Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

(snow-covered crab apples look festive)
It is just a week before Christmas and I am "feeling low," as my mother would say.  I am thinking about my friend, Sandra, diagnosed a month ago with terminal brain cancer.  Last night I spoke to her on the phone and she told me that new tests showed cancer in her lung, and four vertebra as well. Her family is reeling, and I am sad.

I go about my tasks for the day, but I need to get outdoors. Twelve inches of gorgeous fluffy snow fell over the weekend with an additional five inches yesterday.  It beckons.  Where should I go?  I want someplace peaceful, restorative, and quiet--a woodland area, but nearby, so I don't have to drive far.  Oh, and I can't spend too much time there, so it needs to be a small place.  It is already after 1:00 p.m. and darkness comes early these days.

(the Onesquethaw Creek)

No ideas that fit the bill jump into my head, so I consult my old ECOS book on Albany County trails.  Hollyhock Hollow!  How could I forget?  It fits all the criteria.  I toss my snowshoes into the car and head out.  At first I feel a little guilty, having the luxury of being able to take off like this, but I soon put that thought behind me.

The parking area has not been plowed, so I drive farther along the road where I see a couple of safe pull-offs.  I choose one near the Creek Trail, a trail I would normally finish with, but, since I'm parked here, I will begin on this trail and go in the opposite direction from my usual walk.  I put my snowshoes on and stand by the  creek for a moment.

A former farm, Hollyhock Hollow is in Feura Bush, and is owned by the Audubon Society.  At only 138 acres, it is very small.  I can make a nice loop in just over an hour.

With numerous warning signs to watch for cars, the trail leaves the creek and crosses the road into the woods on the other side.

How odd to be going in reverse.  I enter the woods where I would normally exit.  Someone else has been here after the first big snow, but before yesterday's.  His snowshoe tracks are softened by the more recent snowfall, and I add a fresher track through the snow-laden hemlocks.

I walk slowly.  I'm not in any hurry.  My point today is not a work-out.  Instead, I absorb the quiet.  At this pace, I am easily side-tracked by natural curiosities.

A few feet off the path, I see a deep hole in the snow, surrounded by animal tracks.  I peer in, but can't see too far.  Maybe I shouldn't disturb whomever may be living there!

About six feet away is this, much smaller, exit hole.  Only a few animal tracks are visible at this end.

And what about this tiny hole?  I know mouse tracks when I see them with the fine line of a tail dragging between the paw prints. This guy went in and hasn't come out, unless he has another exit too. 

I leave the hemlocks and enter a hardwood forest.  The sun comes and goes.  When it comes out, it creates beautiful shadows.  I take a minute to enjoy them before the sun slips behind a cloud again.  Even though I'm walking slowly, I can feel my heart beat.  Maybe I'm getting a little work-out after all.

I go up this hill that we usually clamber down.  Going in reverse is fun, but a little confusing.  I had to check for trail markers a couple of times.

Big rock ledges criss-cross the hillside.  Today, the rock is barely visible under deep snow.

At the top of the hill, the land levels out into a little plateau.  I can see over the wire fence into a private field not owned by the Audubon Society.  I like the variety in the landscape.

My trail takes me back into the forest.  The sun is low in the sky, already, even though I've only been here about 45 minutes.

As I descend from the plateau, I see this crazy snake.  It's a heavy vine, making an odd curly shape.  Generally vines like this climb trees; they don't hang in mid-air off the ground.  I walk closer and see that it is actually attached to a tree, but that the tree has fallen.  I wonder if the vine will begin to climb a new tree.  I know better than to touch it, though.  I have learned that thick climbing vines like this are sometimes poison ivy!

And juxtaposed in this natural environment, is evidence of man.  This beautiful stone wall, made from Heldeberg blue stone, is actually fairly high, with this section in pretty good condition.  I'm guessing that, in this area long ago, it fenced in sheep or cows.  Now it fences in trees.

And what about this flower of birches?  They rise up as if coming out of a vase.

On closer look, I see an interloper!  See the tiny pine tree growing out of the middle that I have circled with a hexagonal line?

The snowshoe tracks that I had been following left the trail long ago, and I am breaking trail.  For being so close to Albany, Hollyhock Hollow is often left untouched. There are other places, like Five Rivers Environmental Center, that people visit first.

