Monday, November 27, 2017

PA: Disappearing Act at Susquehannock State Park

Took a sneaky break to relieve some holiday stress with a  short drive across the river to see what I could find. Sometimes you just have to have that woods walk. My go-to place is Susquehannock State Park for a few hours roaming around with my coonhound, Bug. No one was there. No one even knew where I was. It was like we disappeared.

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.
Anthocyanins are the pigment that create red in autumn leaves. It acts as a shield for the young leaf, protecting it from direct sunlight after the mature canopy above has dropped. This is important for the young oak in chilly climates since sunburn is a real threat to young leaves that are still actively moving food stores to the tap roots. There were still greenish patches of chlorophyll at work on each leaf of the dozens of young oaks. The low but bright sun was direct upon these oak nurseries where only a few weeks ago the hillside would have still been in shade. Sunscreen is a must!  

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.

Clintonia berries.

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.
Jacob Shoff, the sixth owner of the farm, served as a "conductor" to bring people here for refuge after the dangerous Mason-Dixon boundary crossing and guided them safely onward towards Lancaster. The Landis family has just the right place to hide people. The cold cellar (similar to a spring house - it had water troughs for cooling milk and perishables) contained a walled-off preparation room with a fireplace, tables, chairs, bedding, and dry goods storage. It's said that this space could hold many people warm and dry during the day. Some of the old folks on this side of the river still refer to this place as "freedom hill" and hope that one day funding can be found to restore the house and tell its story. It's an important to story to tell, and given the year the house was constructed, important enough not to let it disappear.


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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

PA: Rachel Carson Homestead, Western Pennsylvania

On a long drive to western Pennsylvania for a research interview, I kept an eye on the changing landscapes around me. I entered the beautiful Valley and Ridge Province once through the Blue Mountain tunnel, under the Kittatinny Ridge. This is the famously 150-mile long long mountain that helps guide autumn raptor migrations from north to south, from New York to Maryland. It was the last mountain that Rachel Carson passed over on her way to Baltimore, leaving forever her childhood home in Springdale near Pittsburgh - where I was headed today.

Looking back at the Blue Mountain/ Kittatinny Ridge - both an obstacle and an opening.
The great Pennsylvania interstates were not available to her at the time she relocated to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University and begin her Master's degree work in marine zoology. She would have used the Lincoln Highway that still meanders across the countryside up gaps in the mountains, and intersects dozens of villages and towns. I exited I-76 to drive the old route for a while and imagined all she would have seen on the way to her new life in the Chesapeake Region.

A tribute to the Lincoln Highway, Route 30.

I arrived in Springdale late in the afternoon. This is a working-class town on the banks of the Allegheny River just outside of Pittsburgh, that, like most Western PA industrial towns is attempting to make a transition to a sustainable future. I met with Rachel Carson Homestead Executive Director Jeanne Cecil for an interview. She gave me a marvelous private tour of the home and we talked at length about the site serving as a sort of pilgrimage destination for many. She had some wonderful stories to share. We talked at length about Rachel's childhood and early academic life and the impact her hometown, family, and Allegheny topography had on her.

From Life Magazine, 1962.

From an environmental history perspective, Rachel Carson's early life was filled with all the ingredients that set her life's trajectory in motion. Her hometown was bracketed upstream and down by two coal-fired power plants that (pre-regulation) could fill the little river valley with thick smog, a precursor to the killing smogs of the 1940s. It would be some time, however, before a single electric line ran up the hill to the Carson home just above town. For all of her childhood, the family had no indoor plumbing. Electric came late - one small line was run to the house by her older brother working as an electrician - to light one bulb in one room. The house, however, was filled with light during the day. It was filled too, with stories read aloud to the family pets, piano music, and lessons in nature study. The sixty acre lot originally purchased by her father, was slowly sold off in parcels as the town grew uphill. Visitors are surprised to find the two-over-two German built farmhouse (1860s) now surrounded by homes in a very suburban setting.

Coal-fired powerplant in Springdale, PA

Rachel moved away from Springdale at the time America's industrial muscle was being flexed. Stell, cable, and wire mills doubled in size and chemical plants competed with coal crackers for river shoreline. The paradoxical nature of communities under the umbrella of chemical, power, and steel industries along the Allegheny River offered residents both the promise of jobs and the concern - if not fear - of heavy pollution. The killing smog of Donora in 1948 concerned Springdale greatly, but the economy and good paying jobs held the community together. "There was a rumor of blue sky,"said a plant worker in Donora, "but I never saw it."

Rachel Carson's birth room. A space so sacred to some, they cannot enter it out of respect.

As I toured the small house on the hill, Jeanne pointed out that Springdale, rightfully proud of their connection to Rachel Carson, has worked hard as a community to make their economy and physical environment a priority. Like so many Western Pennsylvania river towns that struggle to balance employment, health, industry, and security, Springdale serves as a microcosm of the challenges that face the region. Across Western Pennsylvania, townships and their residents struggle to balance the need for jobs with the heath of their communities. Right now the people of Beaver County, PA, in the Ohio River Valley, are facing the challenges that a new Shell ethane cracker plant will bring. Some residents fear the pollution will force them out of their family homes, while others applaud the jobs the plant will bring.

