Silver Line

Driving up the mountain after dark, at the edge of the cone of light one catches fleeting glimpses of pale fungi that might also be faces, shadows shaped like bodies, the upraised arms of trees deciding to hold back at the last moment. Small white moths weave drunkenly across the road in front of us, and once in a while, the sleek translucent skin of a bat’s wing dips into view. Lumpy shadows in the road must be approached with caution: sometimes they belong to a fat toad that must be herded off to the side, yellow eyes blinking much too slowly for a highway warning sign. A long silvery creature leaps out of the left-hand track and clears the bank in two bounds, and too late I realize it couldn’t possibly have been a squirrel. We know so little about some of our neighbors here. Riding in the passenger seat, I roll the window down and turn my face toward the darkness where the forest I knew as a child — a forest without gypsy moth caterpillars, hemlock wooly adelgids, barberry, stiltgrass, ailanthus — retreats a little farther every day.

*

Last Sunday, I walked up the road right at dusk. The hollow was full of the wicka wicka calls of wood thrushes — a migrant flock must’ve stopped here for the night. Another two or three thrushes flew up at every bend, and I kept hoping one of them would sing.

Some birds do sing on migration; on recent mornings I’ve heard phoebes, a common yellowthroat, and a couple of back-throated green warblers. Usually they’ve been flying all night, and touch down at dawn for a few hours of foraging in the company of local birds. Some haunt the surfaces of leaves, gleaning insects, while others flutter below the leaves, gleaning the hidden fruit. Many species of warblers have molted out of their distinctive breeding plumage in favor of a generic yellowish green — the bane of serious birders, who moan about the confusing fall warblers. But I imagine the duller colors are designed to give them better camouflage in the tropics, where they spend the greater part of every year darting through the underbrush and emitting sounds that few of us northerners would recognize.

*

sander

I have been taking down the living room floor, going back and forth with a short, heavy, and very loud dancing partner: a Silver Line sanding machine, fitted with a Baldor industrial motor that blew a couple of fuses yesterday morning before I plugged it into another circuit. The floor, which had been painted in a patchwork of colors and covered most recently by a tattered green carpet, is very soft and rough, and I’m guessing it’s hemlock. A pine floor would be much more desirable for refinishing purposes, but part of me wants it to be hemlock, milled from trees that grew right here on the mountain, perhaps. In a few more years, all the mature hemlocks in the hollow will be dead, due to the woolly adelgid invasion, so the floor could serve as a memorial of sorts. It’s fitting, I suppose, because the all-but-vanished American chestnut is probably responsible for much of the exterior planking. This 150-year-old house is becoming haunted in a way few people would expect.
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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

12 Comments


  1. Very evocative post, Dave, with a great beginning. I really can’t imagine northern forests without hemlock, but I guess people said the same about chestnut. All the woodwork in my childhood bedroom was chestnut; the house had been built in 1860. In 1960 I’d never seen a mature American chestnut tree, though a decade later I knew people who had small home nurseries where they were growing resistant varieties. I remember seeing a huge stump in the woods that my teacher/mentor identified as a chestnut, and he would have known. It certainly makes you think.

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  2. The first time I saw the phrase, “Confusing Fall Warblers,” I misinterpreted it as an activity. I continue to imagine ornithological pranksters tricking tiny birds.

    We had a surprise with our floor. It was made out of at least five different woods, probably scrap left over from the construction of other houses. It was so pretty, it seemed a shame to walk on it.

    Nice sander–is it yours?

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  3. dave, i really relate to this love of an earlier pennyslvania.

    I find your words very beautiful and sad. Sad in a bittersweet, nostalgic sort of way. Or, if you’ve read any of my recent posts, maybe it’s just me. :-)

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  4. It does look like hemlock, doesn’t it? It’s looking quite beautiful already.
    Once again, a wonderful piece of writing. The thought of the woods becoming less as we’ve known them weighs on me every time I go hiking in the forests around this region.

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  5. I don’t know why the vanishing trees don’t seem to evoke the same outcry and lament the way some animal species do when they sit on the edge of extinction. Maybe it’s just that I don’t hear the cry. I hope that’s it.

    I googled wooly adelgid and found an interesting piece about its natural predator, the beetle, Pseudoscymnus tsugae. According to the site: the benefit of P. tsugae is that the beetle’s primary prey is the hemlock woolly adelgid. The specificity of the beetle’s feeding habit decreases the risk of it damaging other native insects.

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  6. beth – There are still chestnut stumps out there, to be sure – probably even here on the mountain. But I’ve never learned how to identify them.

    Rebecca – Ha! But of course, some of the ways in which we do inadvertently confuse fall warblers, such as erecting towers with blinking lights, have fatal results.

    The sander was rented from a local hardware store. Not cheaply, either. The floor is not quite uniformly hemlock – there’s a four-by-four section of a different wood that appears to be pine. I’m hoping to hide it with a combination of stain and area rug.

    bev – Thanks. Yeah, there really isn’t any part of the mountain now where I can go for a walk without a strong sense of loss, especially now that all the mountain laurel is dying off in what had been the most intact forest.

    robin andrea – Well, it’s important to remember that neither the Am. chestnut nor the Eastern hemlock is threatened with extinction (though another vanishing species formerly resident here, the butternut, may well be).

    The predatory ladybug you mention has been introduced to PA and other eastern states. The problem is that it requires a large and fairly dependable supple of adelgids to survive, so a grove must be already on the way out before a beetle population can take hold. It seems reasonable to hope that this ladybug, and other native insects/diseases, will in time come to control the adelgid and permit a new generation of hemlocks to reach maturity. Non-native insect pests are not nearly the scourge that non-native blights are; the ecosystem can adjust to them much more quickly. It took less than 150 years for the gypsy moth’s native controls to catch up with it, for example.

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  7. If you leave out general cataclysm and devastation from enemies, I wonder when our own changes to the world began to make people of middle age feel that they no longer lived in the world in which they were born. “Enclosure” laws? Industrial Revolution? Wherever it started, we have certainly accelerated the process. Every time I go home to the Carolinas, I feel that another irretrievable has been lost. Often it is a mountain–or half a mountain, the mutilated remains shored up with cement and stone to protect some ugly big-box store.

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  8. I know what you mean. I just pray for the price of oil to skyrocket and bring this destructive party to a long overdue end.

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  9. Gosh did I ever enjoy running one of these things for a day with a buddy in Chicago. It was like starting a lawn mower in the living room. Finally, I thought, a buffer that can take the “buff” all the way down into the next floor of the house! It would be cool to have a propane-powered floor sander.

    I LOVE wood stuff made from deadfall, storm damage, and other local windfall events. Sorry bout the invasive species…

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  10. It was like starting a lawn mower in the living room.
    Yes, exactly. I was also surprised by how good it was at vacuuming up the sawdust it made – that’s the single biggest advantage over my Dad’s little belt sander. We also rented a disk sander for edging, which took down the floor even faster than the big one, but went through papers in less than 15 minutes.

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