As always by the middle of April, enough snow had melted off the walking track at the Unity park to take the mile-long turn around.

It starts with slippery navigation of puddles and unsuccessful efforts to nail down exactly when the last walk was taken. The snow came early, so it must have been the beginning of November. Or was that two years ago? It gets harder and harder to remember. I was walking around this park before it was a park.

A dandelion gone to seed, with a young wolf spider. Everything in the yard knows what to do. Photo by Dana Wilde

Before, it was a wedge of tall grass, brush and trees between the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Unity village and the dwellings farther down Route 9. Unity College owned it, and students used the tiny beach-like area to launch canoe excursions on Unity Pond, and sometimes hold classes or cookouts. In the late-1980s, I wandered down there on haphazard naturalist walks to look for killdeer and bobolinks in the undisturbed grass.

Around then Bert Clifford, the college’s founder and benefactor, decided the wedge should get more use, and outdoor rec professor Ed Raiola was assigned to design a park that included baseball fields. Not everybody was happy about this plan to civilize untamed wilderness, but by 1993, there were ball fields, storage sheds, parking lots and a kids’ playground where my son, Jack, played when he was learning to talk. And there was this 1-kilometer walking track that looped at first just around the ball fields and back to the parking lot; later the western spur was added to make it a full mile around.

I’ve walked it thousands of times, according to my own estimates. Usually it starts at the faux covered bridge with the no-dogs-allowed sign — in front of which people often walk their dogs. Song sparrows live and sing around the bridge.

Along that first hundred or so feet westerly, the dandelions, later than usual as usual, finally popped out in mid-May and the flat black gravel track was finally dry. Reed canary grass (I think it is) will soon shoot up in the low wet swath on the right, and there’ll be fleabane and ox-eye daisies, purple thistles will barge in, tendrils of stitchwort, and later, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. Where there are blossoms there are bees buzzing. Dragonflies used to vibrate the whole place but in recent years have been eerily absent.

The Unity Shelob, aka Charlotte, in early August. Photo by Dana Wilde

After the bend to the left across more green grass is a line of brush in front of oak trees. The storage shed there is home base for barn spiders. In the woods inside a stand of tamaracks is a discarded orange plastic playground toy Jack and I used decades ago. The tamaracks tower up and every October turn bright gold, like a monument of time. To the left is a mucky tract of birches and alders where Harold, the first groundskeeper, always wanted to mow despite the bosses’ objections due to state wetlands regulations. Past the tamaracks is some Japanese honeysuckle, June-sweet. Once a fox popped out there, 20 feet from me. We startled each other and froze eye to eye. Then he popped back into the woods.

Up ahead is the hairpin turn where a burdock hedge separates the park from the railroad. To the right are the Zanesville Woods, a grove of white pines fragrant on July afternoons. I call it Zanesville because in the 1980s Gary Zane, then the college’s athletic director, organized a squad of students who planted the whole grove. A sapling every mile. Or, well, every 6 or 8 feet.

After the hairpin, the track straightens to parallel a heavy white plastic fence and Route 9. The archaeological outline of Doug Nye’s ancient ice-skating rink project abuts Park Mountains (piles of waste dirt that overgrew with grass, goldenrod, alders, pearly everlasting). One November I found in the grass, much to my amazement, tiny shepherd’s purse flowers.

Two little footbridges span runoff ruts, and two small red oaks front the chain-link fence around the basketball court. More daydream estimations suggest I’ve taken tens of thousands of shots at the sometimes bent, sometimes repaired hoops on this green court. Teenage boys play pickup games on windy Sunday afternoons. I used to occasionally join them, but no longer. In recent years well-skilled girls, hearteningly, play in the games.

At the parking lot entrance, the big sign:

FIELD OF DREAMS Everyone Welcome

Two young wolf spiders throw out lines of silk to go ballooning in the Unity park last month. Photo by Dana Wilde

The track resumes parallel to, and just below the road, beside the remnant of a wooden rail fence. Along on the left is a metal bench with excellent spidering — little crab spiders, ballooning wolf spiders, furrow spiders spinning webs underneath the back all summer and fall. Down slope, more wetland vegetation separates the track from the tennis court. To the left is the Little League outfield. When Jack played years ago, I pitched batting practices, hit grounders, filled in as ump. Slapped black flies in the metal bleachers at Memorial Day games. Wow. Someone should write a natural history of rural Little League in Maine.

