The Muddy Edge of Sky

This is Jerry’s Pit, once a spot where clay was dug for the local brick industry, later a swimming hole, now fenced on all sides and unavailable to human beings. We believe in the principle of public access to the seashore; why not to the shore closer to home? If our priorities on this spot were once manufacturing, then recreation, what are they now?

Behind the T garage, the wabi-sabi juxtaposition of land, water, concrete, and graffiti continues gradually to evolve.

(If you click on an image to open it in a new window, then zoom in, you will find that there is a great deal of detail to be explored.)

Over the time of this project, I’ve trained myself — almost without realizing it — to see the kind of beauty that is in this landscape. It’s busy, teeming with tiny particulars, shapeless at first glance, but then not so shapeless after all. It’s messy. It’s something in between categories that we consciously value, not a garden or park, not a wilderness either. This kind of beauty is resilient and quietly insistent; it inserts itself if given the slightest opportunity. It can live along fence lines, in ditches and medians, in so-called vacant lots, which are not vacant at all. It has access to any sliver of space that we have not maximally organized in human terms. We seem to take for granted that we “should” maximize our takeover of most of the space around us; but we don’t always complete the job, and in those spaces where our domination is less than complete, a type of beauty arises by organizing itself.

This is a spot from which I’ve often photographed, on the Little River:

and these are the marshes.

At Blair Pond in the late November afternoon,

the indefinite edge is a window of sky.

The muddy edge of sky is at our feet. We have to keep looking until we see.

A Miniature Arcadia

Shortly after Thanksgiving, I returned to the abandoned nightclub Faces and its parking lot, which borders the old channel of the Little River. The parking lot is gradually turning back into land.

Faces lot reverts

One of the first organisms to make significant headway in the process is moss, which appears to be thriving on the asphalt

moss does its thing

and also on the nightclub’s decaying porch.

the porch of Faces

Next to the porch there is an asphalt mountain with its own flora, foothills and caves.

asphalt mountain

cave under asphalt mountain

To me the moss on the parking lot looked like islands, archipelagos, coastlines against an asphalt sea, a tiny green landscape that a human being can see, step around and over, but not exactly visit.


archipelago 1

archipelago 2

archipelago 3

archipelago 4

One phase in a slow transformation. If it’s allowed to continue, one day this will presumably become a meadow. For now, though, it’s property guarded by a fiftyish man with a pit bull growling on a short leash. He wanted to know who I was working for; when I told him I was a professor trying to write a book he seemed slightly mollified. He said there are plans to build an apartment building on the site, with units of affordable housing. I’m conflicted about this project. Cambridge can use all the affordable housing it can get, and with luck the project might in the end create better access to the beautiful wetland behind it, which I believe cannot and will not be built on. What effects will that have on the marsh? I don’t know. Would the addition of an apartment building increase the runoff from this site, or not? It’s already paved, though the pavement is breaking up. How would the new population affect the sewage and wastewater treatment system? Would that make it more difficult for the city to do away with the combined sewage outfall (CAM #401A) that is a few hundred yards away? If more people live next to the marsh and know about it, some of them will probably start caring about it, appreciating it — unless it gets fenced off . . . would it be possible to pass an ordinance guaranteeing public access to wetlands, the way coastal towns often maintain and defend public access to beaches? At the moment, access even to the Faces parking lot appears to be an iffy proposition, much less to the wetland behind it. I took one more picture before leaving.

wetland behind Faces 12/2/08

The Department of Environmental Protection sign, which was lying face down before I came along, is the reason I believe this marsh will not be built on. At the right, hanging from a post, is the pink “Wetland Delineation” tape. I’m glad that the marsh has a bureaucracy on its side.

I’ve photographed Sickle Brook twice before, once in November 2007 (especially the place where it flows past a tow truck lot), which you can see at this link, and before that on Sept. 7, 2007. On this particular day I followed Mill Brook up to the Arlington Reservoir and photographed the marsh (the culmination of Sickle Brook) that lies between the dam of the Res and the parking lot of Drake Village, an elderly housing complex run by the town of Arlington.

Two days ago I happened to go on a picnic at the Res with Vaughn and her mother. On the way to what seems to be the sole picnic table (luckily unoccupied), we passed that same marsh and of course I had to photograph it again.

This is last September:

Marsh at Drake Village

Marsh at Drake Village 2

and this is now, July:

Marsh below Drake Village summer 08 1

Marsh below Drake Village summer 08 #2

Marsh below Drake Village summer 08 #3

There was a definite but subtle difference — perhaps the difference between the height of summer and summer’s end, or a difference in rainfall between this year and last. Or a difference without a localizable cause, other than the fact that organic processes never hold still.

