Tag Archives: woods ecosystem

Roadtrip: Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania

The price of the motel included a full breakfast. I brought yesterday’s New York Times to read. A man with glasses and carefully combed silver hair sat at a nearby table. He was wearing a dark polo shirt and neatly pressed white shorts. He eyed my paper. “You got that at the front desk?” he said. There was just a hint of a sharp tone in his voice; he was in obvious newspaper withdrawal. “No, I got it from my car,” I said. His face fell. The only newspaper available at the motel was USA Today.

As I drove over the high point of the Taconic Hills, over the border from Connecticut into New York, a sign gave the elevation as 970 feet. Near the Pennsylvania border, we reached a high point of about 1250 feet. Then halfway across Pennsylvania, a sign told me that I had reached the highest point on Interstate 80 between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, at about 2250 feet. Some of the scenery was spectacular, the road winding in among wooded hills and mountains that had clearly been shaped by glaciation. In many places, the road had to be cut through bedrock:

In the middle of the afternoon, I started getting fatigued. I had gone through several road construction projects where the road went to one lane, and at one point traffic had come to a complete stop due to an accident; when I passed the accident scene, they were trying to right an overturned car. I pulled into a rest area. Down behind the picnic area, a small stream wound through some woods. I walked along looking at the plants: big eastern hemlocks with young beeches pushing up around them, sassafras in the understory, and on the forest floor wintergreen, ground pine, jewel weed, trillium, all the familiar plants of the eastern woodlands. I picked a wintergreen leaf and smelled it. This would be the last of the eastern woodlands that I’ll see this year.

Towards evening, I decided to pull off the road to see if I could find a place to eat. I chose Reynoldsville, because I liked the look of countryside. It was seven miles away from the interstate, along a two-lane highway that was straight at first, then began to wind down an increasingly steep hillside, until suddenly I was on the main street of Reynoldsville. I parked the car and went for a walk. There were three or four restaurants, but they all seemed to feature pizza, except for one restaurant which promised “home cooking.” A woman was getting into her car in front of the Episcopal church. “Going for a walk?” she called out to me. “Yup, stretching my legs,” I said and smiled. Several of the houses had anti-abotion signs on their small front lawns: “Abortion stops a beating heart”; “Respect Life”; “Choose Life.” Reynoldsville did not seem like the kind of place where a middle-aged man with a pony tail would exactly fit in. I got in my car and drove back to the interstate.

Next I tried Brookville, because of a sign which mentioned the “Brookville Historic District.” When I got to Brookville, there were some impressive houses, most of which were carefully maintained. Right across from the big red courthouse with the brillian white trim, there was a little restaurant called “The Courthouse.” I would have been the youngest person there by a good twenty years. I decided that as pretty as the town was, I would not try to eat dinner there. I walked around a little bit, and came across a small manufacturing plant with a sign that said “Brookville Locomotive / Diesel Locomotives / Personnel Carriers.” This could not have been their main plant, though, for there were no railroad tracks anywhere nearby.

On reading Kenko

The colder autumn weather has finally begun. While I was on spiritual retreat in Wareham early in the week, I managed to take a couple of long walks. My morning walk on Tuesday took me through an old tennis court at the retreat center, now unused except for one small corner where someone has painted a classical, concentric labyrinth. A line of milkweed stalks had managed to grow up through a crack in the pavement during the summer. By the time I walked past them, the stalks were yellowed, and the few leaves that were left were gray, curled, and dead. I find milkweed plants to be most beautiful when they have died from frost:– the curled leaves take on fantastic shapes, the gray pimpled seed pods burst open releasing the seeds with their white downy parachutes that will enable the wind to spread the seeds far afield.

In the middle of the woods — I had gotten off the path chasing some small brown woodland bird — I came across a few ferns that still had a little green. Most of the ferns in the forest had been bitten by frost, curled and brown. Yet in this one clump, presumably more sheltered, I found one frond mostly green, another frond mostly yellow with a touch of faded green, another frond brown at the top and yellow lower down, and the rest of the fronds brown and curled and dead. A month of autumn visible in one clump of ferns.

On my way to Agawam Cemtery, a couple of miles away, I passed a cranberry bog looking reddish purple in the slanting afternoon light. The berries had already been ahrvested, but the bog had a quiet beauty nonetheless.

In 1330 in the Tsurezuregusa, the Japanese writer Kenko said:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”? People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.” In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting….

