|Pine Tree Trail has no more pine trees.|
There are a few hemlocks and a few white pines left up on the plateau, which is windy and often cold, but for the most part these old hills have transitioned back into mixed hardwoods since farming was abandoned here in the 1950s. The land has a rich farming history that is almost hidden by the forest now. A few foundations can be seen here and there, but the really cool story is about what can't be seen. This land has hidden a lot of people.
|Straight-up tulip tree trucks all of the same age class compete for sun.|
Mixed among the poplars were lots of old knotty wild cherry and a few yellow birch. American holly trees add green to the golden landscape and an understory of spicebush, sasafrass, and witch hazel grows thick in the hollows below. Old woods roads climb in and out of the steep valley, but eventually they all lead back to the farmstead at the top.
|Former pasture contains old cattle trails incised into the hill.|
This is a great time to observe the scaffolding of the forest - to see the structure of trunks, limbs and vines that use them for support. I found several old bird nests in the understory lined with fibers pulled from wild grape vines, and then, rounding Pine Tree Trail to connect with Holly Trail, I found the source of the building material - two enormous shaggy old grape vines grown high into their support tree's limbs, a dead tulip poplar. Each vine was 6" across at shoulder height and I could see where animals and bird had mined the bark for nest and den material. Squirrels love to strip off long, fat ribbons of vine bark for the interiors of their tree cavity dens, while songbirds birds pull finer lengths to weave into their cup-shaped nests. In earlier times, grapevine fiber was used to make egg baskets and its thinner vines braided for rope and cord.
|Massive wild grape vines will collapse when this dead tulip tree comes down.|
|Sunset in the tulip poplar woods.|
At the base of the great tulip trees were the remains of seed pods and single-bladed seeds spread on wind from great heights. As Bug rooted around the base of the parent trees she uncovered some late season fungi, protected from recent hard frosts by the thick blanket of red oak, beech, and poplar leaves. She found where squirrels and deer had uncovered several more to eat, but this one went undetected until she found it.
|Bug nosed this small Bolete mushroom out of the fresh leaf litter.|
Observing the mushroom, I was reminded of the vast underground network of mycelium beneath my feet and Bug's paws. This massive network of interconnected tree rootlets, fungal filaments, and the nutrients and salts they share between fungi and tree species binds together the entire forest around us. This network functions, too, as a communications system for tree-to-tree and tree-to-forest signals that warn of insect attacks, the spread of diseases, and shortages of essential foods.
|A weathered polypore lays a bit frost-wilted on a downed cherry limb but has a fine growth of algae.|
|Oak Polypore on a stump.|
|Pores on the underside of a bracket fungi.|
At ground level the work of forest recycling is astounding. Fallen limbs are returned to the soil as bracket fungi break them apart. Stumps of large trees crumble, shot through with black and white mycelium strands. Leaves compact to form a dense layer of compost that will disassemble into forest duff over the winter. With the help of snow mold, the fresh leaves of today will be black and friable by mid-winter. Voles and mice have begun their seed storing and bluejays are busy burying acorns, so the ground is pitted with holes and tunnels. Runners of clubmoss and rhizomes of bracken fern colonies penetrate the duff to create a well-aerated upper layer.
|Ground pine, a clubmoss species of Lycopodium shimmers in a colony carpet of beech leaves.|
When dinosaurs roamed this region, long before there were river hills to climb, clubmosses were the dominate tree form, towering fifty to a hundred feet high. Thousands of species grew when Pennsylvania was covered by low, humid swamps - more like jungles - that contained giant dragonflies, enormous millipedes, reptiles, amphibians, and the ancestors of modern birds.
|Covered in leafy scales, this small clubmoss is one among hundreds.|
The great Pennsylvania Carboniferous swamps became the great Pennsylvania coalfields. The ferns and clubmoss I see today are distantly related to those ancient forests. Most of our modern species evolved only a million years ago, long after colliding continents doomed the interior jungles by raising the mountains that blocked atmospheric moisture. Some of the most recently evolved species of bracken, common in both the U.K. and North America, developed terrific poisons, ecdysones, that cause munching insects to die after ingesting a few meals of fern leaf. The poison causes them to molt prematurely. I learned this in May while hiking Hadrian's Wall across Northern England that Roman stable hands harvested bracken as bedding for cavalry horses. Archeologists discovered stables with layered floors of bracken and hundreds of thousands of pupae shells of stable fly beneath each layer. I know of an Amish farmer near home across the river who harvests bracken from his woods each spring and uses it to control flies in his dairy barn.
|Bracken fern and Christmas fern remain green after other ferns have died back.|
As we wandered back up the hill, connecting with the Spring Trail, the low sun illuminated a leafy hillside to reveal some tiny red oaks. I moved the leaves away and found that all of them still remained attached to their acorn husks while a strong white taproot penetrated deeply into the ground below. Possibly "planted" by blue jays or squirrels, these young oaks still sport their leaves even after several hard frosts and shorter days. They are still trying to capture as much light and manufacture as much food as possible.
|Anthocyanine interspersed with chlorophyll.|
|Emergent red oak, still holding tight to their acorns underground while thick taproots dig deep.|
|These young red oaks are still manufacturing food (greenish tint) but protected by sunscreen (reddish tint).|
We passed the foundation of an old springhouse which Bug enjoyed very much. She loves stones walls and sniffs every crack and crevice. While I waited, I spied some dried Clintonia berries atop their stalks standing among the remains of Jack-in-the-Pulpit in the semi-wet soil. There was so much to see (and smell), we could have just disappeared into the woods until dark, but there was work to be done at home and I was well enough rested and satisfied that it felt good to take the Spring Trail up to the hilltop.
Back on top of the plateau, the trail ends at the back of the old stone farmhouse. Bug decided it was time for a break, so she laid down in the warm sun and rolled around the toasty leaves, long legs paddling the air. I admired the 1850 Landis home from the lawn. Matching interior brick chimneys encased in field stone walls, a very practical German way of building a home, must have radiated such warmth into the rooms. It's always windy up on the ridge, so I can imagine this home was a warm refuge for the dairy farmers and their sons coming in from the 4am milking! The most important part of this house to me, however, was the role it played right after it was built and through the Civil War. It was a safe house, a stopover on the Underground Railroad.
|Landis House and stop on the Underground Railroad.|
In 1850, the year the Landis house was built, federal laws were changed that made it illegal to assist slaves to freedom. Helping runaway slaves had already been illegal since 1793, but this new law enacted by Congress as the Fugitive Slave Law, required all local law enforcement and citizenry to hunt and catch anyone they suspected of being a runaway slave. The Landis family and Jacob Shoff, like dozens of Lancaster and York County conductors and safe houses , faced imprisonment for six months and steep fines up to $1000 if they were caught helping. The law encouraged the kidnapping of free blacks and increased opportunities for bribery. Despite the risks, however, "freedom hill" and the surrounding area provided safe passage to thousands of men, women, and children on their way north.