Thursday, May 29, 2014

Landscape Locked in Time: Antietam National Battelfield

Since 2001 I've dedicated one day of the Memorial Day weekend to walk a place of remembrance.  I've walked the town of Carlisle, PA to remember the 10,000 native children taken from 140 tribes across the nation kept there at the (in)famous Indian Industrial School (1879s - 1918). I've walked the Arlington National Cemetery and watched as widows families decorated the graves of recent military dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. I hiked to the top of Old Rag in the Shenandoah to remember the hundreds of mountain families ousted from their farms, orchards, and small villages to make way for a new national park and the Skyline Drive in 1931. I walked over twelve miles of Lancaster County rural roads as a sort of walking prayer for the children and families of the Nickle Mines schoolhouse massacre.

Yellow for Remembrance. Tulip poplars are in bloom Memorial Day weekend.

It all sounds very sad, and it is - sometimes overwhelmingly so - but I am always interested in how landscapes are affected by human tragedy, how nature heals the land, and how people find forgiveness and re-grounding. This year's Remembrance Hike happened at Maryland's Antietam National Battlefield. Like all of my remembrance hikes I got there early and started walking as the sun rose. It gives me hope to start the day full of sunlight and birdsong. I was interested in why this memorial landscape, compared to Gettysburg to the north in Pennsylvania, looked so serene, natural, and uncluttered, almost free of  commemorative monuments - and was still being farmed.

Just outside the small town of Sharpsburg, MD, looking north toward South Mountain.

Maryland's place as a border state meant that it supplied both the Union and the Confederacy with soldiers, war material, supplies, and food. The state was conflicted both during and after the war. Its geography and social climate reflected both slave-holding plantations of the eastern and southern counties and the rugged frontier farmers, milling districts, and industry of the western counties. The landscape around this western Maryland battlefield was settled during the mid-1700s and by 1800 looked much as it did sixty-two years later as the battle commenced in the early morning hours of September 17, 1862. 

The Sunken Road is actually the farm lane to the Roulette Farm.

Even today, descendents will proudly tell you about generations of their families caring for stock, soil, orchards, and woodlots here. Tucked between the great wall of South Mountain to the north and the the broad reach of the Potomac to the south, the farms, orchards, and fields around Sharpsburg were and still are very productive. Even today the battle is still talked about and for many of the descendants of those battlefield farmers, it is still seen as an affront, the greatest insult and tragedy that could befall good farmland. Long after the immediate horror that soaked these soils in blood had subsided, this farm community struggled to reconstruct their lives and landscape.

Sunken Road a week after battle. Photograph by Alexander Gardner.

The battle that happened here, happened quickly. In just one day - in just a few hours, really - over 23,000 soldiers of the Union and Confederate forces lie dead, dying, wounded, or missing across the farmsteads of the Antietam Creek valley. Farmers with the names Miller, Mumma, Roulette, Piper, Sherrick, Parks, and Otto - many of them settler families from the German agricultural landscapes of Lancaster County, PA - had moved their families safely out of harms way to churches miles to the north. Violent skirmishes had been fought on South Mountain days before and on September 16, the creek valley began filling with soldiers, artillery, and wagons.  The people knew with some certainty that a fierce battle would soon ensue but none had any grasp of what violence was to come or how to process and come to grips with the aftermath. There are plenty of places to investigate the actual battle and here I'll include the link to the National Park for learning more:

The Visitor's Center is tucked into a rolling plain, unobtrusive and from a distance nearly invisible.

The day after the two armies collided in these fields, farmers began demanding reparations for all that was lost. Family storehouses were gone, leaving many without food for the winter ahead. Horses, moved to safe pastures far from battle were confiscated by the military to replace the dead and dying animals in the field. Standing corn that had two days before promised a bumper crop lay flattened, shredded, destroyed. Thousands of soldiers lay dead in rows of mangled corn, cut down as they emerged one behind the other to rout the Confederate stand at the West Woods. Lanes and paths used as breastworks were deep in human casualties making farm roads impassable.  Fences were shattered and heaved over. For these farmers the political and social battles continued for months, then decades, and even over generations. Angry with state and federal government, regimental associations, and war tourism groups heated altercations often resulted in more violence. I spoke to a janitor at the park that morning, a descendant of the Miller family and who, until he retired last year, still farmed parcels of his family's inholdings at Antietam. "I have mixed feelings about what people have done to this place," he said, "but I am damned proud to have continued farming on this land."

