Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sweeping Changes

I like to sit by the woodstove in the evening and lose myself in deep thought. The only problem is, lately, when I sit by the warm fire after a long busy day, I soon find myself in deep sleep instead.

Before I dozed off yet again Sunday night, I was planning on contemplating something I’ve been thinking about for the past few days. The days have been getting longer since the winter solstice, but an event I celebrate with similar glee is the day when the “normal minimum temperature” graph in the Boston Globe bottoms-out and starts to tick upwards. This happened last week when we spent a few days with a normal low of 21 degrees (F) and finally clicked up to 22 degrees. Spring is on the way! Now, every snowstorm and cold snap can be faced more bravely knowing that warmer weather is surely on the way. (An average number on a graph doesn’t mean we can’t still plunge into the teens and single digits now and then, just that it’s less likely.)

Friday morning when I was out running my errands, I noticed that the thermometer in the car read 22 degrees. It registered in my mind that this happened to be the normal low temperature for that date, and it was cold. (I trust my Minnesota readers will forgive me for referring to +22 degrees as cold.) I looked down the road at all the houses and businesses and thought about how every single one of them and the people inside are sustained by the burning of fossil fuel. I wondered what would happen if the gas and oil were suddenly shut off. I also considered how the fuel that makes (relatively) comfortable wintertime living in the North possible also created the forests we enjoy today.

It wasn’t that long ago that most of the Northeast was denuded of forest cover by farming, grazing, fuelwood cutting and charcoal making. Most of the farmers have long since moved west where the soils are better suited to agriculture. We no longer need charcoal and most of our wood fires today are more recreational than life-sustaining. As a result, the forest has grown back, but I tried to imagine what the woods would look like if we still had to get our energy for cooking and heat from trees. Life would be very different and our forests would be unrecognizable.

That night, I was watching a local weekly TV talk show about the news media. They were discussing how the daily newspaper is on the verge of disappearing, thanks largely to readers and advertisers moving to the web. I wondered what would happen to our northern forests if there was no longer a demand for all the pulpwood that goes into the manufacture of newsprint. I wondered if yet another technology-driven cultural shift was about to have a major impact on our forest landscape. I wondered how long it would be before I’d have to get my temperature charts online.

Sunday afternoon, I was leading a group around the Moose Hill Farm loop trail. On such hikes, I always pause to ask the young people why on Earth anyone would bother to build all those stone walls in the middle of the woods. After a few lame jokes about how much the colonists could achieve because they weren’t distracted by TVs and computers, I tried to get them to visualize what the rolling hills may have looked like with open fields and rocky walls as far as the eye could see.

I like to sit by a wood fire in the evening. I enjoy my stroll down the driveway to fetch the morning paper. When I’m sitting in the woods, I like to watch a chipmunk sitting on an old stone wall as he works on a fat acorn. The changing needs and desires of our society may spawn trends that sweep across the face of our forests, but the forests have always been there for us. The next time I fall asleep by the fire, I hope I dream of a future where forests continue to thrive and people value them for all the blessings they provide.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Finding the Way

Saturday, January 5, 2008

I left home at 9:30 in the morning. It’s a bit harder to get an early start on these winter days. It was 29 degrees, calm and clear. A few wisps and puffs of cloud were in the blue sky, offering just the kind of light I love when I’m in the woods. I cut through the train station and took the new bridge over Beaver Brook and hiked on the road just long enough to get to the Hobbs Hill trail. I climbed through the pine plantation before breaking out into the more open natural oak-pine forest. The crunching of my footsteps in the thawed and re-frozen snow precluded sneaking up on anything.

I stopped on Hobbs Hill for breakfast. I just sat in the sun and listened to the quiet. There were human sounds off in the distance, but the woods around me were silent. It was so quiet, the only nearby sound was the ringing in my ears. Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s too many hours listening to power tools, but I prefer to thinks it’s just caused by everyday stress and if I could only sit here long enough it would go away.

As I sat daydreaming, the sun rose enough to shine through the space between the trunks of a double-stemmed hickory and warm my face. It shined through the naked oaks and hickories to illuminate the patient pines below, their soft deep green needles glistening in the clean light, shining all the brighter on the background of white snow.

I wanted to linger and allow friendly thoughts from the forest to creep into my mind, but I had a plan. As part of my (no doubt temporary) New Years ambition to clean up and de-clutter, I was organizing a box of bike-related maps and such when I found a misplaced topographic map a friend gave me some time ago (Thanks, George!).

Moose Hill is in the northwest corner of the Brockton, Massachusetts 7.5 x 15 minute metric quadrangle. (I’ve always wondered how mapmakers always manage to put every item of interest in the corner of a map so you have to buy four maps to cover the area you want to explore.) One thing that caught my eye on this map was the indication of a trail running from Moose Hill Parkway, over Hobbs Hill, across one of the headwater streams of Beaver Brook, over another hill, and then on to Moose Hill Street. The first part of this trail was well known to me as part of the Hobbs Hill Loop, but as far as I know, the rest of the trail may be abandoned. It was my plan to use map and compass to find this new hilltop and look for remnants of this trail.

In my youth, I spent a fair amount of time hiking and bushwhacking in the Catskill Mountains of New York with map and compass, but with the exception of one fun attempt at orienteering with my son a few years ago, it had been quite a while since I’d navigated in the woods this way. Of course, map and compass is so old school. Everybody has GPS these days, but I’m nothing if not behind the times.

Using my old Silva Ranger forester’s compass, I oriented the map and took a bearing from Hobbs Hill to this new hill and set off through the woods. Sighting through the notch in the compass cover while peeking in the mirror at the needle, I would look ahead and pick a rock or tree as my destination. All I had to do was pay attention long enough as I meandered through the landscape to allow me to get to my landmark where I would take a new sighting. My path kept intersecting deer trails and I was tempted to follow them, but I wasn’t convinced the deer were following the old hiking trail so I resisted the urge.

As I knew it would, my course took me to a brook, but what I failed to notice was that this part of the brook formed a small swamp. I thought it had been cold enough that I could cross on ice, but I was mistaken and promptly broke through, soaking my feet with black muck. This got me thinking about a Jack London story where a trapper gets wet in the arctic and has to kill his dog to cut it open so he can warm his hands inside long enough to start a life-saving fire with his only match only to have the incipient fire warm the snow on an over-hanging pine bough causing the snow to fall, snuffing out the fire. In my case, it was a dry sunny day and the temperature was on the way up and I was no more than a half mile from a road, but my imagination is like that.

My mishap did cause me to abandon my course and head upstream, looking for a place to cross where the stream was narrower. Misfortune turned to luck when I found a place to cross that was well used by deer and looked like the old trail I had been seeking. This was soon confirmed when I saw some old painted tin can lids nailed to trees. I’d seen this method of marking another old trail in town – the Massapoag Trail – and I wondered if these markers had been placed by the same person decades ago.

I saw the hill I was seeking rising through the trees, but cold feet and a late hour prompted me to save conquering it for another day. I decided to follow the creek up to the road and head for home.

Exploring with map and compass brought back many fond memories. I thought back on those days when I was young and optimistic and I had my whole life in front of me. A good chunk of that life is behind me now, but on that bright sunny January day, it felt good to have a whole new year in front of me. A tough 2007 was behind me, and I had a chance to make a fresh start in 2008. I could see good things on the trail ahead, and I had a feeling a few hours of quiet reflection on Moose Hill might just help me find the way.

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