Penn State’s Old Growth Hemlock Woods

The Jo Hays Vista, alongside Route 26 overlooking Penn State University, is the first view of this mountain-bound university many freshmen have, and the last view of many graduates.  Few of them realize that something very old lives about a mile into the forest, across the highway and along the clearly marked Jackson Trail.

An old-growth stand of hemlock survives behind a campsite at a boulder-strewn location known as David’s Vista — an ancient stand that the sensitive person feels as much as sees.  There is a loneliness about the place, a sense of endless time.  The hemlock boughs are so dense that they almost create a room, as if walling off the centuries.

Walk a few yards to the west, over the lip of the ridgetop, and the appearance of the hemlock branches and the botany of the forest floor immediately announce the timeless status of the place.  The hemlock branches have a descending shape, like arms with fingers pointing to the ground.  Moss covers the hard sandstone like a deep-piled rug installed on a rock floor.

The Jackson Trail is actually part of the long-distance Mid-State Trail running through the Appalachians of central Pennsylvania.  These are the Appalachian Mountains proper rather than the Alleghenies.  This path is a narrow Appalachian ridgeline comprised of Tuscarora sandstone that limits the growth rate of the trees that take root there.

This is a very Pennsylvanian trail.  In June, a walk toward the ancient hemlocks leads through mountain laurel, the state flower.  Ruffed grouse, the state bird, inhabit the understory of mountain ash and birch.

These hemlocks, spared from logging because of their small stature, illustrate the faceted structure of the old-growth concept.  Many trees in harsh growing circumstances survived the era of timber exploitation and make up technically timeless forest.  Size does not matter with old-growth.  It carries on, pulling the centuries around it like an ancient coat of shadow and feeling.


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