Looking towards South Mountain, where violent skirmishes were fought days prior to the bloody battle in these fields.

Homes and outbuildings were significantly damaged by cannon and mortar fire and were used as field hospitals for months. At the north end of the battlefield on the Miller Farm, Clara Barton had entered into service of aid (later to establish the Red Cross) by assisting doctors, the dying, and identifying and preparing the dead for field burial. Farmers and their families rendered aid as best they could, helping Barton and her aid-givers in what had been stock pens, orchards, beeyards, and chicken runs - now converted to triage areas for sorting the wounded from the dead and dying. Some moved into town or other farms to live temporarily with friends or relatives, but many came home and stayed, despite their homes serving as hospitals and recovery centers.

Rocky bluff near the Miller Farm. Burial detail collecting bodies of soldiers who took position here.
Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress.

Prior to the battle, the Sharpsburg area was an area of split loyalties. Many residents supported the Union as many supported the Confederacy. It was an uneasy existence, especially among the small slave-holding farms versus those farms that had granted manumission and employed former slaves as farm laborers. Often, free men of color would work alongside the enslaved. But as  farmers returned with their families, farm laborers, and neighbors to this valley there was one singular concern that occupied everyone no matter their loyalties - burying the bodies as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease. Burial details of soldiers and civilians worked day and night for weeks to dig long trenches for mass graves. Hoards of flies, clouds of vultures, and a flood of vermin spread rapidly across the landscape.Water wells, streams, and springs were contaminated. People got sick.

Looking at and past the rocky bluff to the rebuilt and renovated Mumma Farm.
Roulette Farm day after the battle. Beehives lay shattered in the orchard. James Gibson, photographer.

The big white barn, ice house, washing house, outbuildings, and sheds on the Roulette Farm were in use as triage areas, operating rooms (with mounds of amputated limbs outside), and morgues. William Roulette, enraged by the destruction, worked day and night to clean his fields of debris, bury dead livestock, burn ruined corn and wheat, and, most importantly, protect what clean water he could. Though no Sharpsburg or Antietam valley residents were killed or wounded in the battle itself, many succumbed to illnesses in the aftermath, including William Roulette's infant daughter. His spring and ice pond were heavily contaminated. He wrote five weeks after the battle, "Our youngest has died, a charming little girl of twelve months. She was just beginning to talk." (Walker 2010)

Spring house from the front porch steps of the Roulette farmhouse. A small but reliable spring fed both the cooling rooms and the ice pond just down the hill. Heavily contaminated, the water supply sickened residents and soldiers long after the battle, killing the youngest of the Roulette family, Carrie May, aged 12 months.

By the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in 1891, Ben Roulette, who had been a young boy and witnessed much of the horrific aftermath, had inherited the farm from William. Ben welcomed veterans and their families to visit. The farmland had completely healed with little evidence left of that day. The spring ran fresh and clean and the veterans happily accepted cold dippers of water from it. It still bubbles up energetically from the hillside. A veteran of the 14th Connecticut wrote of his return: "All wanted to see the famous springhouse with its heavy walls that sheltered our badly wounded, where Lt. Crosby and others were operated on - also the rare spring, in its cavity, near." (Walker 2010)

Roulette Farm today. All original buildings still standing with some repair and modification and fields still farmed.

When the Civil War ended in 1865 the War Department offered to pay reparations to landowners for damages to fields, homes, and farm buildings incurred during the battles only if damages were caused by Union troops. William Roulette received no payments for the loss of his crops or the damage to his soils by the burial of 700 Confederate dead on his land. He received a small stipend of several hundred dollars for damages to his barn and springhouse for their use as hospitals. As regimental monuments were erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s few if any farmers received payment for the land on which they were built. To show their anger, farmers built pigpens around them, allowed cattle to use them as scratching posts, and did their best to block visitor roads with grazing cattle.

Twenty three thousand dead and dying lay across eight farms in the Antietam Valley on September 18, 1862.

The battlefield was declared a government-owned memorial park and installed a series of Civil War veterans assumed the position of superintendent. The battle between farmers and the War Department amplified as superintendents tried aggressively to enforce rules about cattle and plowing. There were shootings, a murder (Superintendent Charles Adams), a suicide (the murderer), government spraying of weed killer on crop fields by park employees,  and angry confrontations.

