woodpecker swoops across the cove and lands in an overhanging oak, flushing two complaining crows. Then the woodpecker, too, flushes, bumped out by a small male Cooper’s hawk that lands on the same branch, setting all the smaller birds in the marsh in a panic as he serenely scratches his chin with one lemon-yellow foot. A swamp sparrow scolds harshly from the cattails, doing a painful gymnast’s split, legs wide-spread between two leaves.
Through all this, we both say little, communicating by gestures and a few whispers. We are two lumps, sitting on the boardwalk, just part of the scenery. A kingfisher chases a blue jay, then lands on a dead snag so close the binoculars are superfluous. Unlike the other birds, it recognizes us for what we are; the crest slowly rises in indignation, in perfect synchronization with the dry rattle of alarm. That black eye, always slightly maniacal in a kingfisher, gleams. Then it’s off, scattering curses behind it.
The show slows for a bit; the birds all seem to vanish, and I have time to get a little bored. I look down at the splashes of whitewash that blotch the boardwalk, dried and chalky, little pale Rorschach tests. I’ve rarely spent so much time staring at bird poop, and Amy must think I’ve gone round the bend when I start scratching at one, then another, crawling along the boardwalk on my knees. But there are seeds embedded in several of the droppings, and by pocketing them now, I can compare them with the berries and drupes ripening in the surrounding countryside, and see what favorites the birds are planting. I have already identified Tartarian honeysuckle seeds, with their orange-red berry skins still recognizable, and it doesn’t take long to match up one seed with the buckthorn fruits all around us – no wonder this invasive has taken over the swamp.
So immersed am I in the defectarory world of birds that I’ve missed the latest and final arrival. Amy snaps her fingers and points behind me; I freeze and crane my neck back over one shoulder. A big hen turkey is striding imperiously down the boardwalk, her brassy plumage shining in the sun. She stops, one foot held in midstride, and nips a grasshopper from an overhanging sedge leaf. Then she waits, as if savoring the bug.
I am likewise motionless, but the angle is awkward and my left leg, twisted painfully, is beginning to cramp. I’m only twenty feet from the bird, half in shadow, but a little quiver of my leg is all it takes, and those brightly intelligent eyes snap to focus on me. But there is no rush, no put-put of alarm, only a graceful pirouette and a stately return from whence she came. And, her tail lifted, a long squirt of green turd capped with white, which drops with a wet smack to the wood. Ingrate that I am, I’ll leave that one unexplored for seeds.
Resident Reflector: Scott Weidensaul, Aug. 21–23, 2006.
Author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul has written more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; The Ghost with Trembling Wings, about the search for species that may or may not be extinct; and Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Weidensaul lectures widely on wildlife and environmental topics, and is an active field researcher, specializing in birds of prey and hummingbirds. He lives in the Appalachians of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of the old colonial frontier.