Return to The Hook

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
turtlehead at The Hook

The last time I visited The Hook, the hobblebush and painted trilliums were in bloom. It was mid-May. My hiking buddy L. and I parked on the south edge of the 5,119-acre watershed and scrambled down a steep ravine as the shadows lengthened, and we began to worry about the long drive home. Greenish-yellow pollen coated our boots.

That was in 2005. How did we let five years go by without returning to this spot less than two hours from home? But better late than never, as they say. Many of our favorite spots in northern Pennsylvania have probably been marred if not ruined by deep gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation, and we’ll never get another chance to see them as they were, while many of the old-growth stands around the state that we visited in the early aughts have been decimated by the alien invasive hemlock woolly adelgid and/or beech bark disease. Continue reading “Return to The Hook”

Available light

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Indian pipes

Solstice though it may be, this is nothing like the bright and open woods of midwinter, when the low sun floods the leafless trees and blue shadows craze the snowy ground. In the midsummer woods, small patches of sunlight appear, inch across the forest floor, and fade out. A photographer searches first for available light, and only then for subjects. These Indian pipes that were all aglow one moment were in shadow again before I could change the settings on the camera. One shot was all I got.

red maple burl

I was pleased to see a favorite burl illuminated. Grotesque arboreal bulges and hollows may be easier to spot in the winter, but they gain in mystery and significance when surrounded by the noisy, fecund life of high summer. What might have seemed as inert as the head of a mannequin now appears to pulse, the tree’s extruded heart — until the sun moves on.

funnel spider web

Funnel spider webs are everywhere. In full sun, their layers of silk act as prisms, capturing not just insects and bits of leaf dropped by caterpillars, but every color of the spectrum as they vibrate back and forth in what passes, this time of year, for a wind.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

polygala pair

The gray squirrel stands in the middle of the driveway, apparently spellbound by the spectacle of two tom turkeys gobbling and displaying for a small flock of hens. I stand fifty feet away, thinking, it’s not everyday you get to watch wildlife watching wildlife.

beech leaves

Last dream before waking: I wield a blowgun in the middle of a target-rich environment. I fire at a small figure. I thought it was small because it was far away, but it turns out to be right beside me. The dart thunks into it, a steel wedge into the top of a log. I pry the log open and there’s a person inside — someone’s missing child, I’m told. Except she’s made of luck and spunk wood and her face is a crudely carved piece of banana. Large beetles start to emerge from her body cavity. I brush them off, and she breaks in half. You killed her! I start to panic, wondering how she ever managed to live in the first place with such a perishable face.

I wake and shower and have an unusually productive day.

Skunk Cabbage

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Direct link to photoset. If watching the slideshow, be sure to expand to full screen.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Here’s to the skunk cabbage,
first plant to raise a toast to spring,

even if it sometimes has to melt a hole
right through the ice,

a plant that grows
its own hothouse

& keeps it at 22 degrees Celsius
for weeks on end.

Half monk, half cobra,
it shares its solitude

with the earliest flies & beetles,
whose springtime fancy

turns to putrefaction: gut piles,
winter-killed deer, & in the swamp

a leathery curl of old meat.
It gives off a heat & fragrance

the real thing can rarely match—
pornography for insects.

Only after pollination is consummated
does the skunk cabbage unfurl

its eponymous leaves—
huge sails with yellow stitching

& a green that stays fresh
long into the summer,

while dark berries
swell on the spadix

& the roots tighten their grip
on the pungent mud,

the whole plant inching
into the earth.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


When I was your age, I remember once actually wishing upon a star. I’m not going to tell you what I wished for, because who knows — it might still come true. Although I suspect that that “star” was actually Venus, first star-like object in the evening sky as it so often is. And I’m not sure whether a neighboring planet possesses the same wish-granting powers as some sun whose light has just taken a million years to get here. It’s that very distance — the huge, mostly empty gulf we stare across — that’s responsible for star-power, I think.

skunk cabbage

When I was your age, I was as fascinated by death and decay as I am now, but I had a very one-dimensional view: death was simply a horror, something to be recoiled from. It didn’t occur to me that aging is usually necessary for sugars to form, and that decay and fermentation involve a kind of magic. Of course, back then I didn’t drink alcohol, either, which is something we do mostly to try and recapture the spontaneity of childhood. It’s hard to be quite as spontaneous when you wake up every morning with aches in your joints.

