The car continues along the gravel and fades.
INTRO MUSIC begins
JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.
SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. In today’s episode, Jay returns to his native Pennsylvania. He walks amongst the ancient trees of Rothrock State Forest to explore his, and our, relationship with wilderness.
JAY: The land where the cabin sits, like any area of the state that is drained by water, was initially forest-clad.
“Waltz for Zacaria” by Blue Dot Sessions begins…
JAY: The American lumber industry started to transform all of that before the Civil War. Lumberjacks trickled down through New England and New York and stopped for many years in Pennsylvania. Afterward they would continue on to Michigan and Wisconsin, and then finally the Pacific Coast.
At the peak of Pennsylvania lumbering, which was between 1850 and 1870, nearly 50,000 men worked at felling white pine and hemlock, maybe some oak and other hard wood, too. One estimate from this period claims that nearly two-hundred billion board feet of lumber came from Pennsylvania, the best of which was harvested deep in these Pennsylvania mountains and used for masts and yards on sailing vessels. The lumber was shipped to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Camden, even Liverpool, England.
Timber cutting was mostly a winter job. Loggers worked from first to last light, stomping in deep snow, wincing against bitter wind. After the trees fell, log drivers carted them out of the woods. By the spring thaw, when streams and rivers hit flood stage, raftsmen rolled the logs into the water and guided them downstream toward any of the hundreds of sawmills.
Needless to say, all of this was hard work that demanded predictably harder men. Perhaps the best way to understand the men who worked these camps is through the brown prism of a shot glass. The names for their whisky reflected their nature.
A couple of shots of squirrel whiskey made a man want to climb trees. Sleeping whiskey was exactly as it sounded–and bars hated to sell it because they lost so much profit.
The camp favorite was called “Logger’s Delight.” Grab a pen and piece of paper because here’s the recipe for your upcoming holiday party season: Place twenty pounds of finely cut tobacco at the bottom of a standard barrel. Next, pour in five gallons of grain alcohol. Wait for fresh rain water to fill the rest of the barrel to the tip. Now, cover it up and be sure to stir the mix three times a day. After a month, strain the concoction through some cheese cloth and it’s ready. Ladle yourself a cupful. Most men paired their breakfasts with a few shots of squirrel whiskey and then a shot of Logger’s Delight. It was said that they could drink Logger’s Delight throughout the day and keep just the right level of intoxication to feel no pain yet also wield axes and fell giant trees.
Heavy drinking kept the men at a steady level of functional stupor and cock-eyed agitation. Whiskey riled up some men’s blood. If a logger was sauced up enough, he’d knock his adversary to the ground and stomp the side of his face with the same steel calks he wore to climb trees. The marks left on the loser’s face were called “logger’s smallpox.”
They were of a time and culture–and they also surely held little thought about what stripping these mountains might mean in terms of an ecosystem. But I’m walking along Cooper’s Gap Road, toward the underground gasline where a clearcut gives me spotty cell service, and I’m thinking about those guys who used to be in here. How they once roamed this same ground living hard and working even harder.
They’re a far cry from the thirty or so Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officers who are charged with the area’s management. The DCNR’s website says that the department’s goal is to “provide places for scenic observation, protect special plant and animal communities, and conserve outstanding examples of natural beauty…. Wild areas are generally extensive tracts managed to protect the forest’s wild character and to provide backcountry recreational opportunities.”
They also claim that “direct human intervention is limited.”
“The Broker” by The Blue Dot Sessions begins…
JAY: One of the more controversial forms of recent intervention, at least to the old-timers, is the maintenance and promotion of newly built mountain biking trails. The area has become one of the most popular spots for mountain bikers throughout the northeast–and this is something that has only happened in the past ten or so years. When we were kids, we rarely passed a soul on the road–and if we did, they were usually out to spend some time at old hunting camps just like us. These days, it’s impossible to journey through Cooper’s Gap without seeing mountain bikers, solo or clustered. You can even watch YouTube videos celebrating biking in Cooper’s Gap.
Some people find their presence a nuisance–they need to drive around cyclists on the gravel roads, step off hiking trails for them. But the bikers make me contemplate this land and its history. What purpose does this forest serve us, and in turn, what is our collective responsibility to the forest?
It seems perfectly fitting that I am asking this question in Rothrock State Forrest, which is named after Joseph Rothrock, the so-called “father of Pennsylvania forestry.” Joseph Rothrock was born in my hometown of McVeytown, Pennsylvania in 1839. That’s my hometown. It was impossible to grow up there without seeing or hearing his name. I mean, my hometown has a literal rock monument, the Rothrock rock, in the town square to this man–but Joseph Rothrock does not get wide-enough credit outside of Pennsylvania for all that he did to help conserve forests throughout America.
Because he was frequently sick as a child, Rockroth hiked the forests of our native Mifflin County. That love of nature led him to study botany at Harvard. Rothrock began a lecture series in Philadelphia in 1877 to alert concerned citizens about the continued devastation of the state’s forests by the logging industry. He sought to convince other Pennsylvanians by traveling through abandoned forested in a horse-drawn buckboard while taking photos, which he turned into slides for a state-wide lecture series. He argued that the best way to protect the state’s water, soil and wildlife was to replant trees.
