"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
Hallowe'en at our house is not something you just throw together. My 10-year-old wanted my childhood Teddy Bear "Jingle" carved on a pumpkin, while my 2nd grader who has just seen The Lord of the Rings wanted a Balrog. You can probably figure out the genders of each.
There were wild fingerling brookies in this pool when I visited yesterday. Further downstream is a pool with scores of fish, including native trout that are well over a foot in length. No one stocks this stream, and very few know the value of what it contains.
I am working with a landowner to save over 1,300 feet of frontage along this trout stream through the donation of a conservation easement to a local land trust. It is a small strip of deciduous forest with a very special stream, as important in its own way as a large farm parcel or forest tract is for protecting those resources.
Eastern brook trout have completely vanished from nearly 40% of the subwatersheds where they histoically occur in the Highlands region that runs between south Central Pennsylvania and the MA/CT line. We have some of the most intact and productive wild trout streams that remain in the region here in Northwest Connecticut. This is one of them.
My congressman is in a tough race this year in a district that is considered a toss up. As one who neither watches television nor listens to commercial radio, I do not receive the full brunt of campaign advertising (except for a mountain of junk mail from Senate candidate Linda McMahon's supporters targeting the unenrolled voter in my household).
Yesterday, I listened to my congressman on WNPR's Where We Live, a long format question and answer session in which he held forth on a wide range of topics. I appreciate his candor, but I suspect his staff wishes he would keep his answers brief and focused. His response to one question in particular and the follow up gave me pause. It starts at 21:22 in a response to the effects of negative ads on his effectiveness as a Congressman.
"Does it make me think about whether I want to do this in the long run as my kids get older and have to watch this drivel on television? Absolutely, but, for the here and now, it makes me more committed than ever to moving forward with reforms that benefit middle class Americans."
Follow up: "But you do want to do this for the long term, don't you? I mean, you got into this, and people have talked about you as a possible candidate for Senate at some point. You seem to be ambitious and driven to do something politically. Is this something you are going to do long term?"
"I don't know. I don't know, I mean, to be completely honest with you, John, the culture's gotta change in order for me to do this, you know, it is draining at some level to be constantly up against this barrage of partisanship, and I also see what this job does to families in the long run. I think, you know, I've got a two-year-old son, now, and that's my priority. My priority is my family, and I'm going to be monitoring this job, and the time it takes away from my family very closely in order to decide whether I do this in the long run or not..."
I admire his courage for saying this. Work / Life balance is a struggle for all working people, and politicians are at the beck and call of the public more than any of us. I admire him greatly as a person and will vote for him in November. But if a candidate gave this answer to me at a job interview, I would thank him for his time and look elsewhere. This does not sound like someone who is confident and is going to stay and deliver in this position. This is not what the voting public wants to hear from a politician in a dead heat for reelection. Hope I'm wrong.
This morning I sip smoky Hu-Kwa tea, and outside my window a late sugar maple is still vibrant orange. Here and there a woolly white cloud drifts sedately passed, like milkweed down borne by a soft breeze. It is a fine Autumn Day, warm though my breath lifts steaming in the sunlight.
For a connoisseur of color this was not an exceptional year in western New England. It was too dry for too long, then the rains fell heavy and the frost was late. Still, if the landscape had a more subtle grandeur, there were accents of brilliant color from a grand old pair of maples framing an old homestead, or drifts of blueberries high on the ridgetops. The dry corn and the deep russet oaks add tone and texture.
The wild cry of the migrating geese, though, is all but absent on the wind. I remember the great flyway of the Hudson Valley, just over these low mountains to the west, and great rafts of geese thick as warbirds that advanced in their thousands at this time of year. I have seen a few solitary squadrons, but nothing to rival those of my youth. I miss them, and the thrill in my mother's eyes when she turned her face skyward at their calling.
There are some rare wonders that remain elusive. I have never seen foxfire, that bioluminescence from fungi on rotting bark that sometimes appears at night in our Autumn woodlands when conditions are right. Several species produce this effect, and it was even used to illuminate the dials on David Bushnell's Revolutionary War submarine "The Turtle". Some night, perhaps, when stars bead the branches like cobweb dew, I will see this eldritch light.
