(On Sunday, July 8th, Richard Parisio, a retired DEC interpretative naturalist who teaches at the Mohonk Preserve, will lead a “Family Nature Walk” for “kids of all ages” at 5 pm to conclude our “Woodstock Celebration” at the Comeau Property for The Pocket Guide to Woodstock. Several years ago, Rich led informal poetry gatherings for a group of us at Slabsides, John Burroughs’s rustic retreat. In Rich’s appreciation of the Comeau Property you might hear echoes of his beloved naturalist writer, John Burroughs, a famous figure of late 19th and early 20th America who is still famous to a few of us. Since 1997, Rich has been the New York State Coordinator for River of Words, a national program for children to compose poems and make art about watersheds.)
A Walk on the Comeau
by Richard Parisio
A walk on the Comeau property in Woodstock begins at the town offices, housed in the original, slate-roofed Comeau estate building and surrounded by an acre or so of park-like grounds, a lawn shaded by large red and sugar maples. Taking the trail along a century-old stone fence, one quickly exchanges the tame landscape of the town for the bracing wildness of the forest. In the twilight of a summer evening, the flute-like notes of the wood thrush echoing among the trunks of the white pines mark the transition from cultivated to wild, yet underscore the harmony between the two. Always there is the sense of human lives lived close to the land here, even as one leaves the built landscape behind and enters the woods.
This is a place in which to experience the ongoing relationship between the life of a village and the life of the forest that circumscribes, contains, and nourishes it. Just as one may read the labor of human hands in piling stone upon stone to fence cattle in, one reads the patience of the forest reclaiming its own, in the slow regrowth of club mosses, ground pine and ground cedar, beneath the white pines that grew up when the farmer and his cows departed. These small, unassuming plants signify the renewed health of a Catskill forest ecosystem: perhaps a century of undisturbed growth is needed for this ground cover, which includes the wood fern, partridgeberry, and red berry wintergreen, to reestablish itself.
Following the trail past a glade of hay-scented fern, one hears the staccato drumming of a pileated woodpecker on a pine snag below; closer inspection reveals the rectangular holes he has made in search of carpenter ants. The trail descends gently towards the Sawkill creek, and turns along the bank into the cool shade of a hemlock grove. These hemlock trees are descendants of those felled throughout the region for the 19th Century tanbark industry, leaving the slopes bare to the ravages of soil erosion.
This section of trail affords views of the Sawkill, as it swirls and eddies around boulders and forms pools. havens for trout. One can see the basins, called potholes, which the ancient Sawkill, swollen with glacial melt water, carved in the Catskill bluestone 10,000 years ago, as the Wisconsin glacier receded. The trail turns up from the stream bank here, and then rejoins the Sawkill along a quieter stretch of water, where one may hear the rattle of the belted kingfisher from an overhanging willow branch.
One passes next through a stand of American beech, and then emerges on a high flood plain, where the Sawkill rises in spring to deposit a layer of fine alluvium. Raccoon tracks mark the silt here, where the roots of streamside trees have been exposed by the floodwaters that have undercut them. White woodland aster and blue-stemmed goldenrod flower here in late summer and fall, in the shade of birches and maples, succeeding the spring blossoms of the trillium and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.
Taking the trail to the right, one heads through a pine grove to emerge at an open field. Goldenrod is beginning to bloom here among the tall grass and clover, as the milkweed pods ate ripening their silken-tasseled seeds, preparing to loose them to the autumn winds. Monarch butterflies flutter among the goldenrods for a drink of nectar on their journey south to Mexico. A male bluebird flashes its startling azure hue from a red cedar tree, swoops down to take a grasshopper from the meadow; perhaps it fledged this spring from a nest box mounted on the lawn. Bluebirds, our state bird, were once abundant in pastoral New York. Their appearance here, among the cedars, is fitting: red cedar, a kind of juniper, often grows in the wake of farming.
Red squirrels chase each other among the low branches of a butternut, hung with oblong, green-husked nuts, as the trail emerges behind the Comeau estate buildings. Along the way, a distance of perhaps half a mile, it has passed through pine and hardwood forest, flood plain, and meadow habitats. This ecological diversity, and the chance to experience it so close to town, is what makes a walk on the Comeau property both a pleasure and a privilege, worthy of protection and enhancement for future generations, for the mutual benefit of wildlife and people.
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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.