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!
In the midst of the worst heat wave last July, we were asked to host John Davis, who wanted to camp out on our property. Son of Mary Byrd Davis, author of Old Growth in the East: A Survey and editor of Eastern Old-Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery, Davis is as committed to saving wild lands as his mother was.
Knowing she was dying of cancer, Mary bade her son a final farewell in February 2011, excited about his mission to walk, cycle, and paddle a potential Eastern Wildway from Key Largo in Florida to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec Province. Under the auspices of the eastern field office of the Wildlands Network, whose motto is “Reconnecting Nature in North America,” Davis was “promoting the need for connectivity in conservation planning,” according to the Wildlands Network website.
He ended his adventure in November at the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula having “slogged through swamps, paddled rivers, weathered thunderstorms and tornadoes, and scaled mountains.” Altogether he explored wild lands in 13 states by visiting national parks, forests, refuges, and conservation-friendly private lands.
We fit into the latter category. Frankly, we knew nothing of his quest until we received an email from Conrad Reining, the Eastern Director of the Wildlands Network, several days before Davis expected to arrive on our property. We were pleased at the opportunity to meet and talk with Davis and offered him a room in our guesthouse. But no, he wanted to pitch his solo tent in our woods.
At that point, he was 4800 miles into what would ultimately be a 7500 mile trip, having already visited an amazing and inspiring number of wild places in the eastern United States. But this wasn’t a macho exercise in athletic prowess. Davis wanted to communicate with a broad number of people interested in conservation. To this end, he used Facebook, Twitter, and wrote an excellent blog about his experiences along the way. He also met with as many people as possible, “tagging along with local people to learn more about their areas.” He was, we quickly decided, a fast learner because he listened so well.
A wiry, deeply tanned man in his mid forties, Davis had pedaled up to central Pennsylvania from western Maryland that day to meet with Liz Johnston of The Nature Conservancy. On a terrifically hot afternoon, she showed him some of their new preserve on southern Brush Mountain. This preserve was badly logged before The Nature Conservancy could acquire it, so it is now a restoration project.
“Part of TNC’s work in confronting climate change is mapping sensitive habitats and key wildlife connections,” Davis wrote in his blog, “and trying to direct energy exploitation [especially industrial wind farms and Marcellus shale extraction] away from these areas.”
Since our land is on northern Brush Mountain, it made sense for Davis to camp out here. Our Blair County has a lot of public land, but it is mostly gamelands where camping is forbidden. Besides, he wanted to learn more about a possible wildlife corridor along the mountaintop from our land to that of The Nature Conservancy’s.
Geologically, Brush Mountain is part of chain of ridges, including locally Bald Eagle Mountain, that stretch from Williamsport south to Tennessee, as well as the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province. None of the large landowners on Brush Mountain, including the Game Commission, have allowed industrial wind farms on their property so, except for a scattering of homes above Altoona, the ridge top is relatively wild. And, as we learned not long ago, fishers were able to move around whatever obstacles exist to reach our property.
We told Davis about my recent Allegheny woodrat sighting (see “June Surprises“), and he quickly turned information about the woodrats’ need for connectivity into a podcast, also a part of his daily outreach to those following his trek online. Another part of his outreach was through the media, so the following morning a local radio reporter from Penn State’s WPSU stopped by for an interview. Davis, our son, Dave, and I accompanied her for a short walk to see Davis’s camping set-up and our three-acre deer exclosure.
Davis talked about his trek and his vision for an Eastern Wildway, telling her that we “need to rekindle people’s love of wild places” and promote the preservation of such places. He believes nature is resilient and can recover from over-exploitation if only we give it a chance. “We really need to make changes knitting back habitats in the East before it’s too late,” Davis said. He also explained to her about the changes in Pennsylvania’s forests because of deer pressure, and especially emphasized the dangers of forest fragmentation to our more charismatic and rare creatures, although he observed that mountaintop natural communities in central Pennsylvania seemed to be more intact than most areas he had seen.
After all, we do have evidence, both on trail cameras and from personal observations, that our property hosts every possible mammal species that lives on wild Pennsylvania mountains. Still, our land has suffered and continues to suffer from a variety of tree and shrub diseases, for example, hemlock woolly adelgids and a leaf fungus that is killing much of the mountain laurel understory, as well as from invasive species such as garlic mustard, Japanese barberry, privet, ailanthus, and multi flora rose.
But Davis was impressed by our original intact oak forest on Laurel Ridge that we are not managing except for keeping a trail system open for our use and the Sapsucker ridge top and trail-less, forested land reaching down to Interstate 99.
He was not impressed by the numerous roads in Pennsylvania and called our state “a roadkill hotbed,” on his blog. Because he cycled on back country roads, he saw a lot of dead animals—“visible nearly every mile of road”—not only in Pennsylvania but throughout his journey. According to the Wildlands Network, our nation has 4 million miles of roads and motor vehicles that kill one million vertebrates a day. Yet, most collisions could be prevented if transportation planners included wildlife crossings such as the underpasses beneath our interstate.
We asked Davis what gave him the idea for TrekEast and he told us that he was inspired by his friend and the author of The End of Nature, Bill McKibben, when Davis rowed and hiked with him on another wildways journey that led to McKibben’s book Wandering Home.
Davis lives in Essex, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains so he knows wilderness. He’s been a lifelong wildlands advocate, conservationist, writer and explorer. He edited Dave Foreman’s Rewilding America, another inspiration to him, and, of course, his mother’s work in old-growth eastern forests also influenced him. In fact, her final word was “wonderful” after she learned of his “great explorations through southern Florida, looking for vestiges of primal Nature she had documented.”
In August 2003 he won the “Distinguished Achievement in Open Space Protection” award from the Adirondack Council for his habitat protection work in the Split Rock Wildway. From 1991 to 1996 he co-edited our favorite and now defunct journal Wild Earth and is a co-founder of the Wildlands Network. Right now he is getting ready for his planned 2013 TrekWest with the same message of connectivity that he had for TrekEast.
Davis spent a couple nights with us before getting back on his bike and pedaling to State College where he delivered a talk about his vision to conservationists and then headed north in the brutal heat.
“I could not forget about climate change as I pedaled north through Pennsylvania, finally finding shade and cooling water along the Pine Creek rail-trail in north-central Pennsylvania, during one of the worst heat waves on record,” he wrote in his blog.
Most conservation biologists agree with Davis that corridors of wild land where animals and plants can move safely are necessary as we face a changing climate and a growing human population that is settling in what used to be wild places such as the mountains of North Carolina. But Kentucky author of The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry, who has brought a broken-down old farm back into productivity in between teaching and writing numerous books and essays, reminded Davis “that wilderness protection will not succeed unless conservationists also support improved practices on farm and forestry lands.”
We need to remember that ultimately our wealth is in the natural world. From it we extract the raw materials we need to live, including, most precious of all, our water. If we take too much or are careless in our taking, we may lose more than we gain.
We enjoyed Davis’s visit and greatly admire his dedication to promoting and protecting wild lands. As he later concluded, “Let’s keep conspiring to weave together the landscapes that make eastern North America worth a 7500 mile trek and infinitely more.”
For more information about the Wildlands Network, consult their website at www.wildlandsnetwork.org or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call them at 877-554-5234 or write to P.O. Box 5284, Titusville, Florida 32783-5284. You can still read John Davis’s blog at www.wildlandsnetwork.org/trekeast/blog and get many ideas for wild places to visit in eastern North America.
Our son Dave’s blog at http://www.vianegativa.us has the interview with Emily Reddy for WPSU and John’s three audio accounts of his visit here.