Our Fiftieth Anniversary

Fifty years have passed since we first saw our mountaintop home on the Fourth of July weekend. Following directions from a local realtor, my husband Bruce slowly drove our red Volkswagen bus up a steep, deeply rutted, private road.

A vehicle coming up the Plummer’s Hollow Road (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)
A vehicle coming up the Plummer’s Hollow Road (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our three sons—Steve (7), Dave (5), and Mark (2)—were in the back of the bus peering out the windows at the slope and the stream beneath.

“We could really go over the edge there,” Steve shouted excitedly.

“Are we going to live up in the woods? Dave asked hopefully.

After what seemed an interminable time, but in reality was only a mile from the highway, we reached a fork in the road.

“The realtor said to take the left fork,” I told Bruce.

We bumped over a plank bridge, and after a few minutes we emerged from the dark forest into an open field lit by the bright July sun.

A view of the barn taken in 1958
A view of the barn taken in 1958

Rounding the final curve in the road, we passed a tenant house, tool building, and large bank barn on the right and looked up a bluff on our left at a white farm house surrounded by black locust and black walnut trees. At the base of the bluff was an old stone springhouse.

It didn’t take us long to decide to buy the property, and we’ve never regretted it. We were young then, and Bruce had plenty of energy to tackle the repairs of old buildings that needed many renovations, including roofing the barn and installing heating ducts to the second floor of our home.

I was so impressed by the natural beauty of our surrounding acres that I began a career as a natural history writer based on my observations of our unique property.

Dave, left, and Steve examine an insect in 1971
Dave, left, and Steve examine an insect in 1971

Our sons became amateur naturalists and eager explorers of the woods, stream, old fields, and even the rock slides of the mountain.

Much has changed in 50 years, both for us and our sons. We have grown old and our sons middle-aged. They have stayed in our guesthouse, sometimes for months and even years at a time, and have revisited old haunts of their childhood. All three have retained a love and interest in the natural world wherever they have lived.

Bruce retired from his librarian position at Penn State University’s Library more than two decades ago, and much of the repairs and upkeep of our home, property, and access road are now done by our caretaker couple.

But I keep obsessively walking, recording, and observing the natural world and the many changes I have seen here over the last half century. I’ve kept a nature journal, written innumerable columns and articles in newspapers and magazines and five books about our mountain home. My sons and I have lists of the plants and wildlife we have observed on our square mile of mountain land and just last spring, summer, and fall Mark added considerably to our bird list. Dave’s specialties have been trees and wild plants, and Steve’s have been birds and insects. Our caretakers, with their trail cams and own observations, also have added to our knowledge of what is happening here.

During our first decade, our bird feeders attracted dozens of evening grosbeaks and American tree sparrows as well as common winter birds such as tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos, and one year we even had an immature red-headed woodpecker and a hen pheasant. Even though folks all over Pennsylvania last fall reported grosbeaks, not one came here, our tree sparrow numbers are now between two and four for most of the winter, and we’ve never seen another hen pheasant or red-headed woodpecker at our feeders.

A hen turkey on her nest (Photo by Mark)
A hen turkey on her nest (Photo by Mark)

But Mark established last year that we continue to host most bird species we recorded that first decade, although their numbers have declined. However, our wild turkey numbers have increased greatly since then and only a few years ago bald eagles became a common sight flying above First Field.

That first decade we had many mid-sized mammals—woodchucks, opossums, raccoons, stripped skunks, red and gray foxes. But in the 1980s the first black bears arrived, followed by eastern coyotes in the 1990s and fishers in this century. Our caretakers, a few of our hunters, and our sons have seen bobcats but so far I have not.

We always have had many eastern cottontails and white-tailed deer, numerous mice, shrew, and vole species, least, long-tailed and ermine weasels, gray, fox and red squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, and mink, altogether over 40 mammal species, but a deadly fungus disease from Europe has killed most of our bat species this century.

Our greatest losses, in addition to the bats, have been tree species. When we first arrived here, a large butternut tree, also known as “white walnut,” grew in the guesthouse yard, and we found a couple more scattered throughout our forest. But in a few years they died from an infection caused by an imported fungus. They produced nuts consumed by both humans and wildlife and they were tastier than their close relation, the still-thriving black walnut trees.