On a bright day with a brisk wind, and the trees in the mountains past peak color but still desperately lovely, the children and I climbed to the high point of Connecticut. The oaks and beeches and chestnut saplings were all oxblood and yellow gold, and up on the ridgetops the lowbush blueberries were in crimson glory. It was an afternoon with dark clouds and blue sky and wind above and wet below since last week's heavy rains. It was heaven on Earth.
It is a steep scramble up from the state line where Mt. Washington and Mt. Riga roads meet at the head of Sages Ravine. The trail ascends Round Mountain, an oak heath rocky summit without pitch pine but affording 360 degree views. It then drops down into a narrow pass and then up another slope to the south face of Mt. Frisell, which contains the highest point in CT. The summit itself is just north of the main transverse trail running across to Taconic State Park, in a sheltered spot in the trees with a cairn and a metal box containing notebooks to record the names and impressions of those pilgrims who have sought this particular, unassuming spot. The CT Highpoint is to the south, and somewhat downslope.
For a long time, nearby Bear Mt. was thought to be the highest point in CT, but even a casual glance from the slope of Frissell makes it pretty clear it is lower. Wishful thinking or shameless Nutmegger promotion put forth the summit of Bear, located entirely within CT, until more precise cartography shifted the focus to the West.
Sometimes there are paragliders riding the thermals above these ridgelines. Today there were a lone vulture and a raven. The sun broke through the clouds and made a patchwork of the forest, the light and shadows stretching out in all directions.
Bear oak, red oak, river birch, beech. Pale bark, gray bark, paper bark, bare. Chestnut leaves long as eagle's feathers, standing brave beneath the receding canopy. Garnet granite folded rock, weatherworn and fringed with lichen and the beards of ferns.
Up here in the high country the pulse quickens and the skin cools by turns, and it would not be difficult to imagine that these hills that stretch away to Vermont and toward the sea advance unbroken by road or plow. The beavers have been at work up on the Taconic Plateau, at least, as there are ponds where not long ago there used to be streams. Then again, a century ago the beaver were all trapped out and most of the trees gone as well, a sproutland with the forge gone cold and the sheep no longer on the high slopes.
We made our way back, recrossing the lower summit of Round on our way down to the back slope of Bear and on through Mt. Rigas lands and down Wachocastinook Brook with its plunging Falls on the way to Salisbury. The ravine was in deep shadow and the water was the color of gunmetal in the twilight. We paused to watch it froth at the crest and disappear in the hemlock shade. Witch Hazel was in bloom, and back at the roadside a freshet spilled into a hollow log trough as if waiting for the ghosts of horses and pack mules with their loads of smelted iron.
We passed down, and out into the late light of the valley below. Next year, in Spring, we will be back for the Mountain Laurel blooming, that soon will lie beneath the coming snow.
My ten-year-old daughter is in tears after - against my better judgement - I succumbed to the lure of "Daddy Daughter Time" on a Sunday Morning and cleaned her out with a hotel on Tennesee Avenue. Monopoly™ is a seductive, sadistic game that entices children by all that brightly colored money and parents by the thought of some wholesome family fun, then goes on interminably and invariably ends up raising stress and bringing out the worst impulses of all concerned.
And that is the point. It arose, after all, in the Great Depression, and has its roots in The Landlord's Game, devised in the early 20th century by a Quaker do gooder to demonstrate the inequities of unsubsidized housing. Nowadays it demonstrates the evils of devoting too much time to being aquisitive at the expense of those you love.
I'm going out for a walk. With my little girl. And later, we will make a fire in the fireplace. Kindled with Monopoly™ money.
Buzzard's Bay is cold enough now for the smell of its salt to permeate the wind. By November the oaks along the shore will have turned, but now the duff beneath the pines has a layer of fresh needles and the shrubs are the color of green amber. The low angled light of late afternoon brings out all the highlights in the sand and beach grass.
