“This path – like the woods that run to the ocean – will continue its own cleansing cycle and evolve,” writes the author. Photos: Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff

The lessons of Butt Rock

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The lessons of Butt Rock

“This path – like the woods that run to the ocean – will continue its own cleansing cycle and evolve,” writes the author. Photos: Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff

The path is magic and muddy and is a portal to fantasy and some truth. I know this dirt well, and the trees and stones that rise up like a protective berm over this corridor. It is a dream, it is part of another world, but when the mosquito taps at my ankle I awaken, at least for a second.

This is again my backyard. I did not plan this return to Swampscott, more like stumbled until I found myself again on this trail. As a child, these woods were my escape. I’d step onto these paths – and connecting trails – and be transported to a center of calm until I’d place both feet again onto the asphalt parking lot, which led back to my childhood home.

Fleeting tranquility then, and now as well. Somehow, the woods whisper approval when I enter. It still works, for as long I choose to glide along this yellow leaf road that stretches a couple of hundred yards. I do not hear children’s voices of past or present. Rather, I am invisible again, floating along in an inexplicable mirth. But the trees surely are aware of my presence, as are the birds and squirrels.

This is their home, I am their guest and know the rules: One may visit but not disturb.

This channel is not all that unusual. I have reached it before while writing or playing music. Because we are body and soul, though, it can’t go on forever. I can stay only so long, and the end always comes too soon. I step off the soil and onto the hardtop of a parking lot that sits between a fresh cut field and an old brick elementary school.

I grew up across from the school with its field, swing sets, and magical woods that seemed to whisper to me every day. It had been an improbable journey for my family to its roomy Colonial, which was just steps away from the school. My parents weren’t suburban Jews – my dad was born in Lithuania and grew up on the streets of Chelsea; my mother was from the Brickyard in Lynn. But in the early 1960s, they found their own Shangri-La on Orchard Road. They spent few daylight hours there – my dad toiled in his deli; my mother sold real estate (at a time when you could buy a home in Swampscott for less than $10,000).

The Storytelling Rocks sit a few yards off the main path.

My best friends and I came to see the school more as a prop than a center of education. No matter. Other kids and teachers came and went, and much of the day the school was dark and the light fell on the fields and woods. That gave us a lot of time to explore, and we mapped the area with distinguished names where we would meet. There was the Storytelling Rocks, a set of a dozen crooked 3-foot-high stones that crowded together a few yards off the path. And behind the athletic field were the secret places that only kids on the block knew about. There was Butt Rock, a 5-foot-high craggy boulder that you had to lean against to sit on, and where the 11-year-old leader of our bike-riding gang – the Orchard Circle Cyclones – instructed us how to smoke. (Most of us could not work up the guts to inhale.)

And about 30 yards away sat the Pond, a mysterious pool of what appeared to be soot and decaying branches. If offered up little more than grime and limited space to the visitor, and there at this secret shrine, we alternately talked excitedly, and crouched in silence. We visited Butt Rock and the Pond often – perhaps because we were aware that almost no one else knew of these places, and that we had a responsibility to show the same respect to the vernal pool and slanted rock as the main paths and swings.

I grew up and moved away, and some 30 years after leaving the town, I somehow returned. As we were moving in, a sense of place washed over me. I had brought my family into a neighborhood opposite the old woods, just seven minutes from the path and the school and my childhood home. Had this been what I sought all along?

A day or so after we unpacked, I started walking and was guided back to the path. It turns out, some 40 years ago a church had been built behind the school on land that was mostly pricker bushes and thorns. It was now a well-groomed, low-slung prayer house with a large parking lot that extended behind the athletic field. Whither Butt Rock and the Pond?

Just 48 hours as a resident and not-quite-abutter (my house sits across the street from the school’s woods), and my priorities had shifted to institutions that were suddenly crucial – again – to my well-being. I eventually found the Pond and it looked remarkably the same. But Butt Rock, and its familiar path of worn leaves, had disappeared – perhaps leveled when they built the church long ago. And so, I settled into my walks. I made a point of revisiting every trail I remembered and sought out any I had missed as a child. I took note that the steep hill where we’d once gone sledding must have held part of a glacier since the woods below formed a bowl and a swamp. I’d see new things in the forest each day, and there were always piles and piles of leaves that led to more broken branches and towering trees.

My walks have become shorter since COVID. But I always begin and end at the school. The building looks a lot like it did when I was a kid except that it’s in even worse shape. The windows are the same as the ones I spent much of my time looking through more than 50 years ago. The clock outside the main entrance has been broken since the 1960s. The playground behind the school is cracked and weeds sprout through the midsections of the hopscotch and four-square games.

The Pond was a mysterious pool of what appeared to be soot and decaying branches. There at this secret shrine, we alternately talked excitedly, and crouched in silence.

No one seemed to care about the school’s condition, but it turns out that’s not exactly true. About a decade ago, a group of residents wanted to build a new school on the site but it was deemed too large a proposal and it was voted down. Then, last year, the town proposed building an even bigger school there. It would be on the athletic field, and the current school would be torn down and replaced by a parking lot. Only a fraction of green space would remain on the footprint.

I was most concerned about the woods and the path, and last summer, I thought I had little to worry about. Surely people would study the proposal and decide a better plan was needed. The path would be saved and I would continue on with my trance therapy, perhaps forever. But something happened in the last two years that I barely noticed. Real estate prices soared, and all of a sudden a starter house in town was selling for more than $500,000.

And then in November, voters overwhelmingly approved the new school. All of a sudden I had a lot to think about. Hundreds of additional cars would cut through my neighborhood twice a day at drop-off and pick-up times. A new exit road would be constructed through the woods and church lot. And despite promises, no one has explained how the magical path will be protected: It sits just yards away from where the new school is to be built.

I don’t necessarily object to all of this proposed change. The town needs a new school. I guess people who pay half a million bucks to live in a tiny house have the right to send their kid to a school that has a proper air filtration system. And who am I to say it’s wrong that they’ll put their child first – even if it means more pollution, another $1,000 a year in taxes or so, and the upending of a woods they may have never entered?

What do you do when something you love is taken away from you? In a lot of cases, not much. Construction is set to begin soon. They will raze the school and since the field is set on ledge, that will be blown up by demolition teams. I know I won’t leave because these trees and woods and paths are part of who I have become. It is my refuge from the technology, and the untruths spread by politicians and business interests that place our democracy in peril.

Still, all of this presents a positive challenge as well. I sometimes wonder if I have embraced the concept of a sense of place too much and have become too comfortable with my backyard. I have also looked the other way while the town has gone from an affordable option for middle-class families to something approaching a tony suburb. It has brought me comfort but perhaps there are other places to see and bond with? Is this all the culture I seek?

And then, I remind myself that our existence is a mystery. Even as I lobby for more time on this planet, and for all that I desire, I know that I really understand only what brings me pleasure or pain. I can trace the path that led toward those emotions. Yes, it’s easy to get worked up about what you care about. It’s part of the reason we live and lends a sense of purpose – this balance between family, nature, and community. But I know there may be other magical paths that might grant a person like me access.

Meanwhile, this path – like the woods that run to the ocean – will continue its own cleansing cycle and evolve. It will survive man and be bathed by currents that will cover much of the earth again, and probably glaciers as well. When the sun returns, animals will create their own paths and perhaps those future trails will bring a sense of joy and place. Perhaps, even one day, the remnants of Butt Rock will emerge. In the meantime, though, I will begin to view the magic path as a continuation of one wondrous trail that has no beginning or end.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.

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