For a sense of wildness in nature, in the spirit of adventure, one can travel far while hardly leaving home. There has been a human presence in forests, and on even the most rugged crags in the Hudson valley since the last Ice Age over ten thousand years ago. In the past few centuries, European cultures have displaced native people in our area, and have shaped the landscape to suit their purposes to a far greater extent than the Lenape, or the Paleo-Indian hunters before them, ever did. So we don’t have vast reaches of wilderness to get lost in here, but patches and pockets of wildness, where the dominion of our species seems a bit more tenuous, remain. One such wild patch is a fairly recent acquisition of Mohonk Preserve totaling 142.5 acres in the Town of Rosendale, known locally as Giant’s Ledges.
I had made a few forays into this tract on my own, but Miriam Patton, a veteran Mohonk Preserve school program volunteer, hike leader and longtime Rosendale resident, offered to show me some of the paths and byways she has been exploring for years. There is no substitute for local knowledge, so I gladly accepted her kind offer. On the morning of our walk we were joined by two of Miriam’s friends, Ann and Susan. We started walking south on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail from the newly restored, not-yet-open-to-foot-traffic bridge over the Rondout Creek. We veered off onto an unmarked trail to the right where a sign referred to New York’s role in protecting the land by means of the NYS Environmental Benefit Fund. We passed through hardwood forest, largely red and sugar maple, with the songs of scarlet tanagers ringing through the canopy. The scarlet tanager’s rough-edged voice, “like a robin with a sore throat” as one of my birding mentors used to say, is always a hopeful sound to my ears, as its penchant for unbroken stretches of forest suggests a greater degree of wildness wherever it is heard.
Continuing on, we left the deciduous woods to enter a stand of conifers, mostly tall pitch pines, unlike the scraggly, weather beaten specimens I’m used to seeing on the Shawangunks’ exposed ridges. The ground felt soft underfoot, as if carpeted, which indeed it was, by decades of shed pine needles. Where the trail we were following began to climb more steeply, a less distinct path diverged to the left. I followed Miriam that way, while Ann and Susan headed straight uphill on the main trail. An unusual oak, whose roots straddled a cleft conglomerate boulder, marked this junction. It grappled the rock in a kind of muscular clench, splitting and holding it together at the same time. The forest floor was damp and mossy along our path, and I stepped over a bright orange salamander. This was a red eft, the immature, land-dwelling form of the aquatic Eastern red-spotted newt, whose conspicuous hue is “warning coloration,” like that of the Monarch butterfly, announcing the toxicity of the animal’s skin to would-be predators. This forest’s understory was mostly witch hazel, many of whose leaves bore cone-shaped swellings, called “galls.” Witch hazel galls are caused by aphids, and suggest the pointed hats of witches in children’s books. And the place did feel remote and somehow enchanted, if not actually bewitched.