Towhee calls loudly in the West Woods.
The 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam was a fragmented affair, attended mostly by regimental survivors and their families, and looked nothing like the grand commemorative events north at Gettysburg. By the 1930s, because of the farmer's resistance to selling their land to the government and their defiance in continuing to farm despite War Department rules, the landscape looked much as it had the day before the battle, though tractors replaced horses in the fields. In 1933 the small government holdings were transferred to the National Park Service. Also in that year Congress approved funding to replace fencing, repair roads, and restore damage to lands marred by farmer-monument builder feuds. By the 1940s community interest in the national park and farmer relations had improved considerably. Did the healing landscape also help to heal relations?

The Dunker Church, considered at the heart of the battle, was maintained ironically by a pacifist German Christian sect.

In the years leading up to the 75th anniversary, community groups and farmers continued to improve their relations with the National Park Service, but it seemed every new monument proposal was denied. Lengthy discussions and debates included civic groups, farm cooperatives, even schools and churches, and seemed to discourage the placement of large monuments. "This would be no Gettysburg," the janitor told me, "My own father stood up at a meeting and said what a loss to the good people of Gettysburg to no longer have their farms and homes." The landscape was further protected by the National Park Service itself, realizing what had happened to Gettysburg had been avoided at Antietam by this vocal conservation community. As tourism entrepreneurs threatened to transform the working land with festivals, pageants, reenactments, and extravagant celebrations, the Park Service and  community associations formed alliances to prevent such showmanship, though some events were permitted with strict provisions.

Eastern meadowlark on a red cedar at Roulette's Farm.

Park Service fencing now contains land leased by area farmers.

The social, political, and environmental histories of Antietam are tightly bound here. Many farmers were financially ruined by the battle, unable to retire or remove to new land. Families were severed by the emotional strain, illness, and financial collapse. And in some ways, the battle to save farmland and farmers continues.  The region fights new battles against suburban sprawl and highway industrial corridors. Housing developments swoop in too close for comfort and people unaccustomed and unappreciative of farming culture make it hard to continue to farm in some places. Antietam, however, stands as its own monument to the battle that happened after the war - to preserve a landscape and livelihoods that matter to this place and these people. The serenity and peace that is this landscape is a testament to the stewardship and fierce protectiveness farmers had and have over their land.

Grasshopper sparrow calls from a snake-rail fence on the Mumma Farm.

Starling whistles from a cannon barrel along the Hagerstown Pike.

There is so much of this story I've left out in the interest of time and space. For a great read on the political and social battle after the war, check out Susan Trail's doctoral dissertation "Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield" (2005) archived online at

A well-written booklet on the farms of the battlefield is Antietam Farmsteads by Kevin Walker (2010). Kevin is a brilliant park historian and he treats these farm families' stories  with compassion and care. Wonderfully illustrated and detailed accounts of those farmers most affected by the battle. Published by the Western Maryland Interpretive Association, available at the Antietam National Park bookstore. 

The park brochures indicate several trails but be mindful that these are often seldom mowed paths along grassy road edges inside rail fences or cut-across paths through recovering woodlands (more grass).  Most people hiking the battlefield find it necessary to hop out into the roads for easier walking. Cycling this area is a dream though! A road ride to the Potomac River along Miller's Sawmill Road can add a beautiful cruise to visit the C&O Canal National Historic Park south of the battlefield. There were many cyclists visiting when I was there who were both cycling and walking the battlefield.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - River of Rocks Circuit Hike Part II

Leaving the North Lookout I headed across the escarpment on a route less a path and more a selected arrangement of half-ton boulders that afforded some sort of  footing. Still, the way is marked with red blazes painted on key visual points - large rocks and trees. The trick was to look up. It was way too easy to become engrossed in rock hopping, missing a critical turn or switchback. I tumbled once and luckily landed in a sweep of rhododendron which happened to bring every smallish flighty thing in for a look. 

Black and white warbler wondering what all the thrashing was about.

Hiking across the top of an escarpment is akin to being in the treetops as the canopy is not above you but below. My landing in a rhododendron thicket gave me an eye-to-eye view of some curious canopy-loving warblers hanging out in the stunted oaks on the ridge. A black and white warbler interrupted his whispering song to come see what bugs I'd stirred up. He got right to work. These tiny feathered migrants are making their way through the Appalachian Highlands to stake out a canopy claim. In spring the diffuse migration of wood warblers happens in bursts of song and flitting shadows. I love to catch a wave of warblers, a mixed up collections of energetic color and call. Come autumn, their breeding colors fade into browns and tans, so this is the time of year to watch for the brilliant blues, greens, yellows, orange, rust, and iridescent purples.