The track turns into an alley between two swaths of young ash trees that you might think is planned landscaping, but it’s not. This is more starling-, sparrow- and red-winged blackbird-occupied wetland that John Sullivan had to persuade Harold and his chatty old successor Paul (former DPW employee, U2 music equipment truck driver and conspiracy theorist) not to mow. For a long time this stretch was made of grasses, goldenrod, touch-me-nots, willow herb, New York asters and garden spider webs. Then about 10 years ago little ash trees started sprouting and took over. The ashes and their fluttering leaves became emblems of summer, for this walk anyway.

Their parents are in the wet woods that line the northeast stretch of the track. A few winters ago, a big poplar toppled out and crushed the chain link fence near the foul pole of the softball field. Eventually the wood got chain-sawed away, but the crumpled fence still attests to the lasting brutality of winter.

A meadowhawk dragonfly, of the skimmer family. Photo by Dana Wilde

Along the softball field bleachers on the left and the tree line on the right, the way bends toward the parking lot. In the woods behind the backstop, I some years ago noticed a little stand of water hemlock. Tall, gangly, purple-tinged stalks with rounded umbels, like Queen Anne’s lace. Fatal, however, to taste. After tormenting myself about being a busybody or not, I could not escape the question: What if some little kid, defying one in a million odds, wanders over from the softball field looking for a foul ball and decides to bite one of these water hemlock stalks? I relented and contacted the college grounds crew. Later they eliminated the water hemlocks. Sometimes the Amish from over on Route 220 tether their horses in the clearing.

The route cuts across the pavement by the maintenance garage where we used to store Little League and soccer equipment, and where numerous and varied spiders patrol or build snares for bugs. You go through a gate displaying another no-dogs-allowed sign about as effective as a speed limit posting, and then the gravel track skirts the playground. Right there is the very sand-digger toy that Jack loved to use 25 years ago. Farther on, the swings his little son already loves.

The track aims directly toward the lake, cobalt blue with whitecaps in October gales and slate gray in overcast May. Years ago, the bole of a huge old maple was tipping in geological slow motion downward toward the track. Eventually it got removed like the water hemlock grove.

Where the track hairpins back around the picnic shelter, a well-worn path breaks off toward the bouldery, lake-grass shore where an ancient white pine leans over the water like something out of Sarah Orne Jewett. Sometimes bald eagles soar overhead. Canada geese, the occasional osprey, loons, arrowing ducks, blue jays in the old maples and oaks.

The track climbs a steep 30 feet, and you’re standing on the little hill, with white plastic fence and private woods to the right, the whole park in view to the left. The next 400 feet or so run a straight line along the athletic field, where Jack played soccer over about 10 autumns. The full-size baseball field has never seen a lot of use. Gary recruited a team at the college for a while, and they played some home games here. Paul’s successor, Noah, a strapping tattooed college athlete, drove the mower around the field day in and day out one summer with his babysitting charge, little 4-year-old Katelyn, clinging cutely to his back. Now, only crows and seagulls stump self-importantly around the outfield.

Winterberries off the beaten track at the Unity park this month. Photo by Dana Wilde

The track then makes a hard left around right field and into the stretch to the parking lot. Off the corner are some white pines that might be relatives of Zanesville pines. Behind them is a hedge of winterberry brush. The reed canary grass is to the right, where damselflies and dragonflies ruled until recent summers. By July, some of this grass will be as tall as I am. Between the outfield fence and the parking lot is a line of cattails. Song sparrows in the brush by the bridge.

Near the flag pole is a bird condominium that year in and year out is used by feisty purple martins. I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched them fly in and out of the condo, poke their little faces out the holes, swoop three or four in aero-choreography over the basketball court, buzz humans who walk too close. They appear every year in May, filling the sky with wingbeats and chatter through high summer and depart every August, emblems of eternal recurrence.

I get in the car and drive home, and will return, too. For a while, anyway.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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