Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day Historic Marker

Received wisdom is a tricky thing. Most folks will meander through life rarely bothering to ask why things are the way they are. This is especially true of holidays on the calendar. Over the years, I have tired of a lot of those “received” holidays–those days reserved by tradition or federal law. When I think of the holidays set aside as “federal holidays,” the array does seem like a decision made by committee. Consider that we celebrate Columbus Day, honoring a man that was truly vile and was probably a pirating genocide artist. But Columbus was Italian, and to make Italian-American voters happy (and to continue with the farce that America was “discovered”) we continue that holiday. Or take Presidents’ Day, a holiday that was once reserved for Washington and Lincoln alone, now extends to the likes of Millard Fillmore, Richard Nixon, the Bushes and Obama. Independence Day was believed by some founding fathers to by July 2.  Labor Day in the US is not May 1 like it is everywhere else in the world (because May 1 was the communist and socialist holiday), etc. Then there are of course the homage holidays–those set aside for momma, daddy and valentines. Every day is their day, really.

Here on the Eclectic, I have taken up honoring some other holidays (Knut’s Day, The Armistice, Guy Fawkes Day, September 11), days that I revere and remember. Those days tie into my own family heritage, a certain rekindling of our Old European roots. Those days are also personal, having influenced my professional life. And chief among these holidays, for the former reason, is Groundhog Day. This peculiar observation, started by German immigrants to Pennsylvania centuries ago, was a turning point in my childhood calendar. Here, on this day, a rodent was invested with the duty to declare the winter doldrums to be over. In preschool, we would draw a Punxsutawny Phil groundhog on paper and glue his likeness to a popsicle stick. From there, we’d draw a landscape on another sheet of paper, with a little slit in the heath for the marmot to poke up through. Amazingly, I recall coloring the sky grey, earning a scolding from my Baptist schoolmarm. She declared that the sky could only be colored blue (how stereotypical). Clearly she didn’t bother to look out the window for the past five months. Thus, my earliest memories, of the Pennsylvanian homeland are of this odd ritual, and of course, questioning received wisdom and authority.

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Unless that wisdom springs from the groundhog of course. Like so many traditions, the roots of this particular holiday trace much farther back in time. Ancient Celts and pagans centered much of their worship on sacred animals. In one tradition, called Imbolc, the pre-Christian Germans and Celts would honor the passing of winter by worshiping a bear,  badger, or marmot; looking to the fuzzy mammal for a sign of winter’s end. As the old world was converted to Christianity, the tradition was absorbed by German Catholics as part of the celebrations of Candlemas (Read: The feast of the presentation of Jesus at the temple. How is that like presenting a rodent to the faithful?) For the Candlemas holy day, the devout often place candles in their windows. That tradition is also ubiquitous in Pennsylvania and beyond, as their denizens often keep electric candles on the window sill year ’round.) As the casting of a shadow by the morning sun would allegedly scare the sacred animal away, and with it, the hope of spring, Light (holy or otherwise), plays a role in the tradition.

The light in the Window

As the first waves of Germans settled in Pennsylvania, they brought their winter tradition with them. However, no sacred bears or badgers could be found. The groundhog, that lovable over-sized ground squirrel, became a substitute god. While these observations occurred in several immigrant towns around Pennsylvania, it was the event at Punxsutawny that grew beyond the mystic and became a festival, beginning officially in 1887, and enduring. Their official god is named Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.

Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil climbs on the top hat of his handler after he did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring during the 127th Groundhog Day Celebration at Gobbler's Knob on February 2, 2013. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Phil

The basics of the tradition, according to the Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle” at groundhog.org, goes like this:

“Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.”

Under the constant care of the “Inner Circle,” local fanboys in tuxedos and top hats tend to the needs of Punxsutawny Phil. Now in his 125th year, Phil is kept alive with a special elixir that gives him 7 more years of life, so they say. As a weatherman, he is about as accurate as any other, coming in correct about 39% of the time. When not on the clock, that is to say, during the other 364 days a year, Phil lives in an elaborate wing of the local public library, on display for tourists, with his “wife” Phyllis to keep him company. On the big day, Phil is transferred to the ceremonial Gobbler’s Knob, a big empty field with a stump on a stage, where he is fitfully hoisted from the tree stump at the appointed hour. He then whispers into the president of the Inner Circle’s ear, in “Groundhogese” (a form of Pennsylvania Dutch, or Amish German), his proclamation for the year.

