EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series exploring town-owned parcels preserved for recreational use and communing with nature.

Chances are that as you travel around Fairfield, you've caught glimpses of big, dark-brown signs set off from the road. Take a closer look at one of them, and you're likely to see a rail leading off into a wooded area or field.

For more than 50 years, these rustic, wood signs have invited townspeople to visit Fairfield's Open Spaces -- land set aside for the preservation of natural environments and for our enjoyment.

Many Fairfielders use our open spaces, most notably Lake Mohegan, with its beach, hiking trails and the spectacular cascades. But others often are overlooked, despite their own appealing qualities.

Although I visit my own favorites many times in all seasons, I usually enter and leave these beautiful enclaves without seeing another person. My aim, in a series of columns, is to detail the town's open spaces waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by more of us. Fairfield has come a long way -- three and a half centuries, in fact -- from its founding as a Puritan agricultural settlement, but it has taken pains to honor its history and character.

In the 1960s, the town embarked on a visionary purchasing program, sometimes with state and federal assistance, to add to its inventory of protected land parcels. In some cases, these purchases "rescued" land slated for residential or commercial uses.

Under it's Open Spaces Program, the town's Conservation Department now manages more than 50 parcels totaling 1,100 acres They range in size from less than an acre to more than 180 acres.

Are you looking to add variety to your walking route? Walking is a great physical activity wherever you do it, but an open-space trail offers an added benefit that no sidewalk can offer -- a chance to leave the suburbs behind for a while and explore a natural habitat.

Are you looking for enough terrain for a serious hike or just a nice area for a short stroll? Interested new places for fishing or birding? Would you enjoy taking your kids on a non-electronic outdoor adventure? Or simply be with your own thoughts in the beauty and serenity of a natural environment?

It's likely that within a few minutes of your home, there's an open space, hidden in plain sight, patiently waiting to welcome you into its special world.

You don't have to wait for the "Open Spaces" column to get started. The Conservation Commission has produced a comprehensive guidebook, "Walking Through Fairfield's Open Spaces." It was compiled by Frank Rice, a retired Fairfield University biology professor, and a crew of dedicated volunteers.

The guide includes maps of the major open spaces and a general orientation to the sites. Call or stop in to the Conservation Department in Independence Hall to get a copy.

Then you'll be ready to explore.

Ron Blumenfeld is a medical doctor and retired pediatrician. He lives in Fairfield and is a frequent hiker.