I never should have taken my husband Bruce to see Latham’s Acre. Located at State Game Lands 30 on Dividing Ridge in southeastern McKean County, it was like stepping into a lost world, one that had been fenced to keep out deer back in 1949 by Roger Latham and Stan Forbes of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The forest floor was a mosaic of wildflowers and the understory so dense that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other.
Land Manager John Dzemyan had been our host that May day, and he had offered to send us plans based on the exclosures he had been building on gamelands for several years. With that offer, Bruce began to dream about building a big exclosure on our land. By last February, he was campaigning every day for support from our son Dave and me. He had even chosen the location.
“What about the woods bounded by the Dump Trail, the Short Circuit Trail, and the First Field Trail?” he asked.
Most of this area is what I call the Magic Place because of its wildlife diversity. The lowest part, near the old farm dump, is a forested wetland that is damp through the spring and into midsummer. The largest portion is a diverse oak/maple forest dominated by large trees, some of which date from the early and mid-nineteenth century. The upper edge of the tract consists of a fringe of the mountain laurel/ chestnut oak woods that stretches up to the ridgetop.
“But that’s an immense piece to fence,” I protested. “How can we afford it?”
Bruce agreed that it would be expensive. The materials would cost well over $3,000.
“Think of it as a vacation,” he suggested. “Many people spend that much and more on one and all they have when they return are memories and photos. We will have an outside laboratory for the rest of our lives.”
With that argument, I was won over, and he and Dave moved ahead with measuring and ordering 123 galvanized steel posts and 3730 feet of 48-inch-high, woven wire, mesh fencing which was needed to enclose the 2.89 acres with an eight-foot-high, 1815-foot-long fence. Bruce also asked the help of the hunters who use our land and received enthusiastic responses from several of them.
By mid-March the posts had arrived, and Dave, with the help of the two Tims and Jeff, pounded them into the ground with a sledge hammer. These posts, usually used for highway signs, weighed four pounds per square foot so the work was punishing and took several days of muscle power.
Fencing Day fell on a damp, overcast April Fool’s Day. Six hunters–Jeff, Troy, Troy, Jr., Andy, Tim T., and Charlie showed up, along with a neighbor Gary, by 8:00 a.m. Another hunter, Paula, helped me feed the workers at lunch by providing huge vats of venison soup and home-baked pastries.
At first the work went slowly, but once everyone knew what they were doing, it proceeded smoothly and swiftly. Even twelve-year-old Andy had his own job to do–operating the come-along throughout the day. He and Jeff, Troy, Tim, and Charlie stayed until the bitter end, which turned out to be 7:45 p.m., nearly twelve hours after they had started. But the fence was up, stretched taut, and attached securely to the posts.
There were still the three gates to design and build, a task that Jeff took on. Everyone who has visited the exclosure has been fascinated with his pulley design of counterweights, attached to the wooden-framed, wire gates by light, plastic-coated steel cables, so that the gates automatically shut behind whoever opens them.
It was Bruce who named the exclosure. While they were building the fence across the narrow neck between the Short Circuit and First Field trails, he glanced down at Turtle Bench, tucked in the grove of large oak trees and illuminated by a sudden moment of sunlight.
Why not call the exclosure the Turtle Woods Wildflower Sanctuary? It was, after all, the wildflowers, along with the rest of the understory, which we hoped to restore. Furthermore, the eastern box turtle eats a wide variety of woodland fruits and plays an important role in dispersing seeds in northeastern forests. When some seeds, such as those from wild grapes, pass through the turtles’ guts, their viability is enhanced, probably because the reptiles’ digestive juices help to break down the hard exteriors of the seeds, according to researchers Joanne Braun and Garrett R. Brooks. So Turtle Woods Wildflower Sanctuary it became.
Once all the construction was finished, Bruce drew a large map of the sanctuary. Then it was up to Dave and me to fill it in with the plants that germinated throughout spring and summer. Dave first mapped the 140 largest trees, which range from 35 to 117 inches in circumference, with most in the 40 to 80-inch range. The largest are two red oaks (117 and 105) and a white oak (94); the smallest are a chestnut oak (35) and a white ash (36). The other species are red maple, black and yellow birches, pignut hickory, black gum, white pine, black cherry, black oak, and American elm.
With the trees in place, we were able to add the understory wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings. On April 30 we did our first survey. Ranging back and forth, our eyes peeled on the ground, we felt like treasure hunters. In the wetland area we found lady’s-thumb, garlic mustard, gill-over-the-ground, and rough-fruited cinquefoil, all of which are aliens that spring up in waste places. But we also discovered desirable natives in the wetland and oak/maple forest that we hoped would spread in the years to come–common blue violets, smooth yellow violets, a scattering of Solomon’s seal, and a small colony of mayapples.
The shrub layer consisted of lowbush blueberry in the mountain laurel/ chestnut oak zone. Striped maples and witch hazel trees dominated the middle level throughout the sanctuary. Truly a bereft area, I thought, except for the large oaks. Already I regretted the time and money that had been spent on such a pipe dream.
