Appalachian ghosts

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


If I had to choose one word to describe the Appalachian region, it would be haunted. The mountains are full of ghosts. Gone are most of the Indians, their languages and oral literatures with them – unique and irreplaceable ways of looking at the world. Gone from the east are the bison and the wolves, except for a tiny pack of inbred red wolves in North Carolina. Gone forever are the heath hen, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, a single flock of which could once darken the sky for three days with its passage. The mighty American chestnut, source of the strongest timber and some of the best wildlife food in the mountains, has disappeared except for the runty sprouts that live ten or twenty years before succumbing to the blight.

Gone is the great eastern forest, and most of the soil with it. People tend to think of a forest chiefly as a conglomeration of trees, but that’s not the half of it. The few remaining tracts of eastern old growth are qualitatively different from the surrounding woods, most noticeably in the depth of the humus, which teems with fungal and microbial life two thirds of which probably belongs on the endangered species list – not that anyone has ever bothered to study and classify it. Only in the last couple of decades have ecologists begun to appreciate the extent to which trees depend upon their fungal associates to perform such basic tasks as nutrient and water uptake. Some of these fungi only produce fruiting bodies underground, depending on animals such red-backed voles and northern flying squirrels to disperse their spores. What happens when one corner of this three-legged stool is removed?

Erosion following repeated clearcutting and associated fires removed 11,000 years’ worth of accumulated humus on many steep mountain slopes. Now, non-native, invasive earthworms are rapidly colonizing soils throughout the eastern forest, preventing the formation of new humus and changing the soil chemistry in the process. The Southern Appalachians contain the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. They are, for example, a major center of terrestrial salamander endemicity; absent a humus layer, it’s difficult to believe that very many of these forest floor denizens will survive.

Another familiar and cherished measure of Appalachian biodiversity is the wealth of spring ephemeral wildflowers, slow-growing perennials whose very names are magic: ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, wake robin, may apple, foam-flower, spotted mandarin, trailing arbutus, yellow lady’s-slipper, goldenseal . . . These plants are rapidly becoming scarce throughout their ranges, threatened by a seemingly endless litany of threats: acid rain from coal burning power plants; an overabundance of deer; competition with invasive plants better adapted to an earthworm-infested soil; clearcutting; suburban and exurban sprawl; the conversion of hundreds of thousands of acres of rich, moist, mixed-species forests into red pine plantations; and – most horrifying of all – mountaintop removal, a new, more extreme form of strip mining in which vast portions of mountainous West Virginia and Kentucky are being turned into rolling, grassy uplands drained by dead streams and unlikely to support true forests ever again.

The violence of the frontier never really subsided. It merely grew less personal, more institutionalized. While the people who lived here before Europeans came were not exactly peaceful, the idea of conquest was largely unknown to them. Intertribal wars, where children of the enemy were kidnapped and raised as full members of the tribe to replace slain warriors, resembled the low-intensity ground fires the Indians set every few years to promote the growth of deer browse plants and blackberry thickets. The Indians aimed at a rough equilibrium between opposing forces rather than the subjugation or obliteration of a hated foe.

The concept of a nature apart from humanity has no real equivalent in indigenous worldviews. But the essential dignity and integrity of non-human beings – their self-willed quality, their wildness – was respected. Greater-than-human realities were revered, including everything that we understand by the word wilderness and then some. It’s all very well to say that our thinking has “advanced” to the point where – perhaps – a bare majority of American citizens might have some appreciation for these perspectives. But until the underlying social and economic structures change, all the sympathetic understanding in the world won’t do much good. The very people who claim to care the most about nature are the ones building new homes on lots gouged out of the forest. The conquest continues.

(A Suburban Mother Tells Stories to Her Son)
by Louise McNeill

My great great grandpa Jethro walked
The wild savannas deep in grass;
He saw the herds of buffalo
File westward through the mountain pass.

Great grandpa William in his time
Remembered pigeons wild and gray
Whose thousand wings beat out the sun
The morning that they flew away.

