Cover image for Reading Shaver’s Creek: Ecological Reflections from an Appalachian Forest Edited by Ian Marshall

Reading Shaver’s Creek

Ecological Reflections from an Appalachian Forest

Edited by Ian Marshall


$19.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08020-8

Available as an e-book

168 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
8 b&w illustrations/1 map

Keystone Books

Reading Shaver’s Creek

Ecological Reflections from an Appalachian Forest

Edited by Ian Marshall

“What a pleasure to wander with some of America’s finest environmental writers along the ferny edges of a Pennsylvania stream—to listen to birdsong with their educated ears, to see the stony past and stormy future through their discerning eyes, to explore the brambles and branches of their marvelous minds. Like Walden, Reading Shaver’s Creek is testimony to the power of creative attention to a special place, and a rollicking good read.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
What does it mean to know a place? What might we learn about the world by returning to the same place year after year? What would a long-term record of such visits tell us about change and permanence and our place in the natural world? This collection explores these and related questions through a series of reflective essays and poems on Pennsylvania’s Shaver’s Creek landscape from the past decade.

Collected as part of The Ecological Reflections Project—a century-long effort to observe and document changes to the natural world in the central Pennsylvanian portion of the Appalachian Forest—these pieces show how knowledge of a place comes from the information and perceptions we gather from different perspectives over time. They include Marcia Bonta’s keen observations about how humans knowingly and unknowingly affect the landscape; Scott Weidensaul’s view of the forest as a battlefield; and Katie Fallon describing the sounds of human and nonhuman life along a trail. Together, these selections create a place-based portrait of a vivid ecosystem during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Featuring contributions by nationally known nature writers and local experts, Reading Shaver’s Creek is a unique, complex depiction of the central Pennsylvania landscape and its ecology. We know the land and creatures of places such as Shaver’s Creek are bound to change throughout the century. This book is the first step to documenting how.

In addition to the editor, contributors to this volume are Marcia Bonta, Michael P. Branch, Todd Davis, Katie Fallon, David Gessner, Hannah Inglesby, John Lane, Carolyn Mahan, Jacy Marshall-McKelvey, Steven Rubin, David Taylor, Julianne Lutz Warren, and Scott Weidensaul.

“What a pleasure to wander with some of America’s finest environmental writers along the ferny edges of a Pennsylvania stream—to listen to birdsong with their educated ears, to see the stony past and stormy future through their discerning eyes, to explore the brambles and branches of their marvelous minds. Like Walden, Reading Shaver’s Creek is testimony to the power of creative attention to a special place, and a rollicking good read.”
Reading Shaver’s Creek is an inspirational contribution to the growing genre of multivoiced, place-oriented community writing projects, sometimes called ‘deep maps.’ Its blend of environmental history, ecological understanding, and literary flair is all seasoned with a healthy love of place, whether that place is thought of as an out-of-the-way valley in the Allegheny Mountains or the whole of planet Earth.”
“The journals of nature writers like John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau provide a rich record of cultural and climate change. Now the Ecological Reflections Project has brought this approach to the eastern Appalachians. Over the next one hundred years, accomplished writers will experience and reflect on place, and this lively book samples the project’s first decade. Brimming with beautiful insights, stories, and meditations, it will inspire anyone who loves the way wood, stone, wind, and water speak to the human spirit.”
“Visit Shaver’s Creek. Observe. Write. Like exquisite footprints meandering along a muddy shore, the ‘best of’ pieces in this ten-year compendium track the fascinating merging of mind and matter, words and wildness, people and place. After reading these reflections by scientists, local writers, and visiting authors, Shaver’s Creek has become meaningful—and even a little magical—to me, and I hope that this book will inspire similar long-term ecological reflections projects in other special places.”
“This book can serve well as a model for nature centers or writers who may wish to explore a place and document that exploration. It also makes an excellent text for courses in environmental writing and environmental studies, English literature courses that focus on nature, or parks and recreation courses interested in how visitors experience a nature center, park, or natural area.”

