Stony Garden

boulder field at Stony Garden

boulder field at Stony Garden

The request appeared in my junk mail from someone named Anna Mintz. She wanted to interview me about ringing boulder fields in Bucks County, most notably Ringing Rocks County Park, for a Russian television program. Somehow, she had discovered an article I had written about the park years ago.

I tried to discourage her, explaining that I was no expert on ringing boulder fields and that we lived four hours away from Bucks County and five from New York City where she was working. Undeterred, she rounded up a Ukrainian camera man and arrived at a parking area near our private access road in late February. My husband, Bruce, transported them and their equipment up our icy, north-facing hollow road.

Forewarned of their impending arrival, I reviewed my folder of pre-Internet information on ringing boulder fields. Their geological history began approximately 200 million years ago in the early Jurassic Age. Ancient Lake Lockatong had covered most of Bucks County and then had gradually filled with sediments that had hardened into shale. Molten rock within the earth was forced into the shale and hardened into a ledge of olivine diabase rock, sandwiched within the shale. But over the eons, the shale’s upper layer eroded and exposed the diabase. Subsequent severe freezing during the last Ice Age, when glaciers came close to but did not reach Bucks County, causing so-called periglacial conditions, broke the diabase into boulders.

another view of Stony Garden

another view of Stony Garden

Most boulder fields, such as the one at Hickory Run State Park, don’t ring, and researchers puzzled over why only the boulder fields in a thin line from northern Bucks County to nearby Montgomery County outside of Pottstown ring with melodious tones. Those tones inspired Dr. J.J. Ott, back in 1890, accompanied by a brass band, to play several musical selections at Ringing Rocks County Park. Current thinking is that they ring because of the density of the rocks and the high degree of internal stress that occurred when the molten rock came close to the earth’s surface and quickly cooled and solidified.

After cramming that information into my head I googled “ringing boulder fields” to see if there was any new information on them, and I discovered Ringing Rocks County Park was not the largest ringing boulder field in the East. That honor belongs to nearby Stony Garden on State Game Lands 157. According to a Wikipedia article, Stony Garden consists of “a series of disconnected boulder fields extending for almost half a mile,” making it much larger than the eight acre ringing boulder field at the park. It also mentioned a trail that leads into a portion of Stony Garden’s boulder field.

I was determined to explore this place and knowing that my younger brother, Gary, and sister-in-law Barb, who live in south Jersey, enjoy hiking in Bucks County, Bruce and I invited them to join us there last June 9. As it turned out, Gary had had a bad night due to illness, but he urged Barb to go.

Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field

Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field

It was an overcast day, threatening rain, when we met at nearby Nockamixon State Park for a picnic lunch. Afterwards, following a game lands map, we found the parking lot and Stony Garden Trail off Stony Garden Road. Although the trail is only a little less than half a mile long, it had its challenges. It was rocky and wet and we had to crawl over and under several fallen trees and cross a tributary of Haycock Creek. For those reasons, we were glad to be wearing sturdy hiking boots and carrying walking sticks.

It quickly became obvious why this place is called “Stony Garden.” I was reminded of a rock garden, so neatly did the wide variety of wildflowers, ferns and shrubs grow in the soil between the rocks, such as blooming partridgeberry and Indian cucumber-root, the leaves of spring-blooming jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, bellwort, and mayapple and especially the fern rock polypody, which is common in rocky areas. Along the tributary, tall meadow-rue flowered. We found a few spicebushes, a nice maple leaf viburnum, and even a small American chestnut tree.

When we reached the boulder field, Barb and I didn’t feel sure-footed enough to venture out on the boulders so we stayed on its edges tapping on small rocks and making a little “music.” But Bruce climbed out on to the open boulders and made them ring, creating a range of tones by tapping them lightly with a hammer. He quickly found that the best sound came from thin rocks.

