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Six days in Eden: Writer and painter serve as resident artists at Trail Wood

Gurgling over rocks and splashing over a small waterfall, Hampton Brook flowed on its way to the Beaver Pond beneath a footbridge at the northern end of the trail called Old Woods Road. As my feet, clad in the hiking boots I would be wearing for most of this week, dangled off the decking, I settled just past 8 on Monday morning to begin testing the waters both literally and figuratively of this singular enclave of forest, field and farmstead in the state’s rural northeast corner.

The previous afternoon, my friend Roxanne Steed and I had arrived at Trail Wood to begin our week as Artists-in-Residence here, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity afforded by the Connecticut Audubon Society. Caretaker Vern Pursley and Richard Telford, the Woodstock Academy English teacher and volunteer who coordinates the program, gave us an orientation to the musty but comfortable 1806 farmhouse and 168-acre property where we’d be staying for the six days. Both imparted reverence and encyclopedic knowledge of the story of Trail Wood and the author who called it his Eden.

The program, conceived by Telford in 2013, is meant to rejuvenate interest in this seemingly obscure location and the people behind it, the beloved nature writer Edwin Way Teale and his wife Nellie, by giving painters, photographers and writers a chance to use their eyes, ears and creativity here and learn about the Teales in the process. For the 45-minute drive from our homes in southeastern Connecticut, a distance of just 35 miles but feeling much farther mentally, Roxanne’s Mini Cooper was packed full with her plein air painting gear, my laptop, notebooks, water testing equipment and air mattress, plus our food, clothing and other supplies for the week. We determined not to spoil the slower paced, back-in-time vibe of Trail Wood by interrupting our stay with a visit to the nearest supermarket — Walmart 10 miles away in Brooklyn. Instead, if we really needed anything, we’d make do with what could be found at the small general store in Hampton town center.

In our application to Connecticut Audubon, we had proposed a collaborative project in which we would work independently but share insights and observations along the way, nurturing each other’s processes and discovering where our ideas intersect. We had tried this once before with a series of Roxanne’s Barn Island paintings paired with my essays, and had been pleased with the results and reception. A veteran of many plein air excursions, from the start of our time there Roxanne fell easily into a groove of finding scenes that inspired her brush and palette. Over the week, she finished 13 gorgeous paintings of various sizes that captured the beauty and significance of this special place, my two favorites focusing on the shady gravel road that leads between the farmhouse and Kenyon Road.

But I came from a different place. I had decided before coming to Trail Wood that I needed to structure my time here with some tactile, measurable activities. Having spent my professional career as a daily journalist — the most satisfying part of it these last dozen years covering the environment for The Day — I felt a bit presumptuous taking on the title of “artist in residence” for the week. Certainly I try to infuse creativity into my articles whenever fitting. But open-ended freewriting? I didn’t want this to turn into a navel-gazing exercise. How would I work without a deadline?

Falling back on my reporter’s information-gathering instincts seemed the logical way to frame my time. I chose the “waters of Trail Wood” theme to hone my purpose further. That entailed hiking the network of trails through the former farm the Teales bought in 1959, stopping at all the brooks, swamps and ponds to collect samples in sterile cups where I could dip small water test strips that would give me quick readings on basic parameters —nitrites and nitrates that are the telltale signs of fertilizer and septic pollution, chlorine that implicates road salt, pH that shows whether aquatic life is safe from overly acidic or basic conditions, hardness that gauges mineral content.

As I trekked from test site to test site over the next two mornings, I didn’t want to become so focused on the agenda that I failed to appreciate what came along the way, not seeing the forest for the trees. Mushrooms in otherworldly reds, golds and oranges and shapes and textures ranging from smooth toadstools to intricately carved elephant ears poked out of the leaf litter along all the trails, amid the understory lush with bracken ferns, ostrich ferns and Indian pipes. In the swamps and marshy areas behind the beaver dams, skunk cabbage, sedge grass and cattails made landing pads for huge blue dragonflies. Bluebirds, tanagers and great-spangled fritillary butterflies flitted in the fields. At the beaver pond — where I would be lucky enough to see one of the resident landscape engineers early one morning later in the week — I found a pile of bear scat beside the spot where I took my water sample, taking some home in one of the used collection cups to positively identify once I got back to the house and my computer. Learning that I wasn’t the only large mammal in these woods didn’t scare me, since I know Connecticut’s black bears rarely attack people. It did, however, make me and Roxanne more meticulous about cleanup after our meals at the picnic table outside the house.

My water tests confirmed what I had assumed: the waters of Trail Wood are free of pollutants, able to support wildlife but have a moderately elevated mineral content. Later in the week, Jean Pillo, watershed conservation project manager for the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District, would stop by to further validate my results with more precise and complete tests done with an electronic monitor at two spots at the man-made pond on the property and another on Hampton Brook. Her readings on dissolved oxygen and temperature, which I could not measure with the test strips, raised no red flags.

