Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

Beaver Brook Falls isn’t the kind of place you’d drive from miles away to see; in fact, I bet the folks who live right down the street from it seldom come here. I’ve walked the abandoned road that leads to the falls twice this week, once on my own and once with the dog, and I’ve not seen a soul on either day. Teenagers come here occasionally, it seems; there is the usual assortment of spray-paint graffiti on some of the rocks, and at the falls there is a rocky fire-ring with castoff cigarette packs and other detritus. I suppose the naturalist in me should be outraged at such signs of youthful hijinks: spray-paint and litter, after all, leave a distinctly human mark on an otherwise natural landscape. The scenery at Beaver Brook, though, isn’t particularly untouched to begin with: the half-mile stroll to the falls follows an abandoned, overgrown highway fringed with powerlines and guardrail cables. Beaver Brook isn’t wilderness, but it’s wild, a tiny corner of forgotten green right on the edge of town.

You’d never, as I said, drive for miles to see Beaver Brook Falls: it’s a hidden jewel. It lies at the end of a dead-end street right off the on-ramp for the highway that leads to Concord: the road out of town. When you park on the side of this dead-end road and walk around the chained gate that marks the remainder of the road as being under the auspices of the City of Keene Parks and Recreation Department, your ears are bombarded by the sound of Rt. 9 traffic: you are, after all, right off the highway and less than five minutes from downtown.

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

But as you continue walking up the road’s gradual, green-fringed incline, the sound of traffic fades as the sound of rushing water grows increasingly louder. Beaver Brook isn’t a large waterway: it’s a brook, not a river, so even after our recent spring thunderstorms it’s only several yards across. But that slight incline and the pinch of a narrowing granite gorge works a deceptive magic: close your eyes and the torrent could be larger, the locale more exotic. As you walk that abandoned road, you feel the cool breath of water and greenery: you don’t feel like you’re right outside of town, your car parked on a road alongside someone’s semi-suburban driveway.

I like strolling at Beaver Brook because it’s a quick trip there and back: it’s a stroll I can squeeze into even the most busy day. There is no traffic and (apparently) few walkers, so I can let Reggie run off leash; there is at least one place where the bank slopes gradually so he can swim without struggling to climb out of the water and back onto the road. Although I’ve not seen many birds there, I’ve heard a tempting assortment of birdsongs: black-throated green warblers, hermit thrushes, red-eyed vireos. And earlier this week when I returned to my car after a mid-day stroll at Beaver Brook, I saw a handful of yellow and black tiger swallowtails fluttering on a tumbling torrent of yellow honeysuckle vine, their paper-thin wings catching sunlight like sparks.

Tiger swallowtail on honeysuckle, Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

Although there’s nothing that can compare with true untouched wilderness, I’ve always loved the hidden jewels in the forgotten corners of civilization. Untouched wilderness is necessary and good, but at a certain level you can’t get there from here: once you or anyone else sets foot onto untouched wilderness, it’s been irrevocably touched and thus loses some of its virginal appeal. Unless you’re going to live in the wilderness, your interactions with it are going to be limited to those occasional sorties you can afford at the tag-ends of your life: a two-week vacation here, a long weekend getaway here. Hidden jewels, though, are perpetually there for the asking: whenever you have a random moment, they unfold their close-to-home beauties for you and the handful of other people (it’s always only a mere handful) who take the time to find wildness close at hand.

Beaver Brook Falls, Keene, NH

I don’t mind sharing Beaver Brook with an occasional band of rollicking youngsters so full of exuberant energy that they’ll walk a half mile for a surreptitious campfire or wade a cold brook to spray-paint their name alongside that of their sweetheart. Animals of all sorts have strange and unusual courtship rituals, and beavers themselves leave a quite drastic mark on otherwise “untouched” landscapes. In the end, I think that nature is meant to be touched, meant to be savored, enjoyed, and experienced: Beaver Brook still flows strong even though a once-busy, now-abandoned road was built on its stony spine, its rocky vertebrae showing no sign of injury from a spray-painted tattoo or two.

On a gorgeous weekend like this, popular hiking destinations like Mount Monadnock are teeming with visitors, weekend-warriors who for the most part have no idea what green jewels lie in their own backyard. Because the mountain is already overcrowded, its trails eroding under the feet of too many visitors, Monadnock State Park doesn’t allow dogs in the park or on the mountain: like the management of an amusement park, the division of parks has to make clear who is and who isn’t fit to ride the rides. At Beaver Brook, there’s no one around to forbid my dog, no one around to care if he runs off-leash or splashes in the stream, no one around to object when he races out of the water and shakes off, exuberant. It’s not easy being a hidden jewel, I’m sure: you spend most of your days in quiet obscurity, forgotten. But those swallowtails, vireos, and thrushes didn’t seem to mind whether they played to a packed house, an audience of two, or the stones themselves. Whether hidden and forgotten or overcrowded and spectacular, nature’s show eternally goes on.