A short course in Pennsylvanian

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In Pennsylvania, all the railroad tracks are named Beth. Sure, there’s a prosaic reason for that, but why dwell on it? No one wants to hear the real story behind such notorious Pennsylvania toponyms as Intercourse, Jersey Shore, or Hairy John Picnic Area, either. One writer I know got an entire chapter of his memoir out of a visit to Panic and Desire – neighboring hamlets in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.

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We have our own way of doing things. Up through the first few decades of the 20th century, until the state began to enforce an English-only campaign in the public schools, a significant proportion of the rural population spoke a dialect of German – so-called Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish still do. Some of those old German dairy farmers were so obsessed with cleanliness, they made their barns round so there wouldn’t be any corners to sweep out.

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Whether you need your horse shod or your teeth floated, we can redd it up.

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We take hunting camps pretty seriously, too. The hunting camp tradition dates back to the Indians – hence, I suppose, the fake-Indian names given to many modern camps. The difference is that the Indians took their entire families out into the woods for a couple months each fall; white hunters have always preferred to do the male bonding thing, playing the Indian as imagined by Daniel Boone.

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The capitol building in Harrisburg has a striking green roof – just about the only thing green about the current legislature. These days, politicians pay lip-service to conservation while turning their backs on a rich environmentalist tradition that includes such visionaries as William Bartram, John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Howard Zahniser, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard.

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The capitol reminds me of those domes of moss you can find out in the woods. Which is appropriate, really, considering what “Pennsylvania” means in Latin. The region was famous for its forests long before William Penn came on the scene, in fact. As early as 1632, an Englishman named David DeVries, sailing north on the Delaware, claimed that the ground fires set each fall in the forests to the west gave off a distinct, medicinal odor:

The 2d, threw the lead in fourteen fathoms, sandy bottom, and smelt the land, which gave off a sweet perfume, as the wind comes from the northwest, which blew off the land, and caused these sweet odors. This comes from the Indians setting fire, at this time of year, to the woods and thickets, in order to hunt; and the land is full of sweet-smelling herbs, as sassafras, which has a sweet smell. When the wind blows out of the northwest, and the smoke is driven to the sea, it happens that the land is smelled before it is seen.
(A.C. Myers, ed., Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1630-1707, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912)

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These arborglyphs were made by insects, but up through the early 19th century, arborglyphs made by Native Americans, as well as by some groups of Europeans, were a common sight. The Pennsylvania German Romany people known as Shekener, though prone to use dead trees as signboards, brought with them the old European reverence for such species as ash, beech and oak. According to the folklorist Henry Shoemaker,

They venerated, if not worshipped, trees and resented their being cut down and mutilated. They only burned dead wood, or the wood from fallen trees. They would not cut a green tree except a pine under any circumstances.

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Of course, even fallen trees can sometimes seem to possess an active intelligence. I took these shots yesterday on my way back from Harrisburg, in the state forest named for the founding father of Pennsylvania’s 2.1 million-acre state forest system, Joseph Trimble Rothrock.

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Central Pennsylvania is world-famous for its brook trout. Two U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter – were in the habit of helicoptering in for a weekend of trout fishing. Personally, I don’t understand the catch-and-release concept, but fly fishermen seem mostly harmless, and they tend to be staunch conservationists. If you want to tie flies that really speak to the fish, you have to learn what they like. And what they like is wilderness. The brook trout is a fish with extremely limited tolerance for roads, construction or clearcutting in the watershed – anything that might raise the water temperature a couple of degrees, or contribute more than a smidgen of silt. Jimmy Carter learned the lesson well: he signed laws setting aside more land as wilderness than any other president, and has continued his activism to the present, advocating the creation of an Arctic National Monument in place of the beleaguered wildlife refuge.

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Trout streams tend to have names like Standing Stone Creek, and if you stand still as a stone and listen, pretty soon you’ll swear they’re trying to talk to you: a strange mix of whispers, maybe something in Romany, or Shawnee. What would it take to become fluent, I wonder? Given a course of total immersion, might I learn at least some form of glossalalia?

10 Replies to “A short course in Pennsylvanian”

  1. nice post dave. can’t tell what I’m looking at in the terrestial green photo… moss with dead men’s fingers poking through? or trees seen from above?

  2. For the rail road iron, I always thought it meant Bethlehem Steel Corp, Steelton PA plant, 1788 lbs per rod. Or atleast that is what I was told when I was young.

    I realy like the last pict.

  3. And I like the trout picture – I can just feel that water.

    Very wonderful post, Dave. I like all the “alternative languages” you and the critters speak down there. And that hunting camp is really something!

  4. Keith – That’s about what I’d figured. But my friend Beth here might have an alternate theory…

    Zhoen – Thanks for the vote.

    Beth – Glad you liked. I should put together a post of hunting camp pictures sometime. Most of the camps date back to the early 20th century or before, when the roads were bad and it was an all-day trip to get from Philly or Pittsburgh into the Big Woods. A lot of them are on public land, so you can go right up to them and poke around.

  5. Interesting notion that full immersion might teach the language of the river. I’ll have to try it on the next river trip. See what I can pick up.

  6. A Long, Long Time Ago, In a Land Far, Far away…

    …sometimes I miss it, but then I remember and I don’t…(not as long as it’s got the second highest age per capita in the nation after Fla., and is still the land of Santorum and Spector!) Ah, well, “Home is where the hat is; Home is where the cat is…”, (which happens to be beautiful, semi-sane Oregon).
    Thanks for the memories…

    Love and Light,

    Crystal Dave (The Wizard of Wyrd)

  7. MB – Great. If you drown, your next-of-kin will sue my ass off.

    Crystal Dave – the second highest age per capita in the nation after Fla.
    To me, that’s a good thing. Young people bore me.

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