I have the best half-hour commute in the Northeast. I slip through North Canaan after the school buses make their rounds at the highly civilized hour of 8:30 a.m. I turn right on red in the village of Canaan's small historic district and over the Blackberry River beneath the escarpment of Canaan Mountain. I cruise down toward Falls Village along the largest inland wetland in the State: the extraordinary Robbin's Swamp. Then over the Hollenbeck, passing Gallows Hill, and down across the Housatonic and into the most glorious "wild and scenic " stretch of river and road in our region.
Between Sharon Mountain and Cornwall Bridge, steep ridges and dark forests flank the Housatonic River for nearly 8 miles. The twisting road mirrors the curves of the river, at times without a shoulder to cushion its serpentine path against the rocky flanks of the mountain. On the opposite bank, a single line of track carries freight along the Berkshire Hills route, perhaps hauling hoppers of lime from Specialty Minerals or flatcars of southern lumber. The red covered bridge at West Cornwall is a regional icon and an image used by the Litchfield Hills Greenprint. Along Housatonic Meadows and out in the riffles of the river lies one of the best cool water stretches on the main stem for fly-fishing trout and bass. Bald Eagles pass the winter in the Housatonic gorge, and mergansers ride out the storms in its current.
All is not pristine along the river, however. Across the river, one hillside bears the scars of wildfire, while a high levee protects the Church at Cornwall Bridge from the wrath of the river in flood. There are some small home sites in the dark hollows of the river, one at least that appears to be well within the hundred year floodplain. I pass a few, jarring reminders that there is still rural poverty in these gentrified hills before arriving at my office at the Calhoun Corners section of Cornwall Bridge.
Despite the extensive areas of conserved open space- including the longest stretch of riverside trail to be found on the AT - mansions squat on unprotected ridge tops like the castles of petty lords on the cliffs of the Rhine. One in particular dominates the skyline as I pass under Sharon Mountain, an eyesore of such deliberate hubris that one almost fails to notice the cellular tower just up the road masquerading as some unnatural tree and obscured even in winter by maturing forest. I count at least four of these mountainside homes along my commute, but some of these are well screened and set below the ridgeline, betrayed by their lighting at night but otherwise more discreetly integrated into the landscape, at least from a distance. The access roads and utilities that make these commanding building sites possible can still cause considerable forest fragmentation and have other ecological consequences, but in this market, $200,000 for an access road is no longer a deterrent for a high end home builder.
There is a stretch of riparian forest on the Sharon side of the river north of West Cornwall that has seen some recent timbering. The land is owned by the power company and has a deeply invaded understory of shrub honeysuckle, bittersweet and barberry. It looks like a fairly heavy cut as I drive by, but I need to get out one of these days and have a closer look before I pass judgment on the quality of the logging job or the cutting plan. It does make me nervous, though, to see a long strip of riparian buffer managed for timber. There are generally economic motivations behind timber harvest on utility company land, and such cutting plans do not tend to put the forest first.
I arrive at work 19 miles and 30 minutes after I began, energized by the journey and what I have observed on the landscape. The return trip offers new perspectives, and on an April night a few weeks from now, the chorus of tree frogs and spring peepers in South Canaan by Robbin's Swamp will prompt me to pull over and roll down the window in the gathering dusk, "when the world is mud-luscious and the little lame balloon man whistles far and wee."