Ian Marshall is Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.



Introduction Reading the Forested Landscape: Where to Begin (Ian Marshall)

Site 1: Twin Bridges

On Orange Teeth and Busy Beavers (Scott Weidensaul)

Dams and Lushness (David Gessner)

The Insistence of Forests (Hannah Inglesby)

In Search of Signs (Michael P. Branch)

Site 2: The Sawmill Site

The Mill and the Hemlocks (Scott Weidensaul)

Looking into the Past: The Rudy Sawmill (Jacy Marshall-McKelvey)

Nothing Remains the Same (Marcia Bonta)

The Saw (Perpetual) Mill (Julianne Lutz Warren)

Site 3: The Chestnut Orchard

Which Side Are You On? (Michael P. Branch)

Reflections on Ecology from the Chestnut Grove (Carolyn Mahan)

The Chestnut Plantation (John Lane)

Almost Lost (Katie Fallon)

Site 4: The Dark Cliffy Spot

The Dark Cliffy Place: A Fiction Fragment in Imitation of Cormac McCarthy (David Gessner)

Song for the Unnamed Creek (David Taylor)

Naming a Place, Placing a Name (Michael P. Branch)

Reflections on Ecology at the Dark Cliffy Spot (Carolyn Mahan)

Site 5: The Bluebird Trail

Battleground (Scott Weidensaul)

Plotlines, Transitions, and Ecotones (Ian Marshall)

Caught in the Web (John Lane)

A New Sound (Katie Fallon)

Site 6: Lake Perez

The Lake on Ice (Ian Marshall)

Wet Earth (Todd Davis)

Spring Melt (Todd Davis)

Lake Perez: Reflections (Julianne Lutz Warren)

Fog on Lake Perez (John Lane)

Site 7: The Lake Trail

Clockwise Around the Lake (Ian Marshall)

Circumambulating the Lake (David Gessner)

The Work of Walking (David Taylor)

A Place for Exuberance (Hannah Inglesby)

A Little Quiet, Please (Marcia Bonta)

Site 8 : The Raptor Center

Earning Intimacy at the Raptor Center (David Taylor)

Eagle Acquaintances (Hannah Inglesby)

The Raptor (Eye) Center (Julianne Lutz Warren)

I Remember a Bird (Katie Fallon)


About the Contributors


Reading the Forested Landscape

Where to Begin

Ian Marshall

A blank page.

A forested landscape.

And the problem of how to put one onto another.

That was the task facing me back in 2006 when I ventured down to the “Twin Bridges,” about a ten-minute walk down the Lake Trail from the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in central Pennsylvania. The Twin Bridges reach across two branches of Shaver’s Creek just about a hundred yards or so before the creek inlets into Lake Perez. There is a fortuitously placed sign there with the title “Reading the Shaver’s Creek Landscape.” It refers to Tom Wessels’s classic text of environmental interpretation, Reading the Forested Landscape, and the sign points to various clues in the area that bespeak its history— evidence of beaver activity in downed and conically gnawed but still standing dead trees, a line of exposed hemlock roots indicating where a fallen “nurse log” once had lain, the open canopy above the stream where once it must have been beaver dammed. Okay, read the landscape, I told myself. I’m a literature professor—that’s one thing I should know how to do: read things.

But where to begin? I had borrowed a GPS unit, so I took a reading. Data, I thought—that’s what we should start with. Hard facts. Let’s find out just where we are. Some numbers appeared on the screen, and I took out my brand-new notebook and wrote them down. Then the numbers changed, and changed again. But I hadn’t moved, and while it’s true that the creek was moving, it hadn’t shifted its position on the planet. What was going on? One possibility was that it was not a very accurate GPS unit. Of course, the planet is in motion all the time, so maybe the changing figures on the screen were affected by that? And the satellites that were sending me the data—they were obviously in motion. And maybe the trees swaying in the spring wind interfered with the transmission between satellite and GPS unit?

