By: Larry J. Schweiger
Many of my cherished memories stem from discoveries on the wooded landscape near my childhood home. Nearly every free moment was spent in nearby abandoned fields and forests of Western Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh.
Deep and authentic connections to nature spark passion for the protection of things wild, which consumes a lifetime. The woods and creeks of Western Pennsylvania are my true alma mater and I shall never get them out of my heart. My most delightful childhood experiences were the many hours spent along Girty’s Run, digging “foxholes”, building dams or tree shacks with my brothers.
Things were slower and simpler then. Left to roam the woods, a child can discover subtle beauties in nature, explore certain natural truths, and even forge fundamental ecologically based values and core understandings about interrelationships that are apt to elude us later in life.
For instance, I discovered the sweetest Fruits often come from barren ground. Wild strawberries picked from the most deprived soils may well be the sweetest fruits that I will ever taste. In their struggle for moisture and nutrients, these small, cone-shaped fruits enrich and sweeten far beyond their well cared for domestic, broad-shouldered but pulpy counterparts. My earliest recollections of picking these delicious morsels that spring from tendrils growing in the most unlikely places were along a gravelly, long abandoned electric trolley right-of-way once known as the Harmony Short Line.
Watching for the five-pedaled white flowers to appear each spring, my brothers and I established a daily surveillance until the ripened red fruit appeared. The day the berries matured, a general alarm sounded in the neighborhood. We raided mom’s kitchen for pots and pans to collect the tiny red berries. Since those days, I have eaten many big strawberries and even grown a few in my own gardens but I have not found one to even come close to them for taste. Perhaps even wild strawberries can be a metaphor for life itself. Given everything with little expectation of hard work, a child is apt to grow pulpy couch potato. Sadly, we see many children in this vegetative state today.
What I knew about the world then was very simple. Trees were for climbing, strawberries were for picking, creeks were for exploring and rocks were for turning. Empty jars were for catching crayfish newts and salamanders. What else do you need to know about life as a boy?
Our home overlooked a stream we affectionately, in our Pittsburgh dialect, called “the crick.” We did not know it as Girty’s Run, the name given this tributary to the Allegheny River nor did we know that its earliest settler was a Revolutionary war era scoundrel named Simon Girty. To us, this was just “the crick” as if there were no other cricks.
From our yard, I could see “the woods” through which Girty ran. I remember one massive, sprawling heavily branched virgin white oak tree left as witness tree to forests past. It stood above the second growth forest. This forest had a history of disturbance dating back to when it was a part of the disputed lands north of the Allegheny River. At first it was between British represented by George Washington on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the French from the north. During this time, Girty’s Run Trail was a major travel route for Native Americans.
Later, Pennsylvania settled their boundaries with Virginia. The title was finally settled when PA General Assembly in 1784 purchased the territory and offered it for sale in 1785 as “Depreciation Land” to redeem certificates given to Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary War soldiers to compensate them for having received payment in depreciated currency. Some of the earliest settlers to Girty’s Run were Revolutionary soldiers and their families who began cutting timber to build their cabins and make pasture and fields for crops. As part of the purchased, Virginia retained what is now the West Virginia western panhandle.
We lived in a bright yellow-brick home at the bottom of a gravel road that was somehow misnamed, “Montclair Avenue.” Montclair was certainly not an avenue, it was not a street, it was barely a gravel road. My parents borrowed money under the “GI Bill” and bought our north Pittsburgh home on October 7th, 1946 for $1,000 from Antonio (Tony) Giustini an Italian-born stone mason who lived next door with his wife Rita and their four children. Mom and dad spent another sixty-two hundred dollars and the next six months finishing the home to the limits of their borrowed funds. My brother George was born ten months later and I was born on October 24th 1949.
My childhood, while lacking the popular school-based field sports of baseball and football was rich with the natural sports of hunting and fishing. What I have missed in material wealth was more than compensated by the wealth of mentors and influencers.
A Walk in the Woods
A walk in the woods always a joy to me, was never richer than when I walked along side of Roger Latham in my boyhood. Roger knew so much and shared it in a way that drew me to want to learn more and more. A walking encyclopedia of nature in its many facets and forms, Roger was a naturalist’s naturalist and a true interpreter of the great out-of-doors and its many wonders.
