Ode to Scrapple

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sing scrapple: buckwheat-
& cornmeal mush-stuffed
relative of head cheese,
the hog’s gray matter.
Plus every part
that couldn’t be cured
into ham or crammed
into sausage casings —
some good foot meat, perhaps,
a corkscrew piece of tail —
up to & including
the oleaginous grunt.
Always the butt of jokes
for the ignorant mass
of weiner-eaters who prefer
their pig scraps pink
& prefitted for the throat.
This is a square meal
the color of earth.
It’s what’s for supper
when you haven’t eaten
since breakfast, & want
something you can
slap in the hot
fat of a griddle & fry
until it grows a thick
brown skin. Then
serve with Grade-A
maple syrup, go hog-
wild, wallow in the gray
& gritty mush.

Fred Waring and other Pennsylvanians

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The first four photos in this post were taken with the kind permission of the curator of the Fred Waring collection at Penn State, Fred Waring’s America, which I visited on a sudden whim yesterday morning. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians “taught America how to sing,” they say; I can’t begin to imagine what that means. All I know is that this golfing buddy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this once-renowned purveyor of bland, inoffensive, beautifully choreographed arrangements of big band music grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, the only genuine celebrity my home town has ever produced. I went to grade school in the former high school that had been built on the site of Waring’s childhood home.

But it seems Fred Waring had his wild and crazy side, too. He devoured the comics, and his archives include hundreds of original graphic artworks drawn for or about him by the cartoonists he befriended. He was apparently also fond of wearing “distinctive and original, sometimes ‘wild-looking’, jackets,” as one display put it.

I grew up listening to the five-string banjo. My older brother started learning the melodic clawhammer style when he was ten, after a few lessons from my banjo-playing uncle, who was part of the New York City folk revival in the 60s and 70s. I love the sound of this most African and most stigmatized of American instruments.

The music Waring got his start with wasn’t Appalachian string band music, however, but the kind of post-minstrel proto-jazz then popular among the hipper white folks. It makes perfect sense that Waring would go on to become the Pat Boone of the swing era. Someone had to do it, and who better than a genial, slightly funky, nice-looking white boy from smack in the middle of a state which was synonymous, then as now, with middle America?

It must be said that Pennsylvanians come in all stripes, however. Later in the day I attended a function at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — also part of Penn State — and took the opportunity to visit the birds at the raptor center.

The birds on display are permanent residents, too badly injured to survive in the wild — less shadows of their former selves than living ghosts, some of them. They may never again rise on thermals over farm fields or ride the wind currents along a Pennsylvania ridge, but they and their handlers regularly tour the state, visiting classrooms, county fairs, and the like. I’ve seen them in action, and I think it’s fair to say that these birds, however diminished, are celebrities everywhere they go.

I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status, in fact. We crave an encounter with wildness, with what we dimly sense to be a more authentic reality than our own, but without the danger and disorientation full contact might entail.

Shaver’s Creek also includes several miles of trails, a boardwalk over a wetland, and a beautiful little herb garden with a lily pond. Yesterday, the water lilies were in full bloom, and when I bent down to snap a photo of one of them, I realized that a green frog (Rana clamitans melonota) was sitting in meditation right next to it, like a Buddha that had just decamped from his lotus. I circled the pond, snapping photos. He never moved.

Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

black snake 2

A large black snake lay motionless on the moss beside the trail just past the signboard for the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. My hiking buddy and I had driven over this past Saturday afternoon to pay homage to one of Pennsylvania’s most spectacular old-growth remnants before it is altered forever. The air was crystal-clear, adding to the cathedral-like effect of shafts of sunlight reaching down through the canopy.

hemlock varnish shelf fungi

Just past the snake we began to find spectacular, red and orange polypores — the hemlock varnish shelf…

fungus beetle on varnish shelf

and the fungus beetles known as Megalodacne heros, colored to match. Those that weren’t busy eating were busy mating, true to their family name Erotylidae, and some managed both at the same time.

fungus beetles

In fact, things are looking very good for hemlock varnish shelves and the beetles that love them at Snyder-Middleswarth for a decade or more to come. That’s because the hemlock trees are dying,

adelgid-decimated foliage

300-year-old giants falling victim to an insect barely bigger than the point of a pencil, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Their egg masses are often compared to the ends of cotton q-tips, an image more in keeping with the kinds of places where human beings go to die.