Gary and Patrick Myers at-Ringing Rocks County Park

Gary (r) and his son Patrick at Ringing Rocks County Park

Remembering my childhood, more than 60 years ago, I was sorry that Gary couldn’t make it. We had often visited Pottstown’s Ringing Hill Park near the home of my paternal grandparents, and he and my younger sister Linda had leaped fearlessly from rock to rock while I and my youngest brother, Hal, being less surefooted, stayed seated on a boulder at the edge. I knew he would have enjoyed seeing this awesome place and joining Bruce in the middle of the field.

But on our day at Stony Garden, while Bruce made the rocks ring, Barb and I listened to wood thrushes, red-eyed vireos, and ovenbirds singing in the forest of red and black oak, black birch, basswood, American beech and tulip trees surrounding the rocks. We also noticed small weathering potholes in some of the rocks and intense pitting in others, photos of which appear in the Wikipedia article.

Later, we learned that an even larger boulder field existed deep in the forest. Unfortunately, by the time we made our way back to the parking lot, we had no more time to explore the rest of SGL 157. And by then the threatening storm was spitting rain. But all of the game land’s 2000 acres on the northwest slope of Haycock Mountain, including the boulder fields, were obtained by the game commission back in 1920.

According to LMO John Papson, the boulder fields themselves make attractive homes for chipmunks and probably a selection of other rodents. Furthermore, the surrounding rocky terrain does not prevent the deer from using the area, and, in fact, we did see a few tracks in the wet areas. In addition, the game land supports a healthy population of black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red and gray foxes, gray squirrels, and raccoons as well as white-tailed deer. Although there are food plots and some timber cuts, for the most part the forest we saw around the ringing boulder field is typical of the rest of SGL 157.

Marcia, Gary and Barb

Marcia, Gary and Barb at Ricketts Glen State Park

Today people come from Philadelphia and nearby suburbs, Papson told me, to hunt and hike, and they find it difficult to believe that this island of a forested mountain has such a wide variety of wildlife, especially black bears and bobcats, but their presence and other wildlife have been captured on trail cams. Judging from the mature trees growing in the forest, providing ample food for wildlife, SGL 157 should be a great place to hunt. But during the summer, when hunting opportunities are limited, taking your family to climb and ring the rocks should provide precious memories for youngsters, just as it did for me and my three siblings.

In Memoriam: Gary Alan Myers (February 12, 1946-June 24, 2014). He loved to roam the hills and forests of Pennsylvania.

Talus Slope Life

polypody fern on talus slope

polypody fern on talus slope

Late in March, I ease my way down to the talus slope in an attempt to escape female ticks eager for blood to nourish their eggs. I’ve never been surefooted, so, clutching my walking stick, I only go far enough out on the rocks to escape the bloodsuckers.

Luckily, the March wind is blowing, which blocks much of the noise from Interstate 99 below and the factories and trains beyond. It also gives gliding power to the turkey vultures and other raptors heading northeast.

Unfortunately, the talus slope, facing north, overlooks the partially industrialized Logan Valley and not the bucolic Sinking Valley on the south side of the mountain. It also provides a view of the emerging industrial wind farm on the Allegheny Front, a location bound to slice and dice the golden eagles, songbirds, and bats that migrate down the Front in the fall.

Instead of looking outward at such a view, I study the close-up world of the talus slope. The pink and silver boulders, each not only made unique by its shape and color, but by patterns of multiple lichen and moss species. Composed of blocks of Silurian Tuscarora quartzite, these rocks were probably broken apart in the Pleistocene Epoch during the four glacial periods that came from the Laurentide ice sheet, centered in Hudson Bay. Two lobes of the ice sheet, near its southern margins — the Erie Lobe in northwestern Pennsylvania and the Lake Champlain/Hudson River lobe in northeastern Pennsylvania — glaciated those areas of the state but left much of Pennsylvania unglaciated, including our south central Blair County.

