Monday, February 11, 2008

Blanket Statement

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We have a saying in New England: “If you don’t like the weather here, wait a minute, it will change.” Nasty weather was forecast for Sunday, but after doing a few chores and running a few errands in the morning, it was unexpectedly warm, sunny and calm. I knew a change was on the way but I thought I had time to sneak up to Moose Hill for lunch.

By the time I got home, brewed a pot of coffee and cooked some oatmeal, the clouds had already moved in. I wanted to make this a quick trip, so I took the touring bike and pedaled the mile and a half to the beginning of the Vernal Pool Trail. This bike has fenders that were appreciated as I rode through the slush that was left over from overnight snow showers. By the time I pushed the bike up the trail a ways and traded my bike helmet for a fleece hat, it was drizzling.

I walked up the trail and in no more than a half hour after leaving home I was at The Boulders. This is a high bedrock outcrop just off the trail that I’d visited several times before. I usually sit on one of the high points on the rocks, but on this day they were slush-covered, so I went downhill a bit to find a place under the pines that was sheltered from the slush and drizzle. I sat down on an insulating piece of packing-material foam I carry to keep my rear warm and dry (Note to Self: Get a bigger piece of foam!) and draped my new fleece blanket over my shoulders.

I’d been thinking about carrying a blanket for a while. Sitting quietly in the woods in winter can get uncomfortable and I liked the idea of carrying a portable instant shelter. I might have preferred a natural wool made-in-America blanket, but I have a feeling such things are rare and expensive these days. The fleece blanket had the advantage of being warm, light and free. (It was a new-member premium from the Trustees of Reservations who manage Moose Hill Farm. Thanks TTOR!) I felt like I was rediscovering a bit of old-fashioned woods wisdom. A simple blanket could be used as a wrap, or - draped over sticks or tree branches - it could make a quick shelter. On a nice day, I could imagine wrapping myself up in it and taking a sylvan snooze. I’m sure wilderness travelers of yore never ventured forth without a blanket, but who carries one today?

After I settled in, I poured a cup of coffee and opened up the oatmeal. It was still warm from the kitchen and the raisins were perfectly plump, soft and sweet. In the past couple of years, I’ve had breakfast in the woods quite a few times, but this may have been my first lunch. I sat thinking about other meals I might bring to the woods and watched the clouds change form as the promised cold front advanced and the wind began to intensify.

I figured I should get moving so I packed my bag, wrapped the blanket around my shoulders to protect both my backpack and me from the cool air and light rain, and headed back down the trail. Along the way I stopped to examine a clump of American chestnut (Castanea dentata) sprouts. Most of the sprouts were dead and from the lone live branch hung limp, bleached, toothy leaves. I’d been reading American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree by Susan Freinkel. I thought how a century ago this tree was one of the most magnificent gifts offered by our eastern forests. It grew as much as a hundred feet tall and provided versatile rot-resistant lumber. In the fall, natural orchards dropped a bounty of delicious nuts, like manna from heaven, that fed all manner of wildlife, people and livestock. For many early Appalachian settlers, nuts harvested from the forest floor were their most reliable cash crop. The chestnut blight swept down the East Coast in the early part of the 20th century, killing virtually every tree. The tree longs to live and keeps sending up sprouts from stumps and roots, but the blight keeps slapping them back down. Even this sad little clump of sprouts bore orange fungal fruiting bodies.

I took the sprouts as a reminder to appreciate the good things we have before they are gone. I hugged my little green blanket a little tighter, as if it were a prayer shawl, and promised myself I would count my blessings. I reminded myself to recognize and nurture the good things in life. As I rolled down the hill on my bicycle, the wind was picking up and the temperature began to drop. When I got home, I brought an armload of firewood in from the shed and got a big pot of soup going on the stove. Good food and a warm house are things we might not think about much these days, but on that winter afternoon, I felt lucky to have both.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

The Perfect Spot

Sunday, February 3, 2008

It’s not as easy to find a good spot to sit in the woods as one might think. A good place would be sunny in cool weather and shady when it’s hot. Sometimes I like wide open spaces with sweeping views of sky and fields. At other times, I prefer to keep my view – and thoughts – close, so I look for a spot where the forest is thick. I usually look for a large rock to sit on. It should be large enough to have a place to set down my binoculars and coffee cup and I usually look for one that is elevated above the surrounding forest so I can hope to see passing wildlife. Oh, and no ATVs.

