Inspecting the Uninspected

Published September 28, 2010:

We, Breanna Marr, Anna-Lisa Noack, Emily Olman, and Maggie Rees, set out to familiarize ourselves with our bioregion. While none of us grew up in Carlisle, we have all lived in the Dickinson College bubble for several years. Over the course of this project, we discovered how little we knew about the greater Cumberland Valley and beyond.  To our embarrassment, most of us realized that we did not know what a watershed was, let alone which one encompassed Carlisle. None of us knew where the nearest earthquake faults lie or what happens to the paper and plastic we recycle. In addition, we were surprised to discover just how much of the food we consume is not native to this part of the country. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that we didn’t know much about our home bioregions, either.

Why are we so ignorant of our homes, present and past? As young women born and bred in one of the most industrialized nations and with access to one of the most advanced education systems in the world, one would think that we had all these answers. However, our modernized, Internet-and-concrete-sheltered lives have distracted us from the most fundamental earth systems occurring in the very air we breathe, water we drink, and soil upon which we stand.  Having grown up as part of the generation that believes that beef comes from the refrigerated section of the grocery store, we forget that we depend on the cycles of nature. We cover up the soil with concrete and asphalt and carpet and forget about the ground beneath our feet. All our great-grandparents sustained their families by farming. Surely they would have known which winds carry rain and how much clay made up the soil they tilled.

Despite our overwhelming ignorance, we were confident that a simple Google search would be sufficient to provide us with all the information we needed. How wrong we were. Unfortunately, Google does not have much to say about the history of Native Americans in the Cumberland Valley. To complete this project, we had to rely on each others’ strengths: Breanna’s knowledge of watersheds, Emily’s familiarity with edible plants, Maggie’s awareness of local geological formations, and Anna-Lisa’s understanding of our area’s weather patterns. To fill in the still canyon-sized gaps in our knowledge that Internet search engines could not satisfy, we turned to local experts for help. Dickinson College professors Wingert, Peterson, and Niemitz eagerly and thoroughly answered our questions and shared their wisdom with us.

In retrospect, we needed to do this project. So far, most of what we have studied in our Ecofeminism class has been discussed in an abstract, theoretical manner. Until now, we have not focused our learning on strictly local issues, concentrating instead on the cultural dualisms that insidiously infiltrate our lives. It is one thing to talk about Vandana Shiva’s Soil Not Oil, which calls for a soil-based community and economy; it is another thing entirely to actually find a connection with our own land. Having done this exercise, we now have concrete, local examples of what it is we need to connect to and protect. We will be able to apply this knowledge ask these questions of our future homes long after we graduate and move to new bioregions.

Cumberland Valley from Waggoner's Gap (Audubon, 2010).

1)  How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours?

A watershed, or water parting, is an area of land and water that drains into a body of water, be it a stream, river, lake, etc. Highlands, ridges, and mountains usually form the boundaries between different watersheds. Carlisle, Pennsylvania lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. On the most local scale, Carlisle lies within the Lower Susquehanna-Swatara watershed. To leave the Chesapeake Bay watershed from Carlisle, you could head about 70 miles due West to the westernmost border of Bedford county, which marks the boundary between the Chesapeake and Mississippi River watersheds. The Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses 64,000 square miles, including parts of West Virginia, Delaware, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. About 15,000 streams and rivers feed into the Bay, including the Rappahannock, Potomac, James, York, and Susquehanna Rivers. The Susquehanna alone contributes approximately 50% of the drainage into the Bay, so the agricultural and industrial practices of central Pennsylvania have serious impacts on the Chesapeake. Every bag of fertilizer that farmers spread on their fields and every soap bubble that the people of this watershed wash off their cars run into small, local streams, then into larger rivers, and eventually into the Bay itself. Everything flows downstream.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed (The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 2010).

2) Is the soil under your feet more clay, sand, rock, or silt? Are there contaminates in the soil? How does this affect agriculture and industry in your region?

