We’re in Martin’s Gap, on the edge of the Rocky Ridge Natural Area in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest. We got lost for a while on the drive in, and now, wandering along the stream in search of the trail, we encounter showy orchids in full bloom. In the dim light of a rainy late afternoon, you almost expect flowers like these to begin speaking. It’s not as if they lack for tongues. I sprawl on my belly, trying to shoot their portrait in the gloom with my little snapshot camera. A pickup truck stops on the nearby gravel road: “Is everything all right?” “We’re fine, thank you!” That bland baldness that most speakers of the English language mistake for truth.
A few minutes later a barred owl calls from the ridge: Hu HU huhu, hu HU huHU-awl. He flies in to query us more closely; I’m not sure how to answer. Barred owls, like their close cousins the spotted owls, are quite unafraid of human beings and often seem curious about these strange, flightless birds trespassing in their woods. The traditional birders’ onomatopoeia has them asking, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
In the forest, one cannot help hearing voices, I think. But a hundred feet down the road, we run into another group of wildflower enthusiasts. “Did you hear that barred owl?” “No! Where was he?” They seem like very nice people, but I’m reminded once again of why I shy away from large group hikes. A little while later, I find this crowd of open-mouthed puffballs on the end of a log.
Wild yam and maidenhair fern: two ways to spiral. When the dervishes whirl, they say, they’re searching for something they know they’ve never lost. Or for someone, all in green, variously known as Adonis, Elijah, Khidr or St. George. The tighter the whorl, the more earth his velvet coat takes in. For a double helix, add one dragon.
Narcissism is fine for the moon-faced narcissus. For orchids, we need another word: orchidism. You want mythic content? Surely the evolutionary tango of pollinator and blossom will suffice. If you’ve ever steeled your heart against jealousy and self-love and sought salvation in complete otherness, that was orchidian behavior – highly evolved.
The sky slowly clears. We climb out of the shadow at the crest of the ridge, which is capped with strange sandstone outcroppings: megaliths, stone heads carved solely by the weather. I’m reminded that more light doesn’t necessarily mean less mystery – especially if it comes from the sun, which has always struck me as being full of darkness. Try staring at the sun for more than a second and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll carry its smudgy thumbprints around on your retina for the rest of the day.
While my hiking partner relaxes on a flat rock to listen to the forest, I go clambering in search of still more images. Here’s a burl on a rotten rock oak, half-debarked: a coroner’s view of the brain. If you aren’t following a map, you find maps everywhere.
Below one of the largest outcroppings, I hear low murmurs and creep cautiously around, not especially enthusiastic about catching people in some intimate or illegal act. But there’s nobody there, just this young Hercules’ club, otherwise known as devil’s walking stick – a common native colonizer of forest gaps. In lieu of branches, it sports enormous compound leaves and has the odd habit of producing so much fruit in the fall as to bend and even break its brittle stalk, otherwise fiercely defended with collars of thorns. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure. Its masses of berries rapidly ferment, making them all the more attractive to the songbirds it counts on to spread its seeds far and wide, shitting them out in drunken, erratic patterns – spirals, wheels.
For previous portraits of Pennsylvania natural areas, see The Hook and Tow Hill.