Groundhog Day

In its nadir in the 1970’s, the day would draw a few dozens souls would brave the cold and hike out to Gobbler’s Knob, the ceremonial home of Phil, and await his prognostication. Today, this event has gained national notoriety, picked up by the news media and popularized in the 1993 classic film, Groundhog Day. Pennsylvania politicians and presidential contenders seek him out for a photo op. The modest town of 5500 people grows to 30,000 or more for the week. The region cashes in–this year’s economic benefit could top $5 million as Time magazine reports. Of course, animal rights activists have pleaded to let Phil return to the wild, instead of being held in a large zoo-like display at the public library (he does live there with his “wife” Phyllis.) Other towns around America have tried to promote their own rodent as the true seer of seers, but the faithful know that Punxsutawny Phil is the one, true groundhog.

I am not alone in my adoration of this day. The 1993 eponymous film has become a legendary part of American culture. The central plot, of Bill Murray’s vile weatherman forced to relive Groundhog Day until he becomes a compassionate human being, has been lauded for its Eastern philosophy-like exploration of cyclical rebirth and renewal. In 2004, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg declared that film the greatest of all time (and I am inclined to agree). And in The Atlantic in 2013, the film was praised for its exploration of metaphysics. You needn’t go that far to realize the film is inspired by the very nature of this holiday–the natural declaration of rebirth and renewal, heralded by an unlikely mascot.

Aside from going to Pennsylvania to join the revelers at Gobbler’s Knob, how might you celebrate this day of renewal? Well, I tend to watch the film, just as people at Christmas might watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story.” I make an excuse to eat meatloaf (Ground Hog, get it?) and root vegetables, unless a Super Bowl intercedes. I might dust of my Pittsburgese and start “yammerin abaht how awful the Super Bowl will be withaht the Stillers innit.” Chances are, the Pennsylvania Polka will be played more than once.  I often retell my preschool story and revel in my proud Pennsylvania heritage, to the ire of my friends and non-native family. Someday, I imagine I will take my kiddo on the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob, to behold the world’s greatest weatherman at the height of his powers declare in his native Groundhogese the end of winter. Maybe I’ll teach him to color his skies grey instead of blue for his preschool class. Maybe he’ll yammer about Phil to his own kids.

But most of all, I celebrate the end of another long, hard winter…either now, or in six weeks.

Candlemas Photo credit: martinak15 / Foter / CC BY

Preschool Craft Photo Credit http://kiboomukidscrafts.com/preschool-groundhog-day/

Historic Marker Photo credit: jimmywayne / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Standing Groundhog Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Phil, Hoisted Photo credit: scottobear / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Phil Photo Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Gettysburg Lost

something sacred and holy in the warfare

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. No American gets through a public education without at least once learning of this watershed event. Immortalized by Lincoln’s words, Romaticised by Michael Shaara’s pen, embalmed by the National Park Service, and commercialized by tourist traps, this small Pennsylvania valley town thrives in a region of America that isn’t nearly as lucky—the Appalachian Piedmont.

The linguist me in savors the unintended double entendre of the word “civil” in the phrase “American Civil War.” That title is even deceiving—most of the Civil War was waged in Virginia, most of the South’s command was from the Old Dominion. Burial sites are not called tombs but shrines—a powerful word sentimentalizing the loss of Dixie; relics to a lost culture. There was nothing civil about this war. It was either genocide of a culture, waged in the Deep South, or the righteous emancipation of the enslaved. It was also the nail in the agrarian coffin, and the triumph of the industrial revolution. The Civil War lives large in our culture because through it, our modern culture was born.

Stonewall Jackson Shrine - Virginia

“Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep…”–Paradise Lost, Milton

To this day, the scars on America from this conflict are still oddly visible, in places where the poor who fought this war on behalf of the philosopher kings of the US Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and White House passed down their bile for one another. When I moved south of the Mason-Dixon, into the Confederacy, I found that the scars of war remain all over.  Battlefield signs litter every rural town. The war was common place here. People know who their ancestors were that fought in the war.

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“Who overcomes, by force, hath overcome but half his foe.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Gettysburg is unique among the battles for its location, victors, and bloodshed. Sons of Pennsylvania in particular know the story of Gettysburg well. In 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made a push into the Union, taking the war to the Union, to turn her soil into battlefields. For the first three years of the war, Lee was the victor in every major conflict. The north suffered from clumsy and arrogant leadership in the Army. Lincoln replaced generals constantly. Lee was perhaps the greatest tactician to have graduated West Point, and he wasn’t on the Union’s side. Lee’s plan was to rally in the North, then invade Washington, DC from the top of the map. His hope was to force northern politicians to abandon the bloodshed and begin to negotiate with the South as an equal nation. Had he been successful, the path to DC from Gettysburg would be unimpeded. The maneuver was audacious in vision.

