Survivor nation

| 29 Dec 2014 | 04:22

Here we are, at the end of the world. That’s the way it seems, if you’ve been watching the survivor shows proliferating on TV. Experts and novices go it alone or with others, naked or clothed, through Arctic snows or tropical rainforests, using skills they learned in the military or on family camping trips, to see if they’ve got what it takes to keep going when everybody else has gone to hell. We watch because we want to get a sense of how we’ll do if we are ever thrown utterly upon our own resources, which, from the looks of the 114th Congress, may be any day now. We wonder if we’ll be in that band of hardy warriors who will save civilization, repopulate the earth, and pass a spending bill. Even people in Congress wonder about those things. On the Discovery Channel recently, two U.S. Senators, Jeff Blake (R-Ariz.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), alone on a desert island encircled by sharks, endeavored to prove that a Democrat and a Republican can get along if their lives depend on it. They built a shelter, rubbed sticks together and went spear-fishing. They dropped to their knees to lap rainwater off leaves. I mean, this is crazy. Has the whole country jumped the shark?

The dark side of our survival obsession is embodied in Eric Matthew Frein, who is accused of shooting two state troopers from a hiding spot in the woods, into which he then retreated. Without apparent profession or occupation, Frein was widely described as a “survivalist.” But when he was captured, he did not look nearly the wreck that TV survivor contestants do after their wilderness ordeals. Numerous news outlets made note of Frein’s neatly trimmed goatee. (Google “Frein” AND “neatly trimmed goatee,” and you’ll see.) They also made famous the Pennsylvania woods in breathless descriptions of secret caves, boulder fields, ravines, and blow downs. All this made me long to go hiking again in Pennsylvania, which we avoided during the manhunt, but I’d never thought of the Poconos as especially difficult terrain. They are part of the Allegheny Plateau, which is already elevated, and doesn’t demand as much climbing as do the mountains and ridges of New York and New Jersey. The trails rise and dip along gentler grades, and reward hikers with waterfalls everywhere. Stop for a moment, and you’ll hear the sound of water pounding rock. Return often, and you’ll get to know the types of falls: horsetails and bridal veils, ribbons and chutes, cascades and cataracts. Yes, we wanted to go back, and with Frein’s removal, we could.

The Pocono Environmental Education Center, run in cooperation with the National Park Service, was closed for a short winter holiday, but the free lot was plowed, and a sign assured us the center’s six trails are open every day of the year.

We put on snowshoes and descended into the ethereal gorge carved by Spackman’s Creek. Then we saw them — a multitude of survivors, but just barely. I’d almost forgotten! Here’s another scourge, but one unfolding so slowly and quietly, it may not capture the attention needed to turn it back, if anything can. The Eastern hemlock, which can grow to a diameter of six feet, and live for more than 500 years, is being killed off by a sap-sucking pest called the Hemlock woolly adelgid. Every time we hike this perfect hemlock habitat, we see more downed trees.

Tom pointed to an upended root ball that looked fresh. We followed the long line of the trunk to the crown, which had once towered 150 feet above the earth, and was now a mass of impenetrable wreckage. I rested my hand on the fallen trunk, giving in to a feeling of helplessness.

“I’m sorry,” I tell the tree, “that I couldn’t come sooner.”