Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Carved in Stone

It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves. - Thornton Wilder.
The passage of time can be seen. It can be touched. It can be heard. It can even be climbed upon. In November, at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s George B. Parker Woodland, my dear friend Mary, her children Mark and Rachel, my daughter Janet, and I went for a hike through a small patch of the landscape of time. On a beautifully cool autumn day we walked the woodland trails that wind through the fingerprints time has left behind in Coventry, Rhode Island. The Parker Woodland is an 860 acre property consisting of magnificent old forest, reverting fields, whispering brooks, strange and mysterious rock cairns, enormous glacial erratics, stonewalls, and forlorn stone foundations. In this lovely forest, the passage of time can be seen, touched, heard, and even climbed upon.

The entry to the trail system.
We arrived at one of two parking areas along Maple Valley Road that allow access to the trail system. We chose the parking area near the nature center, a converted barn, and headed out on the Orange Trail. As we entered the forest, the perfume of red cedars greeted us. Mingled with this was the earthy smell every forest yields up to the autumn visitor. This smell of damp earth, moss, and decaying leaves is a sort of welcoming home to me. It never fails to awaken a swirling veil of emotions in me. It is at such times I can almost believe in reincarnation. Surely I have passed through here many times over the canvas of history. Or is it simply an instinctual memory? A murky reminder of where we came from, where we once belonged, where I still belong. Does it matter? Not really. All that matters is that I come back as often as I can. This day I once again wandered through the trees with a good friend and with three beautiful children. Is there a sweeter sound than the laughter of children intertwining with the song of a forest stream? If so, I’ve never heard it.

Mark, Mary, and Rachel on the blue trail
The Orange Trail soon yields to the Coventry Loop of the Blue Trail. This loop is about three miles long and wanders through hardwoods and over many outcroppings of bedrock. Rock is what our planet is made of, its bones so-to-speak. There are precious few places in New England where you are not constantly reminded of this fact. We turned right and soon entered a stretch of the woodland that is sprinkled with strange stone cairns. A cairn is a pile of stones built by human beings.

The mysterious cairns of Parker Woodland
Cairns can take many forms and serve many purposes. Some were built as future points along an intended stonewall. Others were loose piles of stones dumped in the process of clearing pasture land or cropland. Some are still being erected as trail markers. Yet others were erected as ceremonial or spiritual monuments by Native Americans. Each of these types of cairns can be recognized by their structure and their surroundings. It is believed that these particular cairns were Native American in origin. This seems likely correct to me.

A tall and carefully constructed cairn. This structure suggests Native American origin.
They are carefully constructed and sprinkled about the forest in a way that is not found in cairns constructed for the other purposes I mentioned earlier. Looking at these mute sentinels I imagined the strong hands that built them and the purpose in the eyes of those people so long ago. Now time has passed and many changes have been wrought on our world, but these small monuments to a different era still stand witness on the landscape.

Rachel climbs a ledge along the trail, and mugs for the camera!
We continued along the Blue Trail leaving the cairns behind. The Blue Trail then started to parallel Turkey Meadow Brook. This evocatively named watercourse, like all its brethren, is a liquid ribbon of time. The cut in the landscape and the rounded stones in its bed were visible reminders of the long ages that this brook has existed. Slowly carving its bed and tumbling and grinding rock, the very substance of the earth, into the smooth rounded stones the kids now hopped across. Nothing attracts children more than a stream. I think no child can enter a forest that holds a stream and re-emerge without dirty wet clothing and shoes. And that is how it should be if you ask me. This day was no different. Mark, Rachel, and Janet all crossed and re-crossed the stream intent on exploring the environ of the watercourse. Their exploration was only briefly interrupted by the sound of Mary’s laughter as she and I stood and watched them move along the stream. It is in shared experiences that we give our children the gift of time. Here among the trees and along the banks of a sparkling brook we shared wonderful moments with the children.

Mark, Janet, and Rachel rock hop Turkey Meadow Brook
A bridge across Turkey Meadow Brook marked the point that the trail was joined by the path from the second parking area. This bridge was new in construction and sported woven metal cables that anchored it to the banks of the brook. These cables clearly were for times when the brook flooded and the water level would rise and push against the bridge and threaten to dislodge it. If you have ever waded across a stream, you know the amazing power of even slowly flowing water. If you have waded across a fast moving stream, you know the feeling that your legs are moments away from being yanked out from under you.

Mary inspects the new Bridge over Turkey Meadow Brook

A closer look at the cable anchoring system for the bridge
As we left the new bridge behind, we soon came across the carcass of a previous bridge. It was broken and twisted as it lay where it had fetched up along the brook’s banks after some previous flood wrenched it from its home.

