The Path – History and Landscape

Since my harrowing experience in the “forest savage, rough and stern” a few weeks ago I have been wondering about the difference between built and natural landscape. Most of us humans take the paths and trails, the roads and highways for granted, and we usually do not think about them. But the landscape we experience today has been profoundly modified by the paths that bisect and order it. Without roads, our country would be a completely different thing: it would probably look like the old British maps of Africa where there were many white spots indicating “unexplored territory.” Our highways create a link from a “here” (where our bodies are) to a “there” (which is a potential destination for us) and in doing so differentiate the landscape into areas of familiarity and alienness. On a smaller scale this is also true of trails and hiking paths: they create a “there” which is human friendly and carved out of the wilderness. Before trails, roads, and highways all we had was topology, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that”, as Annie Dillard said about the Monongahela River valley in An American Childhood.

It took a long time for the American continent to be settled by Europeans west of the Appalachians because it was very difficult to cross the Allegheny mountain range with its deep undergrowth, folded, steep hills, and abundant creeks and wetlands. The only passages for wagons were along the rivers and through the gaps they had gouged into the mountains. Annie Dillard wrote:

In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. Pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountain’s lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest. The wilderness was uncanny, unknown.

Ravens and warblers, flickers and perhaps even the great ivory billed woodpeckers lived out their lives here. They nested and raised their young, fed on plants and insects and in turn were eaten by larger predators like hawks and owls. They were part of an ecosystem that had evolved, through ice ages, droughts, and temperate periods, in these hills and valleys for millennia. Few human beings had ever intruded.

In the river valleys grew American Sycamores with massive trunks that reached heights of up to 130 feet. Sycamores are a member of the planet’s oldest clan of trees, the Plantanacea, which have been around for over 100 million years. A French expedition to the forks of the Ohio from 1749 reported that 29 men could fit side by side into the hollow within one of these great giant trees. In 1770 on his journey down the Ohio River, George Washington recorded in his journal a sycamore measuring nearly 45 feet in circumference at 3 feet from the ground. It is almost unimaginable that trees like that dotted our landscape. How many centuries must it have taken for the seedling to grow undisturbed to such a size? How long for it all to be hollowed out from the inside?

The great confluence valley of our rivers and the landscape that flanks them was sparsely inhabited by the native peoples, who came here to hunt and bury their dead and who settled along the flat banks of the rivers. There are traces of Paleo-Indian presence carved into the bluffs along the rivers’ edge: caves, rock shelters, and burial mounds that are up to 20.000 years old. Later the banks of the Ohio were Iroquois hunting territory, and then Lenape, Seneca, and Shawnee built villages up and down the forks of the Ohio. The rivers were their highways. They had also found a walking passage through the Allegheny Mountains and their traders kept the trail open. French traders established trading posts along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers in the early 1700’s.

Today you can find stretches of a path up the steep cliff side to the top of Mt. Washington which is still called “The Indian Trail”. It is said that this was the path that young George Washington took when he climbed up the bluff to survey the landscape of the forks of the Ohio for the crown in 1753. Two years later Washington accompanied British General Braddock’s expedition of two regiments, which marched from Fort Cumberland across the Allegheny Mountains and into western Pennsylvania. Following a path Washington surveyed along an old Native American trail, over 3,000 men built a wagon road 12 feet wide which would become the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Braddock’s wagon road became later (1811) the first federally sponsored highway and was to be called “The National Road”. Braddock’s road was the funnel that allowed settlers to leave the eastern colonies, pass through the thicket of the Allegheny Mountains, and travel on to the Great Plains and West.

Where there is a path, people follow it and human history begins. Before the path there is only natural history and the eternal cycle of birth and death in the forest, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”


Filed under: Eva-Maria Simms, Nature, Prose