Deep in the forests of Tolland, along the edge of an ancient Atlantic White Cedar swamp, is an old oak known as the "touch me tree." The tree, whose name was coined by the late Ivan Robinson, is next to the sprawling boughs of giant white pines — and is believed to bring good luck to all who touch its bark.
Like many natural areas I've visited over the years dedicated in someone's name, I had no idea who Robinson was before I hiked the land. And, like many of those places, once you have finished the hike, you leave knowing the person a little better.
Robinson, a journalist who made stops at The Day of New London and the Hartford Times before finishing his career as a medical writer and public information director at the University of Connecticut Health Center, was supposed to join Thursday morning's tour of the property he donated to Joshua's Trust. But the 84-year-old passed away suddenly on Aug. 4 while clearing trails on the 42-acre property he shared with his wife, Joyce, for many years.
"He was a man who loved his land," Warren Church, past president of Joshua's Trust, said before we hiked the parcel. "He wanted to preserve and share his land. It's very unusual to have a public walk on someone's easement."
Church noted that about half of the more than 4,000 acres protected by the trust are easements that enable the owners to keep title to the property while preventing all future development. The trust has 60 easements; the Robinson property is the only one open to the public.
The leader of the hike was trust naturalist Juan Sanchez. If you ever have an opportunity to go on a trust hike with Sanchez, clear your schedule. He's an engaging, amusing hike leader who can find humor in everything from soil samples to carnivorous plants.
The property is near a large and rare Atlantic white cedar stand along the northern banks of Upper Bolton Lake — a lake Sanchez pointed out is "really a big pond" only six feet deep in places. He said stands of cedar this far north are rare, but are "critically important" to the watershed. He noted that the low oxygen, high acid content of the bogs causes things that fall into it to slowly decompose.
"Things will last in there for years," he said. "If you fell in there, you would be pickled. They've found well-preserved mastodon skeletons in them."
On all hikes led by a naturalist, I usually learn a few new things. Sanchez pointed out that "oak apples" — brown golf ball-sized spheres that litter the forest floor — are the homes of the gall wasp. He peeled off layers of the spongy ball to revealing the insect. He also pointed out a sundew, a carnivorous plant that produces sweet nectar and feeds off flies, spiders and moths that get trapped. As a dragonfly passed by, he noted that the insect can have bursts of speed up to 60 miles per hour.
The tour ended deep in the forest under the shade of the great white pines, a family camping site and home to the touching tree. Each one of us walked up to the tree and touched it as if connecting with the spirit of Robinson.
"He was definitely a character," said his brother, Peter Robinson, who came down from Massachusetts for the hike. "He was looking forward to the hike and showcasing the land he loved."
A memorial service for Robinson will be held Sept. 6 from 2-3 p.m. at the Tolland Memorial Funeral home. Visit http://www.joshuastrust.org/events-calendar/ for upcoming hikes.