To you, it would probably look like an old tree injury – some curvy lines etched into the trunk, nothing distinguishable about it.
To me, it still tells a story. I still imagine my grandfather as a small boy carving his initials into this tree, bored while tending cows along the river.
WEM – William Elwood Mowery. Those initials used to be so clear. I could still see them when I was young. But 75 years of growth and rain and bugs stretched those initials so they became a blob.
Still, I see them.
The tree still stands, in a place called Snydertown, one of those unremarkable “boroughs” of central Pennsylvania. Town is an interesting term here, as it encompassed not only a main street, but pastures and fields and plenty of forest. Still does.
I often wonder what my grandfather thought as he carved, if he plotted escaping from this little speck of a town.
If he did, he didn’t get far. He moved ten miles or so away when he was a young adult, but he moved back after a couple of years, and eventually bought the woods where his carved tree stood. He moved again near the end of his life, into a retirement home. The rest, he lived in Snydertown.
Unlike him, I did move, got out, across the country to Idaho. And still, that little part of Penn’s Woods feels like home turf. After all, both sets of grandparents lived there: my mom and dad grew up across the street from each other. Recently, the property was passed on to my brother and me, so it remains family land.
I have dreamed of wandering the remote corners of the world since as long as I can remember. But there are pleasures with familiarity, too.
I love the sounds of our woods: the too-loud-for-their-size crashing of squirrels at dawn, a turkey breaking limbs as it lifts off its roost, the rat-tat-tat of the pileated woodpecker, blue jays noisily protesting some lost morsel of food.
I love how the sound travels along the ridges, how you can hear the red-tailed hawk’s call at the same time you hear someone yelling for their kids in town, a mile away.
Last year, I came back for the opening day of deer season. Even after being away for a few years, heading into the woods on that day feels as comfortable as putting on a favorite t-shirt. The huff up the hillside. The forest coming to life at daybreak. My dad’s blaze-orange coat visible through the trees.
The way I still know where the deer will run, the way I remember exact trails, exact trees, as if they were old friends.
The memories. I can’t go there without a flood of them: The first time my dad and I saw turkeys on the property, and people told us we had seen chickens (the turkeys are now abundant).
The time the bear walked to within a few yards of me, the look on my dad’s face when I ran to his stand to tell him.
Uncle George, always patrolling the deer woods, making sure he knew where every hunter was. How bothersome that was for a 16-year-old wanting to hunt on his own. Years later, my mom sent me some letters George had written during the Korean War. He didn’t know where his brothers were, so he set out across the Korean countryside, on his own, and found them. Apparently the habit stuck. I smile now as I think of him tramping up the hill to say hello, making sure I was alright.
How many stories do the hills hold?
I have been fortunate to travel to many places in my work as a writer for The Nature Conservancy, but I had never written about a Pennsylvania project or research. Work had never brought me back to Penn’s Woods.
I often wondered how I would view projects in a place that carries so much meaning for me.
Last month, I had that chance, as I spent several days at Woodbourne Forest Preserve in the northern part of the state. Indeed, everything about it was familiar: I met people who could have been my college friends, the guys at deer camp, neighbors.
They proved perfect guides to help me see the forest with new eyes.
Tradition is important, of course, as is love of the land. But the forest isn’t unchanging, whether we like it or not. There are new threats – forest pests and over-abundant wildlife among them – that will require difficult choices.
So often the people invested in making those choices – community members, conservationists, deer hunters – hold that same breadth of stories close to their heart, and they don’t want to see changes. They want that forest of memory to remain. They want to freeze time.
Impossible, of course. The initials still fade from the tree, no matter what we do. The forest changes. How will we respond? How can we address new issues while protecting the forest so future generations can have the experiences we have?
Next week, I’ll explore those questions in a five-part series on changes in the eastern forest next week on Cool Green Science. I hope you join me there.
Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.