When I got to Agawam Cemetery, I searched out the oldest gravestones. You can tell the general age of New England gravestones from their shapes, and the type of stone from which they are cut. I found twenty or thirty slate stones that clearly dated from the last half of the 18th C., mostly from the Federal era but some earlier. Most of the 18th C. stones in Agawam Cemetery are shallowly carved and covered more or less in lichen, and in most cases the lichens completely obliterate the inscription. The inscriptions half seen, half guessed at and half covered in lichen, are just as fascinating as stones where the entire inscription is visible. On one of the most beautiful stones, the inscription was no longer visible, the inscribed surface was actually flaking away; the beauty lay in its deterioration.

Walking back from the cemetery to the retreat center, I walked through suburban houses on their tight little lots. Since this is a seaside town in which the population explodes in the summer, “No Trespassing” signs appear everywhere. I passed a new house going in, a bulldozer parked beside the house, the entire lot scraped clean, showing the poor, sandy soil. The pine and oak woods that used to cover the land here were cut down for farming, grew back up again when the farms failed, and now the woods are being cut down once again for summer houses and gated communities.

More than one sign at the beginning of a road declared: “Members and Their Guests Only.” If they didn’t have those signs, the pressure from the growing population would mean the property owners would have invaders constantly traipsing through their land, past their summer house, headed for the sea. Can we say that the suburban houses, the gated communities, the signs are any less beautiful than the pine and oak woods they replace? For how long can the houses and signs last — a century or two, at most, before they fall into rack and ruin and something else replaces them. Although with global warming, what may well replace these houses is the open ocean, raging under the influence of huge coastal storms. Kenko never anticipated global warming completely changing the normal cycle of the seasons, nor did he ever anticipate that cherry blossoms might stop blooming entirely in their ancestral range.

Don’t go to “Walden Woods”

We awakened to a clear, cool autumn day. I spent the morning writing, and after a late lunch I decided I’d drive out to Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord. I wanted to walk from the parking lot there down to the Concord River, figuring I might see some interesting birds and get to walk through the autumn woods. When I got to Walden Pond, I discovered that the state now charges for parking year-round. I don’t blame them for doing so; parking fees help pay for the erosion damage all the tourists do; but it didn’t logically follow that I was going to pay to park.

So I drove a mile down the street and parked at the town forest. I walked past Brister’s Spring, which still doesn’t have an interpretive marker even though Thoreau mentions it. A little farther on, several acres of land had long ago been bulldozed, stripped of topsoil in anticipation of a hotel being built right off the highway. The hotel never got built, and the land had grown up with grass and scrubby trees. People used to ride dirt bikes and go off-roading up there; that, and the fact that it looked pretty barren, tended to keep casual walkers out. A good place to look for birds. Fewer people to scare the birds away.

When I got up to where I could see the old dirt bike track, I saw that someone had erected a stone marker, thrusting up three feet into the air. The word “phallic” comes to mind. The stone had been carefully and neatly cut, and on the side, in laser-cut letters, was the slogan “Walden Woods.” On top was a bronze cap that turned out to be a tablet with a crude map that purported to show “Thoreau’s path on Brister’s Hill.” Well, maybe, but any evidence of old paths got stripped off with the topsoil. A sappy quote from Thoreau, in raised bronze letters, encircled the map.

A hundred feet down “Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill,” a discreet metal marker informed me that I should “Please stay on the path. Restoration Area. Walden Woods.” It looked like the signs you see on the mall in Washington, D.C., where there’s a D.C. cop lurking in the distance daring you with his eyes to step off the path so he can politely reprimand you. Then I realized that the black pipe I had seen in the ground earlier, a pipe with a funny piece of metal across the top, had once held another one of the signs. Someone had ripped the sign off. I tested the sign that was still intact. The metal was flimsy, and I guessed that if you bent it back and forth half a dozen times, it would break right off the black pipe. I was tempted, I even looked furtively up and down the trail to see if anyone was lurking and watching, but I didn’t.

Another hundred feet, and I looked down at four long pieces of granite, about three feet long and eight inches wide, embedded in the ground. A quote from Thoreau had been engraved into the stone, like that judge in Alabama had the Ten Commandments engraved into a piece of stone in his courthouse. I kicked at one of the pieces of granite. It was firmly anchored to the ground in anticipation of potential Vandals like me. I kicked again, It still didn’t budge, so I walked off the trail into the “Restoration Area.”