My grandpa Frederick could recall
The wild trout flashing in their school;
He set his stick of dynamite
And scooped a hundred from the pool.

My father, Douglas, saw the trees.
Across this bare, eroded land,
He saw the tulip tree and ash,
The spruce and hemlock – virgin stand.

And I myself at morning saw
The chestnut on the ridge – its living green –
The blue-fringed gentian . . .

Listen now, my son –
Stories at evening – wonders I have seen;
And as we sit, look sharp and well remember –
Your son may hear the strangest tale of all:
How little rabbits hopped across our garden,
How grass grew by the wall,
And there, one night, when you were six or seven,
You heard a bobwhite call.

(Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991)

Since McNeill wrote that poem, in the late 1960s or early 70s, populations of northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) have declined throughout its range. In all my 38 years, I have never heard a bobwhite call.


Thus, the ghost stories we love to scare each other with this time of year point to darker realities, for me. Of course, the Appalachian region abounds with stories of witches, haints and other uncanny beings. I say “uncanny” rather than “supernatural” because some, such as the fabled white stag or Will o’ the Wisp, have a basis in reality.

When my brothers and I were young, we used to go trick-or-treating over to our only neighbor’s house largely for the legends and lies Margaret was all too willing to feed our young imaginations with. One she told might be called . . .

The Headless Hunter

Way back in the late 19th century, two teenage boys were hunting deer on the end of the ridge above the railroad tracks. When darkness came on, they started down the knife-edge toward their homes in Upper Tyrone Forge. Only one boy carried a carbide lamp, but the other walked confidently in front, shotgun slung over his shoulder. When he tripped over a root in the darkness, his gun discharged, blowing the other boy’s head off. For ever after, until the last house along the crossing was abandoned in the 1960s, folks in Upper Tyrone Forge said they could look up at the mountain on dark nights in late October and see a light moving through the woods where the dead hunter was still looking for his head.

For another of Margaret’s “Legends of Plummer’s Hollow,” I’m indebted to the superior memory of my brother Steve:

The Phantom Fallen Woman

One summer in the early years of the 20th century, George Plummer brought a mysterious young woman home from Pittsburgh with him, and informed the family of tenant farmers living in what we now call the Guest House that she would be staying in the main house for the rest of the summer. They thought it peculiar that she almost never showed herself outside during daylight hours, spending all her time in the dark, upstairs bedroom at the north end of the house. It seemed that she had musical training of some sort. Mr. Plummer – by this time, a wealthy man – bought a small church organ at auction and installed it there for her, and the tenants told Margaret’s mother that they often heard her playing the organ and singing concert music in a fine soprano voice.

Late in the summer, the reason for her visit leaked out: she was unmarried and with child, and as a friend of the family, it was said, she had been invited to spend her period of confinement in the welcome solitude of Plummer’s Hollow, far from wagging tongues. She gave birth to a child at the end of the summer and returned to Pittsburgh, where she died shortly thereafter. (My brother says Margaret was fuzzy on the details: how she died, and whether the baby lived.)

In the years following her death, a number of families living in the tenant house reported hearing the sound of an organ coming from that upstairs room, though oddly this never happened during the summer, when people were living there, only in the long months when the house was shuttered up. As late as 1970, someone walking across the back slope claimed she heard the unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice singing a very strange-sounding song with words she couldn’t make out. She was frightened out of her wits and fled down the hill as fast as she could run.

With the arrival of the Bonta family in 1971, as my brother put it in an e-mail, “the unquiet spirit of the fallen woman seems to have found peace.” We have never seen or heard anything uncanny here in all our years of occupancy.

Well, almost nothing. Living in the aforementioned Guest House – also once thought to harbor a ghost – I have grown accustomed to a huge range of noises that might spook a visitor. The house was built in stages in a rather haphazard fashion, which resulted in an unusual number of crawl spaces above, below and between sections. I’ve gotten used to scraping, sliding, chewing, and tapping noises, things that go bump and things that chatter their teeth, things that wail and whimper and moan. I generally ascribe the uncannier noises to either raccoons or porcupines; the others could be anything from mice to woodchucks, bats, flying squirrels or one of three species of snakes that I know share the house with me. When it gets really cold in January, the plank walls can pop audibly as they contract. And once in a rare while, I do hear a sound I simply can’t place. Sometimes, the hair rises on the back of the neck despite my best efforts to laugh it off.