The most common soil in Cumberland County, PA is known as “Hagerstown” soil. Soil of this type is a fine, silty loam. If geologists classify soils as “loams,” then these soils contain a mixture of sand, silt, and clay. The Hagerstown soils in this area contain high percentages of iron-bearing clay in some areas, which accounts for their orange colouration. This soil was created by millions of years of chemical and physical weathering of the limestone in the valley. Soils made from limestone are often very fertile, and the most common usage of Hagerstown in Cumberland County is agriculture. However, numerous buildings have cropped up on the Hagerstown, taking advantage of the generally flat lay of the land. Because the soil in the valley is underlain by limestone, this infrastructure is at risk of being damaged by sinkholes, which occur when the limestone supporting the soil above is weathered away to the point that the ground collapses. Soil profiles for most areas in the United States can be found online at the USDA’s Web Soil Survey website.

Cumberland County has numerous sources of soil contamination. The application of herbicides and pesticides in farming areas can lead to build up of nitrates, phosphates, and/or bioaccumulative toxins that can leach into ground and surface water. Moreover, road salts spread in winter to keep streets ice-free causes sodium and chlorides to build up in the soils along roadways. Closer to home, Kaufman Hall of Dickinson College, which used to be Reeves-Hoffman crystal factory, along with the soil and groundwater around it are contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected human carcinogen (Korman, 2009).

3) Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and ow did they sustain themselves? How has this changed?

Before European colonists came to Pennsylvania, many tribes of Native Americans resided in North America. The land was their lifeforce, and they used every aspect of it to their advantage. When I was researching tribes in the Cumberland County area, I did not come up with consistent information. I found mention of various individual native Americans but no information about whole tribes. This is surprising because the Cumberland Valley seems to be an area highly associated with Native Americans.  The names “Susquehanna” and “Conodoguinet” are Native American in origin, so it makes sense that tribes would have lived in this area. I found the most information about the Delaware Valley Region’s Lenni Lenape. They ate a lot the same food that we do now. They tilled the land and grew beans, corn, and squash. They were also very much a hunter-gatherer tribe. Shooting or spearing fish, turkeys, deer and other animals Lenni Lenape used every part of the animal. After separating what could be used for meat, the rest was used to make clothing or other tools. Collecting berries also constituted a large part of their diet.

This diet of meat, vegetables, grain, and fruit has not changed much since the time of the Lenni Lenape. What has changed is the source of our food. Most of the food we eat today comes from overseas or the opposite side of the country. The majority of people in the United States do not eat locally as the Lenni Lenape did.

4)  Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available.

Cumberland County boasts numerous edible plants. Local herbalists use five particular plants that are very common and plentiful in the area. Common Chickweed, which sprouts in autumn and continues into the winter, grows in open pastures and in moist soil. They appear in expansive blankets of plants. Common Chickweed is a very healthy leafy vegetable that can be added to salads to increase flavor and nutritional value. The Field Pennycress is found in similar areas as the Common Chickweed. Also used in salads, it carries a much bitterer flavor. In addition, it can add a punch to a sandwich spread. Gatherers can find it in the spring, summer and early fall. Another edible plant in the neighborhood of Cumberland County is the Purple Dead-Nettle plant. It grows throughout the year and may be found flowering during a mild winter. The Winter Cress or Yellow Rocket is a good option when a person needs sustenance while on a hike. Available in the warmer months of the year, it starts grows in the spring into early fall. Finally, chestnut trees produce – you guessed it – the chestnut. Once removed from their spiky shells, these nuts are quite delicious. The seeds have fallen to the ground by late winter and early spring.

Be careful not to prick yourself on the chestnut shell (Martinelli, 2010).

5) From what direction do storm generally come?

We rarely experience extreme weather conditions in Carlisle other than light rains and snow flurries. The wind we most commonly feel in Pennsylvania blows from the North East to the South West from the Atlantic ocean. These winds can often bring light storms and strong gusts of wind. However, severe weather, such as hurricanes during the summer, often originate in the South. A change in temperature of currents and streams in the Atlantic, especially in the Gulf, often results in strong storms that blow up the entire East Coast of the United States. These can bring fast winds that cause debris to fly and construction wreckage and heavy rains that often result in flooding because the soil is unable to absorb all of the water. Rarely are temperature changes, rains, or other weather trends isolated in a specific area. Simply turning on the weather channel and looking at the map of the United States is evidence of our interconnected weather system.

