Sunday, March 29, 2020

PA River Road: Keeping Close to Home

Even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the middle of human-made and human-borne catastrophes, the rise of spring comes to the Susquehanna valley as the woods swell with birdsong. During the first week of lock-down/stay-at-home/restricted travel I broke the rules and ventured down to the River Road to remind myself that life goes on without us, maybe in spite of us, and to find some peace and quiet from a suddenly, unbelievably busy online work world.

Spring Beauties and Lesser Celandine

I walked a small patch of woods near the river where no matter where you walk, there are combinations of native and non-native plants erupting from the damp soil. The river was heavily used for early commerce and people from away made the lower valley their home a long time ago so some non-native plants like English Ivy and Daffodils came with them.  I know that some folks go nuts when they see Lesser Celandine or Garlic Mustard or Dandelion and holler (especially on social media where hollering seems especially prevalent) about how invasive and unwelcome they are.  It was somewhat strange and a little discomforting, however, to see early emergent shoots of Knotweed already getting a headstart on the spring ephemerals and I cringed at the idea that by summer this whole area will be inundated with it. The bees like it, so I reminded myself to let it go, let it go.


Dutchmans Breeches

There are very few people here and we keep a great distance between ourselves. I like it that way and I feel no need to acknowledge them. I let the voices of the river woods enfold me - Spring Peepers, Phoebe, Chickadee, Canada Geese. It is not necessary to talk and interrupt what is already an ongoing conversation between river and woods, sky and earth. It is not necessary to understand what is being said. It is enough just to listen and accept it as a balm for these scary times. 

Lock pool.

It's enough to know that I am walking through a library of river wisdom that contains the how-to's and encyclopedic treatises on why spring comes to this place when and how it does. My memory of the spring wildflowers is based on a recognition  of stages of bloom and color that I acquired at my Grandmom's side. My intuition alone, however, tells me that my pattern of memory is interrupted by early proliferation shoots and buds I don't recognize so readily, and for that I feel a little sad. A Turkey Vulture surprised me as he spread his wings to catch the sun in a patch of open ground in the woods. Before he opened his five-foot spread of black wings, his presence had not even registered in my mind as a bird, despite his enormous size. I saw him initially as a blackened stump and gave him no mind. But the Vulture gave a couple of loud flaps and turned his wings wide to the sun and his eyes on me. No stump, friend.

Now that I'd been recognized as an intruder on the road, I moved out towards the river and sat awhile on the bank until the Vulture felt I belonged there. No hunting, no searching, no seeking, just sitting. I even opened my arms and hands to the sun and like the Vulture and absorbed its life-giving warmth. I wanted to go deeper and be even more apart from people and just sit there with my dog (Amos loves sitting in the sun) and just breathe. But it is time to go back to work as this little excursion was just my lunch walk and there are more virtual meetings to attend and more human conversations to have today. Good work. Important work.

Going home.

So these are some scary times and I hope you can find a place near home to take a daily walk and relieve the stress and feelings of uncertainty.  Unlike the places that have been flooded with folks who are hitting the trails as a kind of stay-at-home-vacation and causing many problems for our overburdened and underfunded park system, a simple back road walk can offer all the solitude and distance you need to see you through the day. Go out every day, rain or shine. Be well, stay well.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

MD Palmer State Park: Going with the Flow, An Igneous Landscape

Just south of the Mason Dixon Line is this little gem of a state park that tells a giant story. Palmer State Park is fairly new to the Maryland State Park system. I decided to check it out on my solo Saturday morning walk close-to-home. Everything is new - trails, parking area, signage. But the dark and white rocks I constantly tripped over told a tale of two geologic events that helped shape the landscape through which these new trails wander.

Young beech trees still cling to their fall leaves the following spring. 

Along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border just east and west of the Susquehanna River is where metavolcanic rock is visible at the surface. These rocks were formed when Supercontinent Pangaea formed 335 million years ago as plates of earth's crust collided. What is now North Africa rammed into the mid-section of North America's eastern coast, rapidly closing the Iapetus Ocean that preceded the Atlantic. A chain of volcanic islands developed ahead of the advancing North African plate and when the two continents met, the islands were trapped and crushed between them.  Many of the hillsides that lead down to Deer Creek contain outcrops and scree fields of this angular igneous debris. It is dense and heavy and dark and easy to recognize as hardened magma.

A new trail crossed a magmatic rock debris field.

Cutleaf Toothwort, an early spring eastern native.

