Dreams are powerful tools that can help guide anyone to success and happiness. They represent some cherished aspiration, an ultimate ideal of achievement.

The word sylvan refers most directly to a setting associated with the woods. Reflecting on the vigorous life that abounds in sylvan settings is a very powerful force in my life. For me, this word evokes feelings of transcendence, clarity, and unity.

A Sylvan Dream is a dynamic compilation of my life dream. It is an attempt to seek out and document the truth, beauty, and clarity that exists in this world.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Returning Home - Part Two, Impending Spring

I now return to walk around these hills after years of traveling in landscapes heralded for their wild beauty, something I don’t feel I had witnessed until late in my teenage years. Stepping into the forest, my feet fall quietly upon a bed of moist oak leaves.

The sun shines brightly through the broken canopy, yet the rain that fell several days ago can still be felt in the soil. Acorns and beechnut husks press into my feet as I walk up the hillside through thickening briars. Crossing over a neighbor’s four-wheeler path, I stop to momentarily peruse his growing pile of refuse – a few old tires, rusting barrels full of ash, old rain gutters, and rotting plywood. I wish this were an uncommon sight, yet these personal dumps are just as much a part of these woods as the trees that make them.

I continue up the hillside past an old treestand into an area dense with shrubs and briars. Someone cut the trees here while I was still in high school, and promptly set up a hunting spot in the clearing. Surprisingly, the deer trail here didn’t dissolve into the thickening brush over the years. The deer appear to bed in the dense brush in this sheltered area of the mountain, where they are still less than 100 yards from a healthy crop of acorns atop the slope, and only 100 yards from a verdant field below. While I have come to prefer the darker, wetter areas of forest, I see how this is the perfect location for these deer.

Sneaking my way through the briars, I still make a ridiculous amount of noise. I only make it about three steps into the thicket before several deer blast from the other side and dissolve back into the distant silence of the forest just as quickly. Trudging on through the thicket, I follow the well-worn path up to the large oaks above.

A few bright pink acorns riddled with bite marks are splayed open on the forest floor. I wrinkle my nose just thinking of the bitter taste squirrels must endure, or perhaps even relish. I boiled a bowl of acorns with a friend in college once for six hours, and they still tasted like stomach bile. Amidst the destroyed acorns, I find a small seedling gaining purchase on the trail a few feet later, and wonder if it will make it.

It will most likely be nipped at the bud in short order, but with any luck it will be enough time for it to sink a taproot deep enough into the soil to procure adequate moisture to make it through to next year, when it will sprout again, most likely providing fodder for another passing deer. Many hardwood seedlings will live this seemingly menial existence for decades, just garnering enough energy to sink their roots deeper until finally one of their relatives towering above is brought down. Thousands of seedlings begin an immediate race that will last many seasons, even much longer than my life, until the gap is finally closed in again. To me, an oak seedling is something very special. It is a solemn reminder of the strength that exists in everything. Be it two inches or two hundred feet high, I see oak as the backbone of this forest, providing a few leaves each year for a passing deer, or a healthy crop of acorns in its old age. It is a reminder of the natural virtue that exists in all life.

I step out of the forest onto a jeep trail, scanning some deer prints as I pass. I follow the deer trail back into the woods, down over the other side of the ridge, and past an old hunting spot, now tangled with logging slash. Just past our old hunting spot, the forest composition shifts in accord with the soil. An old spring bed over time has been eroded into a stream of large rocks, covered in moss. Small saplings poke out of the rocks like bristles on a brush, while some larger trees skirt the edge where some soil still exists.

A few hundred feet later, the hill flattens out, and the spring returns to the surface. This area is the hidden eden of the Bald Hills. Old trees cling to shallow clay soils soaked in spring vigor. Mayapple has begun sprout amongst the wild periwinkle.

As I scan the understory I can’t help but imagine a hen turkey lying hidden upon eggs somewhere within those verdant stalks. A few years ago during a summer research project I walked within three feet of a hen on 12 eggs without seeing her. She exploded from the late April cover when I was only several feet past her. I jumped and covered my head, thinking I was about to be attacked. Her eggs were mealy brown with reddish brown speckles. A week later we found ten poults hiding in a bush close to the empty nest.

