HOME IN THE JADE FOREST
Copyright 2013 Paul Belz
My bones felt solid and firm when I returned to these long, green ridges. The Allegheny River’s water tugged on liquids in my cells, inviting me to waltz. “These ridges were higher and craggier than the Himalayas when they formed,” I told Kate. “Wind and rain have worn them down and rounded them, and flattened their high points.”
“They remind me of a herd of green animals resting beside the river,” she grinned, pushing her collar length, oak bark brown hair from her face.
“I used to think of them as sleeping mammoths, or sauropod dinosaurs- the bulky ones, with their long necks resting on their backs,” I laughed. “They’ve been on earth way longer than either of those species. I used to imagine what would happen if they woke up and went stomping along the river bank. The woods here are thick like an otter’s fur.”
Kate said. “What kinds of trees are they?”
“Elms, maples, birches, beeches, oaks. Eastern hemlocks, and lots of others. Pennsylvania’s forests have way more tree species than most people dream,” I said proudly.
“How’d the Allegheny River wind up here?”
“You must think I’m an expert on this area,” I sighed.
“This is your turf,” she laughed. “C’mon, Pittsburgh dude!”
“Even though I’ve lived in California for ages? Well, my understanding is that there used to be a series of rivers here that flowed into an inland sea here. Eventually melting water and deposits from glaciers helped form the Allegheny as it is now. It starts up in New York and hits the Monongahela in Pittsburgh to make the Ohio. And yeah, I was born near the Ohio’s banks.”
The river meandered among smooth ridges that sloped down to touch its banks. Hidden streams cut canyons like endless mazes as they crept towards the great Allegheny. “I’m ready to go explore one of those streambeds,” Kate told me.
“Me too. Soon. Today,” I said. “I have personal ghosts that hide in those shadows. We’ll meet a few of them.”
An eastern swallowtail butterfly rode the humid breeze, pulling its shadow along the green ground. It rested on a patch of daisies; its yellow wings matched their lemon colored petals and butterscotch centers. Kate grinned, pulled her camera from its case and snuck towards it. Somehow, it noticed her and zipped away like a helicopter.
“Damn, they’re no more cooperative than birds!” Kate said. “They really get active in this heat.”
“Don’t spend too much time stalking them,” I laughed. “They’ll drive you nuts. Try those Canada geese swimming in that quiet part of the river. Hey, they must be males, they’re guarding eight goslings.”
“Yeah and there’s more of that dirty foam,” Kate grimaced.
Fizzy gray patches floated downstream from the Kinzua Dam, a sloping concrete block in the Allegheny’s center. Water, holding torn apart plants and algae that had passed through the Dam, poured through two circular holes in the structure. “No worries,” a grinning Bureau of Land Management naturalist told us in the visitor’s center an hour earlier. “The foam is organic. It will give bacteria living downstream a good meal.” This sounded real, the bubbly patches decreased in size as they downstream. Still, they stained the river.
The Dam creates the Kinzua Reservoir, Pennsylvania’s largest lake. A million people visit it every year, and enjoy hiking trails, fishing, and a beach. Water also flows to an additional reservoir; it’s released to flow past turbines when additional electrical energy is needed in peak periods. The reservoir also offers residents relief in drought times. The Dam’s main function is flood control. It protects 2,180 square mile watershed when deluges make the Allegheny uncontrollable.
A reservoir’s far less beautiful than a wild river, and hydroelectric power gets uncountable criticism. I did understand the argument about flood control. Memories of the Johnstown Flood and other disasters have always been part of my Pittsburgh family’s folklore. Still, the River ached.
The Dam’s real downside is its impact on native people. The construction condemned 10,000 fertile acres of the Seneca reservation, granted by George Washington in the Treaty of Chachingua. Eight hundred Seneca people were displaces, and their houses were burned. In 1964, Johnny Cash recorded Native American folksinger Peter LaFarge’s “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” to protest the construction. Buffy St. Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo Are Gone” and “My Country T’is of Thy People You’re Dying” also mourn this tragedy.
“It really stings me that more people stop to look at the Dam than the rest of this region,” I said. Cars pulled off the highway; people gathered to gaze at this monument to development. Kate nodded, “Let’s take that trail up the ridge.”
We turned and walked into a thick forest where the shade became emerald darkness, Even the air was green. Silence smothered the highway’s groans, replacing them with cicada’s songs. Eastern hemlocks grew on top of boulders, wrapping them in thick roots tough enough to reach the ground.
My thin father walked towards me, transparent enough for the forest to shine through him. Wavy gray hair crowned his alert hawk face. I visualized him in autumn, wearing his blue Coast Guard pea coat from 1945. He remained wracked by the bacterial heart infection he got from an unsterilized needle during a series of immunizations. Ironically, this disease saved him; a kamikaze hit his supply transport ship several weeks after he was taken to a San Francisco hospital.
