Updated: Dec 2, 2018
When we bought the first forty acres of what is now the 96-acre Crocker Family Forest, the kids were still little. We bought the land in the winter and liked to go exploring on snowshoes, but of course the kids couldn’t go very far before they got tired, so we found a neat spot on the side of a hill where the sun always seemed to shine, and the ground was always nearly bare. We would stop there to let the kids rest and have hot chocolate and snacks. After a few weekends, the kids would ask if we could go back to the Picnic Spot. The name was perfect, and it stuck.
In the spring, when the snow had melted, and the kids were able to explore a little more easily, they found other special places that they named. They found a young cedar tree that had blown across the logging road. The tree was small, maybe 6 inches in diameter and had no limbs where it lay across the road. It was suspended about three feet in the air, and the kids would take turns trying to walk across the tree. Of course, they named it the Balance Beam.
In the summer, they followed the little stream that runs past the spot where we eventually built the cabin until they found a little waterfall and a shallow pool of cool, clear water. The pool was full of smooth flat stones, polished by years of rushing water, and every time they came back from that spot, they had pockets full of rocks that they thought were pretty or interesting. The August that we built the cabin was very hot, and while Chris and I were working, the kids would tell us they were going to the Rock Garden to get more treasures for us. And in a short time, that name became memorialized as well.
That first year, as we learned more about the unique spots on our land, we follow the kid’s example and began naming all the special spots we found. It made it easier to remember where those spots were, especially as time flowed by and we added to our little paradise. We eventually managed to purchase the parcel that abutted the east line of our original property, and the 27 acre section right next to it. Not only did we add to the number of acres we owned, but we added to the special places we found too. Some of those places are special because the kids had “discovered” them when they were little, and the excitement of their discovery formed an indelible impression on our hearts. If you were to walk by the Rock Garden or the Picnic Spot, you likely wouldn’t give it a second look, and when we are giving visitors walking tours, we rarely if ever point them out. But when Chris and I are there, it is inevitable that one or the other of us will say “Do you remember when…?”
But other places are special and unique, and you don’t need to have a fond memory to elicit an emotion and while they are always on the “tour” path, we don’t need to point them out. They speak for themselves.
For example, about a half mile from the cabin, you will find what we call the Five-Acres Bog. It runs the entire width of our original 40-acres parcel and is a classic Maine bog. Cedar and black spruce, most stunted and some dead or dying from foolishly sinking their roots in frequently flooded ground, stand sentinel over the cattails, marsh grass and low-growing woody brush that thrive.
A small stream meanders through the bog and the remnants of a beaver den pokes its head above the waving grass. From any vantage point along the bogs, you can see birds of all sorts sitting on the branches of the trees or flitting among the grass and brush. Wood ducks and an occasional Mallard run along the water when startled, then take flight to avoid your intrusion. Deer like the bog too, but you will almost never see them unless you nearly step on them, and then the only sight will be a white flag bounding away to the tree line. That’s why they like the bog, it is their refuge, their sanctuary, their invisibility cloak.
I have often stopped at the edge of the bog as the sun dips below the horizon to look and listen as one part of nature goes to bed, and another part rises. Frogs of all sorts croak their love, bats flit overhead scooping up their mosquito dinner, and in the distance a coyote howls.
More than once, after spending the afternoon in my tree stand, I’ll stop at the bog and find myself reaching for a flashlight because I realize I’ve watched the last rays of sun retreat and fall below the trees until it is too dark to see for the rest of the long walk home. I’ve never regretted the delay, for often mother nature paints a beautiful picture before saying goodnight.
Another spot that can take your breath away, in more way than one, we have named The Staircase. It is a high outcrop of ledge that rises from the southeast edge of the Five-Acre Bog and stretches for at least a mile to the east.
The stream that runs through the bog gurgles along at the foot of the ledge ridge, between moss covered banks, drooping hemlock and leaning cedar. An ancient deer trail, feet wide and inches deep, is clearly visibly in the moss. How many thousands of hooves have stepped here over the years? How many generations of mothers have shown their sons and daughters this trail?
If you are relatively fit, you can walk to the top of the ridge easily, but you will likely need to resort to using your hands on the ground in front of you in a few of the steeper spots. Better yet, if you know where to let your feet go, you can find a much easier ascent - a series of broken ledges that forms a staircase so perfectly positioned and spaced that you wonder if someone put it here on purpose. The logical part of me, the part that understands a little about Maine geology and a lot about Maine winters, explains The Staircase as the inevitable, if somewhat coincidental, action of years of water combined with the freeze-thaw cycle of March. But the spiritual side of me, the one more in charge when I’m in this place, lets a whisper from my heart reach my ear – life is hard, the ridge is steep, use my steps. I always do.