Here, downstream of the new bridge, lies the old bridge's remains.
A forest road crossed our path as we continued along. This road was little more than a sunken track through the forest. How many wagon wheels and hooves had passed this way so long ago, carving this sunken bed? Just as water had carved out the bed of Turkey Meadow Brook over time, this road had been carved out by the flow of humans and horses. This forest road is called Biscuit Hill Road. There is a legend that claims the road got its name during the Revolutionary War when a wagon headed to the campsite of French General Rochambeau’s troops overturned and spilled biscuits over the hillside. A quaint story, I do hope it’s true.
Where Biscuit Hill Road and the Blue Trail intersect, not far from Maple Valley Road, there is the barren foundation of an old sawmill. The sawmill was in operation from the 1760s until 1875 and was owned by African Americans. The mill is long gone and the stream is no longer diverted as it once was to turn the wheel that drove the mill’s saw. But the stones of the foundation remain, an impressive work of our forebears indeed. The kids climbed down into the deep pit that remains. Many hours of hard toil had occurred here, the sound and smell of the mill must have been a landmark for the community. Now a silent skeleton remained, silent but for the sound of the children exploring this relic of time long past. Watching Mark, Rachel, and Janet I imagined how much time I would have spent here if it had been part of the landscape of my childhood.

The gang inspects the foundation of the old saw mill
The day was passing and we continued on along the trail. Walking along Mary and I talked of many things. At one point our conversation went to hiking barefoot. When we had climbed Mt. Moosilauke the previous May, we had passed a hiker climbing barefoot. Somehow that memory came up and we were talking about it now. Rachel overheard the conversation and decided she was going to walk barefoot now. It was quite chilly for such a thing but Mary and I believe in letting kids experience things without too tight a leash. So off came Rachel’s shoes and she soldiered on for the rest of the day feeling the earth and rock against her bare feet. She’s a tough one, just like her mom.

Rachel takes the challenge and hikes bare foot
Thousands of years ago ice covered New England. The massive Laurentide Ice Sheet marked the last Ice Age when New England was covered by a blanket of crushing ice that slowly ground the surface of the earth as it crept southward. Huge chunks of rock were splintered free from the earth’s crust and caught up in the ice. These were slowly tumbled and ground against one another and the underlying rock the ice slid over. When the ice finally retreated, these boulders were dropped wherever they were, often many miles from where they were shorn from the earth. Now they stand scattered about looking out of place like stones tossed by some legendary giant. These boulders are called “Glacial Erratics.” We came across one such erratic sitting where it had fallen many thousands of years ago. It towered over us. There was only one thing to do. Climb it.

The three kids and the glacial erratic
I gave Mark a boost up on its lower sloping edge and Rachel soon followed. Noticing a small log lying nearby I recognized it for what it was, a make-shift ladder that had been employed by some former adventurer to gain access to the top of the erratic. Putting the log in place I soon scrambled up and helped Janet to climb on as well while Mary prepared to take pictures. It wasn’t long before the kids came up with the idea to do “YMCA” for the picture. Through the randomness of events, the Village People and a boulder dropped 20,000 year ago in southern New England met on the landscape of time. Fact is stranger than fiction.

The Village People meet the glacial erratic! Mark really needs to work on his "M"
After Mary took a few pictures, I helped her to climb up and I slid off to take more pictures. As I looked up at Mary and the kids I couldn’t help but reflect that there could be no more vivid reminder of how brief our time on this planet is than the massive chunk of rock in front of me that has rested there for two hundred centuries. Our life spans are little more than a finger snap by comparison.

The gang atop the erratic. That is no small stone!
Leaving the erratic behind, and with the day slowly fading, we pushed on. Rachel had put her shoes back on to climb the boulder but now they were off again. There were many more reminders of the passage of time on the woodland’s landscape. We found another erratic which had been split by thousands of years of water freezing in cracks and slowly splitting the giant into two halves. As the kids scrambled around it, I couldn’t resist a joke. So I told the kids I could tell how long the boulder had been there. They looked at me expectantly as I walked up to the surface of the erratic and caressed it as if I was somehow magically extracting information about its past by simply feeling it. I then proclaimed it to have been standing there for 20,000 years. Mark asked how I could tell. I responded with a smirk that I had read that the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted that long ago so the boulder must have been dumped then. This admission, after my theatrical conjuring performance, brought looks from the kids (especially Janet) that clearly said, “Very funny wise guy!” and a laugh from Mary. I do love messing with kids’ minds. After all, they are always messing with ours, aren’t they?

Mark, master of disguise
It was time to head home. We picked up the pace and soon found our way back to the car. We had only walked about half of the Parker Woodland’s trails, if that. But it had been a wonderful hike. Sharing time with children is one of the great joys of life. Sharing such a special part of the New England’s natural world with Mary and the kids was one of the highlights of the autumn for me.

One of several old stone foundations on the preserve

A "Wolf Tree" or "Pasture Tree." This tree was left uncut by the early farmers, probably to provide shade for pastoral animals.

The day fades and our walk through Rhode Island's Parker Woodland comes to an end
There are many gifts we can give our children, but none is as precious as the gift of our time. Our lives pass quickly, especially in comparison to such things as glacial erratics. We can chose to use our time wisely, to live life and to experience the world we live in, or we can fritter it away doing things like closeting ourselves indoors sitting in front of a television. I hope you will choose to get up and go out. Take your kids or your nieces and nephews and go outside. Or go for a hike with friends, or far better, the person you love. Life should be a shared experience. Life should be spent outdoors. I doubt when your life is in its twilight you will think back fondly of all the time you sat in the dark watching sitcoms. But you may just smile when you remember a sight such as a very brave young lady walking barefoot on stony trails through the woods of Rhode Island on a chilly November day. I know I will.


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