Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rattlesnakes, Raptors and Robbers

People head into the wilds for all sorts of reasons. Some search for birds, some hunt, some fish, some bag peaks. I’m sure there are those who feel their time was wasted if they come home with an empty creel or no new checks on their life list. Some of us are content with a day afield even if we come home empty-handed. A few people I know have seen me on my bike riding to or from Moose Hill. I hesitate to explain the true nature of my visits. It’s so much easier to say I’m going bird watching or that I went hiking rather than to try to explain that I was going to sit or wander alone in the woods to allow natural wonders and random thoughts come to me. In this age of goals, priorities and multitasking, wandering aimlessly might seem a bit wasteful or odd. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have a tangible objective as an excuse to get out.

When I know ahead of time that I will be able to spend a few hours on Moose Hill, I try to plan where I want to spend that precious time. So, even though I try to remain as flexible as possible so I can respond to mood and opportunity, I usually prefer to start with at least an outline for the visit. Three sources of inspiration converged to send me to the rocky cliffs know as Bluff Head and Allens Ledge on Saturday morning. Bluff Head is where my son and I watched the summer solstice sunset (See “Running to the Sun,” June 22, 2006.).

A couple of weeks ago, Greenman Tim posted at “Walking the Berkshires” (See sidebar.) about the decline of one of the few remaining timber rattlesnake dens in New England. Then, a reader interested in Massachusetts geology and caves e-mailed asking if I knew anything about a “Robber’s Cave” on Moose Hill. Finally, Lene of “counting petals” (See sidebar.) suggested that I keep my eyes open for migrating hawks. Usually, I require only the flimsiest of reasons to head to a particular place on Moose Hill, but here were three very good ones to head for the rocky outcrops.

I rode over the hill and down the back side to sneak in the back way from Walpole Street. Even though the trail here is part of the Bay Circuit Trail and the Warner Trail, it is far removed from the parking areas and sanctuary buildings, so it doesn’t get much traffic. Part of the beauty of using a bicycle to get around is that I am not limited by the need to park a car. I can slip into the woods at almost any point, unseen.

The forecast of a cloudy, rainy morning was fabulously incorrect and I was thrilled by the clear air and blue skies. Sunbeams piercing the pines and oaks overhead caused the water droplets from the night’s rain and fog to glisten and sparkle on the ferns and young pines along the path. My footsteps were quiet on the moist duff of the little-used trail.

I climbed through the quiet woods to the first rock outcrop, Allens Ledge. I left the trail to follow an informal path along the base of this small cliff to see if I could find any caves or remnants of historic quarrying activity that could have been the basis of robber legends. I didn’t spot any caves at all, but I did see some amazing lichens growing on the well-shaded rocks. One type looked like someone had thrown big pieces of limp, green seaweed against the stone wall. Some were about as large as my hand. Indeed, in the course of the morning, I saw several varieties of lichens and mosses growing on the rocks. The abundance and variety of these fascinating non-vascular plants made me wish I had an expert along with me, or at least a hand lens and good field guide.

I made another discovery at the base of the ledge that made me wonder if maybe the bird messengers who were talking to me all summer were truly trying to tell me something important and that I was on a very unusual quest. I found an old galvanized steel trash can, upright and partially filled with water. In the putrid swill at the bottom of the barrel, along with leaves, twigs and acorns was a drowned baby squirrel. I have no idea how or why this can was in the middle of the woods, but as I turned it over to eliminate this death trap, I thought of another barrel I emptied this summer that had claimed a baby robin (See “That One May Live,” June 7, 2006.). Maybe my place in the world is to become “He who Dumps Trash Cans.” That would be my kind of luck.

I worked my way along the base of Allens Ledge and then climbed up on top. There is an old, rough, stone chimney standing on a flat spot on the ledge, built from local stone that probably came from the ledge itself. If there was ever a building attached to this chimney, the traces of it are long gone. There is an “eat locally” movement afoot these days. People try to eat food produced by local farmers so they can enjoy the freshness, know that they are supporting local growers, are helping to preserve open space and know that vast amounts of energy were not consumed transporting their strawberries across the continent. I wonder if anyone is trying to launch a “build locally” movement. Many homes around here have Douglas fir beams and cedar siding from the Pacific Northwest, granite countertops from Brazil and marble bathrooms from Italy. Perhaps it makes sense to try to focus more on using local materials or locally recycled materials. Not only would transportation costs be reduced, this might help preserve and enhance local architectures that help make places unique.

