A walk on a heath is not like a walk through the woods or along a stream or the bay. A broad expanse, a heath has caught all of the wind, sun, sheets of rain, and layers of snow the sky has to offer. It’s beautiful, if you accept the stillness it holds, its subtle gradients of green and gray and brown, and the sudden bursts of color you sometimes have to search for.
In March, three friends and I hiked the Emerton Heath, 100 acres of low, tough shrubs in our town of Surry. The snow was mostly gone, but it was a lumpy place, with sheep laurel and leatherleaf sticking out of sphagnum hummocks frozen as hard as rocks, and bushes of rhodora and Labrador tea, their buds ready to flower in a spring warmth that hadn’t yet arrived. There’s something menacing but also exhilarating about hiking out onto a heath. You couldn’t manage a run through it if you had to, and it’s easy to lose your way, following the threads of deer trails, looking back at where you think you might have come from, which now seems far away and unfamiliar. Looking ahead, you brace for something to show itself on the horizon: maybe the silhouette of a buck or a bear.
Down East, close to the ocean, is where you find many of the heaths of Maine. The slope bogs and raised bogs of Great Wass Island comprise one, where a friend of ours, as a child, used to pick baked-apple berries for his mother to put up for winter treats. Near Columbia Falls, the Great Heath, through which the Pleasant River runs, is another. To reach the heath, you paddle upstream, entering a scoured riverbed, a trench dug through heathland by water, where the riverbanks are only a few yards from your face and you must look directly up to see the sky. Turtlehead and cardinal flowers grow there in summer, and when the water is low and the top of the land nearly 6 feet above, you might feel a part of the river fauna, like a turtle, maybe, or a fish, or a frog, moving slowly up what’s left of the water.
A heath is beautiful, if you accept the stillness it holds.
I love the sounds of the words that characterize heaths: bog and muskeg, from Gaelic and Cree, respectively, are words for heathlands that are mostly sphagnum; lagg, from a Scandinavian root, refers to the wet moat encircling a heath; fen, from Old English, is what we call a heath that receives some mineral groundwater; peat, again from Gaelic, means decomposing muck. The word heath, when I learned it while living in Prospect Harbor, was pronounced “hayth.”
Years ago, the late Maine botanist Sally Rooney brought a group of us to the Emerton Heath and stood among the assemblage of plants and stunted trees and told us how they worked together, nutrient poor and living mostly on rainwater. Some were blooming at her knees with startling profusion, and she reached down to show us how to identify them by leaf and stem and flower.
My friends and I have a plan for our next visit: We’ll haul picnic chairs, thermoses of tea, binoculars, and some hand lenses out over the lagg and settle down atop the first few yards of the gentle rise of the heath, where we can look straight across it, almost to the horizon. We’ll search for the palm warblers that nest in heaths and the flycatchers hawking for insects from the limbs of the black spruces. But mostly we’ll sit in the big silence of this big place and sip tea and let the day move on toward evening.