Christmas is coming and even in this super-technological world, some of us still like to curl up with a good book. If you are such a person or if someone like that is on your Christmas list, you might be interested in one of the following books.
Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon tells you everything you might want to know about cerulean warblers as she follows researchers at the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few miles south of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Both areas are thought to be in prime cerulean warbler habitat, which researchers say stretches from southwest Pennsylvania through all of West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.
Along the way, Fallon profiles the prominent senior cerulean warbler researchers — Paul B. Hamel and Petra Wood — as well as the graduate students and others who search for cerulean warbler nests during late spring and early summer. She spends days in the field with them and days in the library researching the history of the cerulean warbler beginning with the early bird artists Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” was a Scots man who immigrated to Philadelphia. In his Volume II of American Ornithology, he calls the cerulean warbler “one of our scarce birds in Pennsylvania,” but he saw it “on the borders of streams and marshes, among the branches of the poplar” in the Philadelphia area early in the nineteenth century.
Fallon also discusses the threats to cerulean warblers on their breeding and wintering grounds — mountaintop removal coal mining and habitat fragmentation in their core breeding areas and sun coffee agriculture and logging in their wintering habitat in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and maybe even as far south as Bolivia.
She even travels to Colombia to attend the Cerulean Warbler Summit and visits the Cerulean Warbler Reserve — a 500-acre forest created through a partnership between ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy in 2005. This was the first reserve in South America created for a bird that breeds in North America.
Because Fallon is a creative writing teacher, her book is lively, and she records numerous adventures both here and abroad. Black and white photos of habitat and people are sprinkled throughout the book such as one of boys dressed as warblers in San Vicente, Colombia, as part of a parade celebrating ProAve’s Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival. ProAves, which means “for the birds,” is a nonprofit Colombian organization formed in 1998 “to protect birds and their habitats in Colombia through research, conservation action and community outreach.” Fallon also includes dismal photos of the remains of what used to be Kayford Mountain in southwestern West Virginia, and, of course, a photo of the beguiling bird itself perched on the finger of a West Virginia researcher.
Her Epilogue entitled “Help Save the Cerulean Warbler” includes a plea to buy shade grown coffee because the forest canopy above the coffee shrubs provides a winter home for cerulean warblers and many other migratory and resident songbirds. She also asks readers to speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. calls “the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly.”
Here in Pennsylvania many folks feel the same way about Marcellus shale gas drilling. That brings me to my second book The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw, a 51-year-old journalist whose mother contacts him and his sister about whether or not she should sell gas-drilling rights on her property near Dimock, Pennsylvania in Ellsworth Hill.
McGraw sets out to discover all he can about the natural gas rush in the commonwealth. As he said in a later interview, “the risks are real and profound and cannot be minimized,” but he also thinks that there are real benefits to those who strike it rich and to our greater society looking for a clean energy future.
Unfortunately, the extraction of natural gas is neither clean nor quiet as neighbors discover. And in Dimock, at least, some wells are polluted with methane due to improper drilling by one company. But, on the other hand, at least one person, Ken Ely, strikes it rich.
McGraw has written a book that satisfies neither the gas industry nor the conservationists opposed to gas drilling. Mostly, it is about how the drilling affects individual lives, namely Ken Ely and his neighbor Victoria Switzer. Ely sells off his gas rights, figuring he’ll never see another penny. To his amazement, the Ely well produces so much natural gas that he is a millionaire overnight. And that’s only the beginning.
Perhaps Tom Brokaw best summed up the book when he wrote, “The End of Country is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape.” I can testify from friends living in fracking land that it does mean “the end of country” and all that might imply.
But, needing the money and assured by the gas company that the risks are minimal, like many of her rural neighbors, McGraw’s mother signs over her rights for $2500 an acre, far more than many of her neighbors received who took offers as low as $25.00 an acre earlier.
And Ken Ely? You’ll have to read the shocking (to me) ending to find out.
Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof is a book I wish I had written. Imagine visiting old-growth forests from Alabama to Maine and New Jersey to Michigan — twenty-six forests in all — in each state east of the Mississippi River. Actually, I was surprised at how many we have visited — the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, West Virginia’s Cathedral State Park, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pennsylvania’s Cook Forest State Park.
