Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blueberry Hill

As soon as I open the car door, I smell dry autumn leaves, goldenrod and grasses--the aromas of a meadow. This is my backyard, a 5 1/2 mile distance from my urban home, merely a stone's throw, a short drive, or even at times a bike ride. It isn't my first choice of escape. I prefer woods and mountains, but I can still feel alone in nature here not far from home.

For four years, I was a docent at the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center. This past summer, I made the change to "preserve steward." Now it is my responsibility to walk my trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Pine Bush once every two weeks. I hope to become intimate with this piece of land just inches away from urban development and the city land fill.

Today I came fresh from re-reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. The three ideas that Anne gleaned from her time at the beach were the need for simplicity, solitude, and an understanding of the intermittency of nature and relationships.

I had the solitude and simplicity--just me and my hiking boots. At times I could see office buildings beyond the tree line, and the outlines of houses on neighboring streets, but I did not see any other person.

I began my walk along the lane surrounded by typical pine bush scrub oak and pitch pines on my way into the meadow. Besides a low hum of distant traffic sounds, I heard birds in constant conversation. I was pleased to see a pair of bluebirds, lots of sparrow varieties, tree swallows, chickadees, and turkey vultures circling overhead. It was a treat to be out early on this Indian Summer day.

Albany's Pine Bush Preserve encompasses 3100 acres of inland pine barrens. While coastal pine barrens are common, our Pine Bush is one of only 20 inland areas remaining in the world. It gets considerable notoriety as a home of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, but, in fact, over 50 species "of special concern" live here also. It is an ecosystem worth protecting.

I walk at a relaxed pace soaking up the autumn sun, the bird sounds, and aromas of this morning.

Still, I am a woodland person, and I am glad when my path enters the trees, even though the trail runs under power lines and I can now hear children's voices from nearby neighborhoods.

My task for today is to pick up sticks and small branches on the new trails that are being built on the periphery of this part of the Pine Bush. By having fewer trails criss-crossing the acreage, the ecosystem will be more whole and will foster a more secure place for the animal and plant life that is native to this area. Old trails will be cordoned off.

I start picking up sticks. There are lots of them. I can tell right away that I'm not going to get the trail cleaned up in one morning. Now I begin to think about the time and plan how much of my morning I can spend here.

And then I hit the first bog. Okay, it's been an incredibly wet past few months, but this wet area is huge. I have to go way around it into the trees and off the trail. I don't like to go off-trail at the Pine Bush because there are lots of deer ticks.

Deer ticks carrying lyme disease are everywhere in the Northeast nowadays and I have found them on my clothes here and on other hikes, which is why I wear the fashionable Pine Bush style of tucking my pants into my socks. While it's fun to see deer and fawns, today I just see their tracks.

I finally get around the bog, pick up more sticks, and find a few beer cans and pieces of broken plastic. I regret that I didn't bring a trash bag with me.

Besides the bog, the ticks, and the trash, I'm getting hot and mosquitos are attacking me like crazy. As usual, I forgot the great new bug lotion I bought last summer for camping.... I check my watch. There are other things I need to do today than to be here whacking at mosquitos.

My serene mood has vanished. Sure, I'm still solitary out here with my hiking boots, but any spiritual aspects of the morning are long gone. I just want to get out of the woods. But there are two more bogs. I go around them, pushing twigs and branches out of my way.

Finally, I'm back in the meadow. What was that intermittency idea that Anne Lindbergh talked about? Oh yeah, moments of perfection come and go in nature, in relationships and in mood; it is best to recognize the fluidity of the ebb and flow.

The landscape reminds me of coastal pine barrens that I have walked on Cape Cod. Perhaps the drone of continous sound is not traffic, but the distant rolling of waves on the shore. I'm good at these kinds of imaginings and let my mind recreate this scene in another place.

I'm definitely overdressed, and I could use a little of that ocean breeze. It's supposed to go up to 80 degrees on this October day and the sun is rising. I take the shady side of the meadow and find a few lingering raspberries.

Birds still sing and flit from branch to branch. Even though I forgot the bug dope, I have my binoculars and try to get some good bird sightings. A couple of flickers cross my path, bees taste the last remaining pollen of goldenrod in the sun, and a chipmunk scrambles through dry leaves as it dashes into the wooded edge of the trail. Hey, there's even a seagull. Maybe I really am near the ocean! (I can't see the landfill that attracts them and pretend it's not there.)

While bright colors are rare in a pine barrens environment, this token maple stands out between the oaks. My mood is improving so I keep walking. I don't remember what else it is that I have to do this morning but I'm sure I have a list somewhere.

But what do I smell now? Something that is not dry leaves and meadow. Grilled cheese?? I look around. I'm at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest building and even farther now from the houses. And there are no fast food restaurants in this area. It smells really good. I even wonder if there might be a controlled burn happening in the Pine Bush that I was unaware of. No, this is definitely the gooey aroma of toasty cheese in a fry pan.

I realize that I'm kind of hungry. Morning is on the wane. A grilled cheese sandwich would taste really good, but I know I don't have any Swiss, my favorite, in my refrigerator. Still, a cold glass of fresh apple cider, something I do have, would taste pretty refreshing. I'll put Swiss cheese on my next grocery list.

As I turn into the tree lined path where I began and head to my car, I am reminded of naturalist John Burroughs who admonished his readers a century ago to "make the most of the near at hand." I will be back in a couple of weeks to scout out any changes and to pick up more sticks on "my" trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.


  1. Capturing the spirit of Lindbergh with this post. A different kind of article with the stream of consciousness style throughout that captures what runs through one's mind as they tromp through fields and woods on their own.