It was lesson one. It’s not so easy to know just where you are in the world. The place is changing all the time, always in motion. Data change. Yes, even facts as well as our perceptions are subject to change.

What does it mean to know a place? What can different academic disciplines teach us about the natural world? What might we learn about the world by returning to the same place year after year for, say, a hundred years? What would a long-term record of such visits tell us about change and permanence and our place in the natural world? These are some of the questions explored by the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project at Penn State University’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and Stone Valley Experimental Forest. Each year, both a visiting nature writer and a Penn State faculty member who studies the natural world from the perspective of his or her own academic discipline visit eight designated sites in Stone Valley. At each site, the writer and scholar record what they see, their observations informed by their academic background or unique creative approach. A mammalogist might evaluate the site as habitat, while a poet may write a haiku. An environmental historian might seek clues as to past human habitation of the area, while a botanist could describe the plant life. For the creative nature writer, the topic of reflection might be a comparison of eastern forest and western desert, or the changes in a familiar landscape wrought by climate change. The essays included here constitute a “best of”—or at least a “representative of ”—collection from the first decade of a hundred-year venture initiated in 2006.

The Ecological Reflections Project posits that knowledge of a place is the result of informed seeing from a number of different angles, and that both place itself and our knowledge and perceptions of it change over time. In addition to the long-term changes that are traced over the course of the next century, some respondents also track seasonal changes by spacing out their observations over the year. Visiting writers who are not able to make quick day trips out to Shaver’s Creek over the course of a year stay for a week in one of the cabins at Stone Valley Recreation Area. The eight sites designated for study include the Twin Bridges area, the site of an old sawmill, an experimental chestnut orchard, the so-called Dark Cliffy Spot along an unnamed tributary of Shaver’s Creek, the high point of the Bluebird Trail, and the raptor cages located behind the Environmental Center. Respondents also write about a circuit hike on the Lake Trail and about Lake Perez itself, the dominant landscape feature of the Stone Valley Recreation Area and Stone Valley Forest. But talk about how quickly things can change. Remember the evidence of beaver activity I saw at Twin Bridges—the girdled trunks of dead hemlocks, the open canopy above the creek where all the trees had drowned and died off? There had been a pond there once, behind a beaver dam, and now it was gone. Presumably, the beaver dam was breached by wind, water, and entropy a season or two after the beavers left. And Lake Perez, its seventy-two-acre surface reposing behind the concrete dam constructed in 1960 by the beavers’ mammalian relatives, has done its own disappearing trick. When the Ecological Reflections Project was started a dozen years ago, Lake Perez was there, and then a year later it was gone, emptied so that leaks in the dam could be repaired, which took seven years as funding issues caused delays. What was left was a winding stream through a muddy wetland. And now, as of a couple years ago, presto change-o, in the blink of a geological eye, the dam is back and there’s a lake again.

The Ecological Reflections Project has its origins in a scholarly conference I attended in 2005, where I heard a presentation on Oregon State University’s reflections project at H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Since 1980, the Andrews Forest has been one of twenty-eight sites in the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research Network, and researchers there have studied such topics as the ecological role of the spotted owl in old-growth forests. But in the early years of the twenty-first century, a group of researchers, including stream ecologist Jim Sedell and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, saw an opportunity to expand the inquiry beyond the natural sciences, and so in 2003 they started their ecological reflections project—“a humanities analog to the scientific research”—under the aegis of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. It was Charles Goodrich, director of the Spring Creek Project, Fred Swanson, a senior fellow with Spring Creek, and Kathleen Dean Moore whom I had seen at that conference a decade or so ago.

