Walking with Leonard

A dedicated island walker finds her world illuminated by a friend with a certain knowledge and a spirit of adventure
Mon, 06/09/2014 - 5:15pm

I first met Leonard Perfido last spring after he and his wife Ruth returned from a Great Ape Encounter tour in Africa. Like them, I am intrigued by the works of gorilla researcher Dian Fossey and chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, but unlike them, I have never entertained the notion of trekking to Africa to see the preserves for myself. Interviewing the more adventurous Perfidos was my chance to hear a first hand account and to pass it on to Block Island Times readers. (You can find that story in the archives at http://block-island.villagesoup.com/p/an-encounter-with-the-great-apes-o...)

When not on these journeys to the wild side (the couple also went to Antarctica last year) Leonard and Ruth Perfido spend time in their Island home, and Mr. Perfido leads walks for the Block Island Conservancy. Though not as adventurous as African and Antarctic treks, his walks are nonetheless most informative and interesting. Last summer on Friday mornings at 9 a.m. he led these themed strolls along the stone walls of the Martin preserve, and always ready for a walk of any kind, I tagged along for the Block Island Summer Times.  To find out when this and other themed walks are scheduled this summer, check the organization’s website at biconservancy.org,  its facebook page, or visit its new Education Center in the old schoolhouse on Weldon’s Way.

The tour began at the corner of West Side and Old Mill Roads. We parked on a verge along West Side Road and turned onto Old Mill on foot. Though there were only three of us following Perfido, he said that he usually he gets ten to twelve people. This was his smallest group all summer.  [Photo #1]

My companions were Sherry Walsh and Bill Walsh friends but unrelated. Sherry bought a house on Southwest Point not so long ago, and Bill is an old friend of her husband David. He, by the way, drove past mid-tour and declined an invitation to join us saying he needed to get home to the children.

We walked only a short way down Old Mill Road to get to the beginning of the trail, which was well marked with a sign and follows the stone walls. [Photo #2]

Leonard told us the ownership history of this land. The ten-acre Martin preserve is divided into four fields. Prior to 1941, it was a farm owned by Lucretia Mott Ball, known as LM Ball, who gave the very first piece of land on the island for conservation, but not this particular piece (that was the Nathan Mott Farm.) The Martin family bought the farmland in the l950s and in the l980s began giving easements to The Nature Conservancy and then gave complete ownership to the Block Island Conservancy. 

When the colonists arrived in the mid 1600s, Block Island was heavily treed with hardwoods. The colonists, starting with the 16 families who migrated from the Boston area to escape religious persecution, had been business people in Boston. On Block Island they became farmers.  What might have taken nature hundreds or thousands of years to nurture, was cleared in 30 to 40 years for agricultural crops, said Perfido. The walls, some of which mark boundary lines, were built from the many rocks this New England soil held. [Photo #3]

The Martin property is one of the few places left on Block Island where the rolling hills of colonial farmlands can still be seen, Perfido told us.  And, I might add, still enjoyed. The view is beautiful. I love fields full of knee high grasses and the air is sweet with the scents of the plants. [Photo #4]

Eons and eras ago, there was no Block Island. The continental shelf extended out 200 miles, Perfido said. All the lands were connected and this area was part of the continent of North America, and connected to New York and Rhode Island.  

According to an excellent article in the Providence Journal (published as a pdf in 2005, www.providencejournal.com/extra/2005/blockisland/.../bi-glacier.pdf) there were two major glaciers that formed the Island, the Wisconsin Glacier about 40,000 years ago and the Laurentide, 20,000 years ago.  The last glaciers receded about 9,000 years ago, which in our calendar would have been 7,000 B.C., Perfido said. It took, according to the Journal, 1,000 years for the meltdown.  

As the glaciers came south, they ground up mountains, shearing off their tops. As they crept forward, their surfaces melted backward and the leading bottom edge left  behind whatever it was carrying.  Block Island’s terrain was carved out by this process. Its rolling hills and its hollows and ponds, were all bulldozed by the glaciers. [see Photo #4 also] The ponds hold water because the bottoms have clay; the hollows drain because their bottoms are sandy. 

Looking toward the center of the island, Perfido said Beacon Hill was at the moraine, or melting edge of the glacier.  

Geologists can identify where different rocks came from. Those of us on the walk note that we see quartz rocks and granite as well as others we are unable to identify. [Photo #5]

It was not just the glacier that left its mark; Perfido points out a cleft in a rock carved out by a colonist’s tool. I point out a rock that reminds me of a friend’s countertop, thinking it must be granite. 

In the wall along West Side Road, there is a good-sized break. Perfido asks us what we think caused it. Several of us suggest perhaps there was at one time a gate there, or a storm surge broke through. But we are incorrect.  The break was caused when the road was raised and repaved, and the ground broke through. [Photo #6] 

I have noticed black spots, both large and small, on the walls. I wonder aloud whether that is a tar, as I do know that on some of the island’s stone walls where fishermen tarred their nets there are such marks, but Perfido says, “No,” and tells me he will explain later.  He does.  When we arrived at a place where there were both green and black spots on the wall, he told us both were made by moss.  The green marks are live moss and the black ones are moss that has died.

We come upon a pile of small rocks that Perfido tells us is not a natural phenomenon. While clearing the land, farmers used the larger rocks for walls and threw the smaller ones, which were of no use in the walls, into piles. This particular one was made where the land was low, in a small depression. The circle of plants that still grows around denotes the wetter low-lying area.

There’s a stand of invasive Japanese knotweed Perfido tells us was recently cleared, but persistently grows back.  The Concervancy plans to place black bags around the bottoms to  cover the area around the roots to try to kill them. [Photo #7]

An apple tree grows on the other side of the wall, its apples dropping without respect to boundaries. It may well be a remnant of farm days.  

We climb to the top of the rolling hill and look back upon the rock pile and the circle of plants around it. From the hilltop, Perfido points out the new Conservancy acquisition, the Ray-Durfee property across the street. [Photo #8] We decide to take the mowed trail there to the top. [Photo #9]

Spectacular! All of us should be grateful to the Conservancy that we can all climb this knoll and enjoy these 120-degree ocean views.

From The Block Island Summer Times, June 2014