Excerpted from Central PA magazine, March 2009
Down in the Hollow
Late one morning in April, in a forest soft with the blaze of flowering redbuds and dogwood, I lead my friend Joe down an unmarked trail and deep into a hollow.
We are somewhere in the South Mountain country of Adams, Franklin, Cumberland and York Counties. An archaeologist like me, Joe is interested in the art of the flint-knapper and is developing a considerable facility in the manufacture of stone tools. He is from the desert Southwest, and during a visit here he had asked me to show him where prehistoric Pennsylvanians developed their own flint-knapping skills. I knew just the place.
We walk for an hour, much of it beside a tiny brook, encountering a hen turkey with a brood of chicks and a whitetail doe with a pair of spotted fawns along our way. The trail is faint in places and full of down timber that requires patience to negotiate. There are no other people around. That has not always been true.
About a mile and a half from the car, we encounter the first pit. It’s a depression in the forest floor two or three feet deep, mostly filled with decaying leaves and hemlock needles, but still visible. It could simply be a cavity left from an uprooted tree, but it’s not. From a short way up the hillside, we see that the floor of the hollow is covered with these small depressions — hundreds of them. They are the remains of Native American quarrying, and they are thousands of years old. We drop back to the bottomland and kick aside some of the duff next to one of the pits. Beneath the rotting leaves is a pavement of sharp flakes of rhyolite, the detritus left by an ancient craftsman. The flakes tell us something about the man who left them and the society to which he belonged, but they also help define the landscape around us. Rhyolite, technically metarhyolite, is derived from old flows of lava, and it is this volcanic history that defines and shapes the world of the South Mountain. This rock beneath our feet was once full of fire.
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Some 600 million years ago, what is now the quiet world of South Mountain’s gentle forested ridges was quaking with geologic convulsions. Molten rock flowed from fissures in the earth’s crust, volcanoes rose against the sky. This several-million-year period of volcanism was followed by a subsidence of the raw and new land beneath shallow seas. For nearly 300 million years, the oceans deposited sand and the shells of mollusks and crustaceans atop the hardened lava, which cemented into sandstone and limestone. The passing centuries of compression and chemical percolation in groundwater changed these sedimentary rocks and the volcanic rock beneath them into metamorphic formations of quartzite, graywacke, dolomite, metarhyolite and metabasalt. About 350 million years ago, the land buckled and rose into the ancestors of these mountains. In the intervening millennia, some of the softer sediments have eroded away, leaving the hardest quartzite and the tough volcanic core still standing. Modern South Mountain lies between the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers and comprises the northern end of the Blue Ridge, the igneous backbone of which can be followed south to the vicinity of Roanoke, Virginia.
The geology of the South Mountain is quite distinct from the rest of the Appalachians to the northwest, and from the adjoining Cumberland Valley and the rolling topography of York and Adams Counties. Those geologic differences have interacted with climate, biology and humanity in a variety of distinctive ways to produce a natural and human history that is unique to this landscape.
Near the base of the mountain, where clay soils, derived from the hard rocks of the South Mountain, lay on top of the soft limestone and dolomite of the valleys, is the greatest concentration of seasonal pools in any forested region of Pennsylvania. Seasonal or vernal pools are small depressions in the forest floor that fill with runoff water in spring or during any time of heavy rain. A dependent community of plants and animals flourishes in and near these pools, including several of the state’s rarest salamanders, and they are magnets and refuges for much of the rest of South Mountain’s wildlife. The sediment trapped in the bottoms of these small wetlands has collected pollen blown into the area on the wind and preserved them, in some cases, for millennia. By extracting core samples from these pools, scientists can recover and identify the pollen and use that information to reconstruct the climate and environmental history of the surrounding region as far back as the Ice Ages. The pools also store and slowly release water to the aquifers of the region, which are tapped by municipal and private wells for much of our drinking water. Taken together, they represent an invaluable hydrological, biological and scientific resource unique to the region.
There is a forest on parts of these ridges that is as distinctive to South Mountain as the seasonal pools at its base. The ridgetops have very thin, sandy, acidic soils eroded from the mountain’s flinty heart. They are exposed to winter, wind and summer’s relentless sun. In some locations, fires have combined with the difficult conditions to produce a dwarf forest composed of pitch pine and scrub oak found in very few other places. Several extensive areas of these pitch pine-scrub oak “barrens” can be seen along Ridge Road, a gravel and dirt route that winds along the mountain’s crest south of Mount Holly Springs. A few bird species nest only in this peculiar habitat, and others make critical use of it during long seasonal migrations along the Blue Ridge. While the barrens appear to be dependent on periodic fires for their continued existence, there is some uncertainty about the original fires that created them. They may simply have been started by lightning, or they may be a product of a long association with a single species — our own.
Native Americans are known to have intentionally burned extensive areas of forest for clearing farm land, improving game habitat and other reasons. In the 18th century, European Americans burnt vast stretches of the South Mountain to produce charcoal. In any event, there seems to be a clear possibility that our kind had a hand in producing a forest community found almost nowhere else. In some ways, this isn’t too surprising, because there are few places in North America where natural and human history share so much common ground. We are a part of the place.
