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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.