If you want to know what southern New England’s forested landscapes are all about, you can’t do better than wandering the Jones Mountain preserve in New Hartford, Connecticut. A mere 158 acre slice of rugged hill country, its synergy between man and nature epitomizes what makes this region endlessly fascinating.
The property is entered on a narrow trail that twists and winds through a dense forest of mixed hardwoods islanded with stands of hemlock. A typical rocky and rooty forest path, it’s deeply shaded with thick napped moss covering fallen logs and small boulders. Tall columnar oaks give the woods a dignified air. Birch and beech grow well with laurel thriving in dense understory thickets along with moosewood and witch hazel.
It doesn’t take long to reach a clearing where the fieldstone back and sidewall remains of a large shed-style building stands roofless near a small tea colored pond with an earthen dam. Like almost all the woods in this area, this is not a pristine swatch of nature, but a place that has felt a tug-of-war between human and natural forces for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Most recently, it was part of an estate in the Jones family for several generations. They loved it for its beauty and turned it into a sort of garden writ large.
After a short climb, the trail spills onto a broad carriage road, part of a network of graded paths the Jones’ built just after the turn of the last century, in the waning days of wagon wheels and horsepower. Yellow hawkweed, wild geranium and laurel were blooming recently along the edge of the road which was carefully engineered with stone gutters and a fieldstone arch bridge said to be built by Irish stonemasons. The rustic bridge is a work of art that would be the pride of any town center. Moss grows so thickly on the stones that the structure almost seems constructed of the plush emerald sod.
The trail rises to an overlook facing west toward more forested hills with the steeples and other buildings of New Hartford center clustered below. The ledges are neatly carved with nineteenth-century graffiti, names and dates as early as the 1830s.
Beyond the ledges and by way of a side trail, a neat rectangular enclosure of fieldstone is reached. It has cobble finials at the corners and one end is made of a massive glacial erratic boulder affixed with memorial plaques to members of the Jones family. The forest is so thick and moss so rampant that the light is deeply virescent. I’m reminded of seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell’s line that a garden annihilates “all that is made/to a green thought in a green shade.”
The peak offers no view, but rather something much more unusual. Affectionately known as the “foam dome” is an ersatz igloo-looking structure made of steel, wood, concrete and foam. It has a stone floor and a fireplace with a tall metal stovepipe poking from the roof. Splotched with moss and sporting small trees, the dome is slowly reverting to nature. Built by a Jones family member while she was an architecture student at Yale in the 1970s, it appears influenced by futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller and could be the perfect home for a high tech hobbit.
Like most forested tracts in New England, this is not a wilderness, but a landscape tooled by both man and nature. Each has left their mark and shaped the other. Nature’s power and beauty are better understood because of the contrast, and the works of humankind stand in stronger relief for the same reason. It’s a naturalized plot of ground that invites discovery on many levels.