Saturday, October 8, 2011

276. Westfield: Stanley Park

Well, well, well, if it isn't my old nemesis, Stanley Park! So, my old friend, we finally meet again.

Back when I was a young naturalist, green, wet behind the ears, immature and stupid, I thought I would take a group of folks from eastern Massachusetts out to Stanley Park to see the black squirrels. It seemed like a slam dunk, and something fun to do. The park opened in 1950, and at that time the designers thought it would be cool to have a signature creature. They went out to Michigan and found some black squirrels (really just gray squirrels with excessive pigmentation) and brought them home. The park became famous for them.

So I gathered up the gang, brought them two hours west and...nothing.

Seven years later, I returned, on this day, to exact my revenge on the little bastards. I was all set. I was going to take the first one that I saw, load up my slingshot with Cocoa Puffs and...wait, there was one. And there went another one. And I could see another one over there. And there was one more behind a tree.

I was surrounded. Black squirrels everywhere I looked. And maybe it was just me being paranoid, but I swear they were looking at me. Plotting against me, as if they knew what was going on in my mind. 

I turned and headed for the hills.

275. West Springfield: Mittineague Park

Norway sprcues always tell you you're somewhere unnaturally planted and maintained in Massachusetts. That's not a judgment, just a statement of fact.

The park here in West Springfield was dedicated in 1935, and it's obvious that some decorating went into the early stages of its design. Norway spruces are typical more of cemeteries. They have a a tall, robust stature juxtaposed by drooping, seemingly sorrowful branches and needles. You don't find them when you're just walking around the woods in the Bay State.

But this park rambles on! I was amazed to find so many habitats - woods, fields, a brook - as I spent my thirty minutes. I could have spent much more.

Two things caught my eye. First, a squashed eastern box turtle on the side of the road in the park. It's always so sad to see. Second, slightly less depressing, blue jays have begun caching. Yes, like small mammals sharing their habitats, blue jays store food for the winter. If you see one carrying an acorn or something similiar in its bill in fall, that's what's happening. They're preparing for cold weather.


274. Agawam: Robinson State Park

(Stretch! Creak! Crack! Yawn!) Another early morning drive across the great state of Massachusetts, and this one dropped me in Agawam at dawn (on September 27).

Once again, there was wetness to be found. But out of the corners of my eyes as I began my walk down the descending road into the park, I noticed something else: the first vestiges of foliage! Fall is always such a rushed time of year for me - back in Marshfield we run our big Farm Day event at the end of the month, and a lot of prep time goes into it - that I often either miss or just forget that I'm looking at the turn of the seasons. But there, on the ground, was the proof. Yellows, mixed in with the greens, indicated change.

This, though, was not the excitement of the morning for me. There was a sign on the entry building that said to look out, that bears had been seen in the area! Whenever my co-leader Carol and I bring a group to Maine to see puffins, we stop on a specific road and talk about its history. When it was laid out, competitors said, "Aw, you don't want to use that road. There's wolves on that road." People reacted not by avoiding it, but saying, "Oh, cool, wolves!"

That was me on this day. Cool, bears!

Didn't see one.

Friday, October 7, 2011

273. Marblehead: Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary

And so, the day quieted down. My abbreviated little itinerary, only three towns on this day (September 20), was drawing to a close. Fortunately, it ended in beautiful, historic Marblehead. Unfortunately, it came with the sighting of vandalism to the kiosk at the sanctuary.

The rain never really intensified, for which I was thankful. Typically, I wouldn't give a damn, but I had a meeting to attend, and it would be best were I not trudging into it mightily muddy and superbly sweaty. Oh, I was sweaty, but no more than usual. I walked the trails from end to end and all the way around.

I was alone with the usual gang, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and wrens. A crow cawed distantly, while three mallards floated on the small pond. The grays overhead robbed the greens of their vibrancy below.

I couldn't help think while I was there about an old colleague, Barbie, who grew up in town. She always reminded me to put the emphasis on "head" and not "MARble" - "Marble HEAD." That's how the locals say it. It's like the people of Concord with Henry David "Thorough." I could go on. Oh, the things I'd heard around Massachusetts this year.

272. Swampscott: Harold King Town Forest

Onto the home of actor Walter Brennan, Swampscott, Mass.

I put in more than my share of time in Swampscott, futilely looking for the entrance to the park. I remembered what Google said. I even had a map with me showing me where the entrance was. But I couldn't find the stupid thing, or, perhaps more accurately, the Stupid Thing couldn't find it.

But then, Eureka! as Archimedes once said in a bathtub. An old dilapidated sign pointed the way. "Oscar Short Land Conservation Area," it said, the alternate name for the Harold King Town Forest, as far as I could tell. I stumbled down a trail and into the woods, so happy to be free of the local neighborhood (no offense to the neighbors, of course).

I bounded over rocks and roots, face-mashing cobwebs as I went, the first one on the trails for a while it seemed. I heard a loud splash to my right, and realized I'd struck marsh, though I couldn't see it through the dense brush. At first I thought it might have been a deer, but then saw, and heard, another crash from another vantage point. Ducks, many, many ducks, floated on the marsh. Occasionally they goosed each other into flight (can a duck goose a duck?) and a quick resettling a few feet away. Sometimes they moved in groups of goosed ducks.