Maianthememum in berry

When I was your age, my favorite thing to do was to lie in the woods and dream about all the things I might do someday if I ever stopped dreaming. After a while, the dreaming took over and became my primary vocation, to the extent that I can be said to have one.  Creating poetry involves a very disciplined form of dreaming, actually more similar to a half-conscious sleeper’s lucid dreaming than to typically self-indulgent daydreams. And you know what’s weird? I hardly daydream at all anymore. My 8th-grade math teacher would probably be astonished to hear that. I still remember a poster she had on her classroom wall — she was very fond of motivational posters. This one showed a seagull, and read, “They can because they think they can.” I might be an example of someone who can because I know I can’t. The only flying that matters to me now is the kind I do in dreams. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, I think.

the big fish

When I was your age, I did go fishing at a friend’s house once. The “pond” was a bit bigger — the Georgian Bay in Lake Huron — but the fish was no bigger than my hand. And we put it with the others and ate it for supper, as I recall, unlike the bass you caught last week. We didn’t worry about mercury back then.

There might’ve been other scattered fishing expeditions, but that’s the only one I remember. Picture two or three cabins on a small island of smooth, bare granite dotted with junipers and maybe a couple pine trees. I got a cabin to myself that night, lined with books and a bed that folded down out of the wall. A shack, really. I loved it. I’ve always loved the water, even though I’m not much of a swimmer. I got up at dawn the next morning so I could have the island briefly to myself — or not so much the island, but the feeling of being surrounded by all those miles of deep water, full of secret things that had absolutely nothing in common with the surface play of wave-shadows and reflections. I stood listening to the sounds of strange birds.


UPDATE 7/30: I had to edit the URL to eliminate confusion with the date archive. My apologies to anyone who tried to comment earlier and couldn’t get there by clicking the permalink. (Thanks to Marja-Leena for alerting me to this.)

The photos in this post, like the photos in Anglers and Dragonflies, were all taken at a friend’s property last week. See the complete photoset (36 pictures) here.

Bell’s Gap

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


The sawfly stood in the middle of the trail blocking our way, slowly moving its antennae like the arms of a martial artist, its wings too tattered to fly. “They don’t sting,” Steve said. I scooped it up and it we passed it from hand to hand before depositing it on a trailside tulip poplar.

A gang of us — three families — had gathered for a Memorial Day hike in Bell’s Gap, on the trail to Pancake Flats at the top of central Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front. The trail is unsigned, as are nearly all the trails in our 1.4 million-acre state game lands system, the Pennsylvania equivalent of National Wildlife Refuges. So despite the fact that we’ve lived here for nearly 40 years, and the trail is less than ten miles away, I’d never hiked it before, not having been sure where the good trails are in State Game Land 158. It took a newcomer to the area — poet Todd Davis — to scout out this and other trails in the game lands above his house in his restless hunt for poems and for deer. Deer hunting is confined to the autumn months, but poem hunting is year-round, an open season.

Just because trails lack signs and blazes doesn’t mean they’re unmaintained. In the preceding brief video (which subscribers must click through to watch, I think) my mother demonstrates her famous high-speed log-footbridge crossing technique.

