Thursday, December 31, 2015

Highlights and Gratitudes for the Passing Year

Yes - I am still perched painfully in front of my computer working on revisions and rewrites on my environmental history dissertation. It doesn't look like I will meet my self-imposed deadline of having it all finished by the start of the New Year. The weather outside is gloomy and damp, and has been for over a week. My back aches with all the sitting and the staring, and the torment of gloom gloom gloom outside my window is making me cranky. So I decided to save my edits, close the dissertation window, and lighten my spirits by remembering the highlights of a most remarkable year in hopes that I will feel a little better for it. 

Highlight #1: Hog Island, Maine.
Thanks to a Maryland Ornithological Society scholarship I was able to attend Educator's Week at Audubon's Hog Island Camp on the Maine coast. I came away with a new flock of friends, many of whom I've connected to on FB. I came away with a high regard for the way environmental education is used by Audubon to inspire and influence adult audiences.  The learning never ends.

Life bird!

Craig and part of my group staying and hiking on Hog Island.

Highlight #2: The Great Orono Bog.
Bogging does not fit the romantic notion of exploring the vast natural and wonderous landscapes of North America, but hey, it's one of my most favorite things to do when visiting the northern states. I ran into an old friend at Orono Bog, John,  and met a new conservation friend, Jim, who founded and oversees the management of the bog. It is a jewel in the crown of the mother of all bogs. I also met Pete Tipper who is walking to twenty natural areas, parks, and reserves in Maine this year. Next year he's doing the same thing in North Carolina. It's how he is spending his well earned retirement, year by year, after dedicating 40 years to teaching botany and ecology at a mid-western university. He inspired me in so many ways I could fill a book with our one hour long conversation. I find inspirational people in bogs.

Jim Bird, Bog Boss.

John Green, fellow naturalist/birder from Pennsylvania.

Pete Tipper on his Maine pilgrimage.

Highlight #3: All Things Leopold.
How lucky am I that my boss approved my attending an amazing conference held in Baraboo, Wisconsin organized by the Aldo Leopold Foundation? Not only did I have the opportunity to sink into deep and very fun conversations with authors and conservationists whose work I have long admired and been inspired by, but I got to spend a some time with Estella Leopold, the youngest and only surviving child of The Professor. Of course I had to make a few trips out to The Shack. Leopold never gets old.
Dr. Estella Leopold
A class picture of the 2015 Leopold Education State Coordinator and Educators. (I'm in the third row, second right.)

Highlight #4: Spending an Afternoon on an Island in Maine with Ralph Stanley.
I am still processing this. Another book. Ralph Stanley, shipbuilder and Maine islander. Wow.

Ralph Stanley, a Maine State Treasure.

Highlight #5: Saying Goodbye to Antioch, almost.
My last PhD intensive happened in June. Now the slog to revise, rewrite, assemble, defend. Walk.

Highlight #6:  Growing a Network of Farm-Based Educators.
I never get tired of bringing together great groups of people who work on, teach about, and love farming. We had our first Mid-Atlantic meeting of FBE in New Jersey this fall and boy-howdy was it a great one! I look forward to working with the Doris Duke Foundation and the Duke Farms in Princeton, NJ to organize our first regional conference in 2016/2017. The way outdoor education was meant to be.

Lookout world, Farm-Based Educators in the Mid-Atlantic have arrived at a farm near you!

Highlight #7: Buying a Plane Ticket to Spain.
I've wanted to hike the Camino de Santiago for a long time. I've been thinking about it for years and years and decided that 2016 would be the year I will do it. I'm no stranger to long distance hiking, but I've never been to Europe and I can't think of a better graduation present to myself.  Ticket in hand, I'll be leaving for Madrid on May 17. I have been fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage for as long as I have known about The Camino. Thinking about journeying through complex landscapes as a way that allows the land to reveal itself to you is a theme I would like to continue to develop in my writing.  Ultreya!

Scallop shell is the symbol of the Pilgrim of Santiago.

Highlight #8: Birding with the Grands
I have five grandkids and with my daughter and son-in-law's blessing, have made it my grandmotherly duty to get everyone of them involved in birding, hiking, climbing, paddling. This year's adventures included a whole day birding expedition to Bombay Hook NWR with Mairin (7) and taking Kenzey (10) on her first official bird count at Swan Harbor. I feel pretty strongly about giving children an outdoor education and providing them with the foundations of life-long interests in nature and landscapes. Kenzey wants to hike the Camino with me which makes me happy beyond words, but she'll have to wait a few years so she grows a little more into the job of carrying her own backpack. I'm currently considering ways I can take the grands with me virtually while hiking the Camino Frances this May. Get Out!