Getting hungry, I moved up the trail to find a spot to sit on the higher and larger Bluff Head (Elev. 491). I found a spot offering great views to the south, hoping to spot some migrating hawks. I sat there on that massive rock with miles of landscape stretched before me. If I could ignore the power lines, cell towers and water tanks sticking up, most of the many highways, roads, buildings and other works of humans were hidden by forest. The world looked large and I was, as an individual, feeling small and insignificant. Directly overhead was the white crescent of the moon. In the distance was the humongous Gillette Stadium. I thought how, when united in a common purpose, many individuals could pool their energies and resources to do impressive things like fly to the moon or build a giant sports arena. Now, I’m not a big fan of paving miles of landscape to build stadiums out in the country or cold wars that lead to space races, but I thought of the wonderful things we could do if only we were united in our efforts to build a better world. I wish we had found something better to do with our peace dividend.

Scanning the open air before me, I saw a lone swallow fly by. Soon, like my swifts, the swallow will be gone for the winter. A hawk flew by, low over the trees. I didn’t see any migrants soaring overhead. Maybe there would be some later in the day as the sun warmed the earth and rising cushions of thermals provided a south-bound magic carpet. A tiny, silent greenish bird with a yellow breast was working the branches inside the dense foliage of some redcedars not ten feet away. At first I thought it must be one of the notorious confusing fall warblers, but now I think it might have been a kinglet since it was so small.

Breakfast finished, I got up to explore the rocks. I had a fantasy of discovering an unknown den of rattlers. I had visions of a fat, gravid female warming herself on the rocks in the bright September sun. The slimness of the odds kept me from searching too hard, but I did notice a number of bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) growing in the small pockets of soil in fissures in the stone. This scrub oak is a tree of the hard places, and this place is about as hard as it gets around here with its thin soil and exposure to hot summer sun and cold winter blasts.

Although the cycling shoes I was wearing are fine for walking, they are not well suited to rock climbing, so I quickly gave up on any search for hidden caves that sheltered bandits. I did notice potential loot for amateur archeologists where generations of hikers tossed their trash off the cliff after snacking on the ledge. There must be a veritable midden heap of old cans and bottles buried in the forest floor at the base of the rocks.

A power mower and string trimmer started to roar and whine in the valley below, so it was time to go. I found the trail off the rocks and back into the forest. I heard other hikers coming as I left the main trail to take the less-used trail back to my bike. I watched them pause at the intersection to check their map and then continue on to the ledge. I wondered how many unseen silent eyes watched me as I moved through the woods.

As I slowly approached my bike, I was looking for any excuse to linger a bit longer. I wanted to surrender to serendipity. Just then, off the trail in a pool of sunlight hitting the ground through a hole in the canopy, I saw a movement. Binoculars at the ready, I crept closer and sat down at the base of a tree in a bed of pine needles. I was looking for what I thought would be a titmouse or chickadee, when I saw a heavily streaked breast. Then I saw a second bird. I almost laughed out loud when I saw the light eye-rings and tawny caps with black borders. These were ovenbirds! All summer I heard these naughty pupils screaming for the teacher but I never got to see one. Finally, here at the end of their school year when they are silent, I found them. With some soft ‘pishing’ I lured this curious duo to within about eight feet of me. After about five minutes of mutual inspections, they moved on, perhaps on their way to winter vacation.

I went to the woods with the excuse of looking for raptors, robbers and rattlesnakes. That was my cover story. I knew I wasn’t going to find snakes or caves. I thought my chances of seeing migrating hawks were reasonable, but not great. I didn’t get to put any checks on my to-do list, but that was fine with me.

With that, thinking I had more than my share of discoveries for a day, I pushed my bike to the road and headed for home. Along the way, I encountered some snapping turtles, and that, is another story.

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At 2:44 PM, Blogger CabinWriter-- said...

Hey, any chance I can find a map that traces your journey in this entry? I'll enjoy your trip almost as if I made it with you. I realize that I still don't have my eyes open when I'm in the woods.

At 3:10 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Here's a link to some maps, Vivian. (I hope this works!) I'll try to figure out how to put this in a side bar later.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger lené said...

What a great story, mojoman. I love the way you weave in all of your experience--details of the lichen and the dew, reflections on our impact (and our potential--the stadium section was great!), the local food/building point (would love to know if there is a build local movement--what a great idea--call Bill McKibbon).

If you haven't seen Robin Wall Kimmerer's book about moss, you might enjoy her collection of essays. I got a small magnifying glass after reading them.

At 10:41 PM, Blogger I_Wonder said...

In my mind I looked out and saw your world and tried to imagine what it really looks like. Thanks for taking me along.

At 12:15 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

Seems you wrote a series of pictures just for me- thanks.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Thanks to all for taking the time to go on the walk with me. It will make my next trip feel like I have companions.

Lene: Thanks for the reminder about Robin Wall's book. I will certainly check it out. I was actually aquainted with her back in college.


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