adelgid wool

The eastern and Carolina species of hemlock are especially vulnerable, though occasional individuals do show resistance. It may take a century or more for their native predators and diseases to catch up with the adelgids and bring them more into balance with the eastern forest ecosystem, though they will probably always remain an outbreak insect. In a few centuries, we may have new old-growth hemlock forests in Pennsylvania.

nurse log

But in the meantime, another climax species — yellow birch — seems poised to take over at Snyder-Middleswarth. Almost every fallen hemlock log we saw bore a thick fur of birch seedlings. Forest ecologists refer to these as nurse logs, which is a bit misleading: birches and other tree seedlings prefer to sprout on logs not because they are fertile nurseries — they aren’t — but because they offer relatively sterile refuges from soil microbes inimical to seedling growth.

foam 1

The word seems to have gotten out that the giants are dying — that’s the only way we could account for the dearth of visitors on a perfect Saturday afternoon in early summer. We walked slowly along the trail above the inaptly named Swift Run, looking at everything and listening to the songs of hermit thrushes and winter wrens. In three hours, we only heard a couple planes go over. It’s a deep ravine far from any highways — one of the quietest spots in all of central Pennsylvania.

woodfern fist

I renewed my acquaintance with several plants that I don’t get to see too often, including starflower (Trientalis borealis) and mountain holly (Ilex montana). And we encountered botanical oddities like the fern fist above, one of several we found, probably the result of some wasp or another hijacking the ferns while they were still unfurling in order to make gall-like brood chambers from the crippled fronds. (If anyone has a better guess, I’d like to hear it.)

stump face

But mostly what caught my eye were the dead and dying hemlocks. I know that new hemlock seedlings will sprout up after the adelgid population crashes, and some of them may even survive future outbreaks. But it will be a long time before the forest once again has trees with this much character and presence.

Hemlock Trail

It was 7:00 o’clock by the time we made our way back to the parking area. Much of the ravine was already in shadow. I turned around for a last, long look at hemlocks bathed in cathedral light.

Slideshow.

Extraordinarily ordinary

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I can see my polling place from here

There are a couple of things that make Pennsylvanians unique among Americans. The first: we tend to stay put. If we do leave, we tend to come back, if only after retirement. Both sets of my grandparents, for example, relocated to New Jersey for their jobs, but moved back to Pennsylvania after they retired.

The paramount theme in analyzing the mobility of Pennsylvanians is their reluctance to move, however long or short the distance. Such relative immobility is most sharply illustrated by the fact that 84.5% of the state’s residents in 1980 were born in Pennsylvania, a figure well above the comparable values for other states. Such uniqueness persists as we examine movements within the state, local moves within a neighborhood, city, or county and moves from county to county within Pennsylvania. Such attachment to home and locality is not attributable to the usual economic factors, since it seems to prevail during economically slack periods as well as in more fortunate times. The only logical explanation would seem to lie in the nature of the regional culture, in some traditional inclinations, whether conscious or not, to remain amidst familiar surroundings.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Human Patterns,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania (Temple University Press, 1989), p. 131

Getz Shop

Coupled with a strong attachment to our local area is a very weak sense of regional identity. I sometimes like to put on a Pennsylvania jingoism for sheer comic effect: nobody ever gets all puffed up about being from the Keystone State the way they might if they were from, say, the Lone Star State. Zelinksy again:

In an analysis of terms of locational and cultural significance appearing in the names of various enterprises listed in telephone directories for 276 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada, I discovered that nowhere within metropolitan North America is there a weaker sense of regional identity than in the cities of western Pennsylvania and adjoining portions of neighboring states. Furthermore, in the eastern half of the state the situation is not much better. …

How do we account for this apparent lack of self-knowledge or interest, so different from the insistent awareness of Southernness or New Englandness elsewhere? The failure to appreciate the regional personality of the PCA [Pennsylvania Cultural Area] (aside from its barns and Mennonites) stems largely, I suspect, from its sheer middleness. … [M]uch that was to become national and ‘mainstream’ later is found in the PCA, too prosaic and too normal to stir up comment.
–Wilbur Zelinsky, “Cultural Geography,” in A Geography of Pennsylvania, ed. by E. Willard Miller (Penn State Press, 1995), p. 151

landscape with Burger King

In other words, we are unique in our lack of a sense of uniqueness. It’s kind of hard to pin us down — and we’re just fine with that.