So far as I know, no human being is shaping this space. A family of ducks were there when we first walked by, presumably to eat the vegetation. The aesthetic decisions, if that’s what we want to call them, are being made by the ecosystem itself. The autonomy of nature is going on in the gap between the dam of the Res (a uniform slope of same-sized rocks) and the parking lot of Drake Village. I know I’ve said this before, but nearly all we have to do is supply the gap and then more or less leave it alone. Then beauty sometimes results, and the argument of these posts, collectively, seems to be that if you look for it, it will be there.

We are still what evolution has made us, inseparably intertwined with the natural systems of the planet. We can’t float free from them, at least not yet, and my guess is we are not anywhere near as close to casting off our moorings as some people apparently wish. The beauty, the feeling of attraction, that we experience in autonomous natural spaces is a sign that we as creatures remain embedded in this environment. Aliveness surrounds us whether we pay attention to it or not, whether or not we know that we’re part of it.

I believe that in our relationship with nature, which is clearly at a turning point, we are not being asked to choose between mastery and servitude (as if we must be either the environment’s savior, destroyer, or victim). Rather we are being asked to choose between equality and a failed relationship. The possibility of equality between us and the world around us already exists, is present, is not a hypothesis but something we can see happening here and there, close to home, perhaps inadvertently. We don’t have a monopoly on aliveness, and neither does the natural world. Neither of us is more special, more genuine, or for that matter more intelligent than the other.

If we now turn to notice the places where this equality is quietly visible, and keep our attention there for a while when we do notice, then it is my belief we will start to realize that we’re part of a self-organizing system, and that sometimes we have to let the system organize us. For sure, we can have major effects on the ecosystem as a whole, sometimes more major than we would like. Some believe this means it’s our job to engineer the entire planet; I think trying to do that would be a terrible mistake. We don’t know enough, and we would be gambling with our own life support. I’m not suggesting we should abdicate responsibility; we should, definitely, make every effort to stop doing things that cause harm to the environment. What I’m saying is that our knowledge of what not to do comes with far greater certainty than our knowledge of what to do. We now know from experience the effects of asbestos or Agent Orange, and that knowledge is sufficient to create a consensus that these substances must not be used in the ways they once were. It’s an entirely different thing to consider spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to increase the earth’s reflectivity and thus cool the planet. This idea has been suggested by a respected climate scientist, Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize in chemistry, 1995), but that does not mean anyone can predict all of its consequences.

We’ve gotten this far in industrial civilization through hyper-confidence in our own knowledge, and I strongly suspect that we were able to think we had everything figured out because we had not yet run up against the finite nature of this world. Our interventions “worked” the way we imagined they did, in part because there was always a place where we could throw things away. That meant that a great deal never had to be thought about; out of sight, out of mind. Now, increasingly, we realize there is no “away.” There were still resources we had not tried to exploit, and no doubt there still are, but to circle back to the starting point of all this, the amount of water on planet Earth is finite and unchanging. We cannot make more H2O, and that is becoming one of several limiting factors. As is the realization that exploiting resources is not always an unambiguous good.

Our massive confidence in our explanations has rested for a long time on the fact that we weren’t aware of half of the repercussions of our actions. It’s important to remember that perhaps we still are not. We don’t know how much we don’t know, but we don’t like to admit that. We tend to think that our understanding of the natural world has reached completion, and all that remains is to work out the applications of our insights. The trouble is, we thought that in 1908 and 1808 as well. Looking back, that seems laughable, but how different are we today? Did the past century suddenly make it really true that we have godlike knowledge?

My view, in short, is that we’re not alone here. We’re not transcendent beings who operate in a way that puts us beyond category on this earth. We have astounding abilities, but they tend to blind us to the equally astounding abilities of the world around us. Sometimes we act as though we believe that evolution in and along with this environment gave rise to us only to then eject us from our context. As though we believe that we are the end of earth’s history. That nature completed its task by creating us, and it should now gracefully retire. But no. Assuming we survive as a species, I think we are going to do so in a relation of equality, dialogue and collaboration with the natural world and all its complex agency, which is no less than our own. The question is not whether this relationship will eventually happen, but how we will get there, and whether we will have to get there the hardest way.

“Our relation to nature is the correlate of our relation to ourselves.”