Walking over a volcanic island

As I walked across the hills of volcanic rock I tried to imagine what this landscape must have looked like as, for a short time, geologically speaking, Pangaea held together for about 100 million years.  The Appalachian Mountains were as high as the Alps, pushed skyward by the collision.  According to fossil records, we know that the regions west of the mountains were arid and dry, while the regions here and to the east were lush and tropical. Ferns would have soared above my head. Amphibians were the size of my car and proto-crocs and alligators swam in the shallow watery basins that filled with decaying plant matter. This was the Permian - the origins of coal that would someday make Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Western Maryland known the world over as a top producing coal region. 

Dead Red Cedar and Nuthatch cache. 
This was a time when the hard or leather shelled egg became a good evolutionary idea.  A few reptiles tried out feathers and wings.  I noticed the hulks of dead Red Cedars now surrounded by deciduous forest. These trees reclaimed the land from farm fields in the 1940s but when this was part of the Supercontinent trees were small and ferns and clubmosses would have soared over our heads. Although Red Cedar is an ancient species that predates flowering trees, it barely would have reached my knees.

Magmatic rocks weather in blocks with angles and edges.

Moss and lichen communities were first on the scene as magma cooled at the surface. 

After only 100 millions years, Pangaea began to was tear apart and with it went parts of the Appalachians, drifting on continental fragments across the birthing of the Atlantic Ocean. (Fragments of our mountain chain can be found in Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, England, Ireland, France, and Spain. An international extension to the famous Appalachian Trail is forming now with hiking chapters in all those regions.)  As the crust tore apart, flows of molten material injected upwards from deep within the mantel to fill the gaps. This material cooled and hardened as quartz and can be found throughout the park in large veins.

Deer Creek.
Over time, water found its way into the rifts caused by the separation of Pangaea. North of here the mighty Susquehanna makes a series of hard turn along these rift faults while in this region many of our local ravine and gorge streams like Broad Creek, Deer Creek, and Muddy Run, eroded their way through bands of hard gneiss and metaconglomerates by dissolving and following the softer quartz veins, though this process took an additional many millions of years. Under this trail massive veins of quartz come to the surface and weather out here at the surface. Easy access to tons of quartz became an important asset in the 1800s and the quartz mining industry transformed the landscape yet again.

Vine roping.

Water- smoothed magma boulders with a quartz boulder nearby.

The trail leads downslope across magma scree fields and into the Deer Creek valley. Never mind the huge of hunk of white quartz I tripped over down there, it's fine. Ouch. In the 1880s the Husband Flint Mill was established here to take advantage of easy access to the quartz.  I came upon  foundations and ruins of the mill. Large white boulders of quartz glistened in the middle of the river and the trail glistened with quartz-crumble.

Ruins of a quarry outbuilding foundation.

One of two kilns that survives on the bank of the creek.

Hammer room foundation at the base of the kilns.

I climbed up on the kiln and looked into the chimney which has become a trash bin. Sad. Looking over are the ruins of flint mill. The hammer room is still clearly visible (but may not be once the leaves are fully out). Large oaken hammers were raised and dropped onto pans of "cooked" quartz and were water-powered, attached to wheels turned by creek water flowing through mill races. The hammer room crushed the brittle quartz into coarse sand that was then ground by mill stones which produced fine powders used in the porcelain and pottery factories in nearby York, Lancaster, and Baltimore. Though floods have swept away the timbers of the millstone and hammer rooms, it is still an impressive ruin. I hope the park service can do what it can ($$) to repair and preserve these ruins.

Quartz boulder in front of a sledge pile of unused shovel-sized quartz feed material for the kiln. 

About 25 men and three times as many mules provided the horse and man power to remove the quartz from the quarry pits and move it to the breaker piles where it was sledged into shovel-ready fragments carried by wagon to the kilns. There are many mule trackways that can be seen coming down from the quarries in the hills above while a large pile of unused shovel quartz sits at the intersection of the mule paths and a wagon road.

Robins were the bird of the day!

Leaving the creek valley, the trail leads uphill to the quarries. Robins were everywhere singing their spring songs, rooting around in the leaf litter for food.  One of our favorite thrushes, the males are sporting their fresh black hoods that remind me of the jackdaws in the UK, "boys in black hoods." Rooting around in the bottoms of the quarry pits seemed to be a favorite gathering place as I counted over 50 robins in one quarry and many more in a second large pit.

Large quarry pit (adorned with robins) 

My four mile loop trail ended where I started at the top of a Piedmont hill underlain with the memories of volcanic islands, a supercontinent, and a great rift that tore it all apart. In the land plans for this park, educational panels are proposed to mark important historical features and I hope geological ones as well, because without the story of the underlying geology it's just a bunch of dates and ruins. We all need context to place our stories and the robins (formerly flying lizards) would appreciate the shout-out.

