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.
Thompson Pond Preserve offers the walker and naturalist a satisfying diversity of habitats to explore. The yellow and blue-blazed trails that encircle the pond pass through mature black birch woods, with a witch hazel understory, the cool shades of hemlock forest, mixed hardwoods, red maple swamps and thickets of prickly ash near pondside stands of ostrich fern, with its graceful, tapering plumes. It is all second or third growth forest, but there is one tree that stands out among the rest: a massive red oak, the largest I can remember seeing, not far from where the trail skirts the farm field on the west side of the pond. This giant is easily six feet in diameter near its base, and dwarfs the surrounding trees like an elephant in a herd of small antelope. One can’t help wondering why this one tree, among all its peers that were felled for charcoal or firewood, or cleared for farming, was spared. What stories such a tree could tell us of the centuries it has passed here, if we knew how to listen!
It’s interesting how sometimes our attention is captured, in a place of expansive vistas, by small creatures going on with their lives right in front of our noses. Crossing one of the three boardwalks at the pond’s swampy southern end, I came face to face with a pair of bumblebees busily probing the bell-like blooms of highbush blueberries, each clinging to one flower after another with its forelegs and using its long tongue to sip the nectar at its base. Bumblebees, like the blueberry, are native to North America, and can feed upon, and thus pollinate, such flowers as these, too deep for the honeybee (introduced from Europe) to reach. As the air above swamp vibrated with the thrumming of their wings, I stood there, entranced, watching them closely, for they were at eye level, and too absorbed in their work to notice me. Somehow these ungainly insects seemed in that moment to distill all the vibrant life of the place, the sky-mirroring pond and its margins, like a rich tapestry embroidered with ferns, sedges, and wildflowers, framed by birches, maples, hickories, hornbeams and oaks, crisscrossed by the flights of birds and dragonflies. Maybe the give-and-take between bumblebee and blueberry, pollen and nectar in exchange for pollination, is emblematic of our own interdependence with wilderness. In preserving such irreplaceable places as Thompson Pond, we humans are also preserving something irreplaceable in ourselves, a wildness within.
The main entrance to Thompson Pond Preserve is on Lake Road in Pine Plains. Head south on Route 82 for 1/2 mile from Route 199 and turn right (west) onto Lake Road at the firehouse. Follow Lake Road for 1.6 miles to the trail head (main entrance); parking is on the road shoulder.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (email@example.com) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.