Secret Paths

Like most people, I bumble through each day doing pretty much the same things.  For instance, I work in a generic office park and like to go for a walk at lunch to a cafeteria in a nearby building:

Low buildings with strip windows surrounded by parking lots – the dark Satanic mills of our day

This being the heavily wooded Northeast, the park is surrounded by forest.  One day  I happened to glance over at the fence surrounding the park.  Was that a gap in it?

Entrance to forest path

From the road you could barely see it.  The fence had to stop somewhere, and it looked like there was just brush beyond it.   If you hopped the guard rail and clambered up the mulched slope, though, you could see a path winding down the hill.

So, do you have a meeting to get to immediately after lunch?  Do you need to get back to some task?  Are you a grown-up, whose actions are mainly determined by duty, or are you a temporary child, off the clock for the moment?

I followed the path, of course.  It led down through a light hardwood forest.  It’s light because this was farmland only a century ago:

Remnants of a different age

The woods around here are full of these old stone walls.  18th and 19th century farmers would haul the boulders out of the fields to make them plowable, and pile them up as rough border fences.  They’re actually of some value these days as building materials for suburban walls, since they have nice patterns of lichen growing on them.

A little further on I came across the indestructible relics of our age:

Polyethylene soda bottles – remnants of the current age

They probably washed up here in the spring floods.   It didn’t look like a place where teenagers came to drink and smoke.  Polyethylene never actually degrades – it just breaks into smaller pieces.   The world is now full of the stuff.  There’s going to be a geological stratum of it, the Plastian Era, unless some clever bacterium figures out how to metabolize it.

The path led down to a river:

Upper reaches and marshes of the Shawsheen River

Across it was another office park and a highway.   I’ve worked here for years and had no idea any of this was here.  It’s pretty shallow, but you could canoe it.

So where did this path lead?

Over the hills and far away

I followed it along the bank of the river for about half a mile.  There wasn’t another sign of humanity.   Two deer looked at me and then bounded away.  I saw burrows big enough for foxes.   For a while the path ran along the top of a mound that snaked through the woods.   This is a rather curvy railroad embankment, I thought, then realized it was actually a glacial esker, a ridge formed of sediment from sub-glacial streams.    That’s a remnant of a much earlier age.

The path ended in a road, of course.  You can’t go all that far in eastern Massachusetts before hitting one.  There was yet another office park, and it was time to go back to work.

Back at the office, Google Maps told me that I had discovered part of the Shawsheen River Conservation Area.  The Shawsheen starts a mile or two up from where I came upon it, then meanders its way northeast, ultimately flowing into the Merrimack.    Mills had been built upon it in the 17th century, but now it was hidden away in culverts and pieces of wasted land, like the one I had come upon.   Now visited only by the occasional fisherman or stroller like me, it was little patch of nature among the office parks.   Sometimes, if you keep your eyes open as you bumble through your day, you’ll see something wonderful.

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