“You’re talking to one of your ghosts,” Kate said.
“How can you tell?”
“You have that Beethoven scowl you get when you’re reflective.”
“You know me well,” I smiled. “Yeah, my dad. He gave me Beethoven. Also Shakespeare, Hemingway, world history, skepticism, and these forests. You’d have liked him, he was a self-educated Pittsburgh prole.”
“I thought his heart condition made him so weak he couldn’t hike.”
“That’s what doctors told him. But when my mother was working at the phone company, he’d often gather us neighborhood kids for an adventure. Sometimes he’d take us downtown on a trolley to see some movie. More often, we’d walk in the woods near our house. He knew berries, mushrooms, trees, bird songs, and made damned sure we did, too. He was the least religious person I’ve known, including you, but these woods were his spiritual home.”
“Yours, too. Hey, look at these little brown frogs hopping all over the trail!” Dozens of tiny amphibians skipped past our hiking boots. “Don’t step on them! But your family must have really worried about those hikes.”
“My mother would freak when she found out where he’d taken us, but I think she secretly loved the idea. She hated the idea of his being stuck in safety. After he died, doctors determined that exercise was the best thing for his condition.”
“You were 10 when he died. ”
“11. It was Christmastime. I’d just been playing some Christmas carols on the piano, and my cousins were singing. An awful night.”
“I wonder what he would have thought about the Dam.”
“He would have been conflicted,” I said. I turned and watch his memory walk towards the river. He gave me a sad, perplexed glance just before he became fog on the wind.
“Here, rattlesnake, rattlesnake!” a small voice called. A girl who must have been 8 skipped along the trail at the base of some shale layers. The tall cliffs were cut by water to resemble postmodern sculptures in a lichen covered brown medium. Openings at their top let cold air sink through the rock, which cooled it more. Holes in the cliffs released it, giving us a blast of relief from Pennsylvania’s humidity.
“You’re an adventurous girl,” Kate said. “I’ve never heard someone call rattlesnakes.”
“I just want to see them,” the girl said. “I’m an animal person.”
A tall, graying fellow with a walking stick rolled his eyes and chuckled, walking behind her. “Adventurous is one word,” he said. “She is a great granddaughter for a retired geologist.”
“A geologist!” I said. “You can probably tell me how these shale layers wound up so high above the river bed.”
“There was an inland sea here many millions of years ago,” he replied. “It deposited the shale.”
“But how did they wind up so high on these ridges?”
“Tectonic activity,” he replied. “This area used to be a flat plain with an inland sea. The area was elevated during the Cenozoic Era, and these sediments from the sea were pushed up to this height.”
“Very cool,” I replied. ”How did these boulders get here, glaciers?”
“No, I haven’t seen any glacial striations on the bedrock. These are something of a mystery.”
“Do you know anything about these frogs?” Kate laughed as one hopped over her boot.
“They’re toads, actually. They just emerged from a pond somewhere around here. Now they will scatter into the woods and find shelter.”
“Here, toads, toads!” the young naturalist called. “Let’s find more, grandpa.”
“Watch out for rattlesnakes,” Kate laughed. We all exchanged grins and waves as they walked down the trail, in the direction my dad’s memory had gone.
“He’s like my dad come back in a modern form”, I said,” Giving the kid this place as a treasure.”
Kate hugged me for a moment, then pointed ahead of us. “That trail goes deeper into the woods,” she said. “Let’s take it.”
We followed an Allegheny River bound stream on a trail that smelled like fungus and pine.. The winding creek was clear as the cleanest glass, only the sun’s reflection on its ripples showed that it moved. Its bottom was smooth and rockless, making it nearly silent.
A cardinal somewhere in green shade changed, “Pretty-pretty-pretty!” A pileated woodpecker’s slow thuds gave it a percussion accompaniement. Mountain laurel, Pennsylvania’s state plant lined the stone covered path, separating us from the mazes of hemlock, maple and beech. These shrubs’ pink flowers had fallen months ago, but their tough oval leaves tossed sunlight back to the sky.
“I sure hope bears are around to eat all these berries.” Kate quipped.
“We’ll hear bears grunting if they come,” I said. “They would like some of these wild mushrooms, too. I can’t name all these berries any more. But check out the amanita muscaria!” The familiar red capped mushrooms with white speckles thrived at the base of pines.
“Bears would know they’d get a tummy ache from those,” Kate said. “Would they eat these little yellow coral fungi?”
