Tag Archives: New England

Each Town Should Have a Park: Wandering Public Lands Far and Near

By Scott Berkley

 “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.”  — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859

On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.

When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.

This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.

On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.  Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.
Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.

The author out running in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Ryan Koski-Vacirca.

Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.

Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial

Walking (Off Dinner)

By Corinne H. Smith

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … But sometimes it happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” ~ Thoreau, “Walking”

I ate too much. I was staying at a friend’s place. We went out to dinner, we had a great conversation, and I ate too much. As she drove us back, I told her I would have to go for a walk to work off dinner; otherwise, my clothes wouldn’t fit me the next day. So she stopped the car at an athletic field a few blocks from her house. She recommended that I walk around it. I got out and headed down the path. She wished me well and turned toward home.

According to a sign I passed as I was walking, this series of fields totaled 44 acres. They were edged by large trees. Sugar maples, mostly; with some pines, locusts and silver maples added in. I trudged along their outskirts at first, feeling heavy. I was loaded down with food (which had been delicious, by the way). But I was also replaying parts of our conversation in my head. My friend and I had been tossing around ideas for a few future projects. Many possibilities surfaced at the dinner table. Saying them out loud triggered more, and I had written them down. As I now put one foot in front of the other, I began to create a mental to-do list to follow up on our plans. If Henry Thoreau had been beside me and had known what I was up to, he would have admonished me for being out of my senses. I wasn’t paying attention to the nature around me.

Halfway around, I picked up a pine cone. I tossed it back and forth from one hand to another, matching this action with the rhythm of my pace. The cone’s scales were prickly. Each one was capped by a sharp point. They didn’t exactly hurt my fingers, but I sure noticed they were there. Not knowing where the needles would land next was something that kept me aware of myself and kept me moving forward, as the sun kept dropping a bit lower in the western sky.

The walk's two finds

The walk’s two finds

I began to hear a few birds in the trees. A cardinal was perched in one. Several chickadees called from another. A mourning dove echoed its slow mellow tones, from farther away. I was the only human circling the fields, but other creatures were here, too. I saw some of them flying, or landing in the fields, looking for dessert.

As I passed a typical New England stone wall, my gaze followed the straight line of its leveled-off top. I stopped at a lump. A brown and black-lined lump, with eyes. A chipmunk! I hadn’t seen one in a good, long while. It looked at me, and I talked to it. It tolerated this interchange for a few seconds, then it leapt into a crevice and peeked out at me, blinking. I talked to it again, and kept on walking. A gray squirrel was bounding along the other end of the wall, under an oak tree. He may have been hunting old acorns or something else. He blended in so well with the wall and the dusk, that I couldn’t tell what he was doing.

When I got to my starting point, I decided to keep on going. I was still stuffed. The weather was nice. The trees were nice. Why not make another round?

The pine cone still popped its needles into my hands. I saw little birds I couldn’t identify, scrutinizing the dirt. When I reached the stone wall, I saw another chipmunk in another spot. Or maybe it was the same one I’d seen before. This time, I could talk to it a bit longer before it darted between the stones. What a cutie! The gray squirrel was still at the other end of the wall, doing whatever he was doing. Since this part of the block was wooded and shady, I couldn’t see him well.

When I reached the starting point again, I knew I could handle a third time around. A few minutes into this decision, I spied something light brown on the ground. A nest! A small one, at that. I looked up at the tree it had fallen out of. I couldn’t tell where it had come from. It was tiny and perfect and fit completely on just my fingers. Who had built it? Where were they now? And where were the little ones that the nest had been built for? It was beautiful. It was soft and intricately woven. I picked it up and carried it along. It made a good companion to the prickly pine cone. My real question to myself was: Why had it taken me three times past this place to see it?

nestbottom

When I reached the stone wall for the third time, I saw the chipmunk – or another one – engrossed in eating something dark. I talked to it, and it was too involved to consider me a threat. It stayed put and continued gnawing. The gray squirrel was still concerned with squirrel business. I would never know what he was up to. I picked up two plastic bottles that someone had dropped or tossed out of a car. I had passed them twice. Now they would be recycled.

Soon enough I walked into the front door of my friend’s house. She and her husband were sitting in the living room. I told them that I had done three laps around the fields. “That’s three miles!” my friend said. Really? It hadn’t felt that long.

“And look what I found!” I said. I showed them the tiny nest. They admired it as much as I had. I put it and the pine cone next to my laptop for inspiration.

I had walked three miles. I felt better and lighter. I hadn’t solved any of the world’s major problems – or even any of my own. But I had picked up four things to bring back home. I had eventually paid more attention to nature than to my business concerns. So in the end, Mr. Thoreau may have approved of my saunter. The treasures I had found also reminded me of a quote by another great philosopher, the Native American named Black Elk: “The power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Attention – Lions and Apples

Said as the French do – ah’ton’cion – P-22 is back in the news.

Forgive me my ongoing fascination with Los Angelinos’ ongoing fascination with mountain lion P-22, who recently turned up tucked in under the deck of a house. As ever with this celebrity feline, this was big news – type P-22 into your search engine for a gander at it.

P-22 looking at you Photo: LA Times

P-22 looking at you
Photo: LA Times

As the only known successful migrant across a broad freeway, P-22 has come to represent the way the wild insists, even when it arrives at the edge of a wide asphalt river full of people intent on being there… now. And our media attention to him has come to represent – well, what does it say about us and our relations with the wild?

Even as we hem the wild in, and point our various inventions its way, we crave its return. That verb, crave, is intentional. It represents the deep linkage we have with wildness, a current that runs within our bodies at levels far deeper than our Platte-like rational rivers. We would howl (or snarl) at much we encounter daily – the many others who crowd our lives, their presence constant in our peripheral awareness, and, other times, in our faces.

So, when an apex example of that wild shows up under a deck from which we like, perhaps, to contemplate life, the symbolism is irresistible – not far away, ready to emerge from the shadows is a toothy part of self intent on hunting the day; the remnant hairs on our necks and backs rise.

It is a long amble from lion to apple (another recent fascination), but lions had been chased so far from New England in Thoreau’s day, that an apple will have to do as stand-in. And, because it is walking season (every season is, of course, but spring invites more), Easterbrooks Country (Estabrook Woods, today) seems the right destination. If a lion were to be anywhere in the Concord area, Estabrook would welcome it. Here then is Henry Thoreau in his essay Wild Apples:

Some soils, like a rocky tract of the Easterbrooks Country in my neighborhood, are so suited to the apple, that it will grow faster in them without any care, or if only the ground is broken up once a year, than it will in many places with any amount of care. The owners of this tract allow that the soil is excellent for fruit, but they say that it is so rocky that they have not patience to plough it, and that, together with the distance, is the reason why it is not cultivated. There are, or were recently, extensive orchards there standing without order. Nay, they spring up wild and bear well there in the midst of pines, birches, maples, and oaks. I am often surprised to see rising amid these trees the rounded tops of apple- trees glowing with red or yellow fruit, in harmony with the autumnal
tints of the forest.

Fruit of such wildness rising seems a constant yearning for all of us, even as we might shy from having a feline version right beneath us.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote