Willard's Woods is a familiar name throughout Lexington, but if you don't own a dog or live near the Diamond Middle School, it's hard to understand why anyone would want to go there. From all reports, it's just a giant field full of dogs.
Depending on how you view the outdoors, and what creatures live in your household, Willard's Woods is one of the few places where dogs can have the freedom to run off-leash, a piece of sensitive conservation land which is degraded by irresponsible dog owners, or simply the latest piece of property being used in a tug-of-war between different groups of Lexington residents.
I went to Willard's Woods with one question in mind: what lives here after all the dogs go back on their leashes? What calls Willard's Woods home?
I took my three sons on a mid-week, mid-morning walk through Willard's Woods. For the record, we saw four dogs (three off-leash), one pile of dog feces on the path near the parking lot, and one abandoned bag of dog feces by the bridge. But we also saw many other things.
Willard's Woods is an excellent place to view poison ivy; it's everywhere. We saw gigantic vines twining up trees near the parking lot and deep in the woods, with their thread-like aerial roots visibly clinging to the trunks. Short shrubby poison ivy plants surrounded most of the woodland paths, and cheerful poison seedlings were sprouting up all over the mown lawn.
Willard's Woods is a wonderful place to show children and neighbors who have arrived from far-away places the variations in poison ivy leaves. Some are nearly round, some are jagged and pointy, some are shiny, some are matte and dull. All of them come in sets of three leaves, and all of them will make you itch — as will the fur of a dog who has been rolling in the pleasant poison-ivy fields.
We only saw one snake, but it was enthralling. A smooth, fat Eastern Ribbon Snake slithered away into grass and left behind its shed skin as we watched. The boys touched the glassy, fragile fabric of the snake's past life. What are these soft-skinned children shedding as they grow?
I did not personally witness the spiders, but my sons who had joined the June 19 Citizens for Lexington Conservation walk "Spiders at Willard's Woods" assured me that the stone wall next to the bicycle path had been full of "bowl and doily" spiders. They weave webs with two parts: an upside down "bowl" over a flat "doily"—or call it a circus net for spider trapeze artists, if you like. Their abandoned weavings were sprinkled over the stones like grey confetti.
I was also informed that there are diving spiders in the pond, which is off-limits for restoration just now. Users human and canine have compacted the soil, so it's resting behind a jarring orange fence. I hope the hole in said fence does not grow.
The Willard's Woods meadows are filled with butterfly food — milkweed, purple vetch and tall rangy plants with tiny white flowers in wide umbels. There were probable red admiral butterflies and plenty of other delicate insects whisking about primly, pausing on the flowers just long enough to open and close their wings, then hurrying on.
Somehow, I'd missed the fact that Willard's Woods includes Willard's Wetlands. The cattails are tall and healthy, and grow along sturdy boardwalks above once and future mud.
There are woods, with soaring oaks and towering pines, smooth-barked beeches and quirky hickories. When you spend most of your time among roads and houses, it can be hard to remember just how overwhelming a forest can be. Trees are our link between the earth and the sky, and the tall trees at Willard's Woods are beautiful.