Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Call Me Restless

(Margo D. Beller)

(Editor's note: This post was published several years ago, one of many posts where I stupidly removed the link allowing you, Dear Reader, to access it after publication. So I have republished it.) 

When the dark comes early; when the cold wind blows; when the furnace heat dries out everything, including me; when the lines on my face seem deeper; when I feel fat from indulging in too many office snacks; when the house closes in and my husband barricades himself behind a book; when December is in my soul as well as on the calendar, that is when I take myself, if not to sea like the unnamed narrator of Moby-Dick, then to the woods for a long walk.

I have been losing my connection to nature and it makes me feel unnatural. I used to walk all the time at my last job including going to and from the train. I’d hear birds in the morning and look at the stars at night. Not now.

Driving to work has made me slow and fat, my legs rubbery. Winter makes me feel achy and twice my age. I wanted to push myself, to walk and not eat and pretend I had no financial, property or spousal responsibilities.

I went to the Swamp.

The Great Swamp is in the heart of suburbia. Part is a Morris County park. Part is a Somerset County park. The huge part in between is federal territory split between a “wilderness” area and a “management” area.

In spring I take a particular trail into the wilderness area at dawn and find all sorts of migrant songbirds. I also find deep mud, slippery rocks and wild bushes that are cut back once in a very long while. I have to really want to go birding to come here, but it is usually worth it.

This December day I wanted a long, flat, easy road so I hiked in the management area along Pleasant Plains Road, between the Helen Fenske visitor center (named for the woman whose efforts 50+ years ago scuttled a planned airport) and the unpaved area several miles away where the old visitor center once stood.

Many interesting birds have been found along this road, but I wasn’t expecting a lot. Winter is generally a quiet season for birding at the Swamp.

I was there to walk. Yet, almost by accident I found a bluebird in a tree and then a harrier flew low over a mowed, flooded field. Had I been driving I’d likely have missed them.

Several hours later, when I finally turned around and headed back to my car the way I’d come, the walk went from pleasure to an endurance test.

Suddenly the cold wind was in my face. My stomach was rumbling. My leg muscles were twinging and the gravel was making my feet hurt. The thought of my car parked so many miles away made me momentarily panic.

There are times I want to walk and go without food for so long I feel cleansed.

Then there are times I selfishly consider pushing myself so hard I collapse and die on the road.

I felt a little of both on this walk.
(Margo D. Beller)

Luckily, the way back always seems to go faster than the way out. Despite the aches and the wind I was back at the Fenske center a few hours later and then headed home in my warm car.

I was tailgated as I tried to enjoy the ride on the winding Harding Township back roads. On one hill I was forced to pull over several times because behemoths - luxury and otherwise - would come barreling downhill taking a lane and a half, leaving not much room for me.

It was only a more scenic, lower-speed version of my workday commute on Route 80.

I would like to say this winter trip provided an epiphany about the beauty of staying alive, of being glad for what you have, of taking life one day at a time.

That would be a lie. It was more like, you can walk to the ends of the Earth and your problems will still be with you.

Deal with it.

At least I was cheered by MH’s warm smile and the picture he took of a Carolina wren at our suet feeder while I was gone.

For the moment, I am trying not to be Restless.

The Silver Lining of Brownfields and Golf Courses

I have mixed feelings about golf courses. I don't play golf, and most of the people I know who do tend toward the elitist in the way they deal with humanity. If there are birds around, they are just obstacles to a hole in one that must be eliminated.

On the last day of autumn, Dec. 20, 2014, my husband (MH) and I were scanning for birds next to the Bayonne Golf Club before attending a holiday party in nearby Jersey City. There was no wind but the cold was, literally, numbing. There were also no golfers. On a distant, high dune high next to the course's massive, lighthouse-styled clubhouse was a buteo scanning the fairways and sand traps for its next meal.

On the other side of the walkway where we stood the water was filled with waterfowl - gadwalls, blacks, mallards, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads, American wigeon and a large raft of ruddys, among which was a horned grebe. A small flock of Brant geese were on the opposite shore while a much larger flock of Canada geese were standing on the lawn of the luxury apartment complex. I was surprised to find four killdeer on the exposed mudflats.

Killdeer (Margo D. Beller)
The walkway we were on was made possible by the golf course, which was opened in 2005. It sits atop a former waste disposal site. As part of the agreement to build an exclusive (the brochure doesn't list the membership fee but, as the saying goes, if you have to ask you can't afford it), Scottish-style course with sweeping views of the New York skyline and undulating, grass-covered dunes, the builders had to put in a public walkway to allow the citizens of Bayonne - 99.9% of whom were not going to be course members - access to the waterfront. I expect that was the same quid pro quo for the apartment complex across the water. 

The idea of using a former dump or hazardous waste site for a golf course or commercial strip - not residential housing - is known as brownfields, a program encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency. It's a good idea, taking polluted property that would otherwise sit there useless or fixed at public expense and allow private people to spend the money to make it useful.

The government of Bayonne, which lobbied hard to get a cruise ship port, too, must've liked the idea of an exclusive course creating a more positive image for the gritty city (the brochure quotes restauranteur and member Mario Battali on the calming effect of playing in Bayonne). It is a striking landscape and the clubhouse dominates. Of course, there is no way to get on the course from the walkway - a high dune wall prevents that (although there is evidence some have made their way up anyway for a better look) and the only way to see some swatch of the landscape is from pedestrian bridges some distance away.

If the buteo we saw was the reported rough-legged hawk, it was in the right habitat. These hawks are sporadic winter visitors to airports and other tundra-like places such as beaches and golf courses. Just last month another winter visitor that favors tundra, snowy owl, was found at this course (last year many snowy owls were reported in the region as part of a major irruption). The first time we had walked near the golf course, in summer, we saw northern harriers, an endangered breeder in the state, and American kestrels, a threatened species, hunting over the dunes. There were marsh wrens, goldfinches and, somewhere in the reeds, rails.
Snowy owl at Island Beach State Park (Margo D. Beller)
I've been to plenty of parks that were created from millionaires' properties and opened to the public. I have also been to a county park, Natirar, that is at the base of a hill atop which is the former mansion of the King of Morocco, now an exclusive restaurant and spa. There's nature and there's the profit motive.

It's just not the same looking for birds from the edge of private property.

I don't know if Bayonne's is one of those courses now trying to create bird habitat by responsibly managing the environment at the same time they provide a luxury experience for members. Most golf courses don't have a good reputation and are considered by many toxic waste dumps. Too much water and chemicals to keep the lawns green. Sterile plantings that provide no benefits to birds or wildlife.

So it's a mixed bag. Useful property that draws birds where once were toxic chemicals - good. If there are raptors over the golf course, as was recently reported on the New Jersey bird list, that means there are rodents and other animals to feed them.

Exclusive clubs that cater to the few, rich and powerful at no benefit to the resident human population - not so good.

I am hoping this is one of the more enlightened golf courses. Of course, this place can afford to be enlightened and put up the chump change for that walkway we were standing on in the cold.

As long as the birds survive, they don't care either way.