Had I stumbled upon Locust Grove in a remote region, its beautifully landscaped grounds, well laid out paths and carriage roads, abundant water features and expansive river views would have been a surprise and a delight. But to find it near the heart of Poughkeepsie, at the verge of Route 9’s relentlessly developed stretch of shopping malls and plazas, is simply astonishing. For here the Italianate mansion built in 1851 by Samuel F.B. Morse perches on a bluff whose view of rolling fields, woods and ponds down to the Hudson River now seems little changed from the one the famous inventor and artist must have enjoyed. Except for the railroad tracks, the passage of an occasional tanker ship and the Mid-Hudson Bridge visible from points near the river, this seems a landscape practically frozen in time. The ground was thawing underfoot, however, and felt soft and wet in the low places as I walked the trails there this week. There was patchy snow on the ground and always, when I stopped still to listen for it, the sound of running water.
It occurred to me that water is the dominant theme here. The story of this watershed is told, or rather sung, by rivulets flowing along stone walls into brooks that run over stones and spill into ponds. All of this abundant water is heading down to the Hudson, though some of it flows invisibly underground until it emerges in springs on the slopes, and some is detained for a while, pooling in swamps or ponded up by a mill-dam. Water sluiced from this dam once powered a sawmill, and ice was cut from the pond for use by the Morse, and later, Young, families at the mansion.
There is a remarkably extensive and varied trail system on this 200-acre property, established as a nature preserve, and the house as a museum, for the use and enjoyment of the public by Annette Innis Young in 1975. I walked the Lane Loop carriageway that follows the rolling terrain alongside a fence beautifully constructed of large and small stones on its upper portion. Stone fences always speak of an agricultural past, and the presence of small stones in this one suggests that crops such as wheat, rye, or barley were grown here. Crop fields, plowed every year, lack the roots of perennial plants like trees, shrubs, or grasses to hold the soil together as a unit, so frost heaves stones of different sizes towards the surface. These stones were culled and put into the stone walls continually being built and rebuilt on farms of that period. Further down the lane, the stone fence was composed of large rocks only, indicating hayfields or pasture land, where small stones did not need to be removed, and did not end up in large numbers near the surface anyway, since these fields would not have been plowed annually.
Locust Grove is also a place of specimen trees. There is indeed a grove of sizable black locust trees near the mansion, probably planted to provide durable fence posts and good firewood for the estate. Along the carriage roads I walked, and in parts of the forest that may not have been logged in a long time, there were tulip trees, red oaks, sycamores, sugar maples and American beech trees up to three feet or more in diameter near the ground. Others, including black birches and hickories, were unusually large as well. Trees of this size develop bark textures unlike those more familiar to us, since we see these species mostly as smaller specimens in the second or third growth woods we’re used to walking in. Yet the impression of old growth forest produced by these giants was contradicted by the undergrowth, which is some places seemed to consist almost entirely of winged honeysuckle. This Asian relative of our native burning bush has bright green twigs with tan cork ‘wings,’ and was probably planted here as an ornamental soon after it was introduced into this country in 1860. In the manner of all invasive plants, though, it has spread and colonized parts of the forest to the near exclusion of native shrubs.
The Lane Loop brought me to a steep-sided bluff topped by a lone pitch pine overlooking the Hudson and the cliffs on its opposite bank in a composition Thomas Cole would have loved. One of the riverside paths we took runs above Sunfish Cove, and its ice-glazed surface gleamed in the light of the setting sun. On my return I paused to examine a lightning-struck hickory, whose long wound seemed relatively fresh. Wood fibers exposed where the trunk had split open were torn at one point, where the massive trunk was flexed and bent over slightly, probably by the violent gusts of the thunderstorm. I passed a couple of other large trees that also seemed to have met violent ends: their trunks had been snapped off fifteen feet above the ground, either by hurricane winds or the weight of an early snow.
I had seen relatively few birds on my walks at Locust Grove, except for a pileated woodpecker, whose raucous cackle and red crest in flight, like a thrown hatchet, greeted us near the visitor center upon our arrival and again upon our return as if to say goodbye. Near the end of our last walk, though, we spotted a lone red-tailed hawk perched in a snag above the field that stretched, from where we stood, downhill almost to the river, and uphill to the Morse mansion. I thought of Morse’s artistic vision is seeing the possibilities of this splendid site for a house with river prospect, gardens and farmed fields, pond, woodlot, and stately forest, and of the care he (and those who came after him here) took to balance and harmonize all of those uses. The hawk’s vigilance, hunting the abundant voles and other small mammals the field supports from his high perch, seemed a fitting symbol for the vigilance we humans must show now to protect and preserve such places as these that remain.