Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians

20th Anniversary Edition By Scott Weidensaul

Review by Eric Pavlak

A gunshot and splash of blood on a snowy November day in north-central Pennsylvania in 1867 marked the end of the last of the wapiti, the native elk of the Appalachians. A hundred years later, the majestic bald eagle was all but gone.

Today, the eagles are back, thanks to conservation efforts and a ban on the poison that was killing them. A few western elk have now repopulated a tiny part of their former vast range. Each spring, the trout lilies and May apples still sprout. The land is once again verdant green, though men still rip coal from the earth, dump waste into streams and pump toxic fluids into deep bore holes to extract natural gas. Resplendent with nature’s beauty, rich with trees and water, these mountains have generated great wealth and great poverty. And every year, the snows refresh, the waters flow and the land regenerates.

Once towering to the heights of the Alps and the Rockies, the now-eroded and rounded Appalachian Mountains are among the oldest major mountain chains on earth. Extending from north-central Alabama to Belle Isle, off the northern tip of Newfoundland, they are the defining topological feature of eastern North America. They hold vast natural diversity and wonders, and have shaped much of the history of our nation and our continent.

Reading Scott Weidensaul’s Mountains of the Heart is like many fascinating days walking with an eloquent naturalist, and many evenings with a knowledgeable and genial historian.

Weidensaul takes us not just into the woods of these old hills, but along the creeks and rivers, and the flyways of birds and butterflies. He tells of those settled here and those who’s lives and land the settlers took.

This book was originally published 20 years ago. This is a newly updated edition, with a must-read introduction that includes the latest environmental insults our species is hurling at our mountains, and the conservation efforts to minimize the damage.

An author writing on a topic so vast as a mountain range obviously has to be selective. Your favorite topic might not be included. I was hoping for some mention of the extraordinary story of the American eel. I didn’t find it, but instead learned of the extensive travels of botanists John (father) and William Bartram in the mid-1700s.

Many nature writers are boring to me, lacking the poetry of a Wordsworth or the insight of a Thoreau. Unlike them, Weidensaul has produced a book that is fun to read. It is filled with well-researched information. Learn more about our loss of the great chestnuts, the once great shad runs, vanished bison. Celebrate the resurgence of egrets and ospreys. Learn about a multitude of things you have walked past and never noticed. Celebrate our beloved mountains.

About the Author: Scott Weidensaul is a Pennsylvania native and current resident, who began his writing career with the Pottsville Republican, first as a columnist, than as a full-time reporter. He left that 10-year stint to become a freelance nature writer, with long-running columns in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News. He has written more than two dozen books, including Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He is contributing editor for Audubon magazine and writes for, Bird Watcher’s Digest and National Wildlife.

He is an active field researcher studying bird migration, and is one for the few licensed hummingbird banders in the country. Owls are the focus of much of his efforts, and he directs the ornithology program at the Audubon Society’s Hog Island camp off the coast of Maine.