Kenzey's first Winter Count!

Thanksgiving Day birding with Mairin at Bombay Hook NWR.

I think that's the short list of highlights, though I try everyday to find a gem of inspiration so I could actually list 365 highlights. But I do want to say that I am especially grateful for having finally come to the finish of a seven year-long adventure earning my PhD. Environmental history suits me well and I look forward to working on several book projects in 2016 - yes, more writing, edits, revisions, rewrites. 

Where I've spent the last seven years.

I must sincerely thank my advisor, Dr. Alesia Maltz this year for her steady guidance along the way.  Wherever the opportunities for using this PhD may take me, I will always be thankful for such great support from my committee and from all the people who helped me with research.  And  cannot finish out this year without thanking my friends for being there when I had any number of doctoral meltdowns. There were a few of those!

Penny knows how to handle my PhD meltdowns with a kayak trip and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Well, back to the chapter revisions. I do feel better! It's dark outside so I don't have to look at the gloom! Onward - into the New Year with what I hope is the end of Chapter 5 and a chance for a First Day hike, no matter how short or how close by. Happy 2016!

Looking ahead to 2016 - Bien Camino!

The Road

Here is the road: the light
comes and goes then returns again.
Be gentle with your fellow travelers
as they move through the world of stone and stars
whirling with you yet every one alone.
The road waits.
Do not ask questions but when it invites you
to dance at daybreak, say yes.
Each step is the journey; a single note the song.

-Arlene Gay Levine

Monday, December 14, 2015

PA Lake Williams: Landscape Revisions

Lake Williams emerges from the fog.

Tethered to the kitchen table for many weekends now, working pretty much non-stop on my dissertation revisions, I had to take a break. But it couldn't be an all day break - no full play day for me because I had to keep going when I got home! I needed a nearby five miler to refresh my attitude and re-energize me for the next round. It's a long history environmental dissertation!

Where I am today. Not revising.

I drove up to William Kain County Park and decided to hike around Williams Lake, the lower (and oldest) impoundment to the Lake Redman reservoir system, park of the water supply for the City of York and surrounding regions. The hike around is about five miles around and combines a series of hilly sections with lakeside trails. The persistent morning fog hadn't quite lifted yet when I started but it was already heating up. For a week now the Mid-Atlantic has been stuck in a very warm trough of Gulf of Mexico air that has produced fog every morning for a week. Besides being 70'F in December, a whole host of spring-like occurrences have beset our region. I noticed rhododendron blooming at home, my honey bees are active, and while hiking I was brushing off hungry mosquitoes!  A fellow hiker said that his cherry trees were in bud already. Go away, El Nino!

Lake Williams is about 5 miles around.

Today I wore new trail running shoes to start breaking in for my Camino de Santiago hike in May.  I also wore a pack of about fifteen pounds. I am officially in pre-hike mode now. I've been reading about the route,  making notes for the towns and villages where I'd like to stay. I have a few birding buddies waiting for me as I make my way across northern Spain, so I want to be sure to plan for those visits first. It's been a good distraction from my revision work to read up about the places I hope to see and the birds I might spot. Though today's five mile hike is far short of an average fifteen miles a day on the Camino, it felt good to finally be carrying some weight and in the shoes I've decided to hike in.

Side trail through a (non-native) spruce wood.

In addition to the main loop, I took several side trails to explore places I've not been before. A few mountain bikers passed me, but otherwise I had the side trails all to myself as I walked up and down the hilly sections through old paper company property. On top of the hills I could see out across the beautiful Pennsylvania foothills and in the distance, some small mountains to the northwest - the beginnings of the Appalachians.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit berries!

Back down to the lake shore trail, and as luck would have it, I came across another outdoors friend. Last week I met up with my favorite theologian and today I found my favorite local rock hound paddling around. Jerry has helped me with some of the geology details of my dissertation and I can recognize his happy voice anywhere. He was out on the lake in his kayak watching me  negotiate a steep, narrow section of a fisherman's trail. "Woohooo! Hey, Doc!" he hollered from a sheltered cove. Of course his deep baritone voice carried across the lake like a fog horn!

Moss Lichen.