I walk slowly along trickling spring, scanning hopefully for a motionless hen, and I find myself walking along a deer trail again as I come upon a crossing. I scan countless dents in the soil indicating deer still use this crossing regularly, but then I see a different print across the spring pressed into the thick clay. It is an old canine print, most likely a coyote. They have become rather rampant in Pennsylvania, and have even begun to display packing behavior to bring down adult deer. That is the only print I can find, so I move on.

I slosh on along the path until my feet finally tell me they have had enough cold mud, and I turn away from the spring towards the surrounding hills. Where the slopes meet the flatter hollow bottom, a different forest lies hidden. This lucky section of forest is a little too wet too log, yet remains on just enough of a slope to keep from drowning. Older oaks, poplars, and maples are swelling above me, their buds only days away from bursting. In a week or less this bright forest floor will be cast in darkness for several months. A few hemlocks hide here, speckling the forest in a deep, lacey green. Towering hemlocks, several hundred years old once covered these hollows. These hemlocks are now a juvenile image of what they could become in the distance future, but they will most likely never reach such a potential. Tiny white dots speckle these branches upon closer inspection. I reach up, brushing my hand along a branch, and watch it wave back at me for several seconds. This hemlock is perhaps a foot wide at its base, between sixty to eighty years old, and it is as good as dead.

The tiny white dots at the base of each deep green needle are the tell-tale sign of the wooly adelgid, a small, xylophagous (sap-sucking) insect larvae. Generations of these larvae will slowly suck the life out of this tree year after year, until finally it is too weak to combat the challenging environment. Foresters worry the hemlock will succumb to the same fate out chestnuts did some time ago.

Returning Home - Part One, The Bald Hills

In separation, the heart grows fonder...I am learning this statement should not be taken too lightly. For me, it has taken moving away from home, the place that created me, to truly learn its value. Even now as I sit here on the steps of my driveway writing this on my laptop, toads and frogs sing a song I have listened to for many years.  Their song taught my ears how to hear the song of each season, sometimes dainty yet as permeating as the spring peepers, while other times hushed as the winter wind under a frozen clear blue sky. Returning after only a couple years, I now hear the song of this land a little more clearly; an echo shouted across a valley of time, finally returning to my ears.
As much as I fool myself into thinking my home is on my back, my home is much more stationary. I grew up within a land of folded hills that we natives loyally refer to as the mountains. The Appalachian Mountains are very old. They have withered away to only mere remnants of their titanic effigies. Along their far northern extent where I live, they are now measured more accurately in the hundreds of feet.

I grew up looking across the road at a small farm, which nature was slowly taking back. Like most farms during my childhood, at its edge were woods, and this is where the mountain began its rise. This is where my father took me after we dressed in dark camo and painted our faces. This is where I looked as I hung my head out my window during windy summer nights when a full moon illuminated the whispering forest, quieting everything else. This is where I went when I was lost in my life, and when I wanted to be lost from everything else. This is where I went when I needed to be quiet, and when I needed the world to be quiet around me. This is where I learned that there is much more to this world than we are led to believe.  This is my home, the Bald Hills.

It wasn’t until high school that I actually learned the most recent name of my home, which referred to the hills directly above my house. Until then my home was simply the name of a street, a town, a state…The Bald Hills were known to harbor bandits and criminals; the way most backwoods areas seem to be characterized. I suppose those people were here for many good reasons, reasons as simple as the name of this place.
The Bald Hills were named so for being just that – bald. Pennsylvania was named for its woods, so of course we cut them all down. With the exception of a few very hard to reach pockets of geographically endowed forest, Penn’s Woods’ arboreal blanket was swiped away in a matter of a few decades. Just like the heat rushes from warm skin when blankets are swiped in the middle of the night, life vanished from the soil once covering these hills. Ironically, the rejuvenating rains that came with the warmth of spring listlessly washed away much of the naked soil. What a chilling reminder it must have been to all of the so-called bandits and criminals seeking refuge in these emaciated hills during long winters back then when wood was still the primary fuel for heating a house. I now wonder if it wasn’t mainly wood that these people were known for pathetically pilfering...

