On a beautiful day last week, I walked to the top of West Rock in New Haven with a group of high school students and their teacher. What a great hike. We found geological and political history as well as awesome beauty right there in the city. West Rock Ridge State Park is one of the largest in Connecticut; it extends from New Haven's Westville section north almost six miles into Hamden.
We crossed Wintergreen Avenue from West Rock Nature Center, the home to our educational farm and went through the closed parking lot at the park entrance. That lot has been shut for so long that it's rapidly becoming a forest as the asphalt surrenders to the pioneer tree and plant species growing in its cracks. The road to the summit, elegantly designed and built during the Depression, is also closed. The absence of cars and their noise and smelliness was a rare pleasure. The lower forest is magnificent with large hardwood trees and lots of mountain laurel about to burst into flower. Showy lady slippers and columbines bloom here. We talked about the geological history of West Rock, a mass of igneous basalt intruded into the surrounding sandstone about 200 million years ago. We took a trail through the woods and came out near the turn off for Judge's Cave. More than 300 years ago, Judges Whalley and Goffe, (sound familiar?) who had signed a death warrant for the English King, hid from British troops who were chasing them. The cave is actually the cracks in a large erratic or boulder left there by the glacier during the last ice age. Nearby, we looked at the grooves in the exposed bed rock, direct evidence of the direction of the glacier's movement as it pushed down from the northeast, eventually becoming a one-half mile thick sheet of ice that covered this region 12,000 years ago.
The trail then climbed slowly along the western edge of the ridge, through trees dwarfed by thin soil and the harsh environment. Wildflowers and blueberries bushes abound. Occasionally the trail opens up to reveal a magnificent vista across West River Valley to the forested hills of Woodbridge, Orange and West Haven. We appreciated the subtle but effective work done by others on this trail.
We have the park mostly to ourselves. A few walkers and bike riders pass quickly on. A state employee mows the almost non-existent grass, making a loud noise and kicking up a cloud of dust from the sparse, low-growing meadows. At the summit shelter, near the large empty parking lot, another state worker is repairing the bluestone paving. The noisy gasoline-powered stone saw he's using keeps us away from the summit, but we find a fantastic rock overlook. We point out familiar landmarks and follow West River's flow to the Sound. When the noise of the saw stops, it is quiet at last, and so peaceful. We look out over New Haven and the Sound to Long Island, the terminal moraine left by the glacier.
The mason who was repairing the stones said the state had no money to buy bluestone to repair this wonderfully sited shelter, so he had to saw the broken pieces into regular-enough shapes to fill in the missing stones. He shared his dismay at this state of affairs. I thought about all the elegant work done here during the Depression, and the meagerness of it's care in these boom times when the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars to get large foreign corporations to move here.
Before leaving the summit, we go to the south end, where the view opens up to include East Rock, the companion to the one we're on, and Sleeping Giant, a similar geological formation. One of the students, usually a very taciturn fellow, said he was awestruck by the magnificence of the view.
Our walk down was a little quicker, as we hastened back to the Nature Center to cook a picnic lunch to satisfy the appetites we'd worked up.
This incredible ecosystem makes a great classroom. Our hike just scratched the surface of the wonders and lessons it holds. But perhaps the most important lesson of all is the effects produced on all of us by just walking through such a magnificent place.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.