And then the rain started, in little drops.

271. Nahant: Nahant Thicket Wildlife Sanctuary

The fall equinox was virtually upon me as I headed the length of the Nahant peninsula to find the thicket, another Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary. Despite the grayness of the day, with storm clouds threatening, the birds were singing. Breeding was done, and migration was well under way. Some birds don't give up on their dawn chorus - typically the mark of birds attracting mates in spring - until the sunlight tells them the season is over. Even then, there's the odd fact of the sun crossing back over the equator and at some point in the fall producing exactly the same amount of daylight on a given day as there had been during the rush to procreate. Make that fall day 70 degrees and sunny, and you need earplugs while walking through a thicket.

The thicket was smaller than I expected it to be, but, as thickets tend to be, it was dense. I walked through it twice, then walked around it entirely, and still had ten minutes to spare, so I did it all again.

I'm sure I saw the same Carolina wren twice, and the same gray catbirds over and over. Robins moved through the trees in bunches, and starlings overwhelmed the skies from time to time. I could see how this place had become a "migrant trap" in spring, when birds flying north over densely settled areas dive for patches of green seen from above.

That did it. Just thinking of all those warblers made me put Nahant Thicket on the list for next spring. Sigh...I may never see a May Red Sox game again.

270. Melrose: Pine Banks Park

After I finished my "In Your Face!" dance for Marie, I turned the corner for Melrose. Pine Banks Park! What a find.

As usual, I headed for the highest point I could find. In this case, at the apex of the hill in the center of the park, I found scraggly pines on a rocky ground. The pines were harboring blue jays, as if they were criminals, which, in the eyes of some bird species, they are. Chickadees and goldfinches joined them in making a low level background noise for my walk.

Standing atop the hill and looking outwards across the treetops, I realized I had virtually been there before. It used to be, in the old days - pre-internet - that you could say "virtually" and mean something like "practically" or "almost" ("It was virtually like I'd been there before."). Now "virtually" almost exclusively means otherworldly sensory experience fabricated by means of technology. The old virtual reality had a sense of adventure and imagination. The new one comes with ear buds.

The view from the hill, though, made me think once again to my virtual realms online. If there's one thing computer game designers have perfected, it's landscapes. The scenery, when focused on exclusively, can be breathtaking. I felt like my LOTRO hunter standing in the Trollshaws, as I took it in.

But Pine Banks Park will always have them beat if just for one thing: fresh air. But, then, maybe someday Elmer Fudd's newspaper headline in The Old Grey Hare will come true, and Smellovision will replace Television. If so, I may be the only man outdoors...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

269. Malden: Forest Dale Cemetery

When I first started telling people about this silly little idea, I heard all kinds of snickers, harumphs and even a few "goodonya's." One stood out above all else for its randomness, my friend Marie wishing me luck in one town, Malden. At the time, I was Malden-free, completely uninitiated in the history and culture of the community. What the hell did I know? It could be that the entire town had been paved. Like Northern New Jersey.

I picked out a promising looking cemetery, Forest Dale on Sylvan Street. They didn't sound like paved words to me.

So, when I stood in a sea of Civil War veterans on a shady slope listening to an eastern towhee call from the nearby woods on a sunny day, I nearly passed out. There's only so much sensory input a guy can handle.

I wandered among the stones and found the two that stood out the most. George Harrison (go figure), Medal of Honor recipient: "Served on board the USS Kearsarge when she destroyed the Alabama off Cherbourg, France, 19 June 1864. Acting as sponger and loader of the 11-inch pivot gun during the bitter engagement, Harrison exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended for his gallantry under fire by the divisional officer."

Not too far away rested the remains of Sarah Fuller, who fought another war. From 1879 to 1913 she worked for the Women's Relief Corps, the organization dedicated to caring for the needs of the men of the Grand Army, the Civil War veterans who lived into old age. But she didn't just organize suppers for revenue for downtrodden soldiers; she served as the national president.

Ha! Take that, Marie!

268. Chelsea: Chelsea Naval Hospital Park

There was the Bunker Hill Monument, and over there was the Prudential Tower. And if I walked far enough around the corner, which I did, I could stand almost directly under the Mystic River Bridge. It was a place of landmarks.

Just across the river sat a tanker, the Overseas Sifnos, flagged in the Marshall Islands. One tree in the park looked as if it had sunk directly downward and settled in at the height of its first limbs.

The site, of course, had history. A hospital, built high on the hill abutting the park, was constructed exclusively for the nation's sailors in the 1830s and remained in service for nearly a century and a half. Among its patients were one past President, John Quincy Adams, and one future President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Today, the hospital and its grounds have mostly been turned over to residential concerns, but it is possible to discern some of that old history as one walks even just the park itself without invading the privacy of the people who live alongside it. I divined what I could as I said my hellos to strangers, and hit several of those awkward moments when I ran into people for the second and third times. You know, when you get stuck saying something like, "What?! You again!" Believe me, you're better off just smiling and nodding. There's less embarrassment all the way around.

