When I drive south on I -78, diagonal highway from New York to Harrisburg, the Blue Mountain presses my right shoulder for miles, dividing coal tipples from barns with hex signs, French and Indian territory from the British colony. At Shartlesville in the parking lot of Roadside America, a cement Amish couple on a giant spring wagon marks my ancestors’ settlement at Northkill, the Hochstetler cabin, torched in 1757.
After the fire, Lenape and Shawnee warriors marched Jacob and two of his sons for 17 days to the French Fort at Erie. Seven months later, Jacob escaped, walked nine nights and days through forest, eating grass. At the Susquehanna, he lashed logs with grape vines and floated south for four days down until British soldiers fished him out, nearly dead, at Fort Augusta or Shamokin, now Sunbury, corporate headquarters of Weis Markets.
Growing up, we knew the Hochstetlers had guns but would not shoot their attackers, the warriors killed Jacob’s wife, whose name no one remembers, because she refused to share peaches with them. When we misbehaved, Dad threatened to give us back to the Indians. We didn’t know that Christian Hochstetler kept running back to his captors after he returned home. We didn’t know Barbara Kauffman grabbed an ax and hacked the fingers of braves as they tried to climb through her cabin window. The men ran screaming into the woods.
Penn’s surveyors carved initials into the trunks of great trees—white oak, black oak, red oak, hickory and walnut—sighted a compass from the trunk of the corner tree and stretched iron measuring chains to make boundary lines. Corner trees they also called witness trees. When Shikellemy ruled the refugees at Shamokin, he implored the Lenape, Seneca, and Tutelo to grow corn, squash, and beans but to refrain from planting apples and peaches for fear they would create a plantation.
During the French and Indian War, braves from the Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh, attacked six European families near a trading post on Penns Creek, slaying 14 and capturing 28, among them the wife and children of Jacob Beyerly. A woman was found with a chain draped around her neck, a man with a tomahawk, freshly inscribed with English initials, sunk in his skull like a log. Bierly is the name of the lawyer who filed papers for my divorce.
As he was about swing his ax into a tree, Hannes Miller—three of his children married Speichers—was shot by an Indian. He was called Wounded Hannes, Crippled John, and Indian John until he died at Somerset. Some people insist they can hear old trees shriek the instant the ax hits. The Northkill Amish moved west, seeking more and better land. I live near fields some of them farmed.
By the 1850s, ridges around here were bare, trees baked into charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces. In 1955, my father, driving a feed truck for the Belleville Flour Mill, lost his brakes on Nittany Ridge. He shifted down, laid on the horn, flew off Centre Hall Mountain, thick with hemlock and rhododendron, and blared through Pleasant Gap without incident.
In the ten miles I drive to work, I pass three prisons. The oldest opened in 1915, the year M. G. Brumbaugh became the last ordained pacifist governor of Pennsylvania. At Rockview, called the Honor Farm, inmates learned to prune apple trees and tend a Victorian glasshouse. I have seen guards on horseback beside dark-skinned prisoners swinging scythes in the ditch along Benner Pike.
In 1939, my great grandfather was killed by a tree that fell the wrong way when he was logging on Jack’s Mountain. Around that time, the Klan in Pleasant Gap made sure the white Catholics in Bellefonte would not build a high school.
Behind Rockview Prison, in a copse of hemlocks at the foot of the Nittany Ridge, an electric chair sits in an old field hospital. By 1962, the year I was born, the state had electrocuted 350 people there. Since then, three more were slain by lethal injection. The Dunkers never forgave Governor Brumbaugh for calling the National Guard to shoot at strikers in Pittsburgh or for calling the Pennsylvania militia to arms during the First World War.
In fifth and sixth grade, on the way to Manor School I climbed a black wooden overpass that spans the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Sometimes I’d stop and stand in the wind roaring above hopper cars heaped with coal and iron pellets bound for mills along the rivers in Pittsburgh, and imagine flight.
At the end of Peight’s lane, not far from where a horse and buggy accident killed my grandmother in 1948, I spy a Texas Eastern Transmission compressor station. This aluminum-sided shed is party to the fourth largest natural gas line in the nation, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to New York City. How did that pipe snake in over Jack’s Mountain without my knowledge?
When they clear-cut the right of way to lay pipeline over the Nittany Ridge in 2009, gas men left good lumber to rot, my handyman says. The Centre Relay Compressor Station stands on a former corn field in Pleasant Gap. The pipe runs by Weis Market, recently built on a razed farm. I have never eaten grass out of necessity. I drive home and cook my groceries on a gas stove. Our spur of the pipeline ends in gas storage fields north of route 80 under the Tamarack Swamp.
To learn more about the project of this poem, read our interview with Julia Spicher Kasdorf here.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf has published three collections of poetry with the University of Pittsburgh Press, most recently Poetry in America. Among the previous collections, Eve’s Striptease was named one of Library Journal’s Top 20 Best Poetry Books of 1998, and Sleeping Preacher won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing. Her poems were awarded a 2009 NEA fellowship and a Pushcart Prize and appear in numerous anthologies. In addition to teaching poetry workshops, she established the Writer in the Community course at Penn State University, where she is a professor of English and women’s studies