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!
She and I were swimming in Lake Jean at Ricketts Glen State Park. It was a hot day in early June, and this was ten-year-old Eva’s first experience of lake-swimming.
Like her mother Luz she enjoys swimming, but at first she walked almost fearfully into the water. Because she was used to swimming in the warm water off the Bay Islands in Honduras, where she had gone snorkeling the previous year, or in swimming pools in Mississippi, where she lives, I had assumed that the cold water was bothering her.
I assured her that no harmful creatures lurked in the water or hid in the sand, and she relaxed. I performed my usual back and side strokes in my 45-year-old, two-piece bathing suit, while she performed the Australian crawl and back stroke in her newer, more stylish, two-piece bathing suit. The last time I had gone swimming was with her mother, Luz, at Whipple Dam State Park, when Eva was an infant. Where had the decade gone?
My husband Bruce and I had been eager to introduce Eva to our favorite place in all of Pennsylvania–Ricketts Glen State Park and specifically the Falls Hike, which we had always referred to as the Glen Hike. We had been hiking it for nearly half a century, through courtship, marriage, children, and now grandchildren. But we had never swum in Lake Jean or taken any of the other trails.
This time we had decided to rent a cabin and spend several days at the park. After our swim, we headed to the park office to pick up the keys for our cabin. But Bruce’s online reservation hadn’t gone through. We had no cabin, and after touring a series of increasingly dreary, privately-owned cabins nearby, we headed for the motels of Wilkes-Barre. Weary with searching and disappointment, we engaged a room in the first one we saw.
Imagine us, laden with a huge cooler of perishables, several cardboard boxes of food, backpacks, and suitcases, which we loaded onto a luggage carrier supplied by the Hilton Garden Hotel, and took up to our room. Bruce was not going to sacrifice our planned Falls Hike, and I was not going to sacrifice our perishables. We carefully packed them into the small, motel refrigerator in our room.
“Camping out in a Hilton,” we joked as I heated up our baked bean supper in a microwave oven, also thoughtfully provided by the Hilton. Still, it was a real blow not to stay in a state park cabin, something Eva had been looking forward to because she had never stayed in a cabin. But she rallied sooner than I did.
I was still glum the following morning as I prepared breakfast. I pulled out a bag of thawed wild blueberries, intent on putting them on our cold cereal, but the bag had sprung a leak. Blueberry juice dripped on my new jeans and the rug. Yelling an oath, I raced to the bathroom and drained the bag into the sink. While Bruce tried to scrub my jeans clean, Eva tackled the rug. Finally, we settled down to breakfast, the blueberries on top of our cereal, the stains more-or-less gone from my jeans and the rug.
It was not an auspicious beginning. But despite the warm, humid weather, our day improved once we reached the lower parking lot at the park. First, we climbed down to Adams Falls. Many folks consider that falls, a series of three cascades, 18, 25, and 10 feet high, that races through deep, narrow gorges, the most beautiful falls in the park. We followed a series of large plunge pools formed by the erosion of turbulent water, the most impressive of which is Leavenworth Pool, which is about 30 feet in diameter and eight to ten feet deep. Eva was sufficiently impressed by the wild scene.
Then we told her about the waterfall hidden underneath Pennsylvania highway 118, which we could not see. She was as incredulous as we had always been at what seemed to be almost sacrilegious–building a highway over a waterfall. We wondered if the highway engineers had thought that 22 named waterfalls were enough.
We had the place almost to ourselves that weekday. And those we passed on the trail didn’t take the whole hike, short-circuiting it either from above or below. They seemed surprised that we did. No doubt they were heeding the warning in the park brochure that it was a difficult hike and hikers should be in good physical condition. But we wanted Eva to experience the trail as we had for nearly half a century. I had always said, half-jokingly, that when I could no longer hike the Glen Hike I would be old.
The long walk through what used to be an intact old-growth forest, following the meandering Kitchen Creek, is the only level part of the entire walk. Despite the demise of the huge hemlocks, either uprooted by a hurricane or dying from woolly adelgids, the wildflowers put on a fantastic show–whole beds of maple-leafed waterleaf, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canada mayflowers, and white-twisted stalk bloomed. I even found a couple of faded painted trilliums. But the giants were gone, and we could not share them with our granddaughter.