And, if you're counting, that's another county down. Buh-bye, Suffolk.

267. Everett: Mystic River Reservation

An orange line train crashed by as I walked, trundling over a rickety-sounding bridge over the river. In fact, it reminded me of the clack-clack-clack of the ancient roller coaster cars at Paragon Park, which reigned in Hull from 1905 to 1985, up 'til my 14th year. Behind me a shopping mall bustled.

But the catbirds, and there were about a dozen of them, could not have cared less. They played among the sumac and the knotweed with the robins. The blue jays were there, too, but I don't think playing is a good verb for them. Mostly they bitch.

Across the water I spied a marina, with far too many boats sitting dockside for such a beautiful day. Is a boat ever worth the purchase? Can you ever really get your money's worth out of it? The double-crested cormorants and herring gulls flew by without monetary concerns.

By the time I wrapped up my walk, I came away with an unexpected smile. This small stretch of Everett, known recently for its horrible fire when a tanker truck crashed in 2007 and as the site where liquefied natural gas comes into the state, will now forever be known to me as the place where I took that nice walk in the waning days of the summer of 2011.

266. Somerville: Foss Park

Well, I knew that Somerville wouldn't provide me with the deepest natural experience of the year (on September 12), but it didn't mean I was uninterested in what it had to offer. I found Foss Park.

The park is another urban catch-all, a playground, athletic fields, including a soccer field in serious need of landscaping attention, and a baseball field doing just a little better. There were trees that provided shade and even some wildlife. And I mean this next sentence with all seriousness. The pigeons have to live somewhere.

One marker threw me for a loop. "Route of Middlesex Canal." Here? Through this park? Well, I'll be hornswoggled. It turned out to be true (historical markers are rarely wrong, although they are not 100% foolproof). The canal, which operated for about 50 years from the start of the nineteenth century to 1853, ran 27 miles in length and provided a highway for goods and materials during the height of the Industrial Revolution. This particular section had been filled - Boston's history is of filling wetlands to create buildable land - but much of it remains open today. There's even a historical museum dedicated just to its story, in North Billerica.

So, even in the heart of the city, on a small, well-trodden and urbanized block, surrounded by a steady flow of traffic and its clinging noise, even in a place where the residents looked askance at my approach, Massachusetts surprised me.

265. Wilbraham: Red Bridge State Park

I really, really wanted to meet the Pesky Serpent. In the southern reaches of Wilbraham there's - supposedly, I couldn't find it - a meadow in which young Timothy Merrick met his doom after the bite of just such a creature. The tale was told in the "Ballad of Springfield Mountain," possibly America's first folk song. I wanted to connect to that land, but couldn't find my way in early in this trip.

So I saved Wilbraham, mentally, for another day. Yet, as I was passing out of Ludlow and into Wilbraham, nature invited me to a small boat launch and some surrounding woods. I hit the brakes and felt the final squish of the boots as I stepped out of my car for one last walk.

I walked toward the sound of rushing water and was surprised to find an old mill building straddling the waterway. My first thought, which was weird, I know, was of how I was glad I wasn't in a kayak. The four openings under the building were barely exposed under the height of the water. Decapitation wasn't the fear, but a good, solid conking on the noggin would certainly be within the realm of plausibility with me at the controls.

In the end, I got my Wilbraham, and even thought about celebrating with a bit of Friendly's Ice Cream, but honestly, I couldn't imagine any restaurant would be happy to seat me after my day in the wilderness of the Pioneer Valley and environs. Instead, I slunk home, like a serpent, and made plans for my final 86 towns.

264. Ludlow: Ludlow Center Cemetery

Argh. After all the emotional ups and downs of the day, from stinking squids to tornadoes to Vietnam War remembrances, I was up for my final push through the last two towns on my list, Ludlow and Wilbraham.

Truth be told, I had already struck out once in Wilbraham, but I'll tell that story in a minute. Ludlow, though, had promise. It had spunk. It coulda been a contenda. But it was not to be.

I picked out a handful of spots in town that showed potential for a foot-weary traveler to enjoy. But everywhere I turned, there were "no trespassing" signs - even at the entrance to the town forest. So I gave up and found my last resorts, cemeteries.

Drained by my frustration, I barely found the energy to be interested, and were it not for the northern flicker in the Ludlow Center Cemetery, and the curious positioning of two, side-by-side utility sheds that had me wondering about the burial process on the grounds, I might have had nothing to say at all.

263. Chicopee: Chicopee Memorial State Park

There have been times during my travels that I have broken down to simple solemnity. Emotion drains away and I fall silent. That silence is an inner stillness, for as I walk, I think, heavily.

Mostly these moments come when I'm struck with the stories of fallen veterans.

Why such reverence? Family pride. While my grandfather was of the wrong age to join the fight in World War II, he did work at a local shipyard. He carried his ID card in his pocket for the rest of his life, into the 1990s. My dad, a true hero to me, joined the Marine Corps in 1966, full well knowing he was on his way to Vietnam. It scarred him for life, but he hid it well. That story is yet waiting to be told, and maybe someday will be.

