To some, the place might have seemed like any big old woods. To me, it represented what we have lost, what should be, and what can exist when those with power recognize and protect a voiceless fortune that, if all men had acted sensibly, would never have dissipated. This wasn’t just a forest, this was a cathedral.
After hiking through 11 miles of the northwestern Pennsylvania state park, I stopped to read the kiosk. It showed a photo from an old brochure. A man appeared pensively yet insignificantly among a glorious stand of substantial trees, only the tree trunks able to fit in the photo, the canopy towering far above the frame. The caption read, “The Last of ‘Penn’s Woods’; Save it for Posterity.”
Cook Forest State Park was dedicated in 1928. The memorial plaque read, “For years Anthony Wayne Cook, from whom this tract was acquired, with rare patience and idealism saved these great trees in hope and faith that they might become a public trust.” Of course, he didn’t do it alone. The “vision and zeal of Thomas Ligget” and other businessmen and citizens convinced the general assembly of Pennsylvania to appropriate $450,000 to preserve it, a healthy sum at the time.
Within a 171-acre section, some of the trees “remained untouched” by the booming lumber industry. Some trees there had been dated at 450 years old. Primarily the makeup was eastern white pine and hemlock.
I have a penchant for hemlocks; they are my favorite kind of tree. Designated as Pennsylvania’s state tree, the number of living hemlocks around my home is dwindling, due in large part to an attack by a bug called the Woolly Adelgid. Man is not the only aggressor in nature’s collection. He is however, or should be, smart enough to control himself.
For me, seeing a forest of hemlocks standing hundreds of feet tall and more than thirteen feet in diameter was like peering into the tomb of treasures of King Tut.
Inside the cathedral area, some giants had recently fallen. A lumberman would most certainly shudder to see such precious material lying on the ground, destined to rot in “waste.” However, I imaged the park staff, the appointed guardians, when they found the monarchs. They must have been saddened instead by the simple fact that these ancient trees had been brought down.
Still, regeneration and renewal was taking place wherever the sunlight could reach the floor. Four hundred years from now, will any of these babies still exist? Will man have allowed it? Will he still appreciate their existence, their age, their contribution to the continuation of life? Will posterity have anything left?
My vacation to Cook Forest, five hours from my home, was what is referred to as a “bucket list” experience. It took some coaxing to get my husband to agree to spend his hard-earned vacation in an area where “there wasn’t much” in the way of things to do beyond outdoor recreation. He feared that we might get bored. Instead, we got tired out. We hiked 15 miles, biked 15, and kayaked (floating and paddling) about 9. More than anything, though, we stood still in awe, breathing in fresh pine and listening to the breeze, the call of the warbler, and the trickle of the stream, all the while, very often, looking up.
Meanwhile, the area surrounding Cook Forest State Park provided a stark contrast. It bled with the ever-changing fluid of economic desire. This is where I found names such as Oil City, Petroleum Avenue, and Sawtown, adversaries of old-growth forests.
Billboards advertised legal assistance to coal miners whose lungs had turned black. Two hours outside Pittsburgh, resource-rich towns had been bargained by exchanging nature for cash. Titusville, the home of the modern day petroleum industry, where Col. Edwin Drake struck oil and birthed the industry, gleaned with its historic legacy. Good or bad? It depends on who looks, I guess.
Dissatisfied with simply being a destination of historical significance, Titusville recently developed a 134-page strategic plan for what it believes will be “the second energy boom”: the natural gas of the Utica Shale. Over and over again the document begged, “Come back to where it all started. We’ve been drilling here since 1859. We get it!” Get what? The means of selling out, of cashing in, of turning precious earth into temporary opulence?
Minutes to the north of Cook Forest is the southern border of the Allegheny National Forest. The trees there are part of the nation’s crop. Trucks loaded heavy with the latest harvest rumbled down narrow roads with such speed I could not help but imagine a disastrous scene should an emergency stop be necessary.
Here and there, steel mechanical arms pumped up and down to supplement the bank account with proceeds from the natural gas cow. Roads, pipelines, and power lines all cut through the fields of expertly managed, mature trees, none willing to share space with the other, each requiring its own scar, some growing old, others freshly slashed.
The towns to the west of the Allegheny Forest reeked of evaporated wealth, even if the odor smelled a bit different. “This place is suffering,” my husband said as we passed the vacant storefronts of Union City during our side trip to touch Lake Erie for the first time in either of our lives.
It’s common knowledge that reducing expenses makes for bigger profits. And so, whether it was the boss man’s quest to get even richer or the consumer’s desire to save a buck, America stopped making the things it needed. An unwillingness to pay Americans for American craftsmanship overcame our sensibilities, trickling down to flood the zone in poverty.
Outside of town, I imagined the owners of the paint-pealed porches. Once highly valued, the people strong enough to get the job done—the hard-working, not-afraid-to-get-hurt roughnecks—now struggle to find a coin on our latest path, one being repaved for brains instead of brawn.
Monetary success is a fleeting, ghostly thing to chase. One minute its attraction is distinct and tangible; the next it’s gone. What price must we pay to keep the wheel spinning? We passed a video rental store, possibly the last one in existence. How soon before its inventory is dumped into the landfill, forcing nature to swallow our unnatural, forgotten creations? What will it take for us to re-evaluate our priorities?
There is no denying that we are in an age when joblessness means starvation. The economy is our culture’s sacred ceremony. None of us is capable of stopping this crazy thing. The boss man has been undercutting his workforce for as long as there has been a boss and a worker. And even after one grassroots campaign successfully limits the harm of a commercial endeavor, another scourge comes quickly to take its place. DDT became glyphosate. Coal mining transferred to fracking. River dams become beach nourishment. From the wind we removed ozone-depleting CFCs, only to release, however accidentally, plastic grocery bags.
Still, everywhere I found a community sentiment of historic determination and grit.
On our drive to Erie, I did see quite a few dusty clues of manufacturing; some of the previous century’s brick buildings were re-purposed for modern day production; some operated out of fresh pole buildings. On our way home at vacation’s end, we stopped for a short factory tour at BWP Bats. There the trees were turning into baseball bats. Being the busy spring season, their regular inventory was nearly sold out. Baseball loving employees were hand crafting bats that both little and big league players could swing with pride.
People are growing weary of foreign-made junk. Around the country, a prosperous workforce is downshifting the economic engine into a gear better suited for the environment, without choking abundance or wellbeing. Socially responsible businesses are gaining recognition and a higher market share. Organic food is in demand. College students are graduating with degrees that will help them design an economy that is both profitable and eco-sensitive. Citizens are still marching, demanding protection of the planet.
This is where I saw Cook Forest as a profoundly invaluable “attraction,” one that I needed to visit. It inspired. It reminded. It proved. It showed what nature will build when humans show restraint. By the hundreds, these ancient survivors stood in confidence. Where any DID fall—brought down by the storms of insects and wind—new growth had sprouted, ready to take over, the seeds and roots and flesh of the victims endlessly transferred to the lives of the future. I wish everyone could, at least once in a while, immerse themselves in the possibilities of a kingdom such as this.
The kiosk back at the parking lot read, “As you leave the forest with memories of its struggles and endurance, commit to conservation. Begin a legacy of your own to last through the centuries.” Oh what could exist if only…