Black-throated blue warbler checking me out.

Back to my feet, wobbling along on sharp tips of rock wedges, I sensed I was being followed. I kept stopping to look back, expecting to find a much more able and faster hiker gaining ground on me, but instead all I saw were warbler shadows flitting along. Lots of warblers - hoping, I imagined, that I would catapult again into some bug-infested bush releasing a buffet of insects. But I kept my balance for the rest of the trip, and my following of tiny birds passed me off from the group at the top to the group along the apron of rock that slid into the quiet forest below.The stunted black oak gave way to maples, hickories, ash, and white oak that towered overhead. The rhododendron passed into mountain laurel. Wildflowers began to appear in abundance.

Bellwort along the path, a sign of richer soils on the shoulders of the mountain.

For a while the path opened up and became more of a trail. Almost a road. Maybe it had been a road. A way for oxen, mules, people, and wagons to move sand and lumber. The soils, enriched by detritus, were thick and springy, unlike the sandy dry skin of dirt at the top.  Stump-sprouting chestnuts filled the understory alongside sassafras and young oaks. What the widened path had once been -what it had been used for - was all a secret now, but it awaited my steps nonetheless.

Chestnut stump-sprouting in a new kind of forest.

This woods, as much as I wish it to be the Appalachian forest of my grandparents and great-grandparents, is a different kind of forest today. When the great chestnuts died away, an entire ecosystem died with them. What stands now as our Appalachian woodlands is a forest changed by their absence. Trees create an underground network with each other, sharing nutrients, communicating, offering support, and forming a web of life unseen and  unknowable to those hiking along the surface. The American chestnut was giant voice in the language of trees. Their strength and brawn is surely missed.

Clouds overhead and a light shower darkens the old woods road, lit only by borders of moss.

The old road wound gently through the valley and I forgot to look up. I wandered along the old road for quite a while not realizing I'd missed a red blaze and I was now climbing up.  I turned, walked back until I found a dogleg marked by a double blaze to the right. Down to the River of Rocks I went on what was now not a pleasant old woods road but a jumble of rocks that slid into the crux of the valley. Now the trail earns its name and its reputation!

The infamous River of Rocks Trail earns its 'Difficult' rating for the next two hours.

These slides are what make the River of Rocks. They can be found all along the Kittatinny Mountain, but nowhere else are they as visible and as dramatic as here in the  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania. These are freeze-thaw slides, cascades of rock ledge blown apart by freeze-thaw cycles during the most recent glaciated period of 15,000-8,000 years ago. The rocks are really moving, millimeter by millimeter each year, the force of gravity inching them downhill. If you sit along a slide on a very cold winter day you can hear them pop and crack, even rumble a bit as they creep ever so slowly along. These were once exposed ramparts of sandstone where wooly mammoths and ground sloths once roamed. I reckon one day to bring my toy plush mammoth and photograph him walking sure-footedly across his ancestor's domain. Just for fun. But then - out of the corner of my eye, in a place I recognized where several boulders are spaced farther apart than all the others - voila! Pink lady's slippers!

In this pocket of leaf litter a patch of a dozen or so pink lady's slippers grew heartily, a tough bunch of flamboyant orchids, their maroon basal leaves pointed outward as if balancing (like me) between boulders. I was overjoyed to see them again and took off my pack to walk carefully around them. I'd been introduced to this patch, not quite on the trail (another delightful product of forgetting to look up for the tree blazes), by my friend Steve many years ago. He was just graduating from Rutgers with a doctorate in botany, on his way to a new university position in Virginia. That was almost twenty years ago. Steve is still there. The orchids are still here. I am still working on that doctorate but that's another story.

Yellow pollen packets are seen at the two escapes.

The clasping petals enclose a trick, not quite a trap, scented with perfume and made alluring by bright pink shades of bee-love color. A woodland bee slips inside the heart pouch through a slit between the petals and finds - nothing. No nectar. No reward. So in making her way back out the bee must pass between rows of guard hairs that direct her up through the two possible exits. Capping each exit are two heavily laden pollen packets stuck tightly to the stigmas. The bee must push and squeeze to get out and in doing so the flower transfers pollen to her back. Off she flies, lured by another orchid nearby, and the transfer of pollen is complete.