I slid down a steep slope into a shallow gravel pit. Someone had dumped several truckloads of wood chips down that slope. I followed deer tracks up the other side. There in some scraggy pitch pines and white birches I saw a warbler. Unbelievably, instead of flitting about and hiding in the leaves, it stayed in plain sight long enough for me to really see it (and the light was perfect, slanting autumn sun through crystal-clear air): olive-green back with light streaks, wing bars, streaking on its white breast, white undertail coverts: a Blackpoll Warbler in fall plumage. I watched it pick insects off the leaves of one small birch tree, and then fly away. I crashed through the brush, stepping on leafless blueberry bushes, and suddenly I was surrounded by birds. If you kiss the back of your hand, sometimes the birds will come quite close: a dozen chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted down to perch on branches not twenty feet from me.

I found my way out past more granite markers, and crossed the highway to the site of the old Concord dump, where the town still maintains a composting facility. Birds flew from one big compost windrow to another: sparrows, a flycatcher or two, and bluebirds — bluebirds! I love seeing bluebirds. I walked up onto the hill that used to be the dump, now capped off and planted with some kind of grass that grows six or seven feet high, proud to think that I had dumped lots of trash here over the years. I saw my first Ring-billed Gull here, and my first Lesser Yellowlegs, here at the dump. When I got up to the top of the huge trash pile, two meadowlarks flew up out of the grass and circled around me. I love town dumps.

With a little bushwhacking, I skirted the Walden Pond parking lot and found the road up to the top of Pine Hill. It goes straight up the steep hill, so I went up it as fast as I could, my heart pounding. Ahead of me, two people went up more slowly. I reached the top at the same time they did. We all stopped where you can see Mount Wachusett through the trees. I recognized one of the two (name and gender withheld to protect the guilty) from conservation meetings we both attended seven or eight years ago, someone who worked for the Walden Pond State Reservation; I was pretty sure he/she recognized me, too.

“Wow, what a great view of Wachusett today,” I said. “The air is so clear today.”

Silence. They pointedly turned away from me, sat on the grass, and carried on a conversation in low tones. Who can blame them? If you work at Walden Pond, you must feel like you’re in a constant state of siege from hordes of tourists, Thoreau nuts, swimmers, and anglers. The park gets ten thousand or more people on a hot summer day. I’d probably be just as hostile as those two if I worked there.

The view of Wachusett was incredible, though, the mountain’s flanks reddened by the fall foliage. “The air is so clear, I can see the flashes of the car windshields from the top of Wachusett,” I said out loud.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw their backs stiffen. I could almost hear them thinking to themselves, “He’s talking to us, the bastard. He wants to engage us in conversation.” The one who knew me had enough remaining human instincts to half turn towards me, until catching him or herself. They turned back to each other and pretended to be carrying on their conversation in low tones. Merrily I bounded off down the hill, running in the sheer exuberance of a perfect fall day.

As long I was experiencing the Walden hostility, I figured I might was well walk all the way around the pond. Dozens of people clogged the narrow paths along the shore of the pond, even though it was a weekday. Some of these people obviously had been deluded into thinking they could find some kind of Thoreauvian solitude at Walden, and I watched them flinch as I hove into view, smiling at them as if I might talk to them. They avoided my eyes as we brushed by each other — you have to brush by each other because the trail is only about two and a half feet wide, and lined on either side with four-foot high wire fence to keep you safely separated from Walden Woods. God forbid you should go into the Walden Woods.

So I skipped up to the trail that follows the high ground around the pond. It’s wider, less crowded, doesn’t have fences, and one woman I passed actually said hello and exchanged pleasantries with me, my first human encounter at Walden that day that lacked all hostility. Thoreau’s misanthropy must be infect most people who visit Walden Pond. Or maybe the hostility comes from the increasing numbers of signs and interpretive plaques and stone commemorative markers. They now have a granite marker commemorating Thoreau’s bean field, for Pete’s sake. We should just develop all the land around Walden Pond into luxury houses. Think about it — the state could get millions for a single house fronting onto Walden Pond. A luxury house development could generate fifty to a hundred million dollars, which could go towards conserving what little wilderness is left in the state. Enough of Walden Pond.

Across the highway, back in the town forest, I walked around the little pond there. A man was fishing at the far end. “Catching anything?” I asked.

