Twin (Arrivals and Departures) Bridges: October 17, 2015
I arrived when the moon was thin, but waxing behind clouds. It was raining by afternoon, blustering with eight mile-per-hour gusts. Temperatures dropped from the forties into the thirties by nightfall. The calm heat of the Center felt great when I stepped in to meet Justin Raymond and Doug Wentzel around one pm. The two men kindly ventured out, guiding me across the parking lot, and then along a winding path to Twin Bridges.
As we approached, I heard white-throated sparrows — who habitually breed far north and for whom Pennsylvania’s temperate cold is winter’s warmth — singing with the burbling tones of Shaver’s Creek. Doug pointed out the stilt grass growing on the bank, an Asian newcomer with seeds some birds here might like to eat. Also crossing seas to get here, European garlic mustard and glossy buckthorn were rooted where indigenous wildflowers like toothwort might have otherwise grown as nurseries for white butterflies. On the path to the water, we stopped to admire a native burr oak umbrella-ing the woods. This individual might have been a shade tree for a former farm, Doug told us. Closer to the path was a narrow black ash with spongy bark and dead branches, likely sickened by emerald ash borers, another long-distance pioneer. I could make out a glen of hemlocks, my favorite trees, small, spread out, green. The hemlock woolly adelgid, a death-dealing sap-sucker, is also a global jet-setter to Shaver’s Creek, but evidently has not taken up residence in these particular pines, at least not yet.
There are hints, too, of what has disappeared, of absences — like the wide stumps of tall hemlocks, likely chopped down in the previous century for their bark, used for leather tanning. Their unneeded boles were left, decaying into regenerative soil-making cradles sprouting new plants. Soil is much in need of rebuilding. Stunted growth is a specter of fertility lost to past centuries’ timbering and crops. Then, too, there is the reputed ghost of the mysteriously decapitated eighteenth century frontiersman, Peter Shaver. As the story goes, I learned from Jacy Marshall-McKelvey’s “History of Shaver’s Creek,” Mr. Shaver was an eighteenth-century entrepreneur who traded rum and weapons with people of earlier nations — Iroquois, Lenni-Lenape, and Shawnee, peoples who were swiftly defeated by British new arrivals. I imagine whole communities of ghosts.
Born to a similar sort of woods in neighboring New York, I also consider the traces of cultural culpability remaining in me.
It is almost Halloween, after all.
The (Scary) Chestnut Plantation: October 18 and 22, 2015
Interlopers and ghosts notwithstanding, I happen to like being outside in the dark, mostly early morning dark, and in every kind of weather under every kind of moon. Before dawn of my last full day in Shaver’s creek, I took my usual five-mile run up a lane aptly named “Scare Pond Road” (though I never found the pond).
The now-unclouded sky flickered with stars and the moon now at two-thirds was bright enough to cast pale shadows through the roadside trees. I prefer to find my way without a flashlight, using whatever illumination the sky has to give, but I carry a small one, just in case. Ahead, a spot of shadow hissed. I caught my breath and stopped, then pointed my lamp’s dim beam toward the startling noise. I saw a sheath of quills, a fig of nose, turn, into a little black bear-like rear-end wagging into the darker dark of the woods.
I had learned on my first morning’s colder, darker run that this road abuts the north end of the three-acre fenced Chestnut Plantation, which I returned to visit later that day in the sun. But, on this last morning, warmed to the forties, I entered once more through the shackled, but unlocked gate, this time to find how the place felt in the almost-done night. As I felt around the ground with my gloved hand for a sitting place not prickled with fallen burs, I heard quick rustling in the grass followed by rattling metal, as if someone was trying to escape. I imagined any manner of possibilities. A murderer? A rapist? Maybe a man would not think of such a thing. In any event, reason asked, why would that sort of predator be hanging out with trees and trying to leave and not come? A dog barked in the distance. I considered other likelihoods — maybe I had alarmed someone else into a panic. Perhaps I had surprised a person like me — a star-crossed inspector of tough, genetically-crossed seeds — who’d found a somewhat comfortable spot under the serrated leaves of this hope of plants. Whoever had been crashing around, it sounded like she’d made it out. I felt glad for both of us. Before I left, by spotlighting the perimeter, I found deer and canid tracks in a low trough of mud under the fence. Here, it appeared possible that, by bending low, mid-sized mammals could enter and exit the cell.
I walked around the perimeter on that first daytime visit, too — on the outside, though, and looking, then, more up than down. It was still early, around eight-thirty am. I listened to birds — juncos, chickadees, crows, a downy woodpecker — plus a pair of chittering chipmunks. Entering into the Plantation lot, I noticed that there seemed to be at least as many oaks as chestnuts, the latter marked with numbered plastic tubes. In fact, some rows contained mostly just the tubes, which made me wonder, at first, whether I had misunderstood what researchers meant to be growing here. Amid the array, I felt the discomfort of a hospital’s intensive care unit. My discomfort grew when I considered how this unit served mortally ill life in the complicated aftermath of a eukaryotic pandemic.
