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Reading the landscape

Photo by Katie Finch Walking on an old road can lead to unexpected discoveries.

There was an oil painting hanging in my grandparent’s house of an old man. His skin was a warm brown and covered with lines. There were fine creases around the eyes from laughing or squinting in the sun. Curved grooves from his nose to the outside corner of his mouth ran deep from smiling. There were wrinkles across the forehead, often called worry lines. I imagined other dark marks to be scars from a long-ago injury.

I was intrigued by this face and so many others like it because of the story then could tell. Who was this man? What joys and tragedies happened in his life that were so strong they were etched in his physical being? A person’s face is a record of the events that shaped who they are.

The land holds a record of its experience in a similar way. In outside explorations, we may come across old human-made objects or see “scars” in the landscape that tell of the land’s past use or natural events that changed the landscape.

On a recent trip to Allegany State Park, my partner and I decided to hike a trail we knew nothing about other than the location and length. The trail was cut into the side of a gently sloping hill. About half a mile into the hike, we came across an opening in the woods that ran from the top of the hill downward. The opening, about the size of a road, was fairly overgrown, with brambles and small trees where there once was grass. The trees along the edge were all curved over the opening, making a tunnel-like effect, as they reached for the available sun. As we continued walking, we came across similar opening. Then another. Then another. Power lines? Gas lines? Old roads? There were a few old metal posts, not large enough for telephone poles but much higher than fence posts.

On the way back, he said, “It feels like a ski slope.” A glance at a more detailed map showed us he was right. We were on the Eastern Meadows trail that traversed the old Big Basin Ski Area. In further research, I learned Allegany State Park was a downhill skiing hub in Western New York from the 1930s to the 1970s. There were two alpine ski areas and ski jumps that attracted both amateur and world-class skiers. As I walked among the remains of the ski slope, I had no idea of the history at the time but the land still showed me, even as the plants began to cover it over and time degraded even the fire-forged metal of the ski lift.

Seeing the history of the land in what remains is detective work. Or perhaps more an archeologic dig, revealing scraps and fragments of the past. There are clues in what plants are present and the way they grow and the shape of the terrain. Sometimes old human-made remains are left behind. I’ve walked on level, straight trails that can be nothing else but an old road or rail line. My favorite clue I saw on a winter walk after a light snow was followed by warmer temperatures.

On a straight path deep in the woods, there were alternating long rectangles of snow. What I figured is the snow stayed either on the old railroad ties and melted from the ground in between or vice versa.

Seeing this was like pulling back a 100-year-old curtain to a time when this forest was full of loggers, hauling out their harvest on narrow-gauge railway. As I look around at what was once a devastating change to this landscape, I also marvel at the land’s ability to recover. I have a sense of discomfort at a very real paradox. Nature is both fragile and resilient. The evidence of our past reminds us of the huge impact we can have on the natural world but also of nature’s resiliency. Still, I wonder, what was this forest like before us? And what other far-reaching effects of humans don’t I even see?

The history of natural events is also written into the land. In Maine, I worked in a forest, whose ground was full of full of small humps or mounds right next to holes or pits. When a tree falls over and pulls out the root ball with it, it creates this pit and mound topography over time. The pit is formed from the uprooted root ball. The mound forms as the roots slowly decay. In this forest, there were tons on pits and mounds all oriented in the same direction. This told the story of a tornado that passed through the area tipping over the trees half a century ago.

Humans are a part of nature. This is a fact. To acquire the things we both need and want, we use the land, sometimes lightly, sometimes too heavily. But either way, we are not removed from it. I am reminded of this when I read the landscape and see our mark upon it.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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