He was the state’s first Commissioner of Forestry, steered the state’s forestry programs, stated a fire-warden system for forest fires, set up a forestry school to train foresters and fire wardens for state service, created tree nurseries to help replenish both stateland but also to citizens simply wanting to plant trees in their yards. He also created publicly owned forest reserves for future generations. After Rothrock died in 1922, the Pennsylvania governor, himself a fellow forester, wrote “What he did for Forestry in this state has never been equaled in the history of our country by any man in any other state.”
JAY (brushing teeth throughout): Okay, here’s another one of my favorite things about Cooper’s Gap. It’s eleven-thirty on Friday night. I’m out here on the concrete porch to brush my teeth before bed. But before I go in, I want you to listen to this. Turn up the volume and really listen. This is what night in the forest sounds like.
The forest, at night, is completely silent.
JAY: Peace. Stillness. Earlier tonight, when there was still some light in the sky, we heard a whippoorwill.
The call of a whippoorwill.
JAY: And then, just after full dark, we heard the eastern screech owl.
The call of the eastern screech owl.
JAY: And I’m grateful that someone thought to save this place.
“Stephi” by The Blue Dot Sessions begins…
JAY: We made a Saturday afternoon drive to Alan Seeger Natural Area. Standing Stone Creek, the water lowered by a hot, dry June and July, winds and turns through an old-growth forest. Some of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi stand here–ancient giants alive before Europeans ever stepped foot on the continent. Virgin white pine and a hemlock forest stretch above the 20-foot-high rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Some of the hemlocks measure over four-feet in diameter at the base.
Most of the tree coverage throughout the commonwealth is considered relatively young. European settlers deforested nearly all of the state from its discovery up through the 1800s. The 390-acre area now simply called Alan Seeger survived the harvest because rival logging companies couldn’t discern which of them had rights to this land.
But who has the right to any of this land? As I walked–so quiet and soft on fallen pine needles, I thought about naturalist, scientist, and professor Aldo Leopold. Earlier in the summer I finished a reread of his classic essay collection, A Sand County Almanac.
Leopold’s most enduring idea–and the name of perhaps his most famous essay–is called “the land ethic.” Leopold attempts to place our ethical responsibility to our natural landscape within other moral codes such as the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. Leopold writes, “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations…”
So what moral instruction did Leopold propose? Well, the closest he came toward defining that ethic was this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic process. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
There’s debate–lots and lots of debates–amongst scholars and philosophers and ecologists about just how to take this sentence. And there’s plenty of questions about why Leopold, one of our greatest wildlife ecologists and nature writers, didn’t just provide us with more concrete instructions.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation hazards a guess as to why he didn’t. As a professor, he sought to get his students interacting with and engaged with the natural world. He understood that environmental ethics largely grow from our own experiences. Leopold, his eponymous foundation says, “knew that direct contact with the natural world was a key factor in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest.”
There’s no doubt that all of my time in these woods along with my cousins fueled my love of nature. As did my father and my uncle and my grandfather–three men who took me into the woods, three men who followed in a long tradition of connecting with the wild and natural world. And so did my mother and grandmother, who taught me about birds and animals, who loved cultivating gardens and flowers. And surely that monument to Joseph Rothrock in McVeytown mixed loving nature with hometown pride.
I get to think about all of this whenever I watch my cousin’s children play at the camp. They also love Cooper’s Gap. One day, years and years away, I know that their kids will love it here as well.
Provided that it’s still here. And that we take care of it.
OUTRO MUSIC plays
JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com.
Theme music by Jay Varner. Other music for this episode was provided by The Blue Dot Sessions.
If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .
OUTRO MUSIC fades
JAY: Before we sign off for this first episode of our second season, I wanted to take a moment and remember Matt Tullis. I met Matt fifteen years ago in graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. We were both former daily newspaper journalists and we both held a deep love of baseball. In mid-September of 2022, Matt underwent brain surgery and, initially at least, had come through just fine. Then, sudden, unexpected complications took his life.
If you’re up for it, do me a favor: Matt hosted The Gangrey Podcast–over 100 episodes about narrative journalism and the reporters who write it. If you want to hear incisive, revealing, and interesting conversations between Matt and some amazing writers like David Grann, Tom Junod, Seth Wickersham, and a whole host more, check it out.
Matt was passionate about narrative nonfiction–the act of doing it, talking about it, and teaching it at Fairfield University. And Matt was a hell of a writer. Check out his memoir, Running with Ghosts. Matt was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 15. Later in life, he wondered about the friends and medical staff he’d met while at Akron Children’s Hospital. It’s a great read. But most important of all, he was a great husband to his wife and father to his two children.
Check out the accompanying blog post on www.hiddenlanguagepodcast.com for links to Matt’s podcast and book.
Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.
“Waltz for Zacaria” by Blue Dot Sessions CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
“The Broker” by Blue Dot Sessions CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
“Stephi” by Blue Dot Sessions CC BY-NC-SA 4.0