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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Garret Mountain, First Visit. Oooooo Aaaaaa

Barbour Pond, Garret Mountain. Paul Metaxas Source
Some of us are born weird and no amount of tweaking will ever result in our fitting in.

This is one way I am weird: I love New York City. I thrive on the most effete of art forms; when living on no money I found cash to purchase tickets to opera premiers and I go to see movies I know I won't enjoy because they are of cultural significance. I'm a glassy-eyed news junky and headline writers jerk my chain with every rumored MH 370 black box beep. I test as pure extrovert and I am the only person I know who loves being in crowds. Christmas Eve in a shopping mall? Let's go!  

And I chose to spend years of my life in remote villages in Africa and Asia drawing my water from creeks and being serenaded to sleep by jackals.

They're both me. The person who loves human civilization and cities and the person who needs to get away from even the mere sight of another human and get dirty and be bitten by bugs and stare at wild animals – city mouse and country mouse – they are both me.

How about you? Are you a nature lover? Are you a city dweller? If you are both, could you please let me know? I don't want to be the only one.

I currently live in a city, Paterson, and I live with a constant craving for contact with trees. I am in love with a park, Skylands Manor and Botanical Garden. Without a car, through walking, busing, and more walking, it takes me three hours to get there, three hours I regularly invest. At Skylands I hike to a spot where I see nothing, in every direction, but trees. I stand there, facing the trees. The trees say something to me. I listen with my whole body. When I feel I've absorbed enough, I return to the city, taking the message of the trees with me.

Being a birdwatcher is a little bit different than being a nature lover. Some birdwatchers really care about numbers. I used to be a numbers birdwatcher but then I stopped. For a long time I really wanted to see a lammergeier, the definition of an exotic, remote species. Lammergeiers are beautiful vultures. Their breasts glow, as if they were always right next to a crackling fire. They live in high mountains and consume the last of the food chain: bones.

When I lived in Nepal, I lived under an aerial lammergeier highway. I would stand outside on the porch, washing my hair, look up, and see a handful of lammergeier flying overhead. My most desired, exotic bird had become part of my household. After that, I could see what an exquisite miracle a common bird like a chickadee is, and I vowed to stop with the numbers. Well, at least to slow down with the numbers. I still want to see new species and amass a big, fat life list. But I also want to appreciate that miracle, the chickadee, and not rush past it in my search for the next new species.

I see very few birds at Skylands. I get something else at Skylands. I get what I call "oooooo aaaaaa."

I've talked my friend Robin, who, in spite of her avian name, is not really much of a nature girl, into hiking with me at Skylands. She hikes as if the trail were an elliptical trainer stationed in front of a TV in her living room – head down, moving very fast, to get it all over with quicker. I have wanted to stop Robin and say, "No, no, you have to ooooo aaaaa." But I don't say it, fearing it might sound weird.  

Ooooo aaaaa isn't just beauty. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and they could export their beauty; in fact, they do, in movies in songs and posters. Confession: I NEVER ooooo aaaaa ed in the Bay Area. I don't know why. I hiked every chance I could, through Tilden Park. I saw coyote, and a rattlesnake, the expansive views of California's "golden" hills, and never once was I moved.

Skylands is the queen of oooo aaaa for me. Skylands feels overwhelmingly spiritually alive to me. I feel a palpable grace there, an overarching energy, the music of the spheres. It's akin to what I felt at Chartres Cathedral.

But I don't see a lot of birds at Skylands, and what birds I do see I've seen a hundred times before – the phoebe at the small, stone bridge built by the WPA, the pileated woodpeckers in the orchard, the broad-winged hawk over the hill, the wood ducks in the pond, the crested flycatcher on the dead tree sticking out of the glacial-carved granite gneiss.

I've subscribed to an email list devoted to birdwatching in New Jersey. People kept talking about Garret Mountain. I was surprised by this because Garret Mountain is in Paterson, and I didn't think any place in Paterson would be a birding hotspot. So many emails mentioned Garret Mountain that I decided to give it a try.

Because it is in Paterson, I assumed that Garret Mountain would be a tacky, ugly, unsafe and depressing place. I expected broken glass, loud hiphop played from boomboxes, and muggers.

Paterson's reputation will change when Patersonians decide to stop throwing their garbage in the street, to turn down the boombox, and stop stealing.

I went to Garret Mountain this morning and I was amazed on every level. It's a very small park, but I stayed over five hours, and I wanted to stay longer.

I was always within eyeshot of people and pavement, and always within earshot of cars – but the people were well behaved. I heard no boomboxes. I was not robbed.

I began at Barbour Pond. I saw at least ten people wearing binoculars or other birdwatching equipment. Two men carried tripods and lenses the size of the Hubble Telescope. As a fellow birdwatcher, my binos slung around my neck, I tried to make small talk with them. One immediately said, "We have to keep moving," and walked away from me. I would happen across this man later. "Have you seen anything good?" he asked. "Nope," I lied, and kept walking.

