On my recent spring walk at Thompson Pond, at the foot of Stissing Mountain in Pine Plains, I was able to savor all of the elements and qualities that I associate with the word “preserve.” Primary among these perhaps is tranquility. As I rounded the marshy shoreline, past reflections of swamp maples broken up by ducks I flushed from stands of cattail, I paused often to listen. A vast silence, punctuated by the calls of red-winged blackbirds and a morning chorus of birdsong, flooded my senses whenever I stopped moving. Welling up from the depths of the wind-riffled pond itself was an overwhelming sense of stillness. Less than half a mile from the road where I had parked my car, I felt myself to be in a timeless place, a place apart from the headlong pace of 21st-century human activity. In short, a preserve.
The beauty of Stissing Mountain and its environs has been recognized for a long time. Local historian Isaac Hunting called it “… a beautiful gem of creation … an altar in a grand unwalled temple of nature, where the soul finds joy and inspiration.” Thompson Pond has been managed by a local citizen’s group in partnership with the Nature Conservancy since 1958 and was registered as a National Natural Landmark in 1973. Yet Stissing Mountain, dismissed in 1743 by surveyor Charles Clinton as “the high stony hill good for little,” had been cleared for charcoal making in the nineteenth century. More recently, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of all people, had proposed routing a section of the Taconic State Parkway along the ridge that Stissing Mountain is part of. Lucky for us, and for the mountain’s recovering forests, this proposal died quietly, taking its place in the long fossil record of bad-ideas-never-acted-on.
My own introduction to the rich history, ecology and natural beauty of this area was the splendid diorama and exhibit hall devoted to it at the American Museum of Natural History, which I visited several times as a child. Those exhibits did a wonderful job of telling the story of this pastoral region, showing the evolution of agricultural and forestry practices and relating wildlife and plant communities around the three ponds below the mountain to the geology and soils there. Thompson Pond is part of a glacial kettle pond that once included neighboring Stissing Lake and Twin Island (Mud) Pond. The “kettle” formed when a large chunk of ice left behind by the retreating Wisconsin ice sheet about 15,000 years ago melted away. Thompson Pond, the southernmost of the three, is the source of the Wappingers Creek. One crosses the latter’s headwaters, from which it begins its 30-mile trek to the Hudson River, on a shaky boardwalk at the southeast end of Thompson Pond, right after passing a hayfield (also a shooting “preserve”) and beef cattle farm. Angus and Hereford cattle eyed me as I passed, reminding me that farming has been a part of this region for centuries.
I stopped to listen to the hoarse robin-like songs of scarlet tanagers, straining for a glimpse of their brilliant plumage as they flitted high above in the canopy. Redstarts were also vocal, and more cooperative, giving me good lucks at their orange and black wings, fluttering butterfly-like overhead. Among the many other birds I saw and heard that morning, the song of the wood thrush, fluting through the hardwood timber, perhaps best expresses the lyrical quality of the place. As for wildflowers, wild ginger, Solomon’s seal, fringed polygala, rue anemone, wild columbine, golden ragwort, blue violets and golden Alexanders represented the native flora, holding on against the inexorable invasion of garlic mustard, which has, unfortunately, taken hold in some parts of the forest floor, rendering them virtual biological deserts, replacing diversity with monotonous uniformity, as invasive plants tend to do everywhere.