Nature at your doorstep – The Foothills

Talus slab resting on glacial erratics. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Talus slab resting on glacial erratics. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Among the many kinds of walks we take, the walk close to home, along a less traveled path, has much to recommend it. Such a walk can be taken on the Foothills Trail at Mohonk Preserve. I walked alone there — with only my black Labrador retriever, Sam, for company the first two times — and returned for a third walk with Rebecca. On none of these three excursions did I meet another human and on the third one there were not even human footprints in the snow that had fallen overnight. We felt almost like the first travelers in an undiscovered land.

And what a land of wonders it was that revealed itself to us that morning! An outing in our own backyard would have been astonishing enough for the transient beauty with which this fresh dusting of snow had clothed every object. But the splendor was multiplied here by the numberless snow-lined branches we peered through. The fine black twigs of the low bush blueberry understory formed a vast net that somehow held the snow at the point of melting. For a few radiant, fleeting minutes we walked through a world transformed, through a landscape and forest that bore the signs of many transformations. Some of these changes took eons to accomplish, like the transport of large conglomerate boulders, either as “erratics” carried by the ice sheet during the last glaciation, or as talus pried loose from the Near Trapps cliffs by frost to tumble downslope. Hurricane Irene brought sudden change to the forest, uprooting many large trees — their trunks sprawled on the forest floor pointing north and west, which shows that the winds that felled them blew from the south and east, as only happens during a cyclonic storm. As the massive upturned root systems of these trees decay, the soil will drop from the roots, forming a mound or “pillow” next to the hollow, or “cradle,” left by the root ball. The resulting pillow-and-cradle topography will last here for centuries, telling the story of a powerful storm that should have served as one more warning of the dangers posed by a warming planet. Human footprints here, or their absence, ages hence, will reveal if we heeded such warnings or not.


I took a different kind of walk this week as well, not solitary but with tens of thousands. We walked from the Washington Monument to the White House, in the teeth of a cold wind. There were walkers there from every state in the nation, some from places like Maine who had traveled all night by bus to get there. I came with others from the Hudson Valley who had filled two buses that left New Paltz in the early morning. From the sea of people that filled the large field where the march began, where we listened to a number of speakers including native leaders from Canada and Oklahoma, all urging President Obama to show real leadership in our climate crisis and reject the Keystone XL Pipeline, I looked up into the sky. I watched a pair of soaring red-tailed hawks display their mastery of the wind that buffeted us. Soon after our crowd, which felt in every sense like a herd, began to move, I saw a peregrine falcon slice through the air above our heads, pointed wings swept back, veering and banking in its flight like a fighter jet. It was hard not to feel that this trio of raptors represented those other nations, including the “wingeds,” with whom we share this planet, who showed up perhaps to urge us on, perhaps just to remind us of their presence, that they are still here among us, watching us from the sky.

The Foothills Trail leaves the Nature Trail, which follows a contour of the slope below the visitor center, to switchback steeply downhill, descending stone steps and running alongside a brook. We noted the other, nonhuman trail walkers who had preceded us — a fox (whose musk still hung in the air), a raccoon who left prints like a barefoot infant’s and deer, who had browsed the twigs of some maple saplings. We turned to follow the path alongside a maple swamp, with the talus slope on our right, pausing to admire the naked buds of witch hazel with a hand lens. These buds, which are really just next season’s leaves rolled up tightly, lack protective bud scales but bristle with shiny “fur” when seen up close.

My favorite part of this walk was the return loop, climbing a low hill to walk along its crest. Suddenly, we faced a sweeping vista of the escarpment to the west, the sheer cliff arching into blue sky like the crest of a battlement. How glad we were that no home had been, or could ever be, built here, but how perfect (we couldn’t help thinking) a house site this would make! I thought of Burroughs’ admonition not to build one’s dwelling on “the most ambitious spot in the landscape.” How much better, and wiser (and usually, cheaper), to build where you can look up to that spot, rather than down from it. Those of us that have stared with chagrin at houses perched on mountaintops may wish that Burroughs’ rule could be applied universally.

The last leg of the Foothills Trail leads back up the same steep slope. Though I usually prefer a walk that makes a loop, the view uphill, and the climbing, made the return trip a much different experience. Before, we had looked down upon a wetland, a low hill and the Wallkill valley in the distance. Now, we looked ahead at the ridge jutting into the sky and huge glacial erratic boulders like stranded whales on the slope.

The last “wildife” sign we saw was in the form of myriad black specks on the snow surface. Passing my hand just above them made them suddenly move about like dust stirred by a wind. Or like fleas, which are their distant relatives: these were snow fleas, primitive insects in the group called springtails, which hop around by releasing their spring-like tails. They seem the most ephemeral of creatures, having their moment in the sun when the air warms just a bit, but snow still carpets the ground. Yet on this mid-February day, with the snow newly fallen, but poised to drop any second from the lattice of branches that magically held it, as if by a spell, we felt our kinship as living beings with all things small and fleeting upon the earth, our common home.