Canada mayflowers

Once across the creek, the trail — an old woods road — begins a gradual ascent of the southern side of the gap. We skirted the edge of a tiny pond just big enough for one pickerel frog and some lily pads. Canada mayflowers bloomed in profusion, which along with some other signs, such as abundant three-year-old rhododendron sprouts, confirmed what Todd had been telling us: that the local deer herd had yet to recover from the winter of 2006. The other common wildflower along the trail also had a name invoking our neighbor to the north: Canada violets. And near the top of the mountain, the birders in the bunch were thrilled to spot a Canada warbler — though they were even more thrilled when they heard and saw a Kentucky warbler on the way back down.

meadow rue

Meadow rue (above) was just coming into bloom — a flower that, despite its common name, tolerates the deepening shade of a late spring woods as well as anything can. This is actually eastern waterleaf (see comments). I found the unopened buds at least as intriguing as the blooms: a mass of feathery bracts reminiscent of some headdress from the highlands of New Guinea. Foamflowers and bishop’s cap were nearing the end of their run, while the last of the painted trillium had shriveled a few days before, by the looks of it.

broken oak

We passed stands of very mature second-growth oaks and tulip poplars, intermingled with hemlocks which still seemed free of woolly adelgid damage. It was a very impressive forest, especially for state game lands, which are often subjected to short-rotation timbering to help pay the agency’s bills. Comparisons with Plummer’s Hollow were inevitable, but a little unfair perhaps, since the exposure, elevation, and geology all differ greatly. Plummer’s Hollow Run follows the same, vertical sandstone formation for its entire length, while Bell’s Gap cuts through a layer cake of shales, sandstones, limestones, and conglomerates. This complex geology helps explain why, in the Appalachians, you never have to go very far from home to see something completely different from what you’re used to.


And that in turn might help explain why Pennsylvania has the most stay-at-home population of any state in the union. Certainly in my case, being able to travel a few miles and see starflowers in the path is way more exciting than the prospect of ever visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I realize most people aren’t quite as attuned to such variations in the natural world, but Pennsylvania’s cultural diversity is also due, at least in part, to its complex physical geography: Slavic coal miners a few miles away from Mennonite farmers and Italian quarrymen.

hikers at Pancake Flats

Fortified with chocolate chip cookies, we made it all the way to the blueberry scrubland at the top of the mountain — Pancake Flats, so called I suppose because of the usual scattering of huge, flat boulders and outcrops of Pottsville conglomerate that cap the Front.

It was, as I said, Memorial Day. Some mark the holiday with parades and shows of piety, but I had no stomach to watch an enormous flag being carried through the streets of a town whose council had recently voted to despoil its own section of the Allegheny Front with a massive industrial wind plant right in the watershed for its reservoir. My own loyalty is to the land rather than the symbol, to crazy quilts rather than to the orderly subdivisions of a flag.

On the way back down, we passed another pair of hikers heading up — the first Todd had ever seen on this trail besides himself and those he brought with him. We exchanged smiles and greetings. “I walk up here every couple of weeks,” one of the men said.

walking fern

To anyone with an interest in plants, returning the way one came is rarely boring; you can’t step into the same trail twice. I found a flowering wood sorrel we’d somehow missed on the way up. And on an outcrop of limestone halfway down, Mom and I spotted a gang of eldritch, arrowy leaves spilling over the step-like rocks: walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum. It seemed to be in even less of a hurry than we were.

See the complete photoset (11 photos plus the video) or watch the slideshow.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

bloodroot (1)

A few feet from the busy highway, next to the Advance Auto Parts store on the outskirts of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, two carloads of wildflower enthusiasts piled out and feasted their eyes on bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, and the first purple trillium.

It might seem strange that so many delicate-seeming native perennials would flourish in what we like to think of waste places. But steep, rocky hillsides along roads and highways are among the few places where the over-abundant white-tailed deer don’t linger. Trash-strewn, noisy, polluted, and excessively vulnerable to weedy invasives though they may be, such places have become de facto wildflower preserves. You can walk for miles through the deer-haunted back-of-beyond and see little but brown from last year’s hayscented fern.

cutleaf toothwort

In a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton, the “Outskirts” are “an intermediate place, stalemate, neither city nor country,” and include “auto body repair shops in former barns.”