Down at the water's edge we talked about the weather which led to politics. It always does with Jerry. He is passionate about rocks and history and politics.  Not wanting him to have a heart attack in his boat, I suggested we change the subject to something less upsetting. "Can I just say though, that I sure hope that people get off their sofa's and go vote!" A fisherman in a canoe hollered back across the water "Amen!"

Pileated Woodpecker work.

Jerry spent many years in the Peace Corps and values the work people do to address the root causes of poverty and who provide relief in war torn areas. He's an incredible quilter and donates a quilt each year to the Mennonite Relief Sale in Harrisburg. He's not happy with the current outpouring of hatred towards Syrian refugees and the singling out of a certain religion by certain politicians/ non-politicians. He gets in several more sharp criticisms (which I completely agree with!) before I was able to turn that ship and direct the discussion to an old mill foundation nearby. He told me where in the woods I could find a dressed mill stone, "as sharp as the day it was dressed!"

Detail of an old dressed millstone.

I said my goodbyes to Jerry and went in search of the stone. It stood exactly where he said it was and I admired the careful dressing and the metal band that still wrapped around it. On the hill above was the old foundation surrounded by thick forest. How many people have worked in mills? Dressed stones? Ground grain? It's a technology that dates back thousands of years and that defines agricultural cultures the world over. This mill closed in 1908 and torn down in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of the water company reservoirs.

Paper company road.

I was thinking about Jerry's concerns. It's a shame we as a nation can't draw on our own personal  and shared histories (like milling) to acknowledge the important contributions immigrants have made to Pennsylvania's past. And it's also a shame that we can't draw on the knowledge of world events that force people to leave their homelands. Providing refuge from war and religious intolerance was one of the reasons the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania were established. York County has a proud tradition of serving as a resettlement location for the US Department of Immigration and many local faith-based and refugee programs have been very vocal in support of our obligation and role to welcome people escaping strife in their own home countries.

Viburnum berries.

I almost forgot where I was headed, I was so absorbed in thinking about what Jerry had been upset about. I missed a turn, wound up on a private horse farm, and quickly snapped out of it when I saw the first of several big NO TRESPASSING signs strung along a plank fence along with "You Are Being Videotaped!" and "Hidden Cameras are RECORDING YOU!" Wow. Glad I wore my hunters orange (even though it's a no hunting Sunday) so I'm not mistaken for whomever it is the land owner is afraid of that might be sneaking on to his farm. I quickly turned around!

Common Mullein seed stalk, over six feet tall.

I followed what I thought was a boundary along the woods edge and was happy to see a trail marker ahead. I turned down the hill towards the lake through a scrubby-shrubby field chirping with sparrows. Common mullein standing five and six feet tall were natural seed feeders for a flock of chickadees and finches. The trail became wide and smooth, surely an old road through the remnants of plantation pine forests planted decades ago for the Glatfelter Paper Company.

Cane berries stems.

Beyond the scrubby field on my right and left, I could see the dreary leftovers of the pine plantations. These trees were planted in straight rows in sections across the hills like corn in furrows. Planted only a few feet apart, not a lot grows in the dense shade beneath them. As as they've grown old, the forest floor is a tangle of shed limbs and branches and no understory. I compared the vibrant life of the shrubby fields to the sterile plantation, dark and silent.

Goldenrod in fuzzy scarf.

When Aldo Leopold traveled to Germany in 1935 to visit the managed forests there, he came away disappointed with the forest plantation system. The highly controlled manner of planting spruce, then beech and oak, did not resemble a healthy, dynamic forest. Instead, these managed landscapes were missing vital elements of biodiversity, including the sounds of birds. Though he did not doubt that the Germans loved their landscapes, Leopold did not see how the plantation forest system would benefit wildlife or people in the long run. Leopold's tour continued on through German farmland, and here he found a different quality to the managed landscape.

Very old maple on a spring head.

"For the farmers, their land is more than merely a source of livelihood. It is part of them. Many of them are descendants of families that have lived for generations on the same farm. They and their fathers built up its soil; they know every foot of it and take a personal interest in everything it produces. They know the habits of the birds and animals that live on it - they know about the wildflowers and trees and weeds."

Lightening struck.

