Theodora Cope Gray – Nature’s Own Child

She died as she had wished, propped up in her bed so she could watch the birds at her feeder. At 94 years of age, Teddy Gray had lived a long and interesting life.

She would say that her happiest days were those spent when she was married to Philip Gray whom she wed when she was sixty.

But fans all over the world remember her for her marriage to Englishman John Stanwell-Fletcher, a trapper and Arctic explorer, and their sojourn in the wilds of British Columbia which resulted in Teddy’s best-selling book Driftwood Valley. It was the ultimate wilderness adventure, what many people dream about doing but few venture to try.

Based on a diary Teddy kept, Driftwood Valley was published in 1946 and received the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding literary work in the field of natural history. Over the years, the book has gone through many printings, including the latest in 1998. New generations continue to read the book and be inspired by it.

Soon after my husband Bruce and I were married, in 1962, we read Driftwood Valley and dreamed of living in such a place. Instead, we settled for a remote, but accessible home in central Pennsylvania.

Years later, while working on my first book about Pennsylvania’s natural places–Outbound Journeys in Pennsylvania–we visited Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary in Susquehanna County. Owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, it has one of the best old-growth forests in eastern Pennsylvania. The land had been donated to the conservancy by the Francis R. Cope family in three separate pieces–478 acres in 1956, 72 acres in 1965, and 52 acres in 1978.

“You know,” then caretaker and naturalist Joyce Stone, told me, “Teddy Gray, Cope’s daughter, is still alive and lives in the family home. She wrote Driftwood Valley.”

I was flabbergasted.

“But she doesn’t give interviews,” Joyce added. So I respected her privacy and didn’t mention her when I wrote my chapter on Woodbourne.

Then, more than a decade later, in 1993, I was contacted by writer John Elder. He was editing a two-volume reference set called American Nature Writers. Because I am a Pennsylvania nature writer who has also written two books about pioneering American women naturalists, he thought I would be able to write an 8,000-word essay about Teddy Gray’s life and books for his reference work.

“But she doesn’t give interviews,” I told him.

“See what you can do,” he replied.

Not only did she not give interviews, there had never been one biographical article about her despite her fame.

“I do loathe publicity of any sort–annoyed publishers, now so long ago, by refusing to attend social affairs or appear in public,” she wrote to me in answer to my letter asking if I could interview her. But she agreed to an interview.

Near the end of the incredible winter of 1993-94, Bruce and I traveled to the small home she lived in on her family property near Woodbourne. Even though it was March 19, three-foot-high snowbanks lined the icy rural roads. Teddy didn’t mind, though. At 88 she still snowshoed every day, a skill she had learned when she was six years old and attending the local, four-room Dimock school. In winter she either showshoed to school or traveled on a bobsled pulled by a team of horses.

Soon after her birth in Germantown, Pennsylvania on January 4, 1906, her father, Francis R. Cope, decided to move to the family home built by his father, Alexis T. Cope, in 1883 near Dimock. There he started an orchard business.

Cope, like several of his relatives, including a third cousin–the famous nineteenth-century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope–was a naturalist and teacher. His special passion was birds, and he became an expert amateur ornithologist. At age 8, instructed by her father, Teddy started a daily bird list, a habit she kept up all her life.

Both Cope and his wife Evelyn F. Morris Cope, loved the outdoors and communicated that love not only to their child, but to her cousins and the local farmers’ children. As part of their commitment to educate children about nature, the Copes conducted their informal Dimock Nature Study Camp every summer. They either camped in the 200-acre old growth forest tract at Woodbourne or at East Fishing Creek on land owned by Cope’s friend Colonel Bruce Ricketts. That land later became part of Ricketts Glen State Park. At the camp they taught not only camping skills and natural history, but also lessons in personal ideals and behavior, based on the Cope family’s long tradition of Quaker idealism and public service.

As a teenager, Teddy lived part time with her Quaker grandmother and aunts in Germantown so she could attend Germantown Friends’ School.

