Painting the river

bucket in the river

The river this morning is a dark & glistening thing. It reminds me of the tar I spread onto a flat roof two days ago: so glossy, smoothing only by a little the pocked & pimpled surface underneath. I spread the tar with an old broom for a brush, sweeping back & forth to work it into the cracks. It was abstract expressionism at its best.

Little Juniata meets I-99

The two spans of the interstate highway cross the river without getting their feet wet. The riverbank beneath them is a desert, littered with empty beer bottles & cans of spraypaint, & filled with the muffled echoes of tires banging over the seams in the roadbed & the fluttering of pigeons in the strutwork.

end of capitalism

A fresh batch of graffiti on the concrete piers touts anarchy, marijuana, & hallucinogenic mushrooms. It’s an attractive thought, to get stoned & stare into the water until the rumble of traffic turns into another river, & those distant abstractions the government & capitalism seem ready to give way & crumble into the current.


But the only graffiti artist with any skill appears to be working on his or her self-branding, so to speak: the tag Selph appears in half a dozen places, each in a different style. I picture a sylph-like creature, a pale goth who flits from one stoned friend to another, wrapping herself in the glossy wings of the night.

This week’s Poetry Thursday prompt was “rivers” (see the other responses here). Since I had to go into town this morning anyway, I took my camera along. I’m not sure I ended up with a true poem, but what the hell — it was a good prompt.

Forest disturbance

forest disturbance

This was the scene in my filing cabinet this morning when I went to try and refresh my memory about old-growth definitions for Brett. Yes, those are acorn shells all over my wilderness, biodiversity, and old-growth files. White-footed mice are not an old-growth species.

Earlier, I had been awoken by a whip-poor-will whip-poor-willing right outside my window at around quarter till five, and never did get back to sleep. Then on my way into the bathroom, I almost stepped on a spirobolid millipede. Ah, nature.


Growing an old-growth forest

rock oaks

What the numbers from all the studies tell us is that nature-shaped forests are far more diverse woodlands than those manipulated by humans. The complexity of old-growth environments may turn out to be their most important attribute in terms of being self-regulating autopoietic forest systems.
–Robert Leverett, “Old-Growth Forests of the Northeast,” in Wilderness Comes Home: Rewilding the Northeast, C.M. Klyza, ed., Middlebury College Press, 2001

A couple weeks ago, my mother gave a short walking tour to a couple of guests who were seeing our woods for the first time. “It looks like something out of the Lord of Rings!” they exclaimed. I guess if you’re used to looking at younger forests, the portions of Plummer’s Hollow that have avoided lumbering since the mid- to late-19th century might look pretty impressive by comparison. Our forest doesn’t yet meet even the most minimal definitions of old growth — for example, a median age of half of the dominant tree species’ maximum longevity in the majority of stands — but it does exceed by several decades the average age of private or public forests in Pennsylvania, and is beginning to acquire a number of standard old-growth characteristics that add up, perhaps, to a general impression of enchantment.

The older trees get, the more character they develop. And even apart from the age of its individual members (or at least their aboveground portions), a more mature forest is qualitatively different from a younger one. More and more species of lichens, fungi, insects and other key organisms form increasingly complex food webs. Though foresters are wont to think of old growth in terms of individual stands of large old trees, forest ecologists will tend to stress the age of the over-all forested landscape. The longer a forested landscape goes without being clearcut, or completely leveled by a catastophic disturbance such as a large tornado or a canopy-destroying fire, the more structural complexity it acquires. Icestorms, diseases, strong winds and insect invasions take their toll, while shade-tolerant tree species bide their time in the understory, waiting for a gap to open in the canopy.

Young forests tend to consist of trees of just two to three species, all about the same size, and with very few rotting logs or standing dead trees (snags). In the northeast United States, natural stand-clearing disturbances are quite rare, but the dominance of industrial forestry has made this kind of forest the norm, and more diverse forests like ours the exception. However, it would also be very unnatural for extensive sections of a Pennsylvania forest to resemble Mirkwood in The Hobbit, or Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, an old forest seems to have consisted almost entirely of old trees, but in most places around the world, some kind of landscape-level patchiness would develop as various small-scale disturbances create openings of various sizes. The nature and frequency of these disturbances — what ecologists call the disturbance regime — is as important as climate, soil, and species mix in determining the character and compostion of the forest.