In Chicopee, I stood among his comrades. The park is dedicated to the fallen Vietnam War warriors of the community, fifteen men lost between 1966 and 1970 with the Army, Navy and Marines in that horrid little conflict that changed America in so many ways. A sign bearing all fifteen names was dedicated in a grove of trees planted to represent each of the fifteen. The arrangement of the trees is eerily similar to the statues of the Korean War memorial on the mall in Washington D.C.; it feels as if the trees are a unit spread out and moving toward a destination, each one warily looking into the distance for a hidden enemy.

I've given out kudos jokingly along the way during this little project, but were I authorized to do so, I'd salute the people of Chicopee for a job well done.

262. Springfield: Forest Park

When I got there, the nature class was already underway. I watched from afar for a while.

I'm no longer in a position to truly care whether or not school is in session. I've been out for twenty years, and my mom, a longtime French and Spanish teacher, retired in the spring. My son is only 2, so we haven't even gone lunchbox shopping yet. And I'll tell you one thing. He's not getting my Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox.

But there it was, a field trip. Our biggee back home on the South Shore was Plimoth Plantation, in the third grade. For these kids, though, there was a bit more hands-on work to be done. They had nets and were standing on the edge of the major pond that dominates Forest Park.

I never saw one swung in anger, though, They milled about, the girls giggling, the boys conniving. There were most likely dragonflies or butterflies about, or perhaps they were heading for some ponding exercises. I'll never know. I steered very wide of the log cabin style nature center they were using, although I wanted desperately to know more about it, architecture geek that I can be at times. Instead, I settled for the mallards and the Canada geese, and the fountains spraying water skyward. And hey, look at that - the rain had stopped again.

What a day.

261. Longmeadow: Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlfie Refuge

I had this old boss named Rick when I was growing up, who was larger than life in the eyes of a teenager. He only had about six jokes, but he delivered them with such gusto and panache, not to mention a constant ear-ringing laughter, that you felt as if you were in the presence of one of the world's most confident, important people. He had this one saying, just two little words, that often heralded his appearance in a room. They were initially words of discovery, used when he found out something ribald or slightly off-color, and wanted to call attention to it. It later became a simple greeting. All day long he had us all smiling and chuckling whenever we bumped into each other in our mad scramble around the video arcade. "Hey now!"

Such were my initial thoughts as I "discovered" Fannie Stebbins. "Hey now!"

Were it not for the rain, which had grew more intense as I approached the trails, I might have had more fun in Longmeadow. The habitat was there. The puddles on the trail, though, were more than just weak depressions. They were deep, wide, edge-to-edge oceans of rain water. I tiptoed along those edges as much as possible, but in the end found it to be an exercise in futility. I stood at the edge of a pond as a flock of Canada geese blasted in with a series of uncoordinated honks, which term could also be used to describe my coworkers and me during my arcade days. Both a hairy and a downy woodpecker laughed at me as I slowly moistened at both ends.

One of the best features of the sanctuary was a water level marker for the famous storms that had inundated the Springfield area. The Hurricane of 1938 was pretty bad, but the winner, at least on this very spot, was the 1936 flood. I've studied it from afar, and know that Coast Guardsmen from my childhood home of Hull responded to the rising waters at the time. Kind of made my ankle wetting today seem a bit of a trifling thing.

260. East Longmeadow: Watchaug Meadow

There's a story in East Longmeadow that I'd like to chase down, once I get over the trauma of the mosquito bites. And it all has to do with the long history of the town.

It started in the early eighteenth century for East Longmeadow, settled in 1720. Obviously, being an "east" there's a tale of political separation, and that happened in the late 1800s. Now there's a study for you - this town was the 347th of the current 351 to form, older only than Westwood, Plainvillle, Millville, and Massachusetts' youngest community, East Brookfield, formed in 1920. Wouldn't it be fun to randomly pick a year and figure out how many towns there were? This project, for instance, would have been much easier in 1639. Half an Hour a Day on Foot: 23 Towns in 365 Days. Of course, back then, I would probably have had to walk to all of the towns themselves before walking in them. And I'll bet there was a lot more open space back then, too.

But East Longmeadow, with its sandstone quarries, supposedly supplied the raw materials for the construction of the Smithsonian Institution. I ask you, good gentlepeople: how cool is that?

So, someday I'll dive in. Like I did to the trails on this day. And someday I'll truly learn about the proper way to protect oneself from the damaging advances of the insect world. Meadow + humidity + summer = one chewed up wanderer. 

259. Hampden: Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

I had barely noticed that the rain had more or less stopped in Monson, I was so consumed by the tragic story. When I started on Mass Audubon's Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary trails, the atmosphere re-energized, forming a mist that promised to keep me well slicked for the next half hour, at least.

But what a lyrical place! Hemlocks, witch hazel, stonewalls, a rushing brook to cross and run shoulder-to-shoulder with. A split rock formed a perfect Nike running shoe, when viewed from the right angle. And I found the biggest chicken mushroom I'd seen to date. Don't tell the Italian side of my family. They'll make me go back and get it for preparation as a meal.

Even as I heard the thump-thump-thump of a retreating white-tailed deer, I knew that I had to keep one other notion in mind. This spot once belonged to one of the greatest children's book writers of all time, Thornton Burgess. It was here that he walked the trails examining the squirrels and the other critters of the woods, giving them names and personalities, divining stories that would appear in his books.

