THE WILD NORTHEAST
Although Chris has made previous trips to the Northeast, he remarked several times, as we drove through southern New York State to northwest Pennsylvania, about his surprise at the vastness of the forests. People from the west commonly expect the entire Northeast to be one big urban sprawl . . . or something close to it. The truth is quite the opposite. Take New York, for example. There is New York City and its boroughs, a complete, dense, urban world of its own. Known by reputation, TV and movies. Masses of diverse people, tall buildings, congested streets. Then there is is the rest of the state, with its mountains and lakes, the Catskills and the Adirondacks, farms, rivers, parks, the mighty Hudson, the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario.
Chris also said that he was beginning to understand how some of the well-known trackers got started in the Northeast; previously this was a mystery to him. Now he saw how you could lose yourself in the endless tracks of dense forest. Tom Brown, one of the most famous, learned his nature skills in the least wild state of all, New Jersey. I had studied with tracker (now photographer) Paul Rezendez in western Massachusetts. When I lived there, I saw bear, moose, otter, bobcat, fisher, fox, coyote, deer, owl, bald eagle, and porcupine, just for starters. Wandering the forests alone for miles, I usually saw no one. In California, some of the wild places are so popular that they are crowded and heavily regulated. Also, much of the west is dry and cannot support the density and diversity of the flora and fauna of the east.
THE CLARION CALL
We spent three nights at Cook Forest State Park, the best known area in Pennsylvania for old growth forest. Running through the park is the Clarion River and I was excited to kayak part of it. Chris dropped me off ten miles upstream and then went to explore the town of Clarion while I floated downstream.
This was paddling for the lazy person. The languid opaque river makes its way toward the ocean at about 4 miles per hour. If I did no more than keep my boat straight, avoid a few rocks, and guide my way through small riffles, it would take about 2 1/2 hours to make it to our rendezvous point near the park’s visitor’s center.
This was my first time kayaking since Florida and my eyes, trained to spot alligators, still automatically surveyed the shore for phantom creatures. I saw little wildlife but songbirds, kingfishers, jays and woodpeckers made their presence known through sound. Small fish jumped occasionally and insects skated the surface. The river was murky so I couldn’t see into the water to know what was there or how deep it was. This made the river uninviting for swimming, although the day was warm. For most of the trip there were few other people. Closer to my pull out spot, groups of college students. recently finished with school, floated listlessly by on inner tubes.
The ride was serene and quiet; the deep greens of the thick forests reflected in the gently flowing waters. I felt blessed to be there. Pulling over to a large shoreside boulder, I stopped for a picnic lunch. Tall, thick rhododendron bushes leaned over the river’s edge. It would be a few weeks before they would bloom so I had to imagine what they must look like, decorating the tunnel of greenery with their large blossoms.
Along the edge tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted among the tall pink, purplish and white phlox. After arriving at my destination and pulling my kayak out, I noticed a group of these butterflies “puddling” nearby. Swallowtails frequently gather in numbers to suck nutrients from the ground that they can’t get from their usual diet of flower nectar. As the butterflies pranced, fluttered or sat motionless together their strong markings and bright colors created pleasing patterns, like an art nouveau design come to life, like a living kaleidoscope.
By the time Chris arrived to pick me up, I had been sitting for sometime in the heat and humidity without the cooling breeze of the river. Sweaty, tired and enervated, we drove upstream, found a private spot and jumped into the refreshing cool brown water. I discovered that the river was actually shallow and pleasant to swim in. Soon we were revived and content.
WRITTEN IN STONE
Later, Chris and I took a short hike up a hill to a scenic overlook. Sitting cross-legged on the broad flat rocks of Seneca Point were a young couple and their dog. The man was leaning over, working industriously at something. At first I didn’t take notice since I was more interested in the view across rows of forested ridges. Eventually, however, I realized he was carving into the surface of the wide stone ledge. A few other carvings were already there, they included peoples names, short messages and two-initials-plus-two-initials, a design which people never seem to tire. A few engravings appeared old, others were newer. I was disheartened to see the man adding to the defacement of the large rock; Chris looked at the man and then turned toward me frowning.
As we walked away in silence, I could see that Chris was furious. He stopped and said he had to return and say something to this guy. I agreed that intervention was needed but I wasn’t sure we were the ones to do it. I don’t like confronting strangers who are holding sharp implements! Unfortunately there were no park rangers nearby to report this to. As I wandered off to look at some mountain laurel beginning to bloom, Chris did what he felt he must do.
Afterward Chris told me that the man “thinks it’s cool” to see the names carved in the rock. He compared himself to the ancient native people who made petroglyphs and pictographs. He wants to return in 20 years and see his name (and his girlfriend’s) there. When Chris asked how would it feel to climb Half Dome in Yosemite and see everybody’s names on top, he exclaimed, “that would be cool! It would be great! You deserve to carve your name there if you made it! You earned it.” Chris added something about it being inappropriate graffiti but the man shrugged it off. (I would call it vandalism. I was pretty sure he could be fined if he were discovered by a ranger.)
This is not the worst crime there is, of course, nor the worst offense against nature. Perhaps his intentions were basically innocent. But inflicting this kind of damage on natural locations, on the rocks and trees, is a pet peeve of mine. Isn’t it enough that humans have paved the ground, polluted air and water, dammed rivers, clearcut forests, mined the earth, built on land, filled areas with trash, eliminated species and changed the climate? Can’t the trees and stones be left alone for their own sake and for others to enjoy as they are? Can’t the elements of nature be shown respect, especially within a park or preserve boundary? Does everything have to be used, appropriated by man, for personal use, to make his mark, to prove to others that he exists? I can’t say for sure but I am pretty certain that indigenous people’s motivations for creating rock art was of a completely different order, from a different consciousness, than what this young man was doing.
Even if this man thinks it’s cool, and even if a few other people do as well, shouldn’t he consider that most of the thousands of other visitors probably do not? (Not to mention that it is prohibited.) Isn’t it common courtesy to not deface public property? Isn’t it enough that our names, stories, opinions and photographs are plastered all over the internet for the entire world to see (like this blog)? What bothers me most is the self-centeredness (everything is about me) of the act and its disregard for nature, for beings both animate and inanimate.
Never having had the desire to carve my name on anything means I don’t understand the impulse to do it. Can you help clarify this for me? Maybe while immersed in nature, a momentary tremor of insignificance arises for someone. Then, afraid of the enormity and the uncertainty of life, this person may feel the urge to assert their importance, their solidness. Or possibly, sensing nature’s indifference toward ones identity, personal story and plans, causes someone to attempt to prove their individuality. Everyone wants to be seen and to make their mark in this world, to have a legacy; it this a small way to do it? Or perhaps, more simply, people see that others have carved their names before and they want to do it too, to add to this rock ledger, this autograph book in stone. I do imagine that writing in rock may feel more lasting, more real, more significant than the ephemeral digital communications of our time
I hope that Chris’s simple questioning of this young man might cause him to think more deeply about his behavior, about its effect and to refrain the next time.