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Joe and I take care to cover up the evidence of the past we exposed. People have been known to conduct unauthorized excavations at sites like this, looking for antiquities to collect or sell, which, aside from being unconscionably destructive, is also illegal on public land. As we hike out, Joe asks when Native Americans began quarrying here. I tell him I once encountered a rhyolite spear point in an 8,500-year-old archaeological site 70-odd miles from South Mountain. During our hike we pass the remnants of charcoal hearths and haul roads from the 18th-century iron industry. A few feral apple trees and a clump of daffodils blooming incongruously in the woods mark the site of an old mountain farm. A remnant of stone wall stands alone in a grove of striped maple and young oaks. As the car comes into view, we realize that while we’ve seen no other people all day, there have been signs of humanity everywhere we’ve been. For the last eight millennia or more, South Mountain’s story has been our own.
A Sense of Where We Are
John Rice and his brothers are the seventh generation of their family to grow apples and other fruit on the foothills of South Mountain not far from Biglerville. Daniel Ries, the scion of their family, arrived in the late 18th century from the orchard country of Alsace and did what came naturally. John is understated and unassuming, but the depth of his knowledge and his passion for the nurseryman’s trade is palpable from the first handshake. Late one afternoon, in an office above one of the Rice Fruit packing warehouses, John talks about the Fruit Belt.
When Daniel Ries and his fellow German and Quaker immigrants arrived on the southeast side of the South Mountain country, they recognized similarities between this hilly, gentle place and the fruit-growing regions of Europe. The soils, eroded from tough and ancient quartzite, were deep enough to hold critical moisture through the dry months, but coarse enough to drain very well. The mountain ridge to the northwest provided shelter from the worst of the winter storms. The mid-slopes of the hills kept the delicate spring blooms above the bite of the late spring frosts. Here, in a stretch of land roughly 25 miles long by five miles wide, nature had conspired to create an environment almost perfect for the production of tree fruit, especially apples. “There’s almost nowhere else on earth quite like it,” says John. “The soils produce exceptionally tasty and flavorful fruit, and the natural protection from frosts means we almost always have a crop.” There have been tough times over the two centuries of fruit-growing here, including a variety of pests, fierce competition from the Pacific Northwest and California, and changes in the markets and in consumers’ preferences, but the growers of South Mountain’s Fruit Belt have weathered every storm and continue to produce fresh fruit, applesauce, canned fruit, apple juice and other products for local consumption and for the entire world.
Despite the region’s remarkable durability and productivity, there is a pair of threats on the horizon that could prove the Fruit Belt’s final undoing. John Rice notes, “I love living here because there’s a lot of small-town and rural charm and a relatively low cost of living, yet you’re still close to the metropolitan centers of Washington and Baltimore. Of course, that’s sort of the problem!” Development pressure is fierce in Adams and York Counties, and municipal governments are often trapped between the desire to preserve the longstanding agricultural heritage of the region and the demands and substantial resources of land developers.
The region’s agricultural character is also completely dependent on thousands of resident and migrant workers from Central America, not all of whom arrived here legally. Their work ethic is impressive, and their value to the economy and to the fabric of many local communities is critical. Their sometimes uncertain legal status has made them subject to increasingly stringent immigration enforcement efforts. Regrettably, they are also at times the targets of bigotry from people who have forgotten that their own families also immigrated here. Our national failure, so far, to address legitimate concerns about unlawful entry into our country while devising a fair and workable solution to the immigration question has put the Fruit Belt orchards in a precarious situation. John Rice says the immigrants are “decent, family oriented people, and absolutely indispensable for harvesting and processing the fruit. Without them, our production here will shut down and move offshore. The orchards will be gone.”
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Tiny Mont Alto is an unassuming place: a little crossroads town with a small state park, a Penn State campus and the remains of a modest 19th-century iron furnace. There is no hint of the role this pretty little spot in the South Mountain played in Pennsylvania environmental history. From this place, and from the ideas of a Pennsylvania native son, the state forests evolved.
In 1885, Joseph Rothrock of McVeytown in Mifflin County became Pennsylvania’s first commissioner of forestry — a position that may have had ambiguous duties, since there were at that time no publicly owned forests. Rothrock, a remarkable man not readily deterred by adversity, invented them.
A botanist trained at Harvard and a professor at Penn, Rothrock was distraught at the condition of Pennsylvania’s forests after a century and a half of charcoal production and industrial logging. In his capacity as forestry commissioner, he began buying up burned and logged-over parcels from logging companies at five dollars an acre. He built nurseries to replant these tracts and to provide private landowners with seedlings for reforestation, and he began searching for a place to establish a school that would teach the principles of modern forestry. Both Penn and Penn State turned him down. In 1903 he settled on tiny Mont Alto. Rothrock founded the nation’s third forestry academy there, and with the academy’s first administrator, George Wirt, helped train a new generation of foresters to restore and care for the freshly acquired land. In its early years the little academy produced many pioneers of modern American forestry, including Ralph Elwood Brock (class of 1906), the first African-American professional forester, and Frank Heintzleman (class of 1907) who would, among many accomplishments, become the last territorial governor of Alaska prior to statehood. In 1929 the academy became a Penn State campus, and it continues educating foresters, as well as other majors, today.
