A few weeks ago I met my grown son, Jeremy, at the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust’s Smith Preserve to walk the Steele Trail, which winds among the woods and ledges in the northwest corner of town, where hundreds of wooded acres have been preserved.
The trail comes close to our old house, deep in the woods, where my late wife, Mary, and I raised five children. I had not been back there since we sold the house more than a decade ago and moved to Portland. I was a little apprehensive and a lot curious to see these forests in which we had spent so much time.
The trail skirts our old property, the house hidden by trees. At one point we stepped off the trail and climbed onto a huge boulder. Instantly, the years melted away as we realized this was a rock we had visited many times so long ago.
I recalled skiing out there in the winter with the kids and cooking hot dogs and hot chocolate over a fire. Jeremy recalled running away to the rock one afternoon with his sister because they had learned I was going to make my detested cheese soup for dinner.
That boulder, the size of a small house, was dropped there 17,000 years ago as the Ice Age glaciers retreated. It’s not going anywhere soon.
On that rock, I felt a deep sense of place, a place on earth that came before me and would stay on well after I leave. A place that had grounded me through so many years and moods.
The next day I decided to send a donation to the trust and a letter describing our experience out there. I wasn’t far into the letter when, unexpectedly, tears began rolling down my cheeks. Even now, I feel my eyes welling as I write this.
I felt a profound sense of belonging on that boulder, and deep gratitude that it has been protected forever. I wrote that letter and sent that check because I believe it essential that these places be preserved and fiercely protected in good times and bad.
“It was a wild and wonderful woods,” I wrote, “and walking the trails has brought back many happy memories. … I am so grateful that this special sanctuary has been preserved. It means the world to me.”
I’ve thought a lot about all the vectors that intersected on the boulder that fall day to ignite such an intense reaction. My son was beside me, just as he had been 40 or so years ago. Visions of Mary picking blueberries in the nearby swamp. Hours and hours of exploring with our dog.
I discovered a new place a few years ago. It is on a small piece of sand, shrubs, and ancient rock that juts boldly out into Casco Bay. It is a place where to the east the vast sea ascends to meet a huge descending slab of sky on the far horizon. In the distance, a few islands stud the sea like the backs of whales. If you place yourself just right, there are no signs of civilization.
I have never before seen a place like that, where these great tilting planes of sea and sky meet at a pencil-thin crease in the distance. Here, the character of the sea and sky are always different, but the geometry never changes. I have been at sea, hundreds of miles from land, but I have never experienced a sense of vastness such as I do from this little point.
It is my rock.
And thanks to another land trust that has protected this special place, it will be thus forever.
During times like these, and at all times, a strong sense of place grounds us, offers us a foundation, a place where we can feel safe.
We all need places like that, now and forever.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.