In the corner of the mud room I found an old walking stick, peeled and varnished with a leather thong knotted at the top end, which I selected on my way out the door. It wasn’t long before I entered the woods and followed the trail along the old wagon road to the top of the ridge.
It was a bright and brisk autumn afternoon. The path lay covered with a bed of newly fallen leaves, all brown and crisp, the kind that smell of autumn when crushed underfoot. Overhead, the sky was speckled with wisps of high-flying clouds. I soon encountered two female joggers decked out in the latest spandex suits followed by an English setter, who was too busy to offer more than a passing sniff as he padded by.
I walked the old 4-mile loop which I used to do at least twice a week when our black Lab was still whinnying with us. The trail provides pleasant vistas at several points along the way. I’m pleased to report that the vernal pool nestled at the base of the far hill still retains a good portion of black water where it lies behind the rocky outcropping that provides a breathtaking view of the entire valley to the south.
On my return I passed through a century old hemlock forest, now decimated by the adelgids, those tiny insects that camp on the underside of the needles and suck the lifeblood from the tree. Like splintered mainmasts on old clipper ships, these huge trunks tower above the forest floor, their topmost branches now only stubs silhouetted against the November sky — the last remnants of a faded woodland empire.
I passed one old giant, the victim of a lightning strike two decades ago. (I remember the day it was hit). You could still make out the spiral gouge where the bark had been burned off, now grey and faded over the years. A tiny red-breasted nuthatch flitted about on the lower branches, knocking off bits of decayed bark as it searched for a sparse edible morsel.
I returned home refreshed, with a cache of treasures: several pieces of peeled white birch bark, an old white oak leaf now brown and half decayed, a golden maple leaf with a bright red stem and a stalk of tiny wildflowers gone to seed.