Entrance to the small parking area

* At the time I walked this trail, we were in the early stages of our great prevention intervention of social distancing to flatten the curve of the C-19 virus. It seems the advice to "take a walk" has been well heeded and many popular parks are filling up, parking may be difficult (even illegal), and some cases of vandalism and trashing have been reported. Palmer has only a small parking area and there is no parking on the narrow road which is lined with established homes and farms. Please be respectful and take care of the parks that are taking care of us during this uncertain time. 


Archaeology Report HA-1226: Husband Flint Mill

Land Plan for the new park:

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Go For A Walk: This is the Courage Required of Us

These are strange times. What do we make of our sudden and disorienting situations that (in our minds) limit our freedoms and enforce this new idea (to us) of social distancing? I say, and have said for almost all of my life, go for a walk and think it through. When you come home, not only will you have a better perception of your new circumstances but you will be at ease and ready to face the new challenge.

Mill Run, Holtwood, PA

My first think-about-it walk happened when I was only three years old, almost sixty years ago. I remember being suddenly aware of a huge argument between my parents, possibly the first one I had witnessed and was trying to make sense of. Dad had just lost his job with an abrupt closing of his electronics company. We had just moved into a new-built row home in a developing neighborhood on the fringe of Baltimore where his salary was finally able to support not only a new home but the increase of our family. Mom was pregnant with my sister. Both parents were terrified of the future and angry at each other about the situation for which neither one had any warning would happen. I knew this was something I needed to distance myself from because I remember distinctly the feeling of fear welling up in me. So I went for a walk.

Skunk Cabbage, Bynum Run in Bel Air, MD

First, I toddled up a huge hill of fresh-piled dirt to see the progress of the new beltway. Machines moved this way and that, making noise, belching smoke. This was not the place to go, I thought. Then I rolled down the slope (great fun!) and toddled in to town, walking along the brand new sidewalk past brand new shops and a pair of gleaming golden arches which honestly, were a little disturbing. I crossed busy York Road and rambled through a car dealership. I had a sense I knew where I was going and I was beginning to make a turn for home when I noticed my reflection in a shiny new hubcap on a shiny new car. I moved closer then stepped back. My head grew outsized and distorted then shrunk and warped on the mirror-like chrome.  I giggled and laughed and it was so funny I remember huge belly laughs coming from not just me but the police officer behind me.

Bynum Run in Bel Air, MD

I rode in the police cruiser to return to Wilfred Court. I'd walked about two miles so it was a few minutes ride. But coming back was as strange an affair as was the argument that precipitated my walk in the first place.  The once-pleasant officer thrust me into the arms of my father standing on the sidewalk and then the cop turned to my mom and (according to witnesses - I don't remember this part) began to berate her, shouting from the bottom step of the porch what an irresponsible mother she was. My father grew angry at him, put me down, and took a few steps towards him. Then my mother's Irish temper exploded all over the place and the police officer high-tailed it to his car. Neighbors cheered.

Susquehanna River, Holtwood, PA

My parents recovered from their argument. They worked out what to do. My dad told me "We realized we all needed more space." So the house was sold and we moved to a run-down farm in the next county over where I was allowed to wander all I wanted. The door was always open and I always walked through it.  Dad began a new job somewhere far off. My mom knew what to do with her huge vegetable garden. My grandmother knew what to do with an acre of flowerbeds. There was no beltway under construction. No parking lots filled with new cars. No busy roads to cross. But there were the woods and fields and neighboring farms to wander. And, while there were plenty of new and often incredibly sad events to disorient and spin us out of control, those woods and fields and farms became the places where I could go to find perspective and courage.

Sycamore, Holtwood, PA

What Kind of Courage Is Required of Us?

Imagine a person taken out of his room, and without preparation or transition placed on the heights of a great mountain range. He would feel an unparalleled insecurity, and almost annihilating abandonment to the nameless. He would feel he was falling into outer space or shattering into a thousand pieces. What enormous lie would his brain concoct in order to give meaning to this and validate his senses? In such a way do all measures and distances change for the one who realizes his solitude. These changes are often sudden and, as with the person on the mountain peak, bring strange feelings and fantasies that are almost unbearable. But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality in all its immensity. Everything, even the unheard of, must be possible within it. This is, in the end, the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to meet the strangest, most awesome and most inexplicable of phenomena.

Ranier Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet , August 12, 1904