Fallen hemlocks

It had been some time since I hiked the mountain trail by myself. The other morning on a whim I decided to climb the knoll to survey the rocky ridge.

The chain that formerly spanned the squat stone pillars at the entrance to Laurel Hill had snapped and lay rusted among the traces of last year’s leaves.

Freshly fallen white catalpa blossoms littered the trailhead. I made my way up the shaded path to the top of the rise, where it disappeared into a newly cut dirt road. The access road had been paved with crushed stone. I hunted for the trail below the concrete water cistern and followed it across the muddy run up the switchbacks to the old chimney. Here I paused to study the charred remnants of an ancient fire at the base of the rocks before moving ahead into the forest.

Warblers wheezed from their treetop hideouts. Off in the distance a thrush sounded his fluid refrain. Tiny yellow wildflowers edged the path near the power line cut.

I had but an hour, so I dropped down to the first ridge and followed it back through the ancient hemlock grove. Here I encountered the remnant of a giant evergreen that had been struck by lightning during a summer storm fifteen years ago. Although the massive trunk had since snapped in half, you could still make out the smooth grey groove spiraling up the tree.

I thought of Thoreau’s pitch-pine on the shore of Walden Pond:

In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. (“Solitude” in Walden)

A little ways ahead I paused to survey two towering hemlocks. Both had shed their green needles long ago. One tree cracked at the base and had fallen across the path into the uppermost branches of the other, which held it firmly — a final filial embrace before eventually collapsing onto the forest floor, there to decay amidst the verdant moss and moist rotted leaves.

"Awestruck" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

“Awestruck” 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

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A gentle rain

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.” –Thoreau in “Spring,” Walden

Up early, out for a walk under overcast skies, the overarching dome uniformly grey.

I set out on my usual circuit up to the heights. It wasn’t long before I felt the first drops of rain, the quality not unlike a “gentle dew from heaven.”

At first I berated myself for not having brought an umbrella; but then I had the thought that if the rain continued in its present form, I should not get soaked to the skin; and if it accelerated enough to soak me through, I would strip off my clothing when I returned home and enjoy a hot shower to counter the chill.

I picked up the pace during my ascent of the hill, conscious of the new drops dotting the macadam. A catbird mewed from a stand of dense bushes as I passed by, while overhead a chipping sparrow chatted from a high wire. Further up the road a mockingbird rehearsed his repertoire from the top of a tall spruce. Bird calls — indeed, sounds of any kind — are always accentuated in a close morning.

The valley lay in a fine mist at my feet, its green shades muted in the grey light.

As I descended the hill, the rain picked up a bit; but here I had the advantage of strolling along beneath the trees where the path was still dry. A solitary mosquito buzzed at my ear; I lifted a hand to brush him away. Were it not for the rain, the mosquitoes would be out in force; and I counted myself fortunate indeed to have the gentle rain for a morning companion on my walk.

As I made the turn at the end of the cul-de-sac, the rain fell with more force. I picked up the pace and ascended the hill, taking advantage once again of the overhanging trees for shelter.

And so I picked my way along the street toward home, my clothing somewhat damp, but not my spirits. At home I could sit on the front porch alone with my thoughts and watch the rains descend.

“The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too…

“In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops…

“Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”

–Thoreau in “Solitude,” Walden