I have vivid recollections of Roger pointing out a single hobblebush on a jagged ledge above a railroad cut. “Why do we find this single hobblebush growing under such harsh conditions?” Roger asked our scout group. “Why are they not found in the nearby forests?” We came up with some great theories. “Hobblebushes like hot and dry rock ledges,” one boy answered. “No,” Roger responded. “Hobblebush seeds are spread by the passing trains” another proposed. “Interesting thought but not exactly. Actually,” Roger explained after he forced us all to think, “These viburnums were once much more common in the forest but deer like to eat them. They are largely limited to places where the deer can not reach them because we have allowed more deer in the forests than we should.” Rodger was a storyteller who could connect the dots between a hobblebush growing on a rocky outcrop and the poor deer management policies of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Nick Sisley writing a piece entitled “Outdoor Legend Roger Latham said it well, “Roger Latham could do it all — set a dry fly on the water with real touch, make perfect presentations to bonefish, handle tarpon behemoths, call turkeys with the best, and he possessed top wing-shooting skills. Further, with intimacy he knew all the flora and fauna in the woods, fields and waters. His broad knowledge in this latter realm was amazing; he set a standard that will probably never be attained again. Strong words, I know. And even beyond all the above, Latham had special skills with words. He could put them together so they’d pull your heart out, or he could dispense knowledge through his writing in a way that you hardly knew you were learning. He made it that easy.”
When I first met Roger, he was the Outdoor Editor of the Pittsburgh Press. He was considered one of America’s greatest outdoor writers at the time and I counted it a privilege to know him and to learn from him. In addition to instilling a deeper love for nature Roger taught me about his information gathering and record keeping techniques that were an essential part of his rich writing. I loved his writing style and would daily scramble for the paper to read what Roger had to say.
Before coming to the Pittsburgh Press, Roger was one of Pennsylvania’s most noted wildlife biologists and head of the Pennsylvania Game Commissions wildlife research team who was a strong proponent of a sound deer management and he was nationally known as the pioneering biologist who believed that wild turkey could be restored using a trap and transfer strategy to redistribute the Eastern wild turkey to its original natural range. Roger ended his career early with the Pennsylvania Game Commission when politically appointed game commissioners rejected his policy recommendations on deer management and thwarted his efforts to eliminate the notorious turkey farms that spread diseases such as blackhead to the wild. (Caused by the spread of a protozoan histomonas meleagridis, blackhead is disease that affects the lower digestive tract disease and the liver.)
Roger a survival expert and a skilled outdoorsman who did hundreds of presentations and nature hikes for scout groups, conservation camps–all without charge. Never tiring of the travel, he knew how important it was to teach kids to connect with nature. He made it clear that a love of wildflowers was for every man, woman and child.
He inspired me to take up wildflower photography as I watched him use his medium format Hasselblad camera with its Zeiss lens. I remember Roger with the enthusiasm of a kid, finding an undiscovered patch of showy lady’s slippers along a roadside in Butler County. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Roger served on the board of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy where he proposed the acquisition of the 41-mile scenic river corridor along the Clarion river as the acid mine drainage was abated. Roger realized that the property along the then polluted river could be acquired cheaply and would be permanently protected from development when the river recovered.
My last visit with Roger occurred just days before his untimely death. I was working for the Joint Legislative Conservation Committee when Roger appeared before the Pennsylvania Senate committee looking into deer management and its impact on forest regeneration. Roger, for this one last time, urged lawmakers to demand scientific management of the deer herd to allow trees and wild plants to regenerate in Pennsylvania’s forests. After the hearing, Roger stopped by to see me and complemented an article that I wrote on acid rain and forest impacts. He wanted to have a longer conversation about this, he had a theory he wanted to share when he returned. But for now, he was off to a trip to Europe-a trip that would end his life. I have long wondered about Roger’s theory. Like Roger, it is forever lost to the world of nature.
It has been forty-five years since I first met Roger Latham. Today, as I walk through North Park in Allegheny County, I am confronted by a picnic shelter called, “Latham” (it was a tribute to Roger by his friend Joseph B. C. White, then head of Allegheny County Parks.) Out in the grassy patch adjacent to the shelter is a flock of turkeys with their heads bobbing up and down scratching for insects. A few walkers stop and gaze at the birds. I am sure they know not the connection between these birds and the man who brought them back to Penn’s Woods. That is a shame; they will never appreciate this great wildlife conservationist who I count as a mentor and friend.