the big snow: December 17, 2020

After a long, late fall, winter dropped a white shroud more than a foot deep over our mountaintop just in time for our Christmas Bird Count last year. Although I managed to get outside for a short jaunt around Butterfly Loop where our caretaker Troy had plowed, I left wading through the snow up to our son Mark. Instead, I spent most of the day sitting at our bow window counting the birds at our feeders with my husband Bruce.

In the dawn light birds flocked to the feeder area and continued throughout the day—60 dark-eyed juncos, four northern cardinals, six mourning doves, three white-throated sparrows, a pair of song sparrows and another of American goldfinches, four tufted titmice, four black-capped chickadees, four house finches, two white-breasted nuthatches, and a Carolina wren, blue jay, downy woodpecker, American tree sparrow, and red-bellied woodpecker—15 common species in all.

sparrow tracks in the snow

Mark, on the other hand, waded through the snowy thicket above Greenbrier Trail and down along the Little Juniata River before walking up our plowed road. He managed to find 30 bird species including the wintering northern mockingbird.

I’m writing this column in the excessive heat and humidity of last August and can only wonder what the winter of 2021-22 will bring. I do know that this will be my 348th column for Game News and regrettably it will be my last one.

I began writing it in January 1993 and the subject was the Carolina wren, “A Bird for All Seasons.” The previous May, Bruce had come into our house and told me that he had just found a Carolina wren nest with six eggs in it. It was in the upper story of our Pennsylvania bank barn in a box of our son, Steve’s cast-off clothing that he had topped with his stuffed Opus the Penguin from his favorite Bloom County comic strip. The penguin was lying on its side and the bulky, domed wren nest had been constructed in the semi-circular space formed by the base of the penguin’s outsized bill and his potbelly.

After the eggs hatched, Bruce made a blind for me by turning a large packing box upside down, and then cutting a door in one side and a window in the other. Inside he put an old kitchen chair where I sat and spent many happy hours watching the nestlings and their parents go about their birdy business.

Bruce helps lead an Audubon hike around the mountain, early 2000s

That was just one way in which Bruce helped me in my growing career as a nature writer. He edited my first book about our first five years here, and we worked together on two books about 160 unique Pennsylvania natural places, he doing the driving, photographing, and direction writing, while I provided the texts.

As a Penn State University reference librarian Bruce also steered me to the many scientific resources I needed both for my nature-writing and my two history books on American women field naturalists. And, of course, it was his work on our road and grounds that kept us safely here even through winters that required him to use our secondhand bulldozer and/or plow to keep our north-facing, mile-and-half hollow road open.

We raised most of our food our first 15 years here and heated our downstairs with wood from our forest. We kept chickens and Muscovy ducks and Bruce beheaded them while I plucked and cooked them. I cooked and froze vegetables from the huge garden Bruce planted and we both weeded. We were a team in this life we had chosen for ourselves and our three sons.

Bruce doing road maintenance, early 90s

Years ago, Jackie Rollfinke, a friend of mine from Bucknell University, where Bruce and I had met and courted, sent us a book she had found in a used bookstore called Bruce and Marcia, Woodsmen by William P. Alexander and Maribelle Cormack. Published in 1939, a year before I was born and two years before Bruce was, it told the story of 12-year-old Bruce and 11-year-old Marcia who were best friends. They lived in a small town near Buffalo, New York, and every Saturday they accompanied an old retired science professor into the nearby woods and fields to learn about the plants and creatures that lived there.

cover of Bruce and Marcia, Woodsmen

The book was lavishly illustrated with line drawings not only of the children and the professor, but of the many discoveries they made during their explorations. In the Foreword to the book, a friend of the authors wrote that “the purpose of the stories is to interest children in their own home locality, so that they will form clubs of naturalists to learn of the beautiful and interesting wild life all about them.”

Although I didn’t know of such a book when I was a child living near a chain of three lakes tucked into a southern New Jersey forest, I did organize nature hikes along the forest trails for my three younger siblings and their neighborhood friends. And Bruce lived with his family on a country property with a pond where he fished and swam in central New Jersey.

Before we moved here, we lived on a 100-acre old farm in central Maine for five years. When friends learned we were moving to Pennsylvania, their faces fell.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” they said.

“What do you know about the state,” I asked.

“It’s nothing but coal mines and big cities,” they replied.

Remembering my happy days exploring the woods and streams near Pottstown with my Dad whenever we visited my grandparents and our Memorial Day visits to my great aunt Mary in Mahanoy City, as well as my four years at Bucknell University, I set my friends straight about the natural beauty of much of our commonwealth. And I told our sons that we were moving to a bug-free paradise. Bruce’s grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins lived not far from Rickett’s Glen State Park and he too had happy boyhood memories of visiting them and the park.

