Sunday, December 17, 2006

Living Waters

This morning offered yet another example of how I can never know what to expect when I head to Moose Hill. Maybe it’s because I had a birthday this week and this was a gift from the Hill. I had a wonderful morning in the woods filled with both joy and sadness. Won’t you come with me?

I had plenty of time this morning, so I took the touring bike over Moose Hill to make a preliminary exploration of a section of the sanctuary that is separated from the main body of the property by busy Walpole Street. An old jeep trail leads from the street up the hill into a nice, natural stand of white pine. After a while the jeep trail peters out into a footpath. All along the way I saw signs of a big buck where he had pawed the ground, left droppings and assaulted all manner of trees with his antlers. This path intersected the Warner Trail near the top of the hill. I should do a little research on this trail to see how long it is and where it goes. It might be fun to hike.

On the way back down the hill, I found myself looking up into the crowns of the pines and imagining how I would thin them if they were mine to manage. I plumbed the depths of my memory for things I studied in silviculture classes about dominant and co-dominant trees and live crown ratios; information used in determining when to thin and which trees to take.

I rode over to the big field at the corner of Walpole Street and Moose Hill Street. I wanted to stop at a place where my wife and I saw a bunch of birds last week. Just as I slowed to dismount the bike, my greeting to a passing jogger scared up a big red tail hawk that was perched on one of the bird boxes in the field. I watched as it soared circles over the meadow, its broad orangeish-red tail spread, catching the sun against the brilliant blue sky.

On cue, smaller birds started to filter from the woods, across the road and into the trees and brush along the edge of the field. Juncos, goldfinches and bluebirds made their way out into the field to land on spent milkweed and spikes of young sumac that are invading this old field. I followed and was greeted by the rich nutty aroma of the meadow plants warming in the bright sun.

As I followed the birds, I saw more and more bluebirds until as many as a dozen were flying from place to place. I don’t recall ever seeing so many bluebirds in one place before. Perhaps all these nesting boxes are having a real impact. I thought about sitting in the warm sun of the meadow for coffee, for who wouldn’t love breakfast among the bluebirds, but my mood was drawing me to the rocks and woods.

You see, an old friend died yesterday. I felt a need to have my view and thoughts pulled in closer, not spreading over the wide expanse of the open field and reaching for the blue sky. Martin was one of my high school hiking buddies. I took my first extended backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail with him and a handful of other guys. These trips helped cement my love of adventures in the wild. With his passing, yet another bit of my youth has slipped away. Martin was one of those kids that took all the honors classes, scored high on all the standardized tests, and went to an Ivy League school. Great things were expected from him. We lost touch soon after high school until I received a few puzzling e-mails last year. It seems this guy who was so smart, talented and confident as a young man had fallen on hard times, and a heart that was once so strong couldn’t stand the strain. Knowing few details, I could almost believe he died of a broken heart.

I stashed my bike and headed for some rocks up in the woods I had seen from the road many times. I stumbled on an old path and decided to follow it for a little while. I liked the idea of a little-used path that was not part of the official trail system. It led me past the rocks I was aiming for, but I soon saw another outcrop off in the woods glowing in the sun. These rocks were much more attractive than my original destination because they were far from the road. Just as I left the path, I came upon an amazing sight. There in the woods, virtually undisturbed be recent human visitation, was a rock-lined spring hole.

The pool was about six feet long and four feet wide. The carefully stacked rocks that lined it where covered with soft green moss. It must have been built generations ago by the farmer who worked this land. The water was crystal clear and at least two feet deep. The trickling outlet passed unseen under the rocks so the basin had an unbroken rim. Shrubby witch hazels spread a sheltering canopy over the area. As I approached I almost expected to see a woodland nymph in a gossamer gown peering at her own reflection in the water. Had I been in a different mood, I might have expected to see a troll protecting this perfect spot. As I kneeled to peer into the water, I watched in amazement as a small whitish-blue frog pushed off from the edge and swam for the depths with slow-motion thrusts of his hind legs and disappeared as if fading from a dream. Frogs in a New England mid-December? This was a magical spot indeed.

Climbing up to the rock outcrop, I found a nice flat stone, right on the top, perfect for sitting and enjoying the view of the surrounding woods as I had breakfast. I spread my old quilted down vest on the stone to insulate me from its coolness. It occurred to me that I probably wore this vest on my winter hikes with Martin. It’s so old, it was actually made in the USA. It was a quiet morning in the woods. My only companion was a tree creaking steadily in the gentle breezes, sounding a little like a small, hyperactive woodpecker. The trees around the rocks were mostly oaks and white pine with a few red maple and struggling dogwood. An old redcedar clung to life in the understory, telling tales of pastures and cows long gone.

Larger versions of these rocky promontories can take on legendary significance around here. We have King Philip’s Rock, King Philip’s Cave (A jumble of huge boulders with a space between that looks like a cave.) and Devil’s Rock in town. These are said to have been meeting places for native chiefs preparing for war with the invading Europeans. From my modest perch, I only hoped to find a few moments of peace and reflection. I thought about long hikes with young friends at a time when my whole life lay ahead of me. I wondered how a young man who seemed to have every reason to expect a long, healthy, prosperous and happy life could suddenly fall off the tracks and turn into ashes blowing in the breeze.

After breakfast, I made sure to pick up all pieces of my orange peel, just in case there was a troll lurking nearby. As I left the rocks, I paused at the redcedar to confirm the presence of obligatory antler scrapings. I stopped at the spring again to appreciate it’s beauty. It occurred to me that it would make a perfect mikveh; a pool used for ritual immersion. People immerse themselves in the waters of life for spiritual renewal and to help them heal or to mark transitions through important life changes. I wished I could have brought my friend here to cleanse him of the pain that was taking his life.

I paused to look at my own reflection in the water. I’m no Narcissus and I was not thrilled by the face looking back at me with the toll taken by the years. I thought again about the passing of my friend and the reminder that life slips away, sometimes all at once and sometimes gradually. I wondered what else might be taken away, suddenly or slowly. If I thought this pool was the fountain of youth, I would have plunged into the chilly waters. I took some comfort in knowing that what my life may lack in great potential and expectations may be made up for in calm and stability.

I walked back to my bike to find it being guarded by a guild of woodland birds. There were downy woodpeckers, chickadees, a golden-crowned kinglet, a brown creeper and a nuthatch. I think they were guarding my bike as a signal to guard the secret of this special place, the place of living waters.


At 6:26 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

Like you, I turn to nature when times are hard. It's the only place I know to go. I'm sorry you lost your friend. I'm glad you have Moose Hill, and Moose Hill has you. Kinglets are healing fairies around here.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Your reflecting pool was quite a lovely find on the day you went to remember your friend Martin. I have just discovered kinglets this year. Quite a bird, so energetic and tiny. Very sweet to watch, and hard to photograph.

Your walks are very calm and introspective, so it's very kind of you to take us along.

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

I so love walking with you. Your description of the spring pool reminds me of the mists of Brigadoon. Seems to me you were supposed to find that magical spot.
Sorry about your friend.


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