Protecting the environment from the Department of Environmental Protection

Watch on YouTube

So as luck would have it, the Juniata Valley Audubon Society‘s first lawsuit is happening under my watch as president — this despite the fact that in my personal life I avoid confrontation like the plague. Fortunately I’m not the point-man here, and today I was happy to use my presidential authority merely to insist upon shooting a video of the real heroes of this fight (as well as to record some audio, which I hope to share eventually as a Woodrat Podcast episode).

The video wasn’t very eptly shot, but what the heck. It’s JVAS’s first official video, and I figure we have to start somewhere. It features Mollie Matteson, Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, and Stan Kotala, JVAS Conservation Chair, member of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey’s Herpetological Technical Committee, and general bad-ass.

Woodrat Podcast 27: Harold C. Myers, a kid from the Vulcan

Harold Myers and family
Harold as a boy, left, and in the center front of the photo on the right, with his brother and father, both named Walter, his mother Georgina Dresch, and his grandfather Valentine

Harold C. Myers (1914-2003) was my maternal grandfather, A.K.A. Pop-pop. Today I present part of an interview my brother Steve tape-recorded in 1997, subsequently digitized by Jeff Suydam. Pop-pop’s description of his childhood, first in the little “coal patch” called the Vulcan on Broad Mountain near Mahanoy City, then in the steel town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is full of great details about the way people used to live, and the way boys in particular used to almost raise themselves, spending many days away from home on fishing or berrying expeditions, or building go-carts and pipe bombs and generally running wild. Pop-pop was unusual both in his love of reading and his love of the outdoors, two things he definitely imparted to his oldest daughter, my Mom. I’ve selected and edited the best parts of his earliest memories, and really wish we’d been able to record more. If you have elderly relatives or neighbors whose stories have never been recorded, I hope this will inspire you to preserve something before it’s too late.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Return to The Hook

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”

Back to School

no job to big

I enter town by an alley off the railroad adjoining the parking lot for G&R Excavating and Demolition — “The Professional Homewreckers,” they call themselves. “No Job to Big or Small.” Sic. Walking into town on a quiet Sunday morning to use my sister-in-law’s computer, my route takes me along the railroad tracks and under I-99, where the 35-year-old overpass is undergoing extensive reconstruction. Workers have wrapped the massive steel girders with chainlink fence and covered that with burlap. It reminds me of a pupating caterpillar, the difference being of course that when it emerges from its chrysalis it will still be a highway bridge. I glance back at the end of our mountain, and see that it’s topped by a wisp of cloud that belies its diminuitive elevation: the sun-struck forest exhaling into the crisp morning air.
Continue reading “Back to School”

Black Moshannon

If you can’t see the slideshow, or if you’re on dial-up, go here.

Gnarled stumps of pine trees cut down a century earlier jut from the tannic waters of Black Moshannon Lake. Though like most lakes south of the glaciated portions of Pennsylvania it is a man-made reservoir, a smaller, boggier series of ponds preceded it, and descendents of the beavers that built the original dams remain. Last Saturday, my mother and I were admiring the banks of cardinal flowers in the streambed below the dam when a small birch tree beside the trail toppled over less than fifty feet away. We went over to look and discovered that a beaver had chewed it almost all the way through, presumably the night before, but for some reason had left it standing.

Black Moshannon is a pretty special place, home to rare orchids, carnivorous bog plants, and many other strange and wonderful things. Botanists consider the 1,500-acre Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area to be “the largest reconstituted bog/wetland complex in Pensylvania.” The park is surrounded by a much larger state forest on the Allegheny Plateau a few miles west of the Allegheny Front. I won’t give the exact elevation, because I know my western readers will laugh, but let’s just say that it’s high enough to be significantly cooler than most of the surrounding area. So the small swimming beach is always a major draw.

In fact, our main reason for going there on a beautiful, cool summer day was to introduce my three-year-old niece Elanor to the joys of a swimming hole. She’s always been drawn to water, but her fascination has included a healthy admixture of fear. With some coaxing from her father, though, and with the example of all the other kids to follow, she was soon splashing and yelling with the best of them.

My own interaction with the water was solely photographic. Like Elanor, I’m drawn to water and never get tired of looking at it: the plants that grow in and around it, the trees and branches that fall into it, the frogs that sit quietly beside it, leaping in at the last possible moment. By the end of the afternoon, we were each relaxed and besotted from our long immersions.


DANA: The First Perfection

A Japanese-style zendo on a Pennsylvania hillside. I suddenly remember I too used to dream this dream, years ago. How strange to encounter it in someone else’s woods, though. It’s as if I never woke up.


After half an hour of zazen, I find the continued presence of the wooden floor with its wavy grain somehow comic: everytime I open my eyes, there it is again! Solid yet wandering.


Kettle drum.

Wooden clappers.





The growl of a stomach.

A caught breath.

A sigh.


Walking meditation: the world’s most difficult dance. So many possible steps, and none of them wrong. We go single file through the woods. If the trees aren’t laughing at us, they should be.


At the Dharma talk about honoring the body, I watch a black lab running in his sleep.


We are enjoined not to speak throughout the service. The next morning, I feel a cold in my throat.

Roadside markers

What is there to say about an outing where the camera batteries failed after the first few shots, and most of the best sightings went unrecorded? Well, everything, of course. That’s the trouble.


Chicory sprouts from an old leather shoe that stayed behind on the highwayside to gather moss. Where toes of some Sunday Christian used to fit, a splay of coffee-flavored roots. In place of the leg, the sex, and so on: pale blue suns.


What is an osprey doing here in breeding season, far from a lake or river, circling in the heat and haze above the small city, between the dry hills the locals call mountains because they have never travelled anywhere else?


