9. Time to Stretch the Legs
I go back to searching the internet, and holy cow, I stumble on something that actually begins to answer these questions. On May 30, the Louisiana legislature passed a master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. In this 140-page document are too many interesting facts to even take note of, but one of them is that 200 square miles of coastal marsh were lost in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The plan talks about everything I was wondering about. It isn’t definitive – it consists of alternative proposals – and the funding for it is a whole different question, but it does involve altering the Mississippi River outlet in such a way that the wetlands are replenished and at the same time, a shipping channel is preserved. There are plans for letting water out of the river at many points to filter down through bayou country, for rebuilding some of the barrier islands, for hurricane protection structures, like a barrier outside Lake Pontchartrain, that will allow the ecosystem to keep functioning after they’re built. All this is heartening. The question remains: even if it all happens, how long will it take to plan and execute, how long will it take for the effects to be felt along the coast, and will another hurricane come along and make the situation worse before it has a chance to get better?
My butt is hurting from sitting in front of my computer for a week straight. It’s time to leave the house. I stick a camera in my pocket (one of the benefits of living with a photographer is that there’s always a camera around) and in a few minutes I’m in the parking lot of Zeff’s Photo and Fresh Pond Animal Hospital, looking down at the stream that runs along its edge. It flows out of a culvert under Brighton St. The water is low – August has been dry – but interestingly, along the edge of the parking lot hay bales are staked to the bank as if not too long ago, people were worried about the stream flooding. I clamber down the bank, try taking a few pictures. But of what? It won’t do to take pretty pictures of a shaded stream with sun breaking through the leaves of the overhanging trees in dappled spots of brightness on the water. All pictures like that are the same picture, and could be practically anywhere. Not that I don’t like them, but they’re not the point. I don’t want to take satirical pictures either: stream with pile of beer cans, stream with abandoned sink, stream with remains of a perambulator. Those pictures are available, but they’re just cheap shots and anyway, I’m not here to repeat what a bunch of slobs we humans are, even if it’s true. I’m not writing a public service announcement about picking up after yourself. Right, so what is the picture I want to take? I work my way down to the pond which is at the back of the parking lot; I remember seeing it on the day I took my ancient cat to be euthanized. The last thing I could think of to do for her after 21 years was carry her down to the pond so she could look at a peaceful scene before she died. There were some geese there, I remember, and there are geese living there now, lined up on the water, feeding in a row.
The pond has a sign it didn’t have before, identifying it – Blair Pond (I didn’t know its name before) – as part of the Alewife Brook Reservation. There’s a notice board with postings from various environmental organizations and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The same sign and notice board I’d associate with, say, a state forest, only this is at the back of a big parking lot dotted with low, featureless commercial buildings and loading docks. So here we have it: the transitional zone. It’s a small patch of grass, now very thin and brownish grass because it has hardly rained for a month, sloping down to the edge of the pond. I stand at the edge, and almost at once ducks start swimming toward me. They must be trained by experience to believe that if a person shows up there, that person will throw out something to eat. In no time, I’m being eyed by a dozen ducks. I sit down on the ground and watch them. Geese start to come over. Pretty soon I’ve got a dozen geese interested, too, and they are coming up and getting in my face (geese aren’t afraid of anything), peering at me as if to say Well? Where’s the bread? I’m pretty sure one of them is planning to try biting at the camera, so I stick my foot out at it. The goose hisses and backs off about six inches.
After a while the geese get bored, or decide I’m not a walking lunch counter after all, and forget about me. The ducks and geese hang around the immediate area nibbling at plant life. It’s quiet. It’s Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend at the back of a commercial parking lot, and I am the only person around. I get up and study the trail map on the notice board for a while. When I turn around, I see that the geese have decided to go and forage on land. In their deliberate way, they head across the thin grass, pick at it along the edge of the parking lot, then set off across the asphalt. The environment. This, perhaps, is the picture I should capture: geese under the “Blair Pond” sign – which is basically a label saying “This is nature, please enjoy it” – heading out across the lot, with rectangles of brick in the background. That view plus the reverse angle: turn 180 degrees and there’s the pond, reeds, ducks, an enormous willow overhanging it. The real picture here is not one or the other but both. Maybe if I drag Vaughn over here she can figure out a way to get the juxtaposition into one shot; I can’t. And the thing is, how do you take the picture so it isn’t just cheap irony? How do you take it without making it the visual equivalent of tut tut, what a shame that “nature” is reduced to this little outpost surrounded by what man has constructed? Because if man is part of the ecosystem, then this isn’t irony, it just is.
The pond’s outflow goes into a culvert under the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks. I photograph that – another boundary – but not a big empty can of Jolt Blue, whose label features “natural caffeine.” People do leave a clear trail behind them, that’s for sure, and I’m not finding anything others haven’t found before me. There are some small fish, almost the same color as the bottom, darting along in the stream barely visible.
I contemplate crossing the tracks on foot, which I easily could – they aren’t fenced – but decide to play by the rules and go around via the street. As I’m leaving the area I find a pretty terrific piece of graffiti painted on an old cement-block building by the tracks, a cartoon version of a factory with belching smokestacks, labeled “Byzantium.” Half screened by sumac, presided over by a telephone pole with a rusted metal box about ten feet up that says “General Electric” in faded letters. The door of the box is ajar and dead grass is sticking out of the opening, as if it has perhaps become a bird’s nest. At the foot of the pole is a mattress. I emerge back onto the parking lot and see the geese feeding in some weeds along the side of a building. The weeds are slightly taller than the geese, and the big birds are half hidden, causing the weeds to wave and rustle as they busily pick at the ground. It would make a great picture if I could only take it so the geese would be visible, but I can’t figure out how, and while I’m thinking they decide to head back to the pond. Back they go, slowly and deliberately as usual, in single file. Two stragglers stay behind for a while and then follow. As they’re crossing the parking lot a red VW Golf drives up behind them and then past them; the geese pay it no attention. In the back seat of the car I notice a can of Jolt Blue.
