With a bum knee, a hiker can still dream
This column has always been about a hike (or various hikes, or a bit of trail work). Not so this time! I have been made unfit for hiking by a fragile, painful knee that has lasted for a whole month. But when you cannot ramble in the landscape, you can at least ramble on about it; and that is what I will do this month, reflect on our local landscape, and some of its best places.
Many years ago, on a family visit to the UK, we bought a picture book. It is called A Street Through Time. You are supposed to read it front to back, seeing with each illustration how, over 12,000 years, a stretch of riverbank becomes a modern city. I prefer to read it backwards. That way I see the city shrink, the riverbank lose its wharfs, fields appear in place of buildings, and those fields in turn vanish under forest. Finally, in the first picture, the site of the city is no more than a clearing in endless woods, occupied by a little band of hunters and berry-pickers. I sometimes try, in my mind’s eye, to strip away the human clutter of Fairfield County too.
Southwest Connecticut retained its natural character for much longer than that English riverbank. This is not to say that the Native Americans who lived here did not change their environment. They did. They grew maize, squash, beans, and other crops. They burned the forest understory to encourage the growth of berries and to create favorable hunting grounds. But it is unlikely that Native American numbers, even before European diseases all but wiped them out, caused wholesale alteration of the natural landscape. So what did our Native American predecessors see when, before European explorers began to sniff along its shore, they looked out on their land?
Some features of what we today call Fairfield County must have been much the same. The hills would still have been highest far from the shore, 1,000 feet or more here and there in places north of Ridgefield. Rivers would still have risen in the high ground and cut valleys through the hills to the sea, rivers whose names now echo the native world – Mianus (a chief of the Wappinger Confederacy), Norwalk (another chief, or perhaps a “point of land”), Saugatuck, Housatonic … The indented coastline would have lain much where it lies today. The land, then as now, would have been rocky, wooded, dotted with ponds and swamps, cut by brooks.
But there the similarities end. Our rivers are dammed, creating lakes that a Rip van Winkel Pootatuck or Paugussett would not recognize (the 5,420 acres of Candlewood Lake most notably). And, of course, so much of what was then forest – wild, or managed for deer and berries – is now city, town, backyard, highway, and even the odd farm. It is home to almost a million people. Yet our landscape remains nonetheless a wooded, even forested, one. I can stand in some spots in our woods and imagine myself in the forest primeval. But I know it cannot be. I have read how the settler’s ax cleared the old growth to make firewood, lumber, and fields; and how whatever trees were left later became charcoal. And even if I had not read this, I would soon enough stumble across a tumbledown stone wall to tell me that here the plough had worked.
So our woods are recent. And the trees that grew in the abandoned fields (put out of business by cheaper, less stony land farther west) created a different forest. Younger for sure, light on 500-year-old oaks and hemlocks for instance. The forest the Native Americans knew was a chestnut forest, and just when Connecticut’s trees began to come back, the American chestnut was effectively wiped out by blight. The forest animals are different now too. Moose, wolf, and mountain lion have not returned to Fairfield County – at least not yet. Coyotes, unknown to native tribes and English settlers alike, are now common in even our most suburban woods.
My feet are itching to hit the trails again. Rambling on about our landscape makes me eager to revisit its inspiring places, and visit some new places too. Here is where I will go as soon as my knee will carry me:
HILLS: The highest point in our county is up in Sherman, an unnamed slope nearly 1,300 feet up; but for now I will go back to Pine Mountain in Ridgefield, topping out around 1,000 feet. From the trails on this wooded hill you can glimpse Bennett’s Pond far below, and find a ledge with wide views of yet more wooded hills. Long, shallow, reedy Bennett’s Pond is a source of the Saugatuck River.
FOREST: The Saugatuck flows southeast at first and, in Weston, is held back by a dam. Lying on either side of the resulting reservoir is our most extensive forest, a contiguous tract made up of the Devil’s Den, Centennial Watershed State Forest, and Trout Brook Valley. Find yourself a ledge, then kick back and enjoy the peace and solitude of our regenerated woods. I’m going to.
RIVER: The CT-NY line – dead straight nearly everywhere – makes few concessions to nature, so I won’t apologize for counting a sliver of the Empire State as “our” landscape. The Mianus River Gorge Preserve in Bedford is practically in Stamford anyway. I have not been there, but will remedy that as soon as I am able. The Preserve seems to encapsulate so much about our landscape. The Mianus flows out of upland ponds and swamps, cutting the Gorge on its way to the Sound. River and gorge look scenic, but there is something else; where the gorge is steepest and most inaccessible, an old-growth hemlock forest survives, old enough to have been admired by Chief Myanos himself 350 years ago. I would like to see it.