In 1898 a zinc smelting company began operations in Palmerton. For almost one hundred years, the plant spewed metal heavy pollution into the air. By the time the plant closed in the 1980s, the damage to the surrounding mountainsides was so extensive that much of the area was declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection. It was almost lost to pollution, but ten years ago [now more than 20], a restoration and reclamation effort began, centered at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Using warm season prairie grass plantings, the broken ecosystem began to spring back to life. Today, this area of mountainside is very much thriving.
There are trails scattered all over the mountain that range from easy strolls alongside the Lehigh River to arduous climbs to the rock formation known as “Devil’s Pulpit” at the top of the mountain. Wherever you go, you are walking through one of the greatest environmental success stories on the East Coast. College students in biology and chemistry classes often run across this story in their textbooks as one of the great examples of the damages of air pollution at its extreme. Now, a decade into reclamation, the Lehigh Gap becomes a place where the worst of our world is erased in the promise of restoration; in the new life of trees, grasses, birds, it is life exploding. This is hope defined. For all the ills of the world, the destruction, the inequality, the hatred, the poverty, the famine, war, greed, planned obsolescence, waste, plastic islands, global warming, all of it, there exists a place like the mountains of the Lehigh Gap.
Go there. See it for yourself. Take a hike, look and listen to life resurrected. Up on that mountain, among those young trees and new high blades of grass, you learn that at our worst and most destructive, that nature can and will survive. Nature will outlast all of us. And knowing that, knowing that there is something good somewhere, when the whole world seems to be falling apart, makes it easier to keep believing in the raw, purposeful power of an ancient, wild world.
A forest can be classified as “old-growth” or “virgin” when it has been allowed to grow long enough without significant disturbance so much so that the forest has reached a steady state of growth. This means that the forest’s population of plants and animals are ideally adapted to the growing conditions of that area. In the Lehigh Valley, the only example of such an area of forest exists at Jacobsburg.
We have lost the majority of these forests to continued suburban expansion, retail development, and increased development of infrastructure. The area of the state park with this forest present is known as Henry’s Woods and can be easily discerned from the surrounding vegetation by the heavy presence of the state tree of Pennsylvania, the evergreen hemlock. In addition to this incredible and unique environmental feature, there are 18 miles of trail crisscrossing the 1,168 acre park that afford the visitor a brief escape into a forest that is slowly working its way into the state of the “Old-Growth” forest at the parks heart.
Jacobsburg exists as an opportunity to take a step into a world that could have been. For the past 80 years, the Lehigh Valley has lost its open and green spaces to suburban and retail development at an exponential rate. A search on Google maps for Wal-Mart reveals that for this one swath of “old-growth” forest, there are four Wal-Marts in the Lehigh Valley. As more time passes, these precious forest spaces will continue to disappear, while those big box stores will constitute a new growth forest of commercialism and disconnect to the wilderness that once was. A trip to Jacobsburg is the last lifeline left in the region to a long gone world. And as such, it’s certainly a lifeline that we should take. Every tree stand in the Lehigh Valley with the exception of Henry’s Woods in Jacobsburg State Park is marked by human disturbance. I go there to see a forest that tells the story of what could have been, and what could be again, here in the Valley, if we start taking care of the developing forests around us and not let this become a lost world.
After walking for a little more than a mile on the Appalachian Trail (which you can pick up at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center), east from the parking lot at the top of the mountain, the forest breaks to piles of boulders. These boulders are streaked with Tuscarora quartz that was formed in shallow areas of the Iapetus ocean during the Silurian age of our planet, about 430 million years ago. Eventually, you reach the highest point in Lehigh County. Up there, on those ancient rocks, you can stand and see all the way to South Mountain on one side, and to the foothills of the Poconos on the other. Seeing the whole of human development across the Lehigh Valley reduced to blurs across a vast landscape gives visitors an opportunity to see what the world looks like from the perspective of the mountain. For me, being able to see the human world dwarfed in the eyes of nature is invigorating. All the places to be, the meetings and obligations and deadlines, disappear in the long look of miles from mountain to mountain across the Lehigh Valley.
If you continue on the Appalachian Trail, hikers can find other local landmarks like Bear Rocks and The Pinnacle. In autumn, Bake Oven Knob is famous for the raptor migration; in one afternoon you can see thousands of hawks, eagles and the like flying overhead en masse. I go to Bake Oven Knob to find a sense of the perspective of the infinite. Under clear skies, when the view stretches past the blue curve of our atmosphere and the world appears endless, you find the authentic interpretation of your place on this planet. If you wait until nightfall, (bring a flashlight!), and the astronomical bodies of our galaxy begin to appear above you, you can take advantage of an even greater sense of perspective. All of this is right here, in the Lehigh Valley. From standing on Silurian era stone to watching the ethereal light of the Milky Way galaxy overhead, I can’t imagine a better place for consideration, thinking, and reflection on the idea of life itself than at Bake Oven Knob.
Andrew Kleiner photographs and writes about nature, is an Environmental Science graduate of Muhlenberg College and a former member of Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council.