One of the newest places available for walking in my neck of the Northeast woods is in Nanuet, on the grounds of the old St. Agatha Home for Children, where once New York City sent youngsters to be reared by the good sisters of the Catholic Church. The large late-1800s housing/school and outlying dormitories are gone in changing times, and, a few years ago, much of the land was sold through public referendum to the Nanuet School District.
It was a fine save since more suburban housing, with greater land density and higher school and other government costs would have risen overnight. Enough already in this overbuilt ex-patch of the woods. The district’s taxpayers showed great foresight in rescuing the property, and some money has been found to pave a walking/bike path that gently follows the hills and valleys where youngsters once played.
I am on site three times a week, early at about 7 a.m., and share the path with two or three others. One of the sections I walk is a longish stretch flanked by very old oak trees, perhaps 125 years old. One fell down during the harsh winter, its insides long rotted though the upper branches were still budding. Five trees are left, standing almost in military formation, as if set by a surveyor’s line, resembling boulevards in France.
In the great open field that is now the St. Agatha walk, this line of trees is the only bit of formality. Other sections pass ballfields, which tell of suburbia, or woods, which speak of old Rockland County, N.Y., or the winding Convent Road, named for obvious reason. I am loose when walking anywhere else on the one-mile path, but when I come to what I now call “the boulevard,” I stand straighter and nod in respect that these trees have long stood where they have, enduring great summer heat and deep winter cold; their trunks etched with initials in 1902, 1935, 1943, 1960, 1995, etc.; their leafed branches providing shade for generations of boys and girls thinking through their plan of life; the roots drawing water from Rockland’s many underground sources. The history these oaks have witnessed span three centuries now.
I can be casual elsewhere on my St. Agatha walk, lost in the solitude that is the fortifying effect of a stroll or quick step or in between, but in the shadow of the trees on the boulevard, I am in the presence of life lived, the voice ghosts still whispering.