Dave’s photo of gypsy moth cocoons (On Flickr)
Dave’s photo of gypsy moth cocoons (On Flickr)

Then, in the early 1980s, the imported gypsy moth caterpillars defoliated all of our oak trees and other species except for tulip trees. They even ate the needles of the Norway spruces we had planted at the top of First Field in the spring of 1974. Luckily, we had only one bad year and most of the trees recovered.

By the 1990s we began to hear more about invasive diseases and insects coming from Europe and Asia. At the same time, the adjacent property of 150 acres was logged. We managed to acquire it afterwards, but we were not able to stop the invasion of Japanese barberry, privet, tree of heaven, mile-a-minute, and Japanese stiltgrass there, although last autumn our hunters took a few mornings to rescue First Field from those invasives.

Worst of all the invasives are the hemlock woolly adelgids sucking the life from our eastern hemlocks beside our stream and the even more rapid killing this last decade of our ash trees by emerald ash borers, still another Asian import. First identified in North America in 2002, and in western Pennsylvania in 2007, they have attacked all North American ash species including those in our forest and backyard.

All of these tree species provided food and cover for wildlife and coupled with changes in our weather patterns, wildlife food here has been scarce. Last winter, for instance, there were no wild fruits and few acorns and black walnuts. Even the Norway spruces, white pines, and remaining eastern hemlocks produced no cones.

A female wood duck on our vernal pond (Photo by Mark)
A female wood duck on our vernal pond (Photo by Mark)

Still, our wildflower species have mostly survived, except for a couple orchid species that came and went, and our reptile and amphibian species are still here, including wood frogs in our series of large and small vernal ponds on Sapsucker Ridge that have developed and spread over the last couple decades. Mark even recorded wood ducks there last spring.

And then there are my memories. As I walk our trails, I can recall the animals and plants I have seen along every one. In the hemlock-shrouded, so-called “dark place” by our neighbor, I saw my first fisher, a large male heralded by a flock of protesting songbirds as he came down to drink from the stream.

Off Laurel Ridge Trail, where I was sitting among the mountain laurels listening to a hooded warbler, I saw my first black bear come up the ridge, dip its face down between a double oak tree to drink, and then unknowingly headed straight toward me. When it was about 15 feet away, I stood up slowly and it stopped and stared as I spoke quietly to it. Instead of running away, it paralleled my walk along Laurel Ridge Trail continually peering at me, before finally running off.

Once I saw a mother bear and four cubs near the stream, but they never saw me above them on Rhododendron Trail and I quietly watched them until they wandered off. From across the Far Field for two springs I watched a red fox den. Another year I followed behind four coyote pups as they scampered along Sapsucker Ridge TraiI, and later I watched them playing in front of the spruce grove.

I remember releasing the first eastern golden eagle that had been live-trapped by researchers from a blind on our rock slide. When I let her go, she flew off slowly, then landed on a nearby white pine tree, before flying away.

A swallow-tailed kite in flight (Photo by Andy Morffew on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
A swallow-tailed kite in flight (Photo by Andy Morffew on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

And then there was the spring morning when I reached the spruce grove and something made me look up in time to see a swallow-tailed kite circling above the grove higher and higher.

Never Enough of Nature by Lawrence Kilham has a title that has been my mantra throughout my life. There is always more to learn and no lifetime is long enough to grasp even a small understanding of the natural world of a central Pennsylvania mountain.







19 responses to “Our Fiftieth Anniversary”

  1. Paula Avatar

    Happy anniversary, Bontas!

  2. Christina Schmidlapp Avatar
    Christina Schmidlapp

    This was so interesting.
    I am mostly saddened by the losses you describe due to our increasing connectedness worldwide and climate change, but remain fascinated by all your observations.
    As a devoted member of the Western PA Conservancy, I was glad to hear from someone awhile ago that you’ve arranged a scenic (or some sort of) easement with them for your property. Whenever we drive up 99 on our way east from Pittsburgh, I think of you and your descriptive writing.
    Thank you for sharing your discoveries and expertise and for being such good stewards of the land.
    Best wishes for the upcoming years.

  3. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks, Paula. Christine–Yes, we have an easement with the WPC. We also have a walking trail up our hollow road for a mile that’s open to the public. It’s the loveliest portion of our property. I hope you can take it someday when you are passing by.

