What is nature? I ponder this as I walk down a dirt track on a perfect autumn day. These woods are not old nor particularly tall, although the growth is thick and unexpectedly varied. Poplars, oaks, and maples dominate the trees. Thick brush makes a dense, almost impenetrable understory. Newly fallen brown leaves blanket this summer’s ground plants. Wheel ruts hold puddles of firm mud with fresh hoofprints of deer, as well as raccoons and coyotes. I have a strong sense that I have been on this path before — when the landscape was barren culm heaps and acrid ponds. I am revisiting this site after 50 years because I want to see how it has changed and to reflect on a small part I played in shaping what it looks like today.
When I set out to find this place, I wasn’t sure where it was. I was on a quest, driven by a memory. May Theilgaard Watts, in the wonderful second edition of her book, Reading the Landscape of America, revisited landscapes she had studied 25 years earlier. Her writing inspired me to have a second look at a landscape I saw but once, in 1970. Since I had been 11 at the time, I had not conducted a scholarly analysis, but I had stored away childhood images and an old story. I remembered enough to start my search in Tower City, a small mining town in Schuylkill County in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. At O’Neal’s 4th Street Station Pub I recounted my story hoping to get some leads. Lynn, a local man, gave me directions to a rise north of town.
This part of the Appalachians is the Ridge and Valley province, where the rock strata are deeply folded and bent from the pressure of continents colliding long ago. Under this pressure soft coal metamorphosed into anthracite over millions of years. It is hard, dense, and shiny black. Anthracite is to bituminous coal what marble is to limestone. The geological map of Pennsylvania shows several anthracite fields across the northeastern section of the state. The Southern Field stretches across Schuylkill County and reaches prongs into Dauphin and Lebanon Counties.
Because it has a high carbon content with few impurities, anthracite burns hot with little flame or smoke. The coal industry came to the Southern Field shortly after the Civil War, and since then anthracite shaped not only the local mining landscapes but also the economic structure of eastern cities. Where coal seams ran deep, miners tunneled under the ridges to get it out. But on the shoulders of the ridges they mined from the surface, using large shovels to strip away the overburden and dig the coal deposit in broad daylight. For a hundred years, miners scraped the landscape with ever larger machines, leaving a mineral wasteland in its wake. Although laws prohibiting land abandonment existed before 1970, Pennsylvania was still rich with abandoned strip mines.
My childhood home was in a leafy, green town an hour to the southwest in the middle of well-watered farmland. Eastern deciduous forests covered hillsides, while deep limestone soils grew wheat and corn on the valley floor.
I was in a scout troop and one Saturday we went on a tree planting project. It was a restorative action to participate in the first Earth Day. Nothing prepared me for my first visit to an abandoned coal mine. Even at 11, I knew this was a profoundly disturbed landscape. It reminded me of the images of lunar landscapes being beamed back to Earth by Apollo space missions. Not a living plant was in sight. Bulldozers and backhoes had shaped an unnatural topography. Culm and overburden rose in imposing dross heaps perched at precarious angles. Opaque neon-colored ponds filled long furrows gouged out of the earth as if by a giant’s plow. The wasteland was hard and compacted, covered with sharp slate shards that had been dumped and run over by heavy equipment. There was no evidence of the patterns that nature would have created. Nature follows time-tested rules as it forms a landscape; miners with earthmovers generally do not.
It was early spring and our buckets held rooted cuttings, which we wedged into the terra firma with dibble bars. The work was strenuous, and the immediate effect — leafless twigs stuck in broken slate — was barely noticeable. We planted hybrid poplars with names like NE-388 and NE-245, developed to root and reclaim the bare mineral surface of Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields. The quick-growing clones had a decent chance of survival and held a modest commercial value as cellulose. In time the trees would contribute to soil formation, stabilize the slopes, and slow runoff and erosion when it rained. As soils deepened and added organic matter a more diverse plant community would grow. The landscape would not only hold water better, but it would clean it also. Wildlife would move in. We weren’t aiming for restoration. It would never be like it once was. The destroyed system had taken thousands of years to develop, and the mining companies were very efficient at destroying the pieces. Reclamation, however, was a reasonable hope. It could become a viable ecosystem sustained by natural processes.
Planting trees in barren soil captured my imagination that day, and I have often wondered how this depauperate landscape was succeeding. Now, nearly fifty years later, I am revisiting it. The lunar landscape of my memory has changed. Thick vegetation shines green and yellow, with hints of vermillion. Poplar thickets are plentiful, but there are no 50-year-old trees to be found. Upon closer examination I see the saplings are sprouting from sawed off stumps. These are the scions of harvested trees my troop planted years ago.
Even more remarkable, other trees have moved in. Maples and oaks are numerous, and some pines have a good claim. As I walk deeper into the woods, I hear frogs and turtles lurching into the water as they sense the vibrations of my footsteps. The ponds are now black with tannins from leaves steeping for decades. Boughs shade the shoreline and cattails stand guard in the shallows. A birds’ nest hangs empty, its brood fledged. It is a pleasant autumn walk in a verisimilitude of nature.
It is not primeval nor is it even the second growth forest that would have been here before the earthmovers did their work. My experience and training tell me there is plenty here that isn’t quite right — this is still a fraction of the original deep nature that once was here. The soil looks 50 years old, not 5000. In many places it is still more rock than soil. The hummocks, although clothed in green, look peculiar in the weathered Ridge and Valley province of Pennsylvania; they are too steep with loose shale betraying their true identity as dross piles. On the ground lie pieces of anthracite nut, metallic and shiny in the afternoon sun. To a knowing eye, the poplars themselves do not really belong, however delightfully they shimmer yellow in the breeze.
Still, it is undeniable that nature has agency here; not everything I see is a result of human action. I am encouraged and reassured that a place as bleak as an abandoned strip mine can be supporting diverse life after just 50 years. Slowly, natural processes lay a cambium on the landscape.
What is nature? That is a big question, which I will ponder in the future across diverse landscapes. The global answer is that nature is the physical Earth, the life on it, and the processes that shape it. In my philosophy, it does not include the persistent disturbance of human activity.
Fifty years ago, this landscape outside of Tower City was wholly unnatural. Life had been removed. The soil was pushed away. The bedrock was shattered. Haphazard landforms were shaped by human machines. Even the pattern of water on the land was thoroughly rerouted. Human technology can disturb landscapes brutally — much more quickly than nature can resile.
And yet nature is process as well, and there are natural processes everywhere ready to take over if we allow. They are pushing this lost landscape back to something diverse and self sustaining. Nature is the weathering of rock, the movement of water, and the growth of ecosystems. It is regenerative. It creates complexity and form that we cannot. Humans can push against natural processes; we can get out of the way; or, as I learned as an 11-year old scout, we can even coax them forward. When we restore damaged landscapes by working with nature, it is a good day for the Earth.