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Ruth Bass: Richmond's leafy cathedral is a treasure worthy of preserving

Road with leafy overhang

As trees start to leaf out, cathedral stretch on Swamp Road in Richmond becomes densely shaded.

RICHMOND — The leafy tunnel on Sleepy Hollow Road here is thicker, shadier and greener than the arch created by trees on a nearby section of Swamp Road.

No one wants to change Sleepy Hollow — we like our trees — but it’s Swamp that is sacrosanct in this town, referred to by many as the cathedral. Our kids when they were very small called it The Magic Forest.

The late Katharine Huntington Annin, in her history of Richmond published in 1964, refers to that stretch of road, running somewhat south from East Road, when she wrote, “It is a long, long time since a rooster has been heard announcing the dawn and there are pleasure horses instead of farm teams. Yet … the trees still arch over Swamp Road, and the town has so far maintained the bucolic aspect that is its greatest asset.”

Dozens of towns may also have roads where the leaves of hardwoods overlap in the middle. And in dozens of towns, widening the asphalt and running the wires have wiped out the arches. Here, Swamp Road has been a recurring topic of discussion.

In the 1970s, a Western Mass. Electric Co. representative, Joe Savery, came to a selectman’s meeting to get permits for new poles. And before he left, new rights of way approved, he was asked what WMECO would do about poles and wires if someone built a house in the cathedral. “Run them behind the houses,” he said immediately, assuring the board that the electric company would not destroy the archway.

Another time, the then-road superintendent, Frank Rawson, widened and resurfaced the road but understood when town officers were concerned about killing or removing the trees. He skipped that section and later developed a plan for resurfacing without widening that stretch.

The development danger is gone. The Boynton family, long time owners of an extensive farm property on East Road, have placed conservation restrictions on their land on the east side of Swamp Road, and the Richmond Land Trust has purchased two major parcels on the west side, one of them as recently as last year. Thus the forest from East to Sleepy Hollow is permanently protected from development. It does seem a little like magic.

Last week I drove through the cathedral enjoying the spring green overhead, on my way to another place that’s been preserved from development: Tod’s Point in Greenwich, Conn., nearly 150 acres that jut into Long Island Sound, owned by the town and preserved forever as beachfront, boating center, forest, holly grove and bird habitat.

Railroad tycoon J. Kennedy Tod built his mansion on this point of land in the 1880s and owned it with his wife until her death in 1938. The Tod will left the property to New York’s Presbyterian Hospital and was sold to the town for $550,000 in 1945.

At Tod’s Point, we watched many high-flying chimney swifts, semi-palmated plovers perhaps on their way to Cape Cod, a greater (real name) yellow legs, great (real name) egrets and snowy egrets, a great (also real name) crested flycatcher. I only mention that the word “great” and “greater” is the real name for these birds because of an incident years ago in the Caribbean when I kept exclaiming to my husband about the magnificent frigate birds.

After I pointed out the dozenth one, he sighed that, yes, they were certainly magnificent. And I had to tell him that was the gorgeous bird’s first name.

We saw a total of 17 different species in less than two hours, including a half dozen of the handsomely garbed killdeer. It is wonderful at this time of year to drive less than three hours south and find birds that either aren’t here ever or aren’t here yet.

And it’s even more satisfactory to see the hundreds of people who are scattered over Mr. Tod’s acreage, just walking or running or circling in a car.

Here at home, I’m ready to replace the liner in the hayrack feeder at an upstairs window and plant the petunias. The birds have pretty much destroyed the coir liner, trampling it and pulling out strands for nests.

It’s marvelous to see the rose-breasted grosbeak and red-bellied woodpecker six inches away, but the blue jays, beautiful and aggressive, are on patrol.

When you are simultaneously drying your hair and hurling towels at the window to scare them off, you realize something must be done.

In the yard, no bear has come to rip up the mealworm feeder that has been taking care of five baby bluebirds in their nearby nest, their parents running relays of food to them.

How nice it would be to see them emerge, but they are sneaky about it, sending the kids out at dawn or in the dark of night. So we miss those initial flights, which probably go about the same distance as what thrilled Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk.

Not miles or in the air. More like feet and barely off the ground.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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