It is interesting to compare Leopold's notes about German farmers of the 1930s to German immigrant  farmers of Pennsylvania. The Old Order Amish and Mennonite farmers in particular have what I imagine, is the same deep, abiding love of land that Leopold observed. As I left the plantation forest and walked the broad slopes of former farmland, I sensed a different feel to the soil, the mixed woods, and even the scrubby fields that have replaced grazing cattle and orchards. I wondered how long ago this land was last farmed and by whom? Where did their fathers and mothers come from? What farming traditions carried down in their caring for their land?

Spillway at the Lake William's dam.

I crossed the top of the dam and continued my hike on the next set of trails. Up, up, up a long hill to the top and an intersection with the trail that leads down to the Nixon Nature Center, I turned south along the ridge and admired the view of the valley with Lake Williams glittering in the soft sunlight. The York Water Company relies on the quality of this watershed to protect the purity of the water it pumps to communities throughout the City of York area. The oldest investor-owned water company in the nation, YWC started in 1816 as an investment in the city itself, to provide pressurized water to fire companies who protected the properties and residents of the town. The pipes that ran from the small reservoir near the present Penn State York campus were made of hollow logs. By the end of 1816, those wooden pipes delivered in-home water to over 35 houses in the city and all public water pumps, including the fire hydrants.

Trail to Nixon County Park.

As the city grew, and demands for water grew as well, the utility realized it had a huge problem. By the late 1800s the city had so industrialized that the waste water of hundreds of factories and burgeoning residential neighborhoods was polluting its reservoirs. More reservoirs were built further from the small city's industrialized and crowded center. Iron pipes and steam power delivered pressurized water from several sources including Lake Redman. YWC built the dam on Lake Williams in the mid-1950s and by the mid-1960s continued demand for pure water resulted in a much higher dam at Lake Redmond.  The resulting county park that surrounds the two lakes is managed now to allow the old plantations to die off, to be replaced with native, mixed woods through tree planting programs.

Exposed maple roots and dining table.

As I hiked the high hills along the south end of the valley, I could see the arms of coves and quiet shores through the trees. I could even see Jerry, still out paddling! The flooding of valleys and control of watersheds for municipal water supplies has long been an environmental concern but mostly concerning the large dams and river-altering projects found elsewhere in the state and across the country. The fragmentation of habitats and loss of irreplaceable wetlands as valleys are flooded removes many species of plants and animals that make up the matrix of a healthy landscape.

Lake Williams reflection.

And, as Jerry would be the first to tell you, having worked for the park system for so long, damming water to make artificial lakes can also become big political issues. Funding is needed to reduce sedimentation by dredging or to replace aging infrastructure. Dams need constant upkeep. Changes in zoning to permit more housing developments nearby is often politically charged and never a good idea for the health of a protected environment. Sprawl is a problem in this area and through the leafless woods I can see hundreds of homes that back right up to the ridge top. Coming down the hillsides in some areas along the trail were deep gashes made by flood run-off,  the tell-tale signs of impermeable surfaces like roads, compacted lawns, and many, many roofs nearby.

Fungus on cherry log.

Impounding water has impacts on people as well. The mills, major employers for rural people around the valley were torn out at the time the YWC built the new dams. People were displaced and farmers lost land. And no matter how solidly a dam appears to be, major flooding events cause worry for those living downstream as recent catastrophic flooding in South Carolina has demonstrated. Pennsylvania history is fraught with dam disasters, the Johnstown Flood being one of many.

A quiet cove on Lake Williams.

In a few hours I'd come back 'round to the parking area across from base of the Lake Redman dam. It was a short, but much needed walk in nature on this weirdly warm day.  I couldn't linger to hike around Redman, though. I had to get back and resume work on my chapter revisions. But with winter break from my job coming up, I put the Williams-Redman hike-around on my list. Hopefully my first draft will have been submitted soon after Christmas, and I can enjoy - for the first time in seven years - a real few days of vacation!

The environmental history of water management is important to our development as a commonwealth and as a nation. The York Water Company was the first of its kind.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Winter Mockingbird

Every species on earth survives where it can. Sometimes, to ensure survival in that place, a living thing may defend its territory with tooth, claw, or song. To ensure the future of its kind, a mother may defend her young or a father defend his mate. These actions are primal and understood with or without any kind of scientific reasoning. Where my scientific mind hits the wall, however, is how to understand the violence that humans inflict upon each other in the name of ideology and greed. We build fortresses around our beliefs and values, bombs and explosives to destroy the lands and homes of others, and pound our chests with indignant righteousness while destroying our own kind. Meanwhile my winter mockingbird sings from the holly tree  belting out his summer songs no longer useful for protecting territory but just for the fun of it, I think.