I guess we’re a lot less fearful about living way out in a lonely, northeast-facing hollow than a lot of folks might be. One of my cousins from suburban New Jersey won’t spend the night in our guest bedroom because, she says, she finds the silence itself unnatural and unsettling. To us, living with an interstate right over the ridge to the west and a noisy quarry to the east, it’s never quiet enough. We mourn the fact that generations of fearful white folks with guns have left us such a tamed and diminished land. This mountain probably hasn’t had any rattlesnakes in a hundred years. Until the late 1980s, black bears were a rare sight. One of the last wolves in Pennsylvania was shot on this very mountain back in the 1870s or 80s. Coon hunters still scare themselves with tales of coyotes following them and their dogs through the woods at night, their howls growing nearer and nearer . . .

Our own hunter friends are pretty commonsense folks, but they never mind telling a good story on themselves. One of them, Jeff, once told me about an incident that befell him early one morning, well before daylight. He had parked at the bottom and was climbing the side of the hollow, heading for his tree stand, when he heard something rustling close behind him in the dry leaves. As soon as he stopped, the noise stopped. He started up the hill again and there it was, following just as close. He walked faster, but whatever it was kept right up. “Finally I was just running, you know, but I got out of breath and had to stop. That’s when I noticed there was a long strap hanging out of the back pocket of my coat!”

His brother Troy told a more spooky, but still believable, tale about a time when he was still-hunting for turkey, leaning up against a tree over in Margaret’s Woods, dressed all in camouflage. Suddenly he heard a loud voice: “You can’t hide!” He looked all around, but nobody was there. Then he heard it again. “You can’t hide!” It was coming from right overhead! He looked up into the branches of the tree, and there was a crow staring back at him. It cawed as if it were laughing at him, then flew away.

Troy is not a man given to wild flights of imagination. “I ran back to the truck,” he told us, “and when Paula come down, she seen right away something wasn’t right.” “He was white as a sheet!” his wife confirmed, adding that she made him tell the tale a number of times before she finally believed him. They both seemed relieved when my dad described a talking crow he had seen as a kid. “It’s probably someone’s pet that escaped,” he said – and thus another potentially supernatural story was brought to earth.


Margaret’s house has stood empty for over a decade now. We were able to buy the property when the lumberman was done with it, and we maintain trails and a parking lot for our hunter friends over there. Kids from the valley have snuck up and gone through the place at least once; Dad and I boarded up the windows and doors to try and prevent liability in case of an accident. Even before that, it was depressing to go in there, with the moldy flotsam from two generations of lonely and impoverished mountain people scattered all around. Margaret was, in life, a paranoid and suspicious person with a great local reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. According to a now-deceased hunter friend of her brother’s, some prostitution went on in the house back during the Depression. (I’m paraphrasing; the exact words were, “They used to run a cathouse up there, you know!”) But for all that, as far as I know, no unquiet spirits have been seen or heard there in the thirteen years since Margaret died.



Over the years we bought it piece by piece,
this hollow that still bears the name
of its 19th-century homesteader on the topo maps.
Lawyers framed the title transfers in proper terms
& the county courthouse took note,
whiting out the now-redundant property lines
on its own maps that admit no extraneous detail:
no creeks or contours that might signal a watershed,
no shading (say) to plot the alternation
of field & “unimproved woodlot,”
the land parceled out in jagged shards.

But for all that our deeds were driven
by our love for the uncut forest, who are we
to put our name down here as if
it were some magic seed that could set
root overnight? It’ll take us years
to grow out of our wariness,
skulking like feral cats around Margaret’s place.


