Verona Park is a small, suburban park near my home. It is 54 acres (219,800 m2). It is a place I often go for a walk around the lake. I think I know it pretty well by now, so I easily can see small changes in it. I notices tress that lose branches, new signs, things in the water that don’t belong. I have watched the seasons change there many times now.
Some of my observation skills came from reading a book by Annie Dillard the year after it was published when I had just graduated college and started teaching. It had a big impact on me.
I have written before about how those stories of an anchorite by a creek changed how I taught my students writing. It also changed my ambition from understanding and exploring the world and the wilderness to wanting to know smaller, more knowable places where I lived.
Some of those places are in the small woods near my home. This is not forest or wilderness. These are places I went to a hundred times with my sons. I felt like if I could really understand a small piece of the world, I could understand myself and the larger world better.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is that book and it’s about a year Dillard spent in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia in close observation of a small wooded area near the creek. The book made her a Thoreau of the suburbs.
In literature, we call it close reading. Close reading is careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general. You pay attention to individual words, the way Dillard spent looking very carefully and writing down what she saw in nature and the seasons.
The title of her book suggests a pilgrimage, but like the labyrinth walk, she does not have to journey far from her home near the creek. This pilgrimage is not religious, but the pilgrim does seeks to behold the sacred.
The lake at Verona Park was once a swamp, and the lake was formed in 1814 when someone dammed the Peckman River for a grist mill. The lake with its weeping willow trees and paths was a place to escape to before it became a tamed county park with landscape plans prepared by the famous Olmsted Brothers.
The Peckman River in New Jersey flows northeasterly until its confluence with the Passaic River. The Passaic River itself is the remnant of Glacial Lake Passaic.
I have followed many sections of this troubled river over my lifetime. I have followed the Lenape Trail that follows the river in some sections the way the Lenape Indians followed it long ago.
The section of woods that is my pilgrim land is called Mills Reservation. It is 157 acres and more than I can ever understand in detail. It was also a minimalist design by the Olmsteds while they worked for Essex County, but most of it has never been developed.
On a clear day, I can see Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the south and the New York City skyline and even the Statue of Liberty to the east. From one lookout point on a cliff of this Watchung Mountain, there is Hawk Lookout atop a 500-foot basalt ledge. Basalt is a common extrusive igneous, volcanic, rock formed from the rapid cooling of lava. People join the Audubon Society birders who gather on that ancient ledge to watch the migration mixture of both coastal and ridge flights every autumn.
If you follow the trail out of the Mills Reservation to the southwest, the yellow trail blazes will lead me to a trail along an old Erie Railroad line and into Verona Park. Everything comes around.