Photograph by Pedro Da Silva

Postindustrial Wilderness

THIS IS A LANDSCAPE INTERRUPTED. The Kittatinny Ridge sweeps up from Maryland and curves like a half-moon across southeastern Pennsylvania until the Appalachian Trail meets it at the Susquehanna River. From there it cradles fertile farmland of the Piedmont Valley, from the northern coal country stretching toward the Delaware River on anthracite ridges.

For decades heavy machinery tore and gouged these mountains and foothills, leaving behind open wounds of pyrite and bituminous coal, streams running orange with acid mine drainage, and a horizon of rusted Bucyrus-Erie draglines. Underground is a vast network of pillar-and-breast mines veining their way under towns—Ashland, Shamokin, Centralia, Frackville—like roots of chestnut trees that once held these corrugated hillsides together.

As sulfur tattoos and iron stains fade into an industrial afterlife, native brook trout find their way from small tributaries. Wild browns swim up from larger rivers, slowly figuring a way to scratch a living out of these streams once dead. The woods and watersheds here are all undergoing various stages of rewilding. Some are full of stoneflies and hemlock cathedrals, elders that outlasted the logging, mining, and woolly adelgid. Others are scarred by freshly dug roads to transport fracking equipment that has now taken up residency in our forests. This industry pays no severance tax, as its mark is supposedly smaller; it burns cleaner than coal. But there have been spills and fish kills. Large swaths of woods in recovery are broken to pieces. The rumbling, cracking, fissuring fractures this landscape once again.

It is easy to fetishize untouched wilderness—distant places where we might connect with something sublime, something larger than ourselves. But while we turn our gaze away, we ignore what we stand on until, inevitably, attention is drawn to what we already have. Look closely: Solomon’s seal sprouts from nutrient-rich soil, railroad spikes, and beer cans. Reach farther down into the soft loam without nicking yourself on that hypodermic needle and you’ll find a new geological layer—culm piles of brick and tire, anthropogenic debris of our lust for whatever burns—the decomposition of an industrial boon that is seeding a new kind of wildness: sycamore, ailanthus, and mountain laurel. By ignoring this, we ignore the resilience of this ridge and these woods. We ignore a home wilderness worthy of protecting. Let us love this, even as it outlasts us.

I walk these rusted ravines and slag heaps, looking down for wild trout and up for migrating hawks, falling in love with this interrupted landscape, for what it is becoming—a marriage of native and invasive forms, all growing from the rubble of collieries and abandoned railroad beds into a feral terrain singing hymns of a geology that we cannot seem to help but mine. This sort of wilderness holds its dead water deities hidden, stained in long-forgotten waters, and yet there are still prayers worth chanting, trails worth walking, trees worth sketching, churches worth attending. Still I rejoice in the creases of this persistent land, in the totem of bankrupt industries scattered about the endless mountains of this, a new postindustrial wilderness.

 

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Michael Garrigan writes and teaches along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and believes that every watershed should have a Poet Laureate. He is the author of two poetry collections, Robbing the Pillars and the chapbook What I Know [How to Do]. You can read more of his writing here.

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