Tuesday, October 26, 2021

PA Horse-Shoe Trail: Map 1 Valley Forge to Chester Spring - What is "Natural?"

When I first started this blog many years ago, I asked what is natural in the Mid-Atlantic? Given that this region has been so long settled and industrialized, and at one time, deforested to the point of unrecognizable, I thought what is natural about any of it? Twenty years ago when I discovered the Horse-Shoe Trail I began hiking it mainly as a connector to other trails and I honestly didn't care for it. Until I began to look at it through the lens of environmental history, however, it has since helped me detangle the idea of what natural could mean for this region. So here is my HST hike through Map 1.


Trailhead marker near Washington's HQ, Valley Forge, PA

What I don't like about the HST:  Some stretches of dangerous road-walking; cutting through housing developments and backyards - where clearly the neighbors want to keep you contained to the 24" wide path; the persistent threat of closure should a property owner decide they no longer want the path on their land. 

What I do like about the HST: The dedication of the organization and its volunteer trail crews for its maintenance and fostering good relationships with property owners;  its storyline of American industrial history-turned-natural natural history; its accessibility for everybody.

Parade grounds at Valley Forge - now Eastern Meadow and Shortgrass Prairie

This day I walked 15 miles from the HST official starting point near General Washington's HQ in Valley Forge near Philadelphia.  This is where the trail is most accessible to public transportation and visibility, where a lot of folks discover it and then say "Well darn! I'm gonna walk the whole thing!" (Somebody actually said that to me when I was crouched down taking a photo of the plaque.) Point of note, however, the best parking to walk this section is a mile further into Valley Forge National Park at the large car park under the watchful gaze of General von Steuben. But it's an easy walk and a great opportunity to observe the tremendous effort that the National Park System has invested in ecosystem restoration. 

Springhead that supplied the Colonial Bottling Plant.

Following the yellow blazes, I hiked up the steep old road that climbs Mt. Misery and observed  foundations and cleared flat areas where buildings once stood. The ruins of the bottling plant stand hard along the road, easy to explore. It faces faced a stream that has suffered terrible erosion from the recent flooding caused by Hurricane Ida. No matter how thoughtful the park service has been in allowing the mountain and meadows to return to more natural states, however, the human impacts that drive rapid global warming cannot be ignored. Every stream I crossed or looked at today was severely gouged and gullied. 

Bottling plant ruins and flood-wracked stream

Colonization and industrialization have transformed this land over hundreds of years but even before the first colonist set foot here, this land was managed by the Lenni Lenape, transformed with fire, agriculture, quarrying, and modifications to streams and rivers to funnel fish into pens and weirs. I stopped at the top of the mountain to give silent acknowledgement to them. 

Valley Creek, once industrialized and polluted, suffered heavy storm damage from Ida.

Yellow blazes mark the Horse-Shoe Trail

Refreshed yellow blazes and posts clearly marked the path all the way to my end point. I rarely pulled out the map. Even a detour was marked well enough all I had to do was follow a new set of (blue) blazes, unfortunately all busy narrow roads. When the trail re-entered the woods, I was reminded of the use of trees for charcoal throughout colonial period until the late 1800s. I tried to imagine the forests cleared of their great Oaks and American Chestnut, that in their charred state fueled fifty or so foundries, kilns, and forges that were on or near this path all the way to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail 120 miles on.  

The starting bell.

Crossing the Valley Forge NHS boundary on to private lands.

I didn't take pictures of the many fenced or gated backyards, posted with signs so that HST hikers don't stumble into private property.  The idea of privately owned land was something new to the native people who were pressed further and further west, south, even north to make way for new owners.  I passed a country club, a retreat, a private park - all clearly marked with keep out notices. 

Must make a tour reservation!

Past the Warton Esherick Museum, which I have always wanted to see. Wharton was a leader of the Studio Crafts Movement in the early 20th century. I studied his work when I was in art school and have always wanted to build/create my own studio as he did, literally carved from the woods around him. As I glanced back at his home and studio I couldn't help but notice the nicely forged strap hanger that holds the sign, a necessary piece of a blacksmith shop's forge equipment. Esherick and his wife split their time between this home-studio in the woods and a socially progressive community, Fairhope, in Alabama.    


Historical marker down the road from the museum.

