Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nature Despite Us

In 2007 Alan Weisman wrote an amazing book, The World Without Us. I love to revisit this book from time to time and immerse myself in an imaginative, yet fact-based and entirely plausible outcome  of some catastrophe: something that takes some species (us) but leaves others. For instance, the idea that frozen methane deposits encased in permafrost could suddenly burst into our warming atmosphere as the Arctic continues to melt - bad news for us but maybe a relief and an opportunity for the rest of Life:

In our absence, presumably plenty of wild and feral creatures will rush to fill our void and set up house in our abandoned spaces. Their numbers no longer culled by our lethal traffic, they should multiply with such abandon that humanity's total biomass - which eminent biologist E.O. WIlson estimates wouldn't fill the Grand Canyon - won't be missed for long. 
- The Petro Patch (p. 129), The World Without Us

A drag path for an oxen team pulling logs, circa 1920s. Blackwater NWR MD.

Weisman conducts this marvelous thought-experiment with an interesting question in mind: will we be missed? As I hike, paddle, and bike around the Mid-Atlantic and encounter places like the Cornwall Banks and the dying infrastructure of our once-industrial landscape, I often wonder at the speed of takeover nature employs when a human endeavor fails. I wonder if we will even be an afterthought! In our region, we don't have to wait 'for the end' to appreciate how nature invades and reclaims the anthropogenic landscape. Post-industrial landscapes revert quickly in our temperate and increasingly wet climate to a semi-wild state.

Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal is now the domain of frogs and salamanders.

While hiking or paddling or biking in what you think is a natural area, look around for patterns in the  landscape that seem out of place or different from the rest. Nature doesn't like straight lines and these stick out: constructed waterways, old hedgerows, abandoned roads. A single old tree in a mass of younger trees is a clue to a recent shift in land use: a former pasture, a yard tree in a deserted neighborhood.

A farmhouse, deserted in 1930s, is reclaimed.

Old lines of transportation: canals, railroad beds, farm lanes, logging roads, abandoned and no longer maintained, collapse or relax into the landscape. My favorite vernal pond is an old section of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, high above the river, closed in the 1860s and collapsed by a century of neglect. Easily accessible on a north and south mule path, it is a window into the resiliency of amphibians as they re-inhabit an area that was once industrial and devoid of trees. On March evenings we set up our camps chairs on the path and, donning our headlamps, enjoy the early spring chorus of singing frogs and the wriggling of salamanders as they head into the shallow canal to mate and lay eggs. Barn owls and vultures nest in the open attic of a deserted farmhouse nearby while bats have reclaimed the widening gaps of the clapboard sidings. Frogs in the canal, bats in the house, owls in the attic.

Once a busy country crossroads where a school, post office, country store, and three roads converged. Shenandoah NP, VA
The 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon is May 2. We've altered and exploited the natural landscape to such an extent that hundreds of species have disappeared from the continent during our short tenancy. But nature always bats last! As a contemporary local example, a long-deserted town, on the shoulders of the Blue Ridge Mountains is now home to a healthy population of wildlife - some of it so rare during the heyday of this little logging town, that to mention a sighting of a bear would raise skeptical eyebrows. We love to hike this area, the old Corbin Hollow area on Robinson Mountain. The hustle and bustle of this early 1900s crossroads town was facilitated by a two lane paved road, quite the boast for it's day!  Now it is a single track trail traversed by backpackers, coyote, black bear, and deer.

Barn foundation sprouts a forest. An pasture or 'wolf oak' stands where livestock shaded up and is now a bee tree.

What would happen if our path follows that of the passenger pigeon?  Species that depend on us or that are bred by us are ill suited to life in a human-less landscape and would soon follow us into oblivion  Rats and mice would decline as human stores of food and waste are depleted. Predators will be quick to return. Plants will facilitate the destruction of the built environment from highways to tall buildings.  Based on Weisman's book, The History Channel produced this dramatic film "Life After People" - not exactly for a young audience, but I know the older kids and adults will find it hard to look away after one day, a week, a year, five, twenty five.. I think it's a tad dramatic but worth the telling for some fun and creative what-if's. I liked the book much more, however.

