Stopping by the woods on a sunny, autumn day

October 30, 2004|By ROB KASPER

IT WAS A stolen afternoon, one of those alluring days when rather than battling fall by caulking or raking, I simply enjoyed it.

I took a bike ride along a stretch of the Northern Central Railroad trail in northern Baltimore County, watching the leaves fall, the squirrels scurry, and getting serenaded by a woodland flutist, a modern-day Pan.

While it may not be big news that the leaves are changing color, the show nonetheless impresses me. This is peak time for fall foliage in the Baltimore area, according to Bill Troutman, a naturalist for Gunpowder State Park.

This shapes up to be a banner fall for foliage, he said, attributing the dazzling display to one, the generous rainfall of the spring and summer that kept the trees in good health and full leafage, and, two, the absence of hard rains that knock the colorful, but dying, leaves from the trees. This means that when the maple leaves turn brilliant orange, and the oaks take on magnificent crimson hues, the forest show gets a long run, and we "leaf peepers" get many opportunities to enjoy it.

While I was rolling along the NCR trail, I passed a few "peepers." One trio consisted of a mom and two young boys. The mom carried a camera, the boys were clutching large leaves. It was a leaf-gathering expedition, destined no doubt to soon display its finding on a schoolroom wall.

I did not do much thinking as I sailed along the trail. Mostly I marveled at nature. Yesterday, during a telephone conversation with Troutman, he reminded me of the science behind the scenery, something I probably should have recalled from my days staring at schoolroom displays.

Basically what I was observing was the breakdown of chlorophyll in the leaves, he said. The tree stops sending moisture to its leaves, the green chlorophyll disappears, and the yellow and orange become visible and give the leaves some of their fall splendor. The breakdown, he said, is precipitated by drops in temperature and sunlight, which serve as signals to the tree that it is time to adapt for the winter by losing its leaves.

Since it happens every autumn, Marylanders tend to take fall foliage for granted, Troutman said. But if the belt of trees running from New England down to the Carolinas is viewed as one, big, East Coast forest then, he said, we are smack dab in the midst of a rich autumnal wonder. "We live among the second largest deciduous forest in the world," he said "Only the Black Forest in Germany is bigger."

Besides giving me a reason to hug a tree, my trip down the trail also offered me a ride along a well-worn path of history. According to a report for the Maryland Greenways Commission, the trail followed the route of the old Northern Central Railroad, which once stretched 320 miles from Baltimore to Sodus, N.Y. During the Civil War, the railroad was on one of the Union Army's main supply routes, ferrying wounded soldiers to hospitals along the corridor.

President Lincoln is said to have penned part of his Gettysburg Address while riding the train to Gettysburg in 1863. Two years later, after his assassination, Lincoln's funeral train traveled the Northern Central en route to Illinois.

In more recent days, a commuter train, the old Parkton local, ran along the rails, operating until 1959. The long-distance passenger service that ran along the line was phased out in 1971, followed in 1972 by the demise of freight service north of Hunt Valley after Hurricane Agnes took out many railroad bridges.

I got hints of this history as I rolled along. Some railroad markers were still standing and the towns along the path sported architectural vestiges of the days when the railroad ruled.

One such town was White Hall. There, Andrew Alcarese, a-25-year-old woodworker at Dixon's Antiques, was refinishing an old desk. He worked outdoors, a few yards from the trail.

Working within sight of the trail, with its legions of joggers and cyclists, can test your devotion to duty, he said, especially on crisp fall days.

"It is a tease sometimes," Alcarese said. But the other day, he remained at his post, sanding away and singing the praises of shellac and working with wood. There was, he agreed, a certain sense of symmetry that comes from refinishing furniture while you are in the shadow of a forest. "You see wood in its original state, and its altered state," he said.

The trail runs from near Cockeysville and into Pennsylvania, where it is called the York County Heritage, and gets busy on the weekends. (A Web site - www.dnr.state.md.us/greenways/ncrt_trail.html - has detailed information about how to find the trail and where to park.) The other day, a weekday, I did not encounter many other travelers until I got to the Monkton Village Market on Monkton Road. There, I got a peanut butter cookie and an impromptu flute serenade from Jan Seiden.

Seiden, a former graduate student at Johns Hopkins, is now a full-time flutist, with a solo CD, Woodland Winds. She was distributing fliers for a performance she is scheduled to give from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. today (tomorrow if it rains) at the Monkton stop on the NCR trail.

Her instrument, she said, is a Native American-style flute, made of Western cedar and has six holes. She played a few notes, sending out a rich, woodsy tune.

During a previous performance in Sparks, travelers on the trail heard the flute and, she said, were drawn from the woods to her. "When you are in the woods, the flute sounds like nature speaking to you," she said.

Fortified by the cookie and the ethereal music, I got back on my bike. I headed back to Parkton, where I had parked my car, and eventually back to everyday duties. It was an uphill journey.

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