Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Imagine visiting a beautiful place, rich in natural beauty and rich in human history, a place that offers new delights to the senses with the unfolding of every season. Now, imagine visiting that place every day. Think how fun it would be to walk through this paradise every day – and on many nights - and have the ability to observe and understand the inter-connectedness of everything you see, from the scale of the entire universe to the sub-atomic level over time spans covering days, years, centuries, millennia and eons. Now, imagine taking this walk every day for thirty-seven years!

I recently read The Path: A One-Mile Walk through the Universe by Chet Raymo. I remember reading Raymo’s weekly column in the Boston Globe until, sadly, they were discontinued a few years ago. I stumbled on this book in a bookstore several weeks ago, and remembered I had hoped to read it.

Raymo is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, a town that neighbors ours to the south. He would walk the same path to work every day through parts of the village of North Easton past houses built in the late nineteenth century to house workers at the Ames Shovel Company, a classic industrial-era corporation that produced the shovels that built America. His route also crossed land that was once an Ames family estate and is now a preserve known as “Sheep Pasture.” This wealthy industrial family employed the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to sculpt the woods, fields and gardens of the estate and they retained the architect H. H. Richardson to design several buildings in town. This was my destination last Saturday.

Sheep Pasture is about nine miles by bicycle from our house, and my wife and I rode over there on a bright but blustery and brisk October afternoon. I’ve driven and biked through this area dozens of times in the last two decades, and while I enjoyed the nicely-civilized rural feel of the place, I never paused to take a close look. Now, with Raymo’s book as a guide, I feel motivated to visit this preserve and pay closer attention.

We didn’t stay long this time since the day was mostly about spending a couple of hours on the bike, but we did walk one of the main trails to get a feel for the place. Standing on an overlook that may have been the terrace of a long-gone mansion, a lovely little valley lay before us. A mown field with an inviting footpath down the middle sloped to a meadow cradling a small creek. A few scattered trees in the fields coalesced at the edges into forest that was slowly surrendering its October finery. Informed by Raymo’s history of the estate, I knew that the beauty before me was not entirely the work of nature, but a landscape-sized sculpture created a century ago by Olmstead and his crews.

Our walk took us along this field and others. Scrubby clumps, brushy edges, woodlots, and marshy places told me this would be a great place to visit for some fine spring birding. We passed bluebird boxes put out by Raymo’s friend, Bob the Bluebird Man. I’d love to visit those handsome blue-backed thrushes in April. We commented how lovely this place could be in winter for cross-country skiing. I hoped this would be the first of many visits with newly-opened eyes.

For me, The Path brings to mind a few books that draw a deep map. William Least Heat-Moon, with his tome PrairyErth (a deep map) popularized the phrase with his intense study of a Kansas county at the geographic center of America. Closer to home, John Hanson Mitchell has written a few books, including Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile and Living at the Edge of Time, digging deep into the heart of the land around his home in Littleton, Massachusetts. All have been inspired and guided by Henry David Thoreau and his ramblings around Concord, Massachusetts.

Anyone could find a place to study and love and chart their own deep map. Some spend hours tending to the plants in the garden. Wilderness lovers have favorite mountain peaks. Paddlers ply the perfect stream. Others rock on the front porch. Worlds of wonder pass a city bench every day. In a way, I hope to do something a little like this with my explorations of Moose Hill. I hope, by getting to know one place well, I will learn to better appreciate all places. And, perhaps I will learn a few things about myself along the way.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


On October 11, Lene of the “counting petals” blog (See sidebar.) posted a writing prompt called “A Place to Start” on the “Whorled Leaves” blog:

Your front door. Clear your mind, open your front door, and step out. What is the first--very first--thing you notice? The thumb-print sized leaves of a crabapple tree, a child's scarf crumpled in the grass, maybe the sound of geese honking above the gray veil of clouds--whatever it is, let it be your starting point. Tell us a story from your front door. It doesn't have to be true--you can take us anywhere. Just take us on a journey from those steps before you.

She got me thinking about the things I see in my own front yard.

The first thing to catch my eye when I opened my front door on Monday morning was the flash of a cardinal flying across the entryway, going from the rhododendrons on one side of the little front porch to those on the other side. I planted those shrubs nearly 20 years ago as one of the first outside projects I did when we moved into this house. Some might argue it was one of the last things I did, too. They are now so large and healthy that I have to prune them back every couple of years lest they completely obscure the windows. The cardinal was one of a family group of three: a male, a female, and a young bird still clinging to its parents. This extended young-rearing is bird behavior I hadn’t noticed before. I’m quite sure they nested in a huge, old clump of forsythia that occupies too much of our back yard. That impenetrable tangle of droopy switches is also home to the catbirds that I enjoy hosting every spring. It’s an ugly clump and it takes up too much room, but I don’t need the space and after untold decades, untold generations of birds have fledged from those bushes and I am reluctant to be the one to bring that to an end.

Then, I am struck by the cold air of October. On my way to get the Globe, still dressed only in gym shorts and tee shirt, I am reminded that it is time to turn on the heat, put the storm panels in the doors and start closing the storm windows. I really do need to get the wood stove ready to go.