I believe each place has its own natural history, its own unique story, and that there are so many histories to know that it is impossible to know them all. The Endless Mountain contains thousands of unique places, each with its own special tale-to-tell.  This tiny patch of flowers tells its own story of survival in a room sized opening between house-sized boulders. The seeds of the lady slippers, like many orchid seeds, have no food storage and rely on soil bacteria to coat them and help process nutrients for their growth. Unless this particular bacteria exists in this particular place, no seeds will germinate. Here, however, the pocket of leaf litter and debris must contain exactly what the plant needs to increase its colony size, for there are twice as many plants here as there were so many years ago.

A spring bubbles up from the forest floor in a bog-like hollow and quickly disappears back underground.

The trail opens into a broad ledge of sloping ground where for the first time I hear the sound of running water. A spring emerges from the sidewall of the valley and trickles out into a shallow bowl of ground, staying long enough to grow some tadpoles, then dropping out of sight in a jumble of boulders. From here to the base of the trail, some two miles away, the spring is joined by dozens of other underground streams that tumble and gurgle under the River of Rocks.  It is a river flipped upside-down, the boulder fields on top, the river below. At times the river emerges, flushes over mossy mounds of rock and disappears again below an ever widening plain of shattered, sharp sandstone.

One of several broad boulder fields that make up the River of Rocks.

It was still somewhat cool and not much before noon when I reached the main river of rock nearing the valley bottom. I had hoped to see timber rattle snakes as I have in the past, sunning themselves lazily on the boulders, but it was still too chilly.

My lunch companion, a Ruby-throated hummingbird. This is a female (no ruby throat).

I stopped along a warm edge of the  boulder field and had my lunch. I suppose my red Keene State College baseball cap attracted a friendly ruby-throated hummingbird. She stayed the entire time I rested and lunched, even buzzing my cap a few times!

Rushing springs pop out of the forest floor to join the underground river below.

After lunch I made the loop around the bottom of the boulder fields and began the long trek back up the mountain, this time on the north-facing slope that forms the south side of the valley. Rhododendrons are king here, and the trail winds in and through tunnels of  rhodie forest. In their shade, trickles of springs popped up and rambled downhill to the valley bottom.

Recent heavy rains have redirected many small streams. Come summer these will be dry.

After noon, heading up to the Visitor Center, more people started appearing. I no longer had the mountain to myself. It was hard to hear the warblers and springs babbling for the people talking loudly. They were coming down, I was heading up, so I stood aside as each party passed. Only one hiker, aware of the 'Hiker's Rules of the Road' thanked me for the right-of-way. On the AT this is a much appreciated courtesy and everyone gets a thank you for stepping aside. But I guess this is not the AT, and these day hiking folks were not aware of the custom.

White trillium in the rich bottomlands of the River of Rocks.

The hour-long trek up the north slope revealed many wet meadows and though I didn't see more pink lady's slippers, I did see flowers new for the day. Pocket meadows of just a few dozen feet across contained a stunning variety of wildflowers giving me pause, and much needed breathing breaks for the climb-out.

Wet meadows humming with bees and hummingbirds at the bottom of the valley.

Nearing the top of the trail, things got very steep. No people were headed in my direction but for one elderly woman with a full backpack on! She climbed slowly and took lots of breaks, but I didn't want to pass her, so I kept a distance and slowed way down. She had bear bells attached to the hip belt of her pack and as she started up after each standing break, she gave them a jingle. This had me looking nervously around for bears. I had observed earlier in the day several foot to two foot rocks rolled easily out of the way - a bruin looking for ants, salamanders, and beetles. Bears love bugs. But no bears all the way to the top of the mountain where the elder hiker continued ahead to the lookouts and I veered left to the Visitor Center and my car, Angus. A beautiful hike - I found the lady's slippers, and so much more. Slow, but steady, an amazing spring hike!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - River of Rocks Circuit Hike Part I

On this gorgeous spring morning I set out to hike the River of Rocks Trail in the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania, with stops at the North and South Lookout. The six mile circuit hike took me a tad longer than most folks because I stop for everything - I mean everything. In all it took me about six hours to go six miles. My goal today was to find a patch of pink lady's slippers I knew bloomed on the southeastern side of the escarpment, a patch I'd visited with friends for years. But make no mistake - this is a challenging, rocky trail. I took a set of well-worn hiking sticks for the trip and used them almost the whole way.

