“Naturalist’s Eye” column for Pennsylvania Game News, March, 2007
I’ve closed our gate behind me after crossing the Little Juniata River and the main railroad line from New York to Chicago. Almost immediately I step into a different, older world this breezy, blue-skied day in late March.
For weeks spring has played with us, blowing first warm and then cold, but today spring has truly arrived. Everything shines in our north-facing hollow–the leaf duff, the stream, the hemlock needles, the tree trunks, the few dried, beige leaves still clinging to the American beech trees, the moss, the Christmas and evergreen woodferns, the rhododendron leaves. Still, gray and black, brown, beige, and green are the predominant colors of our hollow before spring bursts out with flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers of every imaginable color, giving solace to my color-starved eyes.
I start up the first steep stretch of our mile-and-a-half access road where rocks have slid into the road. I pick one up and notice how
It gathers light, [...]
a mountain in miniature, notches and ridges
carved by weather, strata and stria,
the pressure of time,
as Barbara Crooker writes in her poem “Geology.”
That time is almost beyond belief. The dark red rock outcropping on the right side of our road, which has spewed out the rocks, is part of the Juniata Formation. Although it is the “newest” formation in the Ordovician System, it dates from 360 million years ago. Because the Juniata Formation is composed of a softer sandstone than either Sapsucker Ridge on the right or Laurel Ridge on the left, our small stream was able to develop and form our hollow.
Laurel Ridge is made up of rock even older than the Juniata Formation, called the Bald Eagle Formation, which is also a sandstone in the Ordovician System. Sapsucker Ridge is younger rock–Tuscarora quartzite in the Silurian System.
Unfortunately, the Juniata sandstone soil is unstable. In the 1970s, geologists from Penn State studied and mapped numerous fracture traces and lineaments in the hollow. These fracture traces and lineaments are faults in the underlying rock structures that conduct water and cause slope instability, rapid runoff, and earth slide conditions. Most springs we have a few small slides into the road, but so far there have been none this year. Still, it is easy to see the patch of muddy bank where nothing much grows because of the frequent slides.
At this time of year, when the vegetation is not as dense, several large, rectangular stone blocks, in a circular area 20 feet across, are visible on the far side of the stream. Those blocks are all that is left of a cistern that was built in 1850 by the Pennsylvania Railroad to supply water for the steam locomotives using the new railroad line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The rest was washed away in the great flood of 1936.
As I near the top of the steep stretch and round the bend, I fully enter into the life of the hollow, leaving all sight and sound of civilization behind me. The first rhododendron appears down by the stream, and the first white pines and hemlocks grow on either side of the road, casting dappled shade in the mostly deciduous forest.
White pine cones cover the road wherever a white pine grows, and large clusters of cones still dangle from its topmost branches like Christmas decorations that hang too long on doorways. American basswood, tulip poplar, and cucumber magnolia trees stand straight and tall along the road and beside the stream. While tulip tree seeds, beige-colored and shaped like tulip flowers, still cling to their branches, providing black-capped chickadee and tufted titmouse food throughout the winter. The remnants of cucumber magnolia and basswood seeds have long been crushed into the road and dropped into the leaf duff.
Fallen trees, downed by hurricane, wind, and old age lie rugged in thick, green moss on the mountain slopes. Flat, wild hydrangea seed heads hang from dried branches on the steep road bank where they are safe from deer browsing. So too are clusters of rhododendron sprouts that form a deep green skirt around a moss-covered log.
A few invasives have made it up the road–Norway maples near the bottom, a Japanese barberry here, a privet there. And, of course, garlic mustard is already rearing its ugly head. But the hollow mostly supports native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.
The stream, filled with winter runoff, tumbles over and around elevated rocks. One rock, shaped like a surf board, creates a miniature waterfall. I stop to sit beside the stream, my back against my favorite basswood tree, and listen to the music of the water. Across the stream, a recently uprooted hemlock tree sprawls over two oak trees it brought down with it when it fell.
A chipmunk dashes across the road. Then another. They first emerged in February to mate, and now they are out for good.