At the Andrews Forest, the ecological reflectors visit four sites—a gravel bar, the “log decomposition plot,” a recent clear-cut, and a selective-logging plot. According to Goodrich, the project encourages writers from the humanities to explore the “emotional and cultural relationships that humans have with both wild and man- aged landscapes,” pointing out that scientific information on its own is rarely sufficient to sway public opinion and affect policy. The Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project has com- piled its own “best of ” collection from its first dozen or so years, gathered in the cleverly titled Forest Under Story. In the introduction, Goodrich notes that “the causes of habitat degradation reside in the stories people tell themselves . . . about their relationships with other creatures, with the processes of nature, and with the land.” In exploring those relationships, the writers are engaged in an act that is both restoration and “re-story-ation.”1

After first hearing about the Andrews project at that conference thirteen years ago, I returned home to State College excited about the idea of ecological reflecting, and the next day made my weekly visit to Shaver’s Creek. When I moved to the area more than a quarter century ago, Shaver’s Creek was one of the first places I discovered for hiking and cross-country skiing, and when my kids were young it was a frequent destination, mainly so the kids could look at the hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls at the Raptor Center, and at the snakes and turtles inside the Environmental Center building. One of my earliest recognitions of my four-year-old son’s precocious reading ability came when he read the words “northern harrier” off a sign in front of one of the raptor cages. I remember Corky Potter, founder of the Environmental Center, kindly explaining to my kids why leaves of deciduous trees might be bigger on the lower branches, as they strive to absorb the little sunlight that makes it through the upper canopy. My kids eventually went to summer camps at Shaver’s Creek, and at the time when I was returning from that conference in 2005, my homeschooled son was working as a volunteer at the Raptor Center. Every Monday afternoon he would sweep out eagle cages, put out food (mostly dead mice) for the birds, and take turtles for a walk on the front lawn of the center while I took a hike around the lake.

On that particular day thirteen years ago, I returned from my hike and told Mark McLaughlin, director of Shaver’s Creek, about the Andrews Forest project, and Mark immediately suggested that we could do something similar at Shaver’s Creek, combining opportunities for environmental research with creative expression on behalf of a beloved landscape. We started slowly, with me volunteering to do a pilot set of writings and establish the sites, aiming for diversity of forest types and habitat. Over the years, funding support for the initiative has grown, and we’ve managed to put together an impressive roster of contributors.

The Shaver’s Creek version of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Project borrows many elements from the original project in the Andrews Experimental Forest: writers visit designated sites in the forest, meditate on what they see, and write about the experience. And we certainly share the impulse to “restory” the forest. But there are a few key differences. At the Shaver’s Creek version, we have sought to include a healthy dose of local voices—and of course we have different sorts of sites, reflecting the different geography, climate, and land-use history of our area. And since at Shaver’s Creek there was not already an ongoing research project approaching the landscape from the perspective of the natural sciences, we are eager to include the voices of scientists in our reflections—with biologists Carolyn Mahan and Julianne Lutz Warren being the first of what we hope will be many representatives from the natural sciences to share their perspectives.

So that’s the history of the project. The question in terms of the scholarly context is why there is so much excitement over such ventures now. It’s not as though this is an entirely new idea: Henry Thoreau was doing something like an ecological reflection in place with his decade-long Kalendar project of the 1850s, where he painstakingly recorded, month by month and year by year, the dates and details of annual events (the ice breakup on the river, the first robin’s appearance, the first buds on the huckleberry bushes, the first berries). But perhaps Thoreau’s project also holds the answer: at the time, nobody paid any attention to his project. It wasn’t published in his lifetime, and none of his neighbors quite understood what he was up to. In recent years, however, not only has a new generation of literary critics gotten excited about this wealth of newly published Thoreauviana; so have scientists. Ecologist Richard Primack, in Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods (2014), has turned to Thoreau’s meticulous records in order to track the effects of climate change as it has in turn affected the timing of seasonal change in Massachusetts. It has become apparent that paying attention to changes in a landscape over time has value—sometimes value that we are not even aware of at the moment of recording what we can see.

(Excerpt ends here)