I had breakfast with dear friends over the weekend, the kind of late morning affair that lasts long into the afternoon. They are citizens of the world. We talked about the fortresses of the heart. Their daughter lives in Paris, just down the street from the concert venue in which so many lost their lives and loves. They told me the story their daughter relayed to them, shaking voice over the phone, long silent moments to catch breath and stifle long sobs aching to come. "He laid in pools of blood for three hours until someone could come get them, both the living and the dead. He leaked blood for three hours." Mockingbird chats it up outside the kitchen window. Look at this day! Here is my song! I picked this little ditty up while staying Maine, can you tell? I spent time learning the calls of murres and brought them here to you for the winter. The mockingbird declared ah-gla-ergggg-ow-ow while I listened to stories of the utmost pain and unimaginable loss. 

There are these fortresses along the Atlantic Coast, these big imposing cement hulks that once held huge coastal guns, towers that stand in the dunes where men would watch for the conning towers of enemy submarines, bunkers built deep into the ground that held shells, powder, radio equipment, men. I used to sneak into the bunkers and towers when I was young, flashlight in hand. Nowadays you can pay for a tour. Someday, I hope, the rising seas will sweep them away, tours and all. "What do you think will happen next?" I ask. My old friend grew up in London during the war, bombs and all. Never did make it to the country with the other kids. He saw a lot. "Oh, I suppose we'll visit Turkey again this year - it is the most beautiful country. The people are the most beautiful people. You should see the mosques!" The mockingbird keeps singing songs of the coast of Maine and throws in a red-shouldered hawk - maybe to warn of something he sees overhead?

"Listen to that bird!" my friends say. The conversation ends. No more talk of Paris bombings or trips to places too beautiful to imagine. It's us and the mockingbird. He cries "Hawk!" and feeder birds dive for cover in the mountain laurel. He flies to the corner of the house, just beyond our line of sight and says nothing. A long while passes. We waited. The juncos waited. Then as if defending the house and yard and forest and the breakfast plates he starts with a most heart-warming song of summers on the coast of Maine and winters in the Maryland hills and assures us he's there to protect and defend it all from hawks. 

Winter Mockingbird.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

PA Horseshoe Trail: Misery and Joy at Valley Forge

After two Sunday HST middle section hikes I have come to the trail's beginning in Valley Forge National Historical Park. This famous landscape (1777-78) contains a long history of geography, geology, paleontology, and agricultural use and even includes caves that once held the bones of  giant sloths, mastodons, short-faced bears, and saber toothed tigers - and as a few visitors remarked today (somewhat surprised) that Valley Forge was a real forge, one of two. The area was the center of a bustling industrial iron-making village similar to some of the forge and foundry sites I've already visited along the HST.  But to see the area now, it quickly becomes clear that nothing is as it once was - on purpose.

The plaque reads 121 miles, but the trail today is thirty miles longer.

Though I set out to hike the HST from its start at Washington's Headquarters at the site of the former iron town for several miles west towards the Great Valley, I was held up behind a long line of equestrians gathered for a huge trail ride. It was clear I'd have to settle for a short scamper up Mt. Misery on the HST then divert to another trail to avoid the horses. Oh well. I normally don't hike on Saturdays but today I did because I had an important commitment on Sunday. The west end of the park at Valley Creek is framed by the two quartzite hills Mt. Misery and Mt. Joy. No one knows for sure when or why they earned their complimentary names,  but the creek provided plenty of water on a decent downhill gradient to run a small factory town for over a hundred and fifty years. 

The village of Valley Forge at the mouth of Valley Creek and Schuylkill River, 1890.  Credit: Library of Congress.

The equestrian event was starting out so I decided to wait my turn and explored the park valley near George Washington's HQ. The stone building stands prettily in an open grove of oak and white pine almost alone save for a restored stable, a reproduction train station, and a few stately old homes selected to represent what had been a busy valley crossroads. Looking out over an expanse of scrub that had once been the large impoundment pond that powered the mills and forges, a wooded field thick with maples, sycamore, and old back cherry trees now filled the broad bottom.

Present day view where the bustling iron-making town Valley Forge once stood.

