For the past 27 years, the Maryland-based American Hiking Society has co-opted the first Saturday in June to stage a nationwide celebration of this country’s more than 200,000 miles of pathways. But, as with many good things, “National Trails Day” soon expanded to encompass the first weekend of June, as well as to include not just trekkers, but also bicyclists, kayakers and canoeists, and horseback riders... indeed, any muscle-powered traveler.
In 2018, according to an AHS tally, “more than 109,000 individuals participated in 1,203 events in all 50 states,” and if you comb the records, you’ll find that the Naturalist was among the NTD leaders and introduced about two dozen fellow travelers to the natural history glories of the woods and wetlands of southeastern Connecticut.
This coming weekend, human history is going to repeat itself near the ridge—I’ve been leading NTD events since 2013—and since I’ve always had so much fun on these free, open-to-the-public hikes, I decided to participate in two of them, both fairly close-to-home in North Stonington, CT. (For RI readers, the Nutmeg state is very friendly, relatively nearby, and you don’t need a visa and/or passport—just sunscreen and bug spray.)
On Saturday, June 1, from 9 to noon, I’ll be at the head of a group exploring the TriTown Forest Preserve, one of the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s newest jewels and, at more than 500 acres, one of its largest and most spectacular refuges. There are several different walks planned for that day, and if you’re a hard-rock hiker, you can tackle most of the arduous ten-miles of trails at a speed my pacemaker can’t manage. If, however, you’re interested in a more, less us say, stately pace amenable to families and folks who don’t mind stopping every few minutes for nature discoveries—OK, truth in advertising, I’m taking the slow group and we’ll only walk two to three miles... you were warned—I can promise you food for the soul; you’ll have to get your aerobic workout and step-count elsewhere. (For more information, directions, and to pre-register, visit www.ctwoodlands.org/ct-trails-weekend/events-2019/north-stonington-hike-record-5183.)
Now, if that pace is actually more than you’d like to handle, I have something that might best be called an intellectual, even spiritual, challenge on Sunday, June 2nd, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. In the cool and quiet of a late-spring morning, we’re going to gather at another Avalonia refuge called Tefftweald at Birchenturn. Tefftweald, an old Girl Scout camp going back to its roots, is a 77-acre masterpiece of upland forest, meadows—including one called Lily’s Lea that is dedicated to a favorite camp frog—wetlands, old graveyards and cellar holes, and the wonderfully photogenic Wyassup Brook.
If everything goes according to plan, we’ll explore the woodland trails at a speed moderate enough to enable everyone to give the Preserve a close read. That’s pretty typical for my walks, but this one will include more stops than usual, for I have something else on my agenda for the excursion: this NTD trek is designed to introduce participants to the fine art and science of journal-keeping. Documenting what you discover on the trail is a key skill that needs to be in every naturalist’s toolkit, and as anyone who has read this Journal knows, my records serve as the essential foundation from which this column has been built every week for the past four decades.
Whatever form your documentation take, from pen and ink on paper to digital drawings, photos, and text entered on a smart device, we’ll have plenty to observe... and plenty of opportunities to capture your observations.
We’ll also have a wonderful “companion” to help you along.
I’ve taught a number of writing classes in the past, and one of the most consistent problems my students encounter goes by the acronym FOTBP, which is short for “Fear of the Blank Page.” There’s nothing more intimidating than having a vast acreage of empty space and no trails to direct the walker’s footsteps. More than occasionally, that very situation leads to Writer’s Block, the worst ailment known to any language.
So, not only will I offer a time-tested way to avoid FOTBP—we’ll have plenty to write about—I’m going to highlight, as a kind of text, a recent book titled The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You. This exquisite volume, from Storey Publishing, is by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich, the recently retired Bass Professor of Natural Sciences at Bowdoin College in Maine and the Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont, respectively. Wheelwright—the middle initial stands for Thoreau; he’s a distant relative—did most of the writing, while the stunning illustrations are the handiwork of Heinrich, a truly gifted artist.
The book is inspirational, authoritative, instructional, and a downright joy to leaf through, with short chapters on how to be more observant and become more intimate with nature—”scrutinize, touch, listen, smell, measure”... and, of course, see—how to make sense of your observations using graphs and tables, what to look for during every season, and how to spot natural events in the city, as well as in the countryside. The authors make a pitch for something that, at first glance, seems undeniably old-fashioned in this digital age: drawing. Not only do they both push acolytes towards writing by hand in a journal, but Wheelwright and Heinrich also urge everyone to dust off the pencils, pens, and watercolors. “Drawing is making a personal connection to our unique, individual reality,” they declare. (I hear Heinrich’s voice especially loud here.) “It is thus a potentially important addition to a journal. Unless I have a personal experience with something that catches my eye, creates in me a feeling of wonder, and demands to be preserved, I find it close to impossible to draw it. At the same time, I feel that I have not really seen something until I’ve drawn it.... Art, like science, leads to the preservation of something that is perhaps thought of as fleeting, and capturing it in some tangible form is the only way to stay connected to it.”
Heinrich’s notebooks are true works of natural history art, but such masterpieces are also intimidating to those of us with, at most, modest drawing skills and a deep and abiding fear of blank pages. This is where the genius of The Naturalist’s Notebook emerges: the five-year, day-by-day calendar whose individual boxes are user-friendly small. Even writing tiny and including, at most, a minuscule drawing, you can’t put more than 25 words in a box. Certainly, you can always come up with 25 words to describe the natural history highlight of the day, and when you’ve done this for a long enough time, you have easily accessible data to extract and put into graphs and tables that will help you find patterns in nature. The result is that you can transition from observer—not that there is anything wrong with this—to citizen science. This Notebook is an essential tool in that journey.
So don’t let NTD find you indoors, and if you’re in the neighborhood, please join me for a walk... and a way to make your observations forever your own. (For more information on the journaling trek, visit www.ctwoodlands.org/ct-trails-weekend/events-2019/north-stonington-nature-walk-record-5237)