Headwaters – A Nostalgia Trip Back Upstream

August 27, 2009

Renowned New England naturalist, John Hay will celebrate his 94th birthday tomorrow on August 31. I recently spoke with him to share my recent solo hike back to the hidden headwaters of a brook which once fed the Hay family’s Lake Sunapee summer home “The Fells” built in 1891 by John Hay’s grandfather, John Milton Hay, Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. As a young man from the Illinois Frontier, Hay’s grandfather launched his diplomatic career as a private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln.

A mere three generations of the Hay family separate Abraham Lincoln from my friend, author John Hay, who now resides quietly along the coast of Maine. The great sweep of American history as measured in human lives seems as brief as New Hampshire summer relative to time as measured by granite hills, old forests or the brook with its mysterious source hidden deep in the forest.

On the cusp of 94 years, Hay understands the relative passage of time. In his 1998 book, In the Company of Light, his chapter “The Source of the Brook” recounts a magical hike we shared to find the headwaters of Hay’s own natal stream:

“What can life hold for us that equals the suspension of growth and time in a young tree? … there is a delayed youth in every part of the land that is ready to be released… When I go back to my boyhood home in New Hampshire, I meet them again, spreading new branches across the path in front of me, as if to remind me that I once swung on them in passing, when they and I were young. Their time-holding relieves me of my own precarious hold on the years ahead.”

Now that Hay is no longer able to ramble through forests, climb hills and explore a serpentine brook, I ventured alone once more to the source of the brook. I began on the rocky shore of the lake. Uphill, further away from the sound of passing motorboats, I retraced a line in the forest drawn by the quiet trickling of water in jade-green mossy pools in the heart of the 700-acre “Hay Forest Reservation” donated to the Forest Society by John Hay’s father, Clarence Hay. As seen from the chairlift on Mount Sunapee, I see the same brook defined by dark hemlocks and red spruce

Unsure of when Hay will again see the forests of his youth, I called to remind him of tall, shade-loving hemlocks and red spruce – capable of living to 400 years old – that grow in the ravine of the brook. I described the senescence and collapse of sun-loving white birches now dying of old age. Pioneering birches grew into the former pastures of the Hay family’s “Fells Farm” by the 1920’s. Hay understands the inevitability of natural succession where the death and collapse of an individual large old tree opens the forest canopy to allow light to reach the forest floor, invigorating growth of younger saplings, poles and saw-timber growing in the shade of the understory. “This is just what happens” he told me, his voice trailing off.

I described glimpses of Sunapee, Kearsarge and Moosilaukee, owned by Dartmouth College where Hay had taught environmental studies. I invoked names of two of John’s now-deceased, long-time New Hampshire friends: forester, J. Wilcox Brown of Dunbarton and ornithologist Tudor Richards of Hopkinton. J.W. Brown was a forester for the Forest Society. Richards was Executive Director for the N.H. Audubon Society and wrote the interpretive trail guide for the “Ecology Trail” that traverses the lake shore and lower reaches of Beech Brook at The Fells. Hay, Richards and Brown shared excursions as far away as Costa Rica.

The sad truth is they just don’t train naturalists like those gentlemen anymore. As their successors, I feel we’re a poor substitute in our modern haste to reach conclusions.

Yet, the falling waters of Beech Brook tumble ceaselessly from hidden springs, an oracle deep in the heart of the Hay Forest Reservation. Hay described our pilgrimage and arrival the source of the brook more than a decade ago:

“Under the brow of a steep slope not far from the summit, where the brook and its moss-covered rocks went no farther, was a wide light green circle on the ground, covered with water-loving plants. The ever-flowing waters seeped out of this spring to be carried down, century after century… to a great wilderness lake. The brook guarded the secrets of the forest, as well as its own origins, which lie at an unknown depth in the bedrock of this minor mountain. I once unconsciously drank of its waters, and for much of my life I had been far removed from it, but now I had come (back) home, to the waiting heart.”

Far greater than the sum of economic, ecological and social values we derive from our State’s forests, lies a spiritual peace we may find in returning again to quiet woods or to the timeless trickle of a childhood brook.

Hay wrote decades earlier in his 1987 book Immortal Wilderness:

“There are occasions when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth, in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the undercurrents of the soil…. but you have to be willing to wait and receive.”

Happy Birthday my friend, John Hay.