The village had been burned by British troops as the Continental Army retreated across the Schuylkill River in 1778, but it had been rebuilt in later years to hold textile mills, a crusher mill for stone quarried nearby, and a coal train wayside for the dozens of trains each week that brought anthracite downriver to Philadelphia in the 1800s. Stables, workers homes, factories, a church, inn, and taverns filled the Valley Creek bottom by 1860. As the Civil War came to an end, and in the spirit of reunification, state and local leaders began to notice the historical significance of the area with regards to how Pennsylvania had served as the first seat of a new nation. Plans were underway to redesign the landscape: to unmake its history of industry and agriculture and replace it with a stylized version of a national shrine.

Only a few widely scattered and restored structures remain. Washington's HQ on the right.

By the late 1890s the area in and around Valley Forge was filled with symbolic significance that overcame the local community's ability to resist calls for land clearances and relocations. The town of Valley Forge again was wiped away, this time not by a red-coated enemy but by fellow citizens with designs in mind to create a new patriotic landscape. In the early 1900s the area became a state park and tens of thousands of trees were planted to fill the open fields and slopes of the former winter encampment. Touring roads were built. Memorials erected. No trace of the area's industrial and farming past remained.

At the time of the winter encampment, Washington's HQ was part of a larger industrial village.

All structures built after the Revolution or those with no direct connection to the events of that winter were demolished and the land on which they stood scrubbed of foundations and debris. Farmers were sent packing. Thousands of acres of productive wheat and pasture land was claimed for the park that changed to federal ownership under FDR. More touring roads were built, parking lots installed, bathrooms, waysides exhibits, and picnic shelters were erected. These thoughts clung to me like beggar's tick as I climbed the HST behind the large trail ride group. Now in stick season that I can see through the weeds and woods, I noted the many dams and short sections of walls that remain, hinting at the area's disappeared past. One 20th century ruin was left standing, the Colonial Springs Bottling Plant and it was fun to explore. Stopping here gave me a break from having to hop my way around the piles of horse poop that made the trail fragrant as well as a bit of an obstacle course. 

A post-Civil War ruin to explore.

I spotted several charcoal pits or hearths - I see them everywhere along the HST - and a few borrow pits for road stone. After about a mile I came to the intersection with the Mt. Misery Trail and swung left ending my shortest stretch yet on the HST! I hiked through a forest thick in poplar, hickory and  oak, through banks of laurel thickets, and an open understory - a sure sign of lots of deer browsing down the woods.

Colonial Springs Bottling Plant (1908 - 1930s) ruins along the HST.

Some big houses were close by defining the edges of development hard against the park boundaries. So I wondered what the area would have looked like without the protection the park afforded the landscape? Sure, people lost their homes, farms, businesses, and livelihoods - but look what we all got in return - restored forest, brilliantly hued and vast meadows (the largest meadow restoration in the nation), and Valley Creek running the cleanest it's run in 300 years. In my opinion, especially this close to a major East Coast metro area, the trade off for a natural landscape was worth it, but I was longing for a clearer sense of what was lost in the process.

Oak/hickory forest on the HST.

My questions began to find  answers when I ran into a gentleman and his wife walking Odie the Beagle. They were coming up from the creek from the development I saw earlier. They advised me to not go the way they'd come on the Mt. Misery Trail as a large section of trail was taped off with yellow caution tape. A recent series of floods had damaged the historic covered bridge upstream and eaten away at the bankside where the trail made its return to Washington's HQ. The gentleman informed me that the creek was a highly rated trout stream (!!) but that widespread residential development in the upper watershed had increased the severity and speed that flooding events occurred. The damaged bridge, made unstable by a serious vehicle collision and the eroding trail were suffering badly from flash floods.

Steep descent to Valley Creek along Mt. Misery Trail.

We walked along together on a downhill slope towards the creek avoiding the closed section. Turns out they were both members of the Valley Forge Trout Unlimited Chapter. TU in Pennsylvania is a very active if not aggressive conservation organization ( I'm a member of the Muddy Creek Chapter) so I knew they knew what they were talking about when they agreed that citizens who cared about the natural landscape that is now Valley Forge should be working together to not only restore but to build resilience within the entire Valley Creek watershed. "Valley Creek and West Valley Creek, its main tributary, are considered by many people to be the problem - as if the creeks were tough guys, bad apples," said Jean holding Odie's leash. Ralph continued her line of thought, "But it's the people who have used and abused this watershed who are to blame. The creeks don't 'unleash' their wrath upon us - it's the other way around."

Valley Creek downstream from the Upper Forge site (now gone) and upstream from disappeared town of Valley Forge.