(from “Toward a Philosophy of Nature,” by Robert P. Harrison)

What makes me think of that is this,

Faces from the old Little River

the ruins of the old nightclub Faces, seen here across the back parking lot, from the wetland where the old channel of the Little River once ran. There are the ruins, with smashed records and random debris inside, and tables still upright, and chandeliers and a disco ball, and a mural of some vaguely Gauguin-like tropics with a waterfall cascading into a rippling pool. (At the time I wrote this post, photos of someone’s exploration of the interior were visible online.)

And in the other direction, away from Faces and Rt. 2, from more or less the same spot, on May 13, 2008, is this:

wetland, old Little River 5/13/08

old Little R. 5/13/08 #2

wetland, old Little R. 5/13/08 #3

It seems as though almost no one registers the existence of this beautiful open secret. Nature is hidden in plain sight, ignored. Those who drive by can’t see it from Rt. 2; if they notice anything, it’s the crumbling and graceless building and its pointless sign, FACES in giant capitals, signifying nothing. If that’s our usual relation to nature on this spot, what then is the correlate, our relation to ourselves? Distracted, blocked, we hurry past ourselves not noticing what we are.

Faces as it was, when it functioned, was there for that purpose, too, wasn’t it? To distract people from themselves?

And yet — it’s possible that our ignoring this area, thinking of it as invisible and worthless, has also helped it. Space and time were left for water, plants, creatures, and weather to do their thing. To some extent humans made this area what it is, by digging the current channel of the Little River and draining the marshes in a different way, but that was almost a century ago. Then what? Did someone design this landscape, or did it think itself up?

And could it be that in ignoring ourselves we have left room for something to develop, which one day we will be glad to notice?

I usually visit the south side of the Little River, but on May 2nd I decided to go along the north. Actually I was just riding around, not sure where I wanted to go, and thought of taking another look at the old channel of the Little River behind the ruins of the nightclub Faces, on Rt. 2. I never got there.

On the north side of the Little River, near the Alewife T stop, between the Rt. 2 offramp and Acorn Park Drive, is a patch of ground that reminds me of a Natalie Angier piece about looking for migrating birds:

” . . . you know the saying, ‘This place is for the birds,’ as in ‘What a dump’? We spent the day whizzing past dappled lakes and lush grasses in the refuge here in Smyrna, Del., stopping instead at the bleakest, barest, beige-brownest scratchpads of land we could find. As Dr. Greenberg had predicted, it was around drying mudholes and plowed-up sod farms that we would see a rich variety of migratory shorebirds.” (New York Times, 9/18/07)

This particular piece of the Alewife Reservation isn’t quite as bare as that, but it is one of those beige, nondescript places at first glance, and it was full of birds. There are temporary “ponds” on it that will dry up in a few weeks, and the vegetation is starting to grow, as best it can while being eaten by geese. I ran across a pair of geese with 7 goslings and was hissed at a little bit, protectively, by the parents, but mostly ignored.

Geese & goslings 5/3/08

In real life, the goslings were about as unobtrusive as they are in the photo. They blend in well on patchy new grass.

I ended up walking down the trail along the north side of the river, which ends at Little Pond. I haven’t been in most of that area since last September, and the plant life is very different now, thinner and easier to navigate. The trail is mostly easy to pick up ; it has been used, but not heavily. Someone has put boards or pallets or logs across various muddy channels that cross the trail, with signs naming them “Bog Bridge #2” etc., up to #5. There are some weathered markers along the trail, bamboo garden stakes with grayish pieces of tape at the top, and some pink and dark blue plastic streamers tied to branches for, I would guess, a variety of reasons. The dark blue seemed to be marking the trail as well.

The water was high, not surprisingly because we just had a good rain.

I sometimes wonder if it’s misleading to make pictorialist photos like this, vague imitations of Dutch landscape painting. There are many beautiful views on the Little River, without a doubt, but it’s often impossible to get the context into the same picture: the chain link fence that’s a few yards to the right of this spot, the black mud underfoot, the tangled vines and branches that get in the way of reaching the spot where there is a view at all. If pictures like this one encourage the idea of a “pure” nature, they contradict what I’m about here. I don’t want to convey that there’s a tragic binary division between nature and us; what I’m looking at is coexistence. Maybe a picture like this is needed once in a while:

In any case, the geese, like the swan nesting at Little Pond, seem to be coexisting with us very nicely, thank you. This one, in the middle of the river,

gander on patrol

turned out to be patrolling the area, guarding the goose on her nest on the far bank:

You might have to click on the photo, then zoom in, to see her near the left edge of the picture.