It is a wonderfully clear October morning and the rising sun has back-lit the big sugar maple next door into a brilliant blaze of yellow and orange with just lingering fringes of green. This masterpiece of nature’s autumnal artwork is painted on the canvas of a crystal blue sky. I covet my neighbor’s tree. I have four large maples in my yard, but they are all Norway maples (Acer platanoides), introduced from Europe. A few of my neighbors have big, old, native sugar maples (Acer saccharum). My maples change color later in the season, on European time, and turn a rather drab yellow. The native sugar maples offer the classic display of New England color in the fall.

Most of the sugar maples seem to be in front of the older houses on the street – those a century or so old. My house is a little newer, built in 1929, and maybe that’s why I have these new-fangled Norway trees. Maybe they were planted, or maybe they were volunteers allowed to grow. I notice that all the weedy volunteers that I cut back these days are Norway maples. These newcomers thrive here. Any neglected corner of a yard will soon have several shooting up, to the exclusion of any native trees.

It’s as if the natives no longer fit in. Indeed, they may not. With more blacktop, more cars, more pollution and possibly global warming, sugar maples don’t do very well here anymore. In my years here, a few huge, old, decayed veterans have fallen to the chainsaw, and there are no youngsters to be found. I can imagine a time when horse-drawn buggies and Model-T Ford’s rattled up and down this street past these maples when it was paved with gravel, and I wonder if these old trees were ever tapped for sap. Now, every year I watch for dying branches high in the crowns of these sentinels, foreshadowing the end of yet another bit of history.

This is not to say I totally dislike my trees. They shade our southern exposure in the heat of the summer, even though the shade they cast is so deep that my landscaping options are quiet limited. The smaller of the two in our front yard has a crotch close enough to the ground that I fondly remember boosting my five year-old daughter up into this tree as we celebrated our first spring in New England after a five-year exile to Florida. Heavy winds sometimes blow brittle branches from the treetops, providing a little kindling for the fire. The cascade of moist leaves in November provides all the compost I could ever use. These new trees are becoming a part of a new history, my history as – even after 20 years – a newcomer in town.

As I step off the porch to get my morning paper, the trio of cardinals flushes from the rhododendrons. They fly up into one of my Norway maples. They don’t seem to mind this new kind of tree, and I hope they don’t mind the new occupant of this house, either.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Promises to Keep

I made a promise to myself, and this time I kept it. An alternative title for this post could be “The Gums of October.”

Back in July, I spent a morning in what has become one of my very favorite Moose Hill spots, the first field along the Billings Loop from Moose Hill Street (See “And the Living is Easy,” July 1, 2006.). At the time, I was admiring a lovely tupelo gum growing in the middle of the field with its glossy dark green leathery leaves and its not-yet-ripe fruit. I promised to visit in the fall when the leaves burst forth in their scarlet autumnal display. Today was the day.

The first frost of the season was predicted for this morning so I was in no particular rush to get out of bed. I made a willful decision to play hooky from some other things I could have been doing today, knowing that any possible spiritual benefits to be found would be greater in the woods. By the time I woke up, had my first cup of coffee, packed and got on the bike it was 9:30. The weather was so wonderfully bright, dry, clear and cloudless that my concerns about being cold were baseless and I began to think that I should have started earlier to better enjoy the early light. It was one of those days when everything seems clear.

I was planning a quiet breakfast in my favorite meadow, but upon my arrival I was greeted with a riot of activity. As I approached the field I heard and then saw scores of robins clucking, chuckling and cackling excitedly as they flew back and forth from the woods to the scattered trees in the meadow. It seems most were attracted here by the same tree that brought me. There are a few black gums in this field, and most were practically leafless, but the one I was coming to see still wore its rich orangeish-red coat as if it was clinging to its leaves while waiting for my return. The robins were gorging on its bounty of ripe, juicy, dark purplish-blue, sour-sweet fruits.

Other migrants seemed to be caught up in the excitement. Yellow-rumped myrtle warblers flitted about the trees along the edge of the field and white-throat sparrows in the brushy tangles seemed unimpressed by my poorly-whistled lispy imitation of their “poor Sam Peabody” song.

Even some non-migrating locals seemed to be feeling the buzz. Chickadees, titmice and a nice red-bellied woodpecker were working the transition between field and forest.

Chipmunks were scampering along the old stone walls and gray squirrels were working the leaves under the oaks. Both were celebrating the steady thwack of heavy acorns hitting the ground.

A lone monarch was drifting over the goldenrod. I wondered if its tardiness would lead to an icy death while its cousins were sipping margaritas in Mexico. A solitary big dragonfly flew an aggressive patrol in the air above the frost-tinged ferns of the old field.