Some are more impressive than others. Maloof is especially disappointed by Mississippi’s Bienville Pines Scenic Area in the Bienville National Forest, “a forest gone missing,” she calls it after a fruitless search for what was described on the Internet as a scenic area of 180 acres containing “the largest known block of old growth pine timber in Mississippi.” The advertised trail is gone and no local person knows anything about it. When she finds it she sees that it has been logged, a ‘mechanical reduction’ to lower the risk of fire near a populated area that is “standard forestry practice.” Mississippi does not look good in Maloof’s account and neither does the National Forest Service or forestry practices in general.
But Maloof has a list she calls “Other Forests of Interest” at the back of her book, and the alternate for Mississippi — Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area–is an excellent remnant of old-growth forest according to our son Mark who has lived in Mississippi for several years and just finished writing a book on the natural places of the delta area of the state. Sky Lake WMA, in the Mississippi Delta, has a board walk through old-growth bald cypress forest and is heavily promoted and visited by local people proud of it, unlike the citizens near Bienville Pines Scenic Area who are either unaware or scared of the place. Incidentally, Maloof’s other choice in Pennsylvania is Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.
Along with a map, travel directions, and a photo, each chapter also has fascinating natural and human history material, for instance, on wildflowers and beetles, butterflies and crabwood, bluebead lily, Lucy Braun, nesting hawks, the Bealls, Henry Ford, tulip poplar trees, Bob Leverett, and, in Pennsylvania, the family Cook. People, she stresses, have saved these forests. Many have been private landowners and others, such as Lucy Braun and Bob Leverett, have studied and promoted old-growth.
She concludes by naming her top four old-growth forests — the Porcupine Mountains, the Sipsey Wilderness, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and our own Cook Forest. “These are the places I keep urging others to visit so they, too, will see and understand what our land aspires to be, and what it can perhaps be again in more places, given enough time.” Maloof, a professor biology and environmental studies, is well-qualified to write such an eloquent, opinionated, and convincing book about the worth and beauty of old-growth forests.
At last, we come to the ideal book for the nature nerd on your list: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. He too, is a biology professor who chooses to sit for hours at a time observing one square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest on the Cumberland Plateau. He calls it his “mandala” which he explains is “a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand,” a mandala he saw that was created with sand by two Tibetan monks on his campus. But he sits on a flat slab of sandstone on a forested slope in steep, rock-strewn terrain that kept the loggers away.
There he sits through the four seasons many times a week and covers a vast number of subjects in great detail such as how deer digest their food, the lives of Plethodon lungless salamanders, the biology of ticks, the reproduction or rattlesnake ferns, medicine from nature, sharp-shinned hawk, in summary, something for everyone who has an interest in some aspect of the eastern forest.
His account can be poetic, i.e. “lightning-white fungal strands crackle over black leaves,” and introspective, “the world does not center on me or my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”
He also makes frequent comments about conservation, some so subtle that you have to read them again to appreciate them. For instance, in a section he calls “Chainsaw” he asks, “How should we treat our forests, as a gift to be wisely and sustainably managed or as an ‘industrial process’ in which we run down nature’s capital, mining the soil, and then discarding the spent land?…Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over other values.”
Finally, maybe the most controversial point he makes as an ecologist has to do with white-tailed deer. “Most of the scientific studies of eastern North America forest ecology in the twentieth century were conducted in an abnormally unbrowsed forest…’Overbrowsing’ by deer may be returning the forest to its more usual sparse, open condition,” he writes. Haskell quotes from old letters and diaries about the great abundance of deer in the 16th and 17th centuries and mentions that Native Americans cleared and burned forests to provide food for plentiful deer.
Merry Christmas and good reading!
It’s the tenth of August, and I can barely believe my ears. A wood thrush is singing two weeks later than I’ve ever heard one before. Such a wonderful, unexpected gift so late in the season when most birdsong has been replaced by the buzzing and chirping of crickets and grasshoppers. But then it is for the unexpected as well as the expected that I venture outside every day.
Sometimes, during the heat and humidity of August days, the forest seems as empty as it is in winter. Then, through a curtain of leaves, I watch a smaller bird silently chase an immature red-tailed hawk that is still learning how to navigate in its new world.
