“Let’s walk the Ravine Trail,” my son Anthony said.
This Finger Lakes National Forest trail isn’t far from my property, but I hadn’t been there this season. A killer threatens this small grove of hemlocks: Hemlock wooly adelgid, a native of Japan first found in Virginia in the 1950s. The small sap-sucking aphids spread quickly, affecting at least 50% of the hemlock forests in eleven Eastern states. I didn’t want to face it.
It’s here. As I feared.
I wanted to visit the trees the way I wanted to visit a dying friend or a sacred site in ruins. To witness and pay homage. So many trees have sickened or died since my husband Vic and I bought our land in 1972. The last of the elms, American chestnuts, beech, ash trees, and now hemlocks.
Before 2005, when Vic and Anthony opened many new trails on our land, I visited this hemlock forest often. In 1994, I had this dream:
I’m on the Ravine Trail. The hemlocks are tall and primordial. I lie on my back in a clearing on the forest floor, surrounded by a circle of ancient trees. The trees are sacred women in the guise of giant trees. I’m safe lying under their drooping branches.
Today, Anthony and his friend Jenna walked ahead of me. She’d come with him from California, so I was meeting her for the first time. He took the left fork over the bridge, the one going toward the grove. Dappled sunlight sparkled off the murmuring water. The earth smelled of evergreen needles and damp leaves. Autumn crunched under our feet.
“Look,” Anthony said, pointing toward the gorge. I saw a huge pink-ribboned tree.
“Damn,” I said. My belly tightened as I held back a sob.
“Look at the woodpecker holes,” Anthony said.
“Do woodpeckers like wooly adelgids?” Woodpecker holes went up and down the marked trees. I learned later that woodpeckers search for larva in infested trees.
“This was one of my praying places,” I said when we reached the biggest grove on a spit of land with deep gorges on each side.
As we walked, we saw more pink ribbons. We descended to the stream bed in the bottom of the gorge and looked up. More pink. About one out of forty trees. The gorge felt solemn, like an intensive care ward where few get out alive.
We walked up to the rim trail and took a different path downhill. I wouldn’t have taken this poorly marked trail on my own, but Anthony spent his childhood bushwhacking in these woods. He knew the way.
In fifteen minutes, he pointed to a sign. Finger Lakes Forest Conservation Easement. “That’s our property.”
We crossed the border to home ground. When we passed the only big hemlock on the family land, I sent her a silent prayer.
Have you noticed illness and decline in nature near you? Do you look or turn away? During the Vietnam War, Quakers taught me the importance of witnessing. Even when I can’t stop suffering or injustice, it matters if I show up rather than walk away. For a post about the action Vic and I took to protect our forest, see For the Love of Trees: 2005. For another post about walking in Watkins Glen Gorge, a large and spectacular Finger Lakes ravine, see My Uncoupled Life. For beautiful videos and documentaries of Finger Lakes beauty, I recommend Walk in the Park.