By 1904 Rothrock had acquired more than 440,000 acres of “forest reserves” that would become the nucleus of the modern 2 million-acre Pennsylvania State Forest system. Many of Rothrock’s ideas were employed by a Connecticut native with deep Pennsylvania roots who became responsible for a similar system of reserves in the American West in 1905. That man, Gifford Pinchot, oversaw the birth of the U.S. Forest Service. When Rothrock died in 1922, then–Pennsylvania Governor Pinchot said, “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.”
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Mont Alto, like the Fruit Belt, the Native American quarries, the seasonal pools and the scrub barrens, is a quintessential feature of the South Mountain. It forms part of a mosaic of natural and human elements that are native to this place. That mosaic includes more than 40 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the over 85,000 acres of the Michaux State Forest, four state parks, state gamelands, several historic iron furnace complexes and untold numbers of breathtaking overlooks, fine trout streams, important historic sites and other natural and cultural features. All of them draw people to the mountain. Hunters and fishermen, hikers, loggers, birdwatchers and visitors with an interest in history, geology and the outdoors all spend time here. The South Mountain country is one of the most popular and important recreational, economic and environmental resources for all the communities of south Central PA and central Maryland, but it is not without its problems. There are any number of dire and accelerating external threats, ranging from inappropriate development to invasive species to declining water and air quality. Addressing these issues in any sort of unified way is complicated by South Mountain’s patchwork of public agency ownership, county governments, more than 40 municipalities and many thousands of acres of private land. That has not stopped the many stakeholders with an interest in the preservation of the South Mountain from coming together in an innovative and creative way that has already made great strides.
On a blustery morning in December 2008 at Shippensburg University, I attended a meeting of the South Mountain Conservation Landscape Initiative (CLI) Partnership and learned firsthand what can happen when concerned and energized community and nonprofit leaders unite behind a common set of goals and concerns. The CLI concept, developed by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), seeks to promote and conserve the critical natural and community resources of regions that are defined by a homogenous and well-defined geographic, environmental and cultural legacy. In 2007 the South Mountain CLI, the Commonwealth’s seventh, began life as a partnership of state agencies, county and municipal governments and nonprofit organizations that has grown to more than 20 separate entities. The CLI members work to preserve critical acreage and resources, promote and educate, and secure funding for their goals. What they’ve done very quietly since the fall of 2007 is nothing short of remarkable.
Adams, Franklin and Cumberland Counties have all passed resolutions of support for the CLI. An agreement for the transfer and permanent protection of an astounding 2,500 acres of forest land in Adams County from the Gladfelter Corporation has been negotiated. A grant of $4 million toward that transfer has been procured from DCNR, and Adams County passed a substantial bond referendum to provide more funding for the land. A survey of local municipal officials has been outlined. The boundaries of the CLI are being documented and comprehensive inventories of its critical resources are being planned. Municipalities are developing ordinances to protect the Appalachian Trail. Ideas for reaching out to the public and explaining the South Mountain’s critical importance to our region are being discussed. The group is full of innovation, optimism and passion. The South Mountain country has inspired the partners to big ideas and lofty goals. The place has a long history of inspiration.
Evening in the Churchyard
The old country church isn’t far from Dillsburg, and there’s a nice view of the mountain from the graveyard. The headstones are near the northwest corner: Charles M. and Katie Baker, my grandparents. My dad, named for his father, was born on a farm a couple miles from here. Just south of my grandparents lie Solomon and Rachel Baker, Charles’s parents. Katie’s folks, Thomas and Emaline Williams are here, too. Solomon and Thomas are Civil War veterans. Here and in other churchyards scattered around both sides of the South Mountain are McClures, more Bakers and Williamses, and innumerable other ancestors. They are mostly Ulster Irish, Welsh and a few Germans, and they have been here since the 18th century. Census records invariably list them as “laborers” or “farm workers.” They grew hay and row crops, shoved cows around, worked at iron furnaces and as colliers, made whiskey, cut wood, hunted and fished, went to church, raised families and went on to glory in the shadow of these wooded hills. Like many Central Pennsylvanians, I have deep and gnarled roots here that anchor me to the mountain.
The defining character of South Mountain is subtle and defies succinct description. It is an important and irreplaceable part of our region and our heritage. It’s where a lot of our water and timber and fruit and tourism dollars come from. But it is mostly a feeling, a sense of place. It is a walk on the Appalachian Trail, a long-silent iron furnace, a trout rising in a deep hollow, a fruit stand, the piping of spring peepers, a family picnic, a rhyolite spear point, heat lightning on a distant ridge. From this small churchyard it is a rounded mass of forested hills that rises above the resting places of my ancestors and sweeps away to the southwest for miles, fading finally into blue distance.
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