As I’ve been hiking more and more near my home in Stamford, CT, I’m finding ways to appreciate landscapes with more humble characteristics.
I have been putting in less mileage and elevation gain than I ever really have. The landscape and the amount of local trail doesn’t really allow for much. In fact, I’ve hiked in conserved recreation areas where I could probably hike almost every trail in one day. I have been deciding to take on shorter days in order to reserve trails for another day, so I don’t run through them too quickly. However, I’m getting to know my own home better than I ever have. With the the ridiculous amount of snow we’ve been getting, I’ve been getting to use my snowshoes a lot without driving very far, which is cool.
One of the most interesting aspects of hiking in my local area is finding remnants of days past. What it lacks in mountain peaks, it makes up for in history. About that history, I’ve learned a lot recently. Just a few examples, when recently hiking in Devil’s Den/Lucius Pond Ordway in Weston, CT, specifically to visit Great Ledge for a view of the Saugatuck Reservoir, I came across some rusty old pieces of a portable sawmill. I learned this mill was probably steam engine powered, introduced around the 1850’s, and made transporting lumber out from the felling site much easier, because companies could transport milled boards rather than whole logs. This mill in particular probably cut Red and White oak, Tulip Poplar, and a tree I have a specific historical and cultural interest in, the American Chestnut.
Additionally while hiking at Devil’s Den I came across an older border marker, with a “W” and an “R” on opposite sides, designating the separation line between Weston and Redding, CT. Interesting stuff.
While hiking around and Weir Farm and Weir Preserve, I’ve learned a lot about stone walls. Before, stone walls all seemed the same to me. However, after a few observations and subsequent research, I’ve found that there are many different kinds of stone walls that have their own historical background and use. Some of these types include the thrown wall, laid wall, and rubble filled wall. I’ll spare you the details of each, but learning the difference between them has helped me understand the local residential and agricultural history just a bit more. Stone walls are no longer just something in the woods, but a specimen to be admired in itself. Other remnants I’ve run into are old house foundations, chimneys, etc.
Something else I’ve learned to appreciate lately is the Mountain Laurel plant. Mountain Laurel is not new to me. However, as I’ve hiked more in the snow than I ever have, I have come to appreciate the rich contrast this evergreen plant contributes to the landscape. I love winter hiking and seeing miles of white, but I’ve found that mountain laurel provides a beautiful trail side treat for the eyes in a landscape of white and grey. Its slightly shiny, scooped broad leaves provides a more “meaty,” if you will, evergreen look than the evergreens we typically think of like spruce, fir, and pine. In fact, the state flower of Connecticut is the Mountain Laurel. While it’s not in bloom right now, I’m glad to be creating a deeper connection with my state’s flower plant. I like it. Other landscape features I’ve come to like more than ever are swamp/marshlands, that look particularly pretty in snow. Upon sighting them, their flatness is a dead giveaway that it’s a marsh, but it’s flatness looks so perfect. No longer is a marsh a mess of mud. Too perfect to mess up with footprints.
My newfound appreciation doesn’t just come from getting out on my local trails. In fact, I’ve found that I’m quite inspired by the study of art. As you might be able to guess, I’ve always been particularly interested in landscape art. A group of artists I’ve been fond of for quite some time are those of the Hudson River School of artists, including the likes of Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Asher Durand, etc. The Hudson River School artists were a critical part of the romantic movement, between the early to late 1800’s, in America, which inspired people to love, rather than hate nature’s wildness. Their paintings, focused on the sublime, awe-inspiring, and “larger” aspects of nature, like mountains, deep ravines, and waterfalls. While realistic, they also could be quite exaggerated at times, using size or dramatic lighting to create fantastic images that the viewer would want to just step right into. These artists, I still love.
It was not until recently that I discovered the work of J. Alden Weir. Weir, an “American Impressionist” they say, of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s is an interesting story. Weir, living in NYC, was actually planning to create his artistic retreat in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The Adirondacks are a sublime landscape to say the least. However, Weir stumbled across a farmstead in Wilton, CT, at the right price, and location. He abandoned his Adirondack plans, and settled for the fields, small ponds, and hills of southwest CT. His paintings show the very landscapes through which I’ve recently been hiking. His paintings are not of steep mountains, but of humble landscapes. However, I find the agricultural and rural heritage that Weir depicts to be very appealing. The quaintness of stone walls, rolling hills, dirt roads, in afternoon lighting, that appear in his paintings shows a redeeming quality to the local landscapes that exist near my home. Through studying Weir, I’m learning to understand that a quality hike is not dependent on the sublime, including deep valleys and distant vistas. Rather, a hike that reveals “smaller” beauty can be just as rewarding. The edge between a stream and forest, the assorted placement of boulders, the conversion of old wagon road to hiking trail, can inspire just as much. Humble landscapes are there to be appreciated. Sometimes, we forget to look at them. Yosemite Valley is great, but so is the Mianus River of southwest CT.
Both forms are great art; some of America’s finest. While I will never abandon my own Hudson River School eyes in search of the “big,” J. Alden Weir is teaching me how to include a way of seeing into my daily life that I always should have had.
– – The main test of my new found perspective will be if I’m singing the same tune when I return from Colorado, haha – –