I was on sensory overload. There was so much activity and so much beauty that it was nearly an hour before I could settle down in my favorite spot in the sun for breakfast. This is a small field, but it is magical. It is bordered by old gravel roads and stone walls. There is a swamp at one end and hardwood forest around the rest. With its scattered trees, bird boxes, bee hives and brushy edges there is always something to see while sitting in my choice of sunny or shady spots. The maples were yellow and red. The elms were yellow. The white pines wore cuffs of yellow where their inner needles were turning. All these colors were nicely set off by the oaks that were still mostly deep green. There was a new flurry of falling leaves with every gust of the dry breeze. I wanted to freeze the moment in time.

After breakfast, I wandered up the dirt road to the old barn. I thanked the old long-gone farmer that shaped this land. This old farm may be reverting to a wild state, but it is by no means wilderness. The hand of man is visible everywhere, but it was work on a human scale, not the scale demanded by big machines and big money. Maybe that’s why the farm failed in the first place, but its present value to wild creatures and over-civilized suburbanites is, as they say, priceless.

It’s been a good half-year since I started these visits in April and promised myself I would explore these woods and explore my own mind. I walked by the tattered remains of the verio nest I discovered in a birch tree back in May. I saw the field where my son and I saw fireflies flashing after our summer solstice run. I thought about the frogs and peepers that welcomed me to this place on that first visit in April. I’ve lived practically in the shadow of Moose Hill for 20 years, but I’ve been paying close attention for only a few months. Already, I feel the relationship deepening.

As I walked back down the road, I saw a father sitting in the sun, sharing an apple with his two young daughters. One of the little girls was wearing a pair of toy binoculars around her neck. I recalled fondly walks in the country as a very young boy with my father. I promised myself to be true to those old memories and hoped that little girl would grow into a fine woman with a deep love for nature as she remembered this wonderful day.

By the time I got back to the field and sat down to finish my coffee and eat my own apple I was overwhelmed with emotion. Can the simple beauty of nature bring tears to the eyes? Or is it beauty combined with memories recalled, promises kept and promises broken. A bumblebee landed on my hand. I wondered if she was from the same hive as the stumbling drunkard I had watched in July. Had she come to say goodbye as the season was ending, or was she reminding me that another chapter was coming to a close? She flew away and I prepared to head home.

On the way out of the woods, I passed a sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), its mitten-shaped leaves now yellow, and I remembered teaching my son how to make tea by boiling the roots. Thinking of my boyhood and those little girls, I wished I had spent more time with my own kids in these forests and fields 15 or 20 years ago. I hope they will remember the little time we did spend together. Perhaps I was too busy trying to figure out what I was going to be while forgetting who I already was. I felt better as I coasted rapidly down the hill on my bicycle through the crisp October air. My spirit was buoyed by a hope that it isn’t too late to start remembering who I am and by a promise to return to Moose Hill to prod those memories.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Perpetual Care

Late last week, I was driving over Moose Hill, slowly, with the windows down and the radio off on a beautiful clear October morning. There are times when just driving through can put me in a reflective mood. The bright sun was slanting through the trees as I passed the white pine plantation I visited earlier this summer and pondered where I might want to be buried (See “Stolen Moments,” June 13, 2006.). Now, I’m not a morbid person, prone to frequently contemplating my own death, even though a few of my posts have touched on this. Maybe it was that call from the doctor telling me to make an appointment to discuss some test results. Anyway, the crisp light through the deep green boughs striking the soft brown bed of needles reminded me about my earlier thoughts about a final resting place. I’ve written about my fantasies of finding a new place to spend the rest of my days (See “Could I Live Here?,” August 21, 2006.). I also sometimes think about where I might want to spend eternity.

A short while later, on the return trip I decided to take a road that passes a couple of cemeteries. I could logically wind up in one of them. There has always been something about this place that made me vaguely uneasy, but not for the obvious reasons, and I am beginning to understand why. The road takes me past the maintenance garage. I go by there once a week or so, and I see the maintenance crews coming and going, buzzing back and forth in their trucks and gasoline-powered golf carts. I see them with their stand-up power mowers, their two-cycle weed whackers and their big yellow backhoes. All headstones are flush with the ground, not to show that we are all equal in death, but to facilitate mowing. Irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides no doubt keep the grass green. Even death is powered by internal combustion.

For the record, I’m a guy. I like power tools. Some of my best friends are power tools. I recently bought a new chain saw that I love to wield in a studly way. That doesn’t mean I don’t consider the ramifications of ubiquitous machinery use. I’ve pondered the way so much of our daily routine is dependent on gas-powered equipment (See “Hornets from Hell,” May 13, 2006.). We plant lawns so large we must hire landscape crews to mow them. We pave driveways so long we must hire snowplows to clear them. Do we need to be burning fossil fuel to mow our graves? Forever?

I don’t know what happens when we’re gone. Maybe the closest we get to heaven is that we’ve done some good in this life, we didn’t hurt too many people too badly and that we are remembered with fondness and love. I’m old fashioned in that I like the idea of being buried in a special place and that someone may visit someday. Perhaps they will leave a small stone to mark their visit. I hope it will be in a place where they can sit and think about life, think about the world, and not be disturbed by the sound and smell of roaring engines.