I returned to Shenandoah National Park today. Bruce Dearborn Walker wanted to know if last week's missing hiker was found. He was: they located him shortly after I broke contact with Search & Rescue, but it took four more hours to get him out of the forest and to a hospital. The rangers tell me he's recovering.
While in the park, I took the Limberlost trail. "The Limberlost" is the name that was given to a stand of giant hemlocks that were saved from loggers when the park was created in the 1920s and 1930s. These giant hemlocks, some three hundred years old, are mentioned in the signs that describe the trail to prospective hikers. Three hundred years! And we are a nation of but two hundred and thirty.
So said the signs. The website is more up to date:
The trail passes through forest and a stand of mountain laurel - stunningly beautiful when it blooms in June. The forest is ever-changing! Once tall hemlocks and oaks shaded this trail, but most have been killed by insect invaders: the wooly adelgid and the gypsy moth. Recent storms have felled many of the dead trees. Today, notice what lives, including birches, maples, white pines.Whistling past the graveyard, that business: "The forest is ever-changing! Notice what lives!"
The most prominent feature of the trail is still the hemlocks. They have not left. There lays a massacre, corpses sawn apart and heaped together to clear a trail. Living trees cling to the distant edges of the mounds, a shocked and silent crowd. Green things grow among the fallen giants, but only children: weeds, shoots, and little more.
Other things shelter in the fallen trees, insects and hungry birds. I watched a dark-winged one rustling among the dead branches, having worked his way to earth to feed, and now battering his way through the dried and brittle bars that kept him from the wide sky. He was hungry, and did not mind how he found his dinner.
The hemlocks were a treasure of the park, and of the nation. We saved them because we loved them. We defended them with the might of our laws, and the wealth of our treasury. Nothing that the United States of America could do for them was ever left undone.
In the end, all we could do was saw up their fallen trunks, push them aside, and hope for their children. The forest reclaims its own, and we know it grows anew. We shall have another such grove: in three hundred years.