Spring break has arrived, which means that I am back home in northern NJ, right on the border of New York. More importantly, spring break enabled me to head back to my favorite place in the world: Ramapo Mountain State Forest. I know some of these trails like the back of my hand, and I have been anxious all semester to be able to write about the pure beauty that resides here. As I drove about 20 minutes west from my house to get to my favorite trail, I simply could not contain my excitement. I felt like it was going to be a glorious, peaceful experience of all-day hiking, without any stress from school—and it certainly was.
I headed onto the trail in my hiking gear and automatically felt right at home again; the rocky terrain for the first mile or so put me right back in my place. Each step was taken carefully, paying attention to the natural patterns of the ground and its lack of any sort of paved surface—exactly the way hiking should be. Beginning to head further into forest, I hear the sound of flowing water from a tributary crossing through the path way. This week brought a lot of heavy rain, perhaps explaining why I felt as though the stream was more powerful than I had last remembered. Initially struggling to keep my balance on the slippery, wet rocks that led across to the other side, I tightened the straps on my backpack, stiffened my posture, and kept going. There’s something so beautiful and different about hiking by yourself in such a remote—yet familiar—place, as opposed to hiking with others or in a forest that you aren’t quite as familiar with. Here, I know and appreciate the lay of the land so much more. I can identify with what I see; certain feelings of confusion that I have in White Clay vanish here and are replaced with a sense of real understanding. I am less of just an explorer, and more of an observer.
Looking to my left, I pass some striking witch hazel shrubs. They bloom in late winter to early spring, making my hike incredibly timely. I stopped to kneel down and appreciate their inherent loveliness for a while. Here are these shrubs, gifted with the most tender and beautiful yellow flowers in the midst of a forest that still carries the weight of bear branches. The petals on these flowers are incredibly fringe-like; they are thin and rather rectangular in shape, growing in clusters. Seeing such a pop of color among so many barren trees and shrubs gave me such a positive feeling. Hiking onward, I couldn’t help but smile. After some time elapsed, I hit one of my favorite spots. To the left, through the trees, is a stunning view of the Ramapo Lake. I found a large rock to sit on for a while, to take it all in.
From experience, I know that this particular environment near the lake lends itself to many species inhabiting the area, unlike less diversity that would occur as I hike higher up into ridge-top habitat. Pulling out my binoculars, I observe a few hooded warblers right away. It seemed like the color yellow was following me today! These birds have a pale brown back with yellow underparts, and as I focus in and follow one particular warbler with my binoculars, I note that it is a male, due to its black hood surrounding the bright, yellow face. There is a lot of dense undergrowth here, and I see these birds swooping down to feed on insects in the vegetation. As I remain focused on the one male bird perched on a tree’s ledge, I hear his beautiful song. Ta-wee ta-wee tee-oh. It’s such a loud, succinct whistle—crisp and clear. Forcing myself to stop watching this beautiful bird, I tear my eyes away to notice some of the other native bird species here. I notice the red-eyed vireo—a relatively small songbird with olive green coloring and white underparts—resting in the newly emerging foliage of a blooming tree. Looking out into the distance a bit further I notice the ovenbird, another songbird, but a bit larger than the red-eyed vireo. With their characteristic white coloring, heavily streaked with black, I can’t help but notice these birds right away as well. Resting on a branch, these birds interestingly flick their tails up and gently lower them again—a seemingly common characteristic of these birds at rest. Feeling satisfied by my experience here, I continued to hike upwards.
I finally reached my favorite spot after a few hours of hiking—such a sweet, sensational feeling! As I climbed the mountainous terrain, it became difficult at times, but this view has always been worth it. Being so high up, from here I can see the New York City skyline amidst a sea of mountains in the distance. It’s such an amazing sight to see, yet I refuse to photograph this moment. Though I love pictures, some things in life are just too beautiful to capture. Only our minds can truly remember such a vivid, lively image. There is something about photography—at least from an iPhone anyway—that really degrades natural beauty. So instead, I close my eyes, breathe a sigh of relief, and take it all in.
Near this area is an old, abandoned castle which now serves as a paradigm for nature’s ability to take over. Nature certainly reclaimed this castle. There is practically an entire ecosystem growing between the remaining stone walls. Lately I have learned the importance of finding a small space in nature to observe, rather than always focusing on the big picture. I owe my longing for this intricacy to David Haskell, who in his book The Forest Unseen observed a small patch of the woods for an entire year, noticing things even at a microbial level. Though I don’t have nearly enough of a scientific background to do exactly that, I just wanted to really step in his shoes, at least for a day, and to try to observe all of the things I could in this rather small area that was burgeoning with life. Sitting down on the ground, I readied myself, trying to open my eyes to the little things. I usually look up, or around, but rarely down. Being close to the ground, I felt the need to examine the soil and plant litter, because I’ve always learned of its vital role in an ecosystem—to enrich the ecological productivity of the area and provide a rich organic layer of soil (the O horizon, or top layer). Right away I notice some decomposers, from small worms to a millipede. I have never had the experience of seeing a millipede up close, but they are really quite interesting. Examining its form, I am fascinated by its shape and the arrangement of two legs per tiny segment of its body, where each double legged segment is a result of two single segments, fused together as one. I stare at the little critter among the fallen leaves and twigs for quite some time, just watching its movements.
As I look away and scan my eyes upward, I notice a rope-like vine that has invaded the stone wall at my eye level. It is in this moment that I jump purely out of impulse; I spy a black snake, over two feet long in the brush nearly right in front of me. Here I was, examining this tiny millipede and taking absolutely no notice to the snake in front of me. Though I do consider myself a nature lover, there are certain boundaries I have. I thought this snake to be a common black rat snake, but to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure. Taking a step back, I needed to watch from a bit further. Immediately, this frustrated me. In Haskell’s book, he gives us a sense of how connected to nature he is. He hears a sound—not knowing the danger or implications of it—and doesn’t move, but rather waits to find out what is headed his way. More adventurous still, he brings himself alarmingly close to a tick, knowing the diseases it may carry, and dares to observe it as close as he can. These things stood out to me and really inspired me. Reading his book made me want to become more adventurous; if I consider myself a nature lover, shouldn’t I bring less fear to the table? Sitting and watching this snake crawl away, seemingly shy after seeing me jump back, forced me to come to terms with this aforementioned idea. I had just lost a brilliant opportunity to watch a species that I have never encountered before by jumping back instead of staying still. It is a new goal of mine, therefore, to become more still, observant, and adventurous in the way that Haskell presented to us in his brilliantly written book.
As I headed back down the trails after a long day, I had a lot on my mind. Though I could have been more adventurous today, I really just look at this day as a positive experience. Being in my favorite place, I was filled with joy to be home again—to breathe in the air here, and to feel the familiarity of this forest. Even though I perhaps made some mistakes, I find such solace in knowing that I had one purely beautiful day—and nothing can ever take that away.