A Walk in the Woods

by

Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Countless millennia ago, the Appalachians rivaled the Himalayas. They’re one of the oldest mountain chains on Earth, though now they’ve been worn down to a third of their original height by erosion. They’re so old that they existed when sea life first evolved enough to crawl out of the sea. About a billion years ago, the Earth’s land masses were joined together. A period of intense tectonic activity caused the continents to separate, and about 470 million years ago, two of them gradually smashed into each other to create the Appalachians. Land that originally would have been attached to Europe, Antarctica, and Africa flanks the Appalachians, which were formed in three long phases that shuffled the land like playing cards.
Bryson has just exposed how much damage mining has caused to the local environment in Appalachia. This is disheartening considering how old the mountain chain is. The fact that Appalachia is so old makes it quite rare—land masses from all over the globe have wound up here, meaning that the flora and fauna must be incredibly diverse. This exposes the careless damage of the mining industry as even more thoughtless. It’s hard for Bryson to imagine how many species must have gone extinct from human activity that we don’t even know about.
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Geologist James Tefil estimates that the average mountain stream carries away 1,000 cubic feet of mountain each year as sand granules—that’s about as much sand as a dump truck would hold. Lichen and other organisms also wear down mountains. Each year, the Appalachians shrink about 0.03 millimeters. Speculation about the Appalachians’ formation is spotty at best. They may even have formed, eroded, and formed again several more times than scientists speculate.
Bryson stresses that we don’t actually know all that much about the geological history of Appalachia. Our lack of knowledge of the region’s early history reinforces the idea that we cause reckless damage to the wilderness without knowing what we’re killing. It could well be the case that we’ve killed species that we never even knew existed, and the thought deeply saddens Bryson. 
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Bryson approaches the Delaware Water Gap, where Kittatinny Mountain exposes a cross-section of the mountainous land, one side of it having been eroded away by an ancient river. About 100 years ago, people compared the view to the Alps. Artists like George Innes painted the Delaware Water Gap. Right after the American Civil War, it was a popular holiday destination. Nowadays, most people just take a brief look and drive on; between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a lot of the terrain around here is eaten up by highways. Bryson decides that Kittatinny Mountain will be his final hike before he heads home. 
Bryson emphasizes the difference in landscape between Delaware as it would have looked a mere 100 years ago compared to how it looks now. Back then, it was a beautiful place where people picnicked among vast trees. Now, it’s a bulldozed mess of land wedged between endless highways. It’s clear to Bryson that the damage human beings have caused to the natural landscape is reprehensible, especially because so much of this damage was unnecessary.
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Bryson has good maps for this stretch of the Trail, which makes him happy. He thinks that knowing where he is will make him appreciate the hike more. He hikes to Sunfish Pond, meeting two other day-hikers along the way. He thinks about the crowded urban areas of New Jersey and New York wonders why people complain about the Trail being overcrowded. Sunfish Pond is a remnant of glaciers from the last ice age. Technically, we’re still in an ice age, since snow and ice aren’t typical climates for planet Earth.  Scientists know little about the Earth’s ice ages beyond the fact that they happened. Scientist Gwen Schultz thinks that ice sheets start gradually from snow lingering on the ground.
Bryson reminds the reader that having some context about the environment he’s exploring makes the experience far more enjoyable to him than blindly wandering through a thicket of trees just for the sake of it. Bryson starts to explore ideas that he’ll raise in his later book A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he explores the Earth’s early geological history. In discussing the Earth’s ice ages here, he reminds the reader that the land he’s standing on would have all been wilderness at one time. These facts emphasize how much damage humans have caused to the wilderness, even outside Appalachia.
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Leaving his car by the Garvey Spring Trail, Bryson strolls along the Delaware River, which frequently floods. In 1955, heavy rainfall caused the river to rise 43 feet, wiping out most of the land around it, and killing 400 people. The army planned to build a dam to prevent this happening again, evicting 80,000 people in the process. After years of protests, the project was put on hold. It was too late for the 200-year-old farming villages surrounding the river, which had already been bulldozed. Although the land is now protected for the Trail, Bryson thinks he’d prefer to see old farming villages.
Bryson raises yet another example of human destruction. The planned construction of the Delaware dam caused countless mass evictions and ruined many historical environments that would have been a treasure to somebody like Bryson, including many historical villages along the Trail. It saddens Bryson that this kind of pointless industrial activity ruins the natural environment. It bothers him that the government doesn’t seem to care about preserving historical rural environments like old farming villages. It seems to him that this attitude underserves Americans because it erases the historical rural environment, something that would make engaging with nature far more palatable.
Themes
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Bryson thinks the United States has a strange attitude toward nature. He remembers hiking in Luxembourg, where trails and paths carried him on foot to various villages and inns. Here, nature seems designed for people to drive to it. People either completely exploit nature, or render parts of it—like the Appalachian Trail—as a sort of holy wilderness. This sort of “either/or” thinking bothers Bryson. He thinks farming and wilderness could coexist in an easier relationship. He tries to look on the bright side: at least there’s no dam.
Bryson has been building up to the idea that the United States thinks of its land as “either” remote and rugged wilderness that can’t be touched, “or” ugly industrialized land that can be completely exploited, with no middle ground. Now, he makes his argument explicit. He compares his experiences on the Trail to his experiences in Luxembourg, where the middle ground—rural environments like farms and villages—has been preserved. He decides that such environments are far more hospitable to people who want to enjoy nature. They allow people to explore natural environments that blend more seamlessly with everyday life, and Bryson thinks that this approach makes a lot more sense. He’s disappointed to find nothing like this approach the Trail.
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