Thursday, July 9, 2015

PA: Chestnut Grove Natural Area, Lancaster Co. - Walking with Liberty Hyde Bailey

A thick fog laid low in the Susquehanna River Valley as I crossed the Norman Wood Bridge into Lancaster County. I really had my doubts that I'd find the new prairie very photogenic in such poor light.  But as I drove north along the winding River Road towards the fog lifted high enough to cast the river hills in a glowing kind of light that makes colors pop.

Just the right number of informative signs without being intrusive. Thanks, LCSWMA!

Chestnut Grove is a stunning piece of community landscape restoration that adds invaluable habitat to the twenty mile long river hills natural area corridor of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley.The river hills undulate up and down like frozen ocean waves from stream valley troughs to high crested bluffs. The area is filled with beautiful trails, tons of history, and some of the most picturesque farmland in the country. These high plateaus of meadow and grasslands are considered some of the most endangered habitat in the Commonwealth and many conservancy groups and private landowners are working together to bring them back. This happened to be a great partnership project, a win-win for everyone and every open lands creature involved.

Undulating hills of color and life.

I've written about the importance of native grassland habitat before: protected serpentine barrens, restored meadowlands,  conserved and managed oak savannah, short grass and long grass prairie. Wherever  I am in my research travels I always make a point to find the grasslands that are unique to that place. These are transitional environments but by no means temporary. They expand and contract over time. Whether by the hand of man or by the climate of a region, grassland habitat has been around since the age of Big Reptiles. When conditions become wetter or when people and animals  move on, thousands of years of open lands can become forested pretty quickly. The reverse can happen too. When grasslands fail to hold soil, through natural or man made reasons, they can become deserts. Here on a high bluff over the Susquehanna, this area had once been forested then cleared for farming and cultivated, quarried for soil, and most recently, restored to something that may have been here thousands of years ago. People have had a hand in all of this for a very long time!

So many bees! Bumble bees especially!

In big time, measured by tens of thousands of years, eons, grasslands are those transitional blips that come and go according to drought cycles, the opening and closing of forests, and in the aftermath of ice ages. Mountains on the other hand, like rivers, come and stay a while before they change course or erode away. But all time being relative, grassland species adapt to their transitory environments and therefore can become rare when conditions change or species must change along with them. The key to understanding grasslands is that they are a process and not a product of systems much more complex than we can imagine. Grasslands are change.

Most grasslands and meadow habitat have animal controls that prevent the invasion of shrubs and trees. Out west enormous herds of bison that were estimated to have contained millions of animals kept the oaks from invading. Then came the sodbusters and bison hunters in the mid and late 1800s. The rest is history, as they say. Here in the East, after the cold marshy grasslands of post-glacial times gave way to warmer and drier environments, our main grassland animal control was the elk and the eastern wood bison. Vast herds of elk migrated south in the fall from their summering grounds in the Appalachian valleys a hundred miles or more to the north. Here they lounged, grazing  all the way to the Chesapeake. As they do today in north central PA, elk nibbled away at shrubs, twigs, and juicy saplings creating their own meadow environment. But by 1700 most of Pennsylvania's original elk herds were hunted to extinction.

As people became more numerous and more settled on the plateaus above the river (there are many Susquehannock 'town sites' in this area - look for the historic markers), they began to have a deliberate effect on the grasslands. Controlled burning helped subdue more invasive plants and favored the plants preferred by big game. The added bonus of abundant berry and heath balds, encouraged by fire, sweetened the diets of man and bear. And the chestnut groves, large hummocks of great mast producing trees, for which this place takes its name, provided tons of oily nuts for man, beast, and bird. This was the land of the passenger pigeon.  I wish I'd been around to see their massive flocks streaming down the river valley.

Eastern grasslands  were most likely an open park mix of meadow, grassland, and chestnut groves. This type of habitat is described in many early settler and explorer journals. But after colonial settlement and the wholesale destruction of forest and shortgrass/prairie meadow to be replaced with farming - a process that took far less longer than a glacial retreat or even a decadal drought. And so went the Susquehannock, the bear, the elk, the berry balds, and later, the chestnut. It all happened in a geological blink of an eye. Which makes the restoration of this astoundingly beautiful place not only a great story, but a tale of irony.

Just over the hill are two huge wind turbines that mark the site of an active landfill - a big landfill that is perched crazily atop the scenic cliff-skirted Turkey Hill. The big landfill can be seen from high above and when I fly back to Baltimore from points north I watch for it from thousands of feet up. It's not pretty sitting out there on one of the most recognizable mountainous features of the river valley, though from the river you'd never know there was a landfill up there. Most folks know the turbines, however, as marking the site of the landfill's neighbor, the Turkey Hill Dairy, maker of delicious ice cream and ice tea - though I'm not sure how they get ice tea from a cow...

The wind turbines actually mark the site of the LCSWMA Turkey Point Wind Project at the  Frey Farm Landfill and it's very impressive!  The beginnings of the project were way back in 2010-2011 when the landfill required extra dirt to cover the refuse pits. So the county bought the farm next door and began to dig out the top of the hill, with the idea that the various pits and scrape pits would one day serve as wetlands. The idea for the restoration was hatched among several industry and conservation partners. Five years later, in way less than a geological blink of an eye - more like a twitch - we have this! 

The meadows and grasslands are interlaced with foot paths that share the way with horses, deer, and children. I counted the different species that had passed through the muddy hollows the day before and counted seven kinds of mammal, four kinds of birds, and what think was a nice slither of snake. There is a gravel path loop that encircles two wetland ponds and a deliciously fragrant wooded wet meadow. Butterflies swarmed in the gravel sucking mineral water that had pooled there after the evening showers. For a long way I walked with butterflies floating around my head as if I was in a could of wings. It was magical.

A healthy prairie meadow includes predators as well as prey. I watched a five foot long blacksnake sniff out a bird's nest in the high grass. Blackbirds and mockingbirds plunged down at it and screamed as the snake crossed my path and entered what I suspect was a nesting area. Not long after this a kestrel fledgling rocketed over the trail. I found a pile of feathers in that place on my return.I wondered if the snake alarm attracted the kestrel that figured out he couldn't miss in a crowd of screaming birds. Kestrel boxes are posted throughout the natural area on tall poles. This is a species of concern in Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, LCSWMA, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and PA Audubon are all working together to help provide nesting boxes across the region.

It seemed every box had a bird peeping out.

I counted twenty next boxes along my walk of about three miles. Bluebirds, wren, kestrels, tree swallows, chickadees, sparrows, and curious (though I don't think nesting) red-bellied woodpecker were using the boxes. Two deer-fence impoundments attracted a variety of perching birds in and on the wide mesh of fence. I caught a quick glimpse of a dicksissel that two birders had been searching for all morning. I almost didn't want to tell them as we met again on another loop, they looked so exasperated! I pointed to the corner of the large fenced-in area where I'd spotted the small black-bib and yellow chested bird.  I told them it was lucky that I even happened to have looked up at the fence when I did as I was so absorbed with the hundreds of bees on cone flower, black-eyed susan, bee balm, and thistles.

As I walked I got to thinking about Cornell professor and horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey, an early twentieth century agriculturalist and writer who headed up the Country Life Commission under Theodore Roosevelt. I had a copy of Holy Earth in my backpack. I wanted to stop somewhere along the trail to rest and read a few pages.  I'm dealing with another round of lyme that makes me tire very quickly. Thank goodness I caught it early and am taking antibiotics but I knew that three miles would probably be exhausting (not my usual ten or fifteen) so why not bring along an old friend? 

Widow Skimmer, female.

The Country Life Commission was formed in response to a massive emptying out of the rural population of the Northeast in the decades after the Civil War leading up to World War One. There were many factors for this including displacement caused by new agricultural technologies that replaced workers and plummeting land and crop prices that forced many farmers into poverty. Many farmers, their families, and farm laborers fled to the cities in search of jobs, often competing with waves of immigrants fleeing Europe. As a result entire landscapes were abandoned particularly in New England and New York. This exodus concerned many people including Bailey and TR. Bailey was appointed chief of the Country Life Commission to investigate why. A huge rural survey was conducted, interviewing over 10,000 rural residents.

A beautiful man made pond is rewilding nicely - dragonflies and barn swallows abound!

The survey revealed that in addition to the stalled agricultural economy,  people no longer felt needed by or connected to a landscape that no longer supported them. They had to survive, feed their families, live in security, they said, but were not willing to wait out the slow motion disaster that affected them and their land. The survey was written into a Congressional Report and presented in Washington, D.C. by Bailey. Moved to act upon the rural crisis (compare this to today's congress) legislators released a large funding package directed at reforming rural economies, improving rural schools and agricultural training programs, and implementing conservation education that would help repair the damage done to the land by overworked, desperate farmers who wrecked their farms trying to squeeze any kind of living from them.  Bailey was inspired to write Holy Earth after his work with the Country Life Commission because he felt that missing from the reforms approved by Congress was the element of personal and communal responsibility, instilling a moral obligation to protect the gifts of the land that Creation endowed us with.

Widow Skimmer, male.

I found a nice place to rest near an overlook hundreds of feet over the water. The breeze was strong enough to keep biting flies away and I pulled out my old Therm-o-Rest seat and tucked in the book.

If moral strength comes from good and sufficient scenery, so does the preservation of it become a moral duty. It is much more than a civic obligation. But the resources of the earth must be available to man for his use and this necessarily means a modification of the original scenery. Some pieces and kinds of scenery are above all economic use and should be kept wholly in the natural state. Much of it may yield to modification if he takes good care to preserve its essential features.Unfortunately, the engineer seems not often to be rained in the vales of scenery and he is likely to despoil a landscape or at least to leave it raw and unfinished. 

Tiger Swallowtail on Monardia (Bee Balm)

We know it is not right that any family should be doomed to the occupancy of a very few dreary rooms and deathly closets in the depths of great cities, seeing that all children are born to the natural sky and to the wind and to the earth. We do not yet see the way to allow them to have what is naturally theirs, but we shall learn how. 

Cabbage White congregation on mineral damp.

To every bird, the air is good; and a man knows it is good if he is worth being a man. To every fish the water is good. To every beast its food is good, and its time of sleep is good. the creatures experience that life is good. Every man knows in his heart that there is goodness and wholeness in the rain, in the wind, the soil, the sea, in the glory of sunrise,  and in the sustenance we derive from the planet. When we grasp the significance of this situation, we shall forever supplant the religion of fear with the religion of consent.  

Red Admiral.

I think I dozed a little because when I looked up  Holy Earth was on the ground. Hmmm. Lyme naps. You must take them when they come! I wasn't concerned about ticks or other biting things, however, as I'd sprayed my clothing well the night before and kept pants and shirt sealed in a large vacuum-sealed bag to let the Deet permeate. It's a temporary fix I learned from a hiking friend. Too bad I didn't think to do this when I was up north in NH two weeks ago! Darned deer ticks! At least I caught this round, my fourth, early and went immediately on antibiotics. But the nap was sooo nice with the breeze coming up from the river. And the sound of insects - so lovely. "...there is goodness and wholeness in the rain, in the wind, the soil..."

Monarch on Coneflower. 

The grasslands shushed behind me. The prairie buzzed and hummed in front of me. Below me the wind rushed up through the steep forest. I could have stayed another hour, but the sky was darkening with an incoming storm. I continued on the path down to a remote pond, circled another deer-fenced impoundment and watched a family of orchard orioles travel along the edge of woods. Newly fledged orioles shivered and begged following their parents. "To every beast, food is good."

Song Sparrow in the deer fence.

Thinking about the many partners, public and private, corporate and individual, that are working together to make these kinds of projects possible gives me a lot of hope. Last week I wrote about partnerships in forest conservation, but this week is a little different. From a tired old farm field, to a borrow pit for the local landfill, to this beautiful eastern grassland prairie- all would have been a dream a generation ago. The most progressive and responsible corporate partners today, however, are not only eager to engage in the process but willing to invest the financial capital to create the ecological capital.

Serenade of the Song Sparrow.

I finished my three mile loop back at the newly installed gravel parking lot in time to hear a young kestrel kek-kek-king from the top of a willow tree in the wet meadow. I think Liberty Hyde Bailey had he been along with me today would have been very happy with what he had seen - and very appreciative of all the hard work, years of planning and labor that went into this newly wild place.  I pulled Holy Earth from my backpack and was ready to toss it on the front seat of the car when I quickly just popped it open and read wherever my eyes fell on the page - you know the trick,  instant spontaneous wisdom, like from a fortune cookie? 

There is no excellence without labor.
You cannot dream oneself into either usefulness or happiness. 


The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA) is a remarkable and generous partner in the county's conservation scene. Check out their great blog and enjoy scrolling through all the good work they've contributed towards keeping Lancaster County natural history alive and well!

Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Holy Earth. (New York, Charles Scribner's and Sons, 1916).
You can free the entire book online at Google Books!


  1. Wonderful post! I learned many many things from your writings today. Thank you!

  2. The sparrows identified in your photos as Song Sparrows are Field Sparrows, not Song.

  3. BTW Peggy, you have a wonderful blog. I wish I could devote the time and energy to maintain something like this...but alas I do not. I too enjoy roaming the river hills of the Lower Susquehanna River and love to go kayak birding just upstream from Turkey Hill at the Conejohela Flats. I found your blog because of this posting. Keep up the good work and best of luck obtaining your PhD!