From space the nighttime Eastern Seaboard appears like anastomosing nerve cells radiating white light. Cedar Run, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, the idyllic place of my youth, remains an unlighted pocket within the conurbation. From its deeply rural environs, it is still possible to clearly view the night sky stars and satellites.
Mountainous and heavily forested, it once epitomized Puritan minister Cotton Mather’s “howling wilderness.” When Lewis and Clark were making their way west along the Missouri, it still remained deeply backwoods defying European settlement. Not agriculture, rather late 19th century lumbering and tanneries conquered this wilderness. Transported by spring freshets and narrow-gauge railroads, its timber built Eastern cities, while bark tannin from its ancient hemlock trees served to process hides into the leather belts powering the steam-driven Industrial Revolution.
The fury of the assault on the area’s forest resources literally laid the mountains bare, a great biological unraveling. Bleeding centuries of accumulated rich organic topsoil, the plundered denuded forest land was considered economically worthless and acquired by the Commonwealth for a dollar an acre. The area remained a sparsely populated economic backwater for nearly a century.
Gradually, resiliently, albeit diminished from the original grandeur, forests and wildlife returned. Today, surrounded by a densely populated urban environment, the public mountain land has become increasingly valuable for open space and wild lands —an outdoor recreation Mecca attracting urbanites seeking the sanity of nature, if no more than through the windshield or on a bike trail.
But stasis is illusionary and elusive. Subjected to contemporary ecological assaults, the landscape is changed and changing: acid rain, pesticides, climate change, Marcellus shale development, second-growth logging, recreation homes set within the floodplains, and a host of destructive nonnative pests, pathogens, and invasive species—American chestnut blight, Dutch-elm disease, beech bark disease, emerald ash-borer, hemlock wooly adelgid, gypsy moth, Asian long-horned beetles; the list goes on — eons of forest evolution and species adaptation silently wilting before the onslaught; followed by invasion of thickets of nonnative species, which a few decades ago were not even present: common barberry, multiflora rose, Russian olive, tree of heaven, and Japanese knotweed—aggressively marching across meadows and stream banks; a vast and rapid monoclonal supplanting of biodiversity and productivity.
Balance of nature is a human concept. Nature as we know it is being deposed by “weedy species,” David Quammen’s Planet of Weeds. What passes for nature is no longer natural. Frequently unintended and random, the ecological narrative reflects an arrogantly assumed human ability to control or manipulate all aspects of nature; an Anthropocene supposition, arguably Industrial Age myth.
Beyond geographically, do any places nowadays remain unchanged? Perhaps only within our minds as places where we once lived. For people who only occasionally visit an area, and tend to perceive the forests and thickets simply as amorphous green background, it may make little difference. Neo-environmentalists argue that while man’s activities are destroying habitats, we are also creating new ones. However, for those who may have historical knowledge or an intimate memory of the prior environs — the land uses, natural vegetation patterns, habitats and species — it can be more personal and profound. Like the passing of old friends we once knew and enjoyed, one mourns the loss of diverse natural landscapes and their native species.