Monday, October 31, 2016

A Trip to Boston Hollow

Westford, Connecticut
I'm located in a more or less suburban neighborhood close to the University of Connecticut, which is practically a small city. The northeast quadrant of Connecticut is called the Quiet Corner for a reason, though, and if you travel just a few miles to the north and east, the landscape becomes pretty rural for the Nutmeg State. Westford, Connecticut is a tiny cluster of nineteenth and eighteenth century houses and a church within the town of Ashford. Taking the road east from Westford, the houses thin out and you enter an almost unpeopled landscape of swamps, overhanging cliffs and dark hemlock groves: Boston Hollow.

Campaign sign spotted by the road in Westford. "Sunken R'lyeh has the best leaders, tremendous, not like we have in this country. Great Cthulhu says nice things about me, folks, nice things, believe me. A strong leader, I hear him in my dreams, not like the dishonest media says. The Old Ones don't win anymore. Sad."
New England horror author H.P. Lovecraft's most famous creation is probably the invertebrate deity-whatzit Cthulhu, who is also a perpetual third party candidate for president (slogan: "Why settle for the lesser evil?"). Lovecraft was a Providence native, and his decadent hill towns with terrifying secrets were based mostly on certain backwards settlements around Springfield, Massachusetts. But he certainly was also familiar with eastern Connecticut, and parts of Ashford have a definite Lovecraft Nation feel about them.

Ashford was a prosperous farming community in the early nineteenth century, with 2661 residents in the 1830 census. It entered a steep decline in the mid-1800s, however, and was down to less than 700 residents around World War I. The region might have been very nearly abandoned in the early twentieth century, if it hadn't been for an influx of Eastern European immigrants looking for cheap farm land. The town has made a comeback since the mid-twentieth century, but as late as the 1970s, there were houses without electricity or indoor plumbing in the area, and some old-timers made a living with activities like burning piles of logs encased in earth to make charcoal, and cutting Witch Hazel branches for medicinal preparations.

Road through Boston Hollow
The history of Boston Hollow has also followed a Lovecraftian trajectory, from bustling center of activity, to nearly forgotten backwater. An important Native American route, the Old Connecticut Path, passed through the area, and the Hollow was part of the Center Turnpike, a major thoroughfare between Boston and Hartford at the peak of Ashford's first period of prosperity in the 1830s. Today Boston Hollow is part of the Yale Myers Forest, the road receives barely any traffic at all, and the Hollow is probably about just about the quietest corner of the Quiet Corner of Connecticut.

Not-quite the Old Man of the Mountain, in Boston Hollow.

Hemlock forest on the steep sides of the Hollow.
The deep, shaded ravine in the heart of Boston Hollow is cooler and damper than surrounding areas, and just about all available surfaces on the forest floor seem to be covered with ferns, mosses and lichens. Striped Maple, an understory shrub or small tree that is common in the north woods of New England, occurs all over the steep slopes of the Hollow, but is otherwise an uncommon sight this far south.

Peligera cf. canina, Dog Lichen
Umbilicaria mammulata, Smooth Rock Tripe
I noted a couple of interesting lichens on a recent foray into Boston Hollow. Rock Tripe is large and impressive (as lichens go) lichen that is not uncommon in the right sort of habitats in Connecticut: shaded and undisturbed rock faces and large boulders. It gets especially abundant and luxuriant in Boston Hollow, though, along with Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), a poikilohydric or "resurrection" fern, which can dry to a crisp in drought, then rehydrate and reanimate itself when rain returns. There were also some blackish patches of Dog Lichen, with reddish sporocarps (fruiting structures), which I haven't seen very often, but which does also grow in a bare spot in my yard, for some reason.

There is a lot to explore around Boston Hollow, with close to 8,000 acres of forest preserved for research by Yale, a number of nearby state parks, and large additional parcels of forested land owned by a local timber company. But, and maybe it's just because I'm originally a New York City native, it's hard to shake the feeling that the place is just a little too far from the madding crowd, and decidedly not the sort of woods where you would want to be caught after dark on Halloween.