“Has thee made a little quiet time for thyself today?” they continually asked her. She took this query seriously and throughout her life, sparsely inhabited, quiet places maintained a hold on her. She also loved to read and grew up surrounded by books and adults who read aloud every evening.

In 1924 she entered Mount Holyoke College. Its isolated, beautiful setting in South Hadley, Massachusetts suited her perfectly. Because of her interest in the interrelationship of nature and humanity, she majored in economic geography. After her graduation from college, her father took her in search of rare birds for a year, visiting such remote places as Fiji, Java, and Sumatra as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Then, encouraged by her parents, she entered Cornell University in 1930 to study for a Master of Science Degree. A founding member of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, she worked under ornithologist Arthur A. Allen and Albert H. Wright. Wright allowed her to pursue fieldwork–“personal observation of the species in their natural haunts” as she researched and wrote her master’s thesis entitled “Some Observations of the Vertebrate Ecology of a Pennsylvania Mountain Farm.” Although she conducted her fieldwork for the thesis during the summer of 1931 and the spring of 1932, she based much of her study on earlier notes and observations she had made under her father’s tutelage. She described how she watched a pileated woodpecker nest, a red fox den, a mink installed in an old woodchuck den, and the behavior of muskrats.

As part of her research, she also conducted bird censuses in Woodbourne’s old growth forest and on a chilly day in May recorded 23 species. She performed similar censuses on other sections of the varied property and concluded that the large numbers of birds were due to “the relatively large amount of forest land which has been allowed to remain on this farm, thus helping to furnish the birds with plenty of shelter and food.” She added that her family was trying to save as much native forestland as possible and to reforest cleared areas that were not productive for farming. Her twin themes of conservation of old growth forest and reforestation of marginal farmland–relatively new ideas in the 1930s–are still being debated.

Continuing her interest in old growth forests, Teddy went on to obtain her Ph.D. in vertebrate ecology from Cornell, entitling her dissertation “Observations on the Vertebrate Ecology of Some Pennsylvania Virgin Forests.” In addition to studying Woodbourne’s 200 acres of old growth, she chose three other old growth forests–a 600-acre tract at Silver Lake, also in Susquehanna County, the 800-acre old growth tract on Ricketts’s property, and the 4300-acre Tionesta Tract in the Allegheny National Forest.

Her father, as vice president of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, had been influential in saving the Tionesta Tract, and together they conducted a survey of its flora and fauna. In writing her dissertation, she wanted to leave a record for future naturalists or what these forests contained “before [they] had been ruthlessly changed by the hand of man.”

She showed empathy for even despised creatures such as rattlesnakes (which are “not harmful unless molested”), snapping turtles (“most adaptable. They learned to take food off a fork”), and little brown bats which she hand fed. She also recorded the mating of spotted salamanders, collected a rare bog lemming at Woodbourne, and faithfully listed and described the woody and herbaceous plants, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, breeding birds, and mammals living in each old growth forest.

She concluded that varied habitats contain an abundance of species, “that much may be learned from Nature’s methods of growing trees and all forms of plant and animal life, and that these methods may well be superior to those employed by man,” and that predators, such as bobcats, “may well be more beneficial than harmful in helping to maintain a balance of healthy wild animal life in any given year.”

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1936, Teddy had her chance to live in wilderness. During one of two summers she spent in Churchill, Manitoba, studying birds and plants as part of a team of Cornell scientists and students, she had met her future husband, John Stanwell-Fletcher, whom she married in 1937. Together they headed for a remote valley in British Columbia 200 miles northeast of the southern tip of Alaska. The nearest telephone, railroad, and road were 240 miles away. No humans had ever lived in the valley they chose. It was “virgin territory…untouched wilderness” where they could build a home, live a peaceful, simple life, and study the flora and fauna in natural conditions throughout all the seasons.