Within the first half of the twentieth-century, over three-and-a-half billion American Chestnut trees, which could grow one hundred feet high, were killed by an Asian fungus who had traveled along with human-imported nursery stock into North America’s eastern ports. The spores, both animal- and air-borne, still doom any daring new sprouts to unattainable maturity and early death. The near-total loss of these trees distresses some people, for an assortment of valuations, including fruit and timber profit, stately beauty, evolutionary legacy, and ecological belonging. A few of us also have empathy with the suffering plants.
Remedial responses have taken at least two freighted, scientific approaches to breeding survivors: On the one hand are those searching forests for sapling survivors with rare blight-resistant genes to cross, with the aim of re-building “all-American” strains. On the other hand are those following the readier route of hybridizing Asian stocks, which have co-evolved with the fungus, crossing them with the naïve American species. The aim in this case being to retain most of the native-tailored genetic diversity while adding the foreigner’s inurement. The members of Xi Sigma Pi, an international forestry honor society, and the American Chestnut Foundation — who first planted chestnut seedlings here in 2003 — chose the latter route. So, genetically, these trees — and their seeds — are over ninety percent American and a little bit Chinese.
This day-lit place set my thoughts spinning. The fence, tubes, history, distresses, difficult and complex choices, my own biases — a microcosm of a whole human-altered and altering world — are scarier than anything. Moreover, I suddenly realized, American Chestnut forests were gone before I was born. I never knew their kind personally, an experience that will become more common in future generations. All of this made it difficult for me to connect intimately with these trees, with this piece of ground where I sat, and, therefore, also with my deeper self, interdependent as I am with all the rest.
Daintily, I picked up one of the gaping prickly burs that had once protected an experimental shiny, brown nut. The cavity smelled slightly sweet. Its inner imprint made me think of a fleshy brain. I moved from tree to tree. None were very tall; some even were shrubby. I had to crouch to get underneath the branches. Some boles were rough, some smooth. Some leaves were still green, some had changed to gold or brown; many were holey, evidence of insect hunger, I presumed. The leaves were simple, pinnate, and alternate; leathery; eye-shaped, that is, oblong and wider at the middle than at their pointed ends. The ones I measured were between five and eight inches long and between one and two inches across at their widest breadth. Their serrations ended in little spines, more or less pronounced. No two leaves were exactly alike. No two trees were the same. Which ones bore fungus-resistant seeds, which ones not? Which had qualities suited to this continent, to this three-acre patch, to a world heating up?
I stood erect between rows and, because I was not sure what came next, I listened. The birds were quiet, even the crows. A wind came down. Through the leaves I heard its voice.
And, only then did something in me resonate.
Dark Cliffy (C-) Spot: October 18 and 22, 2015
I left the Chestnut Plantation by the Mountain View Trail, heading downhill to its intersection with the Wood’s Route for my self-introduction to Dark Cliffy Spot. Thanks to Justin’s great map-work, I found my way, on my second visit, via The Lake Trail — running right in front of my cozy, well-swept Cabin #1 — veering left onto Shaver’s Creek Trail, which headed me south to my destination.
On the blustery 18th, after a few hours of being outside, my toes had become cold. I felt happy to be briskly walking now as I approached this place with, to my opinion, such an alluring moniker. I understand that the name, “Dark Cliffy Spot,” given by LTERP instigator, Ian Marshall, has been ridiculed by at least one previous writer. Now, Mike Branch, before I say anything else, I want to put a stop to this business once and for all. First off, speaking from experience, flashlights are useless for dispelling outdoor darkness. In fact, shining a lamp here at night would make everything surrounding the limited power of the beam seem all the more black. As to “cliffy” and “spot,” all I will say is that, though it may have taken some practice to find it, this is the bedroom of the forest, a sensual place. If we were to improve the name, and I am not saying that we should, why not consider it Shaver’s Creek’s secluded “C-spot,” and, well, let’s just leave it at that.