Imagine that, somebody being inspired by walking among the trees. Whodathunkit.

258. Monson: Keep Homestead Museum

It was as horrible as advertised.

I was at home in Weymouth the night the tornadoes struck. There is no stronger feeling of powerlessness than sitting in front of the TV listening to the broadcaster say, "ETA for Weymouth, 16 minutes." It's the randomness, like that of a lightning strike, that instills the fear. It might only take one life, but chances are just as good as the next person's that it would be mine. The line used to be "Smoke 'em if you got 'em." Now it's just a silent resignation to fate.

I stopped at the Keep Homestead Museum and could see the path of the tornado that tore through the town. It was unnerving, tear-jerking. The trees had fallen in the path, a perfect cut through the woods. Two black vultures, as if wishing to add a sense of the macabre to the scene, flew up and over the hill as I took it all in.

I headed onto the trails behind the museum and saw, at first, what I thought was the extent of the damage. I could discern the tornado's path, off to my right. But then, the trail turned, and headed into that area. For the next forty minutes or so, I walked in the path.

The fact that the trail was open at all was utterly remarkable. But it was passable from end to end. One section, known for its Christmas ferns, won't have ferns in a few years. An entire section of forest had been laid bare, and without shade, the ferns probably don't stand a chance. A ten-year study of the plant life of this particular plot would be fascinating - how often do Massachusetts scientists get to study the aftereffects of a tornado in their own backyard? The same goes for the birds. Without their trees, do they return? Piles of chainsawed debris reached well above my head. Pits created by the uprooting of massive trees had filled with water during the morning, making for hundreds of small pools on the hill.

All was not lost, of course, as goldfinches, pewees and woodpeckers flew through the area, still finding food. Life amidst all the death. 

I'd never felt so sad while walking in nature, and never pulled for a community I didn't know as much as I pulled for Monson that day.

257. Wales: Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary

As I stepped into Wales, I began to feel the butterflies in my stomach. I knew I was edging ever closer to the tornado zone. I had purposely waited well into the year so as to avoid the worst struck areas, which included nearby Monson, but, sadly, the hits just kept on coming. Tornadoes in June, a heavy windstorm in late July, Tropical storm Irene in late August, they all targeted this section of the state. Stories had developed of sections of Route 2, farther north, closed indefinitely. State forests and parks were closed, with the same time schedule. If I was truly going to walk all 351, I would have to see these towns at some point.

Wales, though, and specifically the Norcorss sanctuary, were open for business. And what a weird little place it specifically was. Among the many anomalies I found there were a vernal pool, a kettle pond - I thought that was just a coastal plain thing! - a sandplain, pitcher plants and Labrador tea (found in anoxic bogs) and a widespread invasion of stinking squids.

Wait a minute! you may say. I'll believe you when you speak of insectivorous plants and sand-based habitats miles from the state's beaches, but there's no way a squid is in Wales. I am sorry to report it is true.

Stinking squids are mushrooms that travel in wood chip deliveries - the trails here were well-covered in wood chips - and stink. They are technically stinkhorns, and if you're dumb enough to grab one from the ground and put it in your car to show to a friend later in the day, well, I don't want to tell you what the inside of my car smelled like. I mean, what the inside of your car would smell like. If you did something dumb like that.

256. Holland: Quinebaug Woods

I came up with a theory a long time ago, one that would make Staples proud. It was raining again, this time in Holland. I still didn't care, as it doesn't bother me in the slightest until it becomes obviously unbearable. While a walker in the woods sacrifices some things in the rain, he gains others. As I've said so many times this year, let me explain.

The rain, you see, if it hits during just the right season, is nature's highlighter. I often find that the greens of the understory are never so vibrant as they are during a steady spring or fall downpour. Mist and fog don't make the cut, and tempests, well, I don't walk in many of them. But a good, steady rain, one worth donning a raincoat for, one worth clearing one's pockets of paper goods (books, bird checklists, the list of stuff your wife wants you to pick up at the supermarket after you take ten nature walks in a single day, you know, like that), they bring out the best in the woods. Such a rain fell on this day (September 7).

Of all the sights in the woods on this day - hairy woodpecker and hermit thrush among them - the most spectacular was a mushroom known as a varnish shelf. Already imbued naturally with a rich, red color that seems as if it's been hit with a coat of Minwax fast-drying, the varnish shelf picks up the sheen of water and glows.

A beautiful brook, one that had me wistfully pining for the American dippers I had seen in Colorado and Montana, and the Louisiana waterthrushes I had last seen in Pennsylvania, rushed right at me, but was unable to hold me in perpetuity.

Century Run

255. West Boylston: Goodale Park

Once again, the end of a long day of walking stared me in my sweaty face. Eight months down, fewer than one hundred towns to go. I was well ahead of pace.

I found Goodale Park as school was letting out, and as such, felt a bit on edge. The park is near school grounds, and there were a lot of young kids around. The park itself - if I read it correctly - consists of newly-built or refurbished athletic fields, a failed fitness trail and some open space. Although I confined myself to the open space, it's never really good to be the guy walking around near the varsity girls' soccer practice with the binoculars and camera.