A short way upstream another pair has made a nest on the north side.

Farther upstream I found out where the water from the old channel of the Little River (subject of a previous post) ends up. After crossing under Acorn Park Drive in a culvert, it flows west along the side of the road for maybe a hundred yards, then into a marsh full of reeds, where another goose is nesting. Doves and redwing blackbirds seem to like the area a lot, too. Dead reeds have blown down so thickly that I was able to walk out on them, basically walking over water (and worrying about falling through). This is the channel where the water leaves that marsh and finds its way into the (new) Little River:

Further along the trail, I saw a fox — or coyote? — in the distance. It saw me, too, and trotted off. It made me wonder if the plastic animals at Hill Estates are supposed to be coyotes. Definitely the threat those scare-geese are supposed to convey is real; no doubt that fox, or coyote, would love to eat some goose eggs, or goslings. Perhaps it succeeds from time to time; maybe snapping turtles get some of them, too. But plenty grow up all around us.

One more photo: a tree in bloom on the shore of Perch Pond. Through the trees across the pond, Hill Estates in the background.

All we have to do is leave a little room and nature will fill in the gap. One would not think that this would be too difficult.

Day of Affirmations

I think lately I’ve been reading too much dire and discouraging material about our probable future. Environmental, economic, you name it. I keep wondering how to make this project into something that might actually be helpful in some way, no matter how small. The more often is heard a discouraging word, the harder it seems to do that job.

April 23rd was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm in the 80’s. I put cameras and water in my knapsack, got on my bike, and went over to the Little River.

For whatever reason, I decided to take the path that leads to the homeless encampment I photographed in an earlier post; where the path forks, I turned away from the encampment. (I could see it through the brush, but couldn’t tell if anyone was home.) I noticed that some small trees had fallen across both forks of the path and wondered if someone had done that on purpose to discourage visitors.

I got down to the riverside, crossing many stems of thorny stuff lying on the ground, beaten down by weather. They’re not dead, sprouts are visible, and presumably that area will be impassable in summer. I stood on the riverbank under a tree; there was a goose on the river not far away. While I was trying to compose a picture, I saw in the river the reflection of a large bird that flew up and landed in a tree on the other bank. It was a heron. I didn’t try to take its picture; I was screened by branches and I knew it would fly away if I moved to where I could get a better shot. Now there were two large birds in the immediate vicinity. I stayed where I was, not moving. Not very long after, a swan came gliding down the river.

(As always, you can click on the image to see a larger version you can zoom in on. F11 to view full screen.)

A very large bird indeed. (Later I looked it up in The Sibley Guide to Birds. It was a mute swan. They are 60″ in length and have a 75″ wingspan.) I was amazed but not surprised; I felt grounded by seeing it, that is, my feet felt well connected to the earth. When it got to where I was, it turned toward me and swam closer to the bank, checked me out, then went on downstream.

I took this as a singular affirmation.

I continued upriver, along the bank.

My next stop was at Perch Pond. As I was sitting there at the same spot where I photographed in the late fall (see this post from November 27), two geese flew over, heading upstream, honking loudly. I could hear the creaking of their wing joints as they flew.

I continued on to Hill Estates. My original goal when I set out was to see what had become of the pool in the lawn there, next to Little Pond. When I first photographed it, and the plastic foxes guarding it (see this post), I thought it looked like a vernal pool, but the actual season was autumn. Now, in spring, it’s still there. There were a pair of ducks on the pool; Nature always fills in the gaps, seizes the opportunities that arise.

One of the plastic foxes seemed to be gazing off wistfully into the woods, as if he wanted to go there.

I worked my way through some brush to the place where the Little River originates, coming out of Little Pond. I sat there for a while, took a couple of pictures. One goose was there. I heard another honking loudly overhead, flying up the river; it landed on the pond. Then another did, equally vociferous. They were honking to each other. The goose who had been there first swam off a little ways; the pair took up the spot where the first had been. I watched them groom their feathers for a while.

Then in the distance, on the far side of Little Pond, I noticed something in the reeds on the shore. (Perhaps you can make out a small white streak there in the photo, to the left of the geese.) As soon as I noticed it, I thought it had to be the female swan sitting on her nest.

A look at the map showed she was under the Lake Street onramp to Route 2. I got back on my bike and circled the pond. Going along the onramp I found a convenient gap in the fence, yet another affirmation on a day of them. I locked my bike there and went through.