In any case, in this musky bight of an otherwise nameless stream, I wanted to play. That’s why I returned on a second day. Warmer then, and better oriented, I walked up and down the banks. I sprinted up the hemlock-forested hill, also with oaks and tulip maples, which flanked the cliff, so that I could look down on what I had looked up at from below. Seen from the cliff base, a tree trunk rooted in the rock face was a snaky god, as thick as a man’s waist, worshiping his sky; viewed from the bluff-top, the same tree’s branches were the spread legs of a human balanced on her head. Back down, bank-side, I tried unsuccessfully to catch a little cliffy-fish (1–2 inches long, translucent, dorsal spot near its tail?). I touched the spongy moss all over ground, rocks, and logs. One log also blossomed with heart-shaped, blood-red reishi mushrooms with healing powers, scentless (to me). I smelled the wet hemlock-y soil, bready, as familiar as home, and, so, delicious. I tasted the delicate fern sprouting out of the wall known by native peoples to help regulate menstruation, and I thought about all woman-kind’s transitions. But, for the longest time, I listened, and I tried to join in.
I came here before reading anyone else’s reflections. Yet, it turned out, I was not alone in being drawn most strongly to a singular aspect of Dark Cliffy Spot — its music.
“The life of every river sings its own song,” wrote the twentieth-century American ecologist, Aldo Leopold. That song consists of multitudes of voices, of various elemental combinations, including of topography, rock, water, gravity, plants, animals, and weather. I walked up and down this stream.I heard other lovely chorus groupings. I saw a tiny winter wren, my favorite songster, whose voice rises like twinkling stars in dimmer forests. But, there was just something about these particular stones, the water’s down-flowing bend, the echoes off the moist wall, joined, temporarily, by a crowd of passing golden-crowned kinglets, plus some magic in this one well-discovered spot.
Listening, I moved around until I found the heart of the tune. A duet. Upstream was one little pile of rocks. About two feet below it, another. The water spinning through the former’s nooks and crannies produced a constant running mid-pitch line with a mellower base of rhythmic drops…2 quarter notes, two eighths, 6 quarter notes, 2 eighths, 1 quarter, 2 eighths, 1 quarter…marimba-timbred. The downstream ensemble was an allegrezza, chattering score of notes.
Why was being an audience not enough? I started to experiment, to participate. I picked up a fist-sized rock from the bank and moved it around the singing fountain. When I blocked the upstream flow, for example, it simplified the downstream prattle. Then, I put three fingers in the water, which added another rhythmic layer.
I wondered, is a river’s song it’s own, that is, “natural,” when I interfere with it? Do I belong here as well as the rocks? I had been careful, so far, only to make slow, careful alterations — ones I could easily reverse. But, I felt another urge tempt — to smash the whole instrument to pieces, in an instant, with my feet.
And, then what?
Interlude (Twin Bridges, again), October 19, 2015
It was approaching noon on Monday, the 19th. I had just started feeling hungry for the bagel in my backpack. So, I sat balanced on the curve of a hemlock bole on the sunny side of Shaver’s Creek to eat, before crossing over Twin Bridges, on my way to the “Rudy Sawmill Site.”
The skies had cleared over night with temperatures dropping to a low of twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit by seven am. (I can say this with precision by “data mining”: https://huntingdon.weatherstem.com/scec. With less precision, but equal authority, I know that the morning hours I had just spent at the “Raptor Center” were chilly, and the birds were pretty quiet.) This was the first hard frost of the year.
Temperatures increased quickly through the day, though, along with the lift of a pleasant breeze, just half as gusty as when I first arrived. As I sat in a warm patch of light chewing my food, I looked around. A wooly caterpillar, tan with spines and a black strip down its back, accordioned into the stilt grass. I listened to: cars coming and going from the nearby parking lot; barely two minutes between airplanes Doppler-ing overhead; red-breasted nuthatches’ bicycle horns, a downy woodpecker’s ball dropping in pitch, a goldfinch’s swaying flight call, a kingfisher’s rattle, a red cardinal’s cheers, a tree cricket cricketing, a few spring peepers still calling after the rain, water running under the bridge, and self-scissored tulip-tree leaves falling as yellow confetti: SlapSlap. Two hit the bridge almost simultaneously. Sa-lop, one falls on uneven grass. Slack, another hits my open map. Tick, onto a hemlock bough overhead.
Slap TickTick Tick
Winter is coming.
The Saw (Perpetual) Mill, October 19 and 21, 2015
Tulip, maple, birch, beech…also oak and white pine, among others. A leaf fell behind my back. I quickly turned, wondering, for an instant, what animal I might glimpse. Here was an old hemlock cut, about twenty-two inches in diameter, and, of course, mossy. I sat again on a log, this log, though now with lunch already having filled my stomach. I looked around. It was as if a giant bagel had made a dense imprint on this very ground — a round center ringed by a trough.
I sat in that center for a while, listening. I returned, two days later, and did the same. Temperatures that second afternoon peaked at seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit. Among the birds chorusing at this site were red-breasted nuthatches, maybe white-breasted ones, too, a crow or two, and a downy woodpecker. Spare avian voices joined with the breezy percussion of those few still-falling leaves and rolling water, reminding me that I was just upstream from the two bridges, on the same creek, a bit farther yet from the cliffs with its elemental mixtures of rushing drips and splashes. Here a piece of the stream became part of a roundabout connecting two ends of an arcing dry-ground channel surrounding me in its hub.