“I don’t know if those are edible or not,” I said. “But they’d love those oyster mushrooms!” The round, thin fungi grew in layers on a dead oak, decorating it. I stopped for a moment, and felt deeply at home. Pennsylvania flowed through my skin and flesh, and gave my dried out cells a drink.
“You look like Beethoven again,” Kate said. “You got another ghost.”
“Yes. It’s Derf.” He sauntered down the trail, his hands in his torn jeans’ front pockets. His tan hair and beard bounced as he came. Silver wire rims reflected the woods. He hummed the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat” and greeted me with a crescent moon shaped grin. He used to hand me palms full of topsoil, decaying oak leaves, and millipedes. “This is true power,” he always said. We shared it like the Eucharist we’d both left behind.
We planned to buy land where our gang of Penn State oddballs could weather the collapse of Western civilization. We’d live in yurts, grow our own food, celebrate wilderness and survive. Half the folks only wanted to keep us all together. I blocked with the other faction, which wanted to grow food for the revolution, start a free school, and offer refuge to burnt out community organizers. Anarchist backpacker Derf, the sex crazed watcher for the apocalypse, the sarcastically loving friend, the fanatic for Herman Hesse, Carlos Castaneda, and Camus kept
a foot in both camps. He held us together until we lost him.
“You’ve said he died in a weird way.” Kate asked.
“Nobody really knows how. His house mates found him in his room one morning. Some people think he reacted badly to a swine flu shot. That’s rumored to have happened in 1976. Others mention a soft spot on the back of his skull from a childhood baseball injury. They think he fell from bed and hit that spot hard on the floor. His autopsy was inconclusive, we’ll never have the answer.
“The project fell apart after that. Some folks scattered all over the east coast. My faction all wound up in California and tried to organize other projects until personality conflicts clobbered us.”
“It’s remarkable that so many of you are still in touch. I gotta wonder how he got the name Derf!”
“His name was really Michael Reever,” I laughed.” All he ever told us was his mother heard the name Derf on TV when she was pregnant. She liked it so much she insisted it become his middle name. It fit him, he wasn’t much of a Mike.”
“What the hell is that?” Kate asked, stopping quickly.
It was an oil pump, standing in the middle of a clearing. Gravel surrounded it, and a dirt road led to it. It was silent, no one was around. We fearfully walked to the brightly painted intruder and touched it. The Allegheny Defense Project states that 9,000 wells exist in the Forest, more than the total number in all other national forests combined. The Forest Service mentions that 4,500 miles of roads cut through the forests. The Allegheny Defense Project states that half of these service the oil industry, and mentiones the Forest Service’s projection that another 2000 miles of roads may be built to serve the 20,000 wells that are expected to exist by 2020.
Roads cut through the habitat for wildlife that relies on uninterrupted forests. Oil tanks store oil in the forest while brine pits receive toxic waste that result from oil drilling. Recreational opportunities are lost by deep forest drilling and when wells are placed near the Longhouse National Scenic Byway. Derf’s memory stood scowling with us, shaking his head until a change in weather carried him away.
Distant lightning lit the forest, thunder like timpanies came a few seconds later. This time interval showed that we could get to the car before the storm hit us. I love Pennsylvania’s electrical storms, but the forest is no place to watch one. We turned and walked quickly past fallen trees, and more oil pumps. The storm rushed towards us like a cheetah. We reached the car just as the rain hit us like cat claws.
I drove as quickly as possible towards Warren, Pa. Thunder and lightning rode chariots around us. Snare drum rain pelted our roof. The two lane highway covered with water and mud that my tires frantically scattered. We listened to the radio for comfort, and heard the howling Severe Weather Alert again and again.
Warren’s brick downtown area shone with gathering rain. People wrapped newspapers around their heads and ran to stores for shelter. The flags of nations that have controlled the area – British, French, U.S. and Seneca, all soaked and clung to their poles. We reached our lodge and ran for the door as the North Country poured its passion in solid rain sheets.
Later, dry and warm, we allowed ourselves Rolling Rocks as we sat on the porch. My father’s memory came and told us tales of Loki and Thor, the Thunderer. Derf danced with his beer and let out a shamanic chant. Lightning flowed constant as the full moon’s glow; thunder answered like a taiko drum.
We four rode the porch swing silently as the receding storm hugged us. “Your home state is so beautiful but it’s hurting. Like my Michigan. We probably don’t want to know what can happen next, but we need to.”
“Agreed. It could be fracking,” I said. “I’ve heard it hasn’t reached this area yet. But it’s coming like an invading army.” I sipped from my beer. We are our homeland’s uncontrollable life, its wounds, and its healing.
Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania. Aug. 2012 – Sept. 2013 2,691words