I was a newcomer after all and I did not know the local mores. I didn't attempt to chat with anyone else wearing binoculars, which is usually not what I do when I stumble across birdwatchers in public. I assumed that the birdwatchers of Garret Mountain are an aloof bunch and chatting is uncool.

The birds. The birds! No, I didn't add any numbers to my life list – I didn't see any new species – but everywhere I pointed my binoculars I saw birds, birds, birds, which is very much NOT what happens at Skylands.

Point up at the sky – turkey vultures, black vultures, red-tailed hawk, osprey, chimney swifts, barn swallows, tree swallows. Point at the pond – yellow-legged sandpiper, killdeer, cormorant, great blue heron. Point at the treetops – red-eyed vireo, warbling vireo, Cape May warbler, black and white warbler. Stand still and listen: wood thrush, veery.

I stood in one spot, beside the paved ring road, and a scarlet tanager worked his way through the branches surrounding me. I usually strain my neck, staring at treetops, to see scarlet tanagers. This one was as obvious, as in my face, as someone sharing the sidewalk in Paterson.

In spots you can stand at the edge of a cliff face. The view is enough to make the bottoms of your feet sweat. Way down below, route 80. Off in the distance, Manhattan's skyline. There are canopy birds you usually strain your neck to see as you stand on the ground and point your binoculars upwards. At these cliff-edge spots in Garret Mountain, you can see canopy birds at eye level, as they munch on bugs in the leaves of the tall trees that scale the cliff falling away beneath you.

And these trees are tall. Heart-leaved poplars, straight as arrow tulip trees, alders, oaks, maples, smooth gray beeches, shiny, horizontally striped cherries, vase-shaped elms: big, tall, beautiful trees. It's a gorgeous May day today, blue skies, cumulus clouds, seventy degrees, breezy; as I walked around Garret Mountain ooooo and aaaa overcame me. Bliss. And from one of the cliffside viewpoints, I could see my apartment building!

God, all those years I wasn't visiting Garret Mountain, living in Paterson, yearning for green – if only I had come sooner! Regret! Punching self in head!

But the ooooo aaaaa I was getting from Garret Mountain soothed my regret. I felt so good, it didn't bother me that much that I hadn't found this place earlier; rather, I rejoiced that I was here today. 
Lammergeier by Brendan Marnell. Source
Chickadee Source: Chickadee Award Books 


  1. I started working at AT&T in Bedminster in 2004. But I live in Tenafly. So, day after day, four or five days a week, I'd drive along Route 80, passing Garret Mountain Reservation and saying to myself, "There's that big bluff with the tower. Nice." Only in 2011 did an expert birder in NJ say, "Well, if you want to go birding in May in northern NJ, there's no better place than Garret Mountain." When told it was in Paterson, I, too, did not believe I'd heard correctly. But there it was: nearly eight years of driving past the same mountain and never knowing what a gem of a place it is: for birding, for walking, for gazing at the view east and south to New York's spectacular skyline. I, too, was there today and there were birds everywhere. I am glad you got to enjoy it and wish you many happy hours spent traipsing the trails, discovering Garret's unique hideaways and quiet spots.

  2. I haven't been to Garret Mountain in decades but it sounds like it's on my list to visit. I used to love going there and climb along the hills searching for crystals and the spectacular view. So glad you discovered it and it's so close.

  3. Talk the birders they are all nice people and yopu will Ahh and OOOO again.

    bill elrick

  4. hmmm.... most people do talk.... I did have a guy who had perhaps had too much espresso, say to me once: "was that a Philadelphia vireo? was it? WAS IT? (no reply from me...I was still thinking...) Come on if it wasn't a Philadelphia, what was it? It had to be... what are you going to tell me it was? huh? WHAT?"

    Other than him, most birders there are nice.

  5. Your post above made me think of this Houseman poem:

    Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
    Is hung with bloom along the bough,
    And stands about the woodland ride
    Wearing white for Eastertide.

    Now, of my threescore years and ten, 5
    Twenty will not come again,
    And take from seventy springs a score,
    It only leaves me fifty more.

    And since to look at things in bloom
    Fifty springs are little room, 10
    About the woodlands I will go
    To see the cherry hung with snow.

  6. Great blog entry. I'm a photographer, and who observes/photos birds as well as other critters. The birders up there are very friendly and helpful.

    There is much to appreciate on Garret Mtn. As you may already know, you'll see birth, death, and much beauty. As you walk among its paths, you'll smile, laugh and perhaps at times, cry. Nature will bring out the sensitivity in one.

    We've seen newly born fawns, some dead critters and, today, a Canada goose, trying unsuccessfully trying to free herself of a fishing lure caught in her wing. Yesterday, caught a rare look at Goldfinch mating. ( ).

    Even on the most quiet of days, you might find an exciting observation. Enjoy all that she offers!