What was the point in documenting the obvious? The waters of Trail Wood flow into the Little River, which in turn empties into the Shetucket. From the Shetucket, the waters enter the Thames, then Long Island Sound. The clean waters moving through Trail Wood are relevant to what happens on the river and estuary in my own backyard. These waters are a tangible embodiment of how Trail Wood and its story are also relevant. But after my mornings of testing, I struggled to turn this information into a piece of writing that didn’t feel forced. The words I put on my screen meandered and stalled, instead of marching toward some worthwhile message.

“Painters call it making a scraper,” Roxanne told me, explaining how a bad painting is literally scraped off the canvas. I know, I thought, sometimes even the best writers produce junk. But why now?

That night after dinner, we talked about what we were experiencing. She was very excited about the first of the two paintings of the gravel road, her brushstrokes emphasizing a line of old-fashioned wooden telephone poles standing out from the deep forest greens as a symbol, she said, of Trail Wood communicating with the world. We talked, too, about what it felt like to stay in the Teales’ beloved home, of being allowed to dwell in his intact office lined with packed bookshelves, to notice the pine cones on the mantle and the field glasses on the windowsill, the photos and articles on the wall. One is a yellowed New York Times Book Review piece by renowned bird guide author and Trail Wood visitor Roger Tory Peterson of Old Lyme about the book that won his friend the Pulitzer Prize 1966, “Wandering Through Winter.”

Roxanne said she found herself thinking a lot about what her home in Mystic means to her after moving every few years during much of her earlier adult life, and felt like her paintings here should reflect what Trail Wood meant to the Teales and what home means to her. As I considered the day ahead, the midway point of our stay, I chose an as-yet unfamiliar trail for a morning hike with no set agenda. Perhaps Trail Wood would speak to me, I thought, if I kept my heart open.

The hike started fresh and cool, the heavy humidity from the past two days having lifted overnight. Cresting Boulder Field Trail to Witch Hazel Hill — the Teales were fond of naming various nooks and crannies of their property — I thought about how the Teales had decided to bequeath this property to Connecticut Audubon just before Edwin’s death 1980, and how Nellie remained there until her passing in 1993.

I remembered being invited into his office the day we arrived, immediately noticing the large black-and-white portrait in the front corner by the door. “That’s their only child,” said Telford. “He was killed in World War II, a month before it ended.” Recalling this on the trail, tears welled in my eyes as I suddenly felt I understood something about the meaning of Trail Wood. Because they had no heirs, the Teales donated their home and sanctuary to future generations they would not know, but would surely need places to connect with nature. Out of their grief, something beautiful and generous happened.

When I returned from the hike and set to writing, the words came easily. I researched what happened to their son, learning that he was killed in Germany at age 19 on a reconnaissance mission. The finished essay was no scraper, but something I felt worthy of the privilege of being here. Later, Roxanne found a yellowed newspaper clipping tucked inside a book in the shed that serves as the property’s information center. It told how David Teale was listed as missing in action for a year, and how the Teales spent an agonizing year trying to learn what happened. A year after finally learning his fate, the couple started off on a cross-country journey of healing that became “North With the Spring,” the first in the four seasons series that culminated in the Pulitzer-winning winter book. All four books were dedicated to their son.

That afternoon, Roxanne and I left Trail Wood to visit the cemetery where the Teales are buried, about two miles from their home. In a corner under huge Norway spruces stands their black slate headstone. Beneath an etched border of wildflowers, a red-winged blackbird, praying mantis and monarch butterfly, the inscription reads: “Edwin Way Teale June 2, 1899 – Oct 18, 1980 and his wife Nellie Donovan Sept. 13, 1900 – July 18, 1993. Two who loved this earth and loved each other and in remembrance of their son David Allen Teale, Sept. 8, 1925 – March 16, 1945. Died in Germany on the Moselle River, buried in the military cemetery Margraten, Holland.”

Later, I thought of a name for my essay, and offered it to Roxanne as a name for her painting. Playing off the family surname Teale took as his middle name when he decided to become a nature writer, it would be “Teales’ Way.” That ungated gravel road in and out of Trail Wood symbolizes how they found their way to a place where they could live with their grief. The Teales are remembered as gracious people who didn’t try to shut out the world, and continued to share the joy and wonder of nature with others through Edwin’s writings, which Nellie edited. Telford, who did graduate work on Teale, said he answered each of the many fan letters he received personally.

After that breakthrough, the relevance of Trail Wood and the Teales’ story became clear on so many levels. Wars are still taking young men and women, Roxanne said, leaving grieving parents in need of healing. Home and nature can still provide the balm they crave.

For the rest of the week, I felt a new door had opened for me as a writer. Morning and afternoon hikes followed by time at the keyboard yielded no more scrapers. Both Roxanne and I came away with enormous admiration and gratitude for the Teales, and to Connecticut Audubon for making our time at Trail Wood possible.


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