But the birds gave me plenty to focus on, so I looked legit, or at least hoped I did, as I didn't want to offend anybody. In actuality, there were only a handful of species, but they were active as heck. Chipping sparrows and eastern bluebirds led the charge, seeking seeds with their youngsters, teaching them how to fend for themselves. As I walked on - oops, that was a field sparrow! - I bumped into a granite marker that designated the bounds of Goodale Park.

It turned out that I had just missed the centennial celebration, marked by extensive improvements to the property by the town. As far as I can tell, it was named for one of the many Aaron Goodales who have called West Boylston home, probably the one who lived from 1851 into the early years of the twentieth century and served as overseer of the poor, chairman of the board of selectmen, and more.

I love it when a town honors their past and the people who built their community. It so rocks.

254. Holden: Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary

Wow, miraculously, for some reason, I stopped sniffling. Allergies had been pounding my senses all day long, but moments after I stepped into the woods at Eagle Lake, they disappeared.

The sanctuary had its own special layer of sylvanity (how's that for a made-up word?). There was a peaceful brook and at different times I encountered cheery toads and hyped-up chipmunks. I even got to know a few mushrooms, though not in the Groovy '60s kind of way.

There were trees down, and not just the typical blowdowns. These were big, massive, recently-felled by the wind warriors of the forest. It seemed so unfair, to have lived for 200 years and have the end come so violently. Sorry to make such a crass analogy, but it was like the way we lost David Halberstam, the author. A car accident took him, when he should have been allowed to drift into eternal sleep when his time came.

I found one waymarking post with dueling arrows. When viewed from either approach, the arrows made sense. But standing directly in front of the post, if I pointed my camera lens just right, I could make it look like the "Which way did he go? Which way did he go?" cowboy from the cartoons of my youth.

I so totally did it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

253. Paxton: Moore State Park

Forget everything I just said. Every last word.

I figured that Moore State Park would be just like the rest, and the pathway into the park was proving me right. But then I found the experimental orchard. And I found the rhododendrons.

Rhodies were, at one point, the bane of my existence. As a landscaper I pruned them continually, arguing with people over the efficacy of planting them next to a home. It just makes no sense. They get big fast. They block windows. They give ants and other bugs quick transport into parts of the home they don't think about approaching from the ground. And this whole foundation planting fad only started about 100 years ago, when we had to start hiding gas meters! Get the rhodies away from the house.

So rhodies, not native to our area, are a pretty good sign of human settlement. So, too, are old mills, and my goodness, what a beautful arrangement they have at Moore. Among the many old foundations of the mill town that once thrived here is one building still intact. A short walk down the hill past the rushing water finds a spot called the "Artist Overlook," from which I'm sure thousands of folks have photographed and painted the scene before them: water splashing past the old wooden mill building, which itself is perched at a three-quarters angle.

Yup, I've got so much to learn about Massachusetts.

252. Rutland: Rutland State Forest

I was entering the Promised Land. No, not Rutland. No, I had broken the plane of the final 100 towns to walk in Massachusetts. It meant nothing, of course. It wouldn't until I crossed the finish line - wherever the hell that would be. What, do you think I've actually planned anything?

I walked up a hill, and realized there was nothing new here, and that in itself was exciting. After 251 walks, I had seen it all, or so it seemed. An old railroad bed. People on bikes, some towing dogs. I found an old maple sugaring bucket, but I could count on my hands and my best friends' hands the number of towns in which I'd seen them already. I found a "Moose Crossing sign." Been there.

I heard a blue-headed vireo. For like the fiftieth time! I thought to myself, in a Napoleon Dynamite-type voice.

It wasn't repetition to me, it was truth. I was finding the heart of Massachusetts. I expected I would still find some surprises along the way - in fact, perhaps by the end of the day - but for that moment I was content in the knowledge that I was accomplishing what I was setting out to do: getting to know my home state in ways I never had before.

251. Oakham: Oakham State Forest

Oops, scared a frog. Damn, I do that a lot these days.

I found the Oakham State Forest on a newly-paved road. It was so new that I was leaving some of the first tracks on it, bringing dirt from the sides on the bottom of my shoes and staining the otherwise perfectly black surface with a light brown.

I had to. I was like a little kid understanding how a bridge works for the first time. I found the outflow area, a dramatically enclosed, dense pine grove with a stream running right through it. Gorgeous! I then ran back across the street to Foley Pond to see the stepped spillway and the manmade channel directing the water under the road. I ran back to the outflow. And back to the pond. It was a rusty red stream coming from a deep blue pond into a black pine wood.

The only thing that could snap me from my boyish discovery was an unfamiliar sound overhead, or at least an underexercised one in my head. I knew what it was; I just had to find the right connection in my brain to put the species of hawk with the sound I was hearing, a double-whistle.
Ah, got it. Before I even saw the bird, I had two memories pop into my head. One from downeast Maine, one from high atop a mountain pass in Colorado, which, ironically, was a place a broad-winged hawk was not supposed to be. But it was there then, and it was here now, probably not the same one.

