In 1939, the Trinity College English professor Odell Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote of the vast meadows along both sides of the Connecticut River from south Hartford through Wethersfield and Rocky Hill, and from East Hartford through Glastonbury.
"The distances open out enormously, as they do nowhere else in Connecticut," he wrote in "Connecticut Past and Present."
"The arch of the sky seems hardly wide enough to span these acres of blowing grass. Far away on either hand a few great elms are growing in clusters of three and four, nobly spaced. A blue heron rises lazily from the thicket and flaps off toward the horizon."
Incredibly, the bulk of the meadows survive to this day, despite the enormous development of the past 60-plus years.
They managed to survive all these years in good part because they are a flood plain, that wonderful natural storm buffer. Often in spring, large areas of the meadows are flooded. This would seem to be a disincentive for construction, yet somehow a couple of buildings have been built in the meadows - the Putnam Park office building, for one - and there is always pressure for more.
The meadows, about 4,500 acres, always seem to be facing some threat, something that will chip away at them one way or another - if not something built, something noisy or unnatural. If it is not motocross racing one year, it is some massive this or that another year. They wanted to put a horse race track in there once, planning to dike the meadows to do so. More recently, they wanted to put in a building where bridges would be assembled. Hartford's dikes compromised the meadows more than a half century ago; and Interstate 91 and Route 3 took their toll, too.
Not all the threats are local. I can't prove it, but the birds don't seem as numerous as they once were, especially the warblers. Loss of habitat in central and South America is likely to blame for some of that.
But, as I said, the crazy thing is that the meadows are still there at all.
I've walked in the meadows for years, and I'm not about to claim they are pristine wilderness. Agriculture has been a presence there for centuries, and still is. But a good part of the land is comparatively wild, surprisingly wild. In some of the low-lying areas, big old cottonwoods grow. These are trees that don't mind having their feet wet during spring flooding, trees that belong there, the kind of trees that were there in 1600. I can't recall how many times I've walked there in spring as the down-like seeds of the cottonwood wafted through the air by the tens of thousands, almost as if it were snowing.
The roads, mostly dirt, are sometimes muddy and often rutted, which is probably just as well; they're just bad enough to keep things quiet.
I saw my first chestnut-sided warbler there something like 25 years ago. It was a May morning during migration and there it was, at eye level on a low limb, not 15 feet away, a striking mix of a rich chestnut color, bright yellow, jet black and bright white. If a single bird can be said to have nudged me to the realization that I really ought to know the birds better, especially since I spent so much time rambling in nature, that may have been the bird.
I saw my first yellow-billed cuckoo there too, and who knows how many other firsts. I've seen bobolinks and snow bunting, eagles and osprey, easily more than 80 species over the years.
I've seen coyote and fox, and countless wildflowers spring through fall, too. Got myself scratched up pretty good one day bushwhacking through a tangle of nettles well off one of the roads. I've plodded through 2 feet of snow in snowshoes. I stood at the edge of Crow Point Cove in spring when the river herring arrived from the sea in incredible numbers, milling about in vast schools of fish just inches apart, flood plain forest behind me, not a house in sight.
It can be hard to tell what is private from what is public in the meadows, though the No Trespassing signs on private roads increasingly help deter the wayward. Most of the fields are private, but some of the roads are public and, somehow, most people seem to figure things out. Spend enough time in the meadows and you meet farmers, hunters, naturalists and people just out for a walk or a bike ride.
The Hartford skyline is a glance away in places, but the whole place seems much more remote than it really is. In truth, the meadows are a relic, and certainly an oasis.
Even during those quieter years when Shepard wrote, the meadows were an oasis.
"The quiet deepens, until the 20th century is not even a murmur left behind," he wrote.
It is not as quiet anymore. Interstate 91, built two decades after Shepard wrote and following the western edge of the meadows, is a murmur and then some today. But everything is relative, and a quiet nonetheless deepens even now, enough to leave the sense that the meadows are timeless and permanent.
In reality, permanence will mean vigilance.
Steve Grant covers nature and environmental issues for The Courant.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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