40 years in Plummer’s Hollow: an interview with my dad

Bruce BontaDave Bonta: Can you remember your first reaction to the property? What impressed you the most?

Bruce Bonta: Forty years ago, on August 19, 1971, Fred A. Good and his wife Madeline M. Good signed over to your mother and me a deed for approximately 143 acres on Brush Mountain. My first reaction to this property was, wow, what are we getting ourselves in for? How am I going to keep this 1.5 mile long road open so I can commute to Penn State during the winter? Also, the 42 half-culvert breakwater pipes across the road, with heavy steel gratings on top, were all filled with silt and weeds. I realized I faced some serious maintenance challenges. I decided that I would need a tractor and a large rotary cutter if I wanted to keep open the woods roads and the fields. I felt excited, challenged, and perhaps a bit apprehensive during that first year until I realized we would, indeed, be able to make a go of it.

DB: How did Central Pennsylvania differ from other places you’ve lived? And how have your impressions of it changed over the years?

BB: We had lived on a farm in Maine for five years, but the vegetation was quite different — many evergreens there, mostly deciduous trees here. Our farm in Maine was directly on a paved highway — few people would be crazy enough to live year round very far from a public road. But our place in Plummer’s Hollow had one significant benefit over Maine: no black flies. May would prove to be a beautiful season, not a dreadful ordeal as it was in the north woods.

DB: You took the lead role in the 14-year battle to keep the hollow from being lumbered. What stands out to you from that time? What would you have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight?

BB: The various battles that I fought from 1978 through 1992 to protect our access road were stressful. I did some things right, and won some of those contests, particularly the early ones. Since a lumbering operation in the hollow would have severely harmed our access road, I acted quickly. A visit to our congressman’s office in Washington produced decisions that effectively prevented the lumberman from taking out truckloads of logs. Unable to truck off his timber, he was able to do only a limited amount of harm. We subsequently bought that piece of property. I was less successful in preventing subsequent lumbering operations — the laws favor the removal of trees from private property — but suffice it to say, we ultimately bought the second and third tracts of land in the hollow with some, then with most, of the timber already removed. By 1992, we owned the entire watershed of the Plummer’s Hollow Run, a first order stream.

DB: What have been the biggest changes to the natural environment on this end of Brush Mountain over the past 40 years, in your estimation, both for the better and for the worse? Which changes have surprised you the most?

BB: Let me answer that by focusing on our management strategies over the years, some of which, I feel, have made a significant difference to the health of the land. For instance, due to the deteriorating condition of the forest understory, we decided in 1992 that we had too many deer on our property, a conclusion that a visiting biologist confirmed. This prompted me to decide to manage the deer herd better, by managing the hunters more effectively. I closed the property to general hunting and posted it for hunting by written permission only. Our new policy, of cultivating friendships with excellent hunters, has given us great results. We have seen huge numbers of deer taken off each year plus major improvements in the understory and the forest as a whole.

I also decided, in the 1970s, to keep the First Field open as a meadow, and not let it revert back to a closed-canopy forest, as it would have done naturally. I had to cut the field with the Bush Hog, but learned, over the years, to mow less and less in order to foster the development of our “old growth” meadow of today. Other management decisions have affected the property too, though perhaps in less obvious ways. I introduced warm season, native grasses, purchased from a seed company in Western PA, about 10 years ago, and have subsequently spread the seeds on disturbed areas. About 15 years ago, you helped me put up a small deer exclosure fence near the Far Field, an experiment that prompted us to erect, with the help of our hunter friends, a second, three-acre exclosure in the old dump area in 2001. The two exclosures have demonstrated the effects of controlling the deer overpopulation to everyone who visits Plummer’s Hollow.

DB: Living on a mountaintop, we’ve weathered a lot of interesting storms in the past 40 years. Which ones impressed you the most?