The Federal Advance

“Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. ”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Yet, by accident, the northern army’s Calvary intercepted Lee’s divisions outside of Gettysburg. The Northern army had the enviable “high ground,” so necessary in field combat. The southern army would have to march over open farmland and up the Pennsylvania foothills to dislodge the army from the hilltops. Lee knew he could not win here, yet that odd chivalry captured so well in Shaara’s “The Killer Angles” compelled these generals to send their infantry into the great maw of battle.

...Through the Valley of Death...\

“Be strong, live happy and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command!”–Paradise Lost, Milton

What do people seek when the come to these Pennsylvanian fields of war? Or any old American battlefield for that matter? America is still largely rural, and every battlefield of every conflict remains consecrated ground. In old Europe, many battlefronts are obscured by development as there is no room for such preservation. And among those hallowed park lands, Gettysburg lives largest among battlefield sites. The tourist industry keeps the little town afloat. The latest generation of tourists seem to seek some sort of wholesome entertainments for their families–soft serve ice-cream, souvenirs, and ghost hunting. Previous generations littered the battlefield with Roadside Americana neon and kitch. And before them, the survivors of the conflict in the height of late 19th century Romanticism encrusted the farmlands with countless monuments to the fallen men, regiments, divisions and corps.

When the Sun Shone

“What though the field be lost?
All is not Lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And the courage never to submit or yield.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Historians differ on whether Gettysburg is worth the fuss. The northerners, yellow journalists and victors declared Gettysburg the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. Lee’s first major defeat would linger–he would never win decisively again. The South’s only hope after Gettysburg was for stalemate. Disregarded at the time, Lincoln made a rather pithy speech compared to the two-hour oration of Everett, yet the Gettysburg Address is one of the great sentiments of American Oratory, etched on every schoolboys heart. Yet the battle was not decisive, as the war would continue, more lives would be lost elsewhere.

The 500 Kepis of Private Bartholomew Cubbins

Gettysburg is a destination that is a mirror–it shows the admirer what he want to see. Civil War re-enactors display a living tribute to that age on those fields as a sign of respect. Or perhaps they are the original fanboys. Ghost hunters wander Elysium at night, seeing shadows and mist, in the believe that the carnage of a century and a half ago is indelible on this landscape. Of that notion, I too am romantic, but know full well that many tourist who know nothing of the events of the day see just farmland and soft-serve ice cream.

Distelfink - Gettysburg Pa - 2005

“Solitude is sometimes the best company”–Paradise Lost, Milton

However, the austere beauty of the place, high up over the battlefields from Little Roundtop, can allow for contemplation if you are there at the right time of day. Truly summer is the season for Gettysburg, with its throngs of tourists marching through the fields, riding the tram along major sites, and even driving along roadways–much like a cemetery’s row. My last visit to Gettysburg was in summer. I was staying in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland for a business meeting, and I knew that travel adventure awaited me a mere 10 miles up the road. I benefited from the early morning sun waking me at 5 AM. And before the tourists’ wake, I took to the fields early, to walk in solitude (with the occasional local morning jogger doing his routine) among the fields. I thought of my own ancestors–some of which fought here–and the stories passed down to me. Of my ancestral grandfather whose horse doctoring made him good enough to wield a field “surgeons” bone saw. Or how many lead bullets caused amputation–including his own.

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Gettysburg National Military Park - Pic 39

I saw the remnants of the modernist Richard Neutra cyclorama building, which used to house a 360 degree painting of “Pickett’s Charge.” The building, despised by re-enactors and historians and now demolished, was replaced with a derivative historicist barn that looks just as awful. I loved that contrast–the stark white building behind the copse of trees, but I suppose I was in the minority. But that struggle typifies the new Battle of Gettysburg. Nearly half of the battlefields are preserved–the rest have been developed with ticky-tack homes, economotels, and neon signs. Sometimes the historians win, as in the defeat of a casino developer. Sometimes they lose. In those loses, I see Gettysburg as lost. Others may see Gettysburg found.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

And still others see none of it. When I saw families wander down West Middle Street with dad agog in boyhood nostalgia, mom window shopping among the old Victorian storefronts, boys in union caps and daughters with the soft-serve, I noticed that perhaps Gettysburg offers something for every personality in a rather organic way. Gettysburg’s industry is not commanded by some Miltonian despot governing an Epcot Center conglomerate that has burnished the entire town under one brand. Rather, each small, independent enterprise adds to the whole. And seeing this sacred place in total, rather than its component parts relieves that discord, that in this paradise a war once happened.