As I made my way with difficulty through the vines, saplings, and rose thorns, I kept thinking of what I’ve learned from Vaughn: go where the picture is. I was also thinking the swans knew what they were doing when they chose that place to nest. Eventually I did get to a vantage point above Mrs. Swan and took her picture, moving around and causing all sorts of rustling and cracking of sticks. She knew I was there, but she wasn’t budging. I didn’t want to disturb her, but I wanted the picture and in the end it seemed I got it without doing harm. I doubt that swans are afraid of people; geese aren’t, and swans are much bigger creatures.

I clambered down to the edge of the pond; she watched me without seeming alarmed. There I nearly stepped on a dead animal’s skin, a raccoon as far as I could tell. Or was it a skunk whose black hair had faded to brown? It was completely flat, melted into the mud, but I could see its nose amid the fur, crawling with maggots (another opportunity taken).

I continued along the shore, which was a slightly easier route, and so back to my bike and home.

Earlier in the day my friend David gave me this advice about what to write, which he said came from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Do the thing that is honest and it will find the light.” By the end of the afternoon it seemed clear to me that what I was being told by the surrounding intelligence was, Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s working. Don’t stop now.

While visiting Vaughn’s mum, Doris, in Sun City Center, Florida, we went to Little Manatee River State Park, and it wouldn’t have been like me to miss this chance.

A wetland borders the river itself.

Close to where Doris lives, in a retirement community called Kings Point, an obscure waterway emerges from under Hwy. 674.

It crosses a fairly wide grassy area, is fed by a ditch or two as it crosses, then enters Kings Point proper.

Along the way a trickle flows in from a culvert, forming a small pool where the flow is blocked by some rocks. It’s full of tiny fish, making it seem as if nature has seized this opportunity to create a fish nursery. They are barely visible in the photo as specks against the yellow rock. (Click the image to see a larger version that you can zoom in on.)

There’s a wide place in the stream where the water circles and a tributary enters, from the far side in this photo.

What can’t quite be made out in the background is a small waterfall that I of course had to get closer to. I couldn’t reach it because of the thick brush — and by this time, I had tramped (in sandals) through plenty of tall weeds which seemed ideal for both snakes and poison ivy. But I did get this picture of the tributary flowing over the top of a concrete barrier.

Again, one wouldn’t think, looking at this unnamed quickly flowing stream, or at the Little Manatee River, that shortage of water is a critical issue in Florida — but it is. The aquifer is getting depleted, and maybe that accounts for the taste coming out of the tap, a flavor of minerals, salts, who knows. More and more developments are under construction, with lagoons and golf courses, practically every few miles one sees new clearing and building underway, but the water supply isn’t getting any larger. As the aquifer depletes, there is less and less pressure of fresh water to hold back the incursion of salt water from the ocean; if sea water infiltrates the aquifer it will at some point no longer be drinkable. These are simply facts.

There’s a lot of dry in Florida too. I didn’t photograph that.

People can’t help but focus on water. It is what shows, what stands out in the landscape and pulls us towards it. I’m no exception.

The aquifer does not show.

Perhaps I should stop taking pictures of water and photograph drought. But would anyone want to look at that?

Is this entertainment that I’m creating here?

What is the rhetoric of this performance? I question the effectiveness of repeating “Be alarmed,” but there is no technical fix for demanding more water than there is to be had. We Americans seem unable to recognize the approach of limits and adjust accordingly. I’m not going to repeat this again and again, but we’re cooking a recipe for trouble.

It never hurts to know a little more history. By visiting the Cambridge Historical Commission, and getting all sorts of help, beyond the call of duty, from Kit Rawlings, I learned that what I’ve been calling the Little River is in fact the new channel of the Little River. This channel was dug in 1909-1910. Interestingly, it runs right through what had been a planned subdivision in 1903, which never was built. Developers are still proposing projects in that area today; many have been planned, not so many built. Often they have stirred up a great deal of local controversy, which is true today of the so-called “silver maple forest” parcel in Belmont, where developers hope to build a 299-unit housing complex. If I read the old maps right, this parcel includes the original channel of the Little River, so it may partially owe its current status as a potential building site to the new channel, which drains the area by a different route. It still borders a wetland, however, and this is one of the strongest arguments against developing it.

[Click here to view an 1890 Geological Survey map of Boston and environs. When the site comes up, click on the map to open a larger, zoomable image. Fresh Pond lies between the words “Belmont” and “Watertown.” If you zoom in on it, you’ll see Spy Pond to the north of Fresh Pond, with Little Pond (unlabeled) just south of Spy Pond. The Little River flows southeastward out of Little Pond. Wellington Brook crosses the Fitchburg Railroad tracks at Hill’s Crossing and flows northeast into the Little River. The small pond just south of the tracks is approximately where Blair Pond is today.]