It is seldom possible to make a statement about Pennsylvania that holds true of the whole state — and many observers have simply thrown up their hands in frustration. There is a good deal of evidence, however, that its inhabitants like it that way. Pennsylvania’s mosaic of varied, complex landscapes offers its residents an extraordinary range of environmental choices within a very short distance.
–Pierce Lewis, “The Pennsylvania Mosaic,” in The Atlas of Pennsylvania, p. 7

spring fields 2

Yep.

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.

Hicks

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.

ED

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

boulders

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.

close-mouthed

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.

millipede

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.

stargrass

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.

By the wayside

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

roadside moss garden

Our desination last Sunday was a roadside cliff in northeastern Pennsylvania that my friend L. remembered from one trip some seven years before. To hear her describe it, it was a veritable hanging garden of moss and ferns and wildflowers, and she had jotted enthusiastic notes to that effect in the margins of her atlas. We looked for over an hour, and never re-found it.

Adam's Falls 2

Oh sure, we found the road she’d marked in the atlas, but it wasn’t the one she remembered. The cliff was neither as steep nor as wet nor as rich; she didn’t even recognize it. The road she’d been on then had been paved, she was sure of it, but this was potholed gravel.

Ganoga Falls 6

We consoled ourselves with a visit to the nearby Rickett’s Glen State Park. Black-throated green and black-and-white warblers called from the tops of old-growth hemlocks, but my attempts to pish them down within camera range brought me nothing but chickadees and a redstart.

Adam's Falls 1

On our way down the glen, we saw waterfalls and blossoming hobblebush; on the way back up, we saw crowds of painted trillium. They were right beside the trail, and it was hard to see how we’d missed them on the way down.

painted trillium 1

Driving back on PA Route 118 toward Hughesville, we pulled off the road to examine an incredibly verdant north-facing cliff, thick with moss and ferns (see photo at the beginning of the post). It was obviously very unstable, though, because a couple tons of it had recently calved, and blocked most of the berm. Directly across the highway, the rock cut was dry and grassy, and someone had erected a roadside memorial: white cross with a blue bow at its center, ringed with artifical roses and rocks the same color as the cliff. Joe Young, 34, 2003. Banks of greater celandine were in flower a few feet away, an old-world poppy more striking for its foliage than for its yellow, cross-shaped blooms.

roadside memorial

Keepers of the game

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Cabela'sLast Thursday, en route to south Jersey to visit family, we went a little out of our way to visit the new Cabela’s store in Hamburg, PA. Cabela’s is a retailer of outdoors gear, primarily for hunters and fishers. They call themselves an outfitter, but this is no back-of-beyond outfitters store; it’s a monstrosity. Pennsylvania had to outbid several of its neighbors to get it, offering the corporation all kinds of absurd tax breaks and subsidies. You can’t really call it a big box store, because it’s not boxy in shape. Instead, it’s built like an enormous lodge, rising to a point in order to make room for a two-storey-tall, artificial mountain at the center of the store that serves as a diorama for a collection of taxidermy mounts from all over North America. Trophies from other continents — mainly Africa — line the walls. There’s an entire elephant over against one wall, not far from the fish tanks.

The mountain in the store is a rocky crag bearing little resemblance to the long, low ridges we think of as mountains in Pennsylvania. In the photo you can see Kittatinny Ridge behind the bronze sculpture of a heroic frontiersman and an Indian in a canoe. Two hundred and fifty years ago, this mountain was indeed the frontier and the edge of Indian territory, where refugees from ethnic cleansing to the southeast and in surrounding states took temporary shelter. Today, however, Kittatinny Ridge is best known for the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which was started by an amateur ornithologist named Richard Pough who objected to the once-popular sport of shooting hawks and eagles on migration.

In 1929, Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a $5 price tag on the goshawk’s head–a grand sum in Depression years. Two years later, while Pough was a recent college graduate living in Philadelphia, he became one of a growing number of conservationists opposed to the widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators, including predatory birds.