I read a lot of nature books and magazines in those days that extolled New England, New York state, and the southern Appalachians but there was never a mention of Pennsylvania. After a good deal of research, the only book I could find about Pennsylvania’s natural world was Ned Smith’s Gone for the Day, published by the Game Commission. It was a compilation of the columns Smith wrote for the Game News from January 1966 through December 1969. It became our natural history reference book all the while our sons were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.

As Ned Smith wrote in his Preface for his book, “I hoped it [his column] would prove that the natural world at one’s doorstep can be as exciting as Yellowstone National Park or the Everglades. And most of all I hoped it would motivate readers everywhere to pull on a pair of old shoes and go see for themselves the things that make a naturalist’s life so endlessly fascinating.”

I am no artist as he was, but I started writing for the same reasons. That is why I was thrilled to write a column for Game News that was first ably illustrated by George LaVanish and then by Gerald Putt.

I know my column reached a wide and varied audience of folks who also value the natural world of Pennsylvania and I treasure the many letters, emails, and comments I have received from readers over the years.

my first Game News column

My interest in the natural world will continue and so will my nature journals. I can still walk my trails but I’ve slowed down. While my health is good, Bruce’s was not. And sadly he passed away on September 27. We were married 59 years and he was always my best friend and beloved husband.

Our sons will inherit this mountain, as they desire, and they and our two granddaughters hope to spend time here throughout their lives. A few may live permanently on this land; others may retire here. But the easement we put in place with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy will keep our mountaintop property as a refuge for the plants and creatures that live on this westernmost ridge of central Pennsylvania’s ridge-and-valley province.

Plummer’s Hollow in December

Rachel Carson, Pennsylvania’s most eminent nature writer and scientist, once said in a speech, “There is one quality that characterizes all of us who deal with the sciences of the earth and its life—we are never bored. We can’t be. There is always something new to be investigated. Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one. “

I hope there will be still more of nature’s mysteries in my life and in yours.



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23 responses to “Farewell”

  1. Heather Moir Avatar
    Heather Moir

    Thank you! I’ve so enjoyed reading your observations.

  2. kidfriendlyyoga Avatar

    Thank you for the years of sharing your love of nature and observations with us. Your incredible knowledge, passion, and writings have awed and inspired me.
    My thoughts are with you in your grief as you mourn your husband. May you feel his presence reaching out to you through the beauty of the natural world.

  3. Annemarie Bretz Avatar
    Annemarie Bretz

    You have done your part to make the world a better place. Thank you for sharing what you learned along the way. I am very sorry about the loss of your husband & best friend.

  4. WALTER ZOLNA Avatar

    Thank you Marcia for all your contributions over the years. You have influenced countless individuals, with your wisdom, and insights. You have helped to inspire me to become curious about the natural world, and for that I am so very grateful. I too express my condolences for your loss.

  5. Dennis G Rice Avatar
    Dennis G Rice

    You are an exceptionally gifted writer. I’ll miss your columns and blog, but you have well earned your retirement. All the best for whatever path you choose in the future.

  6. Susan Avatar

    You and your husband are wonderful heros of nature. Thank you for leaving this beauty safe forever. I am sorry for your loss of your life partner and for us the loss of your blog. Best wishes!

  7. Cam Avatar

    I bought your Appalachian series of books the same year I bought my first “real” camera in 2011 when I retired. I re-read through the months of each one in season, and although I don’t have quite the interesting remote areas to explore as you do, because of you I have learned much about nature in my local parks and have been able to satisfy my artistic side with photos of mostly birds and butterflies. One time I came across a video your son Dave made of sledding down Plummer’s Hollow and it reminded me of my childhood so much that I laughed ’til I cried. I am so sorry about your husband, but hope you know that he is always with you on your walks. You are one of life’s treasures and so was he.

  8. Greg Avatar

    First, my sincere condolence to you and your family on your loss. Next, I wish to let you know what joy your writing has brought me over the years. You have often taken me with you as you have walked.

    All my best for the future.

  9. Ford, Paula Avatar
    Ford, Paula

    Marcia, your reflections in this article brought tears to my eyes. I always admired the partnership you and Bruce had and the life you built together on the mountain. Thank you for sharing a part of that life with me through your writing and through our active JVAS years. Stay well. Fondly, Paula

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    1. Corrie Avatar

      I’m so sorry to hear this sad news about your husband. I just found “Appalachian Winter” at my library and I’m enjoying it so much that I had to Google you. My parents live on a hilltop farm above Bald Eagle State park in Howard and we love to visit their oasis and go for long walks in the woods. My daughter (their eldest granddaughter) wants to live there one day herself. Please accept condolences from a new admirer.

