I got a leisurely start on my alpine traverse, arriving at the Rte. 41 trail-head in Salisbury, Connecticut around 10:00 a.m. that September morning. My five-year-old daughter wasn't at all sure it was a good idea to leave her Dad in the woods, but she also thought it was a better idea to skip kindergarten and go camping with him. We postponed that pleasure by a couple of weeks and took the family to the Southern Greens for some Equinoctial adventures, but that story will have to wait for another day.
The Berkshire Natural Resources Council (20 Bank Rd., Pittsfield, MA) has an excellent topographic map of the southern Taconics showing every publicly accessible trail and switchback across the Plateau in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The cover photograph is one of mine, a lovely woodland shot taken near, but not actually within the area covered by the map, and I provided some of the historical and ecological data used by New Marlborough writer Jon Swan in the text that accompanies and illuminates the map's excellent cartography. I know the Taconic Plateau very well - it was the heart of my old Nature Conservancy territory - but there were large sections of my planned hike that would be new for me. I found the map a very useful guide, and as I am not receiving any of the proceeds of its sale you can take my endorsement at face value. By all means pick up a copy if you've a mind to. It will set you back about $7.
The Appalachian Trail is used by over 4 million people each year: a remarkable recreation resource by any standard. Its trail heads see some particularly intense foot traffic, and one friend of mine with a penchant for back-country bushwacking refers to these heavily used sections derisively as the Appalachian Trench. My journey on this day, however, was a solo ascent.
If I weren't so steeped in the ecological and historical context of this landscape, I might have observed the cool of the day, the relative absence of bird calls, and the dryness of the trail, but probably not that my steps were taking me gradually above the Pleistocene kame terraces of glacial lake Schenob and through mid-seral forests of red oak and pignut hickory with a heavily invaded shrub layer. I might have noted the old stone walls running through the deep woods, but not considered that the lack of smaller stones in their construction suggested former sheep pasture rather than abandoned cropland. This would have been a different experience, and certainly one of value to me and perhaps to you with whom I share it now, but as e. e. cummings says with far more religious intent than I intend here; "(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)". I can't help but see the forest and the trees, and the key factors that influence its present form and potential future. Plus, I was an English major before I became a professional conservationist, so you get a good dose of both text and context when you walk with me.
Henry David Thoreau actually coined the term "succession" to describe the progression from open habitat to deep forest over time. We now understand natural succession as punctuated by periodic disturbance and biological rearrangement rather than an linear march to some climax stage, but let's give a tip of the hat to Thoreau for this important ecological observation, as indeed nothing in the natural world is static.
Given enough time and left to its own devises, the native flora and fauna of entire continents will rearrange themselves in completely different ways. The ancestors of horses first evolved in North America, then abandoned the continent and did not return until the Spanish reintroduced their quite distant descendants. We used to have American cheetah, and the Grizzly is such a recent arrival that it has not yet fully speciated from its Asiatic Brown Bear brethren.
Please note the key variable here is time. I'm talking deep, geologic time, the millions of years of quiet rearranging that during Earth's history have often followed periods of cataclysmic disruption. Even the great extinction event that did in the Cretaceous megafauna -and provided museums with all those plaster casts of dinosaur bones that are so fascinating to six-year-olds the world over- impacted one hemisphere more severely than the other. There were undisturbed refugia from which species could slowly expand and recolonize the blasted landscapes of the North. Not so with this latest disturbance, which is global in scope, perpetuated by human movements and activities and happening at a pace so accelerated that evolutionary response will not get the jump on the mass extinctions of today for millions of years.
Conservation, as I've noted before, is all about values. Whether we choose to attempt to check the momentum of this greatest of all mass extinctions, or through our inactivity contribute to it nonetheless, has everything to do with how we view ourselves, our relationship to our environment, and the values we hold. The environmental movement in my view tends to make a tactical mistake in holding up endangered species as the reason to conserve and protect the environment, since this will inevitably polarize the debate into arguments over which is of greater value: our species or one of greater rarity. We never vote against ourselves when that is the choice, and our opponents have made ruthless use of this knowledge to reduce public support for stronger environmental legislation despite the benefits such policies often mean for public health and well being.
The environment, we are told, is a second tier election issue, and the naked scramble at the trough of looser regulations for the oil, gas and coal industry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina just shows how far we have to go to refocus attention on the real value for all of us in better environmental policies. Time and again, broad demographic surveys show that people, regardless of their political or social background, place a high value on clean air and water. They value certain aspects of the lands where they live and they'd like to see them continue over time. The roots of "conservation" and "conservative", as Eric Freyfogle and many others have noted, are the same. Why, some of the biggest conservation and land protection projects ever undertaken were by Republicans, albeit a particular breed of this political animal that is now as endangered in Washington as the Indiana Bat is in the Northeast woodlands.
Over 40% of the Taconic Plateau is permanently "protected" open space, meaning that short of a taking through eminent domain there is little chance of any residential structures going up in these areas. That leaves open a great deal of potential use, including lease of state-forestland for telecommunications infrastructure or "destination" resorts, fragmentation of the landscape by wind farms and their necessary service roads, and any number of extractive uses depending on the particular mandates of the conservation entity which holds the fee interest or the rights retained by the easements which protect private lands. There are many advocates for recreational uses of open space and some of them are highly organized, like the lobbyists for ATV enthusiasts and the hooks and bullets crowd. There's a good deal of protected land in the Berkshires, but as my friend and former TNC colleague Bill Toomey puts it; "We have enough public land for each of these constituencies but not every place needs to permit all of them."
I like my wilderness empty. In that I'm as guilty as the last person to move into the neighborhood who then wants to prevent further development. I'm like Edward Abbey, too, when he says get out of those coffins we're driving around in, unplug the tube and crawl around in the desert for a few hours and then maybe we'll get to experience what's really going on around us. I seek the less accessible places whenever possible because solitude is as rare and valuable in the southern New England woods as in modern society.
The whole idea of the Taconic Plateau traverse, or circumnavigation, really, was to take a unique path on which I could be assured I would find no one hiking the same route. Both the AT and the Taconic Crest Trail see plenty of use, and my hike included the weekend days, but unless you know what you are doing there is really no reason or encouragement to cut across from one trail to the other. Besides, The Taconic State Park back-country is "day use only" and the streams on that side are very dry this time of year making water supplies uncertain, so my perambulation would take some coordination.
No matter. I was out in the mountains and my pack felt good and my breathing was reassuringly measured rather than labored when I crested Lion's Head, the first promontory along my route with a view above the treetops, an hour into the hike. We'll pause here while I crack open the first bag of trail mix and resume our journey in a subsequent post.