Our Environment: “Psithurism” By Scott Turner

Sunday, November 04, 2018


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Fall leaves on Canonchet Farm boardwalk in Narraganset Credit: Karen Wargo

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a steady northwest wind staggered the tall trees and shuffled their colorful crowns at Canonchet Farm, a 160+-acre preserve on the west side of Route 1A directly across from Narragansett Town Beach.

Karen and I strolled, with members of the Friends of Canonchet Farms, some of the folks who created and now tended this preserve, as well as others, whom I would call Canonchet-curious. We meandered from the trailhead north through the sassafras grove near Pettaquamscutt Cove and then south and east, eventually exiting through the South County Museum.

“Psithurism” is the English language noun for the sound of wind in the trees and the rustling of leaves. That day, we got our share of psithurism during the two-hour walk.

Nevertheless, trees weren’t the only entities whispering to us. For example, we felt something much greater than ourselves as we stood before an immense, lichen-draped rock not far into the sanctuary from the trailhead.

According to a Geology Trail brochure created for the preserve by URI students and the Friends, the object was “made of metamorphosed sandstone from the Rhode Island Formation” and “Pennsylvanian in age,” or 300-or-so million years old.

Between 12,000 and 2.5 million years ago, “glaciers advanced from the north to the south and picked up, transported and deposited glacial materials,” shaping the region, noted the brochure. This metamorphic stone stood out in the preserve like some gigantic marker in the South County landscape.

I remembered reading one account of Canonchet Farm that said it first “took shape” with the arrival of European settlers. Indeed, Canonchet’s most celebrated resident was former Governor and Senator, William Sprague. The South County Museum notes that in 1863, Sprague and his wife, Kate, built a 64-room, four-story Victorian mansion there. They called the manor, Canonchet, which was the name of a Narragansett Sachem and leader of Native American warriors during the Great Swamp Fight and King Philip's War. 

According to the museum, Native Americans used the area “for seasonal cultivation, hunting, and fishing,” starting more than a thousand years ago.

For what it’s worth, Canonchet Farm wasn’t “formed” when Europeans arrived. Nature— glaciers, plants, animals and so on—molded it over hundreds of millions of years. 

In the swooshing wind, we stood on a boardwalk over moist, mossy soil, listening to the calls of migrating songbirds, including White-throated Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets. The preserve offered them insects, as well as fruits from native plants such as winterberry and spicebush.

We stood beside a thick growth of hay-scented fern. Last spring the ferns had unfurled prehistorically. Now, starting to turn brown, they remained a dense carpet, continuing to produce a friendly fragrance of fresh-cut hay.

The birds and ferns, as well as the berries and boulders, whispered of a great and ancient history, and now, as part of a   sanctuary, a future as bright as the foliage that swayed in the wind atop the black gum, sassafras, red maple and oaks that surrounded us.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner is a Providence-based writer and communications professional. For more than a decade he wrote for the Providence Journal and we welcome him to GoLocalProv.com. 


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