The Young Professor Slept Outdoors Here: Nepaug Reservoir

[topo map of nepaug reservoir area, ye olde stomping ground, especially the east-side shoreline, where The Young Professor laid his sleeping bag under the same pine tree, night after night]

[topo map of nepaug reservoir and surrounding forests in connecticut, ye olde stomping ground of The Young Professor who laid his sleeping bag under the same pine tree on the east shoreline, night after night]

The Young Professor spent most of his childhood being outdoors, unsupervised like most kids were at that time in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and generally running amok in rural Canton, Connecticut. He’d stay out until long after dark on the grassy front lawns of the neighborhood’s ranch houses; or, on the ad hoc driveway basketball courts; or, on the flattish spots on the cul-de-sac named Freedom Drive where the kids played one adapted game or another in between the occasional cars that drove up or down the road: games like throw-’em-out kickball, 3-on-3 shove football, left-handed wiffleball®, first-to-21 hoops, and a 2-on-2 version of team Frisbee®. And then there were the forests. They lay behind the houses on both sides of the street, but on the odd-numbered side of Freedom Drive—The Young Professor’s side—the houses abutted what seemed to be an infinite green space that surrounded the fresh water of Nepaug Reservoir.

The Reservoir hadn’t always been there; it was constructed in the earlier days of the 20th century to be a drinking-water source for the greater Hartford area about half-an-hour away. Creating it involved not just damming the Nepaug River but also wiping out the community of Nepaug Village whose 22 residences and 42 parcels of land had to first be taken by the governmental edict of eminent domain. By 1914, the households, entire homes, and even the cemeteries were moved. In 1916, the dam was completed and the Reservoir began filling, giving new meaning to the native-American Algonquin-Mohican word “Nepaug” which meant “waters” or “fresh pond.”

That was the way the drinking-water system worked in those days in Connecticut [and across America at that time]; private land was summarily taken for the greater public good. By the time that The Young Professor made it his stomping ground decades later, Nepaug Reservoir looked as if it had always been there. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving. There were two dead giveaways: one was the fact that in several large tracts of land, stands of White Pine had been laid-out in orderly rows right down to the water’s edge; their grid pattern revealed the involvement of human hands and minds; and then there was the concrete dam with its arched spillway overflowing dramatically each early Spring as the snow and ice melted, filling the Reservoir to over-capacity.

These woods may have all been planned and built-up sapling-by-sapling, but it was the most natural-looking artificial nature imaginable. Once The Young Professor jumped the chain link fence separating the private backyards from the protected woods around the Reservoir, he could walk, hike, run, swim, look, think, sleep, and most of all, explore. Because it was a protected public water supply, jumping the fence was against the law. There were too many bright yellow metal “No Trespassing” signs nailed to the trees to deny knowledge of it to the guards who patrolled the property. The key was to not get caught, and The Young Professor never did. The signs and the patrols had one hugely positive effect: they kept everyone else out. In all of his years there, The Young Professor never ran into anyone other than a few friends while he was in the woods. Because there was no recreational hiking, fishing, boating, camping or anything else, it felt like thousands of acres belonged to him alone, and he had a responsibility to not mess it up; Nepaug Reservoir was never a place to be loud or a jerk.

The Young  Professor slept at the water’s edge on a pine needle bed under the boughs of a single, densely-knit pine tree such that he could stay dry even if it rained, on a small promontory that pointed into the shallows of the 9.5 billion gallon Reservoir. One side of the point was rocky down into the water [and was avoided], and the other side made a quasi-natural cove where the rocks faded into a sandy area that made walking out into the water easy on bare feet.

The Young Professor often swam at night to cool down after the hot and humid Summer days. He was known for holding his breath and making himself stay underwater and go as far away from shore and as deep underwater as possible. The only rupture in the experience came if he was accidentally grazed by a fish. Primordial reaction was instant; the limbic region of his brain screamed “Swim, flee, get away now!”; but in the mind and body of a teen-aged boy, the adrenaline rush from that night-time swimming always trumped any lingering fear of fish attack, Jaws and its foreboding theme music be damned.

