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Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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.

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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.

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