We posted an extra essay on my mom’s website this month. Since she originally wrote it for the June issue of the Pennsylvania Game News, it’s filled with summertime stories. Her subject: the about-face in scientific thinking about how non-human animals think and feel.
For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.
In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.
The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.
While she talks on the phone,
her blue pen seems to have
a life of its own,
makes abstract flowers
& Gordian knots
all around the list of birds seen
on her morning walk.
I watch fascinated
as I eat my allotted three
fresh peanut-butter cookies,
each bearing the print of a fork’s
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.
local ecologist: Festival of the Trees #58
Georgia Silvera Seamans’ third stint hosting the monthly blog carnival for all things arboreal, showing just how dedicated some tree bloggers can be! One highlight of this edition is a collection of ten links related to the blossoming season in Japan.
Marcia Bonta: “Early Spring”
Mom reports on new projections about what global climate change will likely mean for our particular corner of the planet in terms of species loss and ecosystem shift, and describes the changes we’ve already documented in 40 years of residence in Central Pennsylvania.
Some might argue that the Green Party’s success in Sunday state elections was the direct result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But it’s not. Germany’s political landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. And the Greens have been the primary beneficiary.
tasting rhubarb: >Language >Place Blog Carnival – Edition 4
I don’t know why it took me so long to participate in this blog carnival, founded by the indefatigable web publisher Dorothee Lang, but better late than never, I guess. How could I refuse when I knew one of my favorite bloggers was hosting this edition? And a very graceful collection of links and quotes it is. (See the coordinating site for more about the carnival.)
Rebecca in the Woods: Festival of the Trees #57
Thirty-six links this time! And just a year ago we were wondering if it might not be time to fold up the tents for good. Clearly, the FOTT is alive and well. Highlights for me this time included a post on the 500-year-old Sully trees of France, with a portrait of one of the survivors; an illustrated tutorial from a Dutch artist on how to weave living sculptures out of willows; and a fascinating and learned essay on “A Linguistic Permaculture of the Oak.” (See also the call for submissions to #58.)
DiscoveryNews: “The Iceman Mummy: Finally Face to Face”
It turns out that Ötzi was a hippie burn-out.
Al Jazeera: “In search of an African revolution”
Azad Essa wonders why the international news media are turning a blind eye to protests in Ivory Coast, Gabon, Khartoum and Djibouti, and acting as if the current wave of unrest stops at the Sahara.
Office Buddha: “My first trip to a buddhist temple”
One of the best “first time meditating” essays I’ve read, in part because of this line: “Meditation wasn’t like praying, it was more like defragging a hard drive.”
Marcia Bonta: “Talus Slope Life”
This month in her Naturalist’s Eye column for the Pennsylvania Game News, Mom writes about one of the most unique and characteristic habitats of the central Appalachians — one largely unchanged since the last Ice Age.
Thus do we have the strange spectacle of Americans cheering on the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and empathizing with the protesters, all while revering American political leaders who for years helped sustain the dictatorships which oppressed them and disdaining those (Manning) who may have played a role in sparking the protests.
New York Times: “Libya’s Patient Revolutionaries”
By Libyan novelist Mohammad al-Asfar, translated by Ghenwa Hayek. Best thing I’ve read on the Libyan revolution so far.
The New Yorker: “On the Square: Were the Egyptian protesters right to trust the military?”
The kind of in-depth reporting for which the New Yorker is famous. Wendell Steavenson booked a hotel room overlooking Tahrir Square and spent a good deal of time with the revolutionaries and soldiers. I loved the descriptions of ordinary people transformed by extraordinary events, and of course I’m a sucker for the whole, idealistic utopian thing that Liberation Square embodied. But the role of the military in all this, and the way the protesters were able to co-opt it, is one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Egypt’s Gandhian revolution.
Al Jazeera: “The Middle East feminist revolution”
Naomi Wolf points out that, among other factors, the role of social media such as Facebook in organizing protests has allowed women to side-step the hierarchical leadership structures of more traditional revolutionary movements. I can’t help wondering whether, in decades to come, Egytians will have a Marianne to symbolize their post-revolutionary society. (Probably not. Seems un-Islamic.)
Poetry for the Masses has a new website with PDFs of recent broadsheets. These aren’t the arty kind of broadsheets that cost $40 apiece, but the true, 18th-century kind designed for mass distribution.
Cloud Studies — a sonnet sequence
Take a half-hour to listen to these extraordinary poems by Christine Klocek-Lim, Whale Sound’s most impressive audio chapbook yet. (And that’s saying a lot, because the first two also kicked ass.)
Marcia Bonta: “The Beautiful Beech”
My mom’s monthly nature column. For once, she picked a subject I had no trouble illustrating with my own photos — one of my favorite trees.
(watch on YouTube)
The ultimate annoying little sister (brother?). This is one of the latest captures from the den cam in Minnesota, showing an unusual multi-age black bear family (Hope is one year old, her siblings just a couple weeks old).
Writing Our Way Home is a new online community I’ve joined. Founded by British blogger, novelist, and writing coach Fiona Robyn and her fiance Kaspalita, a Buddhist priest and the resident tech guru, it’s for people interested in writing with attention, especially in the form they call “small stones“: “short pieces of writing that precisely capture a fully-engaged moment.” Since this is obviously something I’ve been trying to do at The Morning Porch for quite some time, I couldn’t not join, despite feeling already a bit over-committed online. The site uses Ning, and has most of the same functionality as Facebook, only easier to figure out: groups, forums, personal pages with walls (and blogs), etc. Do join if this interests you. I’ve been interacting with Fiona online for quite a few years, and she even edited an issue of qarrtsiluni once for us — the only solo editor ever to do so — so I am fairly confident in predicting that this community will still be around five years from now if she has anything to do with it.
Chris Bolgiano and Marcia Bonta talk about some of the threats to natural world they love so much, and what to do about it (Part 2 of 2)
In this second part of our phone conversation, Chris shares some instructive and sobering tales from her years as an environmental writer. Topics include: what we can learn from German foresters; anti-Appalachian prejudice in the nature-writing community; mountaintop removal and the insidious ways of Big Coal; global climate change and how — or whether — to talk about it; Big Wind vs. distributed generation; rooftop solar and the feed-in tariff system.
A conversation with Chris Bolgiano and Marcia Bonta (Part 1 of 2)
Two Appalachian-based authors of mid-list nonfiction books about ecology and natural history share their experiences with publishers, editors, Eastern cougars and other dangerous beasts. Today’s show focuses mainly on writing; next week’s show will be devoted to environmental issues facing the region.
My mother’s very first book, Escape to the Mountain, is back in print, 30 years after the crash-and-burn of its original publisher, the once-venerable A.S. Barnes, led to the speedy remaindering of the first edition. It’s in the country-nature genre (think Gladys Taber and Noel Perrin), and describes our first six years in Plummer’s Hollow, when I was between the ages of five and ten. From the publisher’s blurb:
During their first year at the farm, Marcia and her family survived a blizzard, a flood, and a drought. Her book is a hymn of joy to sledding on moonlit nights in winter, to the arrival of the birds in spring, and to harvesting garden crops in the autumn. She relates the discovery of a family of wild puppies in the barn, a porcupine in the apple tree, a shrew in the laundry bucket, mudpuppies in the well, and opossums on the back porch.