Town of Gettysburg from Culp\'s Hill

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”–Paradise Lost, Milton

Gettysburg sunrise Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Soldier Photo credit: Soaptree / Foter.com / CC BY

Monuments Photo credit: fauxto_digit / Foter.com / CC BY

General Lee Photo credit: Mathew Brady / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Skyline Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Ice Cream Photo credit: cam_rich345 / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Shrine Photo credit: CLEANandSOLID.com / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Tourist Trap Hats Photo credit: crowolf / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Reenactors Photo credit: Rob Shenk / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Neutra Photo credit: thelearnedfoot_ / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Downtown Gettysburg Photo credit: Dougtone / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Old Country: River Rats, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania

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Some immigrant families to the US talk of life in the old country–the ancestral homeland. They speak of their family traditions and culture, and often highlight the best of their old traditions that do not translate well to the American lifestyle. As the migrating generation becomes a parent, then a grandparent, those traditions fade. For the new generation, at some point they may ask questions about the homelands, and hope someone can answer them.

Most people do not know too much about their grandparent’s grandparents. As living memory departs, only the detritus of their lives remains. Photos and newspaper clippings, old deeds and lock boxes, obsolete watch fobs and old clothes are left to reconstruct the story for the young generations who care to listen. The only connection we moderns might have to our ancestral homelands is to actually go there, to see the same vistas that perhaps our grandparents did, to walk in the woods that they too might have walked, to find neighborhoods and street addresses and take in a scenic site that might have been around in their time.

Americans whose families have been here awhile do not have those immediate stories of  the old country. They have been stewing in the great American melting pot for so long that any unique heritage has been well-boiled. Surely, we know that we are from some place “over there,” and maybe an odd tradition or foodstuff is still used in the home.

My family roots in America are older than the Republic. My pioneers became farmers, then smithies, then coal miners and factory shop guys. They are all Scots-Irish. My ancient kin were the kind of Scots that no one wanted around. First they were kicked out of Scotland by the landed gentry, then off the Ulster plantation because they couldn’t get along with the Irish. They found their way to the ends of the new world at that time, the Appalachian Mountains and in the valleys of what would become Western Pennsylvania in the 1760’s. And in those hills they named their villages after the towns in their old country that showed them the door–Donegal and Somerset, and after the people who expelled them, Lords Pitt and Westmoreland.

My old country remains the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. On a clear evening, up in those old, withered mountains, you can keep an eye on the city folk in Pittsburgh, the peaks of the PPG crystal castle sticking up over the horizon. General Washington had a similar idea 237 years ago, when asked what he might do if the British won the war:

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If defeated everywhere else, I will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish…”

Washington knew that from this vista, he might see the British coming. And given the Scots-Irish were born fighting, from the Scottish lowlands, to Ulster Ireland, to Colonial America, it must have seemed to Washington like the best way to go. Intriguingly, thirty years later, the wily Scots-Irish rebelled against father Washington himself, when the federal government proposed a whiskey tax here in these foothills. Perhaps Washington remembered his allegiance to the Scots-Irish, for when he quelled the Whiskey Rebellion, he pardoned many of the fighting Scots-Irish, and left them to their hollers and hillsides.

The Laurel Highlands are still peppered with those descendents. The mountains get their name from the “Mountain Laurel”–the spoonwood plant. Mountain Laurel is a signature plant in the Appalachia, growing along the mountain range from Georgia to New York. The waxy leaves cover up old logging in old growth forests. The people in those hills have been called a lot of things over the years, “Hilljack” being the most pejorative. Some of us got off of the mountain, and are barely recognizable to those family we left up there. But we share that old country, and that vista.

Mountain Laurel in Bloom by a Little Waterfall

River Rats

Before the age of amusement parks, people had to find their fun for free. And in the Laurel Highlands, locals headed to the watering holes that can be found all over southwest Pennsylvania. Ohiopyle, a small village of 59 people in Fayette County, still offers those experiences. Ohiopyle is a river rat’s home. Canoing, whitewater rafting and cheap beer–Stoney’s, Straub and even Iron City–by the case (as that is the only way it is sold in Pennsylvania) abound in this country corner. The summers are cooler in the mountains, the water runs briskly. Ohiopyle offers the water slide enthusiast a singular experience–a “natural waterslide” carved into the creekbeds around the Youghiogheny River.