But as the season advanced, we kept looking. May gave us our best discoveries. On the sixth, Bruce and I found Canada mayflower leaves and a blossoming hawthorn tree surrounded by seedlings. There were also two white pine seedlings, a couple young black cherry trees, and a scattering of red maple, chestnut oak, and wild azalea seedlings. The closer we looked, the more we saw. Still another wildflower, tall white lettuce, had germinated in the wetland. But the drier woods seemed empty of flowers.
Then, suddenly, Bruce asked, “What’s this?”
I bent down to look at a cluster of checkered white, dark green leaves hugging the ground.
“It’s downy rattlesnake plantain,” I exclaimed. “An orchid!”
With that discovery what had seemed an almost hopeless venture had become an exciting project. Maybe this would be a true wildflower sanctuary someday. Altogether, we counted 30 downy rattlesnake plantain plants. And we added it to our list of wildflower species for the property.
Two days later Dave reported many spicebush seedlings and, in mid-May, I found pink lady’s slipper leaves and one spotted wintergreen plant above Turtle Bench in the oak/maple forest. The spotted wintergreen was another new species for the property.
In June we added one Indian cucumber-root hidden beneath the lowbush blueberries, two black cohosh plants in a bed of hay-scented ferns, five more pink lady’s slipper plants, one hemlock seedling, many, many white snakeroot plants, teaberry, numerous clumps of Indian pipes, the beginnings of four wild yamroot vines, wild sarsaparilla, and one whorled loosestrife in blossom. We also noticed wild grape vines and Virginia creepers snaking over the ground in a corner of the wetland where before they had survived only above deer reach.
And what about the deer? Had the fence kept them out?
On the second of June, as I walked down First Field Trail, I noticed a deer near the intermittent stream that ran under the sanctuary fence. Although the deer bounded off, I wondered if it was possible for a fawn to be inside. Unlike most exclosure fences, Bruce had turned ours upside down so that all the largest spaces were closest to the ground. This, he hoped, would enable the smaller creatures, such as chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, porcupines, foxes, and woodchucks, to move in and out of the sanctuary.
Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Tim T. appeared with his wife Sherry and reported that a deer had been in the sanctuary. They had tried to get it out through the lower gate, but it had thrown itself repeatedly against the fence in several places and had somehow escaped. I suggested that it was a doe and that she had a fawn inside.
While we discussed the situation, Dave went up to check the deer damage to the fence. He quickly returned to tell us that there was a fawn inside. We rushed up to the sanctuary and, following Dave’s lead, found the fawn lying in the bed of hay-scented ferns just below the stream bed.
As we surrounded the fawn, it suddenly leaped to its feet, tucked back its legs, and literally sailed through a four-inch square in the middle of the fence. If we hadn’t seen it for ourselves, we never would have believed it.
Bruce and Dave immediately repaired the corner of the fence where the doe had pushed apart and even broken a few of the wires. But that, it turned out, was the only time deer breached our fence. However, three times trees fell on the fence, two of them within five days of each other. And once it looked as if a bear had climbed over it. All of these incursions required extensive repairs to the fence, and by the end of the season it was slightly bent in places but intact.
In July we added clearweed, enchanter’s nightshade, yellow wood sorrel, horse-balm, and Pennsylvania smartweed, mostly in the wetland, to our wildflower list and in August we found an Indian tobacco by First Field gate, a couple of sharp-leaved goldenrods, many white wood asters, and a maze of arrow-leaved tear-thumb in the wetland. By then the wetland had taken on the look of a tangled thicket.
That was also when we noticed the pounds and pounds of wild mushrooms growing inside the sanctuary–enormous yellow and pink specimens of Boletus bicolor, as well as Amanita gemmata and Russula emetica, and two coral mushroom species–Clavicorona pyxicata and Clavulina cristata–and many more species I couldn’t identify. Although there were also mushrooms outside the sanctuary they were neither as plentiful nor as large.
The birds, too, were abundant and throughout spring and summer, I sat on Turtle Bench listening to the songs and calls of Acadian flycatchers, wood thrushes, red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, eastern wood pewees, blue-headed vireos, pileated woodpeckers, and black-throated green warblers. I wondered how many of them had nested in the sanctuary. The previous year a red-eyed vireo had built her nest directly over Turtle Bench and the Acadian flycatchers and wood thrushes had always favored the Magic Place.
Reptiles and amphibians also put in appearances–a small eastern milk snake, several American toads, a wood frog, and, of course, eastern box turtles.
We covered every inch of that sanctuary many times, walking slowly, our heads down, (the botanist’s walk, I called it), looking for plants, and we found far more than I expected. Turtle Woods Wildflower Sanctuary was to be my old-age research area in a decade or so. But already it is providing me with exciting discoveries and renewed appreciation for what even a small plot of forest contains.