“A couple of small ones,” he said. “I just missed one.”

“Sunnies?” I said.

“Yep, bluegills,” he said. “There’s bass in there too.”

“Bass?” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “Once I talked to a guy who caught a twelve-pounder and brought it over and released it.”

It was hard to imagine that a twelve pound bass would find enough to eat in that little pond, but you never know. The man was fishing with long cane poles, not rods, dangling his bait and bobber twelve feet out into the little pond at the ends of the poles. They were beautiful, burnished a warm brown, with silver-colored ferrules. I secretly admired them while we chatted. He was from North Cambridge, he said, and he took the train out to Concord and walked over here to fish.

I wandered off down paths lit by the slanting autumn sun, and after a time found myself in the middle of a pine woods, of not very great extent, with no underbrush, only a soft covering of deep, quiet pine needles. On the northwest edge was a field, and there the pine wood was bordered by red maples covered in bright yellow and red leaves; the light filtering into the wood was golden. The black trunk of the pines drew my eyes up into the heights of the trees with mysterious dark pine needles. To the north, through the neatly spaced black tree trunks, the setting sun lit another line of red maples into a blaze of orange and red, and the light made me catch my breath. I may have stayed there a while, or maybe I just passed through. I could find no path leading out of this wood, so I pushed my way through the underbrush between it and the field, and emerged under blue sky and pink clouds. Transformed.

A walk in the valley

I had intended to stay off the hilltops. My hamstrings were sore, and tropical storm Ernesto hovering to the south was making all my joints stiff. When I got to the Blue Hills, I avoided the steep climb up Hancock Hill and sauntered along the gentle grades of Wolcott Path, a gravel fire road that winds through the valley between Hancock and Hemenway Hills on the one side, and Houghton and Great Blue Hills on the other.

The sun occasionally shone brightly enough through the cloud cover that the trees cast shadows on the road. My muscles complained, and I slowed down even further, admiring the lowlands filled with bracken stretching on either side of the road. An intense smell of bracken, the smell of late summer, filled the air. A trail bore off to the right; the map showed it was fairly level; I turned off to follow it.

The woods were lovely, bright, and still. I hadn’t seen another person since I left that parking lot, and even the birds were quiet, except for some chickadees here and there. I turned right, and right again. The trail I chose wound upwards less gently than before, up to the low broad top of a hill, rocky and grassy with scrubby oak trees and a view of Great Blue Hill. I turned away from the view and followed the narrowest trail I could find down again into a valley.

The trail turned abruptly about halfway down the hill, and skirted a drop-off that appeared to grow steeper and steeper. I followed a small path to the edge of the drop-off: I was standing at the top of a rock face some thirty or forty feet above a small stream bed with a little thread of brown water babbling down it. The path dropped down to the stream, and I looked back up at the rock, heaved up I guess in some distant past when the strata had been nearly molten. Now it was impossibly picturesque, shaded by hemlocks and pines.

I thought about skirting the base of the next hill, but when I found the barely-visible trail to its summit, I couldn’t resist following it upwards. There wasn’t much to follow: a few places where the lichen on the rocks had been worn off leading to a narrow treadway still visible in the grass-covered ground between the rocks. In the next rocky stretch, I lost the trail, so followed the ridge line towards the summit. Then I saw a smear of black and gray paint on a rock. I looked closely, and saw the black and gray paint covered old orange paint. Had someone deliberately tried to paint out the blazes? Another smear of black paint, followed by a small cairn. Branches and bushes had grown over the trail.

Suddenly the faint trail emerged into an open area, exposed bedrock with grass and small plants growing in the hollows. I looked behind me, and there was Boston Harbor with the empty horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. I climbed higher, followed the open rock away from the trail, and found a place to sit and look. The towers of Boston were off to the left, looking somehow ominous today. Beyond them, I thought I could see the hills of the Middlesex Fells. A few white dots on the waters of Boston Harbor: I wasn’t sure they were boats until one disappeared behind one of the islands. Chimney Swifts soared idly overhead. I walked further along the rock and noticed a small plant at my feet. I got down on my knees to look at it: red buds carried on much-ramified, almost leafless branches of a plant that wasn’t more than a few inches high, growing out of cracks in the rock. A few of the red buds were just opening up into yellow flowers that were perhaps an eighth of an inch. It was Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides) just beginning to bloom.