Hawk Mountain holds a special place in my heart, having learned of the efforts of Rosalie Edge from my Grandmom, an enthusiastic birder herself. Edge was a fighter for causes she felt needed a firebrand. She was an outspoken and vigorous suffragette for women's rights and when the job was done, she turned her sites on conservation. Literally. During the interwar years 1918-1940 she was considered a militant of the conservation movement exposing to the embarrassment of many established conservation groups such as the Audubon Society hypocrisy and inept practices she felt duped not only American wildlife and the public, but especially dues paying members and major donors. 

A large feisty eagle memorializes the fierceness of  Rosalie Edge and her efforts to preserve Hawk Mountain.
When I was old enough to drive, Hawk Mountain was one of my first long distance trips from home, although today the route is familiar and doesn't seem quite as long as it did then. In the past I guided adult nature trips for a local nature center and state parks, but no longer in the guide service, it has become refreshingly new to me as I walk at my own pace - like a slug along the edge of a leaf - enjoying aspects of the mountain that were hidden to me earlier. Like pink lady's slippers. You can't hike very fast and watch for delicate spring wildflowers while distracted with keeping your balance on sharp rocks and five ton boulder ledges all the way down a mountain.

A geology panel greats the hiker before you set foot on the challenging trails ahead.

Because Hawk Mountain is privately owned and operated as a conservation non-profit, they ask a trail fee to help support their efforts. I am happy to pay it each time. The fees go towards the excellent work and programs HMS offers. I was the first one there in the morning and waited as the Visitor Center was unlocked for the day. The air was crisp and still. I could see my breath! Ah, spring in the Appalachians. An attendant greeted me and suggested I make a quick trip to the North Lookout as the indigo buntings put on their best show before 10 a.m.  Great advice, since I had planned to do the circuit down the valley first and would have missed these bright blue showmen!

From the South Lookout the parallel ridges come together at this valley to form the funnel through which migrating raptors travel by the tens of thousands in the fall.

Upon reaching the South Lookout on a very nice hard-packed trail, the bowl of the valley spreads north eastward along the front range of the Appalachians of Pennsylvania.  Some places are like old friends, and the long mountain ridge on which Hawk Mountain Sanctuary sits is one of the oldest friends I have - pushing 500 million years old since laying down the first ocean sediments that now crown the escarpment with Tuscarora Sandstone.  Named the Kittatinny or Endless Mountain by the Lenape People, parallel ridges arc along the Front and come together here, creating a natural funnel for migrating raptors in the fall.

A beautiful set of engraved metal panels greets the South Lookout visitor. From here out the trails are difficult and steep.

Going by the beautiful bright green woodlands and vibrant warbler song on the hike to the North Lookout, it was hard to imagine that this escarpment was a killing ground for hawks. There are plenty of places to view the old photographs - at the Visitor Center, in books, online. I won't spoil this blog post with these, however, except to say what a gift this place is considering its history of hawk hunting and industry. Like many places in the Mid-Atlantic, extractive industry visited even these difficult ridge lines with sand mines, quarrying for sandstone, and logging to fire the nearby furnaces.

Pits, quarry banks, and mule cart roads are all but obscured by a nearly recovered Appalachian forest. Missing, however, are the great chestnuts many of which continue to stump sprouting and are seen only as gangly saplings in the understory. I saw plenty of chestnuts only a few feet high and wondered at the great roots below that once supported these massive trees and all the animals dependent upon the great mast.

Hikers are guided through an old sand quarry and up the steep front wall of sandstone to the North Lookout. Sand still spills from the Tuscarora ledges, a valuable commodity in the 1800s for the glass industry.

Americans enjoy their mythologies in politics, history, and social movements. We tend to agree with what fits neatly into our belief system while pitching fits at the possibility that things may not be what they seem. Conservation history is part mythology and part belief system, sprinkled with facts interpreted by people (you, me, historians) long removed from a particular place in time. Preserving large swaths of disappearing wilderness is seen as good, while utilizing wilderness for resource extraction is seen as bad. Saving rare and endangered animals is generally understood as a good and noble cause, while conserving common species and everyday landscapes usually thought of as a waste of time and money. This may be one reason Rosalie Edge sparked such furor: she turned conservation thinking on its head and declared all species worthy of protection, especially while they were common and well before they became rare.