Behind me, a red-eyed vireo drones its monotonous song while a blue-headed vireo renders a brighter, livelier version of its congener’s song. Eastern wood pewees drawl their “pee-a-wees,” and Acadian flycatchers sharply cry “wee-see.” A flock of cedar waxwings lands on a wild black cherry tree, laden with fruit, and emit their high “zees” as they pluck and eat cherries. Sharp-shinned hawks, recently fledged from the Norway spruce grove nest, sit atop the trees and continuously cry for their parents to feed them. Eastern towhees call their names and northern cardinals sing “cheer-cheer.”
All those songs and calls are expected for August. So too are encounters with wild turkeys such as one I have when early one sunny morning, near the beginning of the Far Field Road, a wild turkey flaps off from a tree branch. Then another follows. A third clucks unseen in the tree branches. When I move, she flies off, accompanied by a gawky teenager. As I continue my walk at least eleven more turkeys flush from the treetops.
During the same heat wave, my husband Bruce and I are driving back from town at noon. At the bottom of our road, Bruce slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a young American woodcock. It continues bobbing its awkward way up the left hand track of the road until it reaches a horizontal road drain covered by open grating that it can’t cross, so it flies off in a flurry. We are both amazed. We have never seen a woodcock closer than a mile from there in the woods near our deer exclosure, and we’ve never seen any young woodcocks on our property even though a couple males perform their sky dance on First Field every March. We conclude that somewhere on our mountain we do have breeding woodcocks.
During a pause in August’s heat and humidity, I watch what I call the march of the bucks from the top of the Laurel Ridge power line right-of-way. Through my binoculars, I see a deer crossing the top of the Sapsucker Ridge portion of the right-of-way. By the way it moves, its head held as erectly as an African woman balancing her worldly goods on her head, I know I’m looking at a buck. Then he slowly turns his head to catch the rising sun, which shines on a huge rack. As he disappears into the woods, a second buck emerges on the right-of-way. His rack is somewhat smaller than that of the first buck, but it is still impressive. After he melts into the woods, a suitable distance behind the super buck, a third buck, with an even smaller rack, ambles across the right-of-way.
Such a scene proves to my satisfaction that bucks stay together when they aren’t breeding and that the one with the largest rack leads. But perhaps I am projecting my own ideas on what may have been coincidence. Still, Leonard Lee Rue III, in his classic The Deer of North America, writes that “In the springtime, white tail bucks are often solitary, or sometimes a big buck is followed by several younger bucks,” exactly what I witnessed except that it wasn’t in springtime, so what I saw still leaves me with questions about relationships between bucks.
Mammal relationships continue to interest me when I surprise three young raccoons in our stream early one August morning. They run up the slope and climb a tree. Five days later, much farther down the stream, I hear what I think is squabbling raccoons. I sit down on Waterthrush Bench, above the stream, and wait. A few moments later, mama raccoon parades down a fallen tree trunk toward the stream, followed by her three youngsters. I remain motionless and hear another squabbling outburst, but tree leaves block my view. After waiting awhile and seeing nothing more of the little family, I continue on down the road and look back up at that tree trunk. Below it is a large tree with a hole at its base, which I assume, but don’t know for sure, is the raccoons’ den tree. I also assume that those three raccoons are the same ones I saw before and that they are ranging a fair distance in search of food.
Even insects sometimes surprise me. One August evening, a New Jersey visitor shows off his powerful flashlight, illuminating a spectacular, lime-green Luna moth on a black walnut tree trunk in our yard next to the walnut tree where we saw a Luna moth, freshly emerged, 364 days ago. According to David L. Wagner, in his Caterpillars of Eastern North America, the Luna moth’s caterpillar feeds on many forest tree leaves but has “decided local preferences” which include walnuts, as well as birch and black gum leaves in our area and pecan, persimmon, and sweet gum farther South.
But while seeing a Luna moth is an unexpected treat, walkingsticks always appear on the side of our house or on a screen door in August, and those same New Jersey visitors are impressed when I point one out. And any August visitors spend sleepless nights in our guesthouse, kept awake by the thrum of northern true katydids, even as we are lulled to sleep by them.