What were once called the “Fresh Pond Marshes” — the name encompasses a large area west of Fresh Pond, now mostly built up — have been significant to the town of Cambridge since its founding in 1630. The amount of actual marsh, or bog, has varied greatly. At times, plentiful marsh grass was cut and hauled off in hay wagons. This watershed provided Cambridge’s water supply for many years, and has been engineered over and over, by digging drainage ditches, damming Alewife Brook, etc., for different reasons at different times. In the 19th century the marshes, and ultimately Cambridge’s water supply, were subject to multiple types of pollution from sources like slaughterhouses, glue factories, tanneries, and brick kilns — not to mention plain human sewage. By 1900 conditions in the area that I’ve photographed a lot had become a recognized crisis. The Cambridge Chronicle of August 4, 1900, ran an article headlined “Wellington Brook Must Be Purified,” sub-headed “Petitioners Declare That Its Condition Is Offensive and a Menace to Public Health — Thursday’s Hearing at City Hall.”

Unexpected discovery: a map titled “Plan Showing Distribution of Malaria in the Neighborhood of Fresh Pond Marshes,” dated July 1904. On it are marked the specific houses where people lived who had contracted malaria. Two were within a block of where I live today. I had no idea malaria was ever a problem in Cambridge, and I find it fascinating that a hundred years later, we think of wetlands as a natural resource we need to preserve, an ecosystem that purifies water, rather than a public menace.

The new channel of the Little River was dug in response to the public health crisis and the need to drain the marshes better. It appears, from comparing old maps, that the western part of the new channel was the existing Wellington Brook, which then turned north and flowed into the Little River, but now does not. This makes sense on the ground today. Wellington Brook flows into Perch Pond (really just a wide place in the stream) and then out, a short distance away, as the Little River. The continuity is evident, regardless of what we name it.

On March 23, I went out to see what I could find of the original Little River, which is shown on at least one map that seems to date from the 1970’s, even though by then the new channel had existed for a good 60 years. Behind a motel by the side of Route 2, formerly the Susse Chalet, I saw this through the back fence:

old channel from Gateway Motel

To the left is a newly built office building called Discovery Park, and its parking lot.

This looked more than promising. Next to the motel is the ruin of a nightclub, once known as Faces (its decrepit sign is still there), deserted for years now. Nature is visibly reclaiming its parking lot; moss is growing on it, and grass is coming up through big cracks in the asphalt. It won’t be too long before this space is overgrown. The building is a wreck, and behind it is a wetland

delineation behind Faces where it should be, because this may well be where the Little River used to flow. It’s hard to be certain for a number of reasons. Mapmakers are not always most concerned with the exact location of a stream, and it’s difficult to match the present-day landmarks with a precise spot on an old map. People have always been modifying this area for human reasons, and in any case, a stream flowing through a marshy wetland would naturally have a poorly defined channel, or perhaps several channels of shifting configuration.

wetland behind Faces #1

wetland behind Faces #2

wetland behind Faces #3

On the way back, there is a picturesque view of the ruins from what may once have been the riverside.

The ruin

While working my way through the undergrowth, I picked up an old rectangular brown bottle with letters molded into it: Father John’s Medicine Lowell, Mass. Made in U.S.A.

Along Acorn Park Drive, there’s more left of the Fresh Pond Marshes than one might imagine while whizzing by in a car on Route 2.

opposite “silver maple woods”

This is across the road from the tract now known, by those who oppose its development, as the “silver maple forest.”

I returned to the ultra-manicured bit of stream beside Discovery Park, which is at the spot where, on one map, the original Little River flowed under the road. In a sense, it still does. There is a definite current of water leaving the roadside landscaping on one side

old channel under Acorn Park Drive

and emerging on the other.

old channel under Acorn Park Drive

This is just one more episode in the long chronicle of what has become of the area’s waterways since white people arrived in the 17th century. (I later found out where this particular flow goes next, which is described in this post.)