An elegant, cream-bordered, dark brown mourning cloak glides above the stream, and three reddish-brown, black-and-orange Compton tortoiseshells flutter over the road. Both butterflies are harbingers of spring. They overwinter as adults and share the genus Nymphalia with Milbert’s tortoiseshell. Mourning cloaks, known as Camberwell beauties in England, live throughout North America and west through Eurasia in almost any habitat. Compton tortoiseshells, named after Compton County in Quebec, prefer the woods and are not as cosmopolitan as their cousins, ranging across the northern United States and southern Canada.
In what our late neighbor, Margaret, called “the dark place,” thick with hemlocks, a moss-covered nurse log nurtures two hemlock seedlings. Large beeches share this section of the forest with the hemlocks. I peer down the steep bank and watch the stream shoot over rock ledges wedged between the bank and the mountainside, while a winter wren, which has spent the winter here, calls and bounces like a child’s windup toy. This is the wildest part of the hollow with the most old-growth characteristics.
Beyond the dark place, only a scattering of hemlocks and a few white pines loom amid the deciduous trees, including a steady lineup of mature beeches. If you know where to look, a few small ironwood or hornbeams grow along the road. Other deciduous trees include white ash, sugar and red maples, black cherry, chestnut, red, scarlet and white oaks.
A large white oak tree looms on a bluff above the road. This most unnatural flat area was leveled off in 1813 to form a charcoal hearth, one of dozens of such places in the hollow and on surrounding ridges where colliers, employed by the local iron company, piled up log billets into dome-shaped mounds, covered them with earth, and slowly burned them down into charcoal. Then they hauled the charcoal to an iron-making community at the bottom of our mountain, where they used it for forge fires. The iron industry based here and in other nearby communities clearcut the mountain in 1813 and again in the 1840s to supply charcoal for the forges. Even today the charcoal is evident when I stick my finger into the soil. This particular hearth nurtures several spring wildflowers such as round-leaved violets, round-lobed hepaticas and jack-in-the-pulpits.
At the base of the hearth, one of several side streams that flow off Sapsucker Ridge, this one along what we call Pit Mound Trail, disappears under a road grate and joins the main stream. The trail is named for the many large, uprooted trees whose roots pull up mounds of earth and leave a pit below. Locally, folks refer to them as “Indian graves,” but instead of places for the dead, these pit mounds create conditions for new life. By mixing zones of subsoil with topsoil, they produce rich micro-habitats where patches of rich, herbaceous understory plants thrive on the forest floor.
Above Pit Mound Trail on the Laurel Ridge side, the first mountain laurel appears. More upland hardwoods, especially the oaks, abound. One large snag, hoary with age and lichens, contains five old pileated woodpecker holes. Up Sapsucker Ridge to the right is a large sugar maple. Young black birch trees grow out of the road bank, and I break off a fresh branch to smell the “chewing gum tree,” as our granddaughter Eva calls it. That same wintergreen flavor also permeates the evergreen teaberry leaves and bright red berries growing on top of the road bank.
Still another exercise in spicy aroma are the many spicebushes growing in the understory on the flattened, floodplain-like area beside the stream. Again, scoring a fresh twig with my fingernail releases the allspice smell of this attractive shrub. Because the hollow is not so steep during its last half mile, it receives more sunshine and is warmer, which encourages the difference in forest composition. Clubmosses green the road bank, along with patches of partridgeberry, still sporting twin red berries.
The stream has shrunk and quieted as I reach the forks. I am close to its origins now. Another side stream leads past the abandoned home of our deceased neighbor, Margaret, and the parking lot my husband Bruce built for our hunters, and it seeps from the hillside across from the lot.
But I continue up the left fork in our road along the stream. A brown creeper calls and forages above the forks. The last quarter of a mile the road bank on my left harbors several patches of trailing arbutus, the shining, evergreen leaves a promise of the pink-and-white, sweetly-scented flowers to come. A cluster of large white pines again paves the road with crushed pine cones. Along the now trickle of a stream, the only grove of big-leaf aspens grow. Half uprooted across our old corral fence over the stream, a willow displays its gleaming, gray pussies. In the middle of the driveway, the first coltsfoots have turned their butter-yellow disks to the warm sunshine.
I pick my way across the stream and push through the cattails of our small wetland. From there, I follow the thin stream of water up First Field where it gushes out of the ground, gurgling its welcome to spring.
Photos: eastern chipmunk; mourning cloak butterfly. Both taken in Plummer’s Hollow in March, 2006 by Dave Bonta.