On a scorching hot Monday that I had taken off for my birthday, we wanted something in the woods to keep the worst of the sun off, without going too far away. A little trawling around on the All Trails app, and I decided that the South Mountain Reservation (not a reservation — it’s a preserve) looked like the right thing, and we chose the West Ridge and Elmdale Loop as the right length and difficulty for a very out-of-shape extra-sweaty me.
The drive through the big, fancy houses of Short Hills, NJ, was a nice introduction, and the parking lot next to the Greenwood Gardens (more on that to come!) was practically empty, early on a Monday afternoon.
There’s a brief walk down a gravel access road to the trails, but the hike really begins with a pair of open meadows.
Full of tiny daisies and clover and the occasional Black-Eyed Susan, but mostly long grasses, hip-high with shocks of seeds bobbing in the breeze, bees and butterflies flitting about, a bluebird house along the treeline. I found myself telling my partner about the field at the top of the hill where we grew up.
Aside from a strip one large Kubota mower wide on all sides to keep the snakes away, Dad always let the grasses, clover, goldenrod, daisy fleabane, Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers grow tall — I remember being five or six years old and running through the field as high as my shoulders. At the end of the season, Dad would attach this elaborate contraption to the mower that would blow the mowed ends into the trailer behind; he would mow down the whole field and dump it in a big pile alongside the garden, where we also composted our food scraps. About a week before, he would have used the pile that had been aging there for the last year and spread it on the newly turned-under garden to winter over and enrich the soil.
But what I really remember about that field is the make-believe that my sister and I would play in the tall grasses. Sometimes it was the Barbies we took up there to get “lost” in grasses that were as high as Redwood forests to them. At least as often, we would load our bigger dolls into the wagon with all their worldly possessions, put on long skirts and maybe also petticoats from the dress-up chest in the attic, and it was “Westward, ho!”
We were great fans of Laura and Pa Ingalls, Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, the “Young Riders” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Far and Away.” We imbibed those tales of the Old West and the brave families that settled them with, to be honest, minimal critical analysis. We were lucky to have a Navajo medicine woman in our family’s circle who did her best to educate us about indigenous stories, and the Indians in our games were more the helpful Pocahontas and Squanto than menacing Apache warrior, but we bought fully into the romanticism of the bootstrap settler, acting it out with vigor in our own back yard.
“I guess,” I heard myself wrapping up this story to my partner on our hike, “that’s peak White Supremacy Culture right there, isn’t it?”
On the day that the Washington, DC, NFL team announced it would finally be retiring its racial slur of a name, my inner social justice warrior was fully at the fore. I make no apologies.
Then we set off into the trees, on a fine, wide trail that meandered between medium to enormous hardwoods.
Some ways in, we saw a small 0.1 mile detour off to the right on the map. “I wonder where that goes,” offered my partner, so we took it. It took us to a wholly unremarkable field where one lone guy was practicing his golf swing, but it also took us to this huge, smoothe-skinned beech with these gnarly roots holding little pools of rain from the storms earlier this week.
As we walked, we started talking about the differences in the landscape here in New Jersey versus the woods of Maine. As we circled the summit of the first small rise — apparently these rolling hills are the Watchung Mountains — I felt like I had a really good handle on the differences. “The understory is really clear here,” I said, “not the little trees and blueberry bushes and ferns you’d have up in Maine, where the canopy is not as thick. And of course you’d have a lot more boulders and stones scattered on the ground in Maine.” And just as I was saying that, we came across this bit of forest art (followed shortly after by a pair of ponds where the bullfrogs were a-croakin’):
And then, as we started switch-backing up the next small rise, the pathway narrowed, hemmed in on both sides by dense annuals, deep layers of bright green leaves despite the still-heavy canopy. So, what do I know, anyway?
And then we came upon this monstrosity….
We happened upon a couple walking their dog at the same time, presumably more local than us, so we asked, “What the heck is that?”
The woman, startled, looked up at the eagle-topped monstrosity above us. Her brow furrowed — it was clear she had never seen the thing before, never wondered about it. “Some thing rich people made to make themselves look rich?”
That tracks pretty well with the history of Greenwood Gardens, now a semi-public garden and conservation education nonprofit. Most of it is hidden away behind this fence, charging a nominal fee to be able to enter the space, but some of the former estate owners’ work extends into the fully public woods, including the Avenue of Trees.
Despite all my anxiety about my self-imposed confinement in the age of social distancing and quarantine, it was a pretty good birthday afternoon.