We continued down along the trail, past the site of the Upper Forge, while Odie sniffed every stalk of grass and clump of leaves. Jean, a professor of history at Rutgers, explained that 300 years ago up until the 1910s, the waters of the creek and the surrounding hillsides (besides being denuded of trees) were suffering from a long history of pollution that made the valley nearly uninhabitable for fish, fowl, animal, or people. One thing that people in Pennsylvania are really good at, she explained, was organizing for a common cause. So behind the historic preservationists came the conservationists who were riding hard on native son Gifford Pinchot's new brand of conservation work as Governor of PA with his New Conservationism of the 1920s. "It's a legacy and level of activism that we still take pride in today," she said, "And if the Valley Forge TU Chapter is any evidence of that legacy, the action is intense and ongoing."

1920 discovery of the Valley Forge under seven feet of silt and mud.

Odie and his family swung to the left at the bottom of the valley to continue on the HST to their home on the mountain. I swung right to return to Washington's HQ to explore more of the valley and to find the next trail up Mt. Joy.  I stopped in at the replica train station to look at historic displays and met a Chinese family. The elderly man, carefully coming down the station's large set of stairs grinned at me then asked "You a walker? George a walker!" His daughter about my age, laughed and explained that they'd just visited the statue of George Washington and she'd translated the wayside sign for him that said Washington preferred his walking stick to his sword. I offered one of my poles to her father so that he could steady himself on the slow steps down. "Democracy means a lot to him," she said as she returned the pole and her dad made his way to the HQ building and a ranger program happening there. "We come here almost every month," she said, "I can't tell you how many times I've read these signs to him. He should know them by heart!"

George and his favorite walking stick.

So now I've got a few things rolling around my head as I looked out over the Schuylkill River from the train station platform. At the time of the preservationists action in the 1920s to invent a new landscape, the river was a toxic cesspool of industrial and human waste. Now trout fishermen lined its far bank and a family in three canoes paddled around the wide bend of the Pawlings Farm.  The Commonwealth's core democratic principles rest upon its regard for natural resources as reflected in Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution:

A right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people. 

The historic connections between preservationists, even if there plans were stylized, and the activities of 20th century conservationists were becoming clearer to me but I wasn't happy with the view quite yet. I began my hike up Mt. Joy and pondered it some more.

Mt. Misery (right) and Mt. Joy (right) from the Mt. Joy trail looking up Valley Creek.

Like many Pennsylvania mountain landscapes, the view from the top of Mt. Joy was typical and expected: two mountains riven by a creek, paralleled by a road  in the valley below.  The creek, wilder now than its been in centuries, bordered by the paved road became a bit of metaphor as I continued along the crest of the hill. More dogs on leashes, more joggers, mountain bikers, a lost college student following the wrong map. The trail became crowded around eleven and I had barely four miles done. So much for my expected ten. I dropped into the valley in hopes of finding the bones of a giant sloth or maybe to spot a short-faced bear emerging from some collapsed cave. But again, disappointed.

A re-imagined landscape.

Scattered around the dolostone-floored valley were replicas of the winter quarters of thousands of Colonial troops who wintered here in 1777-78. The scenes were bucolic, as the park planners of a century ago had envisioned. At the time of encampment, however, the valley would have been a sea of such cabins built by the soldiers themselves using the timber from the hills beyond. The hills at the end of the winter camp were stripped of their forests, down to the last shrubby laurel or sapling hickory. By the spring mud season the army lived in squalid conditions where mud mixed with the excrement of horses and humans alike.  Disease was a persistent concern as waves of typhoid fever, dysentery, small pox, and pneumonia swept through the camps. Today joggers and walkers plied the paved trails that linked parking lots with scenic views. Forests surround the valley once more.

Redoubt No. 4

Valley Forge remained a winter encampment for all the years of the war, though none of those years would be as challenging as 1777-78. When the conflict ended and peace was declared between Britain the United States, farmers were quick to reclaim the land. Trenches and redoubts were filled, leveled, and the land replanted in corn, wheat, flax, and hay. In a few years the valley returned to full agricultural production and no trace of the winter quarters remained.

Cooper's Hawk playing with Crows. No, really - playing!