Whenever I come here, I like to take the Wildlife Trail which goes by this remains of a quarry.  It is believed that stone from the quarry helped build the Brooklyn Bridge.  How far away from here New York City must have seemed in the late 1800s.

I'm ready to cross the road again. I have arrived at the place where I would have expected to park, in the parking lot next to the Audubon Society headquarters.  It looks like no one has come to work here this week.

I jog down the short steep hill from the building back to the Creek Trail.  Today's snowshoes all have teeth on the bottom, so I can't slide down hills like we used to, but I like the feeling of control that I have now.

The sun is behind the ridge even though it's still only mid-afternoon.  A small flock of ducks hears me and scatters, as I walk along the creek back to my car.  I feel refreshed.  Coming here this afternoon was a good idea.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reading Adventures 2013

I'm sure I have read more books this year than in the previous couple of years, because, in fact, I'm not reading them, I'm listening.  A year ago, my family gave me an iPod.  I knew buying CDs was really old school, and began downloading music that I had been wanting to hear, but the iPod's real draw has been as a vehicle for audiobooks.  In the past, I enjoyed books on CD in the car for my many trips to Saratoga and Schenectady. Nowadays, the library offers a far greater selection of downloadable audiobooks.

I started out with "fluff" books like Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, about a modern young professional woman who had been raised Mennonite.  It was fun to read about her visits home to her parents, and her perspectives on her childhood and the Mennonite way of life.

In no time, I branched out to popular new books: Susan Cain's Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a world that can't stop talking; Anna Quindlen's, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake; and Maya Angelou's Mom & Me & Mom.  Being able to hear someone like Maya Angelou read her own work gives her writing even more meaning.

Those highway trips on the Northway and Thruway flew by.  I was a little disappointed to read in the newspaper, however, that listening to books is a greater driving distraction than listening to the radio, although it is still way below talking on the phone.

Fortunately, my reading is rarely high action, and I hope that I am not so distracted as to lose my driving focus. Years ago, I took out the book The Accidental Tourist on CD and the shock of hearing the sounds of squealing cars coming from the car speakers as sound effects scared me for the rest of the day. I don't expect to encounter that experience with my current books.

Since Bill has been bringing the New York Times home from work for the past few years, I find that fitting in the Albany Times Union and the daily New York Times takes all of my reading time. And then there are the environmental publications I receive and want to read: the Adirondack Explorer, magazines from the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy; the list goes on. Often, I would look back on a year and see that I had read very few books. 

With my new iPod, I made random choices for a few months.  Then, I began to think about what I really wanted from audiobooks.  I generally read non-fiction, but had always thought that audio would be the perfect way to read those literary classics that I had skipped over the years. As an English major and lifelong reader, I had read quite a few classics, but there were still many on my list that languished.

I chose to listen to Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. My sister-in-law and I like to visit historic sites in our area, and had talked about going to Wharton's home, The Mount, next Spring. I should read the book, I thought.  I remembered seeing the movie years ago. The making of it had been a big deal in the Capital Region, when filming took place in the historic areas of Troy to capture the look of 19th-century New York City.

I was part way through Age of Innocence when the July heat wave struck. As I tossed and turned in front of the window fan,  my mind thought of everything but sleep. Those weeks I became addicted to my new take on bedtime stories.  In darkness, with my eyes closed, I could listen to a chapter of my book, change my thought patterns, and relax enough to fall asleep. I was swept into the late-Victorian New York social scene with its side trips to Newport. Audiobooks can be great soporifics! And later that month, after I finished the book, I watched the old 1993 movie, borrowed from the library.

Finally, I took on the big guns. For years I told myself that I should read Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Copperfield particularly interested me because it was Dickens' favorite work, and because he considered it largely autobiographical.  I had put it off because the book is long and a major commitment.

Then I hit a snag--the Upper Hudson Library System does not have it on audio. Not to worry, though. Bill set me up with the New York Public Library.  Just about anything on my wish list is available to me now.  I downloaded all 36 hours of Copperfield.

It has taken me a couple of months to listen to David Copperfield over many trips to Saratoga and Schenectady, and on a bus ride to New York City. For weeks, I have been caught up in the huge number of characters as they weave through one another's lives in London and Falmouth.  Although wordy by today's standards, the writing style did not seem tedious at all as I cruised our local highways.