The plants that takeover our deserted homesteads and crumbling cities, however, will most likely not be native species. They are, in fact, already at work in our more neglected areas: purple loosestrife, ailanthus, Japanese honeysuckle, and kudzu - all introduced accidentally or intentionally by humans from other continents. But English ivy will probably succumb to the native Virginia creeper, so there is that bit of native revenge. As our region warms, southern mammals will continue their northern spread, faster without our interference. Opossums, originally from South America will march double-time to New England. Manatee will fully colonize the Chesapeake. Armadillo will skitter happily into our abandoned farmlands en masse.

Three years ago I encountered this manatee while kayaking in Havre de Grace, MD. A climate change migrant!

As a thought-experiment, imagining the Mid-Atlantic without us adds great fun to an afternoon hike or bike ride. In a city park or suburban trail, whip out the sketch book and draw the scene gone wild. Working with a middle school class of boys, we imagined and then sketched Baltimore street scenes a century after people had vanished. Of course they included herds of elephants and prides of lions, escaped from the zoo! Far from being a doom-and-gloom exercise, creating a future world of plants and animals re-inhabiting a landscape can be a wonderful entry into storytelling and art for kids and adults. Imagining a re-wilding of familiar places reminds us that our time here is, like all species, just a fleeting moment in the larger story of geologic time. 


Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2007)

Post-apocalyptic literature can be categorized as  'speculative non-fiction' if well researched and supported by scientific evidence and prediction. But some critics of Weisman's book labeled it science fiction fantasy. You decide. Either way, the manatees are coming!  

Is a species-specific or family-specific extinction possible? Yes, says Elizabeth Kolbert. It's happened before and can happen - or is happening - again! Learn the difference between background extinctions, extinction events, and the sometimes surprising after-effects...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fear and Risk: Part I

My granddaughter goes arboreal whenever she sees a climbing tree.

Lately, a lot of social media chatter has been on the topic of risk and fear, prompted in part by Richard Louv's recent visit to Baltimore. Richard and I visited with each other a few years ago about his groundbreaking work that identifies nature deficit disorder - a suite of problems that seems to plague children and adults who spend little or no time in nature. I decided not to pursue this topic for my (still ongoing) dissertation research, but my interest in fear and risk is still a topic I am fascinated by. When I was raising my own children, I took a fairly hands-off approach to letting them explore the natural world. Richard calls this being a hummingbird parent, as compared to a helicopter parent. I stood well out of the way, allowing them to make discoveries, encouraging them to spend lots of unstructured time exploring, but always mindful and ready - to include cliffs. My son, an experienced mountain hiker, seems always to find the furthest, highest perch for that important summit picture. Those pictures are my absolute favorite when he sends them along. What confidence! What happiness at his accomplishment! I can picture myself on many, many summits - long exhausting trails behind me, elated that I'd made it. It takes a lot of skill, preparedness, and the ability to weigh the risks.

Finding summits was a favorite passion when my kids were young.  George and Emily (with sketchbook), Acadia NP.

George at a summit cairn on Mt.Monadnock, NH 

Risk is defined as an exposure to danger. There is risk in every part of our lives, and some would argue there is more risk in driving a car on the beltway at rush hour than in climbing a mountain. The important aspect of considering risk in our activities, whether driving a car or climbing to that summit, is how we assess it. Children who are not exposed to risk at all, helicoptered by all too protective parents, never fully develop the ability to assess risk. It is a survival skill that, with plenty of practice and a hummingbird parent nearby, becomes an inherent skill that a child will carry forward into adult life, on or off the trail. A scraped knee is the best lesson on why we don't run blindly down the rocky path, a risk that I as a parent was able to accept for the teaching value of the fall! The safer alternative activity, of course, might be sitting passively in front of the computer or TV, but here no risk assessment skills are ever taught -except maybe that in video games you can always have a do-over. Not so in nature. This is a critical lesson for children to learn about the outdoors. There are levels of risk, some we can accept, and others we should avoid. To do is to learn. 

My grandson is perfectly content to explore on his own. We just keep an eye open for poison ivy and let him go.
But what about fear? Sure there are lots of things that can be scary in nature: the warning hum of a nearby wasp nest, the sound of rapids around a blind turn in the creek. The outdoors child is given opportunity to face these fears, assess the actual risk involved, and to make decisions to proceed or avoid. It takes practice and exposure. Something that many modern parents afraid of. Sometimes the fear of the parent aborts a teachable moment. Sometimes the fear of the parents confines the child to sterile environments where risk is removed.  The child, grown into an adult, cannot make healthy choices about risk and often (without the easy do-over that video games afford) make poor choices. 