When I looked up again, the Chimney Swifts were gone. A moment later, I saw why: a Red Hawk floated by, not too far above me but high above the valley. The hawk flexed its wings and tail, riding the air currents; I could see its head moving back and forth, scanning the trees below it.

The trail continued up past a small sheltering oak tree. I say it was sheltering, although it had few enough leaves that it couldn’t have sheltered much under it; but the shape of its bent trunk and curving branches somehow reassured me and made me feel sheltered, for no reason at all. Beyond that tree, I lost the view until I emerged onto the main trail.

A small pond glistened darkly in the trees in front of me, and the trees had already begun to lose the deep green of midsummer; Great Blue Hill loomed off to the west; gray clouds mounted high into the sky beyond Great Blue Hill. To the south, towards where we live, the land was flat, and a line of gray-white cumulus clouds hung low on the horizon.

It was all almost too beautiful to bear. Abraham Maslow popularized the phrase “peak experiences,” meaning those moments in life when when you achieve sometimes unbearable clarity. Later in his life, Maslow wrote that he wished he had not concentrated so much on peak experiences, and I think he felt responsible to some extent for the excesses of the drug culture of the late 1960’s, with young people indiscriminately seeking “peak experiences” from hallucinogens and other more destructive drugs. So later on, Maslow defined “plateau experiences” as those times that fill your soul with wonder and awe but that extend beyond the momentary to fill hours; and he said the plateaus could be as intense as the peaks. The paradigmatic plateau experience is the mother who nestles quietly with her baby, lost in the baby’s smell and sound and new being; an experience far more intense than a hallucination from a drug, because it is real and because in some sense it never really ends. I headed back down a gentle path into a valley, having had enough of summits just then, even the low broad summits of the Blue Hills; I felt I needed a valley experience just then, not a peak experience.

But that gentle, downward-trending road was just as heart-achingly beautiful as the summit of the little hill I was coming down. The path followed an old woods road. The land had obviously been clear of trees not too long ago; it was now covered with coppice and small trees. Among the thickets of saplings, and the more open spaces under the larger trees, I saw a great slope covered with shattered rocks the size of my head; a small rocky ridge rose up into almost open sky on the other side, and the path wound around to the bottom of that ridge, which was covered with huge shattered rocks and slabs. In one area, the rocks appeared to have scales: loosely hanging dingy brownish-gray scales, lichen of a type I hadn’t seen before. I followed that path back down to the fire road from which I had originally diverged, passed the little road that had tempted me onto that detour, and kept walking.

Eventually I came to a small field that opened up in the woods. I stood quietly on its edge, admiring the huge gnarled oak that towered amid the goldenrod and yellowing late summer grass, comparing the openness of the field with the openness of the hilltops. Something snorted; startled, I turned, and two deer took fright, showed their white tails, and leapt into the trees. I could hear them crashing away through the brush.

The fire road intersected the paved road to the summit of Great Blue Hill, so I went almost to the observation tower at the summit, but there were too many people there. I had seen no one all afternoon, until I started up Great Blue Hill. Instead, I cut over to the head of the ski slope, and looked west from there. The course of the highways below me were marked out by the huge roofs of corporate and manufacturing buildings, gray and beige expanses sticking out of the tree cover, covering acres. Further off, three or four church steeples marked an old town center. Away off to the west stood Mt. Wachusett; beyond it to the north, a line of hills led up to the distant peak of Mt. Monadnock; and I knew that even farther north, hidden behind Mondanock, lay the White Mountains.

The walk back to the car was short and uneventful; but tonight I think I will dream of mountains.

Spring watch

The drive from New Bedford up to Cambridge takes you through wooded swamps in the town of Freetown on the south coastal plain of Massachusetts. At this time of year the swamps are mostly gray: gray twigs, gray branches, gray tree trunks. Just now, as leaves are just starting to come out on some trees, you’ll also see colors that are almost autumnal in hue. The brilliant crimson of the last of the Red Maple flowers almost hides the gray branches in places. A nearby maple will appear dull orange from a distance, from the reddish hue of the tiny new leaves just bursting out from buds. The hanging blossoms on a birch tree are nearly yellow, with just a tinge of green. As you drive by on the highway, winter gray still dominates; the crimson, dull orange, and bright yellow hues will last for just a few days, a brief anticipation of autumn before the swamp trees turn brilliant green.