Gonzo Naturalism

Yesterday afternoon I drove home to Western Mass from TNEO on NH highway 101. It was a rare, beautiful day stuck smack in the middle a week of downpours and violent thunderstorms. The past week, wherein my only opportunity to go outside was the walk from dorm to classroom and back (failed to do enough crits ahead of time, fool of a Took), had left me thoroughly stir-crazy, but also exhausted (didn’t get a lot of sleep at TNEO either). The brown “Pack Monadnock” road sign by the trailhead in Peterborough seemed to be laughing at me. But I knew there was no way I’d make it up Monadnock and back before dark in my current state. I drove on for a couple miles, the desires for a good long walk and a good long nap vying in my head. The walk won, and I veered abruptly off the highway at a sign for the Edward MacDowell Reservoir.

This was a core of engineers project in the 50s, designed for floodwater control after the Peterborough Flood of 1938. The fortuitous chronological gap in the satellite data above shows what the lake looks like when full in winter vs. low in summer. I circumambulated it in about two hours, counter-clockwise from the dam at bottom. The trails don’t go all the way around; I had to veer off the dirt road near that hooked inlet on the northeast side and find my own way through the marshes. Amphibious bushwhacking! Not for the faint-hearted.

I found an early-industrial ruin on the east bank of Nubanusit Brook, overgrown with oak and black birch, about 100 feet from Richardson Road. It looks like they diverted the brook for power or cooling or both–there’s a hundred feet of iron piping, four feet in diameter, which passes through two different brick-and-stone building foundations before emptying into a hundred-foot fieldstone spillway, 12 feet deep, 12 feet in diameter. You can sort of see it in the southwest edge of the 1900 USGS Topographical Survey map of Petersborough, just below the 55′ mark. There’s a little dam, and the brook splits in two for a short distance. And I found a big iron flue a few hundred yards downstream, so I figure it must have been a forge. Fun. Moss all over everything. Sorry there are no pictures–but it’s just as well. My camera would have gotten destroyed if I brought it.

I climbed an embankment onto the Spring Rd bridge, crossed the brook, then cut back into the woods through the grounds of a nuevo-colonial manse, heading south again towards the lake. I waded through some enormous ferns, stepping-stoned my way over some swampy ground, then followed an abandoned dirt road for a quarter mile before it disappeared again beneath hazed-golden marshland, when I reached the edge of which a crowd of blackbirds took off from the reeds.

The woods were dense with undergrowth along the shore, but I could see where they thinned out beneath tall pines on the far shore. The mad notion came upon me of wading across a narrow section of marsh rather than going all the way around.

My folly first became apparent when I stepped off the overgrown bank into that windy little stream you can see on the satellite photo. I sank in up to my waist, and the muck at the bottom nearly swallowed my walking stick. So I slogged through chest-high reeds for a while, looking for a shallower route. It was only after about five minutes of this fight that I paused for a rest and became aware of a singular, stinging-hot pain overwhelming my knees, shins, wrists and forearms. I looked down at myself to discover that most of my exposed skin was covered with crisscrossed scratches turning an angry pink, as though I’d received significantly more than forty lashes with a serrated noodle.

I jumped into the water again and stood there waiting for the pain to recede.
I had not, until this point, been aware that sawgrass could grow anywhere but in salt marsh habitats. Lesson learned.

The current dragged against the backs of my knees. An impossibly red flower grew beside me. I gazed at it, thoughts absent.

Rather than expose my shins to any more punishment, I opted to wade upstream for awhile, carrying my sneakers tied around my neck with my map and wallet stuffed inside, until I found a place to climb ashore. There, under the pines, I found the trail.

I hiked barefoot over roots and spongy pine needles for another mile or so. Along the way I encountered a wealth of bizarre and delicious-looking mushrooms: indian pipes, chanterelles, russet boletes, white russula, yellow coral. Eventually I found my way across the causeway and back to the car. I stopped at the public beach, had a quick splash about in the deep, mineral-red waters at the foot of the dam, then headed home.

It’s pouring and thundering again now outside my window, and the cherry trees are lashing back and forth like seaweed at rip tide.

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