Twenty years ago, in the flush of first purchase,
in between battles with blizzard, flood & drought
my father followed every lead
through a century of local newspaper files & tax records,
unearthed the barest of clues to the hollow’s history:
Margaret’s artist mother must’ve
married a ne’er-do-well, for she had
half her land lumbered in 1901 to pay
back taxes, & sold the other half for a song
to settle a grocery bill, her own
uncle Jacob calling the tune.

The scarred land healed. By the 1970s
the third-growth woods gave ample cover
to the shadiest of dealings,
bore witness to a separate truth – soon enough
to be violated in turn. While each
of the two elderly cousins – arrogant
nouveau riche and “poor white trash” –
ravaged by alcoholism, however genteel –
strung up for us the other’s skeleton
in a common closet of lies.


One hot June morning I amble over,
shovel in hand. You never know,
treasures of dubious lineage keep turning up.
Like its late occupant the place still holds
a few cards close.

Below the house the huge
catalpa tree’s in bloom, littering the driveway
with pale monkey-faced blossoms,
& the other catalpa up by the outhouse
harbors in its dense shade a weed-free iris bed
& a mob of sweet william gone native
with multihued abandon. At 96 degrees Fahrenheit
the cumulative scent from the yard becomes
an almost visible miasma.

I nose about the grounds, sizing up
the ancient fruit trees:
Keifer pear, a thicket of plum,
Concord grape on a stalwart trellis,
a half-dead quince
& the sprout-clogged branches that already droop
with this year’s apple crop:
Baldwin. Pippin. Winesap. Smokehouse.
The mottled trunks of these last survivors
from an orchard abandoned in the ’40s
could exhaust an artist’s palette.

The house has proved less hardy.
Two winters of heavy snows & a rampant wisteria
have conspired against both porches,
& the whole back half of the house
meanders on a collapsed foundation,
senile with rot.


Fifteen feet away I come to a stop.
Memories of Margaret’s ghost stories
from childhood Halloweens
are summoned up by a multiphonic hum
and an odor overpoweringly sweet.
I look up: honeybees beard the attic gables
crowding the cracks like subway commuters at rush hour.
These are, no doubt, distant descendants
of the bees Margaret kept for decades
in boxes above the orchard – my pets,
she used to laugh. I press my ear
against the faded clapboard
to listen to the roar: no seashell’s
echo of my own bloodsurf, but the actual
pulse of the house, murmuring
like an industrial loom from
the gentle fricative welding of warp to weft.

I step back to watch the bees.
After a while I start to see a pattern
in their lines of flight, spokes
of a spinning wheel drawing in nectar
from every blossoming corner of the yard.
The hive couldn’t have found a fortress
more impregnable to marauding bears
than these catacombed walls.
From every crevice their coffers overflow
& Margaret’s house weeps honey
the way a tree leaks sap.


Groggy from the heat, awash in sweat
I resume my walk, if only for
the illusion of a breeze. A pool of shade
beckons from behind the tumbledown shed
where the steel-ribbed frame of a chaise lounge
flowers orange with rust.

I weave through the trees above the spring,
leap the low mound with its stray runners
of barbed wire marking the old line
& plunge into the field, a cloud of pollen
from the brome as I swing my shovel,
clean blade catching the sun.

“Alone in the world”: hill country women

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I wrote the following poem back in 1992. My mother included it on the dedication page of her book Appalachian Autumn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), a synoptic nature book that included a description of the clearcut logging of a 100-acre portion of Plummer’s Hollow that had once belonged to the McHugh family.

in memoriam Margaret McHugh

When her mind went they took her away
from the house in the hollow where she’d lived
forty years in combat readiness
with her dog & her shotgun, a color TV
& her dead brother’s artificial legs standing
guard at the top of the stairs.

Her ancestors’ land had been sold out from under her
& clear-cut by the absentee owner
who couldn’t be bothered with a mother’s deathbed
commandment half a century old:
Don’t let anyone lumber the mountain again.
She’ll never survive a third cutting
& neither will you.


From the other end of Appalachia, in northern Georgia, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Anna Howard, 93 at the time (1973, or a few years before: this was included in Foxfire 2, edited by Eliot Wigginton and published by Anchor/Doubleday). For all you city people, “locust” refers to a very hard wood, black or yellow locust, often used for fence posts because of its resistance to rot. The oldest portion of my house, built right after the Civil War, rests on a sill of locust instead of a rock foundation. The bark is still intact.