6) Where does your garbage go? Document the process from small community to great.

My garbage accumulates in the trash can beside my desk in my dorm room. Once I accept that I cannot squeeze so much as another Reese’s Peanut Buttercup wrapper inside, I tie up the plastic bag and drop it in the larger school-owned trashcan at the end of my hallway. From there, Lloyd, the housekeeper of my building, hauls the bag down the stairs and outside to an on-campus dumpster. Next, the Dickinson’s garbage hauling service collects the trash from the dumpster and trucks it over to the Cumberland County Landfill in the forested hills outside Shippensburg, PA, along with several tons of other students’ garbage. There, my little bag of tissues and crumpled up granola wrappers mingles with MILLIONS of other little bags of trash, which are all screened for radioactive material before being poured into giant pits, run over several times with heavy equipment, and covered with a layer of soil to prevent them from flying away in the wind. Eventually, the landfill will fill up and be capped and planted with grass. The landfill will be sealed to prevent garbage juices from escaping and contaminating the environment.

7) How many people live in your watershed?

Considering the sheer size and beauty of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it’s hardly a surprise that over 15 million people live within its boundaries. The watershed contains diverse land uses from farming to parklands to heavy industry. Human habitats include rural, suburban, urban, and metropolitan settings, and a myriad of attractions (such as the nation’s capital and the Bay itself) continue to attract thousands of new residents each year. Unfortunately, as the population within the watershed increases, the Bay undergoes more and more stress from pollution. As developers build new homes and neighbourhoods, more forest is cleared, and sediments loaded with nutrients run off the land, further choking the streams and rivers feeding the Bay. The excess nutrients in the Chesapeake lead to eutrophication and what is called the “Dead Zone,” which is an enormous hypoxic zone (meaning that the water is nearly depleted of dissolved oxygen) down the main stem of the Bay.

The dissolved oxygen levels in the Chesapeake Bay (Wheeler, 2009).

This answers only the human part of the question. What about the populations of wild animals in the watershed? Household pets? How many millions of pigs, cows, and, and chickens live on concentrated animal feeding operations and factory farms here? The waste produced by these animals runs off into the waterways, too.

8) Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood?

Dickinson College gives students the opportunity to recycle paper and plastic that otherwise would simply end up in a land fill. Due to increasing environmental awareness, furniture, especially chairs, are often made of recycled material such as coke caps. According to Professor Wingert, “much of it (plastic we recycle) is made into building material for homes and decks/boardwalks, bags, rugs, outdoor furniture and much more”.  Paper products that are used daily for kitchen and bathroom purposes are frequently made of recycled paper such as paper towels and even toilet paper. Paper cups and colored paper binders that students purchase for classes are often made of recycled paper. However, much of our paper waste is not sorted and ends up in landfills. Usually, paper easily biodegrades, but, when mixed with other pieces of garbage, it does not decompose. Even though paper can read compost, any ink on the paper is difficult to remove. So, the full cycle from seed to tree to log to paper to notebook to wastepaper in the trash can to compost is rarely completed.

9) Where does the sun set on the equinox? How about sunrise on the summer solstice?

A common phrase on path of the sun states that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” As it turns out, this piece of handed-down wisdom is not completely true. The sun only rises and sets in due east and west on the spring and fall equinox.  The sun rides through the sky on those days for twelve hours, dividing the day evenly between light and dark. (Sanford Solar Center, 2005). On the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises from the northern-most point of its track: the Tropic of Cancer. Because it rises from so much higher in the sky, it takes longer to reach the horizon, giving us the longest day of the year. Each day after the summer solstice, the sun rises bit by tiny bit farther to the south up until the winter solstice, when the sun rises from the Tropic of Capricorn. From there, the cycle restarts, and the sun moves north again.