The sleeping-out started years before when, at the age 8, The Young Professor occasionally slept in the backyard next to the house in a one-person tent. At 10 years-old, he moved the tent further from the house, back to the edge of the lawn and closer to the woods. He also traded his one-person tent for a larger, light-brown Egyptian cotton camp tent, the kind that allows standing up inside. It was big enough to be outfitted with three folding cotton cots, two heavy dark-green, old-school sleeping bags, a kerosene lantern and a flashlight. By age 12, he moved the tent to the far end of the lot—maybe 20 feet from the chain-link fence where the deep woods near the Reservoir began. At that point, the tent was far enough away from the house that it couldn’t be seen and the house was out of view, too.

The Young Professor would make himself walk to the tent in the dark; although it was disorienting and sometimes scary, it was a way of both testing himself and of learning how to see when just the stars were out. That worked to a degree. He learned to wait for his eyes to adjust and then to see at the periphery of his vision, to wait for the black-and-white-dedicated rods to take over from the color-bound cones in each retina’s neural array. The key was learning that he could see best when not looking at things directly, a lesson that, The Young Professor noticed, applied to his cognitive processes as well. Memory was served not by forcing history to come forward by force through the cortex but by thinking about related, and sometimes completely unrelated things—circling around the idea, date or event he was trying to think of via flights of association and metaphor.

By the time The Young Professor was a sophomore in high school, the tent was put away, stored like a memory in a basement. He slept out most late Spring, Summer and early Fall nights at the edge of the Reservoir [under that same single pine tree] with just a sleeping bag. He’d study, eat dinner, do his homework and around 9:00pm, he’d embark on that 15-minute hike from his largely lit home into the quiet envelope of night. First, get over the fence, then walk on the flat part of the fire road and then head downhill to the water as the fire road fell away into brush, brook and [ultimately] the pile of pine needles that were The Young Professor’s bed for the night..

By sleeping out so often, he developed feelings specifically for that pine tree and the shelter it provided and more generally for the Reservoir and its woods as a whole. Truth be told, it wasn’t the most physically or aesthetically gifted tree—perhaps 35-feet tall and relatively small, unpresupposing and asymmetrical in its bottom branch layout—but it was nonetheless the ideal tree for its setting, and set in the best place possible. Nepaug Reservoir was a haven for a running- and hiking-obsessed semi-loner with a bent toward nature.

Looking back, it was the first time in The Professor’s life that he had exulted in a tree, believed in it, treasured it, and made it into something more than the thing that it was. That tree wasn’t just a tree; it was an environment, a living companion, possibly even a higher life form [see also “The Professor Opines on the Tree,” 6 June 2014]. The smell of the pine tar when the sap ran; the sound in the wind of its needles and branches; the soft touch of the pine needles below; the taste of the pristinely clear water of the Reservoir. That lone tree took on a symbolic role; it epitomized part of who The Young Professor was [a single entity alone in a crowd] as well as who he wanted to be at that time [a stalwart and self-sufficient individual].

Cut to the present moment: The Professor is no longer connected to nature in that fundamental and directly engaged way that defined his teen-aged years. Nepaug Reservoir is happily still there, but The Professor isn’t. The Reservoir is still surrounded by 100,000+ acres of protected forest, its water is still used to augment greater Hartford’s drinking water supply, and that lone-but-not-lonely pine tree at the devolved end of that fire road is still there, too.

The Professor has no photographs of that tree. But he has never wanted for images of it. The Young Professor’s mind was his print paper, his eyes were the lenses, and he was the camera that recorded all of Nepaug’s important details. Those image-memories are part of what sustains him even now—even after more than 40 years and traveling some 3,000 miles to the west. It’s fair to say that his spiritual home, his particular Dogtown, was a Metropolitan District Commission reservoir and forest that he dared to make his own.

The Professor is now a City Man, an Urban Dad, and he’s no longer so obviously or directly connected to that tree, to the Reservoir or to the town of Canton, Connecticut. As The Professor has moved from his childhood home to one urban area after another—Boston, Providence, Hartford, New York and now San Francisco—he has come to realize that the artificial nature that so strongly imprinted his youth, though different by degree, is of the same type that he resides in today. This artificial nature is the kind of nature that can be beautiful, leafy and even sweet-smelling but it is nonetheless culturally determined and made by humans on the basis of planning. That is to say, in the biggest-picture way possible, that it was designed. This is the reason that it consumes him, anchors him, and speaks to his place in the contemporary world—the place where his search is for “the pattern that connects”—and that’s why they call him The Professor.

©2014

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