We follow a front loader into the state forest, chafing at the slowness. Is it going our way? It is annihilating our way. They’re working on the bridge. The foreman says, People have been moving the Road Closed signs and driving through, but they’ve been doing so at their own risk. Is there any risk? I ask. No, he says. We’ll be out of here by late afternoon.


We stop for red raspberries and find beside the road the uncommonest looking bee-fly we’ve ever seen performing sexual favors for common milkweed. It’s hunchbacked and lobster-tailed, and it hovers just like a hummingbird moth — a mimic of a mimic. Later, I look it up online: Lepidophora. It doesn’t stay at one flower for more than a few seconds, but keeps circling the globe-shaped flower cluster, and buzzing from globe to globe.


Picking berries into a pail feels like work. Eating berries out of the pail feels illicit. Eating berries straight from the bush or the cane feels natural and liberating, but maybe a little wrong — like shitting in the woods.


These forest roads seem to go on forever, and they almost do. Mostly unpaved, without lines, speed limit signs, or mile markers, they follow the contours of the land as closely as a hand carressing a body, up and down and around. But they are far from innocent, I realize. What the hell is all this crownvetch doing here in the middle of the forest, I shout. The ecological effects of a road can extend for up to a mile on either side of it, L. points out. The leaf duff will be thin, dried out, and full of weed seeds for a hundred yards in.


The roadside forest gaps open and drops away: an official overlook, complete with graffiti, broken beer bottles, and shotgun shells. We are drawn not to the officially scenic view of shapely, green ridges air-brushed by haze, but to the freakish tree in the clearing, right below the precipice: a cluster of 15-foot stems, each topped with a yellow mop-head of fuzzy yellow pencils, aswarm with insects. What is that? Some new invasive species? asks my beetle-collecting brother. I look at the leaves and the bark. It’s an American chestnut! And there are two more blooming within fifty feet of it! Look at all the Cerambycidae, Steve says. I have NEVER seen beetles swarm like that, not even in the tropics. And he’s spent plenty of time in the tropics, too: in Taiwan, the Philippines, south India, Sri Lanka, and Central America. We’re now about 35 miles from home — and 80 years since the time when these ridgetop forests were thick with chestnut trees, before the blight came through. Such a loss, such a rent in the web of life here. My god.


The road turns bad. Steve gets out and walks in front, helping to spot especially dangerous-looking rocks and potholes. I sit in the backseat, craning my neck while L. pilots a zig-zag course. We’re driving a Beetle. At least it’s narrow enough to fit between the rocks, L. says.


Back on the good roads, we enter a stretch where the trees have been defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, and are just leafing out for the second time. It might seem like spring if it weren’t so hot and humid.


Dead porcupines start appearing in the road, in various stages of decomposition. In the space of three miles we count seven of them. It’s eerie.


When we reach our destination — a well-known spot for lowbush blueberries at a high point in the Seven Mountains — we find the patch already picked almost clean. Or perhaps pollination was inhibited at this elevation by all the cold weather in May; we can’t decide. We share this artificial bald with radio, cellphone, and microwave towers, and a generator humming loudly in a locked shed. The old firetower still stands, but the bottom 25 steps have been removed to keep people from climbing up it, which was always something to look forward to on state forest hikes when I was a kid. It turned out that wildfires in the eastern forest are naturally rare and easy to control — nothing like the out-of-control infernos of the late 19th century, when these forests were all clearcut at the same time. Now the old firetowers stand like lighthouses on a shore where the ocean has receded out of sight.


On the way back, we stop at a lonely spot on top of a broad ridge. This gravel road was once a throughway of sorts, and someone named Keith built a small stone cistern here for watering horses. Water gushes out of a pipe and into the roadside ditch, and we fill up our water bottles with it, exclaiming over its taste and likely purity. I find myself reluctant to take too close a look in the rectangular cistern where the pipe originates. It’s dark with rotting leaves, and is just large enough to accommodate a body, stretched out in a position of repose.


Peering between the front seats, I spot a bear-shaped stump beside the road. It moves; we stop. It’s a small bear, no more than two winters old, and probably only driven off by its mother a few weeks ago. A stone’s throw from the road it stops running and appears to forget all about us, which is always a useful and instructive experience for a modern human. Running in this kind of humid heat can’t be pleasant for a bear, even one so small. We watch as it ambles along, flipping rocks, digging into rotten logs and nosing about, heading back the way we came. We keep it in sight as long as we can, driving slowly backwards through the hills of central Pennsylvania.



Yesterday I finally paid a visit to the Rhoneymeade Arboretum, Sculpture Garden, and Labyrinth, which is about 35 miles northeast of here, right out in the middle of a farm valley. The only other sculpture gardens I’ve visited have been those attached to major urban museums, so I was interested to see what difference, if any, the rural location might make.

blue atlas cedar

Well, for one thing, not all sculptures here are made by humans. Also, trees both native and exotic take pride of place in the garden and in the nearby labyrinth, a refreshing shift in emphasis from most modern presentations of Art, where nature plays a supporting role at best.


Nor were all the human sculptures either anthropomorphic or completely abstract, though the majority did fit into one of those two categories. “Flight” was one of a half-dozen or so that seemed to take its surroundings fully into account.

Brown Man 2

The birds here do what birds always do to public statuary. This plaster and resin sculpture is identified as “Brown Man” on the website, but “Thoughtful Man” on the laminated directory in the studio at Rhoneymeade itself. One way or another, it’s obviously getting lots of attention from the local birds.

Brown Man 1

The plaster was beginning to fall off in a couple of places, and the grass had been left to grow long around it. Given its manner of composition — a life cast from a living model, according to the owner — I imagine that the artist fully anticipated its slow return to nature.

Complete set of Rhoneymeade photos (9) / Slideshow