A circle in a circle, circling.
Jacy’s “History” says that four sons of farmer Jonas Rudy opened a sawmill here around 1860, which operated for the next twenty-two years. The mill’s activity overlapped in its final year with the family’s new, even shorter-lived, distillery. The Rudy’s mill was, by necessity or choice, a modest affair. Steam power was available, but this family used the older technology of a waterwheel. It’s turning powered a saw to cut trees into small pieces. Moreover, the scale of this mill destined its output as building lumber rather than for burning into charcoal. The eighteenth-century discovery of iron ore in this area had led to intense logging for charcoal-making through the following decades, answering the needs of smelting furnaces. By the time the Rudy’s got their mill up and running, many surrounding ones already had shut down. The burning appetite they had been feeding, within decades, had depleted timber stocks — that is, to produce charcoal to produce iron to produce stoves to burn more wood, and also coal. Circles.
Not all wheels can be kept turning.
I got up and walked around the “bagel” trough surrounding me, stepping over fallen branches. The circumference is about two hundred paces. In accord with the modesty of the Rudy’s mill, you might mistake this 150-year old trace of the old “race” as weathered topography. Likely, the brothers had dug this relatively shallow ditch to divert the creek’s flowing water to turn the bucketed wheel. I imagined I was water following the sluice.
I am water — mostly.
I circled, as in a traffic roundabout. I entered the trough, left, from upstream, flowed round through the forest, and returned, left, downstream into the creek — relieved to move on, freer than freedom — into the Juniata River into the Susquehanna River into the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps, along with helping carry sediment, I gave a fish breath now and again. Next, warmed by sunlight, I became rain. I helped grow a leaf, porcupine, and birdsong.
This wheel’s perpetual turning means life.
Interlude (Twin Bridges, again), October 19, 2015
I was returning to my cabin to read and write. To get there, I traveled southwest via the Sawmill Trail toward the Lake, back by fallen-leafed Twin Bridges. I passed just in time to hear a bolting woodchuck drum across the double-crossing’s swaying, wooden planks:
The Lake (Caution) Trail, October 21, 2015
Once I got into the swing of walking, it was hard for me to stop. I love walking. I also love not knowing what’s around the bend, curiosity leading me on. So, to stretch out from a two-hundred step circle to a three-mile loop, quite simply, felt bodily good. The excuse for the trail is the lake, but for a significant portion of the walk, the lake is not visible. Like cake behind glass, glimpsing the water’s glimmer out of reach through trees made it all the more alluring.
In the sunlight, as temperatures rose thirty degrees from a morning start in the thirties, I listened to the rhythm of my feet on various surfaces, fallen pine needles, deciduous leaves, and gravels. Penn State, who owns this land, has a Center for Dirt and Gravel Studies. I had never given much thought to this kind of inquiry — on how to make roads and trails low-dust, durable, and to lessen rainfall runoff and erosion potential, that is, to keep down amounts of sediment and toxins washing downhill into streams and lakes. “Swish-swish, scrunch-scrunch, and crunch-crunch,” went my happy, un-soiled boots.
I paused only briefly to watch a deer browsing, to be amazed at a pileated woodpecker chipping apart a tall maple to eat its insects, to smile at a coot making a splash, and to dutifully read the several caution signs. I wondered, then, too, is there a school for public sign-making? Signs and symbols shape how we see the world. The notices along the way effectively alerted me: The Lake Trail I was blithely following might be, in fact, a quite risky course!
Following clockwise from my cabin along The Lake Trail, I found these three signs particularly attention-grabbing:
CAUTION/ THE DAM AND SPILLWAY ARE NOT REGULARLY PATROLLED./THE UNIVERSITY DISCLAIMS ALL/ LIABILITY FOR PERSONAL INJURY OR/ PROPERTY OF ANY KIND./ VISITORS ARE PROHIBITED/ FROM WALKING, SLIDING,/ OR TRESPASSING ON THE SPILLWAY!
I admit that I was relieved to find no no guard as I passed over the dam’s bridge. Perhaps this revealed a certain unfortunate tameness in me. I had not actually considered sliding down the spillway. But, after reading the sign, I did. And it sounded awfully fun. On the other hand, the adjective “regularly” left room for an “irregular” patrol. And so, I supposed, there was some chance, even accepting my own liability for my own injury, of getting caught risking my neck. Boiled down, risking my neck plus having to pay for the consequences myself, seemed the prohibition implied. Better not, I decided, reluctantly, peering down over the railing at the water’s sheen over a steep hill of flat concrete.