In high school, this name amused me. Picturing what a bleak landscape my home must have been back then only accentuated the ruggedness I projected on those who lived here. Feeling little connection to most of my surroundings during this rebellious time of my life, I felt delight in projecting myself in similar light as the people to come before me.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Hallowed Chorus

I felt as though the night was being enveloped in some nocturnal operatic orchestration as one fine note rose from the distant darkness, and danced with the silence around it. I stood in the shadows of a poplar tree, staring up at the moon hovering over the mountains behind my house with wide eyes in disbelief as the undulating tone waned. Then, off in the distance along the ridge an answer; undulating in a similar rhythm but with different tones. What were they saying to each other? Regardless of what they were saying, their chorus penetrated all that was human in my body, and communicated a well of meaning I cannot begin to sound.

photo by: TomClark

I heard wolves last night in Pennsylvania. I was not way up north in Potter or Tioga county, I was in York county, near one of the southernmost cities of the state, yet I heard wolves speaking across a ridge in the middle of the night under bright moonlight. I have no doubt about this, any of you out there who have heard wolves before may agree; there are few things so primal to be heard as the cry of a wolf. There are few sounds so pure that can wash away your humanity, raise the hair on your neck, erase all that surrounds you, and leave a single note resonating within your chest.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Springtime at Home

Pennsylvania is exuberant in April. Walking around outside these days fills me with excitement and content simultaneously. Pennsylvania welcomes me with a warm and pleasantly humid embrace, and whispers the purest of songs into my ear, telling me to rest, for I am home.
Spring begins its song unhurriedly as winter becomes tired. I heard it this year in Boulder, with the junco’s first trill into the crisp early morning air. The flicker was not long behind the junco. The first one I heard this year stood atop a torn cottonwood along 28th st. in Boulder, spewing its staccato cry as I drove by after a good climbing session. I have come to dislike this call so much after encountering several vociferous individuals. Their loud call echoes over treetops and deafens those unlucky enough to find one tangled in their mist-net.
Driving back into Pennsylvania as the sun was setting, the folded hills, (or mountains as we call them here) began to glow in the waning light. Maple buds shown a scarlet red, and now today they have begun bursting forth with a bright lime green flower. Then a sweeping column of light caught my eye as a four-wheeler spun around the corner of a distant field and barreled down the steep hillside, reminding me I was coming home to a different side of spring as well.

As I pulled up to a past professor’s newly acquired land, the sound of spring enveloped my attention. I stepped out of my vehicle and slammed the door quickly to notify my host I was there, but also to regain silence as quickly as possible to hear the sounds surrounding me. Off in some pencil-necked red pines, a brown tree creeper swung his song around the trees as jubilantly as he circles them in a female’s presence. Then the frogs and toads fell on my ears. Such a beautiful and disarming sound I have yet to find anywhere else. For years I laid with my head hanging out my bedroom window at night until I fell asleep to the sounds of these peepers. The wood frogs had already come and gone, leaving heaps of milky-white eggs in the vernal pools endowed to this rich land, but I still think I heard a few croaking reclusively like an old floorboard in a smoky cabin. After only momentary rests, the peepers reclaim the spring air with a trill I will not even try to describe. I simply implore you to come to the Pennsylvania woods when the earth is waking up to hear such a welcoming sound.
It was the sound of the spring peepers in the pond down behind my house that brought dreams of the lightning bugs yet to come during my childhood. As post-mating pleasure deflated the peepers’ vigor, unable to sleep in such quietude I began to gaze into the warmer evenings with my windows open. After many nights blanketed in black with occasional silvery moonlight, I would finally see them. Arriving like heralded ghosts, I would squint into the night; never completely sure of my eyes for some time. The earliest intrepids would flicker their butts perhaps only once or twice every five minutes as they climbed the branches of my neighbors apple trees, but as they dropped from the treetops and lifted into flight I was made sure of their presence, as they flickered off into the fields around my house to find others. These early fireflies had a tough time, much tougher than those to arrive a few weeks later to a veritable orgy filling the field behind my house with such an ethereal dance the heavens must become jealous.

Sloshing through the marshy creeks braiding through the land, C.C. showed me around to the pools and ponds as we shared enjoyment of the season’s magnificence. We stopped from time to time, glassing the pond in attempts to identify a sheepish fox sparrow or swamp sparrow flitting around the grass and tree branches. Sparrows still seem hopeless to me, but C.C.’s interest in them reminded me that while my true interests will never lead me astray, my love for Natural History should remain broad and encompassing.
Twenty minutes down the road at Bucknell, similar songs welcomed me. I took a walk with another friend, laying on the ground from time to time to get a closer look at some of the first spring flowers that polka-dot the lesser-known wilder lawns of the University. It is so sweet to be home in the welcoming arms of my spring birthday in Pennsylvania, full of April vigor.