God can put it on your heart or mine anything he wants you t’do, and I know he can. He has mine. Pray about things you don’t know what t’do about. It’ll come to you just as plain.

And I try t’be all th’same alike. I don’t talk about people. I don’t say no harm about nobody and all they do. It says in th’Bible t’do unto others as we wish t’be done by, and I feel that way about that. And I feel like if you’re in earnest and got faith in th’Lord and ask him for anything, he’ll put it right in your mind. . . .

Kindness and love is th’main thing. Now that’s my advice. It’s good to know you got a friend. It’s love. Just like I made [a friend] out of you. I see people that their looks and their ways just a’gives t’you, and you love ’em. And th’next time you see’em, you love’em better.

I’ve not had too much of a happy time since my old man died. And after my children left, I just felt alone in th’world. And when all my people died – everyone that passes on out, I just feel like I’m further and further away. Yes, sir.

So now I knit socks a lot. I just love t’do that. If I ain’t got anybody t’talk to me, now I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers. If I’m able t’hold my head up, I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers t’employ my mind. . . .

I’ve been made fun of for bein’ old-fashioned, but it don’t matter t’me a bit in th’world. If anyone tries to run over me, they’ll find they’ve run up against a stake that won’t budge ’cause it’s made out a’locust! I’ve always done th’work of a man. God’s been good t’me. He’s given me strength.


My grandmother was a far less god-fearing woman. She grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania: still very much in the Appalachians, but culturally closer to New England than Appalachia. This portion of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Connecticut in the 18th century; my grandmother’s people were among those settlers.

Although Grandma was a very reticent person, she was always kind toward us kids, teaching us how to draw and helping with other craft projects. She was fairly intellectual, and much more adventuresome and open-minded than her husband, my grandpa. A four-month sojourn in Peru with my parents a few years before her death may have been the high point of her life. I wrote the following poem in her voice shortly after her death; it may or may not accurately represent her view of life. I felt justified in taking the liberty because, of all my immediate relatives, she is the one I most take after – with a little bit of my other grandmother’s more acerbic personality thrown in.

in memoriam Margaret Ide Bonta

I spent my tomboy girlhood on horses
rambling through orchards & the molehills
we fancied mountains, just south
of the glacier’s plow line. My brothers
taught me all the arcana of knots & hitches
I call to mind now, tied to an oxygen tank,
the transparent umbilicus bridled to my nostrils.

The man I married grew up in town
& loved the country for its range of practical puzzles.
But for my part, I preferred the ocean’s
implausible clues: polished stones & glass & wood
on a beach asymptotic to the hyperbole of waves,
tidepool anemones like stars collapsing, turning inward,
conch & clamshell pressing their ears to the sand.

All the men of my family were hardheaded Methodists
for whom speech was more vital than prayer.
But I always found piety jarring–the minister’s
baited candy. Like the scent of a bear in the barn
one day as I rode my favorite Clydesdale in,
standing barefoot on his back like a circus performer,
reins in one hand. When that massive
draft horse shied he sent me flying, really flying,
ponytailed hair & calico skirts ballooning.

My sister & I were like that: we smoked,
we drank a little, we rode along behind
on our brothers’ motorcycles. But when
it came time to marry, we did. Hank & I settled
in calm suburban waters, had three sons–
if I’d had a daughter, I wouldn’t have known
what to do! And when he retired, we bought
a small house on the ocean, ‘way down south–
a house built on sand, true,
but protected by seawalls from the storm surge

until these last couple years when everything
got me at once, & the songs my mother
sang to me in the crib
suddenly after all this time pop into my head.
It’s as if you were to find a bottle, say,
on the high tide’s windrow–& the message inside
were written in your own hand,
in childish shaky letters.
I just lie here humming & wondering where I’ve been.