The backyard. At the top of the hill is where young Rachel found her first marine fossil.

In nature, change is inevitable and unstoppable. The small trail out back of the house leads up to the top of the ridge where young Rachel found her first marine fossil. Her discovery launched a life-long love affair with marine life, propelling her to degrees in biology and marine zoology. The hill, now topped by the high school parking lot above the house, was once the top of a long slope of an ancient river bank. To look at the town from the air (Google Earth) you can see a series of old floodplain steppes on which the hilly community is built.  The region never experienced the uplift and folding of continental collisions as Eastern Pennsylvania did and at one time the Allegheny flowed placidly to the Great Lakes - there is hardly a gradient to speak of. The dendritic nature of entrenched creek and river valleys, however, make this a landscape rich in natural history and geological wonder. Rachel's mother, trained in the tradition of Nature Study in the 1890s, guided her excitement for finding clues to the region's marine past. Fossil hunting was lifelong passion for Rachel even as the idea of the age of Earth and the theories of evolution were still being debated and new fields of scientific discovery challenged old thinking.

The worn steps of the house resemble the steps of ancient flood plains  outside.

 The steps towards regulation of dangerous pesticides had begun before Carson had gotten involved. DDT made its debut during World War II. It performed its louse-killing and malaria prevention duties with so much success that the U.S. military made it clear that despite its heavy use on soldiers and civilians, no one had died from exposure to it and many lives had been saved from insect-borne diseases as a result. But this was a wartime narrative that transitioned to widespread civilian use as soon as the war had ended. Civilian manufacture and use of DDT applied the same reasoning and logic - that it had saved millions of lives and hadn't killed anyone. This became a persistent storyline that continues to support both its manufacture/sale/use today in other countries and to defame its critics, including Carson and other scientists who urged caution.

Honeybee die-offs offered the first evidence that DDT, used without farmer consent, would become a regulatory issue. 

Farmer Dorothy Colson became one of DDT's first critics. She launched an investigation soon after DDT was sprayed by cropduster, without her consent, near her family land in 1946. She lost an entire apiary of honeybees, a vital part of their farm's income for pollination services and honey sales. “Any poison strong enough to kill or damage honey bees is surely strong enough to affect people,” she wrote to local health officials urging a more rigorous study of its use. The fact was that federal agencies were worried about its affects. U.S.Fish and Wildlife scientists in Patuxent, MD, were working on field studies in the mid-1940s that proved DDT was a bio-accumulant, killing fish-eating and insect-eating birds who consumed aquatic prey exposed to long-term or heavy applications. The Association of Economic Entomologists were worried too, and suggested that long-term exposure might not be evident for decades in humans - possibly over generations. Monsanto in the late 40s, a major manufacturer of DDT, warned that “the danger inherent in the indiscriminate use of DDT as a cure-all is very real.” (1)

DDT application to American Elm. Wisconsin Historical Society.

As Carson began her research into DDT studies (to be compiled into her book Silent Spring) she knew that she was setting herself on a course that would result in widespread attack for challenging the wartime-turned-industry narrative. Nowhere in that narrative was the long-term concern  that Carson and many scientists and farmers before her had raised. As we know now, long-term and early exposure to DDT in pregnant women and their children has resulted in a human cost of lives related to testicular, ovarian, and breast cancers. It is an age and time-related connection that rewrites the narrative for modern chemical regulatory policy. "We were looking in the wrong places," writes anthropologist and biotechnologist Glen Davis Stone. (2)

Jeanne Cecil, Executive Director, RCHS

I stopped at a convenience store to gas up and met with a resident there who explained the damned-if-you-do/ damned-if-you-don't devil's bargain that many river towns experience. "Those stories about China and India smogs in the news recently? Yeah. My grandfather remembers this town looking like that," he said. "But what are we to do? We have a love/hate relationship to environmental regulation because - we are told - it kills jobs. I don't believe it. The wind industry has brought jobs. Solar has brought jobs. We need to adapt."  The narrative of good paying jobs weighs very heavily in Western PA and not a few people compare it with the storyline of DDT.

 (1) Elana Conis, "Beyond Silent Spring: An Alternative History of DDT."
Conis offers compelling historical evidence that challenge persistent military narratives that suggest civilian and scientific concerns were raised before Carson even raised her own pen.

(2) Stone's 2015 blog Field Questions  post "GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty," compares industry narratives between the DDT debate and GM foods claims. An interesting read that contains links to the groundbreaking long-term epidemiological work of Dr. Barbara Cohn.

Springdale Borough's town website, "The Power City," offers a really nice overview of the history of the river valley and a tribute to their daughter, Rachel Carson (see: Information).

The Allegheny Front is a public radio program well worth exploring online. I am a loyal subscriber to the podcasts and their webpage is excellent.

Please help the Rachel Carson Homestead get a leg up on much needed restoration and staffing! Donate and become a member. At this time there are still raffle tickets left for a lucky winner to spend a week at Rachel Carson's Maine cabin next summer!