The roughness of the slabs caused swagging ripples, both the sight and whisper of which, in fact, mesmerized me. Then there was this lone rock. Perhaps it had just tumbled down from creek to lake to rest on the slope just here, crow-sized, causing an irregularity in the otherwise constant current. This rock turned the whole scene into a moving work of art. I, therefore, would edit the last line of the sign, to “PROHIBIT…/TRESPASSING, AND MOVING THE ROCK…”
2) STONE VALLEY VERTICLE ADVENTURES: WARNING/NO TRESSPASSING/THIS EQUIPMENT MAY ONLY BE USED/ UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL/SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH/MAY RESULT FROM UNAUTHORIZED USE/TRESPASSERS/WILL BE/PROSECUTED.
This sign was more authoritative than the one near the dam. Its instructions read, paradoxically, as both more permissive (e.g., “supervision” vs. “patrol”) and stricter (e.g., “prosecute” vs. “disclaim”). It was attached to what I guessed might be an equipment shed next to a towering contraption intended for recreational climbing. But this idea, to me at least, authorized or not, was much less tempting than a slide down the spillway. Not to mention that here the word — “DEATH” — was spelled out. Which got me to thinking — not only could a person at Shaver’s Creek take a fall from a built sculpture or cliff, but possibly drown in the lake, or get hit by a car. There were rattlesnakes around, I understood. Wolves and mountain lions had been effectively culled, and, reportedly, gone from here for the past hundred or so years. Still, one never knows. And, I thought, once again, as I often have, about the way I would like to die. What would make a good death? Let that be a guide.
3) * CAUTION
This weathered, hand-made sign — a red star followed by a single word on a white background — is a model of effective ambiguity. I went on immediate alert, looking all around for any kind of danger. Not to underrate sticktight — the ubiquitous native, disturbance-loving plant and its seeds’ grabby tenacity. But, the exasperation of carrying them home on my clothes was the most threatening thing I could readily perceive here. The great thing about ambiguity is the narration it generates, the stories. Perhaps this elegant sign tells a historic tale, or a future one. Perhaps a double-faced opportunity — for surety-or-peril — was living so close, in the present, that without a changed perspective, I could not or would not see it. Well, I couldn’t stand there all day, now could I? Future generations — as part of this unfolding tale — will know.
The Bluebird (of Happiness) Meadow, October 21, 2015
Peeling off the Lake Trail, the Bluebird Trail led me to the Bluebird Meadow on this bluebird day. This hillside requires ongoing hard work to keep shrubs and trees at bay — particularly, that vigorous Asian contribution, Autumn Olive. Bluebirds like openness, but also nest holes. So, in lieu of old forest snags, industrious Eagle Scouts had built and erected, in 2002, quite a few nest boxes.
Ironically, though, this is a lazy place. It is a place right for a picnic, which I served myself by way of crunching two apples while lounging on the ground soaking up sunlight.
At first, I thought, again, about names. I considered re-naming this site “Airplane Meadow,” because barely a moment passed without one growling by, writing its plumy white signature on the cobalt sky. But, I doubted that members of Shaver’s Creek had the inclination or staffing to oversee a whole airborne fleet. Then, a green-as-grass grasshopper, darned cute with big eyes, hopped right by. Why not “Grasshopper Meadow”? A milkweed pod that had exploded into a ray of downy seeds was as beautiful a thing as I had ever seen. Not to mention, milkweed means food and egg-laying spots for monarch butterflies, plummeting, in recent decades, to fewer than ten percent of their kind’s previous numbers. “Milkweed meadow” has a nice ring. A turkey vulture cruised overhead; they tend to get a bad rap for eating the dead. I had the urge to honor carrion-feeders’ undeniable value today by suggesting “Vulture Meadow.” Well, you get the idea. I also lifted my water bottle to the grouse drumming; crows crowing; a guttering raven; more boreal-breeding white-throated sparrows singing “O, Canada,” as some tend hear it (mostly Canadians, no doubt); a red-tailed hawk with its Hollywood wail.
And, yes, I stayed, waiting for it — a greedy wish, especially so late in the year. I wanted to hear, along with the rest — a bluebird’s jaunty notes. Bluebird singing sounds to many humans, including me, like happiness. Without looking forward or back — dwelling in the present moment — indeed, don’t we each want to manage some habitat for that?
The Raptor (Eye) Center, October 17, 19, and 22, 2015
During her three-month performance, “The Artist is Present,” Marina Abramović spent all day, every day sitting in a chair, exchanging looks with museum visitors seated across from her. Person-by-person, barely looking at any other part of each singular body, Abramović shared often extended, mutual gazes with a total of 1,565 pairs of eyes. Many times, people became emotional, weeping, during this intimate experience. Seeing themselves being seen in her tended to unleash participants’ vulnerability, Abramović explained. And, she felt herself revealed in the mirroring of others; they changed her, too. “I know them,” she said in a 2010 interview for MOMA’s Inside/Out — each sitter, “they’re like family.”