American chestnut tree

Our over-riding management goal for the wooded portions of the property — close to 600 acres — is to grow an old-growth forest. But what will future old-growth look like? Chances are it will not resemble the forests that covered Pennsylvania in 1600 to any significant degree. Several species of keystone ecological importance are extinct, such as the passenger pigeon; regionally extirpated, such as the cougar and the gray wolf; or reduced to a pitiful remnant by an introduced disease, such as the American chestnut. Like most upland forests in the Appalachians, our mountain was once covered by these tall, slow-growing, long-lived trees; now their sprouts (as in the above photo) are lucky to reach 30 feet before succumbing to the blight. The loss of their nut crop — more copious and far more dependable than acorns and hickories — must’ve had a huge impact on many species of wildlife.

And that’s just one example. Many other native tree species are falling victim to introduced diseases and insect pests, including dogwood, eastern hemlock, butternut, American beech, and various species of ash. The composition of the shrub and forest herb layers are changing dramatically as new, exotic plant species move in. The soil itself has been fundamentally altered in many if not most parts of Penn’s Woods, first by massive erosion following the wholesale clearcutting of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then by acid deposition and, most significantly of all perhaps, the introduction of non-native earthworms.

I’m increasingly reluctant to dwell on these issues with first-time vistors to Plummer’s Hollow, though, just as I haven’t blogged about them very much. I think it’s better to let people be inspired by a vision of something special and enchanted, even if that vision might seem a little naí¯ve, than to try and give them a crash course in unpleasant environmental realities. I do tend to stress the impact of white-tailed deer, because that’s something we have at least a chance of ameliorating, and our 15-year-old deer hunter program in Plummer’s Hollow is beginning to show some dramatic and positive results.

scarab beetle larva

Why manage for old growth? A survey of available literature suggests that, while every forest is different, generally speaking, large tracts of old-growth forest in Pennsylvania should be unexcelled providers of:

  • Breeding habitat for a wide range of birds whose populations reach their greatest density in old growth, including winter wren, Acadian flycatcher, black-throated green warbler, Blackburnian warbler, magnolia warbler, Swainson’s thrush, brown creeper, and blue-headed vireo
  • Habitat for embattled native fish and other organisms endemic to forested, cold-water environments, including the prized brook trout as well as a number of state threatened and endangered species
  • Habitat for the federally endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (now absent from PA), and possibly optimal conditions (especially with the spatial patchiness characteristic of old growth) for two other endangered species–small whorled pogonia and Indiana bat–and cerulean warbler, a candidate for listing as threatened on the federal Endangered Species List
  • Excellent, perhaps optimal habitat for species in danger of extirpation or facing steep declines in Pennsylvania such as northern flying squirrel, green salamander, sugar maple longhorn beetle, yellow-bellied flycatcher, and eastern woodrat
  • Optimal habitat for many sensitive, slow-dispersing wildflowers that may require over 150 years to fully recover from the effects of clearcutting
  • Optimal habitat for top carnivores such as northern goshawk, barred owl and (arguably) fisher, plus some presently absent or of uncertain occurrence in Pennsylvania: pine marten, gray or red wolf, eastern cougar, and lynx
  • Optimal conditions for salamanders (top carnivores and likely keystone species in the forest litter) and essential refuges for these logging-sensitive organisms
  • Optimal conditions for some forest-dwelling bats such as eastern red, big brown, silver-haired and hoary bats
  • A full complement of native ferns, mosses and liverworts
  • A full complement of native forest lichens
  • A full complement of fungi, including mycorrhizae and other soil microorganisms essential for forest health, nutrient uptake by trees, and recovery after a disturbance
  • Structural diversity, including pit-mound microtopography, nurse logs for tree seedlings, habitat and runways for small mammals and herps, and standing snags
  • Superior masting by many trees, such as white oak, red oak and American beech
  • A full complement of native forest insects and other arthropods
  • Functional and genetic resistance to insect pests
  • Functional and genetic resistance to disease
  • Formation of unique biogroups of trees–interspecific communities with distinct physical and physiological traits–through root grafting and and the formation of fungal bridges (shades of Tolkien!)
  • Seed banks with a full range of genetic variables for commercially desirable tree species
  • Timber of unparalleled quality
  • Baselines for scientific research, including on strategies for successful recruitment and stand replacement
  • A full range of natural soundscapes
  • A source of aesthetic and spiritual values unattainable elsewhere
  • The creation of optimal forest soils through accumulation of humus in the O and A horizons, periodic mixing of horizons by uprooting, and the formation of macropores
  • Groundwater purification and storage (old trees use less water for growth)
  • Flood control through maximal absorptive capabilities and stream bank stabilization
  • A dependable source of coarse, woody debris essential to the ecological functioning of streams in forested ecosystems
  • Clean rivers, bays and oceans though maximal prevention of siltation
  • Drought prevention through transpiration to the atmosphere
  • Sequestration of carbon dioxide
  • Amelioration of local, regional, and global warming