This weekend was made for Fall sailing, but there were very few who took advantage of it on Buzzard's Bay. It was warm enough, even at night, to be comfortable under blankets without needing to turn on the heat, which in the big red house by the sea is not a one step process. Only part of the Windrock house is winterized, and the upstairs hall needs to be partitioned by a sheet of plywood - known to us as the Wall of Jericho - to isolate the warm part from the cold.
We awoke in the last hours of darkness last weekend to see the winter constellations advancing from the East, and Jupiter with three of its moons shining in the cloudless night. We headed down Cape to Eastham and Wellfleet, finding the tide so high at the latter place that cars parked too close to the shore were up to their wheel wells in salt water and the trail to Great Island submerged at its very beginning. Nothing daunted, we hiked instead at the Fort Hilll and Red Maple Swamp trails in Eastham, and gazed out over Nauset Marsh. Little wonder that Champlain found this vast salt water wetland ringed with native habitations as he explored the coast in 1605. Little wonder, too, that he found it treacherous to navigate and named it Mallebar.
Cape Codders have the sea in their blood, and the old cemeteries record many among the lost and drowned. This stone lies in Wellfleet's Duck Creek Cemetery, and records the deaths of two half brothers: one drowned in a harbor on the north shore of Prince Edward Island and the other lost from ther Schooner "Telegraph" in an arm of the St. Lawrence between the Gaspé Peninsula and New Brunswick.
I love this time of year at the shore, when the crowds have withdrawn and the sun is bright and the wind is not yet honed by winter ice. There are crimson creepers in the trees, and asters among broom sedge tussocks attracting the late butterflies. Apple mint is still green by the pump, and woodsmoke drifts from the first laid fires. It has a beauty all its own, the brown beach glass and gray driftwood and the pink flecked granite that the glaciers left behind. I love the great show of the sugar maple that shuns the shore, but I love as well these autumn days of blue water and low angled light when russet and straw are in their glory.
The New Windsor Cantonment, where Washington's Army spent the final year of the war, has a new visitors center that houses an old but extraordinary diorama of a long column of continentals on the march. Created in the 1960s by Paul A Buckley of Lexington MA, in collaboration with Col. Frederick Todd of the West Point Museum with custom miniatures from the team of Imrie Risley in upstate New York, the diorama was completed in sections that when fully assembled is 24 feet long. It has more than 300 figures in what looked to be 54mm scale, and is remarkably accurate in its depictions of the late war period.
I spent a wonderful visit at the Cantonment yesterday, and could not take my eyes off the model. Dioramas captivated my imagination as a small boy and have held my love and interest ever since. This one has so many marvelous details to discover, including elements of whimsy like a soldier being prodded awake while shirking in the bushes, and a dog pulling at a piece of cloth held by one of the marchers. The dog, the story goes, is a representation of the faithful hound of the artist, that sat on one of the completed sections of the diorama. One of the sutler's wagons is emblazoned with Todd and Buckley, provisioners, as the signature of the collaborators whose vision it depicts.
The display case is well labelled and interpreted, explaining the function of each of the marching individuals and units. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of camp followers and civilian onlookers, as well as the yellow mud clinging to wagon wheels and the regimental flags in their black casings. The only thing the interpretation lacked was an explanation of the reversed colors on the coats of the musicians, which for a blue coated regiment with red facings meant that the fifers and drummers wore red faced with blue. This allowed commanders to locate their main form of communication over the din of battle, but also makes those attired in red appear to be British. The trumpeter for the 2nd Dragoons was in a buff or off white coat faced with blue.
The exhibit is housed downstairs in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, whioch may explain why the facility at this State Historic site had the funds to create such a fine interpretive space. I was there to meet with one of the researchers about 18th century artillery as part of the hunt for a surviving example of a Salisbury cannon, but ended up having a wide-ranging conversation and personal tour of the exhibits. I mentioned that an ancestor through marriage to one of the Ogden siblings, Lt. Col. Francis Barber of 2nd NJ regiment (3rd establishment), had been killed at the very end of the war at this site by a falling tree, and he lead me to a display where the officer in question was featured, along with his sword, a present from La Fayette! The New Windsor Cantonment houses a number of such relics from other area sites, inckluding Washington's Newburgh headquarters now under renovation.