BB: Several sleet storms have proven to be challenging. If conditions are right, the sleet pellets slide down the steep slopes in the lower portions of the hollow, filling in the road. Then, as the sleet storm ends, the temperature typically warms up for a period of hours, fusing everything into a solid mass, before then turning cold and freezing the slope. We are left with a rock hard, 40 percent sloping surface of ice in the lower part of the hollow, a condition that no snow plow can break through. Once, a large bulldozer could barely make it up the road. We bought a modest sized, 13 ton bulldozer to break out going down the road for those sleet storm occasions.

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?

BB: One thing I have learned over the years is that, for me, forest stewardship should be defined as a process of waiting and watching, not a process of blindly accepting the recommendations of people with credentials. They don’t necessarily know our ground — they don’t live here as we do. For instance, living here and maintaining the road as I’ve done for so many years, I’ve learned that the color of the stream after a storm is a good indicator of my effectiveness as a land steward. If it turns brown, if it has some silt in it, I am at fault. I am not managing correctly. The road, the garden, the latest digging project — something is wrong. When you own an entire watershed, even if it is small, you can’t blame problems on anyone else.

DB: We’ve hosted a lot of visitors over the years, and seen a lot of interesting reactions to the place. Which reactions have surprised or impressed you the most?

BB: I have learned to overlook most of the “what do you do up here” or “how do you get in and out in the winter” or “I’d love to live up here but my spouse…” kinds of questions. I try to impress on visitors the importance of living lightly, enjoying nature, and relying mostly on reading and family for entertainment.

DB: You were part of the “back to the land” movement, both here and previously in Maine. Now there’s a whole new generation getting into small-scale farming and sustainability. What advice would you give to kids starting out? How should they try and balance their needs with the needs of wildlife?

BB: While all of our gardening and raising animals in the 1970s and 1980s did help our budget, the activity that I most enjoyed was beekeeping. I found that working with the little critters was gentle, quieting, and satisfying. The bees are completely wild animals. I was just helping them do their thing better, so they could produce some surplus honey that they could share with me. If I had realized that the arrival of bears on the mountain in the late 1980s would result in the destruction of the bee hives, I might have put in stout fences and continued as an apiculturist. Beekeeping showed that it is possible to manage WITH nature, rather than just manage for ourselves.

DB: In the language of real estate, human developments are viewed as “improvements,” even if they are disastrous for wildlife. But suppose we were to take a more eco-centric view. Have we, in fact, improved the property during our tenancy here, do you think?

BB: I suppose we have, at least a little. By forbidding logging over the past 40 years, we’ve allowed the property to heal itself, at least to some extent. But some of our necessary management practices, such as maintaining the essential Plummer’s Hollow Road, are inherently detrimental to the land. The road represents a sword thrust deep into the belly of the forest. There’s no way around that.

DB: How do you envision Plummer’s Hollow 40 years from now, or 100?

BB: The future of the land will depend on the easement that we design, and the future ownership that your mother and I decide upon, with input from our three sons, of course.

DB: Any concluding thoughts?

BB: Over the years, particularly during the lumbering battles of the 1980s and 1990s, I began to really dislike the concept of private land ownership. Landowners often view their deeds filed in courthouses as permits to despoil the lands that they “own.” It may sound trite to suggest that if we would begin to modify this concept of private land ownership, the entire relationship of humanity with the earth could be gradually changed.

Also, I would observe that living here for 40 years has prompted ever closer relationships to grow between your mother and me. I have learned to defer to her wisdom and experience when it comes to natural occurrences, and she normally respects my decisions relating to management issues. This sort of partnership has been fostered by the complexity of our property. Though we would certainly have remained a close couple had we lived in the suburbs, the ownership of such unique land prompts us to work together, to learn from each other, and to share our insights and decisions.

Finally, I have found that my peace research, particularly my obsession with peaceful societies, has been supported by the peacefulness of the place where we live. I frequently go for walks to help solve problems. Wording comes to me, solutions pop up, the essence of things becomes more clear when I go outside. Gandhi went for daily walks throughout his life and he didn’t live on a place like this. These 648 acres help make me a more peaceful person.

Visit Bruce Bonta on the web at PeacefulSocieties.org.

15 Replies to “40 years in Plummer’s Hollow: an interview with my dad”

  1. Very interesting to read your dad’s thoughts. I wonder if you or he would be willing to explain in a bit more detail how managing hunters by requiring written permission to use the land has led to better control of the deer population… I don’t know enough about hunting or deer herds to understand all the implications of that.

    Also interesting is the idea that living in a particular type of place encouraged a deeper relationship between your folks. I’d love to hear a bit more about that, too.

    : )

  2. This is a great interview, Dave. I particularly like your father’s awareness of how sharing this land with your mother helped to foster an even closer relationship with her. That’s quite a lovely observation. It’s also interesting to see how being responsible for a road and a watershed takes a lot of thoughtful consideration.

  3. Particularly edifying, Dave. Love and peace grew abundantly specially between your folks. His exercise of responsible ownership impresses me as the American ethic that will make things better for the U.S. Thank you for this interview.

  4. Your dad has a wisdom that shines through the interview. If only all landowners had his knowledge and compassion. He’s right about private ownership. Ownership of the land shouldn’t come with the rights to despoil it. We’ve all seen where that leads. Personally I never feel as though I own anything. ‘Stewardship’ seems a better description of responsible ownership.

    You did a great job on that Dave. Well done to both of you.

  5. Yes, big thank you from me to, to both of you, for a wonderful interview that made me think a lot. I have so little conception of what’s practically involved in the lifestyle choice your parents made. I’m wondering how the hell Bruce did all this for many years while commuting to a full-time job.

    And I treated myself to some time with his latest posts on peaceful societies last night, which helped me to feel less hopeless in the face of recent events in London.

  6. I appreciate all the kind comments. To answer the question about hunters, readers need to understand that the policies of the PA Game Commission are designed more to satisfy the hunters’ passion for trophy bucks than they are to foster biodiversity. We found, while our land was open to hunting by all comers, that free-ranging hunters tend to gather together in competitive packs and put on drives, chasing and scaring deer everywhere. They thus take fewer deer than is necessary. My insight—posting for controlled hunting—seemed counter-intuitive to Game Commission personnel, but it serves our purpose well. Our small, select group of hunters pursue their sport in what is, to them, ideal conditions–few others are dressed in blaze orange out there hunting for those precious bucks. To satisfy us, and to remain in our good graces, they also take all the antlerless deer they legally can, so the property prospers as well as the hunters. Dave can add or amend this, as he helps manage the program. Thanks again.

  7. Is it too personal to ask how your plans for succession of ownership are shaping up? Our family is in a somewhat similar situation. As the third oldest sibling, I’ve of late been suggesting primogeniture, having my parents curse my older brother with ownership while my wife and I retain the right to visit so long as we are in his good graces. It’s a weekend place (but oh! what a weekend place) that my parents bought in 1965. Hard to imagine loosing it but harder yet to imagine actually living there full time or maintaining it from a distance, hence my notion of an ancestral decree which conveniently burdens my brother with the responsibilities of ownership.

    1. Bill, good question. The short answer is we don’t know how that’s going to work out. At the moment we are more concerned with drafting a conservation easement to protect the land regardless of the future owners.

  8. Right. That’s where “we” (my parents are doing all the heavy lifting on the problem) are right now. Do you have a “if you only know one thing about conservation easements know this”?

    1. Well, we were very interested to learn that you can write two different groups into the easement: a local land trust or conservancy as the primary holder, and then a backup group with more guaranteed staying power such as the Nature Conservancy to keep an eye on them.

  9. Wonderful hearing your father’s thoughts on his life and steward ship of the Plummers Hollow watershed. I wonder if he knows Jim Drescher, of Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia. He and Jim (and Margaret) would have a lot in common, a lot to learn from each other and appreciate about each other.

    I’ve always felt that knowing such wild places are there is enough. I don’t need to go into them. Even though I do go into some.



  10. Dave,
    This is impressive and fascinating. While I don’t see myself ever doing what you and your parents have (too much of a city person, too antsy), I admire you very much for having done it.

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