I took my 49th birthday off, a tradition I hope to continue each year. I had mid-afternoon plans, but what to do until then?
The warm but breezy day beckoned, and a coin flip between 2 favorite walk options had me footing it to Essex along River Road. I didn’t have a precise memory of exactly how long this walk takes, but it turns out I remembered correctly: 2 hours each way, at an unrushed pace. By the third hour I knew I would need some Advil later, but it was well worth the price of downing some mild analgesia (and I only needed it once–maybe there is hope for my aging joints!).
I surprised myself by tuning primarily into smells: a strong cucumber smell among a dense stand of ferns—I wondered whether the property up the hill had a garden, or if I might be smelling salad burnet, something I wrote about in The Book of Noticing. Salad burnet, an herb of ancient origins, was used to line walkways during the 16th century so that the air would be perfumed with a distinct cucumber-like scent. It looks like a maidenhair fern.
From the generous swath of green-golden marshland that abuts the Pettipaug Yacht Club I detected a distinctly spicy smell. I am still a budding botanist (pun intended), but the Wildflower.org description of spicebush, which likes low, deciduous woods, streambanks, and swamps made me think that this plant was the savory-scented culprit. Several butterfly species are drawn to the plant too; they start their families on this aromatic host.
I found some volunteer butterfly bushes among unclaimed patches of brush, sinking my nose into the flowers for a blissful inhalation. After the walk, I researched a bit and was dismayed to read a headline that said Never Plant Butterfly Bush Again, followed by dire warnings about this invasive variety. I am not expert enough to weigh in, but I was reminded again of my recent, immersive read of Nathanael Johnson’s Unseen City, which offered food for thought about the wide perceptions about invasives:
Because they are associated with human disruption, the organisms that spring up from our footprints look like corruptions of nature. But I’ve come to see it the other way around: These species represent nature at its most vital and creative.
Johnson goes on to note that he doesn’t mean we should stop worrying about extinctions and the environment. His point was simply that it is more complex that simply labeling invasives and natives. For example, one scientist has estimated the increase in plant species over the last 150 years to be just about the extinction rate for animals.Nature is incredibly creative and persistent.
I was so glad that the grape smell I happened upon turned out not to be grape hyacinth, but actual wild grapes. I downed about a dozen, trying to be dainty about spitting out the seeds (and ignoring the cautions about potential car pollution affecting roadside plants–I wasn’t exactly on the Long Island Expressway). Grapes in the supermarket? I don’t know: $2.00/pound? Sun-warmed, juicy grapes beckoning from the vine to a parched birthday wanderer? Priceless.
I had to turn off my phone to conserve battery—mental note to always carry a pen and pad for when I can’t dictate notes. My spotty recall won’t allow me to list all of the green signs I noted along River Road, but they indicate Essex Land Trust properties. Two I do recall: Osage Trails, described on their site as a “waterfront park with a sweeping lawn, a waterside meadow and a patch of forest where the Falls River forms Falls River Cove.” And James Glen has just floated to the top of my “to go in the near future” list: “Rolling terrain and easy trails mark this lightly wooded, four-acre stream valley off scenic River Road. Highlights include an expansive fern meadow, a unique “tree root” stream crossing, a prominent ledge of tumbled rock and a mature grove of mountain laurel.”
Clearly, there are many more adventures to be had, and oh so many in walking distance. A very happy birthday indeed, punctuated by what I think is the exterior wall of a hummingbird nest, the best souvenir from my walk: