Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Old McDonald's Farm

Follow me on a hike in Wilbraham through the farmland and forest owned by the family of the late Alton McDonald. I trudged through the property on May 9, two days before the town officially decided to buy and preserve the 29-acre tract at a Special Town Meeting.

The town will accept a state land grant of nearly $259,000, while Wilbraham’s Community Preservation Committee will fund $146,144 toward the purchase of the land, and the Minnechaug Land Trust will contribute $4,900.

The area, which will be known as the McDonald Nature Preserve, can be accessed at the end of Lake Drive (next to Jake's Restaurant on Boston Road), with the trailhead pictured below.

I take a right on Washington Road, which, as you can see below, is more of a path than a road.

I soon pick up the trail into the woods on the left. Just look for the “no trespassing” sign. These notices will eventually come down, because the area will no longer be private property, but the path is plain enough to see.

The landowners were pretty tolerant of people hiking down this path anyway, because it leads to the town-owned White Cedar Swamp reservation. However, I did run into one of the owners last winter when I snowshoed onto the farm from my backyard. He is an outdoorsman who likes to observe the deer, and didn't take kindly to my blundering through the swamp onto his property from the adjacent condo complex called The Woods at Wilbraham.

“Aw, man, you’re blowing all the deer outta here,” he said with disgust. “Just stay on the pathways, if you don’t mind.”

I promised him that I wouldn’t scare the deer away. He didn’t mind hikers—it was the all-terrain vehicle drivers and the illegal dumpers that he had disdain for, along with the people who stole the wildlife cameras that he had placed in the woods. Below are barriers to dissuade the use of motorized vehicles on the paths, along with evidence of illegal disposal of trash.

We talked about the bobcat that we had both seen in the swamp, and then we went our separate ways. I was relieved that he wasn’t too pissed about my trespassing. After all, the McDonald Farm is a gorgeous piece of land and a convenient shortcut between my yard and the White Cedar Swamp, and I wanted to use the trails in the future.

Little did I know during this conversation that the property was in danger of being built upon. A developer had approached the family and was going to offer big bucks for the land—much more than the $400,000 the town will pay. However, the family wanted the land to stay in its pristine state.

There is tremendous amount of development pressure on the Nine Mile Pond end of the White Cedar Swamp. Unfortunately, last December the Planning Board approved a 26-single-family home subdivision in the woods just west of the farm. In recent years, the Cedar Ridge condos off Stony Hill Road (the former Oaks Farm) and The Woods at Wilbraham condos off Main Street have cut enormous swaths into the woodlands surrounding the swamp. For more information on the environmental threats to the White Cedar Swamp, which is the westernmost Inland Atlantic White Cedar Swamp in the country (and contains the state’s largest known population of both the rare Bristly Buttercup flower and the Eastern Worm Snake), read about my snowshoeing adventures here last year.

I apologize for the blurry picture of the farm itself (below). To get a better idea of its pastoral beauty, view my cell phone video.

In the sketch below, the McDonald Farm area is in red, and the town-owned portion of the White Cedar Swamp reservation is in green.

In 2007, the Minnechaug Land trust floated the idea of buying about 100 acres of the old Presz farm in these woods next to the future subdivision, and I hope this proposal is still on the table, because it more and more of the forest surrounding the swamp has been getting paved over in the past two years.

The trail leads to a clearing where the old Oaks Farm was (below). In the far distance is the Cedar Ridge complex, a development that will expand and march its way into this sensitive land in the coming years. Although the White Cedar Swamp area is huge, running all the way from Lake Drive to Faculty Street (where there is another trailhead), it is shrinking, despite heroic efforts to preserve it.

God bless the White Cedar Swamp. Without it, the forests here would have been developed long ago. It filters the brooks that wind into the North Branch of the Mill River in Sixteen Acres, as well as the stream that flows into Nine Mile Pond. Yes, swamps are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, but I love them (swamps, NOT mosquitoes!). Like Henry David Thoreau, I see swamps as a refuge from modern society, virtually untouched by humanity since their creation. During Thoreau's time, people still thought of wetlands as stagnant pools that emitted the fog of disease. However, he suggested that "the steam which rises from swamps and pools is as dear and domestic as that of our own kettle." In his essay Walking, he wrote, "Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps."

The path I'm on continues to the fields at the Wilbraham Middle School, and, ultimately, if you’ve got the time and the energy, you can go to the school, double back, and hike all the way to the trailhead on Decorie Drive off Main Street.

But the mosquitoes are getting pesty, and my lawn awaits mowing. So I turn around and head back with an extra spring in my step, knowing that at least the land I’m walking on will be preserved forever.

"I enter the swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature."

--Henry David Thoreau