Kristen Lindquist: A summer walk through Monhegan's Cathedral Woods

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 9:45pm

It's easy to feel you've left your everyday life behind on Monhegan Island, located about ten miles offshore and over an hour by boat from Port Clyde. During the long, slow journey to get there over the water, the part of your brain responsible for anxiety and stress seems to click off. The rhythm of the waves begins to lull you. You start to notice seals or the occasional harbor porpoise passing by. Other islands fall behind in the ferry's wake. 

When you step off the boat onto the island, the very air feels different — probably 15 degrees cooler, for one thing, and cleaner, fresher. There's no pavement, no traffic noise beyond maybe the mufflers of pickup trucks picking up luggage on the wharf. You're aware of stones underfoot, of your feet touching actual earth. 

If you're planning to return on the day's last boat, you've only got a few hours to see and do it all: eat lunch, hike to the lighthouse and the Lobster Cove shipwreck, check out world-class art at the gallery, artist studios, and the Monhegan Museum, shop for local crafts, sample island-made beer or chocolate. All great things to do.  

But if you really want to immerse yourself mind and spirit in Monhegan's essence, spend some time exploring the island's spruce forest, the aptly named Cathedral Woods. These woods are part of the vast swath of undeveloped conservation land on the island first protected with great foresight back in the mid-1900s by Theodore Edison (son of Thomas), and now owned by Monhegan Associates. This nonprofit  also maintains the network of hiking trails, many of which crisscross Cathedral Woods. You can experience the forest via many trails, with Red Ribbon and Evergreen being two of my favorites. The Cathedral Woods Trail is one of the most-traveled, hosting the popular fairy houses built by visitors.  

An island friend once had T-shirts made up that said, "Cathedral Woods is my sacred place." Indeed, entering the hush of the woods feels a bit like stepping into a church, albeit a living, breathing church filled with growing things and the muted roar of wind and the far-off surf.  Spruce trunks rise up all around you, drawing the eye skyward. Needles underfoot dampen your footsteps. Slanted sunlight pours in through the trees to light up patches of the forest as if with a spotlight beaming from the heavens. Bright moss dotted with wildflowers borders both sides of the trail, outlining it in green as if the forest itself had created the path to lead you in.

Acidic spruce and fir needles that blanket much of the forest floor, along with the mature evergreen canopy blocking out most direct sunlight, limit understory growth. The forest feels open to your gaze. 

You start to pay attention. The trees, the trail, the sense of cool calm, have lured you in. But once you enter, small things catch your eye all around you. Your perspective shifts scale from macro to micro. You slow down, becoming mindful in spite of yourself, in spite of your original intent to hike the entire perimeter of the island before you have to catch the boat. 

You notice how with each step a cloud of tiny moths flutters up around you. Here and there, a small scrap of impossible blue might flit past, an azure butterfly. Overhead, larger tiger swallowtails fan the air with black-striped yellow wings. A shimmering dragonfly flits past, pauses on a fern for a split second. In a shaft of light, a column of gnats rises and swirls. You slowly realize the air around you is full of hosts of flying things.

Here and there whorls of Cinnamon Ferns crop up, sporting rusty spires of spores. And lingering wildflowers, low and small, worth getting down on your knees for: patches of tiny, nodding twinned pink bells of Twinflower, shiny three-leaved Goldthread with its saffron-colored roots, creeping Partridgeberry, speckled brown berries of Canada Mayflowers, the last browning Bunchberry flowers, soon to give way to red clusters of berries. 

If there's been a recent rain, mushrooms too will decorate the forest duff. While you're down on your knees, look for clusters of the tiniest Marasmius mushrooms, their pale caps smaller than a pinky fingernail atop a thread-like stalk. Each of these is supported by a single spruce needle!  

There's music in this cathedral, as well, accompanying the faint backdrop of the waves. The cacophonous chorus of spring migrants has moved on by July. But Black-throated Green Warblers sing well into the summer, their buzzy "zee zee zoo zee" audible at a distance. If you pause and are quiet, you might also hear the ethereal flute song of a Swainson's Thrush, a regular but rarely visible summer resident of the spruce forest. 

The master chorister of Cathedral Woods, however, is the Winter Wren. This wren's drawn-out, complex warble seems to rise like something enchanted from within the trees, as if some of those fairy houses might be inhabited. You might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this palm-sized, unassuming brown bird, but he's a good ventriloquist and hard to track down. If you try too hard to find him, you might find yourself caught up in the brightly blossoming (but scratchy) arms of a blackberry patch or tangled up in deadfall.

Another island friend jokes that the word "magical" is a cliche on the island, worn out from overuse. So I won't use it. But hiking in Cathedral Woods can shift your mindset in ways you might not expect. You emerge blinking into the sunlight at cliff's edge, the sea crashing beneath you; on an island all trails lead to the sea eventually. There's a new feeling tucked under your breastbone, a touchstone of calm and wonder you can carry back home with you across the bay. 


 Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.

Kristen Lindquist

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