Heart’s Content

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?

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