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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Forever Young # 18: "Nature's Stewards"

Song:  After the Goldrush
Album:  After the Goldrush
Released:  September, 1970

One thing I emphasized to Charlotte while in her teen years -and now Peter - was to venture forth into the woods with friends.  That’s where much of the magic is, I have told them, and the freedom, and the wonder, and the joy, not to mention mind expansion of the non-chemically-induced variety.  I’d like to believe they both have taken this to heart.  Charlotte and a close friend spent long summer days several years back exploring a small frog pond on the mostly undeveloped west side of town; just the two of them knee deep in mud.  They got to observe bullfrog survival techniques as the pond began drying up (as it does most years), but mostly they just had a blast in an environment devoid of text chats and video games.  Over the past few years, Peter and friends have hiked into a savannah-like meadow not far up the road from our home. They call the area “Africa”, and Peter has opened up to me on occasion about some of his adventures there; spooking out a baby deer, crossing a stream on an overhanging tree branch, discovering clearings within deep pockets of thicket. 

 Nancy and I connected the kids with the natural world regularly when they were younger.  Many a family trek, be they hours a day or longer, were in the forest.  And though I am sure Charlotte and Peter got a lot out of these experiences, I knew that doing it with friends later in their lives would be another thing entirely.  I knew this because the woods were where I spent a significant amount of my time as a teenager.  And I did this with my closest friends, several of whom were a perfect fit for these landscapes that were just out of reach of civilization. 

 The most frequently visited woodsy area of our youth was a region of undeveloped land down the train tracks from my home on Park Road, Franklin, MA.  This region was our second home growing up - a handful of square miles of lakes, trails, wetlands, streams, rocky outcrops, pine-tree groves, meadows, and deep forests - and by our senior year, we knew every nook and cranny of it.  Many a memory comes flooding back when I think about this open space.  There was the time I found myself sinking into what I could only describe at the time as quicksand; close friend Bruce pulling me out with a long stick after I’d sunk up to my waist.  There was the grey fox Phil and I stumbled upon.  The fox was trapped – with a rocky cliff behind him and our dogs (Nicky and Whiskers) and us in front - and could only stand there as we marveled at his sleek silver coat.  We finally moved on so the fox could scamper off.   That same cliff was where you could make your way to the peak and be a hair breath away from the top of the trains that whizzed by.  My only concerns at those times were the dogs wandering out onto the tracks.  When we heard the train coming, we’d call them close to us and even hold them.

There were the fishing adventures to the 3 lakes in the region, each with its own distinct habitat.  The larger second lake for example had giant-sized carp that you would never find in the others.  Several times, close friend Pete and I beat the sunrise, making our way down the tracks in the early twilight hours; rods, bait and tackle in hand.  Bruce was the real fisherman of the crew though, with an uncanny sixth sense on where to go and what to use for lures and bait (often salmon eggs).  When he was there, you were guaranteed to get a gander at something interesting on the line at some point of the day, be it a carp, bass, bullhead, perch or snapping turtle. And if Bruce’s older brother was with us, we’d get a good education on bird identification too. 

 The winter was never lost on us down the tracks.  There was hockey in the day, small bonfires on the edge of the frozen first pond at night and just general exploration on ice and snow.  In the early spring we took daring treks across the weakening ice, a loud crack often shaking us in our bootstraps.   The tracks were where I broke my leg on an unfortunate hill-sliding incident and got carried a mile home by Pete and Jeff.  My dog arrived home alone that evening, wet and out of sorts.  My Mom knew something was wrong since Nicky never left my side. 

 In our earlier years of exploration into this region, we would come at it, not down the tracks, but from the “Mountain” (see the 9th in a series of Stepping Stones “Gone but not Forgotten” from March 3, 2012).  This was a tricky approach.  First you had to deal with a large forested wetland.  It was an adventure getting across it, and sometimes we didn’t bother to continue.  We would get sidetracked at some rivulet where we would build dams and divergences (years later when I read Stephen King’s “It”, I could identify so well with the opening chapters where the lead characters began their friendship doing the very same thing).  More often than not though we would forge ahead, setting up log bridges and hopping tufts of grass, which would lead to the occasional hilarious moment when someone would lose their footing and plunge into the murky mess.  One situation had me clinging desperately to a tree sapling as it bent me closer and closer to my muddy doom.  Once we got past the wetland, we would have to deal with thorn bushes.  Beyond that was a hill that had a wonderful feel of isolation to it.  Not many were willing to go through what we would to get there, so we knew we were on uncharted territory when we reached the scraggly large pitch pine tree at the summit.  From there we descended down the other side and out through more thickets, before finally reaching the Southwest edge of the first lake.  Nearby that access point was an open culvert that was risky to jump over.  Only a few of us dared do this on a regular basis.

 In our upper-classman years of high school, nighttime was the right time to head down the tracks.  One of our favorite hangouts was a place we called “Pine Tree Grove”, a stand of pitch pine just beyond the view of the Thompson Press building.   We were invisible from civilization here - including the cops - and so a fire pit, beer and great conversation were the order of business at this juncture in our lives.  Even though we were losing our youthful abandon by this time we were still connected to the night air, the stars, and the memories around us.  I now recall a comment made by a friend in college.  His roommate was from the same town.  I liked them both, but they were clearly from different circles.  I asked him if they ever hung out together back in their hometown.  His reply: “are you kidding…he hung out in the woods.  I was at the house parties”.  This was meant to be condescending, and it was funny, but to me it opened a door with his roommate and partially closed one with him.  My thought at the time was that he missed out.

 I reflected on all of these memories this week as I listened to ‘After the Goldrush’.  The title song ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N88YgEKGMzI ) was the first Neil Young tune I really connected with.  It was also the first time I realized rock and roll had a green side to it.  The song is a dream sequence with 3 versus that appear to connect with past, present, and future.  The underlying analogy is that of a gold rush (though a gold rush is never mentioned in the song) and the strip-mining aftermath; a once pristine environment turned into a barren wasteland.  The lyric-induced imagery is intense in this song (“lying in a burned out basement”, “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”), which raised my awareness to man’s responsibilities as stewards of the earth and helped pave my eventual professional path. 

 -          Pete

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