A scene from the Wharf Creek Conservation Area in Marshfield.

A friend and I are following a trail through Marshfield’s Wharf Creek Conservation Area, a low-lying woodland in the valley of the Green Harbor River. This is a new forest — and a strange one. Many of the trees grow at odd angles, with twisting trunks that stretch out parallel to the ground. The underbrush is equally peculiar; tangled and thin, it seems to extend in all directions, yet the woods still feels spacious, even empty. The trees have yet to show their leaves.

Like Webster’s Wilderness, Slaughter Island, Cherry Hill, and Daniel Webster Sanctuary, the other conservation areas along the southern banks of this tidal river, the Wharf Creek Conservation Area was once farm land, tended by the great statesman Daniel Webster, and the Thomas Family before him. Only recently has it become forest, these strange trees sprawling to fill what was once a wide pasture.

None of the forests along the banks of the South Shore’s tidal rivers are very old. The European settlers who came to this country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were farmers and shipbuilders. They cleared the land to grow crops and turned the timber into houses, churches and ships. In their minds, they were taming the wilderness they encountered here, carving out something familiar for themselves in a foreign landscape.

We cannot know wilderness the way our ancestors did — not on the South Shore anyway, perhaps not even in this country. The United States Geological Survey has assessed every square mile of land from Maine to Hawaii; they’ve created topographic maps that permit us to pinpoint not just our towns, not just our neighborhoods, but the exact locations of our homes and the lay of the land all around them.

By its traditional definition, wilderness is a place that is completely unknown by man. When the European settlers spoke of the wilderness here in New England, they were referring to lands for which they had no chart, no key, no idea of what to expect. These lands, however, were not unknown. The Native Americans who inhabited the region long before them knew the woods well. Perhaps this knowledge was not the kind that was easily shared or translated; more likely, the Europeans — who generally referred to the Indians as “savages” and considered them more as animals than humans — wanted to make sense of the region on their own terms. To the Europeans, their New World was a place where nobody had gone before.

When walking in the woods, I’m not interested in going where nobody has gone before. I have no desire to tame the wilderness, to set out with compass in hand to make sense of a territory that makes no sense. I prefer that the trails are already lain out, the maps already drawn. It may not be wilderness in the traditional sense, but I’m not looking for a place that is new to everyone, only to me.

I don’t support the prejudice of our ancestors, but I understand their need to make sense of their New World on their own terms. Even if the maps are drawn and the trails are lain out, we cannot truly know something unless we have experienced it ourselves. What worked for those who came before us will probably work for us as well, but we must arrive at such conclusions in our own time.

I used to think that life was predictable, that once you knew what you wanted, you could expect your life to follow a certain path. That, for example, if you chose to be a farmer, and had the means to do so, then you could expect to have good crop years and bad crop years, or you could expect to benefit from advances in machine technology as well as to experience machinery failures. But would you expect the bottom to fall out of your particular crop market? Would you expect global warming to dramatically alter the climate of your region? It’s comforting to believe that life will continue along at a certain pace, with certain predictable bumps in the road — but is it wise? Life is forever unfolding. There are no guarantees.

This trail in Wharf Creek Conservation Area leads us through a relatively new forest, one which is totally new to me. The landscape itself is not foreign — I’ve seen trees like this, rivers like this, underbrush that seems to tangle in the same way — but the place itself is unfamiliar to me. Even in this foreign terrain, I rejoice in what I know are universal indications of spring — the green leaves of the mayflower spreading a verdant blanket across the forest floor, the tender shoots of new grass poking through the matted yellow remains of last year’s growth, the blush of budding trees painting a crimson band between the golden marsh and blue-gray overcast sky on the horizon.

The cycle of nature doesn’t change much from year to year, and I take comfort in that. But even with some level of order, there is much that is unpredictable. We can follow even the most familiar trail and still be taken by surprise by something new around the next bend. So much will be the same from time to time, yet so much could be different.

It’s been a tumultuous winter and spring for me, full of unexpected turns and obstacles along the path. I’ve explored a lot of wilderness. I am learning to see the inherent order in life, and to understand that it is complemented by an equal or greater share of disorder. My faith in the cycle of things grows, but my strength comes from being able to ride out, and even embrace, the times when there appears to be no order at all.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
April 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization which focuses on the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the spring newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.