Connecting Wild Lands

John Davis - heading out

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.

John Davis' campsite in Plummer's Hollow

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.”

John Davis photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our 3-acre deer exclosure


For more information about the Wildlands Network, consult their website at or email at 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 and get many ideas for wild places to visit in eastern North America.

Our son Dave’s blog at has the interview with Emily Reddy for WPSU and John’s three audio accounts of his visit here.


4 responses to “Connecting Wild Lands”

  1. John Davis Avatar
    John Davis

    Thank you for this beautiful essay, Marcia, and thank you & family again for a wonderful visit. That was a high point of my trek, and I hope to conspire with you well into the future on protecting and restoring those wild connections. With more land-keepers like you, we might even restore an Eastern Wildway.

    1. Marcia Bonta Avatar

      I’m glad you liked it. If you would like a paper copy, send me a mailing address. The illustrations won’t be as good, but at least you will get an idea about the magazine. We are going to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this year by going to the Gaspe. And Dave and his friend Lucy and English girlfriend Rachel are heading up to the Adirondacks to camp in October.

  2. C.C. Avatar

    This post gives so much information – thank you.

    Especially liked this paragraph of yours: “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 here in the middle Rio Grande valley in New Mexico look forward to John Davis’s TrekWest!

    -Cirrelda in Albuquerque

    1. Marcia Bonta Avatar

      Thank you for your kind comment. I’m sure that John will do an excellent TrekWest. We look forward to following his adventures online. Incidentally, we’ve enjoyed traveling in your beautiful state.

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