For more on Pennsylvania old growth, see here.

In Memoriam

Graves of the Unknown Dead
Graves of the Unknown Dead, National Cemetery, Chattanooga, TN
William Henry Jackson, ca. 1900

such a noble sacrifice the forest made
in its battle with the saw
it deserves no less than a full plantation of stumps

erasers white with chalk
erected in loving forgetfulness
of the blackboard

a stone tossed into still water
always lands in the center of a target
of spreading years

how well we know them then
these unknown dead

Blues and yellows

iris shed

Yesterday morning I found myself listening, quite by accident, to some old piano blues. The cassette was mislabled; I’d been looking for something else, but what I found was exactly what I needed to hear. Not because I had the blues, you understand. But because those particular songs — “Mother Earth” by Memphis Slim, “You Can’t Have It All” by Sunnyland Slim, and “Cry To Me” by Professor Longhair — make me glad to be alive.

Then I went out with my camera, checking to see if the mallard’s clutch had hatched in the night. This is a duck that, in defiance of all logic, has nested in a dry field on a dry mountaintop, about 100 years above the head of the stream — probably the same one I saw checking the place out on April 24 in the company of her mate.

goldfinch flock

I went straight from the blues to the yellows: yellow irises in the shed lawn (top photo) and a flock — or is it a charm? — of goldfinches up in the field.

mallard on nest

The mallard hen was sitting perfectly motionless, as usual, trusting in her excellent camouflage, which renders her nearly invisible even from three feet away. No yellow ducklings were in evidence. Actually, with all the nest-raiding predators about, I’ll be very surprised if the nest survives the full incubation period. But if it does, it should be interesting to see what the mother does with her new family: will they walk the full mile and a half down to the river, as one of our hunter friends saw a wood duck family doing last year? Or will they try and stick it out in our stream, which, while free of snapping turtles, would seem to offer no protection from raccoons, foxes and coyotes?

mustard springhouse

When I got back to the house, the sun was just filtering down to the wild mustard patch in front of the old springhouse. So many yellows — so much sweetness and light! The only blue I found, apart from the sky, was in a few, last, faded speedwell blossoms in my garden, and in the pinhole-sized spots at the base of a caterpillar’s spines.

checkerspot caterpillar 2

But mostly what I saw was green.

Carter Family values


Has it really been a month since I last posted a song? Here’s my not-too-polished take on the Carter Family’s first big hit, “Single Girl,” recorded by Sara and Maybelle in 1927. The lyrics are a reminder of the bad old days before widely available contraception, and obviously struck a nerve with their rural audience.

It may seem surprising that the “First Family of Country Music” should’ve found fame with a song so contrary to so-called family values. But Sara (on the left in the above photo, which I found here) might’ve been singing from experience; her marriage to bandmate A.P. Carter would founder a few years later, as the text from a PBS documentary makes clear:

A.P. was a natural born rambler, and collecting songs gave him an excuse to spend days and weeks at a time on the road. When he was home, he did precious little to help around the house, and when he went, he seldom left enough money to provide for Sara and the children. “She’d be cutting down wood, pulling mining timbers out of the mountains — and Daddy out somewhere trying to learn a song,” their son Joe recalls. “He never stopped to think what effect it might have on his family.”

Yet A.P. was not totally oblivious to the hardships that Sara endured while he was on the road, and he asked his cousin Coy Bays to help out by driving Sara around while he was away. Sara and Coy became close, and eventually they fell in love with each other. When the affair became known, Coy’s parents, Charlie and Mary Bays, decided that it would be best if they got Coy out of the valley, and the Bays family set out for California.

