Fifty years have passed since we first saw our mountaintop home on the Fourth of July weekend. Following directions from a local realtor, my husband Bruce slowly drove our red Volkswagen bus up a steep, deeply rutted, private road.
Our three sons—Steve (7), Dave (5), and Mark (2)—were in the back of the bus peering out the windows at the slope and the stream beneath.
“We could really go over the edge there,” Steve shouted excitedly.
“Are we going to live up in the woods? Dave asked hopefully.
After what seemed an interminable time, but in reality was only a mile from the highway, we reached a fork in the road.
“The realtor said to take the left fork,” I told Bruce.
We bumped over a plank bridge, and after a few minutes we emerged from the dark forest into an open field lit by the bright July sun.
Rounding the final curve in the road, we passed a tenant house, tool building, and large bank barn on the right and looked up a bluff on our left at a white farm house surrounded by black locust and black walnut trees. At the base of the bluff was an old stone springhouse.
It didn’t take us long to decide to buy the property, and we’ve never regretted it. We were young then, and Bruce had plenty of energy to tackle the repairs of old buildings that needed many renovations, including roofing the barn and installing heating ducts to the second floor of our home.
I was so impressed by the natural beauty of our surrounding acres that I began a career as a natural history writer based on my observations of our unique property.
Our sons became amateur naturalists and eager explorers of the woods, stream, old fields, and even the rock slides of the mountain.
Much has changed in 50 years, both for us and our sons. We have grown old and our sons middle-aged. They have stayed in our guesthouse, sometimes for months and even years at a time, and have revisited old haunts of their childhood. All three have retained a love and interest in the natural world wherever they have lived.
Bruce retired from his librarian position at Penn State University’s Library more than two decades ago, and much of the repairs and upkeep of our home, property, and access road are now done by our caretaker couple.
But I keep obsessively walking, recording, and observing the natural world and the many changes I have seen here over the last half century. I’ve kept a nature journal, written innumerable columns and articles in newspapers and magazines and five books about our mountain home. My sons and I have lists of the plants and wildlife we have observed on our square mile of mountain land and just last spring, summer, and fall Mark added considerably to our bird list. Dave’s specialties have been trees and wild plants, and Steve’s have been birds and insects. Our caretakers, with their trail cams and own observations, also have added to our knowledge of what is happening here.
During our first decade, our bird feeders attracted dozens of evening grosbeaks and American tree sparrows as well as common winter birds such as tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos, and one year we even had an immature red-headed woodpecker and a hen pheasant. Even though folks all over Pennsylvania last fall reported grosbeaks, not one came here, our tree sparrow numbers are now between two and four for most of the winter, and we’ve never seen another hen pheasant or red-headed woodpecker at our feeders.
But Mark established last year that we continue to host most bird species we recorded that first decade, although their numbers have declined. However, our wild turkey numbers have increased greatly since then and only a few years ago bald eagles became a common sight flying above First Field.
That first decade we had many mid-sized mammals—woodchucks, opossums, raccoons, stripped skunks, red and gray foxes. But in the 1980s the first black bears arrived, followed by eastern coyotes in the 1990s and fishers in this century. Our caretakers, a few of our hunters, and our sons have seen bobcats but so far I have not.
We always have had many eastern cottontails and white-tailed deer, numerous mice, shrew, and vole species, least, long-tailed and ermine weasels, gray, fox and red squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, and mink, altogether over 40 mammal species, but a deadly fungus disease from Europe has killed most of our bat species this century.
Our greatest losses, in addition to the bats, have been tree species. When we first arrived here, a large butternut tree, also known as “white walnut,” grew in the guesthouse yard, and we found a couple more scattered throughout our forest. But in a few years they died from an infection caused by an imported fungus. They produced nuts consumed by both humans and wildlife and they were tastier than their close relation, the still-thriving black walnut trees.
Then, in the early 1980s, the imported gypsy moth caterpillars defoliated all of our oak trees and other species except for tulip trees. They even ate the needles of the Norway spruces we had planted at the top of First Field in the spring of 1974. Luckily, we had only one bad year and most of the trees recovered.
By the 1990s we began to hear more about invasive diseases and insects coming from Europe and Asia. At the same time, the adjacent property of 150 acres was logged. We managed to acquire it afterwards, but we were not able to stop the invasion of Japanese barberry, privet, tree of heaven, mile-a-minute, and Japanese stiltgrass there, although last autumn our hunters took a few mornings to rescue First Field from those invasives.
Worst of all the invasives are the hemlock woolly adelgids sucking the life from our eastern hemlocks beside our stream and the even more rapid killing this last decade of our ash trees by emerald ash borers, still another Asian import. First identified in North America in 2002, and in western Pennsylvania in 2007, they have attacked all North American ash species including those in our forest and backyard.
All of these tree species provided food and cover for wildlife and coupled with changes in our weather patterns, wildlife food here has been scarce. Last winter, for instance, there were no wild fruits and few acorns and black walnuts. Even the Norway spruces, white pines, and remaining eastern hemlocks produced no cones.
Still, our wildflower species have mostly survived, except for a couple orchid species that came and went, and our reptile and amphibian species are still here, including wood frogs in our series of large and small vernal ponds on Sapsucker Ridge that have developed and spread over the last couple decades. Mark even recorded wood ducks there last spring.
And then there are my memories. As I walk our trails, I can recall the animals and plants I have seen along every one. In the hemlock-shrouded, so-called “dark place” by our neighbor, I saw my first fisher, a large male heralded by a flock of protesting songbirds as he came down to drink from the stream.
Off Laurel Ridge Trail, where I was sitting among the mountain laurels listening to a hooded warbler, I saw my first black bear come up the ridge, dip its face down between a double oak tree to drink, and then unknowingly headed straight toward me. When it was about 15 feet away, I stood up slowly and it stopped and stared as I spoke quietly to it. Instead of running away, it paralleled my walk along Laurel Ridge Trail continually peering at me, before finally running off.
Once I saw a mother bear and four cubs near the stream, but they never saw me above them on Rhododendron Trail and I quietly watched them until they wandered off. From across the Far Field for two springs I watched a red fox den. Another year I followed behind four coyote pups as they scampered along Sapsucker Ridge TraiI, and later I watched them playing in front of the spruce grove.
I remember releasing the first eastern golden eagle that had been live-trapped by researchers from a blind on our rock slide. When I let her go, she flew off slowly, then landed on a nearby white pine tree, before flying away.
And then there was the spring morning when I reached the spruce grove and something made me look up in time to see a swallow-tailed kite circling above the grove higher and higher.
Never Enough of Nature by Lawrence Kilham has a title that has been my mantra throughout my life. There is always more to learn and no lifetime is long enough to grasp even a small understanding of the natural world of a central Pennsylvania mountain.