250. New Braintree: Evergreen Cemetery

That mid-day sun was still cooking as I moved onto New Braintree. Without any luck locating open space parcels, I found my third cemetery of the day.

That last sentence should come with a disclaimer. New Braintree is sparsely settled, especially in comparison to the old Braintree, well to the east. There's a lot of space here that is open, beautiful rolling hills and farmlands, but none of it is open space. It's like that time on Taxi when Alex Riga had to warn everybody to not eat the blue berries, because they might not be blueberries.

The cemetery was small, triangular and finite. A wall surrounded it, and I found it odd that there was a plaque that memorialized forever the names of the men who built that wall. Wait a minute, I thought, let me go back and take a look at this thing. I stood at one end and looked straight ahead. That thing was as unwaveringly true as an arrow shot from a taut bow! That was real craftsmanship, and I could see why its makers would be recorded for posterity.

It reminded me of marveling at two old-timers in Hingham who were trimming a hedge at a church. I could not believe how straight, how perfect, they could make it, in not a substantial amount of time. I guess if you've got a steady hand, you've got a steady hand.

249. North Brookfield: Town Forest

By mid-day, most of the bird activity has quieted down. Some birds go to sleep mid-day, and they, like the Mexicans and the Italians, have it right - why exhaust yourself in the noontime sun? Siesta time!

And so it was quiet when I rolled into the last of the Brookfields. I found a trail on which to walk, and took note of the scarcity of noise, and the powerful smell of the pines around me.

I also found white wood-asters. Their presence told me two things. First, that it was perpetually shady where I was standing. Wildflowers in the woods are odd creatures. Some, like the spring ephemerals, take quick advantage of the early sun before the trees leaf up and get the nutrients they need for the year in that short period. Others, like white wood-aster, wait until August to even throw their flowers out, more of a field or meadow plant's gig.

Second, it told me that where I was standing was usually pretty dry, as that's the habitat this particular plant likes. But that was not nearly the case today. They would be in force for the next month or two, a dominant plant in dry forests around Massachusetts. I'd probably meet many more.

248. West Brookfield: Rock House Reservation

Yeah, baby, now we're talking.

My love affair with big rocks continues to flourish and grow with each passing day. Every once in a while I find a place like this one, where I can let my love fly, like a bird on the wing, and let my love bind me to all living things. Thank you Bellamy Brothers.

I was, though, duped. I followed the map to the spot where the Rock House was supposed to be - you know, past Carter Pond, past the tent caterpillars, past the gray tree frogs trilling from the...trees - but thought I had found it, when I hadn't. I reacted like Homer Simpson when he got a huge beer placed in front of him in Australia. "'s pretty big...I guess." Then I turned the corner and my heart jumped. It was the Rock House!

Without placing myself in the middle of it - what I considered the living room - I couldn't take a picture to justifty its grandeur. I felt puny as I looked up at the mass above me. One of the rocks looked like it could easily just slide right over on its side and crush me in an instant, but it had been there for so long, I doubted it would pick today to make its move.
I was in rocky heaven (not Rocky Heaven, where Sylvester Stallone will be some day). By visiting this site, it meant that I had been to both Rock House and House Rock, in Weymouth. Long live erratics! At least until the next Ice Age.

247. Brookfield: Quacumquasit Wildlife Management Area

That corn is as high as an elephant's eye and it's well past the Fourth of July! Harvest it!
Birders often get excited when they see crops growing - crops produce seeds, seeds attract birds - but in this case, here, today, there was no real avian excitement. There were exactly four bird species nearby, song sparrows and American goldfinches, both of which were hanging out near the cornfield's edge, and distant blue jays and American crows, unnecessarily squawking, at least in my opinion.

Sometimes, though, the crop thing can work in the wrong direction. A small kitchen garden, for instance, might attract a bluebird, an evening grosbeak, or something like that. But a thousand acres of grain could bring in swarms of blackbirds, which, for the birders, are nice, but for the farmer, are pests. Too much of a good thing can be too much of a bad thing. Part of the problem for farmers during the Depression was the swarms of insects that found and grew fat - and populous - on monotonous crops that fed them well.

Such is not the problem here in Brookfield. This section of the town is dominated by open spaces connected to the Quabog River, Quabog Pond and Quacumquasit Pond. Unfortunately, though, there is a problem, an invasion of Eurasian watermilfoil. If you had an aquarium as a kid, you probably had some of the feathery-looking stuff. In ponds and lakes it forms mats that shield other plants from sunlight, changing the ecosystem. Ugh. Yet another invasive.

But then there's corn. Good old corn, the stuff of Pilgrim legend. There's a plant you can sink your teeth into.

246. East Brookfield: Quabog Pond

Well, this little storm we had certainly did its share of damage. News came in from as far away as Vermont and central New York about flooding and other problems, so I guess I shouldn't be so surprised about high water levels out here by Worcester, considering how badly damaged the eastern part of the state was.

Shore Road was washed out, so I just got out and walked right there. I passed by a broken down house with a small boat named the Footloose - how a propos for 2011, as the movie has been remade (as if it ever had to be!) - and listened to the unrelenting sound of crickets. Water swirled in dancing eddies as I looked skyward to find the most bizarre looking plane I've ever seen, and believe me, I've examined quite a few in my time.