The stones throw their shadows abruptly like objects on the surface of the moon.
And these places just multiply.
Like what they bought with Judas’s money: “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

hepatica (4)

But any place where trees are allowed to sprout and grow however they want, free from overzealous homeowners and unchecked herds of grazing animals alike, still offers the possibility of a sabbath — the return of balance to the earth’s economy. Profit and toil have not yet completely wrested it from the shyer and more indigent inhabitants of the earth. It still has the capacity to give more than it receives.

bloodroot (4)

The land bought with blood money in Matthew 27:6-8, or fertilized with blood according to Acts 1:18-20, became a kind of sanctuary too. What had been an economically exploited piece of ground — a source of potter’s clay — was converted into a refuge, with the author of Acts quoting from Psalms: Let no man dwell therein… In similar fashion, the best display we wildflower hunters found last Saturday was a few miles farther to the southeast along the same highway, at the base of what had once been a very active quarry for ganister stone: the Thousand Steps, now publicly owned and managed as a Pennsylvania state gameland. The mountainside has recovered remarkably well in just a few decades, and indeed, now serves as a refuge for a state-threatened species, the Allegheny woodrat. On a beautiful, warm spring day, the parking area along the highway was crowded with visitors intent on climbing the eponymous steps and taking in the view from the top. We seemed to be the only ones there to peer at the ground.

After the long winter,
the flowers too are eager
to face the sun.


A lull in traffic.
The wildflowers grow still
on their thin stalks.


View the complete slideshow from Saturday’s outing, or (for those with slower connections) browse the photoset.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


It was hot today; I came close to cutting my hair. I saw four garter snakes — which usually can be found sunning themselves on warm rocks this time of year — down in or right above the water in the old stone well. It was too bad my three-year-old niece Elanor couldn’t have been here today; she’s developed quite an interest in these snakes, and even held one for the first time last week with her father’s encouragement.

Around 10:30, I wandered down to the pussy willow next to the stream to admire the way it shone and buzzed: bees, wasps, and flies of all descriptions swarmed its furry blossoms. Further down the hollow, the round-lobed hepatica was in full bloom on the bank above the road, and for the third spring in a row since I got the camera I have now, I knelt or lay on the leaves taking dozens of photos while the green-bottle flies climbed all over my arms and face. Every hepatica blossom is a slightly different color, ranging from almost white to lavender.

Later on in the afternoon, I saw the first cabbage white butterfly of the year. I kept thinking though that I ought to see a bear, since I had posted one here in the header of the blog yesterday, and as luck would have it, at around 4:45, I got my wish. I was getting a drink of water at the sink when I looked out the window and saw a bear doing the same thing in the stream right behind the pussy willow tree. And she wasn’t alone.

black bears

There were four cubs in all, one of them a relatively uncommon cinnamon bear. This is almost certainly the same family I first saw last summer, when the cubs were barely bigger than basketballs. I was happy to see that they’d all made it through the winter. I went out on the front porch and stood watching as they climbed the road bank and rambled off through the laurel. They disappeared surprisingly quickly in the sun-drenched woods.

UPDATE: Here’s a short video I managed to get from my porch.

Rock city

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, A woods named Fred.

boulder-top garden

Hearing the thunder, we decide to pick up the pace a little — from one mile an hour to maybe two. It’s well past lunch time, though, and we finally stop to refuel at a cluster of Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. A few have managed to acquire a thin layer of humus over the millennia, and sport miniature gardens of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal, as in the above photo. Just like the small exclosure I wrote about last Friday, such boulder-top gardens suffer very little deer herbivory and are a good indication of what the forest floor might look like if deer numbers were kept at a saner level. Tree seedlings often take advantage of these miniature refuges, as well, but the thin soil offers little support for many species. For trees such as yellow birch and red spruce, rock-top purchases present little problem, but we don’t find either species along the Fred Woods Trail. Neither black birch nor eastern hemlock seems quite as successful; we find a number of them that have grown to a decent size on top of a rock, then toppled over in an icestorm or a strong wind, taking the humus with them.