Tuscarora sandstone

Tuscarora sandstone

But we had a tundra climate and permafrost that produced perfect conditions for periglacial activity. According to The Geology of Pennsylvania, edited by Charles H. Shultz, the glaciations caused “extensive mass wasting throughout the nonglaciated part of Pennsylvania through extensive rock breakup and downslope movement of broken material. The hard sandstone on top of the ridges [such as our Tuscarora sandstone] has numerous plates of bedding and fracture and thus is very susceptible to break up by freeze-thaw cycles.” That broken rock becomes talus.

A mere ten thousand years ago, we entered the interglacial Holocene Epoch. Since then lichens, mosses, even pockets of trees and shrubs, have slowly changed the face of our talus slope.

The lichens begin the process, penetrating the stone with their filamentous hyphae. Called “nature’s pioneers” because they can live on bare rock, the tissues of crustose (crust-like), foliose (leaf-like), and fruticose (shrubby or hair-like) lichens, along with certain mosses, continually die and add decayed material to rock minerals. The lichens also capture dust and silt that blows over them, eventually forming pockets of soil. In those pockets, the seeds of hardy vascular plants and spores of mosses develop.

rock tripe on a talus rock

rock tripe on a talus rock

The usual pattern of rock soil development in eastern North America begins with colonization by the crustose, foliose, and fruticose lichen species, all of which I can find on our talus slope rocks, as well as with mosses in the Andreaea and Grimmia genera. They are followed by Cladonia (British soldiers lichens), as well as grasses, herbs, and hairy-cap moss. In fact, I am sitting on a soft bed of hairy-cap moss that covers the rock like a lush rug. Close by I see British soldiers lichens and other moss species.

On nearby bare rocks, I pluck three different foliose lichens that are attached by a central, stout peg and are called “umbilicate” — species of rock tripes and jelly lichens. I also note several crustose lichens that form mostly black crusts on the rocks.

These lichens are self-sufficient, taking the few minerals they need from dust and supplying their own carbohydrates through their sugar-producing photobionts (the photosynthetic part of lichen, which is either green algae or cyanobacteria, formerly known as blue-green algae). If their photobiont is cyanobacteria, these pioneering lichens are nitrogen-fixing factories that enable the lichens to establish themselves on nitrogen-poor rock surfaces. Their propagules (reproductive parts) are incredibly tiny and can grow on even the smoothest surface.

pine tree moss and a fruticose lichen

pine tree moss and a fruticose lichen share space on the talus

Moss spores are also tiny and bryologists (people who study mosses) had previously believed that moss sperm needed a continuous film of water from rain, dew, or waterfall spray to swim to moss eggs and produce spores. But Swedish researchers were not so sure because too many moss fertilizations were difficult to explain. They suspected that as with plant pollination, invertebrates might be involved. And they were right. A series of recent experiments they conducted proved that mites and springtails, which are known to inhabit moss, carry sperm between plants. Not only that, but the invertebrates actually choose fertile moss shoots and ignore sterile ones, probably because the fertile shoots are rich in sugar and fat. Like honeybees, they are rewarded for their labor. This new finding may explain how mosses reproduce on dry rocks such as on our talus slope.

Growing in the rock crevices are evergreen common polypody ferns. They, too, are rock-loving plants known also as “rock polypody” and “rock cap fern.” Their long-creeping rhizomes allow them to move into an area and form thick mats.

From where I sit, I can see at least one “island” of shrubs and trees on the talus slope. A clump of paper or white birches grows above the mountain laurel. White pine and pitch pine also find purchase among the rocks. Many twisted black birches thrive on tongues of earth that snake down through the talus. And that is as much as I can see from my perch.

mossy end of the talus slope

one shady part of the big rockslide resembles a moss garden

But our three sons have been fearless explorers of the rocks since we moved here back in 1971. Of course, I told them to keep off the rocks because; having just moved down from Maine where there are no poisonous snakes, I was afraid such bare rocks would harbor them. During my year as a Girl Scout camp counselor south of Harrisburg, I clearly remembered climbing up a rocky mountaintop and hearing the hiss of snakes on the rocks above me. I knew that Pennsylvania was the home of both rattlesnakes and copperheads. Of course, my sons ignored my warnings. Soon they were climbing all over the rocks in bare feet and assuring me there were no rattlesnakes or copperheads living in them. They never did see or hear any snake species on the talus slope.