Birds and humans don’t usually get so close or stay still long enough to stare. As a visitor in The Raptor Center, I did my best, in a few hours accumulated during the course of my stay, to exchange looks with a mere thirty pairs of avian eyes. The birds had not volunteered for this, and not all of them responded to my advances by returning glances. This certainly was each one’s prerogative. In such cases, I stepped back. Some did agree, though, if just for a moment. Intellectually, I knew that not only each species, but each individual, was unique. I also understood the scientific evidence supporting human kinship with birds, and with all life. In this eye-balling practice, though, I felt the particularity of each one, and, yes, also, for better or worse, they’re like family.
Among the most haunting eyes were the short-eared owl’s — with shadowy lids and WIDE black pupils rimmed in stunning gold. It was not only their beauty but their intent that got me. On our first quick encounter, just before noon on that cold-rainy day of my arrival, this bird’s stare felt both unshrinking and uncertain. Perhaps he was evaluating my charm. What I saw mirrored in his eyes, I recognized, were my own exertions to perform self-confidence. Two days later, in the early frozen morning, his look felt equally direct, but with a gain in dubiousness. As I drew close, he hissed at me from his perch without moving away. My gaze this time alarmed him. What had I reflected that he felt, and, how had I fallen short? At about one-forty-five on the warm afternoon of the 22nd, I returned for feeding time. Intern Emily Anne Moore, with volunteer Samantha Goebel, generously invited me to follow them around. As the three of us descended, the short-eared owl, as if staring into space, seemed to ignore us and the three mice that Samantha placed with tongs into his food box. The traits that this bird’s bearing this time brought to mind included awareness, firmness, and self-determination. If accurate, I suspect that these qualities did not come to him any more easily than they do to humans living in wing-torn captivity.
Indeed, birds and hominids are bound in a legacy as creations of Earth. Three-hundred-and-ten million years ago both of our lines, in a sense, occupied a common, fertile egg. Then we branched off, as siblings will, into our own odysseys. Scientifically-speaking, our respective ancestors likely continued developing on different fragments of the rifted landmass of Gondwana. Raptors developed millions of years ago, diversified and dispersed among continents. Arriving in Africa, avian sorts there reunited with still-developing humans who became our type a mere two-hundred-thousand years ago, then scattered quickly. Until, eventually, in all our many still-unfurling forms, birds and humans intertwined across the whole world.
When our lineage diverged, those long ages ago, birds and mammals carried forward to their progenies the same basic design of water-based eyes, which continued evolving. Most human retinas now have cones for receiving a spectrum of red, green, and blue. Birds, on the other hand, not only have more of these cones, but also ones for ultraviolet plus colored oil droplets. So most avian eyes can see multi-hued rainbows, and shades of feathers, hard for people to imagine. Each heritage of brains also developed in different ways. Recently, scientists have discerned that “birdbrained” does not mean small-minded. In fact, birds and mammals, including raptors and humans, share capacities for complex cognitive behaviors, such as remembering, learning, and communicating, including exchanges of empathy along with arrays of feelings.
In any case, beyond science, you know it when you see it:
In the kestrel’s glossy brown eyes, so near my face, I recognized a ferocity of need, tenderizing, which drew me close.
The directness of the peregrine’s dark look reflected my own unrepentant wildness.
The turkey vulture’s smaller eyes were, to me, alert yet inscrutable. Perhaps I must spend more time with carrion.
The bald eagles’ — one pair, male, yellowed with age, the younger female’s black — kept their distance, as did I, while the elder’s voice, though kind of funny-sounding, found its way right through me — as the peregrine up the hill joined in, wailing, and, then, a crow called, free-flying overhead.
The golden eagle turned away her back, and her gaze. I was heart-broken.
All kinds of birds may get to know us, too, as individuals. The black vulture, with impish affection, had eyes only for Torri Withrow, an environmental education intern, who replied, “I could sit in here all day.”
That sounded like a very good idea.
Lake Perez (Reflections), October 21, 22, and 23
Dust from massive exploded stars — vast clouds of atoms of every sort — by gravity, collected into Earth — from its hot core to soil and water-covered bedrock to frozen poles, with the whole of life, reaching to the skies, energized with sunlight — including today’s maple and hemlock trees, club mosses, shiny red Autumn meadowhawks, blue-headed vireos, Carolina wrens, pied-billed grebes, and people, like me, who have enjoyed the surroundings of Lake Perez.