After years of pushing through the many orb webs of spined micrathena spiders and, indeed, expecting them in August, last August I saw only a few. Had their numbers crashed or was it an off-year for them? Sometimes, even the expected can throw me a curve ball.
But the wildflowers, in August, are predictable. Along our forest paths, the yellow trumpets of entireleaf yellow false foxglove (Aureolaria laevigata) blossom. On the hollow road bank, white wood asters and spikenard flower. Spikenards, which only began appearing several years ago near the bottom of our road bank, have been moving steadily uphill. Last August I found three below our big pull-off, two between the big pull-off and Dogwood Knoll, and two more between the forks and our old corral — a span of well over a mile. Their greenish-white flowers, growing in drooping, compound umbels, always seem too heavy for their stems.
Horse-balm and orange jewelweed or touch-me-not also grow along our road, but both are favorite deer foods. Many have been heavily grazed so I visit our three-acre exclosure for a view of shoulder-high jewelweed and waist-high horse-balm in the wetland corner of the exclosure. Late in August, I interrupt a small songbird migration over the exclosure and have a lovely view of a male black-throated green warbler and a magnolia warbler perched on a small ailanthus tree that overlooks the huge bed of jewelweed.
I pause, hoping to see a foraging ruby-throated hummingbird because I know that its needle-thin bill is perfect for penetrating jewelweed flowers. In fact, some ornithologists believe that jewelweed may have changed its floral biology to produce more nectar and encourage hummingbird pollinators. Sure enough, a female whirls in, lands close by on the fence to look me over, and then proceeds to nectar in the blossoms. Although entirely expected, it was lovely nonetheless.
Three days later, I am again hanging over the fence, this time admiring the jewelweed buzzing with native bumblebees. The horse-balm too is abuzz with bumblebees. The female hummingbird flies in to nectar at the jewelweed. She also tries the horse-balm several times, but she quickly rejects it and instead deftly ferrets out every jewelweed blossom amid a sea of horse-balm.
By late August, five species of goldenrod blanket our First and Far fields, and I spend hours “butterflying.” Altogether, I count nine species, including monarchs, common sulphurs, summer azures, an American copper, red-spotted purple, silver-spotted skipper, northern pearly-eye, red admiral, and dozens of cabbage whites.
I’ve never been fond of cabbage whites because they are a European species that first appeared on this continent in Quebec in 1861, according to butterfly guru Robert Michael Pyle in his book Mariposa Road. He says that the cabbage white — Pieris rapae — called the small white in England, may have arrived as pupae on a cabbage crate.
Today, it is our most abundant and widespread butterfly even though some folks erroneously call it the cabbage moth because of its fluttery flight. Pyle calls it “adaptive” and “resilient,” even resisting DDT spraying in England while its predatory beetle enemies succumbed. Its preference for members of the cabbage family has earned it the enmity of farmers.
The chrysalis of a cabbage white can be “buffy brown” or “green,” Pyle writes, but its color doesn’t necessarily match its background, the so-called “chameleon model.” Instead, Pyle thinks that the hypothesis “balanced polymorphism,” in which “populations adapt a ratio of green to brown expression that optimizes the chances of finding the ‘right’ substrate color in a given environment — more green in a wet setting, more brown in the desert, but some of each in either,” may be the answer. In other words, they hedge their bets. No wonder they are so successful.
Pyle also refuses to call the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) by its current name. he says that it’s a contraction of the Old English name — red admirable — and that it is not related to the true admiral butterflies in the genus Limenitis (the red-spotted purple, white admiral, and viceroy), but to the American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I think I agree with him. The red admiral certainly looks more like the ladies, although its reddish-orange bands on its front and hind wings on a black body make it the loveliest of its congeners.
As the month draws to a close, I mark the death of the huge chestnut oak tree along the Far Field Road that has harbored many wintering porcupines in its branches. Some branches now have brown, withered leaves and others are bare. Is it a victim of drought, old age, or both? Like me, it is broken down by our many years on earth and will leave its progeny to carry on the only form of immortality life on earth can hope for.
The chestnut oak has finished its life span. I have not, but its death is a reminder to me to cherish in my life both the expected and the unexpected every month of the year.
All photos by Dave Bonta, taken on Brush Mountain.