Imagine the clear cut remains of an Appalachian forest at the turn of the 20th century. The land is barren, studded by discarded tree tops and small logs. Wildlife has fled, looking for other sources of shelter and nourishment. A railroad cuts through the area, hauling hemlock bark to tanneries, and incidentally causing severe wildfires in what’s left of the forest undergrowth.
This scene is what the land now known as Linn Run State Park looked like at the time of its purchase by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1909. Over 100 years later, it’s hard to imagine in the face of Linn Run’s reality. The wide streambed winds its way through what seems like endless miles of forests taller than two houses stacked together. Life is everywhere, fed by the abundant water, and the deep shade from the forest canopy makes even an 85 degree day feel cool and comfortable, as it did on my visit this past Labor Day.
It took a century of protection and thoughtful land management to restore this area to its formerly abundant state. As park brochures will point out, you can still find evidence of forest fires and railroad beds lacing their way through the woods after all this time. This is an example of the Sacred Duty gone wrong, but slowly, through living in right relationship with the land, being set right once more.
Linn Run forms a triangle with two other state parks on the edge of an enormous state forest–more of a wilderness area, though still open to the public for recreation. Its spring provides fresh, free, drinkable water to anyone who cares to come up and fill a jug. Throughout the day, you will see locals showing up with old milk jugs for just this purpose. I took home several bottles myself. It’s the most delicious water I’ve ever drank, pure and clear, utterly unlike the city water I have to push through filtered pitchers to find palatable.
The stream itself is cold, unbelievably cold, even after the intense heat of August. Just wading ankle deep is enough to quickly chill your entire body. It’s in this extremely cold, fast moving, highly oxygenated water that much of Pennsylvania’s native aquatic life finds a home, including the brook trout, which offered to be my first guide to the land for this project. I consecrated a spirit house for it, and invited it to work with me and receive offerings from there. This kind of water–cold, rocky, fast running–is also a good habitat for another one of my spirit allies, the Hellbender Salamander, although I’m not sure whether it was ever native to this particular waterway. On this trip, though, I saw spiders stretching their webs across fallen branches in the stream, pools filled with mudskippers and fallen acorns, a crayfish scurrying under a rock as a millipede crawled across one, and the splashes that resulted as I startled several frogs that leapt away too fast to be seen.
Is it too cliche to say that being in water feels cleansing? Because it does. I felt the whole area peeling back my stress and sorrow in layers, until I was just a clear, peaceful human animal, feeling entirely a part of this beautiful setting, at once so foreign and so familiar. Whenever meditation recordings direct you to relax and think of a beautiful place, whenever you’re supposed to start a spirit journey from a familiar spot in nature, this is always what I’m envisioning–a forest with a rocky stream, the babbling of the water, the tree roots overhanging the banks in a laticework of faerie caverns. I hear more bird calls than I can identify, and imagine that rabbits and whitetail deer are not far off. A park sign tells me Timber Rattlesnakes, a timid but over-feared species, make their home here.
My offerings in this place are minimalistic, though heartfelt–much of what I would normally leave wouldn’t do in a place like this. Alcohol isn’t allowed on the park land at all. I left beans and walnuts, scattered about in the blanket of ferns, wildflowers, and brambles that covers every inch of available soil between the trees. With luck they’ll nourish the soil or some of the crawly cuties that make their home there. (I hereby nominate all creatures formerly known as “creepy crawlies” to be henceforth known as “crawly cuties”.) It’s important to give when you receive. A gift for a gift. Gebo. The ties that bind us to the land and the land to us, when the Sacred Duty is kept. Linn Run’s dramatic journey, from forest to wasteland back to forest, is a living example of why.