Crushed by Coy’s departure, Sara left A.P.’s house and moved back to Rich Valley, leaving the children with their father. In September 1936, after three years of trying to reconcile with her husband, she finally sued A.P. for divorce. He did not even show up at court to defend himself. Ralph Peer and his wife, Anita, convinced the estranged couple that while their domestic life might be in shambles, there was no reason they should not continue to play music together on a professional basis, and so the Original Carter Family continued to record new songs.

The Carters defied convention in other ways, as well. A good deal of A.P.’s “rambling” through the rural south was in the company of an African-American musical mentor named Lesley Riddle. Together they collected songs at the height of the Jim Crow era, including blues songs and black church music that the Carters would add to the county music repertoire. At the very same time, of course, street musicians whom we now think of as bluesmen were playing — and sometimes recording — tons of white dance tunes. The audiences might have been rigidly segregated, but the musicians, thank god, were not.


wood thrush

This week’s challenge at Poetry Thursday was to write a dialogue poem. For some reason I’ve been thinking about an incident from 11 years ago, the rape and brutal murder of an 11-year-old girl by a 15-year-old boy she’d been going on hikes with, including up our hollow. (See my mother’s book Applachian Summer for the whole story.) Unpleasant to think about, let alone to try and write about, but I think violence against girls and women is real and pervasive, and we shouldn’t let it pass in silence simply because of its connection with so much that remains unspeakable.


Gram was starting a batch of cookies
when I went out
I’m just going up the street I told her
I didn’t say anything about our secret places

    you told you told
    your innocent act didn’t fool me
    we could’ve gone exploring forever
    if you hadn’t told

I wish I’d waited
we had all summer
& I love to lick the batter off the spoon
though she always says raw eggs aren’t safe

    the loathing on your face when I showed you
    what you did to me
    put it aWAY you said

I hear them calling & the name
reminds me of something
maybe that fish that died of loneliness when I was five
I used to press my ear against the tank

    sugar & spice for my frogs & snails
    we had a deal
    I showed you old farm dumps a hole in the fence
    one rusty shovel to turn an acre of need

how strange this sudden softness
into which I’ve slipped
fog so thick I can’t make out the trees
Gram’s cookies must be getting cold

    I might’ve stopped short of the shovel
    if you hadn’t gone crying to Jesus
    ignoring me who had given you
    all I had

Melody I hear them call
Melody   Melody
as if the birds weren’t already singing
as if it weren’t enough


Under surveillance

common yellowthroat

Another cool, dry morning. Ee-oh-lay, the wood thrushes intone. Ee-oh-lay. Witchedy witchedy witchedy! answers the always upbeat common yellowthroat. Somewhere out of sight over the valley (well, with the trees leafed out, almost everything is out of sight now) a helicopter begins circling. That deep whup whup whup, growing nearer then farther, drowning out the more distant birds, provokes a kind of nervous reaction, and the next thing I know I’m over in the herb garden pulling weeds.

Who or what are they searching for, I wonder? One night two months ago, at around 10:00 p.m., a helicopter circled the farm with a searchlight for close to fiteen minutes. My brother was just starting down the hollow toward his car, which was parked at the bottom. He said he had to duck behind a tree to avoid the helicopter’s searchlight. When he got home, he called up the local police station to ask who was missing. Nobody, they said. Did they have any idea why a helicopter would be searching Plummer’s Hollow? No, they didn’t.

I say “weeds,” but most of what I pull is grass. It’s kind of an anti-lawn. If you let the grass go, it can crowd out the dandelions and gill-over-the-ground if you’re not careful. Just as I was finishing, about twenty minutes later, I noticed the helicopter sound fading into the distance. Or maybe it was the other way around: my compulsion to pull weeds faded with the ‘copter sound. At any rate, moments after I went inside, a male ruby-throated hummingbird zoomed in to the coral bells next to the walk.

I wouldn’t have thought anything further about it, except that the same thing happened this afternoon, too: I pulled a few weeds, went inside, and a few seconds later a hummingbird zoomed in to check out my work. I think I’m being watched.