North Lookout with its famous owl-on-a-stick (lure)

Edge entered the conservation movement at age 55 after a privileged life traveling the world and enjoying the comforts of wealth. She pivoted into the movement by reading an article detailing the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska and equally appalled to learn of typical migratory hawk hunts staged closer to her home in New York City. She was as sharp as the Tuscarora Sandstone that lies tumbled across the North Lookout - a force unstoppable, and justifiably feared by some in the conservation community she sought to clean up. Learning of the localized hawk hunt atop Hawk Mountain, she bought the land outright and quickly declared it a sanctuary in 1934. The hunting stopped and her story spread. Soon, societal disdain for other local hunts brought these affairs to a quick end (Wagoner's Gap, PA; Rocky Ridge, PA). An old friend of mine, Charlie Gant, would often recall for me the days of the early hawk watches and his sixty years participation in the annual fall and spring counts. I dedicated my hike today to his memory, and sat for a time at the North Lookout imagining the young men and women returning from the War, finding solace and purpose in the conservation of this land, gathered in celebration and anticipation for the fall counts.

Looking to the northwest, towards the coal fields of central PA on the horizon.

From the North Lookout, the view to the Great Coal Fields in the far distance can, with binoculars, include the hulking silhouettes of old coal crushers and breakers. With a little squinting, you can also see a new generation of energy - the slowly spinning blades of the ridge top wind farms near Hazelton, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton. The Little Schuylkill River cuts a zig-zag path through the Valley and Ridge Province, an aptly named section of the Appalachian Mountain complex. Open farmland provides critical open space to many nesting raptors who call Penn's Woods home: kestrels, barn owls, red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, northern harriers. The Sanctuary is a partner in the Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor project that encourages landowners to  create and maintain habitat for open land raptors with emphasis on barn owls, kestrels, and northern harriers. 

Indigo bunting declaring territorial boundary on the North Lookout

While contemplating the mountain's history I was reminded of the Visitor Center's attendant's advice for coming here first with a territorial dispute  between four male indigo buntings. The ruckus was intense as they declared exactly where the boundaries were for multiple territories all across the boulder field.  But it was a musical ruckus and a very pretty sight too. Wouldn't it be great if humans settled their disputes with singing instead of military invasions?

No one else up here but me and two birders! In fall you would be hard pressed to find a spot to sit with so many people coming up to watch the hawk migration.

Wild azalea blooms inside the protective cover of a wind-sculpted rhododendron on the North Lookout.

The boundary song battle continued for some time, offering me plenty of opportunity to photograph these spectacular little birds and rock hop over to take some snaps of some beautiful wild azalea blossoms. I was gone so long in fact, leaving my backpack on a boulder back by the treeline, that upon my return I found my trail mix bag neatly removed from an outside pocket, sitting on an adjacent boulder. Hmmm. I waited a while longer near my pack until the deft expert reappeared. She noticed me before getting too far into the bag, then quickly backed out. A lesson learned the hard way on the AT - micro bears more trouble than big bears.

Micro-bear: Chipmunk with a mouthful of my trail mix.

As I resumed my circuit hike, I thought some more about Rosalie Edge. In my opinion, she's been sadly forgotten in our nation's conservation history. Maybe because she stirred too many pots with too much fire that many established conservation histories choose to leave her out, or maybe because she doesn't quite fit the nature-benevolent stereotype of the period. It's not nature-y to be angry. There is one biography by Dyana Z. Furmansky (2009). Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists. University of Georgia Press. A good read, but better to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a full appreciation of what she gave us, and the hawks, and the indigo buntings, and the chipmunks. 


The year I was born, one of my favorite people of all time, Rachel Carson, visited Hawk Mountain. I found the exact place she sat to watch hawks and I watched indigo buntings instead from that rocky seat!

Here's the HMS website - a nice read, but better to go there yourself!

Part 2 of my River of Rocks Circuit Hike will post next week: Did I find pink lady's slippers? Did I fall and break anything? Did I feel I was being watched? Stay tuned...

This hike dedicated to the memory of Charles H. Gant, Jr. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stroud Preserve

In the Mid-Atlantic States we have a have a tradition of saving land - a lot of it. National forests and parks, state parks and forests, state/county wildlife management areas, natural areas, and county park lands put a lot of property into conservation management and permanent protection. There are all different ways of preserving land and I've posted several land trust properties in this blog, but Natural Lands Trust in Pennsylvania is a model program.

Conservation land trusts function as private-public partnerships with unique missions of conserving landscapes, often in a race against development or industrial blight - sadly a common fate for open lands in this region. NLT has been quietly and most effectively saving land for over sixty years and all of it is managed for passive nature recreation, conservation value, watershed health, and biodiversity. This fine spring day, my friend and grad school colleague Sally and I  decided to visit the Stroud Preserve.

Hillsides of Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica cascade into the Brandywine Valley below.

