Hiking Home Ground

 

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Ten years ago my town purchased 240 acres of agricultural land and untapped forest in wind’s reach of Lake Ontario. A non-profit group, “Friends of Webster Trails,” built and blazed paths through woods and wetlands, and in and around a grassy field called the “big meadow.” In its first decade the Whiting Road Nature Preserve expanded, with new color trails added every year or two to explore the new accessions. Scout and youth groups sprouted boardwalks, signs, and benches, and rehabbed antique outbuildings throughout the area—which seems, despite these improvements, to be gaining, rather than losing wild character.

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On a recent trip home I made a pilgrimage. The trailhead and parking lot lie barely a mile from my parents’ house, and I’ve even jogged here from home on occasion. First trek, this visit, I kept to the inner-ring trails of blue and yellow; on a second, I wove a longer route, braving thick mud and ice-crusted snow through the hillier back sections of green, red, and brown, ending in a sprawling meadow before doubling back to the trailhead.

It’s an amazing place, rich with that mucky brand of good, backyard wild mystery. Weedy as hell—but then, so am I, traveled and transplanted as I’ve become—and we all know there’s beauty in the multiflora rose, that the autumn olive yields a delicious trekker’s breakfast, and that surprise abounds in the contrast-coloring of the bittersweet berry.

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I’m astounded by the species I’ve encountered here. Some years ago I spotted a garter snake basking, draped over a bushy branch; other reptiles and amphibians commonly seen here include green, leopard and wood frogs, spring peepers, American toad and red eft. Birding is solid: reports from e-bird, my binocs and my father’s keen eyes note more than 120 species, including the tundra swan, bohemian waxwing, American woodcock, Eastern screech and great horned owl—along with sixteen different warblers, osprey, sharpies, Cooper’s hawk, merlin and kestrel. Here again a scarlet tanager, an indigo bunting.

Butterflies summering in Whiting Road meadows include the pearly eye, copper, monarch, ringlet, red admiral, viceroy, question mark, comma, eastern-tailed blue, wood nymph and little blue satyr, as well as three swallowtails, four skippers. The names of home-ground mosses, lichen and fungi tickle the tongue: dicranum, polytrichum, violet-toothed polypore, chicken mushrooms, bear’s head tooth, british soldiers. My botanical heart has delighted in everything from deptford pink to trillium, jewel weed (“pop-its,” in family vernacular, only recently known to me as an antidote plant for poison ivy rash) to Christmas fern. Overhead, on either side, a cozy corridor of oaks, black cherry, beech and birch, sumac, cedar, sassafras (how I love to munch on those rootbeer-sweet mitten-leaves), hornbeam, hemlock, pine and tulip tree.

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“Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming.” —Walter Benjamin

I ponder, often, the origins of my love for the wild world. For sure some of it came from scouts, from camping adventures and kid-ruled experiments in natural reality. Some came from my dad’s family’s farm, where we were allowed to run amok and educate ourselves via gravity and the elements. Much of it derived from backyard play: garden chores, pine-row forts, hole-digging in search of craftable clay. Some, too, came from our many family trips to National Parks.

As adults, so many of my parkie friends and fellow wilder-lusters have moved West, moved wild, sought grander and more spectacular climes in which to honor their wild selves and test their gritty legs. I did the same, have no regrets, might settle there again someday.

But that’s not where I come from, and not where most kids learn their wildness. Babies come to love the earth not by summitting peaks at sunrise, roping down canyons or logging backcountry miles. They do it in mudpuddles in their backyards. On scrappy little trails. In weeds.

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There’s something here, at home, underfoot, that’s so wild and radical, hurt and imperfect and all the more beautiful for it. By walking and loving that which is weedy and scrappy, we engage the hurt, lovely, empathic and other-knowing bits of ourselves. These trails weren’t here when I was young, didn’t appear on my family’s home ground until well after I’d returned from college, and then some. Still, they’re the calmest and most personal wild spaces I return to when I come home, in all seasons.

On my last hike at Whiting Road, I turned into the big meadow, intent on completing a loop that would bring me to a ridge overlooking Lake Ontario. Cresting a hill, against wood’s edge I caught a glimpse of orange. I raised my dad’s binoculars, exhaled quietly, grinned. Purred, even, as I made out the animal’s black nose, white belly, perky ears.

I hunkered down for a moment then wove in closer, spotted him again, sat there staring until the chill air sent me packing. Well how ’bout that. A fox, a predator, in a Webster backyard. Wholeness, still, in the wild suburbia to which I still, wholly, belong.

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5 thoughts on “Hiking Home Ground

  1. Neysa Dickey

    Hilary, my dear…you just pulled me back to Wisconsin, my youth, my dad, my best friend since kindergarten and the ravine with a branch behind my house. Grand adventures took place there and Donna, my first and oldest BFF, and I found a magical place under a group of evergreens where a carpet of pine needles (maybe they were spruce or fir, but they’re all pine needles at that age) offered us soft shelter. There was a “stream,” most likely something to do with the city’s routing of water. Squirrels and birds and the occasional snake or cottontail lived there. Dad and I found a five-leaf clover plant and just recently I unearthed the plastic rectangle in which he embedded one of the magical “branches.” He taught me about the trees (an Ohio farm boy grown up to be a wood/pulp/paper chemist, he knew them all) and smaller plants in that ravine. I remember being fascinated my…I want to call them mayapples…and their umbrella-like leaves and the sumac in fall was breathtakingly beautiful. I return to Appleton each Thanksgiving to spend it with my niece, her family, and Donna and her husband. I return to the ravine, but it’s not the same. They tamed that wild place, making it a city park. Mowed grass, benches, a children’s play area with all the modern playground equipment. It’s pleasant and has lots of places to sit and view the Fox River. But it isn’t the same. Still, you took me back to that wilder version and I thank you for that.

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  2. And, your words bring to my mind my Michigan origins. As a child I roamed fields, orchards, and some small remnant woods. I had favorite climbing trees–places I would go after school with a book or just to climb and bounce or sit and think. Your words resonate with my psyche: “There’s something here, at home, underfoot, that’s so wild and radical, hurt and imperfect and all the more beautiful for it. By walking and loving that which is weedy and scrappy, we engage the hurt, lovely, empathic and other-knowing bits of ourselves.” They make me remember skiing or hiking the state game area trails as an adult, after my childhood lands became houses and schools. Thank you, Hilary.

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