Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Garden of the Trees: Catching the Leaves (and a Leaf) on a Favorite Fall Weekend








            Somewhere on one of the handful of woodlands trails Anne and I hiked in our three-day Columbus weekend in the Berkshires, I caught a leaf.
            A breeze blows, and those autumn leaves at the very end of their seasonal tether come floating, swaying, riffling, picking up speed and pulling back, sometimes lurching off in new directions as currents of agitated molecules shove them this way and that -- just as they do in the cartoons -- and eventually landing.
            This happened on a path in Williamstown; and I turned a palm up and extended my forearm a little ways in front of me, and kept walking without moving my hand, and one of the smaller, maple leaves detached itself from the consensus of a somewhat numerous squadron and landed squarely on my palm.
            That's how you catch a leaf. It catches you. You can't really try to catch one. The mere motion of throwing yourself around, leaping after the flock, lurching one way or another in those last minute course-corrections in a futile attempt to respond to the many little twists and turns leaves experience from invisible, but commanding airflows -- your own motion, that is, creates another distortion in the airflow sending the leaves off course.
            You push them away by seeking. 
            Just be there. If a leaf has your name on it, it will find you.
            It may not happen at all. Wind currents are pretty erratic. The answer is not always blowing in the wind (regardless of the Nobel prizewinner's famous lyric). Still, when it does happen you can't help feeling a little bit, well, good about things. In the context of the religion of pagan nature worship it may perhaps feel a little bit like being -- to appropriate an idea from an entirely different religion -- "sealed in the Book of Life."  
            In Williamstown, in the Northern Berkshires, where this cheerful moment possibly took place, a series of walking paths in the woods and pasture land can be found directly behind the justly celebrated Clark Art Museum. The photo at the left is the Stone Seat, marking the favorite destination for a woodland walk by German-born, retired professor George Moritz Wahl, who died in 1923. His name is carved into the stone. I don't know anything more about the back story, but our trail guide calls the series of trails that lead to this site "Williamstown's favorite walk."
            According to Williams College, numerous trails on Stone Hill can be combined for hikes ranging from 0.7 to 4.0 miles in length and offering the hiker "dense forests, massive rock outcroppings and, at the trail's end, "a great view" of the town of Williamstown and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Which I don't think we knew about because we certainly didn't find it.
             We followed one of those busy trail maps complicated by numerous intersections of helpfully marked trails, arriving at the Stone Seat. Then started off in one direction, encountered a posted map, and reversed course back the other way. We followed a lovely quiet woodland course along leaf-filled paths, encountering not a soul while sending a score of tiny chipmunks racing to escape our ogre-ish presence.   
            We did bump into crowded parking lots and human multitudes in the retail streets around Williams College, one of the few such encounters on an otherwise subdued three-day October weekend in the Berkshires. Little traffic to speak of on Route 7, a road we've been locked up on during other Columbus Day weekends. Maybe everybody else knew the weather was going to be clouds the first day, followed by rain the second. The third day, the day we had to leave, was in true Berkshire fashion crystal clear and absolutely stunning.
            Our next site, after leaving the college (and parents weekend?) crowd, proved to be one of the best rural picnic spots we've ever found. It was right on the farmyard of the Sheep Hill farm (farm photo below), now a preserve owned by a local conservation foundation. A picnic table is surrounded by the steeply graded pasture on one side, and a view of thickly wooded ridges (across Route 7) rising up to Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.
            We had the place completely to ourselves. No one else in sight. The 50-acre former dairy farm was purchased by the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation in 2000. Art and Ella Rosenburg and their son moved here in 1933 and owned a milking herd for more than 50 years, according to the group (see http://wrlf.org/sheep-hill/).
            The property was originally called Sunny Brook Farm, and the landscape named Sheep Hill because sheep were raised here in the late 19th century.
            I took some photos of the strikingly furrowed tractor-cut patterns of the hayed meadow (above, left)The contours are more prominent and the gradient steeper than the camera is able to show. From a path along the top of the pasture I took photos of the foliage on the ridges, and one of the observation tower on top of Greylock.