By Kevin Patrick
Reviewed by Mary A. Nelen
If you’ve wandered beyond your own backyard, you’ll be at least glancingly familiar with the story the earth tells us every season. Just a glance at Near Woods, A Year in an Allegheny Forest, steeps the reader in history, science, geology, botany, some opinion and poetry.
“In all the places I have lived, there have been little patches of nature cherished by locals but largely unknown and invisible to anyone beyond a few-mile radius. These are the “near woods,” states Kevin Patrick.
In a culture where “near woods” is typically a setting for a Super-8 horror film or the ideal backdrop for a dead body to be discovered by young boys venturing out just beyond their own backyards, this book gives that terrain its beautiful due.
“I came to Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1993 to teach geography,” writes Patrick in the opening chapter. Life at the University of Pennsylvania offered a glimpse of the history of the place through a close examination of the near woods, called “White’s Woods,” throughout all four seasons.
“White’s Woods” did not and could not exist without Indiana as a town,” writes Patrick. “After the streets were laid, farms established and houses the remnant of woods on the edge of town that no longer resembled the surrounding countryside came to be something special.”
Utilizing his knowledge as a geologist, the author takes a hard look at Indiana County in far west Pennsylvania, beginning with plant life at the cellular level in springtime.
“Over and over again, I slipped the noose of my tether and went to the woods to experience the rhythm of the year. I watched the tiny, blue violets bloom in spring, disappear onto the deep emerald cloak of leafy summer, kicked across the yellow, gold and russet fall, and tramped through the leafless, snowy mantle of winter.”
Photography, a generous amount, offers perspective and detail to plants and trees for each of the four seasons. In two instances, the quickly disappearing white flowers of the serviceberry tree are captured in a full-page image, as are the bright yellow blossoms of the spicebush. Other imagery zeros in on the detail of tiny plant life, such as jack-in-the-pulpit, which appears in the damp and rocky ground like a “visitor from another world,” so intriguing is the plant's cylindrical-shaped stem with a lazy tongue folding over like a hat. Entranced by his forays, the author compares himself to Rip Van Winkle when emerging out of the woods and onto 12th Street, where his journeys begin.
The first chapter focuses on spring and addresses several sources of water for the 250 acres that make up White’s Woods.
“Two pixie springs are fed from two sapping holes, one above the other, each emitting water that has seeped into the forest floor from springs a few dozen yards farther up the hill.”
And poetry, a geologist’s version of poetry, is utilized with aplomb throughout the book:
“I crossed the saddle of the Hilltop Glade and started down the Spring Trail. The white serviceberry blossoms that had brightened a forest just released from the gray grip of winter had faded to green, the small tree now hard to find among the leafing birch and maples. The pin cherry, however, in its glory, covered in clusters of white flowers. The Spring Trail is a veritable herbaceous conservatory missing only the plant tags.”
The geologist is not without opinion when it comes to certain plants coveted by individuals dedicated to homeopathy. Goldenseal is a plant that is too popular for its own good. Describing it as “a darling of the herbalist world that conjures up Appalachian folk medicine said to go back to the Indians, the effectiveness of which has not been substantiated by mainstream medical science and may cause health problems if used incorrectly or in combination with other drugs.”
Listing such active ingredients in goldenseal’s yellow roots and rhizomes as hydrastine, an antiseptic and berberine, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, the author concludes that there are more effective over-the-counter drugs that have these properties but do not have “the mystique of nature that allows charismatic self-defined healers to imbue goldenseal with all sorts of magical properties. Most importantly, the author claims that the result has been needless overharvesting that has pushed goldenseal to the threatened list in some areas.”
Also, Maidenhair ferns grow among black cohosh and goldenseal in White’s Woods’ herbaceous layer in spring. Ferns that reach above the golden seal but start out as fiddleheads, which, when immature, are a few inches high and “taste a bit like raw broccoli.”
Avian life, too, is described at length, including pileated woodpeckers that glide through the sparse spring canopy.
“White’s Woods is loaded with woodpeckers, their pockmark calling cards are on nearly every dead tree, those dug as pileated nesting holes only ever used once. Spotting a giant red-crested, long-necked pileated soaring through the trees like some Triassic pterosaur is always a startling sight. They favor the ridge crests and even when they are not seen, their cracking call - sounding as prehistoric as they look - can be heard throughout the woods.”
Winter, as inevitable as the author’s desire to hold the entire season in the palm of his hands to lovingly reveal its immutable beauty, ends the book with a celebratory chord that is not at all secret. Here is an excerpt:
“The woods rose up from the white-carpeted hills like a porcupine’s back of black quills stabbing into the white sky. The ghirthiest summer trees had been reduced to scrawny poles, barely a woods at all except for their infinite number obscuring not much of anything. The snow-blanketed forest floor, undulating up and away in all directions, was untrodden, stirring memories of uncontainable childhood excitement. As a boy, I once raced into such freshly fallen virgin snow wearing nothing but sneakers, afraid that the time it took to put on boots was all the time needed for the other kids in the neighborhood to use it all up.”
It’s a lovely book.