While every newspaper and television and Internet Weather Source has been warning absolutely everyone to stay inside, “Stay Safe”, [which smarmy phrase makes my flesh crawl], I’ve discovered something experientially that I’ve probably always known: It’s a whole lot hotter in any parking lot, getting into or out of a vehicle, than it is in any of our nearby New Jersey forests! I’ve decided, it’s dangerous to stay at home. For, there, life can turn into a spectator sport.
A Sunday ago, I hiked the Pole Farm at 8 a.m., actually about an hour too late to start, during these so-called Heat Emergencies. Much beauty, great tranquillity, shade 9/10 of the way. For a couple of hours, I was given gifts beyond measure. There’s nothing on a screen, or in a newspaper or magazine to equal the elusive scent of fox, still apparent from morning trail-marking. The cascade of field sparrows, the mew of catbird. The pleasure of picking two wildflowers for Elaine Katz’s stone and bench – the woman who almost single-handedly insisted that this Lawrenceville (now-) Preserve was not to be a golf course or a series of intrusively spotlighted playing fields.
A day or two later, and again a week later, starting at 5:15, I entered the Sourland Mountain Preserve off Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell. Not a man-made sound, not even a plane, did I hear in those couple of deeply shaded hours. Not a man-made anything did I see, except some essential drainage pipes and the entry road, then densely wooded trails I explored. One distant frog’s thrumming was heartening. Dragonflies popped about whatever flowers could bloom in sunlit groves. For a long time, I sat on basalt boulders leftover from creation, surrounded by mixed forest and essence of Lenapes of long ago. There’d been rain by the second excursion, so various streamlets were caroling as I crossed them.
The next night, when her work and mine were over for the day, Intrepid Jeanette Hooban picked me up in Lawrenceville, to glide over hill and down dale to the Delaware River, –silver in late light, purling below the Lambertville / New Hope Bridge. Moments later, we were deep in Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. We decided to take four favorite trails: Violet Trail off the access road; the old pond trail onto Fern Trail, alongside a flower-erupting former pond; and the ever-enticing Medicinal Trail, crossing the tough new bridges constructed or reconstructed after Hurricane Sandy. Each of us has many demands made upon us in the so-called real world. Each was a little jagged as we started out. But, again, silence, flowers, dragonflies, hidden birds, and the murmur of Pidcock Creek gave us timeless gifts of memory. Jeanette discovered a flaming spurt of cardinal flower, favorite of ruby-throated hummingbirds. I could show her where to elusive snow trillium can emerge, yes, in snow, in March; where, in May, opulent yellow ladyslippers peek through heavy leaf cover to the left of the Fern Trail. We examined the rocky edge of that Creek, for I’d found the Louisiana Waterthrush, first by song, then by habitat and behavior, a month ago with another friend. There in the cucumber magnolia, I’d seen my first ever phoebe sing out his name over and over, while waters burbled busily below early one spring. In heat-strafed July, shade was our gift at Bowman’s, enhanced by occasional water-cooled air.
A few days later, key birding buddy, Anne Zeman, picked me up at 7:30 a.m., so we could go to the Abbott Marshlands (in Trenton!), in quest of images for her entries for an upcoming fine-art juried exhibition: Voices for the Marsh. New to us was the fact that Hurricane Sandy had taken down a quantity of the Marsh’s most majestic trees. Youngsters that survived have burgeoned in the meantime, creating dense shade everywhere — 90-some percent of our walk was tree-cool, and much alongside water. New patterns of light and shade have amplified the richesse of its fern groves, until we ran out of species names. Not only tiny blue dragonflies, –half the size of needles–, but equally minuscule lipstick-red ones, zinged about on all sides. Pickerel weed’s remarkable purple (hyacinth-like, but slimmer) stems rose here and there in Spring Lake and other wet areas.
Again, we remembered where Clyde Quin and Warren Liebensperger had shown us the five-entried fox den. On both sides of the trail, majestic yews revealed a former dwelling in that wilderness. Not far from there, Clyde and Warren knew to look for owls in daytime. There’s not so much silence in the Marsh, because horrific highways are all too near, spinning out a ceaseless drone of ‘the real world’. But after awhile, one absorbed that sound, until lapping water or locusts warming up or the sacred luffing of swans wings topped every other impression.
Each walk, alone and with others, proved that Heat Emergency consciousness can be overdone. People can turn into couch potatoes out of fear.
Beauteous preserves, rich in wildlife, await on all sides of Princeton. There’s the thickly treed Community Park North off 206. There’s Herrontown Woods, off Snowden Lane, and the nearby Autumn Hill. Plainsboro Preserve beckons on the other side of Route 1, with its monoculture forest of beeches — guaranteed 12 to 15 degrees cooler in summer, warmer in winter.
Turn off the screens. Grab a hat and water and natural insect repellant (a wonderful rosemary-based one is available at the Hopewell Pharmacy) and get out there. Don’t be someone Richard Louv will have to describe as The Last (Child) in the Woods.