From deep time and space above and below the gleaming water that floated my canoe, was a history of changes and consequence. On this beaming afternoon of the 21st, I let my paddles rest, soothed by the splish of their drips rippling the surface of the Lake. The wind was calm. I drifted.
Seven years ago, this half-century old, seventy-two-acre human-made lake was drained for dam renovation. The sneaky flow of Shaver’s Creek had been seeping underneath the barrier. A year ago, the repair-work done, the Lake was allowed to refill and stocked with a thousand bass, with more to come. And, presumably, thereafter, waters’, if not fishes’, only way out is over the spillway.
Through those dried-up years, a brushy meadow had rooted into soil no doubt enriched by lacustrine detritus. I picked up my paddles and, from the thirty-foot deeps, headed lazily toward Twin Bridges, that is, toward the northeast curves of the lakeshore. Here the water was more shallow. The tops of small trees — likely aspen, black locust, glossy buckthorn, and willows — jutted out. These youngsters must have been surprised when their ground was re-flooded. Some of their branches were just high enough to scratch the belly of the boat as I passed over.
I tried to see down to the lake-bottom, but it was still deep enough to be dark. This was just the sort of thing to get my imagination wandering. Of course, I knew this had been an ordinary meadow just a few short months ago, but, what if I time-traveled? Astride the treetops I could squint into the water discovering past worlds beneath.
My mind first swam into a relatively recent past — a centuries-old forest community, which had grown to include big oaks, maples, white pines, hemlocks, beech, hickory, and chestnut — with complexly interacting earlier people — Shenks Ferry, Onojutta-Haga, Susquehannocks, Iroquois, Leni-Lenape, and Shawnee. Then, just a few human generations ago, this whole land community was appropriated by European newcomers who turned this ground into farmland. In the middle of the 1800s, these people also burned many trees into charcoal to fuel furnaces to smelt iron ore to make stoves to burn wood and coal to heat spreading towns, build railroads, mine more mines, and develop a nation. Some of the ore used was local. Here in the deeps under my floating vessel, the nineteenth-century pioneers had mined a seam.
So, then, I rushed back over four-hundred million years ago, long before mammals and birds had distinguished themselves, when this place actually lay close to the equator. The ancient Taconic mountains were weathering, releasing large quantities of iron atoms, which gravity pulled downhill, into rivers washing through an alluvial plain into the newly formed Appalachian basin. Scaly fish were just developing in the rivers. As I happened to be near a stream, I followed it down into the basin’s trilobite-crawling, corals-growing ocean. These briny waters were remnants of the far older, wider-spread Iapetus Sea. I swam at least another one-hundred million years back surrounded by gobs of jellyfish and worms, and mounds of photosynthesizing blue-green algae — already distinguished by billions-of-years of global atmosphere-transforming history — yet another ancient world under this lake.
I stood a very, very long time, watching the Taconic mountains wear down. Then I saw, just three-hundred-and-fifty million years ago, colliding land masses grow other peaks, the Acadians, just east of today’s Pennsylvania. These mountains also eroded into the old Appalachian marine basin, widening its shores with heavy deposits, which kept coming, weighting down the ground all around, over time, pressing it into stacks of black and gray shale. Climates slowly shifted over this ground. So did saltwater margins, seasons of heavy rains and drier times, sediment-bearing rivers, and swamps with lush plants, featuring tropical trees and ferns, and animals, including insects and fishes’ young descendants, air-breathing amphibians. Repeatedly, swamps’ fallen leaves and trunks became peat and, along with scales and fleshy bodies, was unhurriedly buried with sand and mud, compacted, and transformed into an abundance of carbon-rich coal. Here, then, another series of worlds extended through the reaches below me.
Next, I felt Earth tremble with the rise of the area’s biggest mountains of all — the Alleghanians. These giants were thrust two-and-a-half miles high by another continental crash, three-hundred million years ago. Bedrock heaved, angled up and stood on end, was folded, bended, squeezed, and fractured. Water, as it still does, went wherever it could, so it infiltrated many new-formed nooks and crannies. Meanwhile, the sea of the Appalachian basin had receded, leaving in its wake hundreds-of-millions of years of accumulated layers of mud mixed with the remains of marine life tamped down under eroding-mountain sediments. The mud and decayed plants and animals — whose bodies stored the energy of ages of sunlight mixing with atoms — compressed and heated underground, were slowly transformed into roving varieties of fossil hydrocarbons — petroleum. Like water, oil and gas migrate, which they did through unfathomably intricate networks of pores, fissures and cracks in the aged tiers of their hardened-mud shales and other rocks. In some places, they seeped — whether black and gooey or light and bubbly — right out of the ground. In other cases, the stuff was held tight in reservoirs as much as several miles down, far beneath coal and iron mines, in this even older realm.