I’m in pain, of course, but it’s not so bad
that they have to take me out back & shoot me
just yet! The main thing is, my mind’s still clear,
neither too fast nor too slow. Makes me think
of my favorite Robert Burns song, do you know it?
“Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

Well, we don’t need to sing the whole thing now.
There’ll be plenty of time later, when I’m gone.


The folklorist James York Glimm has written two books on central and north-central Pennsylvania; the following selection is from his second, Snakebite: Lives and Legends of Central Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991). Glimm writes, “Storytelling has sometimes been assumed to be a man’s province, but I have found that women informants have at least as much to say and can tell stories just as well. . . . As a younger man I was more interested in the frontier hunting and fishing stories that men like to tell. Women don’t tell many hunting yarns, but they tell other kinds of stories that give a detailed and personal picture of the world they lived in years ago.” One of the exceptions to this rule was 82-year-old Catherine Voce, who reminisced happily about living in a cabin ‘way up on a mountainside in the 30s, growing most of their own food and hunting deer with her husband. This is the conclusion of her interview with Glimm.


If I were young again and had wings to fly, I’d fly back up on the mountain above Rock Run and live in our cabin. When you’re young and in love, it makes all the difference. All I heard were the birds, a distant cowbell, and sometimes the S. and N.Y. whistle when the wind was right. I was in love and I was happy.

That’s enough talk. Let’s go outside and stretch a bit. I’ll show you my garden. Maybe I can get that other woodchuck that’s been eating me out of house and home. Hand me that four-ten over there, and watch out, ’cause it’s loaded.

Now, here’s where Mr. Coon comes for his cat food every night. I ought to shoot him, but I can’t. He’s so big. Sits here outside the screen door and licks his paws and goes, “Mmm yum, yum, yum.” Lately he gets here early, or Mr. Possum will beat him out. Quarter to nine. Now this is my sweet apple tree. The porcupines love sweet apples. Two years ago I killed so many I stopped counting. Maybe seventeen. They come off the mountain and wake me up at night with their weird sounds. Did you ever hear them? It’s a “Wee-wee-yum-yum-yee-yee-mum-mum” noise, like that, and I don’t like it. So I get up in the night with my .410 and my flashlight and shoot them. One night I got six. I buried them behind the barn in the soft soil. No, I don’t like porcupines. Come on. Keep low and quiet and maybe we can get a shot at Mr. Woodchuck.

It’s so overgrown around my garden, I can’t keep up. There are currants, asparagus, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes. Now, look inside that pen. Just look at that lettuce. Oh! He’s eating me out of house and home. I put boards up and he goes right under – look at that. Watch out – I’ve got a muskrat trap over there. One way or another, I’ll get him. That? Oh, that’s just a black snake. Leave him. He’s OK. Here, take some garlic home with you.


Finally, a selection of Appalachian women’s voices wouldn’t be complete without the West Virginia poet Louise McNeill (1911-1993). In the last years of her life she and editor Maggie Anderson collaborated on a volume of new and selected poems, Hill Daughter, published by (who else?) the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991.

Anderson notes in her introduction that “The work of many writers from the southern Appalachian Mountains is a record of painful journeyings, away from what Kentucky poet James Still has called ‘the earth loved more than any other earth,’ off to the bright promise and the brighter economies of the cities. Louise McNeill’s life and work reflect those journeyings. The ‘paradox,’ as she has named it, is, in part, that the very opportunities that call mountain writers away from home also cut them off from the deepest sources of the writing itself, from its original impulses in a beloved place and people.”

McNeill’s poems are, in a word, devastating.

by Louise McNeill

I am the trajectory and flight –
The archer, arrow, and the bow –
The swift parabola of light –
And I the rising and the flow,
The falling feather of the cock,
The point, propulsion, and the flood
Of blackbirds twanging from the nock,
And I the target and the blood.


by Louise McNeill

Walk through the fern but do not tear the root.
Rest on the stump but count no ring of age.
In rotting wood see neither hint nor sign,
Nor translate from the oak leaf’s fallen page
One mystic line.