At the top of the ridge, within sight of the back line our property, is a trio of large Eastern White Pines. We affectionately call this place the Three Kings, as homage to the colonial times when giant white pines along the coast were reserved for the British royal navy for ships masts with the king’s mark. No, these pines weren’t around in colonial times though perhaps they were seedlings in the Civil War era. One of the three has been struck by lighting at some point in its long life, and a jagged scar spirals from the topmost branches to disappear into the roots.
The largest of the three, the one we call the Sentinel Pine, is beautifully straight. Last summer it measured 39 inches in diameter and towered 106 feet tall. In case you’re wondering how I know exactly how tall it is, Brandon is now a math teacher and one day when I wondered aloud how tall this tree is, he said, “why don’t we trig it out?”. If like me then, you just now thought “what does ‘trig it out’ mean”, he meant use trigonometry. Using a tape measure and a compass with an inclinometer (google it, this post is already getting too long 😊), he got the required measurements and ‘trigged it out’. Here’s the formula, just in case you're curious - H=d tan (degrees of angle) + 5.5. Math aside, I find this ancient tree inspiring and almost always snap a photo of visitors when they stop at the Sentinel Pine.
Two other spots that are very important are not on the tour route. They are a little out of the way, and are not really meant as a conversation starter, or for observing wildlife or giving a math lesson. They are more important for solitary reflection. The first is so close to the back of our property that you can see the yellow blazes on the southern border. It is a large round granite stone, covered in moss, alone in a grove of hemlock.
I call it the Ponder Stone. I’ve spent plenty of mornings there, sitting on the soft moss on that round stone, wrestling with decisions both large and small. In the early morning, as the sun comes up through the drooping hemlock branches, the light turns from black to gray to silver. In mid-fall, when the few maple trees are red and gold, and the poplar trees are still bright yellow, the sun’s rays create a kaleidoscope of colors that remind me of a church floor beneath a stain-glassed window. I haven’t solved every problem I’ve ever had while sitting on the Ponder Stone in this hemlock cathedral, but I’ve solved a few, and likely will solve more in the years to come. It is a perfect place to sit and think and yes, to ponder.
But sometimes pondering over the problems in life isn’t what my mind needs. For me, stress as a busy professional makes my mind race. I’m naturally a problem solver, and my preference is to tackle things head on, jump in, start working, solve it, move on. Sounds like a plan, and most of the time, it is an effective plan. But sometimes, seemingly more often of late, the problems outweigh the solutions. Jumping in means you can be over your head. Solve one problem, another rears its head. Whack-a-mole. On steroids. I know I’m not alone. You might feel this way at times as well. Luckily, I have one last special place that helps; it helps me, and it might help you too. I think it will, so let me take you there.
If we follow the stream that flows at the base of the ridge upstream through the cedar swamp, around the hemlock and fir blowdowns and up a slight hill, we come to the Park Bench Knoll. There isn’t really a park bench of course, but there could be. Maybe someday I’ll build one just for this spot. But not today. Today we’ll just settle into in the cushion of brown hemlock and fir needles that covers the knoll. It’s soft, surprisingly comfy, peaceful.
This isn’t a place where I come to think. This is a place I come NOT to think. To lose myself. To let go. Take a deep breath. The clean, crisp air smells like Christmas, a mix of balsam and pine that fills your heart with warmth. Beneath it, deeper, you might smell cedar too. That richer, more pungent scent finds its way inside as well, not as warm, but somehow more soothing.
Look around. The ground is littered with last year’s maple, beech and birch leaves, creating a carpet that will feed next year’s seedlings. The sun, filtered by the boughs of spruce, fir and pine, hemlock and cedar, warms the ground. The light twinkles and sparkles on the water flowing through the stream. It all looks and feels like a comfortable quilt on a cool day. Wrap that blanket around you and relax.
You don’t have to listen hard to hear the breeze making the hemlock boughs whisper “husssh, husssh, husssh”. It sounds like the words a mother uses to soothe a child who just woke from a bad dream. Let Mother Nature whisper those words to you now. The stream is flowing gently over more of the same broken ledge that would make me rich, if ledgestone was worth even a dollar a ton. It gurgles and splashes and murmurs its own message, “everything is fine, everything is fine, everything is fine”. And here, is this place, at this moment, everything is.