Every town, large or small, needs green refuges within its boundaries, places to walk in any season that offer the possibility of solitude. Residents of New Paltz are fortunate in having a variety of refuges within walking or biking distance. Sometimes one needs, without embarking on a long car drive, to simply check in with the natural world, to renew a kindred feeling for turtles, herons and maple trees and to synchronize the pulse of daily life with the rhythms of the larger living world. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve sought out such places, the “Central Parks” of their communities. In Woodstock, where I spent several years, the Comeau Estate satisfied this need for me, as it continues to do for many locals seeking to escape the 60’s theme park atmosphere that sometimes seems to pervade the village, especially on summer weekends.
My recent walk at the Comeau Estate left the bright, sunlit fields surrounding the Arts and Crafts Movement-influenced house purchased by the town in 1979 for the hushed and fragrant shades of a white pine grove. Mature stands of pine like this are an uncommon pleasure to walk in wherever they are found: here is incense and silence, and stately columns reaching skyward, all the elements of a natural sanctuary. Often on my walks here in past years, early or late in the day, I’d thrill to thrush-music echoing through the twilight. On this day, however, the grove was still and wood thrushes could be seen flitting through the understory of witch hazel and striped maple, but they had not yet begun fluting their “ee-o-lay” songs. A forest like this that has been protected from logging and other major manmade disturbances for decades is like a living laboratory. Here is a clearing, probably resulting from a blowdown, where a colony of hay-scented fern has established itself. Tender fiddleheads pushing up through the litter of brown pine needles today will mature into large, lacy fronds wafting the scent of hay-filled barns to the summer walker. Across the path, the growth of club mosses, like miniature pine and cedar trees, but related to ferns, shows how the forest floor is healing from century-old scars of clear cutting and overgrazing. A barkless pine snag bears the intricate engravings of bark beetles on its trunk, and woodpecker holes expose galleries of carpenter ants that have tunneled there. Farther down the trail a tangle of tree limbs and chainsawed logs bears witness to the sudden, recent devastation of a violent storm, probably Hurricane Sandy, apparently limited here to this one small part of the woods.