Our eldest son, Steve, spent autumn days, when the wind was out of the northwest, sitting in the middle of the talus slope behind a barrier of boulders erected by hunters, watching the raptor migration. Instead of staying above Bald Eagle Mountain as they head south, after the raptors cross the Tyrone gap, they dip down behind the mountain (what we call Sapsucker Ridge) and sail past the talus slope, popping above the ridge only at the top of First Field where I get a quick look at them from Alan’s Bench before they rise high above the mountain and continue their journey.

Our youngest son, Mark, who conducted an in-depth study of the plants on our property back in the summer of 1987 as part of what he called Bioplum: A Natural Inventory, included the plants on the talus slope which we have always called the rock slide.

talus slope at sunset

talus slope at sunset, with Logan Valley below

After much searching, he found a single American mountain-ash on the rock slide. A northern species, it grows either along cold swamps or bogs or on rocky mountain ridges. Known for its clusters of brilliant orange-red fruits in the fall beloved by robins and other fruit-loving birds, it often associates with rock-loving yellow birches. Indeed, Mark recorded yellow birches commonly straddling rocks on the rock slide. The paper or canoe birches I can see from my seat are another northern species that grows mostly in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania but is fairly common on our talus slope.

Big-tooth aspen, usually an early successional forest species, appears sparsely on the talus slope. Fire cherry, another early successional tree with birch-like bark and cherry-like leaves, grows more abundantly among the rocks. Large-leaf holly, a deciduous, large, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, forms large clumps on the rock slide. And, Mark writes, “Laurel thickets are most impenetrable in the rockslide forest of Sapsucker Ridge.” On the ground beneath them is abundant teaberry.

immature turkey vulture on the talus

immature turkey vulture on the talus

As far as wildlife is concerned, extensive searching of the talus slope has turned up no sign of eastern woodrats even though my husband Bruce and son Steve once saw one near our big pull off on our hollow road one night. I’ve tracked porcupines, foxes, and bobcats to the talus slope and suspect they find refuge and maybe dens among the boulders. I have seen gray squirrels moving easily over the rocks. Our son, Dave, has photographed immature turkey vultures standing like sentinels on the rocks, but we have not found any evidence of nesting within the larger boulders.

Still, as I finish my long sit in the moss bed, I watch turkey vultures gliding past, back from wherever they spent the winter, perhaps looking for likely nesting areas. No doubt, they are ready, as I am, for another Appalachian spring.

All photos by Dave Bonta. Click through to Flickr to see larger versions.

Different Worlds

What a difference a few miles can make.  From our home on the westernmost ridge of the Ridge and Valley Province to the Allegheny Front is only a couple miles as the crow flies, yet, as I teetered across a log and cable bridge over Bell Gap Run on State Game Lands 108, I felt as if I had entered another world.

The geology is different.  Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the North American plate collided with the African plate.  The collision folded the entire cover of sedimentary rock that had blanketed Pennsylvania.  Because the Ridge and Valley area was closer to the collision, its folds were longer and more open than the long, gentle waves of the Allegheny Plateaus.  The mountains of the Ridge and Valley were then higher than the Rocky Mountains are now and were gradually eroded down by streams that deepened and widened the valleys.  Every winter the freezing and thawing of the earth slowly moved the soil farther down the mountains, which eventually produced the rounded hills we see today.

