Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle chants the Carolina wren from my front porch, seemingly unfazed by this morning’s rain and gloom. I smile at what I can’t help hearing as irrepressible ebullience, though quite possibly to the wren its song conveys matters of urgency and deep seriousness.
August is the quietest time of the year for birdsong. The neotropical migrant hordes whose songs made the woods ring in May and June are mostly done raising their broods, and many species are in the midst of their molt and lying low. So the Carolina wren’s song is more welcome than ever — especially considering that we didn’t have any of them nesting around the houses this spring, for whatever reason. A couple pairs nested elsewhere in the hollow, Mom said, and are now dispersing, some to breed a second time this season. Which may very well be what my front-porch wren has been so excited about the last couple of days.
Carolina wrens are quintessential dooryard birds, and their songs awaken the nesting instinct in my own breast. But we haven’t always shared the mountain with them. This August, we Bontas mark the 40th anniversary of our move to Plummer’s Hollow, but Carolina wrens have only been here less than 30 years. Like us, they are outsiders, still figuring out how to belong. Back in the 70s, our only year-round wren species was the house wren. But thanks to climate change and the milder winters we’ve mostly been having since, its larger and less hardy Carolina cousin has been expanding northward. During especially severe cold snaps, however, all the Carolina wrens on the mountain will die out, and we’ll have to wait for a year or two until their population is replenished from those in small-town heat islands in the valleys. In recent winters, I’ve noticed wrens going through the loose rock foundation to take shelter in the crawlspace under my house during especially cold nights. Or to put it more accurately, I’ve seen them emerge early the following morning, ready to bubble over with song no matter how bitter the wind and cold.
I’d love to interview some of the newer animal residents in Plummer’s Hollow to help gain perspective on my own tenancy here. What might the coyotes have to say, or the bears or fishers? None of them were present back in the 70s either, and the eastern coyote is an altogether new animal, a cross between the western coyote and the timber wolf. But like my friend Chris Bolgiano, whose essay “Becoming Appalachian” I republished here the other week, I am also fascinated by those whose roots in the area go back generations. Is it really possible to become like a native when your first years were spent elsewhere?
My older brother Steve just returned from a summer in Newfoundland, and stopped by our earliest childhood home near Waterville, Maine. He reported that “our” pine forest beside the lake looked great, with most of the old trees still there and in fine shape. A McMansion stood half-finished and derelict in what had been my favorite old field dotted with low junipers and outcroppings of bare granite, mute testimony to someone else’s failed attempt to belong. We may have moved to Pennsylvania when I was only five, but anytime I see rock and junipers like that surrounded by conifer woods — as I have on trips to the Adirondacks — I feel a pang. I obviously imprinted on the look and smell of the north woods in a way that’d difficult to ignore.
Mountain people in the Appalachians and Ozarks stand out, I think, because most Americans live such transient lifestyles. About 15 years ago, I remember reading an essay by a Penn State sociologist that criticized Central Pennsylvanians for their unwillingness to move elsewhere in search of better economic opportunities, which he said reflected a chronic lack of ambition. Nowhere in the essay was there any recognition of the possibility that forming strong bonds with a place might be a positive thing, leading to peace of mind or a sense of well-being. About the same time, one of the guys who hunts on our property mentioned that he’d found out he could make three times more money if he’d be willing to move out to Las Vegas. But what would I want to move out there for, he said. They don’t have woods like we do here. I wouldn’t be able to walk out my door and go hunting for white-tailed deer. Right on, I thought. And Las Vegas, of course, is the ultimate in transient, unsustainable cities, built around the dangerous fantasy of getting something for nothing. Forty years from now, when gas is prohibitively expensive and water scarce, it will probably barely exist, but people will still be hunting and farming in central Pennsylvania.
I’m neither a hunter nor a farmer, so perhaps my own connection to the land is less vital and intense than it could be, though I like to think a place needs its poets, too. We even invented a jokey title in recognition of my role here: Poet in Residence, Plummer’s Hollow Private Nature Reserve. Sounds a little high-falutin’, I guess, but unlike Chris, I am so lacking in ambition myself, I don’t even especially desire to be accepted as Appalachian. (Not that anyone here ever thinks in those terms. Hell, Pennsylvanians rarely even think of themselves as being Pennsylvanian!) I attended the local public schools for 12 years, and was for the latter half of that time a complete outcaste, although I wasn’t disrespected in any regular or significant way. I was never bullied, for example. The other kids simply avoided me, which was fine because I had little to say to them anyway, caught up as they were in television, sports, and other things I didn’t know or care about.
That six-year-long experience greatly shaped my sense of identity as a permanent misfit, to the point where I actually get uncomfortable if I’m around too many like-minded people. It’s probably the case that having an older brother with a known ability to kick ass helped keep me from getting bullied in high school, but I don’t think that’s the whole of it. At least for straight, white males, I think it’s actually easier to be weird or different in Appalachia than in many other parts of rural and suburban America. I don’t know if there are quite as many oddballs per capita here as in New York City, but I’ll bet we come close. What I’m getting at is that, in the Appalachians, not-belonging is almost an accepted mode of being — a way to belong.
Which in a way brings us back to the wrens. One of the other new inhabitants, since 1993, is Troglodytes troglodytes — the winter wren. Prior to that time it had been exclusively a part-time, winter resident in Plummer’s Hollow, probably for close to 200 years, since the original forest had been logged. While some of the new species to the mountain are here because of global warming, others are here because the forest is aging, and becoming structurally and biologically more diverse in the process. The winter wren, we believe, is in the latter camp, and its return as a breeding species was sudden and fairly dramatic.
I was alone in Plummer’s Hollow in early December, 1992 when a heavy, wet snowfall struck, bringing down hundreds of trees in the deepest, wettest part of the hollow where the ground remained unfrozen and roots had never had to brace themselves against strong winds, as they would on the ridgetops. It took days just to chainsaw the road clear. We decided not to touch any of the fallen trees below the road, restricting our firewood cutting to a dozen or so oaks above it. We mourned the loss of so many mature trees, but knew that leaving them where they lay would be best for the soil and best for the health of the stream. Stream invertebrates thrive on coarse woody debris, and the addition of numerous small waterfalls and pools would greatly improve the structural diversity of habitats for all species.
The following spring, we started to hear, for the first time ever, the lyrical, liquid song of the winter wren. We’d stop the car just to listen. What a treat! It turns out that winter wrens love small, rushing streams spanned by great big fallen trees. True troglodytes, they search out cave-like spaces in which to nest — a bird after my own heart. In the 20 years since, we have never been without nesting winter wrens. Trees have filled in the canopy gaps from that snowstorm, and the deep hollow remains the most biodiverse part of our entire 648 acres, even as we face more severe challenges, such as the impending loss of all several hundred eastern hemlock trees to a microscopic scale insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid: another new, non-native inhabitant.
As I reflect on our forty years in Plummer’s Hollow, I find myself wondering whether we are more like the wrens or more like the adelgids. Are we capable of finding new niches and living lightly on the land, or is human residence inherently destructive? My answer changes depending on my mood. I thought it would be interesting, though, to solicit reflections from other members of the family, so tomorrow we’ll begin what I hope will be a series of responses to some interview-style questions I’ve drawn up, starting with my dad. Stick around! I’ll put the teakettle on.