Look at the wheat field, see it blade and straw,
But neither bread nor sealed-in germ nor shadowy reaper –
Leave the close ground its anonymity,
Such knowledge to the blind mole and the worm –
The gray night-creeper.

Leave the enigma to the close-lipped dark;
Beyond your fenced-in land do not inquire –
For things there be best hidden:
Light that only the blind should see –
And over the hills in that far country
Truth bare, forbidden.

Life under capitalism

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Greyhound buses – the analogy runs – are like prison ships, ferrying the urban poor from one ghetto to another. It turns out that this is almost literally true. Greyhound Bus Lines, Inc. has an arrangement with the federal government to transport paroled felons, who get vouchers for tickets home upon their release. As such, it is but one of a rapidly growing number of companies who rake in sizable profits from the “captive market” that prisoners represent.

I learned this and much more by eavesdropping on a conversation between two just-released felons yesterday, as I rode back from an overnight in Pittsburgh. One of the men, a heavily tattooed white guy in a sleeveless undershirt, had gotten on at Pittsburgh, and I was surprised by the fact that he had no luggage or carry-ons whatsoever. He sat down right behind me. He had the rank smell and motor-mouth tendency of someone who has been riding the dawg for two or three days.

Three stops to the east, at Greensburg, two men dressed in identical brown slacks and white t-shirts boarded the bus, each carrying a couple of bulky cardboard boxes, which they wrestled onto the bus rather than stowing them underneath in the baggage compartment. One stop later, at Johnstown, one of the two men – a 20-something Hispanic – came back to use the john in the rear of the bus and was hailed by Tattoo Man.

“You guys just get out?”

“Yeah, man. You?”

“I got out of Texas state prison two days ago. Huntsville, Texas. Heading home to Altoona.”

“Damn! We just got out of Greensburg. I’m goin’ to Allentown, he’s goin’ to Harrisburg.”

I wanted to take notes on the conversation, but something told me I better just listen. It was a fascinating exchange. Tattoo Man had also done time in the Pennsylvania correctional system, so they had lots of fun comparing notes. I was surprised by how quickly their conversation got political.

“Yeah, you know everyone’s got a hustle going here, it’s just one big hustle. Everyone wants a piece. You know that prisons are the single biggest moneymaking industry in Pennsylvania?”

“Yeah, and it really took off under that fucker Tom Ridge. No surprise he got where he’s at now – Homeland Security. He got lots of practice from bein’ governor. That’s why Bush picked him. ‘Course, Bush bein’ from Texas, that’s the worst state there is! They got more prisoners in the state of Texas than in all of Russia!”

“Yeah, when Ridge was governor, that’s when we first started getting the Acts, you know, that’s what they call it. Getting the Acts. Every year they pass a new one that’s worse than the year before. Every prisoner is under some Act, it’s hard to keep straight – ‘cept for the guys that have been there a long time.

“You got to make up for what you did, you know – that’s alright. But they make you pay for everything else now, too. And at the same time, you get less and less money for working. They give you a “raise” – one penny at a time! It’s not even enough to pay for cable. Man, you have to have someone sending you money or you ain’t gonna survive!”

“They still give out TVs?”

“Hell no! They make you buy these little ones, K televisions – total piece of shit. It ain’t even color! Fucking black and white little piece of shit television! And you know how much they charge you for it? One hundred and fifty dollars! And now they got a rule against giving them away to someone else when you get out. I didn’t want the motherfucking thing, but they made me take it with me – new rule. That’s so everyone has to buy one. K Television.”

“That’s a generic brand, you know, can’t even buy it on the street.”

So it went with a whole litany of products and services, including extra food. The company store charges outrageous prices, to hear them tell it, and in Texas, the prisons even have a hustle going to take advantage of parolees. It seems there’s a law that requires the warden to give every newly released prisoner fifty dollars.

“But they give you this clown suit to wear: great big shoes, pants don’t fit, no belt. Unless you want to ride Greyhound looking like that, you got to walk across the street to buy some clothes right away. Jeans, $30.00. This shirt cost me $6.00, can you believe it? I refused to give them any more money than that! But that’s how they get you. That fifty dollars is gone!