I had no way to judge how deep the water was, or, should I say, how different it was today from the way it was a week ago. I could see that fishing was pretty popular, going by the number of bobbers wrapped around the powerlines.

A fisherman approached and started casting from the road. Why not? There wouldn't be any cars through here for days. I asked him how high it was and he responded, wearing his tie dye concert t-shirt unironically, by pointing to a spot six feet below the surface and saying, "That's where I usually stand."


245. Spencer: Spencer State Forest

The way I see it, I'm up for honorary membership in the Spencer Snowbirds. But we'll see how things turn out.

In my continued study of Worcester County today I found the state forest and began my muddy walk, only to find that much of the trail was under assault. Branches, limbs, small trees, thrown haphazardly about by a lady named Irene, crossed the trail at numerous points. Although I spent thirty minutes here, I didn't get very far. I spent most of my time cleaning the trail - taking the burden off the Spencer Snowbirds, who have claimed the task as volunteers.
That's OK, no need to thank me. But you can send the patch to my name at Mass Audubon...

Seriously, though, it was wonderufl to see such community engagement in open space. And that is a huge key to its success as a concept, user buy-in and, well, parental commitment. Love and care for the land like it's your child, and it will live forever. In this case, the users are snowmobilers. In a perfect world, power-driven machines are kept entirely out of natural environments, but at some point down the line, the land owners decided to allow it here. Thankfully, the group that has grown up around snowmobiling in this part of the state has taken stewardship seriously. Without the land, they have nowhere to practice their pastime. The same goes for hunters, birders, fishermen and more.

Have fun, Snowbirds!

244. Leicester: Pine Grove Cemetery

I found Russell Park, and it wasn't what I thought it would be, so I skedaddled. I found a cemetery that looked like it had a good, thick forest behind it, and took my chances.

And there I found the sad tale of Julia Julia.

No, not Julia Gulia. That would have been the name of the Drew Barrymore character in The Wedding Singer had she married the Matthew Glave character instead of falling in love with the one played by Adam Sandler. This was, in fact, two Julias born to a Clapp family. One died in infancy, so they named the next one after her, who also died very young. That ended this particular Clapp family's usage of the name Julia.

I decided, after divining that saga, to poke and prod at the back wall of the cemetery. There had to be a way into the woods beyond! It was a perfectly wet day, and I just knew that if I broke the wall down I would find treasures within that piney realm. Bingo! I shouted aloud, thankful that no living soul was around to hear it, lest they think I was playing the game with the dead.

I found a trail and started walking, dodging a few downed trees here and there, recent casualties of tropical storm Irene. But I hit the final, impenetrable barrier: no trespassing signs. Aw, shucks.

But all was not lost. A barred owl called, "Who cooks for you?" See, I knew there had to be more to this place!

243. Auburn: Worcester Hebrew Cemetery

Let me just say this about the Jews...

Oo, dangerous way to start a paragraph. But let me say this: they like their tombstones tall, if the cemetery in Auburn is at all reflective of the rest of the culture.

And they like to laugh. My favorite marker was for a woman who had died at 98 years old with the epitath "An Untimely Demise." How's that for going out with a bang?! And I say this all with true respect and admiration for my Jewish friends. I grew up in a town with a strong Jewish community, and have always been amazed by their commitment to their faith, and to the strength of their own community.

That said, the cemetery tells more than jokes. Among the Katz, Cohen, Silverman, Levy and Feldman stones are many more that I will probably never be able to read. They're in Hebrew, and only Hebrew, names, dates and I don't know what else. I've seen a few around the state in French, but not much more than that in foreign languages. They probably date back to the earliest immigrants fleeing the pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century, but I can't tell you for sure.

What I can tell you is that the cemetery is surrounded by some excellent wildlife habitat, thickets full of catbirds, a nearby pond, a powerline crossing a railroad track.

When I die I want my family to look at it like the family of Rose Pelletz Cohen. Get one last laugh out of the story of my life! Perhaps, if I outlive the average American male's life expectancy, we can go with "A Timely Demise."

242. Oxford: Huguenot Fort

You know, where the Huguenots built their fort.

Isn't this state amazing?

Everywhere I turn (as I did today, on August 31), I find something new - a bird, a butterfly, a memorial, a bit of history I never knew happened. And the connections are incredible. John Eliot and the praying Indians of the Natick area visited the area in 1656. Isaac Bertrand DeTuffeau brought a settlement here in 1686, which was then abandonded, resettled in 1699, abandonded in 1704, and finally settled by the English in 1713.

At one point, there was a 30x18 blockhouse here, designed not for comfort, but for safety from Native American attacks, the legacy of King Philip's War being fear that the natives could strike at any time. We know that because of archaeological digs conducted in the area, with one survey being completed by Oliver Wendell Holmes' father in 1819.

There's nothing like starting a dewy morning with a smile upon your face, placed there by the discovery of something you never knew existed, right under your own nose. Now, if only I could figure out how to pick the right shoes in the morning, so my feet aren't completely soaked within the first half hour of what was supposed to be a double-digit-town day.

I squished happily on.