Winter Hike, a Witness on the Hill

1. It’s too cold to fly fish. I’ll forget about the car. Turn off the computer, phone, and all blinking and beeping gadgets, and set sail for a hill walk in the neighborhood. DSCN5714

I’ll dress well for the January snow and wind. Grab the camera and a walking stick (if I can’t eliminate technology altogether for a simple walking venture, at least I’ll get the upper hand).

Head out the door and start to walk. Stroll down to the village, take a left and start the hike up Dryden Hill. Go west and, at an intersection overlooking Bootleg Hollow, start the mile descent back to the house and home… Altogether it’s a four-mile block of rural America that I haven’t traversed entirely on foot in more than three decades, but now I’m ready to see what I can see.

DSCN5709I could hum, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain… but being more philosophical today, I remember the naturalist and writer John Muir in his first season of exploring the forces of nature found in the Sierra Mountains. Muir’s passage, “Beauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever,” seemed like a good line to adopt for the walk.

It seemed good, not because I wanted to inject significance into a simple hike, but rather to check for its truth even in a time and place like this. Although “unplugged,” I carried some hope and aspiration, probably enough to fill a daypack of imagination, but we’d see how far that would take me.DSCN5722

For all I knew, nature’s beauty on the great hill of snow and ice and wind could turn its back to me (pathetic fallacy at work here) and become ferocious. If so, I was hoping there was still a way to find it warm and beckoning.

2. There wasn’t much to see en route to Greenwood. The beaver ponds were frozen and covered with snow, but hungry songbirds fed along the roadway– dark-eyed juncos, tree sparrows, a downy woodpecker. Later on, I’d get some decent views of a red-tailed hawk, a raven, and a red-bellied woodpecker gleaning the discarded bones of a deer.

I passed through the village and lamented (again) how the place has lost its school, its DSCN5729tavern and businesses and, ultimately, much of its character, thanks to the centralizing forces of modernity. I took a few photos and wished I could stop the downward slide. The only bright spot I saw was my own reflection in a pane of glass– uglier than ever, but a free soul still healthy and on his feet.

The climb to the heights of Dryden Hill was fairly strenuous but pleasurable. From here on out, not a single vehicle would pass me on this seasonal road. I took photos of the Bennett Creek Valley and the hollow where I live. I climbed into the wind and saw a lot of indication why this township is considered to be a top deer producer in New York.

DSCN5737I saw coyote tracks. The wild canine is hunted unmercifully in this region with the use of trained dogs and vehicles equipped with high-technology. In my opinion, we need less whitetail deer and more coyotes, but then again, promoting an “imbalance” in the ways of nature often seems to be our cultural modus operandi.

I was sensing the dark side of natural history. Hints of it exist in almost any place that’s studied, and Dryden Hill is no exception. There were hints of stories to be found, perhaps extricated from the soils of yesteryear, and spoken to whomever wished to listen– tales of beauty and wonder, and tales of difficulty and terror.

I presumed that I’d be musing on something like former building sites– on stony cellar DSCN5741holes crowned with sumac and maple, for example– but I was overtaken by something new.

A strange building rose from a field near the summit. Large and rather hideous, it appeared to be an unfinished barn or summer home or hunting camp on posted property. Approaching it, I also saw a trailer and a freshly dug pond. The site used to provide me with some of the best, most far-reaching views of the hills surrounding my home.

DSCN5743No doubt the new landowners had every legal right to build their “Eagle’s Nest” at this location but, as a long-time resident and walker in the area, I felt a soul-sucking presence on the hill.

I whispered some heated and uncomplimentary things about the owner’s mother or mother-in-law or grandpappy, then DSCN5749headed on. I felt better the closer I got to home. Making the long descent to the house, I finally recognized John Muir’s “Beauty beyond thought everywhere…” returning to the eye.

Another naturalist, Henry Thoreau, once noted in his Journal: Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told, and it depends chiefly on the story-teller or historian whether that is interesting or not. You are simply a witness on the stand to tell what you know about your neighbors and neighborhood.

I don’t know if my “story” holds any interest today, but I appreciate Thoreau’s understanding of what a country rambler has to do and then report on. I felt like a winter witness on the hill. And home was there in the fold.

the old schoolhouse

the old schoolhouse

the slide home

the slide home

 

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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8 Responses to Winter Hike, a Witness on the Hill

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Great pics, great quotes, and musings worthy of a wintertime ramble on the rivertops. A nice rumination on human “progress” and history, set against the backdrop of a natural world that moves ever on.

  2. Brent says:

    There’s an interesting point to be seen here about the past, present, and future of much of rural America’s human trajectory–seen through your photos. The house on Church Street in Greenwood represents the prosperous past, even if that prosperity came at the expense of the natural surroundings. Now, much of the natural balance has been restored (coyotes and deer excepted) and the ecological future is more secure, but the human presence in places like Greenwood seems to be built in temporary trailers and hideous pre-fab hunting sheds.

    • Thanks for that observation. That trajectory you speak of can be seen here on a small scale from the old agricultural days to the small business on Main Street and beyond, to the current day of hunt clubs and the leasing of their lands…The land might look more “natural” these days, but without involvement of the local citizens (many of whom helped to exploit it just 30 or 40 years ago), it becomes more susceptible to out-of-state industrial concerns. I think of close calls in the area from huge landfill proposals, hydro-fracking, wind turbines, etc. Of course, I’m speaking from the point of view of someone who moved here to get away from all the noise and industrialism.

  3. Pete says:

    Walt,
    I was thinking of you today while watching all the birds at my feeder as I looked out over the frozen snow covered hills here in Columbia county.
    I decided to do a search to see if I could find any of your writings and was very happy to find
    River top rambles.
    Your ” Winter Hike ” was a very vivid window into the past where my foot steps and memories will always have a special place in my mind.
    Is it a coincidence that today I found your blog? Something to ponder.
    Best wishes to you and your family and always have a happy slide home down Murray hill rd,
    Pete

    • Pete,
      Coincidence? I’m blown away by this connection! I was walking by your old place here on the hill and thought again of those days when we would catch up on the local news, at the local bar or on the hillside where the woodcock and the fox cavort, and how I missed that soulful mixing in those days… Yes, thanks for looking us up! I’d love to hear the news from Columbia County. Your old place here is looking great these days. Leighanne and I and the kids wish you all the best, and want to hear more! Please stay in touch.
      Walt

  4. Mike says:

    An historical walk through the woods you just took us all on. Thanks, Walt. I received “River’s Edge” in the mail today and can’t wait to read it!

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