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Fallingwater

Before too long, the city slickers found out about the whitewater, and with the advent of the automobile and the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, they arrived. The most famous of the new money to find their way to Ohiopyle was Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of a major department store in downtown Pittsburgh. His family set up a modest campsite at Mill Run, just outside of Ohiopyle. Kaufmann decided to set up a more permanent weekend retreat, and connected with an architect looking to re-start his career as the eminent architect of his, or any era. Kaufmann’s wallet and Frank Lloyd Wrights ceaseless creatively created one of the most famous residences in the world, Fallingwater.

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Fallingwater earned Frank Lloyd Wright world-wide acclaim. Franklin Toker, in his book “Fallingwater Rising” points out that so much of this house’s international acclaim was due to the efforts of Kauffman himself to promote Wright’s work to William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce–media moguls who spread the word about this oddity in Hearst’s newspapers and Luce’s Time magazine. In the years that followed, celebrities and global personalities would make the winding trek to Fallingwater to experience high architecture with nature running through it. What the hilljacks must have thought when Albert Einstein rolled past the one-stop-light towns, perhaps stopping for gas, hair akimbo, seeking directions to Kaufmann’s house at a local general store.

For this trip to Ohiopyle and Fallingwater, I teamed up with the Elder Eclectic–my dad. These woods and hillsides were his homeland. Yet, in the fifty plus years of his life, he never managed a visit over to Fallingwater.

“Too fancy,” his response.”But Ohiopyle has some nice campin’.”

It sure does. Ohiopyle State Park surrounds the little town, and offers a lot of seclusion under the mountain laurel, easy access to those natural water slides, and if you clean yourself up, a visit to Fallingwater once dry.

Cucumber Falls, long exposure, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

I did get my dad in the front door of Fallingwater despite the fanciness. That Scots-Irish DNA is indelible. Suspicion of those gentry in any century, and a love of the outdoors. When Kaufmann built his dream cabin, few homes in the Laurel Mountains had indoor plumbing, let alone running water or electricity. Those cabins might have had a few rooms, maybe. The city slicker built a pleasure dome for himself right in the middle of the Lost Tribes of Scotland.

Many a tourist has written their impressions of the home, and I will offer a few of my own here. The building is an engineering marvel, cantilevered into the bedrock, the floors are the burnished cliff side, Mill Run flows right through the house. Wright constantly plays with the senses of where nature ends and where the home begins. The tour ends with a women’s committee–the city folk–making a pitch to save Fallingwater and other Wright treasures in the region. I have to say, this bit of the tour falls on deaf ears, as any donation to southern Pennsylvania might be better spent at a food bank or shelter. Wright has global support, the Scots-Irish do not.

PA - Mill Run: Fallingwater - Dressing Room

Many tourists march through my old country without taking much of that scenery in. That is their folly. The reason Kaufmann built the house in the Appalachian foothills was because he was seeking the vistas and solitude it provided. He wanted that experience in the woods as well, just on his terms. As for Fallingwater, to best understand Frank Lloyd Wright, you have to appreciate his effort to blend all of his architecture into its natural surroundings. Wright’s first homes evoked the horizontal line of the Midwestern prairie. His Arizona homes would never be built taller than the Saguaro cactus or as he called it “Arizona’s skyscraper.” Both Kauffman and Wright loved the nature that surrounded Fallingwater as much as the building itself.  To visit there without keeping that in mind is to miss the whole spirit of the place.

Fallingwater remains the reason why most tourists will bear the descent from the civilizing Pennsylvania Turnpike into hollers and ravines and into towns where even fast-food hasn’t penetrated, to get a glimpse of Frank’s masterwork. Yes, dear reader, it is a draw for this collector of the eclectic as well. But as the tourist holds onto his lunch, praying for the hillside drive to end quickly, I take in the vistas, the streams, the mountain laurel, the cold mountain air of my old country. And if you allow for a moment, it can be your adopted old country as well.

Laurel Mountains Photo credit: macwagen / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Pittsburgh vista photo credit jmd41280 / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Fallingwater Photo credit: pablo.sanchez / Foter.com / CC BY

Natural Waterslides Photo credit: y0chang / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle Photo credit: Alaskan Dude / Foter.com / CC BY

Fallingwater Interior Photo credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Mountain Laurel Photo credit: Thruhike98 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA