Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Ground

Saturday, December 1, 2007

December arrived with a roar. It was the kind of cold wind that strips the heat from an old house with rattley windows or from a too-thinly clad body. When I left the house at 9:00 AM it was 28 degrees and the wind chill was a source of some concern so I piled on five light layers. With wool gloves and a balaclava under the helmet, I was surprisingly comfortable. I was on a mission, so I took the single-speed in spite of the weather so I could spend more time in the woods and less time walking on the road. I was off to explore new ground.

Our town is blessed with many acres of conservation land. The town itself has set aside several large parcels and the Massachusetts Audubon Society – where I’ve been doing most of my recent exploring - has nearly 2000 acres. Now, there is a wonderful new preserve known as Moose Hill Farm, owned by The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts conservation organization. First opened to the public just a few months ago, this property of nearly 350 acres has a wonderful mix of hay fields, marsh, and forest, providing a wide variety of wildlife habitats. I am particularly excited to have this property close to home because The Trustees have a philosophy that is somewhat different than many environmental organizations. They aim to protect the cultural and historical heritage of the landscape along with its natural features. This sometimes means working the land in traditional ways. In the case of Moose Hill Farm, there are plans to raise grass-fed beef and free-range chickens. There is talk of a community-sponsored farm where residents can participate in the production of their own food. There are many acres of mature forest on the property, and I have hopes that silviculture might someday become part of the management plan.

The cold wind bit through my gloves as I coasted down the hill from the town center to the base of Moose Hill Parkway but the steady climb from there on warmed me up. I didn’t even feign an attempt at pedaling the single speed up the steepest part of the slope. With the low temperature, full backpack and all the extra clothing, I gladly hopped off the bike and pushed it to the top of the hill. From there, it was and easy ride along the flattish shoulder of Moose Hill over to Moose Hill Farm.

The reserve is bisected by an old road, known as Summit Road, that is now little more than a foot path, but judging by the old stone walls that line most of the route it looks like it may have once been a significant thoroughfare. Other stone walls mark the edges of fields and made me wonder how the land was used decades and centuries ago. I suppose there are those who wonder who would build walls out in the woods, not realizing that most of New England was denuded of forest long ago and most of the woods we enjoy today grew back only after the farms were abandoned.

My plan was to walk all the way across the property on the old road to where it is truncated by the Interstate. For most of the way, the old road is used by part of a new two-mile loop trail, but by some old stone-lined cellar holes the trail turns left. I kept going straight northwest, following the remains of the old road that is being slowly reclaimed by the forest. As I neared the steady roar of the Interstate, I noticed that there was evidence of traffic in the leaf litter. There is a wire fence paralleling the highway, but where the old road hits the fence, it had been cut open, possibly by poachers. Since there were no parking places nearby I couldn’t imagine that enough trespassers came through the cut to beat the path I was seeing in the forest floor. I went through the fence to see if I could recognize the spot along the highway, and just as I was thinking that the tracks in the dry leaves must have been made by deer and I was wondering if the gap in the fence funneled deer out onto the highway, I spotted a dead doe on the shoulder.

I ducked back through the fence and followed it northeasterly, continuing along the property line. The deer have created a path of their own as they too follow the fence. At about the point where I thought I might be near the property corner I hit another old woods road. This one was not as wide or well defined as Summit Road, but it was good enough for the deer and certainly good enough for me. It was heading southeasterly – more or less the direction I wanted to go - so I took it.

The forest in this part of the reserve is not exactly scrub land, but the trees seem to have limited potential. Perhaps a series of fires has burned out the fertility, but it’s also likely that the soil there has always been poor. More stone walls define old fields. I tried to imagine the hard life lead by the farmers who cleared those fields and piled those rocks. It’s no wonder that so many of them left the land, first for early New England industries, and then for rich stone-free lands to the west.

I was probably daydreaming about what it must have been like to try to scratch a living out of this dry, bony soil when I came upon a buck scrape in the trail. Just then, something – a snort perhaps – made me look up and I saw the white flag of a deer bounding off through the woods and saw the sun glinting off a 6- or 8-point rack. I was happy that the old boy had so far been able to elude the poachers and stay off the highway.

Then, I spotted just the sort of rocks I like to sit on for breakfast. I climbed up on a granite outcrop that rose through the thin soil like the spine of the Earth erupting through its skin. I imagined the big buck climbing up there to survey his territory. I picked a spot to sit that was somewhat sheltered from the wind, but I didn’t hunker down too low because that would have meant sitting in leaves and the last time I did that – just a couple of weeks earlier – I found two deer ticks on me. I have no desire to go down the Lyme road again anytime soon. So, I sat on a rock and used the small foam pad I’ve started carrying for moments just like that. The wind was cold, but a bright sun allowed me to sit long enough to have breakfast and to scribble a few notes. I was thinking I should carry some kind of wrap to throw over my shoulders so I can sit quietly and comfortably long enough to see more wildlife and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter woods.

The wind chill pushed me on eventually, but I didn’t mind. A lone red squirrel streaking along a log was my only company. The wind howling in the treetops drowned out any other sounds. There were no birds to be seen and I imagined they were all fluffed up and lying low.

Before long, I hit Summit Road not far from where my walk began. I walked down the road to my bicycle and was getting ready to leave when a movement in some brush by an old vacant house caught my eye. A Carolina wren was poking around in the tangle of leaves and red-stemmed dogwood. A pair of golden-crowned kinglets came by. Across the old road titmice and juncos were moving through the trees.

It seemed as though the birds were attracted to this old house even though it has been unoccupied for a few years. Standing in the bright sunlight for a few minutes, I found myself lost in thought. I was wishing I could see history sweep over this land. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that birds like to linger around old houses and deer like to follow old roads. This is New England and the landscape has long been shaped by its human inhabitants and the creatures that remain have adapted to the ways of people. There is a human scale to the land. These forests and fields are wild but are not wilderness. The stone walls and traces of roads tell of early American farmers and English settlers. Native Americans had been working this land – probably with fire – long before the Europeans arrived. In a way, it wasn’t all that long ago that these hills were buried under a glacier. The effects of the ice can be seen everywhere. The first humans probably arrived not long after the glacier retreated.

I was happy with the possibility that the new owners of this property would conserve it without preserving it. We have been here for millennia. The face of the land has changed, but, so far, it endures. And, as on the face of an old man, the scars and wrinkles tell the story of its past. I hope this place will help us remember how we can live on the land and work with it without destroying it.

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At 10:11 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I like the way this post was written. I have some of the same thoughts about remnants of the past but I'm not as eloquent in my descriptions. It's interesting that we were out walking past old stone walls on such a windy day in different corners of the northeast.

It's nice that they're looking at ways to allow protected land to be used for more than one purpose. This may lead to a wider cross section of support when it comes to land conservation.


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