They both held to the idea of common use resources and lived at Fairhope as a single-tax property that included studios, workshops, cottages, and schools. Of course, they were shunned for their beliefs in social progressivism by anti-communists (many Pennsylvania artists, writers, craftspeople were) in the 1940s and 50s. Many social progressives fled Pennsylvania to escape political pressures and suspicion during the McCarthy Era. I tried to keep one eye on traffic and the other on my surroundings. I wondered about the use of the forest by craftsmen and, whether making utilitarian objects or artworks, if Esherick's creative progressive process wasn't part of the regenerating woodlands he surrounded himself with. 

A small community land commons.

I think I love Esherick's  wood cuts more than anything and how they remind me of wood fiber and grain emerging as image and object. Wood grain on paper made of wood pulp, they feel as intricate as woven bark baskets.  As a collector of few wooden bowls and baskets, I know that these items do not survive well in the archeological record and as I add a Gullah-made saltwater marsh grass basket or a turned Sassafras burl bowl to the table for Sunday dinner I think about how carefully these items were made and by whom. 

What you need to road-walk parts of Map 1 of the HST

Small patches of community conservation land provided safe haven from the perils of modern transportation. Some of these are small woodlands are barely enough to sustain habitat for non-human residents. I moved a Box Turtle out of the road.  I saw plenty of White-Tail Deer both in people's yards and in the patches of woodlands. I know that the Coyote has made the transition to suburban life when I found a few well-placed piles of scat full of rabbit and squirrel fur. The maze of roads and yards makes for poor habitat connectivity.  

Skirting a farm to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a field to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a pasture to avoid a road-walk.

Connectivity to culture and ecology are two important threads in weaving together a sustainable landscape. I can't say that hiking this section of HST was my most memorable hike with the (sarcastic) bonus of extra road miles due to the trail closure and long road detour, or twisting my knee stepping off a curb in a parking lot. But I could see that the landscape holds variations of its human and natural history well though out of balance.  I thought about one of Walt Whitman's great celebratory poems Song of the Broad-Axe and the implications for our natural heritage he wove into and out of the poem his take on American "progress." The hills here hold all of this as landform, some degraded, some restoring. "The shapes arise!" Whitman calls - and the land responds. 

Woodcut book plate by Esherick (1924) for Broad-Axe

I read the shapes of grown-over tennis courts, ankle deep with leaves and fallen limbs. The lumps and bumps of old foundations and sunken hollows of cellars and well pits dimpled the land. An old railroad slid  through the woods. Stone bridge abutments and little dams peek out from under vines and moss. Even some of the homes, once posh and expensive in their day, sit abandoned in the woods seem to be overtaking any attempt at making order of it.  I passed the now closed Great Valley Nature Center (sad!) and the meadow scrub that is now its parking lot. Shapes are rising!

Abandoned railroad in the woods.

Walking through this tangled landscape of plants and pavements, the question of what is natural seemed even more elusive. Here in the Mid-Atlantic invasive species like Chestnut blight, Spotted Lanternfly, and Tree of Heaven threaten the fabric of native ecosystems. But native habitats were long ago radically changed by centuries of industrial and agricultural use.  I picked up ticks on a stretch of pipeline right-of-way thick with invasive Stiltgrass. It is late October and there has yet to be a killing frost. As I sat on a rail of the disused railroad picking them off a White-Tailed Deer wandered by fat from feeding in backyards and gardens. 

Lawn ornament in the woods. 

The road walking and a sore knee finally got the best of me just two miles from my meeting place with a friend who offered to take me back to my car at Valley Forge. I was creeping along and the afternoon sun was already long in shadow. I can walk for days on natural trail but I am no good after a few hours on pavement. I called and she picked me up from a construction site that will soon hold million-and-a-half-dollar mansions on what was once cropland, that was once pasture, that was once charcoal woods, that was once berry meadow grazed by elk. 

What do you think endures?
Do you think a great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the
best built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d'oeuvres of engineering,
forts, armaments?
Away! these are not to be cherish'd for themselves,
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them,
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance

- From The Broad-Axe, by Walt Whitman



Purock Spring Water/ Colonial Bottling Plant a brief history by Mike Bertram, Tredyffrin Eastown Historial Society: https://tehistory.org/hqda/pdf/v47/v47n3p084.pdf

A lecture on Wharton Esherick, presented by Mark Sfirri:  http://www.raymondfarmcenter.org/sfirri-wharton-esherick-lecture

Walt Whitman's Song of the Broad Axe  from the Walt Whitman Archives:  https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/91


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