Column: This land is your land


Sometimes in a dream, I open a door in my house, and find a room behind it that I never knew existed.

The dream is so common that psychologists even have a term for it, the “unused-room dream,” said to occur when the dreamer discovers new capabilities or embraces new experiences. Last Saturday, my dream came true when I stepped into the woods behind the Shelter Island Craft Brewery and emerged an hour later with a new perspective.

In that hour, I walked with 20 of so of my fellow citizens through acres of woods, along clearly marked trails that led through and around the heart of Shelter Island. Joseph Denny, the organizer of the Shelter Island Group for Trail Preservation, led the hike through wooded parts of the Island I have only glimpsed from the IGA parking lot.

In spite of the fact that I live about 300 yards from Sachem’s Woods for almost 30 years, until Saturday I had never walked there. For most of that time, I didn’t even know I could.

It was a joyful group of walkers, with children so young they had to be carried, guys with hiking boots, one with a multi-tool hanging from his belt (defense from marauding wild turkeys?), and sturdy, surefooted grandmas, one in tights and another wearing a hand-knitted sweater.

There was forest humor, like when someone commented that the woods were surprisingly dense, and her companion said, “How come you looked at me when you said that?”

When we passed within sight of Midway Road, I remembered the yellow “Posted. Private property” signs that still face the road, signs that could be replaced with eye-level blue blazes, welcoming walkers to follow the trail. Because although this has been public land for a long time, it’s only in the last year or so, thanks to the Group for Trail Preservation folks, that everyone has been encouraged to visit and enjoy this land.

The group stopped to admire an enormous white pine in Sachem’s Woods, with a trunk like the mast of a ship, and a delicate, green haze of needles on its branches. The ground around this mighty tree was softly padded with fallen yellow needles so thick that nothing grew up through it.

We also saw squirrels, turkeys, deer droppings and the remains of a young eastern box turtle.

The Island is about 8,000 acres of land, and two-thirds of that is private property. But the other third is public land, including over 2,000 acres of Mashomack, with its well-known and much-loved trail system.

Less well known is how much public land there is outside Mashomack, land that is crisscrossed with footpaths that can take you — in surprising ways — to landmarks such as The Islander, the Windmill Field at Sylvester Manor, the Whale’s Tale and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

When I ask people who grew up here in the 1950s and 1960s how things have changed, they often talk about the way the Island used to belong to everyone, how no one thought twice about walking through a neighbor’s property. I thought this was a quaint relic of the past until this summer, when I visited the Cotswolds, an area of rural England with about 3,000 miles of footpaths that cross farmland, through woods, and right through people’s back gardens. And no one seemed to mind.

While visiting the town of Burford, we walked to a village a few miles away and were able to make a close examination of the grazing lands, dairies and cow pies necessary for the production of the meal we planned to eat at the end of our hike. After a mile or so, we wandered off the path and up a driveway past the patio of a family in the middle of their dinner. They cheerfully pointed us in the direction of the Inn in Swinbrook that we were looking for.

There was a time when the idea that the town should establish public access points to the water was considered ridiculous. Now, waterfront homeowners sometimes have to be reminded that they do not own the beach itself, prompting local musician Tom Hashagen to write a song in which he explains to a property-owner he calls Mr. Mean High Water:

“I may be a local son of the beach,
But I’m just saying that we each,
Have the right to alight on that sandy shore.”

A call to arms? Hardly. This is a call to feet.

I’m heading out for a walk.

Someone told me there’s a nice grove of black walnut trees near the part of the trail that goes past Sylvester Manor.

I can’t wait to see my trees. This land belongs to you and me.