According to a map of Fresh Pond and its surroundings, circa 1866 — drawn in 1906 by Charles D. Elliot — the present-day Alewife T stop is in a spot that, in 1866, had marsh on 3 sides, with two clay pits to the southeast (the local brick industry was in full swing) and beyond them a “Wooded Island” (about where Danehy Park is today). To the south of the T stop is a “Maple Swamp” (currently Fresh Pond shopping center), to the southwest and west “Glacialis or artificial ice pond” and “Pine Swamp” (mostly offices, warehouses, stores, light manufacturing). To the northwest, all marsh, with the Little River running through it. Today it is office parks, industrial and high-tech firms, and the Alewife Reservation, which is where I keep photographing. Route 2 crosses “Cart path shaded by willows” and “Site of former Heronry of Night Herons, also of Robin Roost.” (I saw some remarkably fat robins, in fact, on this particular trip.)

There have been losses and gains. The losses are obvious; the fact that slaughterhouses no longer dump their waste products into the local water supply is not. The proposed subdivision that was on the 1903 map next to Perch Pond (street names and all), but never built, is not obvious. The fact that malaria was a threat here, but has ceased to be, is not obvious either.

A map from the Middlesex Registry of Deeds, dated October 7, 1908, shows the lands taken from private owners by the Metropolitan Park Commission to create “Alewife Brook Parkway,” which was not the major street we now know by that name, but rather what we call the Alewife Reservation. My wanderings in this area tell me that today it is mostly ignored. Some homeless people live in it, some people who have places to live go there to enjoy it, most people rush by. But it’s there, and though it’s certainly not nature primeval, it is nature. Its history says that it is both open to being shaped by human interventions, and persistently itself. The original channel of the Little River is still a wetland for a reason. We can go on altering the area’s geography but we can’t change the fact that water goes where it needs to go — or the fact that we need it. We’re steadily moving away from the worst excesses of 19th-century industry, and simultaneously creating excesses of our own, like our dependence on cars and our level of consumption. Our standards of public health are infinitely superior to those of a century ago, and still evolving. It is possible that our notion of public health, our notion of our own self-interest, may come to include the health of the Little River and the local marshes, Wellington Brook, Blair Pond, Perch Pond and all the rest of the ponds and waterways named and unnamed. I don’t think this is a sentimental notion. It certainly was not in 1900, when the public demanded action before the Board of Health.

People get used to everything, and the human time horizon is very close in. We tend to think that the way things are today “just is.” But the way things are today is a history of decisions, some good and some rotten, the outcome of a chronicle of consequences intended and unintended. There’s no way we’re going to “just leave nature alone” around here; it’s centuries too late for that. I’d like to be able to bike over to a maple swamp, a pine swamp, or a cart path shaded by willows, but I can’t; so be it. The arrow of time only points one way, and we have one choice: let go of the past. But don’t forget it.

We’re going to be someone else’s past pretty soon. Let’s not screw up.

The delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers covers over 1000 square miles of north-central California. The city of Sacramento lies at the delta’s northern apex, Stockton and Tracy are the two biggest cities at its southern end, and to the west the delta’s water flows into Suisun Bay, near the towns of Pittsburg and Antioch. From there it continues into San Pablo Bay, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

View Map

(The map will come up with a marker on the town of Rio Vista, roughly in the center of the Delta region. To its left you’ll see Suisun Bay. By zooming in on the area between Rio Vista and Suisun Bay you can locate Grizzly Island and Collinsville, where some of the following photos were taken.)

The Delta was settled by white people in the mid-19th century; what had been marsh was drained to form a vast, flat landscape of agricultural land cut through by mostly man-made channels known as sloughs, contained within over a thousand miles of levees. When dry, the peat soil of the Delta is combustible. Signs by the side of the highway warn you not to build campfires. Originally it was so marshy that horses and wheeled vehicles sank into it; the caterpillar tractor was invented for the purpose of working the land of the Delta. Once it was drained and cultivated, the soil began to subside so that today the land of the so-called Delta “islands” is lower — in some places twenty feet lower — than the water that flows past them, held back by levees.

The Delta is the key to California’s water supply; about half of all the water flowing down California’s streams and rivers ends up in the Delta, and 25 or 30 million people depend on this source for at least some of their drinking water. A significant fraction of Delta water is sent elsewhere for drinking and irrigation, especially to the south, through the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. This might be all well and good except that it doesn’t leave enough water behind to take care of the needs of the Delta itself.

California is in a dilemma: the Delta can’t afford to give up all the water it is exporting, and those who are getting it now can’t afford to give it up either. Meanwhile the population continues to grow.