They collected plant and animal specimens for the British Columbia Provincial Museum often under the most trying conditions–“mosquitoes attack one’s neck, or ear, or arm just as one reaches the crucial and most difficult part of the job,” she wrote. They found mountain maple far north of its known range, extended the range of northern skunks, pygmy owls, and evening grosbeaks, and set a new record for the northern range of cougars. Altogether they produced an annotated list that included 280 plants, 13 fishes, 4 amphibians, 139 birds, and 41 mammal species and subspecies.

Best of all, though, were the wolves. Their valley became “a consert hall filled with wolf music.”

“The Natives,” she told me during my visit, “were never afraid of wolves. They knew of no one who had been attacked by them. I think hearing them sing in the mating season opened our eyes to their real character.”

Both Teddy and her husband championed the wolves as intelligent predators deserving respect from humans. In 1942, two years before Adolph Murie’s The Wolves of Mount McKinley was published, Stanwell-Fletcher wrote an illustrated, sympathetic study of the wolves they had observed for Natural History magazine.

By then the idyll was over. Teddy had returned to Woodbourne to raise her baby daughter. Her husband had gone off to war.

Despite being a fulltime mother, Teddy managed to write Driftwood Valley and two other books in the next two decades. The Tundra World was a fictionalized account of her summers in Churchill and Clear Lands and Icy Seas was based on two summer trips she made to the eastern Arctic in 1952 and 1953 on a Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship. In both books, nature takes the front seat.

She traveled to and sometimes lived in many places during her life–Alaska, California, the American Southwest, Scandinavia, Kenya, Tanzania, Tahiti, Great Britain, the Gaspe peninsula–but she always came back to Woodbourne. After the death of her husband, Philip Gray, in 1978, she led a quiet and retired life, but she still attended the regular meetings of the Woodbourne Management Committee. When they argued about whether or not deer-hunting and beaver-trapping should be allowed on the sanctuary, Teddy said that “In order to preserve the forest, some hunting of deer should be allowed and some trapping of beaver.”

She was a small, lively woman with clear, blue eyes who enjoyed picnicking in the woods every day, even in the winter. Her favorite birds were hermit thrushes and winter wrens. She disliked technology and refused to use a typewriter.

“I’m an ecologist,” she once told her husband Philip. “To my nature-mill, everything’s grist.”

At her memorial service last July, I was struck by how many local people stood up to say how she had turned them on to the beauties of the natural world. Even those nurses who had cared for her in her last days learned about the birds she was still watching from her windows.

“Man talks much,” she wrote in Driftwood Valley, “about serving his fellow men, very little about serving the earth which has served him faithfully throughout the centuries of his being, and without whose cooperation he could not even exist.”

Throughout her life, Teddy Gray faithfully served the earth and its wild creatures. She and her family have also left us the wonderful gift of Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Visiting Old Growth

Sometimes you have to work to see an old growth forest. That’s what my husband Bruce, our son Dave, and I decided as we labored up the steep, rocky, north side of Paddy Mountain one summer day. We were following the unmarked Joyce Kilmer Trail through the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area in Bald Eagle State Forest. This 77-acre virgin white pine and eastern hemlock remnant in Union County is mostly near the ridgetop, and, once we crossed a stream lined with younger hemlock trees, there were no level areas. For over a mile, the rock-strewn forest trail was either steep or less steep. Only dogged determination to see the big trees kept me going.

It was no accident that the white pine and hemlock trees of the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area had never been cut. Back in the days when logging was done with horses, the conifers that grew on such steep, rocky ravines were often spared. Those I saw in the natural area were surrounded by large rocks, so I preferred to sit beside the trail and admire what I could see. Meanwhile, Bruce and Dave picked their precarious way around, through, and over the rocks in search of the largest trees and best photographic possibilities, and quickly disappeared.

That was when I heard and saw a few of the deep forest birds –a pair of hermit thrushes, a black-throated green warbler accompanied by a begging offspring, an eastern wood pewee, a black-throated blue warbler, and a common raven.