They discussed the difference between Pennsylvania and Texas prisons in great detail. Not surprisingly, Texas is more severe in almost every respect. The gang warfare is much more dangerous there, Tattoo Man said, and membership in a gang is virtually unavoidable. The white guys have a choice of three different “families,” whose names each begin with the word “Aryan.” In addition, there’s the Mexican Mafia and the Crips and Bloods.

“They got Aryan Nation up here now too, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s still just an optional thing, right? Not too many members?”

“Yeah. But any time there’s a riot, they put us on lockdown for a month!”

“Three months in Texas. You have to go anywhere, they put on a gag, handcuffs, shackle your feet. Five guys pick you up and carry you.”

Most shockingly, according to Tattoo Man, Texas prisoners no longer have the option of not working – and they are paid nothing. “Eight hours a day, man. No air conditioning, either. It was 110 degrees there when I left! Texas is fucked, man. You can’t get money from the Outside, you ain’t worth dogshit.”

Friendly as their conversation became, I noticed that they were careful not to give out their first names. The Hispanic guy addressed his fellow Greensburg parolee as “Harrisburg,” after his destination. Tattoo Man didn’t say what he was in for, though his interlocutor did mention at one point that he’d been convicted on drug-related charges.

It was touching how animated the former Texas prisoner became as we neared his hometown, behaving like a tour guide: “Now up here’s the stadium they built for the Altoona Curve baseball team. It’s nice, man, check it out! We’re gonna get off at the 17th Street exit. That’s where they been building this mall right on the side of the mountain – tearing it up for years now and they still ain’t got one building on it! You’ll get a better look when you get back on the highway.”

He moved up to the front of the bus and talked to the driver in a vain attempt to get him to stop a few blocks short of the station. It was, he’d told his new friend, a long walk back to his old lady’s house in the pouring rain. When the bus finally pulled into the station he disembarked without a backwards glance, grinning from ear to ear.

Experts on the U.S. prison system point out that we would be in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention if it applied to the treatment of domestic prisoners.The latest report on U.S. prisons from Human Rights Watch observes that

Across the country, inmates complained of instances of excessive and even clearly lawless use of force. In Pennsylvania, dozens of guards from one facility, SCI Greene, were under investigation for beatings, slamming inmates into walls, racial taunting and other mistreatment of inmates. The state Department of Corrections fired four guards, and twenty-one others were demoted, suspended or reprimanded. In many other facilities across the country, however, abuses went unaddressed.

Overcrowded public prisons and the tight budgets of corrections agencies fueled the growth of private corrections companies: approximately 100,000 adults were confined in 142 privately operated prisons and jails nationwide. Many of these facilities operated with insufficient control and oversight from the public correctional authorities. States failed to enact laws setting appropriate standards and regulatory mechanisms for private prisons, signed weak contracts, undertook insufficient monitoring and tolerated prolonged substandard conditions. In less than a year, there were two murders and thirteen stabbings at one privately operated prison in the state of Ohio.

Sexual and other abuses continued to be serious problems for women incarcerated in local jails, state and federal prisons, and INS detention centers. Women in custody faced abuses at the hands of prison guards, most of whom are men, who subjected the women to verbal harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks and sexual assault. Fifteen states did not have criminal laws prohibiting custodial sexual misconduct by guards, and Human Rights Watch found that in most states, guards were not properly trained about their duty to refrain from sexual abuse of prisoners. The problem of abuse was compounded by the continued rapid growth of the female inmate population. As a result women were warehoused in overcrowded prisons and were often unable to access basic services such as medical care and substance abuse treatment.

A columnist for the Toronto Star recently noted that

At Abu Ghraib prison, the alleged main perpetrator is staff sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, 37, the senior of six non-officers charged with cruelty and other mistreatment. He is a part-time military policeman called up last year for service in Baghdad — and was a prison guard for six years in Virginia.

To get involved in prisoner outreach and solidarity efforts in your community, consider becoming active in a local branch of the ABC Network.

Heart’s Content

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?