Sabbatical Blog: Week Three

Here is Larry being captured by a French Marine at Fort Necessity near Ohiopyle, PA.  The French and Indian war is still being fought out there…although now by talented NPS employees and re-enactors.  This is an era of our history about which I, and possibly most of us, am pretty clueless.  It was a global conflict fought not only on this continent, but all over the world for issues that had to do with trade, colonialism, territorial expansion, national pride, and good old-fashioned greed.

For me, this was an interesting addition to what I’ve been reading in Founding Gardeners.  In April of 1754, young George Washington had been sent with a regiment of Virginia frontiersmen to defend the British fort on the Ohio river, where Pittsburgh now stands.  However, it had fallen into the hands of the French so Washington pushed on to what is now called Fort Necessity….where they, of necessity, built a make-shift fort and defended it against the French.  Overrun and overwhelmed, the Virginia unit and a unit of British regulars under Captain James Mackay requested a truce.  Washington and Mackay retreated with their men back to Virginia.  Fort Necessity is an extremely interesting site with a well-done interpretive program. Visit it!

In Founding Gardeners, Washington is depicted as a reluctant soldier who was continually pressed into the service of his homeland, but always with a deep desire to be back on his plantation with his beloved trees, gardens, and horticultural pursuits.  He was passionate about the land, and one can imagine the tenacity with which he fought for the land that he loved so much.  At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, with the British about to lay siege to Manhattan, author Andrea Wulf says that Washington left his commanders and their military maps to write a letter home to his farm manager.  Washington instructed him to plant crabapple  and other “clever kinds of trees”, and they should be planted in two groves on either side of the house.  Wulf explains that while it seems baffling to us now that he would take the time to do this with the British closing in and battle about to begin, the trees he was requesting to be planted were American natives.  He insisted that only trees such as white pine, tulip poplar, dogwood and red cedars should be transplanted from the nearby forests to Mount Vernon.  “As the young nation faced its first military confrontation in the name of liberty, Washington decided that Mount Vernon was to be an American garden where English trees were not allowed.” (Founding Gardeners, p 14)

In fact, when Washington finally came home from the war in 1783, he set about making Mount Vernon a true expression of his revolutionary spirit.  He changed the orientation of the house from east (towards the ocean, and England)  to the west.  “By turning his back to the Old World, Washington had expressed his belief that the future of the colonies lay in the west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The final touch had been a straight half-mile vista, which  Washington cut through the dense forest, opening a spectacular view toward the fertile lands of the frontier, ‘the Land of promise, with Milk and honey.'” (Wulf, 18)  Our founding fathers saw our nation as one of farmers who were tied to the land, and for them botany and horticulture were the principles on which a great nation could be built.  After the Constitution was signed, and the federal system adopted, there was a tension between those who saw the nation in this light, and those, like Hamilton, who saw the young nation as one dominated by commerce and trade.

Our weekend in Western PA’s Laurel Highlands included a visit to Fallingwater and the Bear Run Nature Preserve. Larry  was helping a group of volunteers with a trail building project in the nature preserve.  I had a fabulous time hiking through the most pristine Eastern forest I’d ever experienced.  Totally free of exotic invasives, with beautiful trails over creeks, ridges, wetlands and deep wooded tracts, this 5000 acre tract of preserved land began with a gift of 2000 acres from the Kaufmann family.  It  surrounds FallingWater and protects the watershed for the falls, on which the home is built.  Of course the Kaufmann’s were the family for whom Frank Lloyd Wright built this most important example of all-American architecture.  Built during the Depression from 1935 to 1939, it instantly became famous.  With good reason…which you realize instantly when you see it.   I do believe it is something that everyone should see because it is awesome, inspiring, and the best of American craftmanship.  Its organic design draws you from the interior to the exterior, and you are constantly surrounded by the sound of the falls.  You don’t see the falls from house, you hear them…which was Wright’s intention.  He thought that one should not just look at nature, one should be surrounded by it and live in harmony with it.  My experience of FallingWater reminded me of the relationship between person and nature, and the way in which we either allow it to define us, or we exclude it from our lives.  Everything in the interior in terms of furnishings is elegant,understated, and in keeping with the organic theme.  There is priceless art everywhere…Rivera, Picasso, Velasco…and it just fits right in without stealing the scene from the view outdoors.  I’d like to see it in every season.  In fact, the whole area around Ohiopyle is worth a trip and makes one appreciate the beauty of these “Penn’s Woods” that we call home.

On the home front here, I’ve begun identifying the hikes I want to include in my “meditation” trail guide.  The hot weather this week coming up may curtail some of that for now, though!  I have so much research material to go through that I can occupy myself indoors.  I am trying to track down any sort of record that exists of a meeting between William Bartram and Andre and Francois Michaux, at Bartram’s home, in 1791. What did they talk about?  What knowledge did they share and did they talk about the area that we now call the Michaux State Forest?   I know that John Bartram traveled across PA in 1761 to the Pittsburgh area (Fort Pitt then) and I would think that he must have passed near here on his way…given the route west that existed at that time.  I am appreciating the opportunity to learn more about our nation’s history as I learn more about our natural history.

I’ve started drying and pressing flowers and doing a little nature printing, as well.  It has been lots of fun to experience plants in yet another way.   I’ve set up shop in the garage so the dogs have their choice of joining me in my “office”, or Larry in his office when he is at home.  They like having choices!  And I like having time to explore.

common wood sorrel, Oxalis montana

Larry spied this in Allegheny National Forest where he has been working.







swamp honeysuckle, Rhododendron viscosum

now in bloom in a forest near you!







wild yam at Bear Run Nature Preserve