Eventually, the men returned, and we picked our way slowly back down the rocky trail. We agreed that of the 27 old-growth sites we have visited in Pennsylvania, the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area was the most strenuous.

“Too strenuous,” Bruce Kershner told me several weeks later.

Kershner, a short, bearded, energetic man of 49, lives in upstate New York and is a national authority on old-growth forests. He and Robert Leverett of Massachusetts, another old- growth forest expert, are writing a guidebook on accessible old-growth forests in the northeastern United States. Leverett is covering the New England states while Kerschner is concentrating on New York and Pennsylvania.

Next to New York state, Pennsylvania has the most old-growth forest in the northeast, Kershner says. So, as we drove along enroute to the two old-growth forests I wanted to show him–Alan Seeger and Detweiler Run natural areas in Rothrock State Forest–Kershner gave me his assessment of the old-growth places he had visited so far in Pennsylvania.

Based on a combination of the aesthetics, acreage and impressiveness of the trees, he rated Cook Forest State Park on the northwestern Allegheny Plateau as number one in the state–an A+ place. The 6,668-acre park in Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties has three different virgin timber tracts–the 125-acre Swamp area of mostly old-growth hemlocks and a few white pines, the 70-acre Seneca area of hemlocks and white pines with some almost 300-year-old pitch pines, and the wonderful 100-acre Cathedral area, also primarily old-growth white pines and hemlocks, including the second tallest white pine tree east of the Rocky Mountains. Much of the rest of the park is mature second growth with old-growth characteristics and is the closest we can come to experiencing what was once known as the “Black Forest of Pennsylvania.”

Kershner’s A category was assigned to six places. The first was Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary, a 200-acre virgin hemlock and northern hardwood forest in Susquehanna County. It is the largest virgin tract in northeastern Pennsylvania, according to its present owners, The Nature Conservancy. It is also, Kershner feels, the most beautiful tract of old-growth in the state after Cook Forest State Park.

Previously owned by the Francis R. Cope, Jr. family, the entire 648-acre sanctuary was given to The Nature Conservancy by Cope, his wife, and his daughter, the recently deceased Teddy Gray. Coincidentally, Gray and her father, who was vice president of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, also fought to save Kershner’s third choice, the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas and Heart’s Content Scenic Area in the Allegheny National Forest back in the 1930s. Realizing then the importance of saving such places, Gray wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on “Observation on the Vertebrate Ecology of Some Pennsylvania Forests,” including her own Woodbourne and the Tionesta Tract.

The 4,131 acres of old-growth hemlock and beech forest in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, along with the 122 acres of hemlock, white pine and beech in Heart’s Content Scenic Area are all the old growth that is left of the six million acres of beech-hemlock forest that once covered the Allegheny Plateau. Unfortunately, 800 acres in the Tionesta Tract were flattened by a tornado in 1985 and regeneration is being set back by deer browsing. Then, too, beech bark disease has killed many trees.

Kershner not only visited already well-known old-growth remnants in Pennsylvania, he actively searched for new places. As co-founder of the Western New York Old-Growth Forest Survey, he has discovered dozens of previously unknown ancient forests. Near Dingmans Falls in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, he found old-growth along Fulmer’s Falls near the Child’s Picnic Area which he classed as outstanding. That’s because he, like me, thinks that the combination of old-growth and waterfalls is especially appealing. So, of course, my favorite place in Pennsylvania–Ricketts Glen State Park, with its 27 waterfalls and old-growth hemlock and hardwood forest–also rated an A with Kershner.

The other As went to the lovely 120-acre Hemlocks Natural Area in Tuscarora State Forest and the stately 500-acre Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area in Bald Eagle State Forest. Both have easy trails through remote stream valleys of virgin hemlock and white pine forests.

Kershner’s B+ rating went to wooded river valleys on the lower Susquehanna River that are owned and protected by Pennsylvania Power and Light–Kelly’s Run Natural Area in Lancaster County and Otter Creek Natural Area in York County. I agree with Kershner that these too are very special places.