Sunday morning it was sunny and warm for early February, so I took the touring bike and rode up Moose Hill Parkway and down Moose Hill Street toward Walpole Street. My plan was to walk into the woods and find the back side of the hill I was looking for a few weeks ago. (See “Finding the Way”, January 16, 2008) Just before the big hayfield near Walpole Street, I walked the bike into the woods far enough that it couldn’t be seen from the street. I took a quick look at the topographic map and saw that if I walked around a large kettle hole I had seen once before I might be able to find an old trail the map said should be there. Looking for an old trail was tricky because the oak leaves were all matted down by the recently-melted snow and the over-abundant deer have made trails everywhere. I’ve been told the sanctuary people intentionally abandoned some trails to discourage unauthorized uses that they couldn’t control, and I was thinking this might be one of those trails. This part of the sanctuary is far from the visitor center and close to a neighborhood, so youngsters might be inclined to party here.

I didn’t take any compass bearings, so my casual wanderings took me near that neighborhood and I saw plenty of beer cans and old mattresses that seemed to indicate the sanctuary people were right. The map confirmed that I had missed both trail and hill, so I adjusted course and headed deeper into the woods.

As I came over a rise I heard a motorized vehicle. It’s seemed out of place because I thought I had moved away from the neighborhood. I soon recognized the sound as the putt-putting of an all-terrain vehicle. There’s an old woods road in the area and that might be an appropriate place to drive a four-wheeler, but this guy had left the road and was driving off-road through the woods. I guess if you’ve invested thousands in a toy like this you go to the woods you have and not the woods you wish you had even if those woods happen to be an Audubon sanctuary. I’m inclined to mind my own business so I said hello and went on my way. This seemed to be a one-off Super Sunday internal combustion joy ride, but if I thought this was a regular event that threatened to tear up the woods, I would have notified the Audubon people.

At this point, I was getting my bearings and spotted the hill I was looking for and headed north. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk was circling and shrieking in the clear blue sky above the tall pines as if sharing my annoyance at the motorized invader. I found a place to hop over one of the headwater branches of Beaver Brook and started to climb. I found a faint trail running along the north-south axis of the hill, but Hobbs Hill is to the northeast of this unnamed hill so I didn’t think it was the trail I was looking for.

I walked back and forth along the hilltop a couple of times looking for trails and a place to sit with my coffee. Unlike Hobbs Hill, I couldn’t find any large rocks to sit on here, leading me to think this was a glacial deposit whereas the larger Hobbs has a heart of bedrock. Every time I tried to explore the south side of the hill I heard and saw the ATV driver and I certainly didn’t want that sort of company when I was hoping to sit quietly and just think. I finally settled on the northeast side of the hill where I leaned against a tree. The warming sun was just over my shoulder and I had a nice view of another Beaver Brook tributary. The gentle babbling helped me to forget the drone of the four-wheeler. The brook tumbled over rocks and formed small pools under the roots of trees growing along the bank. I remembered the thrill of finding small trout in places like this but I’m quite sure this creek is too dry in summer to sustain fish.

Movement caught my eye, and I saw robins flying like silent ghosts low through the forest. I’d seen them along this brook before, but robins deep in the woods always seem out of place to me. I wonder if it’s the running water or the rich soil of the small alluvial flats that attracts them. The robins were quiet, but I heard the deeee-dee of a chickadee and the tooting of a titmouse, making me hope that winter was loosening its grip on Moose Hill.

Time was growing short and my seat was not as comfortable as I like, so I dropped down to the brook and followed it up to the road where I walked back to my bike. I was a little surprised at how far my wanderings had taken me.

Exploring new places is fun, but it’s also good to have a few favorite spots to go to. If I feel the need to disappear into the woods but only have an hour or so, I like to retreat to a familiar perch. I can get there quickly and spend more time quietly observing and thinking and less time wandering. I liken it to a musician having a repertoire of old standards, the angler having favorite fishing holes, or the hunter having traditional coverts. I can pick my destination depending on my mood. I like to go to a place I’ve been before and see how things have changed over the seasons. I sometimes find that being in a particular place reminds me of daydreams I had there before as if the thoughts wait for me there, waiting for me to return. I didn't find a perfect spot on this trip to Moose Hill, but I hope to go back soon to check up on some old dreams.

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