I was nearing the end of the book, when I had a symphony week with rehearsals in Schenectady every night. Would Copperfield last through the daily commute?  No problem. Those remaining chapters took me through the week and then some.

Now, I need a little break.  Copperfield was pretty consuming, and deserves some off-time to digest. Maybe I'll get the DVD of the movie from our library.  For now, I'm listening to music on my iPod when I'm on the road.

Meredith sent me a list entitled, "30 Books You Should Read Before You're Thirty."  I'm glad to see that I have read many of them, and, truth-be-told, I'm a year or two over thirty. Nevertheless, there are some books on that list that I should have read. One of these days, I'll see what's available on audio to download.  Here's to lots of great listening in 2014.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Time and Acadia

The last time Bill and I went to Acadia National Park in Maine was 30 years ago.  We were definitely overdue for a return visit.

(Bass Harbor Light)

Way back in 1983 we had wondered what it would be like to bike the park's reknowned carriage paths. Now, when we bike whenever possible at home instead of using the car, the idea had even greater appeal. In addition, we both have bikes with hybrid tires, perfect for the paths' surface.

Acadia has 45 miles of carriage roads designed, constructed, and paid for by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the early 20th century.  Rockefeller knew that the "horseless carriage" was here to stay and set these roads aside for quiet travel with horses, bicycles, or on foot.  Even today, there is a horse stable in the park. 

(Jordan Pond and the Bubbles)

Although aware of the three decades since our last trip, we did not give the differences between our 26 year-old selves in 1983 and our current selves much thought until we arrived on Mount Desert Island, walked through Bar Harbor, and drove through Acadia National Park.  Then, our time lapse hit us at every turn. Our first day was full of reminiscence.

(Thomas just after eating his first French fry)

In 1983, we had been married for four years and had an 8-month old.  We were just on the cusp of our version of the American Dream that would include a son, a daughter, and a house of our own.  Now, we've lived in the same house for 30 years, our children are grown up, live away, and are competent professionals.  A mind boggling passage of time!

(Bill checks the Carriage Path map with Thomas in the Snugli, 1983)

As I walked toward the harbor park in the village of Bar Harbor, Bill said, "I know where you're going.  You want to see where Thomas ate his first French fry."  I nodded sheepishly.  Bill added, "he really liked it, too."

On that long-ago afternoon in the park, not only did we expand Thomas's food preferences, but I also knelt in the grass, playing with Thomas who giggled and squealed.  A photographer came over and asked if he could take pictures of us for the local newspaper, a few shots of tourists enjoying a nice day. 

(Virginia on top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia as Thomas checks out her ears with his razor-sharp fingernails!)

Now as we discussed biking the carriage paths, we remembered our walk on a path with Thomas as a baby. A sudden storm had come up and we hurried back to the car, Thomas crying the whole way.  Inside the car, I changed him into dry clothes and he promptly fell asleep, as the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared.

We didn't say to each other, "where did the time go?"  We knew where it went.  It had passed into the intensity of life that raising and supporting a family brings. Looking back brought us an odd sensation of life as blocks of time set apart in stages.  The stages pass almost imperceptibly but suddenly they stand there, framed and finite. We felt fortunate to have shared these life passages then and to be here now.

(Bar Harbor has a modern waterfront, as seen from Bar Island)

We noticed some changes in town too.  Waterfront development has reached this harbor town, and huge cruise ships dock in the bay.  Water taxis carry passengers of every nationality from the ships to the shops and restaurants.  Although the cottages that we had stayed in in 1983 still exist, they are high-end and expensive now.

Nevertheless, the essence and charm of Bar Harbor remains behind the glitter of the new luxurious hotels. It didn't take us long to begin frequenting a little cafe on a side street. 

For this trip, we found a comfortable motel just two miles from the park entrance and 4 miles from town.  With an efficiency kitchen, we ate our breakfasts in and packed a "trail lunch" each day. In the evenings, we plotted the following day's bike route.

(Some things haven't changed at all--Bill checks the Carriage Path map, 2013)

We set out on our first bike ride, knowing that showers were in the forecast along with cold temperatures hovering around 45 degrees. We hoped the rain would hold off, but shortly into our ride, it started to sprinkle and then began to rain in earnest.  This time, no one cried.  We cycled back to the car, loaded the bikes, and headed a few miles farther into the park to take refuge at the Jordan Pond House.

