Today is Arbor Day, and therefore the impetus for finally writing this post I had planned. About ten days ago, I took a walk with my daughter and met a person I will come to think of as the Lorax, after a book by Dr. Suess. It tells the tale of a creature who “speaks for the trees” when they are all but gone. If you have been living under a rock, it is probably the best loved morality play of environmentalism written for children.
Patriot’s Day is a holiday in Massachusetts. It commemorates the “shot heard ’round the world,” the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the beginning of the revolution of the American colonists against the British. (This seems to be a strange subject to be writing about on a day on which many of us are celebrating the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Cate Middleton.) It’s also the day on which we run the famed Boston Marathon. My eighteen year-old daughter and I needed a little time and space to chat, and I had suggested a walk outdoors, for instance to the Cochran Wildlife Sanctuary at Phillips Academy Andover. It’s a short ride from our house and is free and open to the public. Instead my daughter lobbied for a walk up Holt Hill, on Ward Reservation, one of the Trustees of Reservations properties, site of our famed solstice stones. We had been there on other occasions, and there is an arresting view of the Boston skyline.
On the way up, my daughter and I were talking about some trees, in particular a stand of red pines through which one walks on the way to the top. I learned that she liked trees as a subject of art. They appear in her portfolio in a drawing and as a ceramic piece and in a sketch she’s working on for her own pleasure.
Red pines are very tall and straight and were favored for ships masts in the colonial era (there we go again), so much so that there was a penalty of death for cutting one down, or so says Bob Spear, naturalist at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (the first such society in the US). They may be distinguished from white pines from their needles. There are three letters in the word red, and five in the word white. Clusters of red and white pine needles are three and five needles, respectively.
I also shared how we had been working on Vrksasana, tree pose in my yoga classes earlier that week. Imagine doing it the Anusara way, pressing your neighbors’ hands and closing your eyes. Can we be that steady? I suggested we have a lot to learn from nature, in bringing it into our lives.
When we reached the summit, I was contemplating doing Bakasana, or crane pose on one of the stones when we heard a window open in the watchtower at the top of the hill. After pleasantries were exchanged, we were invited to go up. After a slight hesitation, we decided to go for it.
It was a long, sketchy walk up the stairs to the top. It was 80 feet, to be exact. It was a little breezy. We entered the tower through a hatch in the floor and there met Millard, “Mill,” as he preferred to be known.
Mill told us all about the network of fire towers in Massachusetts woodlands, the use of which goes back a century. There had been some devastating forest fires a century ago, and the system still in use today was set up then. When he spots smoke, he calls another tower, they triangulate the approximate position of the fire, and then one of them calls a local fire department. Mill explained how he used to work for the one remaining forest fire fighting team, located in Rockport Massachusetts. They sometimes loan equipment to towns that don’t have appropriate gear. That day was a day of high winds and low humidity, and the landscape had not yet “greened out,” so there was a high fire danger. Mill sits there in all kinds of weather, including winter weather. I can imagine that the place gets pretty toasty on “red flag” days, too. He had a book and a police scanner, a phone and a two-way radio, but little else to keep him occupied. Patriot’s Day was a “slow day,” hence his invitation to us, to be students of a little impromptu education. We were very grateful for the lesson, and the opportunity to see, with binoculars, clear over to the smokestacks in Salem, Massachusetts, up into Lawrence, and over to the stately buildings at Phillips Academy. We were transported, momentarily, from our cares.
Imagine, apart from the odd visitors like us, cultivating an ease with solitude and a vigilance in service of the trees. These trees, like the landscape of which they are a part, are not only a public trust. They are what give this region a character distinct from others. They give us our sense of place.
The top of the tower is the highest place in Essex County, Massachusetts. The hill is 420 feet above sea level, and the tower adds another eighty. From that height one is treated to the view that we are uniquely blessed with trees. Despite our habitation, we live in a forest. How wonderful it is that someone is entrusted with the watchfulness to protect that which we take for granted, and which opens the hearts of so many of us. Think of this when you stare idly out the window while contemplating your day, or are being lulled to sleep by the trilling of the frogs as we have heard here for the past few nights. Can we be that steady in our work and dedicated in our play, in pursuit of our own passions, and in service to others?