  10. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you from all of you. I so appreciate your comments and condolences. And you are right. I am taking solace in the natural world as I always have during moments of sorrow as well as joy. My son, Dave, is going to redesign my website and I will try to add content as I continue my nature journals during my walks.

  11. Mime Barnes Avatar
    Mime Barnes

    Thank you, Marcia. I have treasured reading each entry. We’ve much in common and I’ve felt kindred from afar. My husband and I moved from OH to TN, where we live from the land. Our small wood burning stove keeps us warm on winter nights. I keep track of the natural happenings on our mountain top farm in the Cumberland Mountains. Above all else, I relate to your love of the natural world. I’ve received the same gift of inquisitiveness wanderlust.
    I’m sorry for the deep loss of your husband and I pray blessings upon your days of warm sunshine or pleasant breezes on your face, birdsong in your ears and the smells of each season’s gifts.

  12. joshwlwgrv Avatar

    I have one of your books about natural areas in PA. I also have a print by Gerald Putt of courting Ruffed Grouse on my wall; I had no idea you worked so closely with him. I’ve moved to northern Colorado, but still love (and miss) the eastern deciduous forest and PA, where I lived for 37 years. Condolences on the loss of your husband and friend.

  13. Kate Hastings Avatar
    Kate Hastings

    I am very sad to learn of Bruce’s death. You are experiencing all of the “firsts” without him, and you have my sympathy as you negotiate everything without him. Even mundane tasks, especially mundane tasks, are reminders. I will hold you in the Light.
    I will miss your Game News columns. It was always the first thing that I read in each issue. I loved that a periodical devoted mostly to hunting saved a little space for wonder. I will have to be more faithful about checking your blog—please continue to share your observations with us flatlanders.

  14. Douglas A Gross Avatar

    You have had a remarkable career as a writer. I believe that you have been a real pioneer in outdoor and wildlife writing in Pennsylvania. Not only has your production been prodigious over the years but first-rate in quality. Your care in getting things right and getting first-hand accounts of wildlife research and discoveries made for great reading and unfortunately rare these days. Your column has been the single best highlight of PA Game News. I love your several books about nature in Pennsylvania. You really did the leg-work and made your subjects breathe. I continually reach for your writings to find out subjects and people I knew little about. An example is your column on the overlooked woman ecologist Theodora Cope and other:”women of the field.” Your work has inspired me and I hope that you continue is some way even if not in the traditional PGN column. We wish you and the family the very best. Keep in touch! Doug Gross

  15. Martha Johnston Avatar

    Thank you for sharing the beauty and wonder of your piece of the world. You and Bruce and your family have been and will continue to be the best kind of stewards — protecting, preserving, appreciating, sharing. My deepest condolences to you on your loss.

  16. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you all for your comments. Both from the friends I’ve never met and those I have. And as Bruce said to me before he lost consciousness, I’ll try to “Smile in the Morning,” as I continue on alone, one among so many thousands of others who have lost loved ones during this unending pandemic.

  17. Sherry Stone Miller Avatar
    Sherry Stone Miller

    Marcia, thank you for your observations as a naturalist and for sharing your findings through your writings. I have been inspired so many times as a result of browsing the many topics within the archives. I do hope they remain available. My deepest condolences to you on your loss. May you find comfort in nature, in your fondest memories and amongst those who are near and dear to you.

  18. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you, Sherry. Yes, they will remain on my website.

  19. Corrie Avatar

    I’m so sorry to hear this sad news about your husband. I just found “Appalachian Winter” at my library and I’m enjoying it so much that I had to Google you. My parents live on a hilltop farm above Bald Eagle State park in Howard and we love to visit their oasis and go for long walks in the woods. My daughter (their eldest granddaughter) wants to live there one day herself. Please accept condolences from a new admirer.

  20. Roger Cullen Avatar
    Roger Cullen

    I read this morning in the Game News of the passing of your best friend and husband Bruce. I’m very sorry to hear of his passing and your deep loss and the ending your excellent column. For years I’ve felt transported to your mountain in central Pennsylvania and looked forward every month to reading of your journeys around your mountain and elsewhere and your observations. Thank you so very much. I hope your grief lessens with each day and you continue to so enjoy what nature has to offer. Take great care.

  21. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you Corrie and Roger for your kind comments.

  22. Michael Kreiger, PLS Avatar
    Michael Kreiger, PLS

    “There is always something new to be investigated.” – such a great line, I love looking at natures wonders. Just this past season, I was examining a Sycamore tree, only 8 inches in diameter but tall. My brother says, “yep it’s a tree”. But little did he realize that there was so much more. I truly can’t wait for the next adventure in the PA Woods.

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