Liam loves to explore the crevices and spaces between the rocks on the Henlopen jetties for hidden surprises. 

Just playing outside is not the same as being outdoors. Being outdoors is a state of being. Like a long leisurely stroll punctuated with bursts of discovery, imagination, and wonder.  Unstructured and unconfined space and time for a child outdoors is a process of finding his place in the bigger picture of nature and life. He builds a deep-rooted sense of adaptability and appreciation for natural occurrences. Even death, encountered along the way - a vacant turtle shell, a fish hooked and bleeding from its gills, a skull in the leaves, a dead gull between rocks of the jetty - all become part of the enduring experience of being outdoors and developing an understanding of risk and fear. Questions about why an animal died (there are diseases, predators, accidents, old age) and  how to express sadness (with compassion, empathy, understanding) develop a child's awareness and appreciation of the risk inherent in all life, and that we are part of All Life.

Someday I hope my grandsons and granddaughters will follow their Uncle George into a solo experience with a wild river.

I've worked with many parents over the years who, for many reasons, have a very different relationship with nature as parents as compared with the relationship to nature they had as children. Many parents have told me about their long jaunts into the woods, running out the backdoor on a Saturday morning and not coming home until dinner. They also wonder why they can't be that carefree with their own children today. We begin to think about the virtual world of video games, internet, TV, smart phones. Is this really a safer place for children? Is the world so much more dangerous than when my children were young, or have we made it so in our heads? I cringe with all the fear mongering in the media - fantastic coverage of a world of terrorists/child abductors that take the headlines to a whole new level of sensationalism. No wonder parents are a nervous wreck! 

Turn it off. Just turn it off. Take a child, go outside for a long while, and just Be. Sometimes this experience is more important for the parent than for the child. Once a parent's fears are calmed and a true understanding of real and perceived risk is achieved, then maybe they can allow and encourage their child to simply Be in nature.

I still lead trips for parents only, into wild remote places, so they can come to grips with their own fears and sense of risk. It's an amazing experience for them and me to see their confidence and understanding grow. When they return to their own kids, they tell me of a new-found confidence in letting go a little more, and allowing the greatest teacher of all, Nature, to take the helm.


Richard Louv identified the concept of nature deficit disorder and continue to collect data and write about how this is affecting us as parents and our children:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Middle Creek WMA: "A Little Out-of-the-Way"

In the 1960s the American waterfowl conservation movement had taken a hard turn towards restoration and reclamation, building on the previous decades' policies and practices that scientifically employed biological surveys and highly enforced regulation of hunting privileges. Waterfowl species of North America had taken a huge hit: a century of free-for-all hunting history that included unregulated taking of all species of ducks, cranes, geese, wading birds, raptors, years of marketing gunning, and the deliberate destruction of eggs, chicks, and habitat as wetlands  were converted to agricultural use. 

The Amish, school groups, university classes, families, elders, and wildlife enthusiasts from near and far gather to watch. 

In the 1940s and 1950s ideas of ecology were just beginning to make sense to policy makers, even though researchers and field biologists had been sounding an alarm since the 1930s.  Adding hurt to misery, the effects of DDT and other pervasive chemicals used for broad spectrum pest control illustrated a collapse of ecological systems through the process of bio-accumulation.  In the age of chemicals, disappearing ducks, geese, and swans were joined by eagles, osprey, and all manner of bird life that depended on wetlands and aquatic environments for survival.

Our now common Canada geese were uncommon and a thrilling sight in the 1960s in Pennsylvania.

Following the model of the national refuge system, states in the Mid-Atlantic struggled to establish their own management areas as budgets and land prices allowed. Funded in large part by progressive hunting groups, bond sales, and project grants, the Pennsylvania Game Commission established its first management area on the Ohio - Pennsylvania border in 1935. This large wildlife management area was wildly successful, helping to build populations of Canada geese that were an uncommon sight in those days! Hoping to duplicate the success of the Pymatuning WMA, the Pennsylvania Game Commission studied sites in the eastern part of the Commonwealth, a long process that by the 1960s brought planners to a small valley on the border of Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.

PA Game Commission engineers reshaped the gently rolling fields of the Middle Creek basin to create dozens of wetlands.

Backed by federal and state dollars, land was acquired (sometimes by eminent domain) and reshaped by engineers to include a system of constructed wetlands, ponds,  and a 400 acre impoundment completed by the early 1970s. Canada geese were relocated from the Pymatunning project. Farmers  became a vital part of this story and with their help, agricultural lands served as  feeding grounds for geese. Farmlands were protected under easements and critical area protections. In the 1970s DDT was banned and within the decade some bird species began to rebuild populations, but others took longer to recover. By the 1980s the Middle Creek project had become so successful, and Canada goose populations so healthy, that special goose hunts were offered by lottery. All manner of wetland birds became established at Middle Creek, including bald eagles who have raised young on a ridge line nest for many years. In past few years, I've even seen sandhill cranes!

Tundra swans have returned to the Atlantic Flyway in large numbers, thanks to Middle Creek WMA
Today Middle Creek WMA is a treasured and much-visited site. Snow geese in the tens of thousands use the impoundment as a staging area on their spring migration, gathering there over a period of weeks until a critical mass and a favorable wind signal it's time to head home to the far reaches of the North American Arctic. Tundra swans, an evolving come-back story, increase in numbers every year. The swan's musical bugling combined with the barking honks of thousands of snow geese create an almost deafening backdrop to an early spring visit. 

An eagle overhead is enough to 'jump' thousands of snow geese into a swirling mass of feather, wing, and noise!

Middle Creek is an important stop-over on the Great Atlantic Flyway, the broad river of sky that connects the Arctic nesting grounds to wintering grounds of the Mid-Atlantic and points south. Federal and state refuges are found throughout our region, especially in the broad coastal plains of Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland providing winter habitat.  Middle Creek WMA plays a critical role for migrating waterfowl as a resting place and staging area for migrations, as well as hosting a winter population of northern birds. Its placement in the flyway is an important reason why tundra swans, snow geese, and Canada geese have made such a spectacular come-back in these parts. 

Thousands of birdwatchers show up in the early spring to watch the spectacle of geese and swans on the lake.

Aldo Leopold, the father of American wildlife conservation, dedicated his career at the University of Wisconsin to creating large and well-managed cooperative refuges at the state and local level across the nation. He applauded Pennsylvania's early adoption of wildlife management best practices in the 1930s, and though he didn't live long enough to see Middle Creek, I wonder what he would have said had he visited with us last Saturday? I think he would have been incredibly happy that not only once- endangered birds were there in massive flocks, but that people were everywhere, enjoying the amazing sights of tens of thousands of geese and thousands of tundra swans congregating in this engineered, now naturalized, wilderness.

Imagine the deafening roar of a vortex of swirling snow geese!

"Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."  - Aldo Leopold

How things have changed! Leopold introduced the idea of landscapes (to include humans) as  communities of living things. He challenged the western man-centric idea of domination, long held by Americans still 'taming the wilderness' for agriculture, mining, and development, and replaced it with people as members and stewards of ecological communities. This shift in thinking took decades to have its effect on large government agencies, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission was an early exception and with that headstart, we now have Middle Creek serving as model of profound success for restoring and protecting entire natural communities. It is well worth visiting the PGC history museum at the glass-fronted visitor's center. You really get a sense of how cutting-edge the PGC's conservation strategies were - and still are!

A large visitor center overlooking a variety of habitats provides indoor viewing opportunities and programs.

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but
do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?
To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."
- Aldo Leopold

Surrounding farmlands are critical feeding grounds for geese and swans. The wind ruffles some neck feathers!

The real miracle of Middle Creek is that it is here at all. The selection of this site was, by default, the last of three under consideration.  Two more favored choices, closer to Philadelphia, were dropped because of expensive land prices. Worried that people would not make the long drive out from the city to Middle Creek "just to look at some birds," and some speculated, " a little out of the way." Well, apparently they needn't have worried! Besides the refuge itself, adjoining Game Commission gamelands offer a section of the famed Horseshoe Trail for hikers (as well as many shorter trails in and around the visitor center). Abundant dirt roads and quaint  country lanes make the area popular for road and mountain bikers. Picnic areas, a boat launch, and plenty of wildlife viewing areas are popular with everyone who visits.

The Furnace Hills beyond, Dana and I enjoyed the brilliance of white birds against the dark forested ridges.

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such." - Aldo Leopold

Leopold warned that it would take more than simply carving out places for wildlife to exist. He urged us to exercise our collective responsibility as a human society to care for nature as our moral duty to the planet. I expect that many of the people visiting Middle Creek last weekend felt some sense of this responsibility. One gentleman who passed us on a trail mentioned to his companion "Now this is a good use of my tax dollars." The crowds were quiet yet celebratory, excited to have the opportunity to witness this place, this event. I kept asking "What would Leopold say if he could see this?" My birding partner Dana must have thought I couldn't think of anything else to say! Well, it was hard to put into words what we were seeing and feeling!

"The question is, does the educated citizen know he is only a cog in an ecological mechanism? That if he will work with that mechanism his mental wealth and his material wealth can expand indefinitely? But that if he refuses to work with it, it will ultimately grind him to dust? If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?" - Aldo Leopold


Learn a little more about the father of conservation, Aldo Leopold. Start

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area:

Tundra Swans life history:

From my friends over at Mid-Atlantic Hikes, this is a very nice description of the hiking at Middle Creek:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cornwall Ore Banks and Iron Furnace

Who would have believed, traveling the through the Appalachia foothills of Pennsylvania, that such an unobtrusive hill would contain such natural and mineral wealth?  Yet, nothing less than the greatest ore deposit ever found in the New World lies beneath this ridge. Not until a larger deposit was discovered near Lake Superior did a young nation have such a reliable ore resource as the Cornwall Banks. And who would have believed that this deposit would keep on giving for two centuries? On this Charter Day, March 9, 2014, I decided to spend the day celebrating William Penn's founding of Pennsylvania, March 9, 1681, by visiting the Cornwall Iron Furnace.

Hand carts for delivering loads of charcoal to the furnace.
How does an old iron furnace figure into a blog about natural history? Natural assets figured pretty well by the standards of a young nation that had to defend, feed, and heat itself, as well as build an economy that would sustain it. Natural resources of a new nation, discovered and utilized by men of means and ideas, defined the colonial drive for independence. Unlike today, where we are detached and disconnected from the day-to-day connection to minerals, forests, and stone. By comparison, colonial and post-colonial citizens of the Commonwealth knew a thing or two about nature, like how a glob of iron ore dug out of the ground would become a cast iron frying pan, a cannon, or hinge straps for the Meeting House door.

This enormous flywheel, 76 feet around, powered originally by water, then later by a steam engine, worked the bellows that forced air through pipes into the four sides of the furnace stack to heat the flux, fuel, and ore.
The Cornwall Banks provided everything needed to construct and operate for two hundred consecutive years a world class iron furnace with its foundries and forges. The valley provided clay for bricks, sand for mortar, limestone and sandstone for foundations, walls and the furnace stack itself. The wooded ridges provided timber for flywheels, handcarts, tool handles, buckets, troughs, rafters, floors, firewood, and charcoal to fire the furnace. Stone and wood built the miner's villages in and around the main open pit mines at Cornwall, as well as the elegant homes of the the iron masters and owners.

Furnace lift gate drew liquid iron into the channels. All who worked in this room were highly skilled. The stack is a fine construction of beautiful red sandstone, 28' square at its base.

The human history of the Cornwall Iron Furnace is well explained in its museum and website. This post however, is about the natural resources that made a large industrial site possible and what happened when the industry collapsed. The short of it is that nature giveth and nature taketh away!

Triassic sandstone and valley limestone line the street in the walls of these miners cottages.
The ridge and the valley that make up the Cornwall Iron Furnace region tell of the long, rich geologic history of Pennsylvania. The Cornwall  ridge, a section of the Iron Hills, is a 500 million year old remnant of the Appalachian mountain building event, a great thrust-faulting and folding of the surface from (what is now) Georgia to New Jersey. An oceanic plate, forced under the eastern continental edge by the powerful drifting of the North African plate, created such friction that deep bedrock was liquified and uplifted; a very active volcanic period for these parts! Almost as soon as they rose, the Appalacians began to erode, leaving thousands of feet of sedimentary deposits. Interior seas opened and closed. Marine and freshwater deposits were laid down. And, as North Africa drifted away and the Proto-Atlantic opened, cracks formed along the shoulders of the continent, the result of stretching crustal zones. These were quickly infused by more molten material. The contact zone between the older sediments and the new igneous matter, over time, created a wealth of new minerals and ores that in the Cornwall Hills that was very accessible to people. And very deep.

What is now Cornwall Lake is the flooded open pit mine of the Cornwall Banks, 400 feet deep!
The magnetite ore banks, the result of contact metamorphism between the intrusion of Triassic diabase into the stretched and broken Cambrian limestone hundreds of millions of years ago, lay close to the surface at the time it was discovered in 1739.  Two hundred years of mining deep down into ridge, laid open a huge pit mine and around this enormous operation, thousands of people worked and lived in what became a thriving and heavily industrial landscape. Factories, machine shops, a railroad, shanty towns, stables and engine houses, stone breakers, miles of roads and tracks flanked the mines. This is a great composite video of the Cornwall Banks from the 1850s until it closed:

By the time nature put an end to the enterprise, 40 million tons of ore had been removed from the mines. The mines closed seemingly overnight when Tropical Storm Agnes blew inland in 1972. Catastrophic flooding occurred throughout the Mid-Atlantic, and hit central Pennsylvania especially hard. For Cornwall mines, high on the ridge, the floodwaters came from below, surging up through the shafts and underground springs so rapidly that the huge pumps that normally dealt with rainfall and snowmelt at the bottom of the pit, were overtaken and rendered useless within hours. The furnace, forges, and foundries closed the following year, unable to recover.

What remains of the Cornwall iron industry is a historical footnote  to the immensity of the operations here, and reveals little of the power of nature to bring to a close two hundred years of productive ore mining.

Though the landscape looks far different than it did just a hundred years ago, the historic furnace and surrounding main streets are well preserved. The main furnace compound is now a property of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that maintains an excellent small museum and walking tour of the grounds and buildings. What I find more interesting is how quickly and thoroughly nature has reclaimed this once booming industrial center. I walked several miles of trails in the nearby Game Lands and plan to return to bike the 14 mile rails-to-trail path that connects this area to Mt. Gretna, the Victorian summer resort town that hosted many iron industry workers and their families for vacation.

The landscape was transformed many times over. Continental collisions, mountain building, erosion, ore banks, industry, and a catastrophic weather event that ended an era of human history. As a rock hound, environmental historian, and naturalist, this is a five star area to explore. I'll put up a another post that focuses on the Lebanon Rail Trail and Mt. Gretna, but it was the Cornwall story that leads to many others!


Cornwall Iron Furnace

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Cornwall Iron Furnace Film (seen in the visitor's center as well as on You Tube):

A map of the Lebanon Rail Trail:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Watching Winter Melt Part II

Our enduring snow pack here in South Central Pennsylvania is finally making a serious attempt at seeping into the ground, after what some folks could hardly bear - an early March storm. I enjoy winter and especially snow, so I wasn't so desperate about it all. Spring is arriving, as it always does, so I saw no need to waste precious energy moaning and hand-wringing. The melt is a great time to see how other creatures have fared. Soft snow makes for good tracking, and here are some of my favorites from this past week's meltdown.

A fox has extremely keen hearing and can locate small rodents under the snowpack with precision. Here a fox has plunged several times for a vole or mouse. You can see that the snowpack supported his weight by looking for the small dog-like tracks that lead from one plunge hole to the next. In order to break the crust he must have jumped very high!

My boot prints are barely visible from the previous day's walk, and today the amount of melt was tremendous with temps in the 50s. Crossing my path sometime after I came through, a turkey made his way into the woods from the cornfield on the hill. You can see how large a bird this is when you compare his foot to mine!

Lots of coming and going for a pair of rabbits dashing in and out of the wood's edge to nibble on buds and grass blades exposed as the snowpack melts. With a little probing, I found two almost hidden forms in the bent grass where each had spent a few nights.


Taken just after the last storm, the melt came on fast for Muddy Creek. An otter pair bounded and slid downstream on what was fast disappearing ice and snow. Next time I see this familiar couple, they will most likely have pups. Their den is in the mud bank in the upper right corner of this picture. I like that the property owner has posted no trespass here, where there used to be hoards of people partying, swimming, and parking. It really was an eyesore and I know there were no otters there for that time. Within two years of posting (and enforcing!) this pair established a home and have stayed for over ten years. The day after I took this picture, the Muddy ran free.

Okay, not animal tracks. But they are tracks! Along with a set of cross-country ski tracks, people tracks and dogs tracks, the rails of the North Central Railroad (now the York County Rail Trail) slowly come into view as the snow melts. In a month or two the rust will be off the rails as an 1886 steam engine will make its regular excursion run from New Freedom PA to Hanover Station PA.  One of my favorite rail trails, this line carried commuters and freight between Baltimore to York into the 1980s, and connecting to the sideline, took trains to Hanover PA and on to Gettysburg.. It was in operation for over a hundred years. These rails even carried the funeral train of President Lincoln, on its slow, long, sad ride home to Springfield, Illinois. In summer I can ride my bike from Glen Rock to York and back (40 miles) in a long day - with breaks at the ice cream shop of course!