The Stroud Preserve encompasses what landscape ecologists like to call a mosaic of ecologically important areas on almost 600 acres of former agricultural pastureland and eastern deciduous forest, some of which is riparian and exposed to frequent flooding of the East Branch of the Brandywine River. On this day I had to take several detours to get there (getting lost in the process) as many roads in and around the area were closed due to recent flash floods, the most severe the area has seen in decades that were higher and swifter than the flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy! There is little debate here and throughout the Northeast that intense flooding events are becoming more frequent.

An historic Quaker farm nestles quietly in the glen.

Though some of pastureland is missing its livestock these days, the area is actively managed as Eastern prairie-meadow, an endangered habitat type. Over the years with proper restorative techniques, the meadow lands have returned - complete with bobolinks (!) a prairie bird once common in our area and now is reestablishing where meadow and fields are restored. Twenty years ago we never saw these birds, now they are becoming a sight we look forward to each spring through summer. Other areas that manage for Eastern prairie meadow habitat include  Middle Creek WMA northeast of here, where I love to see tundra swans in winter. In addition to land trust programs, many farmers across Pennsylvania manage grassland habitat either as conservation buffers or as rotational grazing pastures as part of their conservation plans or protected easement programs. It's now becoming 'cool' to grow native meadowland! 

Sally doesn't have to bend very low to sweep her hand through the bluebells which seem to reach up to greet her.

As a landscape mosaic, the Stroud Preserve also includes the sustainable agricultural activities, important to conserve culturally as well as economically in an area where small scale farming (under two hundred acres) is vitally important. Conservationists realize the biological value of healthy farmlands, especially the carbon absorbing properties of deep loam with high organic matter content. This is the signature of healthy farmland: biologically active soils, managed carefully through rotational grazing, composting, and conservation tillage techniques. These well managed soils can be several feet thick! The ability of biologic soils to absorb and store carbon is amazing and is being promoted as a strategy for reclaiming atmospheric carbon that contributes to global warming. Thinking of agricultural soils as carbon sinks rather than emitters of carbon is a new idea with conservationists, but farmers have known about it for a long, long time.

Wood violet, viola odorata

The woodlands were alight with spring emphemerals, wildflowers that quickly bloom as soon as the soil and air temperatures warm. Once emerging tree canopies shade the forest floor these wildflowers disappear. The time to view them is short, and for many this calls for an annual spring pilgrimage to  a favorite woodland. Not all the flowers we saw were native, but all were beautiful nonetheless. This land has been long settled by Europeans, some arriving in the early 1600s. Arriving with them, and becoming naturalized over time are the wood violets, filling all the voids of empty forest floor with stout foliage and delicate fringed (or bearded) flowers. Their deep chubby roots and aggressive growth sometimes crowd out native plants, but for soil-holding ability on slopes and near roads, they can't be beat.

Box elder flowers early in spring and displays tiny winged seeds.

This visit in early May occurred just after a major flooding event and many of the riparian woods trails were muddy. Acres of tree tubes protecting young trees inside from deer browsing, acted as shields and grate, against almost four feet of swift floodwaters overspilling the banks of the Brandywine. The tubes caught all manner of vegetative debris and were pushed hard over by the current. 

Like much of our region, the signature of man isn't far removed, even and especially in protected lands around one of America's earliest settled areas. Old orchard trees still cast blossoms from a deep woods that was once open land and unkempt hedgerows that grew up around old fences, sprouted from seeds that birds and squirrels dropped  from rail or post perches serve as linear woods our across the open meadows. Wagon tracts, now hiking trails through the forest, and even the forest itself are artifacts from the land being cleared several times over hundreds of years.

A wild crab apple tree brightened the trail as a soft rain began to fall.

Staghorn sumac leaves burst from buds.

Native dogwood on a ridge-side trail. 

A handsome tree swallow, just back from wintering in Mexico has already set up housekeeping in a box.
Our day was long and lingering, breezy and at times chilly! Between breaks of sun, a brisk north wind, peppered by mists and drizzle, but we weren't detered! We walked the perimeter trails at a leisurely pace, and spent a good hour on the concrete bridge over the river before saying our goodbyes. I'm looking forward to coming back in a month or so and looking for those bobolinks!

The Natural Lands Trust is a large (and growing) land conservation organization responsible for Stroud Preserve and many other natural areas now permanently preserved.

The Stroud Water Research Center maintains an active program of scientific study and educational opportunities in the preserve.