Once the trail narrowed and started up North Mountain, we could share the water that still drips from the moss-covered rocks along the trail, the wild gardens of wildflowers, tree saplings and both common and rock polypody ferns that grow atop the giant boulders overhanging the water, and the Louisiana waterthrushes and winter wrens that sang above the roar of the water.
Best of all, we could share the waterfalls. Because of the endurance of rock, they hadn’t changed either. Only their setting had diminished. Recently, the park had repaired and rebuilt the superb series of rock steps that employees of Colonel Ricketts had constructed back in the nineteenth century for trout fishermen. We even glimpsed the famed brook trout in a few pools.
I don’t think that Eva actually believed me when I told her that we would see 22 named waterfalls on the hike, but after we passed three more waterfalls before Watersmeet and started up Ganoga Glen, she was more than convinced, especially when I began pointing out unnamed waterfalls as well.
“In Mississippi, they would be named,” she told us. They don’t have many waterfalls in that state and they cherish every cascade.
After passing seven more waterfalls, all named for Iroquois Indian tribes, we reached Ganoga Falls. Ganoga means “Water on the Mountain” and, at 94 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the park and the second highest waterfall in Pennsylvania. But large or small, each waterfall has its unique architecture, here a long, narrow one, there a shorter, wide one–all sculpted by water over rock. Often, we stood close to a fall and welcomed its fine spray as the day warmed up.
At the top of the mountain, we took the Highland Trail that connects Ganoga Glen to Glen Leigh. But the huge American beech trees, once prominently marked by black bears, are also gone, dead from beech bark disease. In their place are spindly, young beech trees that will never reach the girth of their parent trees.
Once again the rocks remained, a jumble of huge glacial boulders, some showing glacial scratches, halfway along the trail. At one place we walked through a five-foot-wide gap between two rocks aptly named “Midway Crevasse.” After the roar of the water, the silence along this trail was broken only by the singing of black-throated green warblers and American redstarts. And then we started down Glen Leigh. Although it has only eight waterfalls, two less than Ganoga Glen, it is steeper and has always seemed wilder to me. After finding a scenic lunch spot overlooking 30-foot-high Shawnee Falls, we told Eva the history of the park, including the two glens known as the Glens Natural Area, which is a National Natural Landmark.
Ricketts Glen State Park was originally part of an 80,000-acre estate owned by Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts, who led Battery F during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. In the 1920s the Ricketts family sold more than half the property to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and today the adjacent SGL#57 and the nearby SGL#13 add considerably more wild acreage to the 13,050 park acres in Luzerne, Sullivan and Columbia counties, acreage that we had hoped to explore had we stayed in a cabin.
Most of the park, including the waterfall area, was approved as a national park site in the 1930s, but World War II intervened, and the area was sold instead to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Ricketts’ heirs for a state park. Lake Jean and the now dry Lake Rose, where we had once picnicked with our sons, were named for Ricketts’ daughters. Those waterfalls not given Native American names such as Mohican, Cayuga, Delaware, Seneca, and Huron, were named for Ricketts and his relatives. We pointed out the 40-foot-high R.B. Ricketts waterfall to Eva as we continued on down Glen Leigh.
In those early days, the local people called it “Kitchen Crick,” according to Bruce. As a young boy, he had gone once to Ricketts Glen with his Uncle Gilbert and great Uncle Byron and remembers them walking through the old-growth and identifying the trees. Eva likes to hear family stories so we also told her about her Grandpa’s people who had come down from Connecticut to settle at the base of North Mountain and farm, about his Grandpa Ide’s apple farm and how every year Bruce and his family, who lived in New Jersey, went back to visit family at the old farm.
Once we reached Watersmeet, rumbles of thunder hastened our walk back. Eva and Bruce had easily hiked all 7.2 miles of the Falls Trail, but I struggled during the last descent from the last waterfall, sweat pouring off me. I’ve never counted the stone steps that lead from waterfall to waterfall, but I suspect they number in the hundreds. And the elevation drop is 1,000 feet in a little over two miles.
As Eva and Bruce forged on ahead, I welcomed the level rerun through the remnants of the old-growth forest and walked slowly, because, as usual, I was loath to leave the peace of the trail. The rain held off until we were back in our car and headed for home. Nature, at least, had not let us down even if the park reservation system had.
All photos taken at Rickett’s Glen by Dave Bonta on May 14, 2007. To see the complete photoset, click here.