Even in the dark, I find my way easily up the hill, scarcely needing a flashlight. I know the exact tree where I’ll stand, waiting for deer. I know where the turkeys are roosting and where, soon after sunrise, pileated woodpeckers will hammer.
As I huff my way up the steep slope, it feels a bit like slipping on a favorite, old t-shirt. Comfortable and comforting.
I grew up and went crazy for the natural world in these Central Pennsylvania woods. Every day after school, I’d head into the woods, exploring. Watching owls, searching for signs of fox along the trails, turning over rocks in creeks. Hunting deer and dreaming of hunting deer.
I thought of all this when I recently booked a flight home, the first deer season opener I’ll make in four years. I live on the other side of the country now, but nonetheless, I feel the same sense of anticipation. I know that, when I step back into Penn’s Woods, it will be like I never left.
The Central Pennsylvania forest holds so many memories. Layers and layers of memories. And those memories involve doing things I love with people I love. It isn’t that surprising that hearing a squirrel rustling in the oak leaves is enough to trigger a major bout of nostalgia. It’s equally unsurprising that to want such a place to stay the same.
The forest, of course, doesn’t freeze in time. Glaciers, fires, forests advancing and retreating, predators and prey have constantly altered the ecosystem over millenia. Balance of nature? More like perpetual chaos. For much of history, many of those changes, even the dramatic ones, would likely have been imperceptible to human eyes.
In the Anthropocene, though, the changes have come fast and furious. Just in my lifetime, I’ve seen incredible changes…good, bad and ugly. Here’s a look at just some of the more noticeable changes I’ve seen come to Penn’s Woods.
Many of the trees we took for granted are disappearing, fast. Ash trees are the latest casualty in my family’s woodlot. In 2002, the emerald ash borer – an invasive Asian beetle – was first noted in Michigan. Since then it has spread rapidly across forests of the East and Midwest. The beetle’s larva, as its name suggests, bores into ash trees and effectively girdles them.
There’s no effective control. Some properties, including The Nature Conservancy’s Woodbourne Preserve, have made the difficult decision to log ash trees in advance of the beetle arriving, using the proceeds to save other species that can be saved.
This isn’t the first time a pest has essentially reordered the eastern forest. The chestnut blight raged through the forest in the early 1900s, rendering the American chestnut functionally extinct.
In this era of global trade and travel, invasive forest pests remain a constant threat. Since 2002, more than 28 new invasive species have ravaged eastern forests. One of my other favorite trees, the hemlock, is also dying in depressing numbers. I imagine in 25 years or so, the composition of forest trees will look completely different. What will live? What will die?
The first time my dad and I saw turkeys in our woods, few believed us. Several people asked if we might have mistaken them for escaped chickens.
By the early 1900s, the turkey’s population was reduced to about 30,000 birds. That’s fewer turkeys than today there are orangutans, polar bears or African elephants – all species causing considerable angst among conservationists.
Today, there are some 7 million turkeys strutting around – arguably the greatest conservation success story ever.
In Pennsylvania, other species including black bears, elk and white-tailed deer are more numerous now than they were 100 years ago.
The fisher is basically a super-sized weasel, and one that can scale trees in its search for prey like squirrels and porcupines. When I was a kid, I learned that the fisher once roamed Pennsylvania but it was one of those creatures – like bison and mountain lions – that would never come back. Fishers needed wilderness, and that was wrong.
Turned out, this was poor information. Sixty percent of Pennsylvania is forest cover. And if fishers are protected from unrestricted trapping, they pretty much thrive. More than 100 were reintroduced to the state from 1994 to 1998, and since then they have spread widely.
I haven’t seen one in our woods yet, but I keep looking.
About Those Bison
Every Keystone State school kid learned that European pioneers quickly wiped out the bison from Pennsylvania. The last one was reportedly shot about ten miles from where I was born, a place called Buffalo Cross Roads. As a kid, I imagined seeing them in my forest, and it made me sad and mad.
It turns out that most of the information on Pennsylvania bison was from a prolific writer named Henry Shoemaker. Shoemaker made a career of recording the folklore and legends of rural residents, which is a noble calling. He then presented these tales in books as scientific fact, which is not. His stories do not hold up to much scrutiny. In one book, he details a cabin that was erected over a bison migration path. The bison never deviated with a herd blasting through the front door and out the back wall.
Today, many historians and naturalists doubt bison ever roamed Pennsylvania, at least not in significant numbers.
I’d like to say that our understanding of nature and science has progressed since the time of Henry Shoemaker. If I step into any bar in rural Pennsylvania, though, I’ll hear some barstool biologist proclaim that deer are going extinct in the state. This is no more accurate than Shoemaker’s tales of rampaging bison, but the disappearing deer myth is a whole lot more destructive.
Ecologists, foresters, farmers and observant hunters all know that the opposite is true: there are too many deer, and they’re mowing down the eastern forest. This overabundance of deer profoundly affects the habitat for songbirds and other species. I don’t have to go to the woods to see this. Growing up, a deer sighting near my home would be a noteworthy event. Now, herds of deer move about the neighborhood, mowing down the shrubbery and mooching snacks.
The bad news is that barstool biology still can influence hunting regulations. The good news is that there are passionate advocates for science-based deer management, including my friend and colleague Mike Eckley. Mike is a hunter and has a great respect for local traditions and knowledge. He makes a strong case that quality deer management means a healthier forest and better hunting.
Perhaps the most unwelcome change of all is the rise of ticks. I spent nearly every day playing outside, in fields and woodlots, as a kid. In my first 30 years of life, I never encountered a single tick. Within 30 minutes of my last visit, I had two ticks embedded in me, and had to go on antibiotics.
That’s because deer ticks cause Lyme disease. While media accounts pump up the hysteria about Ebola, thousands of people are getting Lyme disease each year. By any reasonable standard, it’s a flat-out epidemic, and almost no one understands.
What caused the tick explosion? Here too you will receive many answers, some viable and some a bit wacky. Too many deer (again) and climate change are leading contenders. Some claim that reduced biodiversity in forests leads to more ticks, while others point out that suburbs actually have more species than many mature forests. One theory suggests that an increase in coyotes is to blame – they compete with the foxes that eat the white-footed mice that carry the ticks.
The arguments go on. But one thing’s certain: there are now a distressing number of ticks out there.
The Future of the Forest
Come November, I’ll walk the same woods, and honestly will barely notice the disappearances or the new faces. But the forest will still be changing. Stopping change is, ultimately, a pointless exercise. So is turning back the clock to some “pristine” time. Even our understanding of past forest conditions (see Pennsylvania bison) changes.
We can’t stop time but we can ask ourselves how we can best protect what we value for the future. How can we keep a diverse ecosystem, and one that future generations can enjoy as I have? This, ultimately, is a question we all have a stake in answering – not just in Penn’s Woods, but in natural habitats around the globe.