In appreciating my own backyard, I’ll start with my favorite spot just about a mile from my door. This tract of land in Worcester has reminded me of home in Maine while providing sanctuary and preserving my sanity on many occasions. Boynton Park and its surrounding woods consist of about 300 acres off route 122 across from the Worcester Airport, abutting the town of Paxton. The park is one of the largest wilderness areas Worcester has to offer with a tremendous variety of flora and fauna. In the woods stand the stone walls of forgotten pastures, relics of long ago lives—rusting
farm tools, trucks, and appliances—and a Native American amphitheatre. The woods also tell more recent stories of fire and lightning strikes, of damaging ice storms, and of teen rabblerousing.
I’ve been hiking in the park for well over a decade. For years, I could sit in front of the small waterfall and wander up and down the streams and cascades and never see a soul. I did see wildflowers, snakes, red and gray fox, bard and great horned owls. Every time I visited, the woods had some secret, some gift to offer. If I stayed away for long, I knew I would miss out on something special; the least I could do was show up.
I hiked early in the morning or late in the evening. One evening, two Bard owls called to each other through the woods, I guessed in some form of courtship. One remained stationary, I supposed it was the female playing hard to get. As I descended the trail, their voices grew closer and closer, until one owl landed on a branch just two feet above my head. He jumped right in to conversation. “Who cooks for-you? Who cooks for-you-all?” he asked. “I do the all cooking,” I said. “Can we not talk about it? It’s a sore subject.”
He didn’t say another word as we stood for what seemed like thirty minutes, though I’m sure it was less, engaged in a staring contest. I have to admit, a seed of fear sprouted in my chest. I held my breath. For a moment, I felt like a field mouse looking up into his black eyes, cold as marbles, and at his beak, yellow and sharp as a shard of glass. I felt humbled and small. I softened; my shoulders relaxed, and I received this rare gift, this intimate moment with an owl in daylight. Frozen in awe at his intense majesty, I tried to send him a wordless message of thanks. Eventually, daylight began to fade and I finally said, slowly and aloud, “Could you please leave first? It’s getting dark.” I was also thinking that with a ten-year lifespan, he had better hurry up and go get the girl, start making a family.
At last, my dry, burning eyes blinked. The owl was gone. I didn’t see or hear him leave. It was as if it all had been a dream. That’s how secret gifts in the woods are; you blink, and you miss them. You must go into the woods often, walk softly, and sit patiently.
Or bring children, lots of them —nephews and nieces. I have done so many times, always grateful that a place existed right in our backyards where I could share my appreciation of the woods with them. With me, they shared their fresh, keen sight. As Emerson says in his essay Nature, “…few adult persons can see nature. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.”
When the kids were younger, I especially cherished the first hot late April or early May day before the mosquitoes and flies arrived, when the kids could strip to their undies and play in the brooks. (I’m sure the watershed police aren’t reading this blog.) Hours passed as they raced sticks and acorn caps down rivulets of water. The kids skittered up and down the streams like water striders, discovered newts and salamanders hiding under rocks. Such joy!
But, so much for our private sanctuary and parading through the woods in our skivvies. Many years ago Boynton Park became Doggy Park. The only wild creatures that approached were black labs and German shepherds as they came bounding—off leash—to plant their paws on my thighs in overzealous hellos. I scowled as I watched the crazy doggy people congregate in the baseball field in the middle of the park for doggy playgroup. They gave their dogs ridiculous human names—Deidre or Fitzwilliam for crying out loud! They pampered their dogs as if they were children—special toys, little coats, and sundry expensive doggy treats. And what happened to names like Spot, Fido, and Blackie?
I wondered how I had become so cantankerous. I had come from a long line of dog lovers who had owned every breed from beagle to great Dane and every kind of lab and mutt in between. My grandfather Sam warned, “Never trust a person who doesn’t love a dog.” I had to ask myself, Why so bitter? In my defense, I found my opposition understandable, that I would feel the need to have a space to call my own. I had grown up wandering hundreds of acres alone—for a time Boynton Park provided the best return to PLACE Worcester had to offer.
While the park does have a different flavor (and sometimes smell) now that its primary denizens are four-legged friends, it still offers many delights. First of all, the dog people are lovely folks. They are people like my neighbors Sue and Judy who care deeply about getting outside and experiencing a place right in their own backyards. These responsible dog owners happily share the woods. Of course I say this now that I have introduced our new canine addition—Carmelita, yes, Carmelita—to dogs with proper doggy names like Rocky and Scout.
The fact is, with the exception of occasionally stepping in a pile of poo left smack in the middle of the trail, the dogs and their friendly owners, whose names you scarcely ever get, have not dampened my experiences at Boynton Park. Sure I see fewer wild creatures, but my heart is warmed to see so many people out and enjoying one of the largest preserved patches of wilderness in Worcester.
The Mass Audubon also visits the park in search of the protected Pileated (crested) Woodpecker. According to them, Boynton Park is one of the few locations in Central Mass where the bird can be reliably found. My father-in-law, a great birder, died in 1990 before he could catch a glimpse of the illusive, pterodactyl-like bird, the prototype for Woody the Woodpecker. I think of George every time I feel the Pileated’s shadow passing overhead or hear its maniacal laugh or distinctive drumming—like a city jack hammer. The woodpecker prefers snags (dead trees) for its habitat and mates for life in these woods. Just about now you might spy some fledglings. The birds nest anywhere from 15-30 feet up in the trees. Look for 4-6 inch oval openings.
Knowing George’s quest and the love the Robert family has for the Pileated, my father presented my husband Luke with this painting that currently hangs in our bedroom.
Boynton provides inspiration for this blog and I will revisit the park often. Right now my favorite woodland season is passing; some of the spring visitors like the trillium have faded.
The wild geraniums and flox are at their peak…
Keep your eye out for the elusive lady slipper, and breathe deep the mountain laurels. They look like lasting mounds of spring snow in the sun dappled woods.
Today, inspired by a yellow swallowtail at my mailbox, I went to look for butterflies in the Boynton Park’s meadow. I found a Morning Cloak and an Indian Leaf (so camouflaged I couldn’t get a photo) and many others that escaped my shutter. I also nearly stepped on a toad and two snakes: a racer and a garter snake.
However, my favorite moments were spent with a dragonfly. He posed (I can hear my daughter saying, how do you know it’s a he?) like a Calvin Kline underwear model on the tip of a reed. Switching his rippled thorax this way and that, he seemed to enjoy the shoot, though eventually he jerked his head to the left as if to suggest that I depart. Examining his bulging, rust-colored eyes and his yellow, scaled mandible, it struck me how reptilian the flying creature looked. How often I am reminded of the interconnectedness of all creatures when visiting the woods.
Then above Carmelita and I, two streaks of blue again the sky: a great blue heron and an Indigo Bunting. Just this one twenty-minute visit to the park rendered many rich encounters.
So all you dog walkers, stay in touch and let me know what you see happening in Boynton woods. And if you’ve been inspired to visit for the first time, I especially want to hear about your experience.