Pough heard of the place locals called “Hawk Mountain” and decided to visit. There he saw gunners stationed, shooting hundreds of passing hawks for sport. He returned to gather the carcasses lying on the forest floor and take photographs. Pough unsuccessfully tried to stop the shooting himself, but his photographs were eventually seen by a national conservation activist–New Yorker Rosalie Edge.

In 1934, Mrs. Edge came to Hawk Mountain and leased 1,400 acres. She installed a warden on the property, a New England bird enthusiast named Maurice Broun, and Maurice’s wife and bird conservation partner, Irma Broun. The shooting stopped immediately and the next year, Mrs. Edge opened the Sanctuary to the public as a place to see the beautiful but persecuted birds of prey. She purchased and deeded the 1,400 acres to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, incorporated in 1938 as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania.

The Cabela’s store is a huge tourist draw, as you can tell from the buses out front. There were at least as many schoolchildren there as we saw in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia the next day. Perhaps they were only stopping on the way to a field trip to Hawk Mountain. As you may have gathered by now, Cabela’s doesn’t just sell guns and boots (we were there for the boots), it sells a fantasy. A fantasy based on a romantic, even sentimental idea about nature that goes back close to a thousand years, I would argue, to when the word “forest” still meant “a hunting preserve for the king,” and “wild” was still indistinguishable from “willed” — as in “sovereign, opposed to one’s own will.” In the Middle Ages, the relationship between king and lion was more than symbolic; a ruler proved his kingliness by killing large predators, and substituting himself for them. We all know from Robin Hood the sorts of punishments that were meted out to mere mortals who killed the king’s deer. When Scots-Irish and other oppressed European tribesmen emigrated to places like Pennsylvania, they gloried in their new-found freedom to slaughter game. Every man could be a king! In practical terms, of course, the fur-traders depicted in the Cabela’s sculpture were lowly serfs to an international market, but we’re talking about fantasy, then and now.

bear and moose

I am far from opposed to hunting, as regular readers of this blog will know. I don’t hunt myself, mostly because I don’t think I’d have the patience, but I do like venison, and I love the whole idea of eating wild animals — except for those near the top of the food chain whose populations cannot support much hunting pressure, and which are generally not very good to eat in any case. Bears are kind of an in-between case — they can be carnivores, but in the main they’re scavengers, like us. Eating a bear, to me, would be almost like eating an ape or monkey: uncomfortably close to cannibalism. But I’d probably still try bear meat if someone offered it.

Does killing something inevitably objectify it? A lot of people would say yes, but most American Indians — and a lot of other indigenous peoples around the world — would probably disagree. From what I have seen, some Anglo-American hunters are also capable of killing without disrespecting an animal or treating it as some sort of walking target. And many of the hunters I know here in central Pennsylvania do express admiration for large predators — though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to see the return of wolves and cougars and the competition for game that would ensue. Even coyotes are vilified in some quarters for their occasional predation on white-tailed deer fawns.

Which is not to romanticize indigenous hunters, either: their sacred stories often include something very similar to the Biblical story of the Fall, reflecting, I think, a nearly universal recognition of a tragic aspect to existence. And Indians no less than whites fantasized about a land somewhere over the horizon where all the game animals were plentiful and offered their bodies for food, again and again, with no adverse effect: the tragic vision’s comic, utopian twin. From an ecological perspective, both these visions contain elements of truth.

It is of course no longer legal to shoot hawks and eagles, and most of us have learned to refer to killer whales as orcas, but our culture retains a deep ambivalence toward predators. Animal rights advocates no less than trophy hunters strike me as being guilty of over-sentimentalizing nature. If it is wrong to eat other animals, where does that put the true carnivores? Should we pray for their reincarnation as human beings so they can become as enlightened as we are?

Tyger, tyger

Then there’s science. It may seem hard to believe now, but the “widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators” mentioned in the quote from the Hawk Mountain website was instigated by professional wildlife managers in the name of science. It was once accepted wisdom that predators had to be eliminated for the betterment of nature. Mother Nature — the condescending term was as popular then as it is today — was like a little old lady, and wildlife managers and foresters were the boy scouts helping her across the street. And while it would be nice to think that we know better now, the ongoing aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska suggests that this mentality is far from extinct.

