Dave Bonta: Can you remember your first reaction to the property? What impressed you the most?
Marcia Bonta: I was overwhelmed by the ride up through the dark hollow, followed by the sunlit opening at the top in early July. Then, while your dad talked to the realtor, the rest of us were out in the backyard filling our stomachs with black raspberries. I had never seen so many wild berries. That’s when I urged your dad to buy the place.
DB: How did Central Pennsylvania differ from other places you’ve lived? And how have your impressions of it changed over the years?
MB: I had loved our home in rural Maine, but I wasn’t fond of the black flies in May and June and the mosquitoes the rest of the summer that made the woods uninhabitable until the first frost. But I did enjoy snowshoeing in the winter and the frozen lake that allowed me to explore the shores on my snowshoes. I also liked the independent-minded people. I was devastated when we left because I had had five years of living in the country and didn’t want to live in a town or city again, as we had during our first years of marriage in Washington, D.C. and suburban Virginia. I knew, though, from our years at Bucknell University, as college students, and also the time we had spent at my grandparents’ home in Pottstown and at my great Aunt Mary’s home in Mahanoy City, that Pennsylvania had beautiful, wooded hills and mountains and that we would be able to find a rural home here.
When we first moved to Plummer’s Hollow, it was a quiet place filled with birds and animals. Over the years, the songbird population has dwindled and the trees, shrubs and wildflowers have suffered and continue to suffer from invasive plants and diseases that I couldn’t have imagined. I also did not imagine that the Tyrone bypass that was finished up after we moved here would become an interstate highway, that all around us our neighbors would have their forests cut unsustainably, that the increasing deer herd would eat much of the understory, and that the family-owned limestone quarry at the base of our mountain would be sold to a large corporation.
On the other hand, I could not have imagined the advent of three new mammal species on our property — black bears, coyotes, and fishers — all of which have added to my pleasure in walking our trails.
DB: Did living here influence your decision to become a writer? I seem to recall that your first publications were actually about our back-to-the-land stuff, and the nature writing came a little later — is that right?
MB: I started keeping a nature journal when we lived in D.C. at the urging of your dad. Whenever we visited a natural area, I recorded it. At the same time, I was reading nature books, especially those by Edwin Way Teale and Hal Borland. Then, when we moved to Maine, I continued reading and studying nature books and keeping a nature journal.
When we moved to Pennsylvania, I was so enthralled by what I was seeing here, I wanted to write about it and began with a nature column in the local newspaper that also included country-living material, patterned after Gladys Taber’s country books on her life in Connecticut. I also realized that no real nature books had been written about Pennsylvania and that there were no articles about Pennsylvania in the many nature magazines we subscribed to. That was the niche I hoped to fill. But we were also homesteading at the time — raising a couple pigs, bees, chickens, Muscovy ducks, and vegetables. Getting nature articles in magazines was impossible without experience and contacts, but a number of magazines, including Organic Gardening, were interested in publishing my homesteading experiences. When I wrote my first book — Escape to the Mountain — about our first five years here, I did include some material on our pets and gardening and had intended to write a second one about the rest of our homesteading experience. I couldn’t get that one sold.
I realized that “how-to” books were easier to sell and I was also interested in promoting Pennsylvania’s natural places, so with your Dad as photographer and driver, we went all over the state both for articles for state magazines and for a book. After writing two books about such places and numerous magazine articles, I finally had enough of a reputation to do what I really wanted to do, hence, my four Appalachian Seasons books.
DB: You helped stop the final lumbering in Plummer’s Hollow, as you described in Appalachian Autumn. What lessons do you take from that whole experience — about human nature, about our legal system, and so forth?
MB: Your Dad and I have always been naïve about humanity, so we tended to believe at first what folks told us about their motivations and what they were doing. We soon learned differently. Where land ownership is concerned, we were told that owners could do whatever they wanted to their land and if it impacted us, our only recourse was to sue them in courts after the damage had occurred. In other words, you need money and power to challenge the system and we didn’t have either. We also realized that most people who owned land on our mountain looked at it strictly as a cash cow and/or as somewhere to hunt deer. They believed that by continually cutting, they would produce young growth to increase the deer herd. And when they needed money, they called in a lumberman. They expected that the forest would regenerate as it always had and didn’t want to hear about the impact of deer and poor logging practices. They didn’t seem to know much about any of the other creatures or plants on their land. In other words, their approach, and, indeed, the approach of most people still toward the natural world is utilitarian, which is why humans continue to take rather than give to nature, thinking that it will always produce. I know many people think that those of us who care so much for the natural world don’t care about people. On the contrary, we realize that once we despoil every inch of the earth, as many seem intent on doing, humans will be the ones to suffer, more than they already are in such places as the horn of Africa.