(Rockefeller also paid for the construction of 17 stone bridges along the carriage roads)

Warmth and the aroma of baking hit us as we stepped into the Jordan Pond House.  A few people stood in front of the wood-burning fireplace, trying to steam dry their wet jackets.  

Known for popovers and tea, the Jordan Pond House has huge windows.  A late-summer garden flourished on the other side of the glass and two hummingbirds went from flower to flower despite the downpour. We were seated at a table near the window, where we could enjoy the view across the pond, and to the mountains, in the restaurant's warmth.

We lingered over our snack, the rain let up, and we ventured back outside.

This time we chose a different set of paths, near Jordan Pond.  To our surprise, these offered far greater challenges.  Cranking up hills in our lowest gears, and surely burning up those popovers, we climbed to open views of the ocean, while steep descents made us pull hard on our brakes as we entered the dense woods along Jordan Brook.

It didn't take us long to realize that we weren't going to ride all of the paths in the few days that we would be here.  Besides, we also wanted to explore the rest of Mount Desert Island with its quaint coves and harbors. I decided that we should make a priority of those paths that went by lakes, ponds, or marshes.

The many fresh-water bodies on this island in the Atlantic Ocean, and glacial rock-faced mountains that reach right to the sea, make this area a unique part of the New England coast.  Views from the carriage paths alongside the water would accentuate many natural features.

Unlike the paths near Jordan Pond, these had long gradual inclines for a mile or more, and then long gradual descents.  With the road surface in excellent condition, we could enjoy looking at the scenery, rather than watching for pot holes or ditches that might throw a bike.  I also stopped frequently to take pictures, and now-and-then we spent time sitting on a rock in front of a pond under some early-fall colored leaves.

Occasionally, we saw a few people walking or a family biking.  Once we saw two people on horseback, but often we were alone on the paths.

(Virginia is glad she has 21 speeds for the steeper hills)

As we checked off some of our "must do" bike rides, we decided to add short hikes to our days. Hiking opportunities abound at Acadia.  Trails of every length and level of difficulty criss-cross the island. My friend, Rachel, who had worked in this National Park in the '90s, had recommended hiking the South Bubble and The Beehive.

The trail to the South Bubble, one of two small mountains at the end of Jordan Pond, was only a half-mile long.  In the Adirondacks, a half-mile would barely get you out of the starting gate, but here, we reached a bare summit with fabulous views in no time.  This little mountain is known for Bubble Rock, a glacial boulder that has hung precariously on the edge of the summit for tens of thousands of years.

(Jordan Pond from the South Bubble)

The next time we hiked, we chose The Beehive.  Although The Beehive is famous for its cliff with rungs bolted into it so that people can climb straight up, we took the longer trail, although still very short at only a mile, that reached the summit from the other side. The Beehive offers an amazing 360-degree view.

We realized that these mountains, at only about 800 feet, feel very high because their base is almost at sea level.  The highest point in Acadia National Park is Cadillac Mountain, 1500 feet above sea level and the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard.

(View of Sand Beach and the ocean from The Beehive)

On our last full day, we biked the carriage path where we had been rained out the first day.  The sun lit up the brilliant fall foliage as our biking experience came full circle.

Once in a while, we still reminisced about our 1983 trip, but we had become much more consumed by our current daily options, as we absorbed the beauty of Acadia's placid lakes and rugged coast. Our wonder at and attempts to understand the circles of life had passed.  We had hiked and biked, driven the island in the car, checked out a few shops, and we had eaten lobster rolls, chowder, fried clams, blueberry soda, blueberry beer, blueberry tea, wild blueberry pie, wild blueberry fruit salad, and the list goes on.

Maybe we'll get back here before another 30 years goes by, or maybe not. Right now, this 2013 return felt just right.

(Virginia and Bill at Acadia National Park, 2013)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Innisfree Garden

When I scheduled an Adirondack Mountain Club trip to Innisfree Gardens in Millbrook, New York, I had written, "July can be hot, so let's not exert ourselves."  In fact, we had the coolest day all month after a long heat wave.  Innisfree is a relaxing and calming place to go whatever the temperature. Eleven of us set out for a unique experience at a unique location.