Down at the Susquehanna, winter is in rapid retreat. The river had been locked in ice up until late February, but now only fragments of a foot-thick ice pack remain. Looking rather impassable today, soon the river will carry snowmelt from central, western, and northeastern Pennsylvania as well as meltwater from south-central New York State. The river will rise and rumble through this patch at Holtwood and with it will come the whitewater kayakers heading downstream, while shad head upstream to spawn. I can't wait to see the fish using the newly rebuilt fish ladder here. Only a few weeks to go before the highwater fun begins!

 Like a miniature glacier, the snowpack down at the river recedes, exposing higher ridges of boulder outcrops. No worse for wear, carpets of moss and a tiny budding fern emerge from beneath their snowy blanket. I'll use this picture again in a post about ferns - some of my favorite subjects to photograph and learn about.

At the edge of winter's passing, this little stream is finally free from months of being locked in ice. Bending close to the tiny ice shelf I could hear a musical dripping from underneath. The sunlight danced on the sandy bottom and tiny snail made her way to the edge to feed on algae. Spring is nearly here!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Weathering Winter at Ephrata Cloister

As I sit here working on this post, another winter storm races through the Mid-Atlantic dumping a few more inches to the snowpack that has lingered here since mid-January. In an age where technology allows us to predict, prepare for, and deal with winter weather in relative comfort, I often think about how early settlers of Pennsylvania did the same, without the benefit of modern forecasting. German settlers found Pennsylvania much to their liking. It resembled their homeland in many respects, including overall climate with four distinct seasons, rich soils and abundant natural resources. They transported not only their families and few belongings to new lands, they also transported their knowledge of weather preparedness that had served their families well for generations in Germany.

Ephrata Cloister (1) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, seems to be lifted straight from the winter-hardy valleys of central Germany and in the 1740s, when the buildings of this religious community were constructed, it's exactly what the builders intended to duplicate. High pitched roofs and covered gable windows are indicative of a place where heavy winter snow loads threaten the integrity of structures. Chimneys were covered in protective roofed shelters to prevent snow from entering and clogging important ventilation shafts that connected multiple woodburning stoves (iron) and cooking hearths throughout the community halls, residences, and Meeting House. 

Besides abundant forests full of chestnut and oak, small forges and later, large furnaces at Cornwall northwest of Ephrata, provided the metals needed for tools, hearth and building hardware, and cooking ware. German immigrant metal smiths were some of the most valued craftsmen in Pennsylvania settlements.

We can tell a lot about a climate and how people adapted to it by studying period architecture. The massive, low doors to the Meeting House are clues to forest composition at the time the community began building in Ephrata. The door frames made of densely grained chestnut, almost 18' thick, connect to the stacked log structure hidden beneath the plaster walls. Chestnut trees, all but gone now thanks to an imported fungal disease of the early 20th century, provided the 'bones' of these large buildings, that Friend Michael, a research colleague and museum educator at the Cloister, states are really just enormous log cabins. The wide plank oaken doors, which I ( at 5'7") had to duck through to enter, helped contain heat and lessen drafts. The meeting hall worship area, however was airy and open, acoustically perfect for singing and celebrating.  Hand forged on site, strap hinges and hardware holds the door in place. Iron ore and the ingredients for purifying it were available nearby. It seems, as far as building went, the Brothers and Sisters had all they needed to construct their community.

A winter activity, building garss-woven bee skep baskets, surely occupied many hands.

Walking through the Meeting House, Michael led me into a work area. Where the central stove was maintained to heat the worship space. A small door opened to a covered porch where firewood was stacked for easy access. The workroom, furnished with large but simply designed German hutches, tables, and chairs, was all about utility. One can easily see that this space was designed for meaningful work, all of it founded upon the plentiful natural resources of the valley. Bee skeps, wax rendering, candle-making, and honey extraction seemed to be the theme of one entire hutch. The European honeybee, imported in the holds of ships during the 1600s and 1700s, and the transplanted wisdom of northern European beekeepers, were - and still are- an important aspect of day-to-day living and local economies.