But while the rocks of the Ridge and Valley are tilted and lying next to each other, the rocks of the Allegheny Plateaus lie in flat layers stacked on top of one another like a multi-tiered cake as they were laid down over the eons.  Because of the branching patterns of streams, the Plateaus area has a more irregular landscape than the Ridge and Valley, and, as hikers and hunters have discovered, it’s easier to get lost in.

Canada violets

Canada violets

When those streams cut down through the rocks, they often left cliffs or rounded benches.  The Allegheny Front, as the eastern edge of the Plateaus section is called, stretches from Pennsylvania to Alabama.  Its large, rounded cliff marks the end of the horizontal rocks and the beginning of the tilted rocks of the Ridge and Valley. Around here, when folks speak of going up the mountain, they mean the Front, not our gentler ridge.

During the European settlement of Pennsylvania, the Front provided an almost insurmountable barrier to the West.  For instance, during bird artist John James and Lucy Audubon’s stage coach overland to Pittsburgh in April of 1808, the coach upset as it ascended the Front and was dragged on its side for a “considerable distance” before the driver gained control of the horses. Lucy was badly shaken and after that, she ascended every mountain on foot despite the constant rain and so did the other passengers. No wonder the subsequent construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad impressed later travelers as not only safer but an amazing engineering feat.

The weather is harsher on the Front.  During the winter, the snow is deeper and spring arrives a few weeks later than it does on our mountain.  Even though most of our storms come from the west, the Front seems to blunt their severity before they reach us.

broken oak

broken oak

“A beetling escarpment,” Ben and  Elizabeth R. Marsh call the Allegheny Front in The Atlas of Pennsylvania, and it was that escarpment we climbed last Memorial Day.  Led by Dr. Todd Davis, a poet and professor at Penn State Altoona, who had discovered the trail a few miles from his home, several of us, ranging in age from four to sixty-nine, trekked slowly upward along a shaded old logging road that drops off steeply on the right toward Bell Gap Run at the base of the slope through a mature, mixed deciduous and hemlock forest.  The left side of the trail is an often-exposed rocky cliff that displayed, on that day, a treasure trove of blooming wildflowers and ferns.

A hillside of painted trillium was a special treat.   According to Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block in The Plants of Pennsylvania, painted trillium grows in northern Pennsylvania and at higher elevations along the Allegheny Front.  This late-blooming trillium species likes a cool, strongly acidic, humus-rich soil underneath a bower of deciduous and conifer trees.  The wavy edges of its three white petals account for its species name undulatum.  The “painted” refers to the dark rose, inverted V at the base of each petal, the rose radiating outward along the petal’s major veins.  Also know as “striped wake-robin” and “painted lady,” this trillium species almost springs out of the ground during sudden warm spells.  As soon as it emerges and while it is still small, its flower opens.  If it is pollinated then, the petals quickly turn translucent, dry and fall, disappointing trillium seekers.  But those we saw on SGL# 108 were in full-size bloom.

wood sorrell

wood sorrell

Another white wildflower with a deep pink center and veins was the common or northern wood-sorrel Oxalis montana, which also grows in northern Pennsylvania and at higher elevations along the Allegheny Front.  Even without its showy, five-petaled flower, its heart-shaped, clover-like leaves are distinctive.  And after sunset, the leaves droop and fold close together as if in prayer.  Known as “Alleluia” in England because it blooms near Easter, legend has it that wood-sorrel is St. Patrick’s shamrock.  Supposedly, he was trying to explain the idea of the Trinity to his followers when he spotted a wood-sorrel at his feet.

“Here,” he is purported to have said, “Is God manifesting His own threefold being in the form of a simple flower.”

Joseph Harned, writing in Wildflowers of the Alleghanies told that story.  He also maintained that “the mere mention of the name of this dainty plant suggests at once a vision of cool, moist, and mossy woods” such as we experienced during our hike.

Foamflower, miterwort, sweet white violets, and Canada violets were almost at the end of their blooming cycles, and Todd assured me that there were many other wildflower species earlier in the season.

walking fern

walking fern

Walking fern crept along the edges, cracks, and crevices of the large rock outcropping.  Of course, it doesn’t literally “walk,” but the tips of its long, leathery, narrow, pointed leaves often sprout new plants when they touch the ground, hence its species’ name rhizophyllum which means “with rooting feet.”  Also known as “walking leaf,” it likes to grow on shaded, moss-covered, limestone or sandstone rocks.

The shrub layer overhanging the trail was very familiar to me — wild hydrangea, red elderberry and mountain laurel, with lots of rhododendron near the top of the ridge.

Many of the singing birds we heard were also familiar to me as breeding birds on our property — black-throated green, black-throated blue, black-and-white, and cerulean warblers, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds and Acadian flycatchers, as well as the “chips” of a Louisiana waterthrush as we crossed the stream.  But three species we heard or saw during our hike are only migrants on our ridge — Kentucky and Canada warblers, and the ethereal hermit thrush.

hikers in Bell Gap

hikers in Bell's Gap

Halfway up the trail, a Canada warbler flew toward us, scolding energetically, fanning her tail and fluttering her wings in a typical distraction display, which indicated the presence of a nearby nest.  Since they often build their nests low to the ground at the edge of a bank in a forest edge area about 1000 feet in elevation, we assumed she had a nest hidden nearby.  Apparently, the Appalachian Plateaus have always been a stronghold for this lovely gray-backed warbler with yellow underparts that sports a distinctive necklace of black streaks on its breast.

Our encounter with the Kentucky warbler was only aural, his loud, rollicking, two-syllable “tory-tory-tory” song emanating from the damp forest below.  This southern species too is a regular breeder on the Appalachian Plateaus, even in small woodlots and has been moving steadily north in Pennsylvania.  Yellow spectacles and black side burns distinguish this brown-backed warbler with yellow underparts that skulks and nests in woodland undergrowth.

pickerel frog

pickerel frog

I could only stop in happy wonder when I heard the singing hermit thrush and argue with myself over which thrush’s song — the wood or hermit — is the most beautiful.  Since we must make do with breeding wood thrushes on our mountain, I’ve given it preference, but on the rare occasions when I hear a hermit sing during migration, I want to persuade it to nest here too.  It’s aggravating to know that at least a few hermit thrushes only fly across the valley to nest on the Front.

With five youngsters on the trail, we tended to see the creatures at our feet.  Once an American toad crossed our path.  Another time everyone gathered around to admire a brown-splotched pickerel frog.  Both species need water to lay their eggs, but otherwise both dwell on dry land.  In the case of pickerel frogs, after mating in water, they spend their time in deciduous or deciduous/coniferous forests, wooded ravines, low-lying fields open fields or meadows.  By late May, their mating season is over, but still this one was found near a spring and pool about halfway up the trail.

American toads are the least dependent on water, and by May they too have finished their mating.  They can be found everywhere from suburban backyards to rocky hillsides, which is where the youngsters found the one at SGL# 108.



Even insects did not escape our attention.  The amateur entomologist of the group called our attention to a sawfly that looked like a bee except that the attachment of the thorax to the abdomen was broad instead of narrow like those of bees, wasps, and ants.  Sawflies are probably more primitive examples of Hymenoptera, the same order as bees, wasps, and ants; because they have no stingers and their larvae feed on plants.  But surprisingly their larvae look like the caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  There are many species of sawflies and our entomologist did not hazard a guess as to the species of the one he showed us.

With all the new wonders and old to look at and listen to, I was most impressed by the peace of the forest.  I didn’t hear the cars, trains, trucks or airplanes that I hear from our ridgetop.  It was as if we were miles from the nearest town, and yet we weren’t.  But to me it was indeed a different world.

All photos taken by Dave Bonta on the day of the hike at Bell’s Gap. See the complete set.

Welcome Spring

chipmunk“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.

mourning cloakAn 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.