Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds. 

Transported in the Cold, April Rain

Stepping out to fetch the paper (really, to feed the clowder–there is no paper, nostalgia and porch-papers go hand-in-hand), I felt the cold, spring rain about to break from its accumulated mist around me. It’s happened this way before.

(I believe the cats are grateful for porches, as umbrellas for paws are late to the patent office.)

It was late afternoon in San Francisco, April, 4 years ago, as I left the Botanical Garden, when I sensed the fragile clouds.

April 2017, San Francisco

(There were fewer cats then and a great many more flowers.)

The air was cold, crisp, yet sticky with pollen.

On my solo excursion in a new city, as I am inclined, I typically avoid public transportation, traveling lightly in well-worn sneakers. I make a point of living locally, seeing the world from vacation’s sidewalks.

Feeling imminent rain, however, I jumped on a bus to take me back to my hostel, a bus which brought me a few miles in the wrong direction before I knew to dismount.

My phone was dead and my pockets bare, and so, with the threat of rain in a thick April smog, I started the arduous trek back.

The Sky Opens

After 2 miles, the fissure erupted and rain poured, and clothed in only a rainbow-dyed sweatshirt and a pair of cheap, stiff jeans, I felt the call of adventure. The drench was only beginning.

After an hour, my jeans chaffed and the rainbow dye ran down my face and wrists. Somehow I was miles from base. A true, independent sojourn, then! I’d save myself and see the city from an unexpected point of view.

I’d studied a city map before taking off, and was surprised to find myself near San Francisco State University. Truly, miles, hours, off course. The hills make foot travel more tenuous than any other scape I’d encountered. Having only my wits, my obviously unreliable sense of direction, and my appearance as a sopping circus clown, I asked directions and was turned around.

I could only chuckle at the ridiculous nature of my situation. I never have the adventure I hope for, only the one I haven’t planned for.

And turned around again when I reached the Shopping District. My feet squished in my sneakers and my body began to ache. Doormen were shielding ladies in expensive shoes from the downpour as I hustled between, through, the drops.

I nearly lost my joviality and any hope I’d find my way back. Perhaps I’d fallen through a portal and was doomed to loop through these neighborhoods in perpetuity, damp, cold, and hungry.

I had stopped to rest beneath an overpass, where a few had gathered to wait for a bus, when I first noticed the joy. San Francisco is an upbeat city, to be sure, especially in comparison to my native New York, but this… This was happiness exhaling from an entire population.

Divine Intervention

It rains so infrequently in San Francisco that for residents, a downpour is a blessing.

A woman in a blue skirt suit wheeled a cart of Bibles and pamphlets up to me. She’d been recruiting congregants at the bus stop when she must have noticed my plight.

“Can the Lord be of any service?” She asked.

Pithy, I chuckled to myself, grateful for any assistance, divine or otherwise.

I explained the unfurling of my day and she mapped out directions, being extra careful to avoid the steeper hills. I was about an hour’s walk from salvation.

I thanked her, profusely, and she offered me her umbrella. But what good is umbrella when one is already saturated? No, she would need the umbrella so as not to sully her beautiful suit. She had the Lord’s work to do, after all, giving directions to sidewalk-stuck, hostel-bound rainbow fish. It was best she maintain appearances.

I set off, emboldened by the hour remaining (less, 40 mins in stride, despite my burning hips) and the knowing it was impossible to get even more soaked than I already was.

When I was three blocks away from my hostel, the sun came out and slowly the rain tapered off.

People emerged from storefronts grinning. Rainfall is precious here. Also, check out that colorful mermaid girl, just emerged from the sea. Our city is a magical place. They were all infectious jolly. Several called out to say hello, and more than a few waved. I felt like the San Francisco rainy day mascot. I thought they might write a book about me and my follied, drenched trek through their streets.

Arriving at the hostel, avoiding the stares, I hurried to my room, peeled off the layers, wrapped myself in my warmest attire, and slept for 14 hours.

I was changed that day.

I had walked 17 miles, many of them in an unexpected direction.

I had seen the city in an unusual and excitable way.

I learned I could survive anything, that I only need put one foot in front of the other, and keep doing so, and that eventually I would find a way to rest. And that, no matter how resistant I might be, someone’s Lord would reach out to help when I needed help the most.

***

It was only 20 minutes today before the light emerged. The cats who had run for cover all repositioned in their sunning spots.

How fortunate I am to smell the rain and remember, as a woman of this world, I am as free as my feet will allow me, I need only take the first steps.