Though my exploration of other worlds was worlds away from complete, I needed to breathe. My mind popped up into the sunlight, into my boat, still skimming the branches of the past year’s brushy meadow’s sapling trees mostly hidden underwater. A great blue heron flew overhead, just then, in the direction of the old Sawmill site.
Through long geological ages, the immediate Shaver’s Creek vicinity seems to have kept on the drier side of the ancient sea plain’s ridges and valleys, and also less peaty. Just a few miles south, though, in the same county, is a borough that mid-nineteenth-century miners named “Coalmont” in the township called “Carbon.” And, two counties west, finds the border of the state’s most significant area of oil and gas.
Today, miners are drilling wells to increasing depths — in some cases now nearly two miles down, perhaps as far as the Iapetus Sea-bottom. Today, miners are using deep-ground explosives to crack open foundations of fossil-rich bedrock. Over the past decade, with this twenty-first century Earth-quaking technology called hydraulic fracturing, miners — with some, but not all citizens’ permission, yet with consequences to everyone — are injecting pressurized air, water, sand, mud, and rock-dissolving chemicals into partly understood, yet unfathomable realms to flush out petroleum. Unknown brews of mixing molecules thus are moving uncertain distances at uncertain speeds into the vast, sunken network of pores and fissures — sometimes, to be sure, burbling above ground — into drinking glasses and crop-fields, seeping into webs-of-lives of lakes and rivers, running into oceans. As a result of this mining procedure, natural gas, in other words, the potent greenhouse gas, methane, also is leaking into the atmosphere in record quantities. While all that miners can capture of Earth’s long-secreted carbon-rich matter and energy appears destined for burning into an increasingly heat-trapping sky — for we humans who can afford to buy it — to turn on electricity, move cars and planes, make plastic toys and plastic guns, and fuel the growth of an industrial, global economy — which, even so, for life-prospering, requires refreshing waters and a comfortable Earth-blanket of air.
Like I said, not all wheels can be kept turning.
I returned to the lake the next morning, the 22nd, amid a pastel dawn — billowing with golden-pink, grey, and white clouds against a baby-blue dome. I caught the mirrored image of that sky and the black-green shoreline on the surface of the water, shadowing into the shade of my canoe. This gave the illusion of a world upside-down. With the trees rooted in the sky, crowns dangling. Now, I was floating in air.
How does one learn the stories of air, old or new? Like those of the stars and the ground, they too, at least in part, are written deep into Earth — for example, in the chemistry of buried water; in compositions of fossilized life, including coal and petroleum; in rock formations; in bubbles trapped in ocean mud and glacial ice. Atmosphere’s tales are told by gauges measuring proportions of gases in the air — with far higher concentrations of greenhouse gases now than in any time in human history, with consequences rippling — in temperatures on mountain tops and sea surfaces, marine acidity, flows of musical creeks and respiration rates of forests. The stories of air are drawn in conditions of soils and birds — in Earth’s whole diversity of life.
Stories of Earth may also be disclosed now in terms of generations of human flourishing — for richer or poorer, of sickness or health — yesterday, today, and in centuries and longer ages to come. Time and place tell on us, revealing whether or not we attuned our common weals with the turning-wheels that mean life.
Note: I thank my good friend, Dr. John H. Barnes, and his co-author, W.D. Sevon, for their The Geological Story of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, 2002), which was so helpful in reflecting on Lake Perez.
Leavings, October 23
The shining moon had thickened from talon-curved to spotted egg-shaped over the course of my Shaver’s Creek week. My car was packed. I felt myself shiver, though there was only the slightest breeze and the temperature was ten above freezing. One last time, I slid my canoe off the grassy shore and into the water. I headed out, taking care to dip my paddle silently. What is it about darkness that desires peace and quiet?
Stars glimmered overhead. Between strands of mist smoking low over the surface of the lake, pins of light appeared to originate from its depths. Suspended between Earth and moon, I felt myself true — made mostly of water coursing through a temporary frame built of ancient stellar dust.
It was hard to make out the shoreline, but I guessed I might be somewhere near the lake’s middle when I stopped, once more, to listen. I heard the occasional whines of trucks flying by on an outlying road joined by the voices of darkness-concealed waterfowl softly creaking around my boat. From the far shore came a mutual echoing: A barred owl called out low and rhythmically. From the hills beyond, another countered quickly, in higher-sounding tones, finished with a wild scream.
Julianne Lutz Warren is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, an intellectual biography tracing the historical development of Leopold’s land health concept. Her other writings explore human orientations within Earth’s community of communities to discover what may be mutually life-enhancing. You can follow her on Twitter (Julianne Lutz Warren) or visit her website, CoyoteTrail.net.