DB: How has your perception of the natural world changed over the years as a result of living here? Or, to put it differently: How has living here informed your understanding of nature and biodiversity?
MB: By watching the changes from season to season and year to year, I have learned a great deal about nature and biodiversity. When we first moved to the country, back in Maine, and then here, I was happy just to be close to the natural world, but I only knew the identification of a few wildflowers, birds, trees, and shrubs. With the help of books and articles, this history and English student managed to teach herself something about the plants and creatures she was observing. Mostly, I learned to be a hands-off person where nature is concerned — a watcher, not a doer.
DB: Over the years we’ve monitored for acid rain, watched waves of invasive species come in, fought industrial wind turbines and strip malls elsewhere on the ridge, and may be witnessing more frequent, destructive storms as a result of climate change. Are you ever tempted to just give up, sell the place, and move the hell out of Pennsylvania? What keeps you sane?
MB: If we were much younger, I would be tempted to leave. But then, what would we do with this place? We’d have to sell it to get enough money to live somewhere else. I couldn’t betray this property like that because if we didn’t cut the forest before selling it, as almost everyone does who sells forested property, the next owner probably would. And since we have determined to grow an old-growth forest here and are well on our way in some areas, we couldn’t possibly sell it to someone else. Our son, Steve, recently revisited our old property in Maine and found that the forest on it hadn’t been touched, much to our delight. I don’t think the same thing would happen here.
Going out every day in our diminished world keeps me sane most of the time. Also, the knowledge that I am getting old and may be lucky enough to be off the planet before climate change destroys the place. According to the latest science, Pennsylvania will not be as hard-hit as some areas. Of course, that depends on whether we can keep our ample water supply safe in this state when the drier states run out.
DB: We’ve been conducting guided tours for Penn State environmental studies and landscape architecture classes for a number of years now. How did that get started, and what have you learned from doing it?
MB: Dr. Ian Marshall, an English professor from Penn State Altoona, who teaches nature writing as literature, contacted me about speaking to his class. That was back in the early nineties. They were reading Appalachian Spring, I believe. Then, he asked to bring a group up for a field trip. After that, he and Dr. Carolyn Mahan, a biology professor at Penn State Altoona, designed a brand new environmental studies program for the college and wanted more in-depth field trips here. Very soon, you joined me in doing that. Dr. Marshall told professor friends at University Park about our field trips and once a reporter from WPSU also came on a field trip and did a program about it. I think that’s the way the word spread about our all-day field trips in which you talk about forest issues and I about wildflowers, birds, etc. I also am asked to read from my books and answer questions from the class about my writing.
I’ve enjoyed conducting these field trips because I started writing to teach people about the natural world, in hopes that they would be interested in defending it and in studying about it themselves. Some of these students, at least, are interested in doing that. Writing is a lonely experience, and sometimes it’s difficult to know if you’ve reached anyone. Seeing and talking to these students gives me hope for the future.
DB: What advice would you give to young people, or anyone, thinking of moving to the country? Should they fix up an old place as we did, or build new to take advantage of green building techniques? How should they try and balance their needs with the needs of wildlife?
MB: If there is already a building on the property, fixing it up is more environmentally sound than tearing it down and building new. But if they fix it up, they should still take advantage of energy-saving practices, especially those for heating and cooling.
As far as nature is concerned, they should develop as little as possible and let nature have its way. Nature likes messiness. It does not like, nor can it utilize, vast expanses of lawn. I am appalled at how many folks move to the country and spend their time on a riding mower cutting grass. Why don’t they stay in a town or city? If they are afraid of nature or want to neaten it up, they should not live in the country. We need more wildness in this country, not less. If everyone who has a large lawn would dig it up and plant native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs, they would create badly-needed habitat for all kinds of creatures. In addition, taking care of such a place would be more challenging, interesting, and body-building than sitting on a mower.
DB: How do you envision Plummer’s Hollow 40 years from now, or 100?
MB: I hope the forest continues to mature, the wildflowers and shrubs increase in number and diversity, and the mammal species thrive. I fear that climate change, diseases, and other impacts will negatively affect Plummer’s Hollow. I would love to be proved wrong about this. In fact, I hope I am wrong and that humanity will change its acquisitive ways before it is too late.
DB: Any concluding thoughts?
MB: Without your father, my life would have been very different. He encouraged my writing, he became my photographer even though it was not an interest of his, and he agreed to live at and manage our place even while holding down a full-time job and long commute every day. He gave me the kind of home I had dreamed about. What a wonderful gift that has been and continues to be.
Visit Marcia Bonta on the web, and read her monthly nature column for Pennsylvania Game News, at marciabonta.wordpress.com.