  4. Beverley Wigney Avatar
    Beverley Wigney

    I very much enjoyed reading this post, Marcia, although I too am saddened by the losses that have been occurring in our forests. The HWA arrived here in Nova Scotia just a few years ago and it spreading relentlessly northward through the province. So sad. I’m glad that you have spent a half century observing one place – and documenting what you have seen including the changes. Also, that you raised a family of naturalists. Well done.

  5. Bob Mulvihill Avatar
    Bob Mulvihill

    Dear Marcia,
    Thank you for sharing your memories of 50 years on your mountain! How wonderful it is that you and your family came to be there, and that you were inspired to chronicle nature there for all of us to enjoy. There is something very special about knowing a place as well as you know yours. It melds into you, and you become inseparable from it. You grow with it, mark its changes, keep its secrets, and protect it from harm as best you can. That is true stewardship. You have more than repaid your place in central Pennsylvania’s mountains for the myriad gifts of natural beauty it has bestowed on you and your family for fifty years (and, through your writings, on all of us, too!).
    Bob Mulvihill

  6. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks, Bob, for your lovely comment.

  7. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks, Bev. I’ve been telling everyone about the logging in Nova Scotia. I feel so sad about how quickly our world is changing and can hardly believe the heat wave in British Columbia. When we went there in late July back during our big family trip to the West in 1980 or so, it was still the lovely wilderness and it was cool when we were tent-camping.

  8. Beth Avatar

    Marcia, congratulations to you and Bruce on your anniversary, and on half a century of observing and taking care of the natural world around you. It’s enriched my own life — both through your own writings, and through knowing Dave. I still hope one of these days to get down there for a visit, and I’m happy remembering meeting you up here in Montreal. Sending you all the best wishes for many more years there!

    1. Marcia Bonta Avatar
      Marcia Bonta

      Thanks so much, Beth. I still remember my visit with you in Montreal with great fondness. And I so appreciated your friendship with Dave. Also, I enjoyed hearing the singing of your church choir. That music is magnificent. And please come visit if you can.

  9. Denny G Avatar
    Denny G

    I’ll bet your 50 years of memories seem like they have flown by to fast. I too have seen the changes that have taken place in our western Pa. wild places. Now we have another pest in the spotted lantern fly. I can only wonder what the next 50 years may bring. Thank you for being a naturalist I can relate to.

  10. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you Denny G. Yes, the years did fly past and they fly faster the older you get as I’m sure you are aware of. I am not optimistic about the next 50 years but I can hope that good changes may come and good decisions will be made by those inheriting our natural as well as human world because I have grandchildren and grand nieces and nephews who also cherish the natural world.

  11. Gary Wivell Avatar
    Gary Wivell

    Marcia ,
    Thanks so much for sharing , and for sharing so much .

  12. Karen Fieg Avatar
    Karen Fieg

    Happy anniversary on your wonderful life on your mountain. I’ve loved reading your books and your email essays. Thank you and your family for being such devoted stewards of the land, water and sky!

  13. Dennis G Rice Avatar
    Dennis G Rice

    What a wonderful, expertly written recollection. I really enjoy your essays.

  14. Shelley and Eric Nilson Avatar
    Shelley and Eric Nilson

    Wow, congratulations on 50 years on your ridge. I have enjoyed your writing for decades. It is sad that we have lost so many trees. The latest about the mysterious bird deaths in states surrounding us is scary. Audubon SWP has asked that we remove all our feeders until the cause can be found.
    Thank you for the years!

    1. Marcia Bonta Avatar
      Marcia Bonta

      Thank you for all your kind comments. It’s lovely to know that so many great people who care about the natural world are out there.

  15. Cherie Hicks Avatar
    Cherie Hicks

    Oh Marcia, how fortunate am I to have landed in Central PA for a time, to have found you and an invitation to Plummer’s Hollow. How sad to read about so many losses, but thank you and Bruce for what you have done to preserve a beautiful piece of this planet and for sharing that beauty for these past 50 years.

    1. Marcia Bonta Avatar
      Marcia Bonta

      Hi Cherie,

      I’m glad we were able to meet, and I’m sorry you had to move back to Florida. But I know that is your happy place. Still, the Altoona Mirror could use you!

  16. Laura Jackson Avatar
    Laura Jackson

    Another wonderful article, Marcia – rich in memories, full of delightful wildlife sightings, and with echoes of wistful longing over the loss of so many trees. We are so glad you have a conservation easement on your property so it will be protected from development.

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