Sweet Root Natural Area in Buchanan State Forest is “very primeval,” Kershner said, but it only rated a B because there is so much die-off. A 140-acre old-growth conifer forest on State Game Lands 141 near Jim Thorpe also had die-off in the treetops and for that reason was also assigned a B, but when we visited it several years ago, the Glen Onoko area with its several waterfalls reminded me of a miniature Ricketts Glen.

Other B places that have smaller acreage but beautiful trees, in Kershner’s opinion, are two southwestern Pennsylvania sites–Ohiopyle State Park’s Ferncliff Natural Area which includes 20 acres of old-growth along the falls and rapids of the Youghiogheny River, and the Laurel Hill State Park Natural Area’s four acres of old-growth hemlock along Laurel Hill Creek in Somerset County.

Forest H. Dutlinger Natural Area in Susquehannock State Forest also rated a B, Kershner said, because its 158-acre tract of virgin hemlock and hardwood forest is as difficult to reach as the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area. Only after a mile climb up a steep ravine do visitors reach the old-growth. Still, I remember it as a lovely place.

With such strong opinions, I wondered what Kershner’s reaction would be to my two A choices.

“Wow! This is incredible, This is special. It has a feeling of further south because of the tall rhododendron,” Kershner said as we walked the three-quarter-mile circular trail in the Alan Seeger Natural Area. The 118-acre remnant is best known for its virgin hemlock and interlocking canopy of twenty-foot-high rhododendron shrubs along Standing Stone Creek.

But Kershner was even more impressed by the old-growth hardwoods. Altogether, he counted seven species–red oak, yellow birch, chestnut oak, white oak, tulip, sugar maple and black gum–along with white pine and hemlock. As we walked, he enumerated old-growth characteristics on the tree species.

“There’s old-growth tulip senescent bark,” he pointed out, showing me the balding bark at the bottom of the tree. “The higher the balding goes, the older the tree is. The same is true of the moss layer. A tree must be 120 years old for moss to grow two feet up the trunk.”

Then he found a large white oak tree.

“Look at its buttressed roots. And the moss has grown four feet up the trunk. That makes it between 250 and 320 years old!”

Other signs of old-growth, Kershner says, are unusual growth forms such as a noticeable twisting of the trunks, the presence of the giant white bracket fungus Berkeley’s polypore Polyporus berkeleyi, and the lifting off of bark plates, especially on yellow birch and white pine trees. All in all, Kershner was impressed by Alan Seeger and gave it an A.

Detweiler Run Natural Area, only two-and-a-half-miles by foot from Alan Seeger, is harder to get to, which is why it is one of my favorite retreats. This 463-acre natural area contains 185 acres of old-growth white pine, hemlock and white oak according to the State Bureau of Forestry, but almost immediately Kershner pointed out an old-growth yellow birch.

By then, time was running short and Kershner counted the rings of fallen trees with frenetic haste. But even though he moved quickly, nothing escaped his sharp eyes.

“Look, jack-o’-lantern mushrooms,” he said, pointing to a clump of orange mushrooms growing at the base of a white oak stump.

“Listen to the raven. Look at the moss. Here’s an American chestnut branch.” I could barely keep up with him.

“Nature gives me energy,” he told me.

He still had many more places to visit in a few days and could hardly stop to truly savor each place. Still, I was amazed at how quickly he grasped their essence.

At first he was disappointed by Detweiler Run Natural Area as we descended the Axehandle Trail into the old-growth and then followed the Mid-State Trail through the natural area because it skirts the edge of the old-growth. But when the trail finally began winding among giant trees and piles of moss-covered rocks, he was satisfied that this place, too, is special and incredible.

As we finished our walk, he summed up his feelings for old-growth forest.

“The wisdom of the Earth is inscribed on the boughs of ancient trees. Death equals life in an old-growth forest. It creates new life and a series of lives.”