Old farm photos revisited

I’ve been scanning some historic photos of the farm from 1919 (view slideshow). Between that, and working on qarrtsiluni, I’m out of time to write a post today, so I thought I’d reprint a post from last summer, slightly edited, and accompanied this time by some of the photos it describes.

1. The Children’s Picnic

the children's picnic 2

Seven girls sit on the lawn around a picnic blanket. The year is 1919 or 1920, so of course they are all wearing dresses. They range in age from three to about fifteen. One girl wears a bow in her hair; she is six years old, and her name is Margaret. We don’t know the names of any of the others, because 81 years later, Margaret can no longer remember who they were. The teenager might have been her cousin Phyllis, she thinks.

The photographer takes three pictures of the children’s picnic, which will make it possible to pinpoint its location — on the lawn above the kitchen — even after eight decades have elapsed and almost everything has changed. In the background of one photo, a martin house and a large bell stand loom above the unfamiliar foliage. In the first two photos, the girls look stiff and serious — all except for Margaret, who grins impishly, at home here on her Great Uncle George’s farm. Then they go back to their picnic, raising spoons to their lips. The pet collie, whose name is Snap, appears as a blur of movement off to the left. Margaret’s eyes follow the dog; you can almost hear her calling for him to come. But he isn’t interested in joining this strange feast, which seems to include nothing but a small pile of oak leaves in the center of the blanket.


2. Charles in the Garden

Charles Schroyer in the garden

Two-year-old Charles stands in a large patch of turnips, or perhaps rutabagas. Behind him, the barn is brand-new, painted a shade of darkness that must be red. Above the corncrib, rows of fruit trees where we have only ever known a field stretch all the way up to Sapsucker Ridge, which is dimly visible in the distance. In dreams, I sometimes visit another version of the hollow that lies right over a ridge we’d somehow overlooked, where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far — the way things looked when I was small.

Margaret’s little brother still has uncut, blonde curls and wears a long-sleeved white dress. He stands with his feet planted firmly in the garden path and grins at something off to the photographer’s left. With one arm raised he points high above his head, as if leading the ranks of turnips on to glory.


3. Light and Shadows

Jacob and Mollie Plummer with mule cart

In the middle of the road below and to the right of my front porch, Jacob Plummer stands in his Sunday best with one hand on his hips and the other resting on the rear wheel of an open carriage. His wife Mollie sits up in the carriage holding the reins. They’re hauling what look like steel gates, or perhaps the springs for a child’s crib. The horse has his head up, clearly intent on getting back to the barn. At the top of the photo, a limb from the balm-of-Gilead poplar tree that used to stand at the corner of the wall until its death in the early 1970s blocks much of the background. The bottom third of the photo is a double exposure. On the near side of the road, the sky starts over with much less balm-of-Gilead in it — a sky which, judging from the sharpness of the shadows cast by man and horse and carriage, must be a clear blue and not this barren field of white that we see.


4. Harrowing

harrowing the field 1

The hired man and his son have paused in their harrowing of the freshly plowed field. It’s spring; the trees at the edge of the field still look skeletal, and there are splashes of white that could be shadbush. The newly emancipated stones have dried in the sun, making them clearly visible against the darker soil. The man is bearded under a floppy felt hat, and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants held up by suspenders. In the first photo, the camera is tilted, making him appear to stand at an angle to the ground, like the gnomon on a sundial. In the second photo, they’ve turned away from the photographer and gone back to work, the boy astride the left horse holding a switch, the man behind with one foot on the harrow and his hands on his hips as the iron teeth sink once more into the mountain’s thin red clay.


5. The Siblings

Richard and Margaret Schroyer

Richard is twelve, and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. In one photo, we see him in profile against a tree with his hands held awkwardly behind his back. In another photo, he stands in the road halfway up the hill toward the barn with his hands thrust into the bib pockets of his overalls, frowning at the camera. In a third photo, taken at the same spot, his little sister has joined him. His hands have now disappeared behind the front of his overalls, elbows a little less awkward at his sides as he stares at the ground to his right. A wide-brimmed hat nearly hides his new haircut. Margaret appears to imitate his posture, resting her weight on one leg and thrusting a hand into the pleats of her dress. The dog is nowhere to be seen. Stifling the vivacity that will carry her through nearly ninety years of life, Margaret stares straight into the lens. I find it strangely difficult to look back.