The covered water room connected the Meeting House to the bakery. A nearby spring was re-routed to this space where crystal clean waters that bubbled up from limestone substrata was ever at hand.

The Ephrata community was not affiliated with any officially recognized religion, but it did originate within groups of Anabaptist Protestants immigrating from Germany during the early 1700s. It's charismatic leader, Conrad Beisell, like many communities of Brethern (although he would not have identified his new congregation as such) encouraged his monastics to adhere to strict routines of group and private worship, labor in the fields and shops, and simple meals. Surrounding farms and craftsman helped support the celibate members of  the community, while they in turn supported the small and growing town that grew up around them. Winter, being a primary challenge to survival in the snowy Appalachia foothills, was weathered through community planning and preparation, building design and connectivity, and social interaction that included wonderful winter celebrations of praise and feasting. 

Evidence of abundant large oaks in the forests around Ephrata, this single plank twenty-five foot table held many a winter's feast for Brother, Sisters, and the supporting farm families that surrounded the Ephrata community.

Weather forecasting was not a complicated affair in the 1700s and rarely did the community get caught off-guard. Reading the skies for the quality and duration of cloud patterns gave plenty of notice for impending storms. The early Christian tradition of Candlemas Day (later replaced with Groundhog Day) saw that fresh candles were distributed to all families of settlement communities. The tradition was a favorite at Ephrata. Minding the last cold winter weeks with beautiful new candles while eagerly anticipating spring as the sun hung in the sky a few minutes more each day, made winter's last few storms bearable. The publishing center, where hymnals were printed by the thousands and calligraphy rooms where the German tradition of illustrated manuscripts was practiced, were illuminated by candelabras and strap chanedliers full of beeswax candles. It would seem the beekeepers of the Ephrata area were most valued for their ability to produce large amounts of wax to keep the community and growing town alight through long Pennsylvania winters!

Everything needed was made here. But creativity and praise were most valued.

Winter days were as busy as summer days at Ephrata. Everything that was needed to maintain a community of several hundred members was procured locally or made on site. Paper for manuscripts was made from flax grown in the surrounding fields. Beautiful inks for illustration and fractur was prepared from plant oils and minerals. Wood for building furniture was harvested and milled on site, while tools and implements for woodworking in the shops were forged here. Water from local springs was abundant and available even during the coldest stretches. Firewood for cooking and heating was gathered locally, and used wisely. Spinners and weavers worked steadily throughout the winter to make innumerable items needed such as clothing, bedding, cloaks, blankets. Come spring and summer, these same craftspeople served as shepherds, farmers, woodsmen, and grounds workers to maintain and prepare for the next long cold season. There were no eight hour days in any season - no weekends - save for the Saturday Sabbath. But according to Michael, it was a purposeful and creative environment in which to live and work, where nature was appreciated more than scorned. Thanks were given freely to even the snow, for as cold-hardy Germans knew, it served to blanket and insulate and make beautiful the interior life of the community.

Michael standing just outside the covered porch and workroom entrance to the Meeting House.

The sun is about to burst out as this late winter storm subsides outside, and I can't help but think about the modern propensity for wailing about winter weather. A twenty four hour weather channel blares the storm's name over and over again as if the End of the World were surely coming this time, as compared to the fourteen previous Titans (Leon, Deon, Pax, Falco, Maximus, Quintus, Orion...). Naming storms? When did that happen? Hmmm. The National Weather Service disagrees, as do I. It's really all about ratings and sensationalizing the weather and has nothing to do with preparedness and learning to adapt and thrive in cold weather events and seasons. 

Before there was twenty-four hour weather 'communications' there were these very hardy, wise, and creative folks in Ephrata who left an inspiring legacy of meeting each season as it came with confidence, readiness, and gratitude for the natural resources and community in which they lived. Thanks, Michael, for the great behind-the-scenes tour of your wonderful place - and I look forward to working on that EH article come snow, sleet, or hail!

Built in close proximity are the Bakery (note squirrel-tailed ovens!), Meeting House, and Sister's House, left to right. This is a small piece of what had once been a large monastic community of German religious culture and architecture, now in the center of what is the modern town of Ephrata, Lancaster Country, PA.

Digging a little deeper...

Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata PA:

Elizabethtown College maintains an excellent program in its Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietists Studies, Lancaster County, PA:

Not a fan of naming winter storms, but here's the link anyway:

And why I am not a fan of naming winter storms: