Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monastery Life

In the past, I've often said that I might be content to live at a monastery if not for my atheism. Now I'm spending most of my days at one.

Trappist monks bought the land (over 500 acres) in 1900 and built one of their first U.S. monasteries.
"The land seemed quite barren, and for years the religious labored to render it fit for cultivation. They cleared off the stone with which it was thickly covered, cut down briars and tangled brushwood, drained the swampy lowlands, made new roads, and planted extensive orchards, and eventually the ungrateful soil became productive."

The monks quarried granite on the site to erect their buildings, grew and raised their mostly vegetarian food, sold apples, cider, and milk. Animals present included oxen, cows, horses, pigs, and sheep. The monks left after a large destructive fire in 1950; another religious group was there for more than twenty years, and then the town bought the land. You can find much more of the monastery's history, including photos, here.

Today, the town library connects to what remained of the old building, and the land is covered by woodlands, wetlands, large open fields, and many miles of trails on the roughly square mile. Ten feet from the library entrance, a small ornamental tree, once heavy with hanging red berries, has been a robin's regular breakfast spot for months as I waited for the library to open daily.

The forest is dominated by lichen-covered (a recent rain and wind storm brought down several interesting varieties) oaks of a relatively young age. I guessed 50 years old; a friend independently suggested 40. I'm hoping to learn more about the land's history. Wetlands include many small creeks, a couple ponds, and an area I suspect often floods. The diverse land is home to a variety of plants and animals--more about that later.

Many of New England's famous stone walls run through the woods. (Coincidentally, I'm reading a terrific little book--Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels, which is filled with fascinating clues to the history of land use. For instance, if you see small rocks added to those stone walls, it's likely the once adjacent field was used for growing crops rather than for grazing or hay. The smaller stones which rose to the surface of open land during frost cycles needed to be removed before new plantings.) Despite all the stone walls, the woods remain filled with large boulders. Beside one forest trail, I found a low circular stone wall. A corral for short livestock? An ancient pagan monk circle?

At one time, the loop trail closest to the buildings was enhanced as a nature/exercise path. Several of the trees still wear their name tags: "Shagbark Hickory", "Aspen", "Yellow Birch", "Red Cedar". Metal bars for pull-ups from three heights remain obvious; more obscured are those to tuck your feet under for sit-ups.

The land is heavily used by dog walkers, hikers, cross country skiers, flocks of robins, tapping woodpeckers, and a wide variety of other birds including mallards in a couple remote creeks (I confess to feeding them). Squirrels remain the only wild mammals I've seen, but tracks in the snow testify to the presence of others, smaller and larger.

On one dusky hike deep in the woods, we saw a tall pillar of smoke from a campfire. This was when I learned I could be replaced by a dog--i.e., my friend won't get one while I'm around, but if I move away, she will for hiking safety. A couple nights later, she asked me to wash the dishes after dinner because she had a cast on her wrist--as I did so, I requested she send me a photo of the dog doing the dishes some day.

There are all sorts of associated historical oddities. Bing Crosby used to visit the monastery for "retreats" which today's celebrities take at detox clinics. There are a variety of reports of ghosts. A few feet under part of the land, an oil pipeline runs from Providence to Springfield.

Of course, this being New England, all that is new news. Also in the woods is a monument to an invasive species. Known as Nine Men's Misery, it refers to a 1676 incident during King Philip's War. That's a Native king, not an English one. It would be tempting to say there are no monuments to the people who got invaded, but actually, the name of my high school? King Philip. I was never sure how that name got past the history buffs and flag-wavers.

And just last week, I was very excited to learn that the land was the site of a bio-blitz in 2006. You can find the 27 page list of found species here. No big surprises among the mammals, but now I'll know which snakes, frogs, and salamanders to look for. The list of plants is very long including some of my favorites such as skunk cabbage, jewelweed, and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Will I be able to identify all 7 oaks? How about the 7 maples? Where is that black walnut tree? The pink lady's slipper? All those berries would make for tasty snacks, and I always love seeing Indian pipes (will they be near the monument?). Hmmm, spicebush. Pipsissewa! Aralia nudicaulis! Pinus resinosa! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?

I can't speak for the silent monks, but I'm feeling quite blessed by this knowledge. For the first time, part of me wishes we weren't going to sell my grandfather's small house, but that isn't an option. I just need to pull out my remaining field guides and go wild while I have the chance.

What a shame that this information isn't readily available for every bit of unmanned land. Rather than trail maps, let's have inventory sheets to encourage exploration. Instead of No Trespassing signs, let's post the ecological history of the land. Let's get to know our earthly neighbors.


Allan Stellar said...

I love the last paragraph! Amen!

Woodswalker said...

Thanks for giving us a tour of this wonderful place. I was especially intrigued by the list of plants and animals. See how many you can find. Most people couldn't name 10 plants that grew wild on their block.