Around the Island

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ — A walk at night in Mashomack, with poetry

Abigail Palmiotto, 5, skipped ahead in the dark, past illuminated trees, following a path bordered by tiny lights along the ground, through the misty woods of Mashomack. Her family, father James, mother Therese and brother Dominick, 8, followed close behind.

Walking in the evening darkness Wednesday, they were one of the first to take to a half-mile section of the trails for Mashomack’s “Book in the Woods” program, this night featuring Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Every so often along the trail, a small wooden kiosk by the path showed pages from Susan Jeffers’s beautifully illustrated book of one of the best known and most beautiful American poems. The kiosks were set low to the ground, to accommodate young readers, and Abigail, with flashlights trained on the pages, was designated to read excerpts at each stop, beginning with, “Whose woods these are I think I know …”

Walkers were greeted at the entrance by a lit barn door.(Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Then it was off, farther into the woods, to find another phrase and illustration. “His house is in the village though;/ He will not see me stopping here,” Abigail read, “To watch his woods fill up with snow.”  

The Palmiotto’s were four of about 100 people who took the nighttime walk, according to Mashomack Outreach Program Coordinators Rebecca Kusa and Cindy Belt, who organized and set up the event. They met walkers at the trail head just inside Mashomack’s entrance off South Ferry Road, and gave everyone a brief preview of what they would encounter.

“We’ve had the trailside Book in the Woods installation since February of 2013,” Ms. Belt said. “We feature about 10 titles per year, switching them out monthly. We use nature and seasonal and animal books, and occasionally reuse popular titles. The ‘story walk’ is quite popular with both adults and families and something we could maintain safely through COVID, so it has continued uninterrupted for years.”

(Credit: Rebecca Kusa)

The damp, chilly evening was described by another walker, Elena Kusa, as “magical,” before pausing to add, “and inspirational,” as she looked into Mashomack’s forest glowing with tree trunks wrapped in white lights, and trails shining in the dark.

Although you couldn’t describe the evening as “snowy,” the flashlight beams caught thin buoyant flakes. They disappeared immediately, Dominick pointed out, as his light revealed dancing white flurries floating to the ground and vanishing.

The path led up steps, across tree roots and a bridge, rising and falling, the white lights leading the way.

Her family comes to Mashomack often, Ms. Palmiotto said, commenting on the beauty of Susan Jeffers’s illustrations of lines from the beloved poem, especially of forest animals and birds.

She handed Abigail a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows in the chilly dark, saying, “Not very hot now.” She aimed her flashlight on the opening of the cup for Abigail, saying that for her family, Island second homeowners, Mashomack was a treasured resource, especially in the summer, and now they were discovering new beauties on a winter’s night.

The Palmiotto family. From left, Abigail, Therese, James and Dominick. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

At the last kiosk, Abigail read the final lines of Frost’s masterpiece, the ending tolling like a bell: “And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.”

At the trail head after her walk, Elena Kusa said she knew the poem well, memorizing it in elementary school and spoke of the narrator, stopping in the woods and how his little horse is baffled by the pause, stopping “without a farmhouse near/ Between the woods and frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year./ He gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.”

The narrator then notes that, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep …” before his realization that he has miles yet to go before sleep. 

Ms. Kusa said, “I think the author is telling us that we have many more tasks left in life, that we have to keep going, there’s so much left unfinished that we have to do.”

More happy groups were starting out on their way into the woods, following the illuminated path.

(Credit: Rebecca Kusa)