Water has a prominent place at Innisfree Gardens.  Except for the lake, all of the water features are man-made. In the photo above, small trickles of water fall into green foliage; below, spouting water creates mist. While visual elements, these cascades also have a natural sound, and a spray may touch the skin with a gentle coolness.  Going to Innisfree is a sensory experience.

In the 1920s, Walter and Marion Beck began to plan a garden at their country estate which they had named Innisfree after W.B.Yeats' famous poem. Walter's fascination with Asian art led him to study the work of 8th-century Chinese garden maker, Wang Wei.  Wang created "inwardly focused gardens and garden vignettes," which Beck thought of as "cup gardens" in his native American landscape.

As we strolled through the 185-acre property, we stopped at the various formations.  I encouraged our group to spread out and to take some quiet time here.  The property was small enough that no one would get lost. Some of us stayed together, and others went off by themselves.

Rock is also central to Innisfree.  Much of it, such as the hillside below, is part of the small glacial lake on the property.  Other rocks have been brought in and arranged either alone or in formation; all of the rock comes from the immediate forest.  In contrast to the rough stone, planted elements are groomed, as the trees are in the photo to the left, shaped into their own grouping.  The archway on the right is beneath a stone bridge and above a small stream.  A bench nearby awaits those who want to rest, while listening to the water bounce over the rocks.

I love the many stone stairways that lead to a series of brick terraces, resplendent with plants both native and exotic, that offer views across the garden to the lake. I went up and down the steps in the photo on the left. The stairways always lead to new discoveries.

Lester Collins, a landscape architect and student of Japanese gardens, joined the Becks in 1938.  He presented them with the idea of "creating an essence of nature and gardening."  Each area would be a space unto itself, yet part of the whole, in a combined natural and created environment.

Taking time in these environments was one of the fundamental ideas of Mr. Collins and the Becks. Chairs abound in a variety of meditative locations, offering respite to those who prefer sitting on a chair to a rock. A row of eight chairs lines up under a live-oak tree, a stone sitting-wall overlooks the lake under blooming trumpet vine on a brick terrace, while, in the lower photo, a chair is placed on a rock slab patio with a view to the lake.

I saw members of our group in one space or another, either in groups or alone. Later, one man told me that he had spent a half-hour on a bench, quietly overlooking the lake; two women had chatted while relaxing on the bridge across the lily pads; one woman lagged behind and I later saw her alone, stepping down stone stairways around carefully placed rocks near the water.  I was pleased that our ADK members, usually out on more strenuous hikes, were absorbing the gentle spirit of Innisfree.

The lake is, by far, the garden's largest feature, and the backdrop to the many of the "cups" or vignettes. After wandering in the highly-designed garden area, taking a walk on the dirt path into the woods surrounding the lake adds a rusticity to the Innisfree experience.  The entire walk is less than three miles.

The trail around the lake, although more natural, still has unusual artistically-planned features, such as these maple trees trimmed to a narrow shape.

We met a few of the garden's volunteers as they worked on the day's projects.  One man had been coming here for sixty years and now, in his 80s, devotes many volunteer hours to the garden's maintenance.

Mid-July is not this garden's high season for flowering plants.  I had been here previously in June, when flowers bloomed in abundance.  At that time, I had seen an entire cove filled with large lotus flowers.  This day, I was thrilled to find a few.  An abundance of botanical variety remains, however, making a terrific show of texture and color in an endless array of trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines, and more.

If one view of the garden seems to contain everything, it is this one, below.  With the lake stretched out in the background, a terrace leads from stone steps to large rocks placed in artistic symmetry.  A tree overhangs the scene and places to sit are numerous.  A small stream flows behind the area into the cove of water lilies.  One time when I came here, a woman sat on one of the rocks, playing a large Celtic harp.  Ethereal music floated across the lake.

We spent two hours wandering through the gardens and walking the trail around the lake and we were hungry.  Near the parking area are a few picnic tables on a hill, the perfect place for our lunch.  Typical of ADK, we had become instant friends and had much to talk about now that we had all come back together.  Eventually, it was time to head for home.

Many of the group's participants mentioned returning with friends or family who would enjoy the garden's mood.  This was my fourth time here. The first time, friends had introduced Bill and me to Innisfree, and each time since I have introduced it to others. It is always a serene place to spend some quiet time.