Last April, a California judge ordered the pumps that send water to the south turned off because low water levels were threatening the delta smelt, an endangered species, thought to be an indicator of the whole ecosystem’s health. This shutoff caused, to say the least, consternation on the receiving end of the aqueduct, and after ten days the pumps went back on. That didn’t mean the problem was solved. Environmentalists say that the Delta’s ecosystem is slowly dying. Most of the Delta isn’t truly a wetland; instead it consists of agricultural fields of compacted soil separated by sloughs and canals. The diversion of fresh water to the south, and all of the other human engineering of water in the Delta, has caused the brackish zone at the interface of fresh and salt water to be transformed. Many species of fish native to the Delta are in long-term population decline. Invasive plants and fish have displaced native species in many areas. The quality of Delta water is degraded by intrusion of sea water, agricultural chemicals, runoff from urban areas, the salinity of water draining from irrigated fields. The Delta’s earthen levees are fragile and vulnerable to failure, especially as the land they’re protecting subsides more and more. If a major earthquake were to occur there, which is hardly a far-fetched scenario, levee breaks and catastrophic flooding would be the result.

And yet the Delta harbors a great deal of beauty, and you would never know, just by looking at it, that the story unfolding here is about a shortage of water.

On March 13-14, Vaughn and I made a side trip to the Delta for a couple of days while in the Bay Area visiting her sons. Our first stop was at Suisun Marsh, which is the largest estuarine marsh in the United States.

Suisun Marsh #1

It was cloudy, with intermittent sprinkles of rain.

Suisun Marsh #2

Suisun Marsh #3

We drove into the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, where we encountered only a couple of other cars on miles of levee roads. The weather cleared. This is Howard Slough:

Howard Slough #1

Howard Slough #2

and this is known as Steve’s Ditch:

Steve’s Ditch

Water was draining into it from an adjacent field, or pond; parts of the area are flooded and drained on an annual cycle.

Draining pond

Next day, more driving on levee roads, flat and mostly straight, bristling with signs warning against drunk driving, telling drivers to put on their headlights, safety zone, drive to survive.

The land is visibly lower than the water beside it, in many places.


We took a road east of Montezuma Slough, south through the town of Bird’s Landing, down to Collinsville on the Sacramento River.

This project is described on a sign as “tidal restoration.”

“tidal restoration”

The flow of freshwater through the Delta interacts in the rivers and bays with the tidal flow coming up from the Pacific. At one time, before the Delta was so thoroughly human-engineered, the salinity in this boundary zone fluctuated more than it has been allowed to under our management, and some believe the ecosystem as a whole would benefit if that natural variability were restored. Whether this project has anything to do with that idea, I never found out.

The Sacramento River at Collinsville:

Sacramento River #1

Sacramento River #2

The Delta is a land of prevailing west wind with little or nothing to slow it down.

West wind #1

West wind #2

West wind #3

West wind #4

Our last stop was at Clifton Court Forebay, the reservoir that collects water from the Delta, near Tracy, before it drains into the California Aqueduct — a place that cannot be called nature.

Clifton Court Forebay #1

Clifton Court Forebay #2

This is the place where water leaves the Delta on its journey to the south.

Water leaves the Delta

California Aqueduct #1

California Aqueduct #2

Today I had an appointment at the Arlington Historical Society, where I was the beneficiary of generous help from Doreen Stevens. She had pulled out some old maps of Mill Brook in the second half of the 19th century, when it was still a series of mill ponds. Many of the former mill ponds are now playing fields; the brook, no longer performing an industrial function, flows past them or under them.

Doreen directed me to the place now known as Cooke’s Hollow (behind the police station), which was the location of the first grist mill in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, built in 1637. Nothing remains of that mill, but the drop here, where Mill Brook flows out from beneath Buzzell Field, occurs at the site of the original dam.

Cooke’s Hollow

Mill Brook then continues under Mystic St.,

Mill Brook under Mystic St.

between a parking lot and an old industrial building, now subdivided into offices,

Mill Brook downstream from Mystic St.

and enters Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

Mill Brook enters the cemetery

Mill Brook in the cemetery 2

The cemetery extends to Lower Mystic Lake; near the lake, Mill Brook spreads out into a wetland (too true to its name for me to explore today) and then narrows again at the exit

Mill Brook leaves the wetland

where it pours through something like the remains of a dam or spillway:

Mill Brook spillway

I wonder if the town built these concrete installations with an eye toward beauty, if they thought ahead to when the concrete would be rounded by time and moss would grow on it.



Not that, in the end, it matters. They are what they are now,

Mill Brook nears Lower Mystic Lake

and so is this,

mouth of Mill Brook

the mark of human punctuation which ends Mill Brook.