The Sun in the Sky during the Spring and Fall Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere (The Sun in the Sky..., 2010).

10) Where is the nearest earthquake fault? When did it last move?

Because Pennsylvania is located in the middle of the North America tectonic plate, no major fault lines threaten Carlisle with earthquakes. The closest active fault is the Ramapo Fault, which runs along the St. Lawrence Seaway and stretches more than 180 miles through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It started as a thrust fault in the formation of the Appalachian Mountains. While there have only been a few mild tremors in the past few decades, the Ramapo has probably not seen serious seismic activity in the last 200 million years (Niemitz, 2010). If the Ramapo ever has another powerful earthquake, New Jersey – the most densely populated state in the country – would be endangered.

Dillsburg, PA, located in Cumberland County, has experienced hundreds of micro-quakes within the past couple years. Micro-quakes appear as tiny blips on monitoring equipment and do not produce anything more dramatic in peoples’ homes than the rattling of china (Niemitz, 2010). The causes of these micro-quakes are unknown, but it is possible that the nose of South Mountain causes them as it adjusts and settles (Niemitz, 2010).

11) Right here, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water? Could you drink that water?

Groundwater is an important resource to any town or city.  Here in Carlisle, the town does not use groundwater as a drinking source, even though Cumberland County does have a carbonate rock aquifer beneath it (Swistock, 2007).  Instead, we rely on the Conodoguinet Creek for our drinking water. The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences conducted a report on groundwater in Pennsylvania, from which the majority of this information was gleaned. Pennsylvania has roughly four types of aquifers ranging in depth from 20 to 250 feet.  The specific type of aquifer in Cumberland County is found between 100 and 250 feet beneath the surface.  The water found in this aquifer is very hard, containing approximately 250 mg/litre of dissolved solids, such as calcium and magnesium (Swistock, 2007).  The hardness of normal drinking water from the Conodiguinet Creek in Carlisle is about 173 mg/litre (2008 Annual Water Quality Report, 2008).

12) Which geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past?

Carlisle has numerous geological features drawing in tourists from across the globe.  The Yellow Breeches Creek in Central Pennsylvania attracts fly-fishers from all over the world.  Professor Brian Pedersen states that the Yellow Breeches, famous for its trout fishing, is one of Pennsylvania’s most scenic rivers (2010).  The state and local fly-fishing shops occasionally restock the creek with trout to keep the fishing economy strong and thriving. In another effort to keep the Creek healthy, the same groups also line parts of the Yellow Breeches with limestone to add alkalinity to the water to buffer against acidification of the water from acid precipitation.

Another natural feature of importance in our watershed is the bubbling natural spring located in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.  Groundwater feeds the spring, so it remains approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year round.  One of the largest springs in the United States, Boiling Spring feeds to the scenic and recreational Children’s Lake.

There are by no means the only answers. What natural features hold special meaning for you, dear readers?

The Beautiful Children's Lake (Navin, 2010).

Works Cited

  • Audubon Society of Pennsylvania. Photo Gallery. Harrisburg, PA. Site visited: 24 September 2010.
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Save the Bay. Land Use and the Chesapeake Bay: Maps. 2010. Site Visited: 24 September 2010.


  • Martinelli, Candida. Candida Martinelli’s Italophile Site. Site visited: 24 September 2010.
  • Navin, Joan. Children’s Lake, Boiling Springs, PA. Flickr. 2010. Site visited: 24 September 2010.
  • Niemitz, Jeffery. Geology Professor at Dickinson College. Personal interview. Carlisle, PA. 2010.
  • Pedersen, Brian. Dickinson College Professor of Biology and Environmental Science. Personal interview. Carlisle, PA. 24 September 2010.
  • Thlaspi arvense. Feburary 28, 2010. September 25, 2010.
  • The Sun in the Sky on the Spring and Fall Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Site Visited 28 September, 2010.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Resources Conservation Service. USDA .  Washington, D.C. September 2010. Site visited: 26 September 2010.

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