When I started spending time in the splendid Pennsylvania forests a couple of years ago, the aptly-named Endless Mountains raised some curious questions. Having grown up working and playing in the New Hampshire woods, I had some idea how the White Mountain National Forest had been in fact saved from industrial despoliation only in the early 20th century. What had happened in Pennsylvania?
I picked up a copy of Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast because author Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Bryn Mawr College, promised to explain. And she used New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Pennsylvania as case histories of forest restoration and preservation–places where I had often hiked and camped.
It’s an excellent historical analysis. You could sum it up on Twitter–“20th-century city people created the northeastern forest wilderness”–but it’s much richer that sounds. Stroud provides both intriguing details and fascinating theories. She introduces some great characters, too.
Herbert Welsh (1851-1941) is truly a character. He strides into the narrative on the first page of Nature Next Door, because Stroud knows it’s a good story. A sixty-year-old wealthy Philadelphian who starts walking to Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, every summer in 1915. Stroud writes that in travelling on foot Welsh “experienced the region as a single connected place.” The urban and the rural, the wild and the domestic, the used and the abused: Stroud sees it all connected.
The connection between the city and country inspired me, a year later, to retrace Welsh’s steps and perhaps to reconnect the city where I now live with the land where I grew up. This is the book that inspired the walk.