As families grew more prosperous they added larger barns to their holdings and extra floors to their homes, some of it with reclaimed timbers of the soldier's cabins. With profitable markets in Philadelphia and an export trade in agricultural products growing by the year, area businesses and farms expanded to claim their share of a booming economy. According to Melissa, a living history interpreter stationed at the Varnum farmhouse, the whole valley "sort of forgot" what had happened here and went about their business. Though there was some early interest in the preservation of Valley Forge as a national shrine to new nationhood, it wasn't until the next war, the one that threatened to tear north from south, that an appreciation for the valley's significance developed in a big way.

Former agricultural land now the nations largest Eastern meadow restoration.

I hiked the paved paths that connected restored farmhouses and stone cottages with reconstructed redoubts and winter cabins feeling a little out of place in my backpack, hiking boots, and poles.  Women in running attire flitted past me wearing ear buds attached to their iphones. Slim men in Lycra on racing bikes zoomed by talking loudly about financial forecasts. I plodded along missing the yellow blazes quite a bit. I watched a Cooper's Hawk play with a family of Crows. The hawk barrel rolled and zipped up, down, in tight circles, teasing and taunting the gregarious black birds. It made no attempt to flee their attentions, but seemed to enjoy the game. It was a fake air battle, all fun. Not a feather was ruffled. The air show moved into the woods above the slopes of Mt. Joy. Looking over the vast valley I thought 'Is this what the planners envisioned?"

Varnum house additions still show the original outline of the house as it stood in 1777.

When early preservationists began to eye Valley Forge, they encountered two thousand acres of German and Scots-Irish farmers working the land and called it 'neglected.' (1) The wounded landscape had been fully reclaimed by 1810 but the idea that farmers (remember, George Washington was one of those!) were nothing but rough occupiers of hallowed space annoyed the keepers of what was becoming a national origin mythology. In 1817 when the elderly John Adams, second POTUS, learned that John Trumbull's huge commemorative painting "Declaration of Independence" was being moved to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the artist was given a written thrashing by the former President/Signer/Foreign Diplomat/Farmer. The work was contrived and inaccurate at best, suggested Adams who then wrote forcefully:  Do not let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license!  (2)

Melissa, living history interpreter, history student at U. Penn, and member of Friends of Valley Forge.
I asked Melissa at the Varnum house what had the planners thought to do with all of this land?  "They wanted to create a backdrop for a story that by the early 1900s had become somewhat glorified - no, really glorified.  The land was to be a park in the sense of what we think today a park should be. A place for pleasant walks and picnics but studded with cathedral-looking shrines surrounded by impressive monuments and sweeping landscapes of indescribable beauty - that's all. (giggle) Their visions had little to do with the reality of the actual encampment. But you know what? NPS has stopped mowing all this land and now its the largest natural Eastern prairie in the country complete with biologists and ornithologists, entomologists and botanists! I don't think the planners could imagine it now as a park now known for its  biodiversity!"

General James Varnum's upstairs room in the house he shared with farmers.

So there's that - some Joy.  And the Valley Forge Trout Unlimited Chapter - more Joy! Misery - a long plod back to Washington's HQ in hiking boots on paved paths where I ignored all the annoying history stuff and my aching feet and looked instead for more birds to add to the playful Cooper's Hawk and tumbling Crows. I wasn't disappointed as I tacked about twenty species on to my list for the day including a Great Horned Owl that glided across the river to the Pawlings Farm and watched my progress from a sycamore tree.

A  Great Horned Owl perched in a sycamore on the Pawlings Farm across the Schuylkill River.

As I made my way down the path to the parking area I noticed some old state regimental monuments almost swallowed up by four foot high oceans of Big Bluestem and Turkeyfoot, with no discernible path to reach them. So there they are, tens of yards away from the joggers and nature buffs with no one to read them. Seems the lofty goals of the preservationists got mixed up somehow with the aims of conservation because the NPS decided to stop mowing. Save money on fuel costs, seed the ground, attract butterflies and birds. Mythologies do that.
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:
“Do not,” he chides the artist, “let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license. - See more at:


 (1) See Miller's massive Pennsylvania: History of the Commonwealth for several mentions of the origins of Valley Forge as a national symbolic shrine. (199)

(2) Many 'Founding Fathers' history buffs will have watched the 2008 HBO mini-series  John Adams the film based on David McCullough's book of the same name. Like Valley Forge, the film has similar misrepresentations including a scene where Adams is brought to see Trumbell's painting. See Jeremy Stern's critique,

Valley Forge Mountain Community Association (to which Odie the Beagle's mom and dad belong):

Geologic History of Valley Forge