oak snag

I like that this is a mixed conifer-oak forest, though. I’ve encountered outcroppings of the Pottsville conglomerate in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and due to the variety of forest types and land-use histories, no two are alike. Even where the land has been horrifically treated, as at Dolly Sods in the Monongahela National Forest or the Wolf Rocks portion of Pennsylvania’s Gallitzin State Forest, the bare rock stands as a visible and charismatic reminder of an indomitable core of wildness.

whale rock

The sun is still shining as we finish our lunches and resume our slow perambulation. The thunder seems to have moved off a little, maybe. We explore a small assemblage of bus-sized boulders and wonder if that’s what all the fuss was about. But then we come to a fork in the trail, with a Vista in one direction and a Rock Loop in the other. Not much of a contest there.

hemlock snag 1

And then we are in the rock city, and it takes our breath away.

iron oxides and lichen

The surrounding vegetation might not be as lush, but the rocks themselves are every bit as magnificent as those at Bear Heaven in the Mon. The mossy parts are just as mossy, the iron oxide-y parts are as brightly colored, and the rock tripe is even bigger: we find two of the leathery lichens that are as big as serving platters. “The air can’t be too polluted here,” L. remarks.


Even the graffiti is tasteful: all of it incised, none painted. The oldest dated examples go back to the beginning of the 20th century, and one graffito from 1935 refers to a Civilian Conservation Corps unit, so it’s obvious that some sort of trail was here long before the completion of the entire Fred Woods Trail in 1980.

canyon 2

The graffiti is concentrated in a one-hundred-foot-long canyon, the narrowest portions of which would offer a bit of a challenge to anyone heavier than about ten stone. Even narrower fissures and caves allow sounds to travel through the rocks in strange ways. It’s easy to imagine the kinds of things that vision-questing teenagers must’ve seen here over the decades. The impression of enchantment is almost overwhelming…

happy rock

…though some visitors seem to have taken a more irreverent view.

The rain holds off until just after we finish exploring the densest section of the rock city. We’ve gone a few hundred yards further when L. spots what appears to be the biggest boulder yet off through the woods, as big as a mansion. As we approach it, though, the top half resolves into a dense cluster of hemlocks, some probably of great age despite their relatively short statures, judging from their basal diameters.

My camera batteries have given up the ghost a short time before, so I’m a little out of sorts. It doesn’t help my mood when I notice a grove of mountain laurel bushes that are almost all dead, probably from a combination of deer browsing (yes, deer do eat laurel, even though it is mildly poisonous to them) and the various blights whose effects we have been noticing throughout central Pennsylvania. On the other side of the grove, another boulder curves upward like the prow of a ship. We are literally just standing and staring at that when a close crack of thunder signals the onset of a downpour. We duck under the shelter, and though we both have umbrellas with us, I convince L. that we’d be better advised to sit it out — it can’t last more than half an hour. We settle onto a couple of flat rocks that appear to have been placed there for that purpose by some previous visitors.


The rain comes down in sheets, and for a while that’s all we can hear. But after ten or fifteen minutes, it starts to slacken off, and I hear an odd sound — a cry off in the woods. A minute or two later, L. hears it too.

“That’s a person! Somebody’s over there.”

“I don’t think that’s a human being. Why would anybody be wailing?”

There’s not much of a wind, but the tree tops do seem to be swaying. “I think it’s a tree,” I say. “Dead trees can make all kinds of ungodly noises when they rub up against living trees.” I’m eyeing a particularly large example of this about a hundred feet away.

The rain stops twenty-five minutes after it began. We’ve polished off a bag full of dried pineapple pieces and are anxious to find out who’s been doing all the wailing.

We discover the culprit just ten feet away, resting against the limb of a chestnut oak: it’s a dead tree, all right, but much smaller than the one I’d had my eye on. Enough to scare the crap out of anyone who’s tried to camp here recently, though, I’ll bet.

And perhaps we should’ve been more frightened then we were about hanging out in that rock shelter. The next morning, L. will find a deer tick and have to go the emergency room to get shots for Lyme disease.

snail trail

We pick our way slowly back along the wet trail. We smell the hay-scented fern hundreds of yards before we enter the younger woods. It smells nothing like hay now, if it ever did: an ambrosial odor that keeps us guessing even after the evidence of its humdrum origin is all around us.

For more photos of the Fred Woods Trail, see my photoset here, and another, by blogger Gina Marie, here. It was that photoset, in fact, that first tipped me off about the place. Thanks, Gina! And thanks also to Gary Thornbloom’s “On the Trail” column, which I found archived here [PDF].

A woods named Fred

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


In the middle of a hot and humid afternoon, last night is still seeping out of the rocks. We are in a low place on a high place: caves and canyons on top of the mountain. We’ve driven an hour and a half north to find the same Pottsville conglomerate that we’ve explored five hours to the south in West Virginia.

school bus

We’re in a woods named Fred. The Fred Woods Trail is a five-mile loop in Pennsylvania’s Elk State Forest, named for a Bureau of Forestry foreman, Fred Woods, who died on the job in 1975. The trail was built by inmates in the Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp, mostly junior drug offenders, in 1980. To get there, you follow a steep gravel road out of Driftwood that ascends a chunk of the Allegheny Plateau called Mason Hill, which includes a number of hunting camps on private inholdings. The gated road into the trail is about a quarter-mile past the old yellow school bus.

cherry leaf galls

The trail begins in a nice hemlock stand, but soon leaves that to wind through a typical Pennsylvania hay-scented fern savanna just like what surrounds the school bus: a thirty- or forty-year old clearcut that was never fenced, and has been ravaged by deer ever since. (All the surrounding private lands are posted for “No Doe Hunting.” Killing only bucks does virtually nothing to reduce the size of the deer herd.) I move as slowly as possible in the 85-degree heat. Fortunately, I still find a few things to capture my interest. Bare shelves of rock begin to appear beside the trail, each covered with a film of perspiration.


After about a mile, we enter an older, mixed deciduous forest and things get a lot more interesting. A fallen, curled-up petal from a tulip poplar looks for all the world like a pair of yellow lips. Mushrooms begin to appear.


And millipedes: we slowly become aware that the trail is a millipede highway. We pass dozens of them, all from the common woodland species Narceus annularis (or perhaps the closely related N. americanus – see comments), some digging energetically in the leaf litter, others thrashing around to try and discourage a host of small, presumably parasitic flies. Millipedes are sometimes called rain worms, because they tend to only come out of the ground when it’s very humid. The Tsonga people of Northern Transvaal and Mozambique invoke a species of millipede in a song used in rain magic:

Rain-making, rain-making, Hum!
Rain-making, rain-making, black millipede!
Black millipede, Hum!
Black millipede we want rain!
We want rain!

Whether or not millipedes have a role in making rain, however, it appears that they may help to mitigate the effects of acid rain here in the largely unbuffered forest soils of the Appalachians. One study near Ithaca, New York found that a sizable local population of N. annularis acted as a significant reservoir for calcium and phosphorous, essential minerals that otherwise tend to leach out rather quickly, especially when the rainfall is highly acidic.


Then something else catches our eye: dozens, and then hundreds of little yellow flowers on what we had initially taken to be grass. This turns out to be a type of stargrass known as common goldstar. And scattered among it are the blossoms of rattlesnake weed, also yellow.

pine beast

A sign with a picture of a camera directs our attention to a view, complete with picturesque dead pine tree in the foreground. The haze is so thick, we can barely see ten miles. But my hiking companion points out a much more interesting sight at the edge of the clearing: a fallen pine tree that appears poised for flight on half a dozen Dr. Seussian legs.

That’s when we hear the first rumbles of thunder.

(To be continued.)

UPDATE: For more on Narceus millipedes, see Bev’s excellent photos and description here.