Can you tell which of the above two pictures was taken in the Academy of Natural Sciences and which was taken in Cabela’s? Does it matter? If a trophy is a kind of fetish, a repository of power and passport to an eternal frontier where the owner can be top predator, what about all those stuffed animals in a natural history museum? They’re there for educational purposes, we’re told, but what exactly can we learn from something we can’t even touch? They might as well be made out of wax or plastic — and why aren’t they?

I’m not saying that killing the odd bird or mammal for a scientific collection is going to push a species over the edge — except that, whoops, that is basically what happened with the ivory-billed woodpecker around the turn of the 20th century. What I’m concerned about here is the message we’re sending with all these lifelike dead animals, whether in a sporting goods megastore or in a museum. Is this how we want kids to think of nature: as a parade of attractive collectibles, with only fake mountains or painted backdrops for habitat? As long as breeding populations of these charismatic critters survive in zoos, or in small, scattered parcels of natural habitat — people might think — isn’t that enough?

waste not

There is another way, of course, and this photo illustrates one of them. Natural history museums may lure kids in with fossils, but I think they can really have an impact on their worldviews with great interactive exhibits like “The Scoop on Poop.” We had two seven-year-olds with us, and they loved it. Even us alleged grown-ups had fun testing our knowledge of poop-related trivia, or finding out how many hours it would take an elephant to eliminate our weight in dung. There were no stuffed elephants in evidence, either, just a pile of very realistic plastic poop.

It wasn’t only the interactive nature of the exhibit that pleased me; I thought the content was very appropriate, too. What better way to instill a sense of wonder in seven-year-olds then by letting them hold a 100 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur butt nugget? And if they manage to absorb the lesson that in nature there is no such thing as “waste” — if they begin to perceive even the seemingly most disgusting or threatening things as necessary and valuable — then in a few more years they might be able to teach all of us a thing or two.

Delaware Bay

Academy of Natural Sciences

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

alive and enchanting

In a museum full of dead things, the butterfly garden gets prominent billing: “Alive and Enchanting,” says the banner above the admissions desk.

plesiosaur

But the skeletons still fascinate. Pointing and squealing, schoolchildren thunder through the hall of the “Mesozoic Monsters,” as the museum calls them. For millions of Americans under the age of seven or eight, dinosaurs and their relatives occupy the same niche in the imagination that will later be filled by pop stars and Hollywood celebrities.

mummy

In a slightly quieter part of the museum, a 3,000-year-old mummy lies half-naked in a replica of a tomb. Here disassembly rather than assembly was required. Small knots of schoolchildren pause before the exhibit long enough to express their bafflement at finding a dead man on display on a floor otherwise devoted to taxidermy mounts.

swallowtail

But one floor down, the cocoons are left unwrapped until they hatch. Here in this newest addition to the museum’s permanent exhibitions, nature is no less of a spectacle than in the more traditional exhibits, but now the visitors are permitted behind the glass.

swallowtail 2

And while we are still discouraged from touching the exhibits, we are given instructions in how to behave should the exhibits happen to touch us: “Just stand still and wait for them to fly off. And watch where you step.”

shadows

We were all eyes.

First things first

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The first contribution for qarrtsiluni’s Ekphrasis theme has been published. I think this will be a fun edition. I know if I weren’t an editor, I’d be submitting like a fiend. For example, here’s something I just wrote in response to this image.

Living in the country, you learn that you can let almost everything else go, but you must look after the roof. Not far from here there’s a junkyard that sprawls over a couple of hilly fields next to the highway — ranks of auto bodies, refrigerators, stoves and kitchen sinks. I like the idea of lining the highways with refuse, as a daily reminder of our profligate ways. Besides, it’s better than looking at crown vetch. But at this particular place, it’s the old barn that attracts attention, because you can see right through it. Most of the siding has been removed, presumably for some other building project, leaving little but the beams and a tarpaper roof. One can often spot a few goats inside, silhouetted against the sea of rusty metal. Once when we drove by, the entire herd was out front, clustered around an old chevy. One goat stood in the bed of the truck with his front hooves up on the roof of the cab, as if at a podium. He had the beard of prophet. It was a sunny day, with no hint of the wind that was sure to come.