I cross the tracks and find the spot where the stream comes out on the other side. I clamber down to photograph this and am rewarded by finding clumps of fur on a rock, suggesting some animals got in a fight there, and a piece of pink plastic tape hanging from a vine over the culvert opening, on which is printed the words WETLAND DELINEATION.
I follow a trail for quite a while, between the tracks and the brook. There’s a ridge of earth between the trail and the water. Periodically I climb over this, through the undergrowth, to see what’s on the other side; after a while it is a big open space where cattails and reeds are growing. A marsh? A flood plain? Some time in the 90’s this area flooded in a spectacular way, the same flood in which the Muddy River, near Simmons, went over its banks and poured into the subway, filling its tunnel to a depth of ten feet. Maybe that ridge is a levee that was built a long time ago; this area has been settled for centuries. At one point, I can glimpse open water out there amongst the tall reeds. I see a goldfinch and a mockingbird and quite a few dragonflies. There’s a fair amount of loud rustling going on in the dry leaves around me and overhead, presumably squirrels, though it occurs to me there could be coyotes here. There are coyotes everywhere. What do you do if you meet one in the underbrush? That is not in my skill set.
Eventually I decide that when I reach the bigger patch of sun on the trail up ahead, I’ll turn around and go back. It’s hot and I’m getting thirsty. Next time, I’m going to come on my bicycle and carry water with me. When I reach the sunny spot, I find that there’s a picnic table waiting there near the trail (provided by whom?), shaded by a massive old willow tree; the picnic spot is behind a white warehouse whose back wall has provided an ideal graffiti canvas. It’s densely covered from end to end with maybe a hundred feet of elaborate painting, as high as a person can reach. What to call this? Nature plus art?
I go home happy that I don’t have to draw conclusions. In a commentary on one of Magoroh Maruyama’s articles, I was surprised to read this: “The most important and most difficult environmental action is to DO NOTHING.” Which reminds me of the famous W.H. Auden line, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yes, maybe the lesson is not to be too damn aggressive; wu wei all the way. That certainly cuts against the grain of the times, and that’s the direction I want to go in.
A couple of days pass, I keep reading, I keep finding more things to read. At this rate I’ll never catch up with myself. I have been reading a book called Mindscapes: the epistemology of Magoroh Maruyama for a while now, which is where I got the passage about “DO NOTHING” (Michael Caley, one of the editors, commenting on “Causal Loops and Pattern-Generating”). What I’ve picked up on, which makes this whole project more of an intellectual Indy 500 than I bargained for, is that ecological thinking requires and creates a different vision of causality, and the different vision is right there even in that statement: the ecological worldview and the different version of causality create each other, they make each other possible. Simultaneously.
This is about how far I’ve gotten, if I had to put it in my own words. We used to think we could explain everything by “A causes B,” by a series of one-way transactions, regulated by reliable mechanisms that would always work the same. Of course, in order to apply such explanations, we had to break most phenomena down into smaller parts that could be described in that way. But when you get into thinking about living systems (ecologies), according to some people (Robert Rosen being highly influential, apparently, though I never heard of him before a month ago), when you try to break the system down into component parts capable of being explained in an “A causes B” way, you lose sight of crucial aspects of the whole and are unable to account for them. It turns out that in order to do justice to the ecosystem, you must start thinking in terms of mutual simultaneous causation.
And this the Western mind, nourished on Aristotle, Descartes, and Newton, has a hell of a time getting used to.
Maybe because I grew up with a Chinese father and was reading Lao Tzu as a teenager, I’ll have a leg up on grasping this concept. But we’ll see. The jury is still out on that one.
Meanwhile, I have another little jaunt on my research agenda, to check out the stream I saw running behind the Bar-B-Q Barn in Arlington, when I was getting a propane tank filled. My map tells me it’s named Mill Brook, it starts from the Arlington Reservoir, it runs through Arlington and eventually drains into Lower Mystic Lake.
It crosses my mind that I really shouldn’t be jumping in the car to do this. If I’m part of the ecosystem, and obviously I am, shouldn’t I be riding my bicycle? Laziness wins – or maybe it’s impatience – anyway, I take the car. Up Mass. Ave. past Arlington Center, I turn on Brattle St. and there by the brook is a parking lot in the absolutely perfect spot. Of course, it not only features a prominent sign promising to tow away anyone parking there without a Mill Brook Apts. permit, but an actual tow truck is sitting in the lot, complete with driver and ready to roll. I park around the corner and walk back.
Mill Brook emerges from under Brattle St. and runs between some businesses and back yards on one side, and the Mill Brook Apts. on the other; for a short distance, by the parking lot, the banks are not confined by stone masonry or shored up with cement blocks. It’s actually a pretty idyllic spot. The cars have the best view of it; we put the parking lot at the place where a person could sit and watch the water flow by, which it is doing with a most pleasant sound that I’d like to spend the day next to. Cars get to, but people don’t; cars can spend the day sitting by a stream, while we work to feed and maintain them. Why are they so lucky? Who’s working for whom here?
I explore up and down this stretch of Mill Brook, taking a few pictures. As usual, I have a hard time framing an image of the boundary between us and nature – if Mill Brook is nature, which is harder to assert when it runs between perpendicular stone walls, as much of it does. Or disappears under pavement. There are the requisite beer cans and Dunkin’ Donuts cups along the banks. I notice a white plastic gallon milk jug bobbing in an eddy behind a rock that barely protrudes above the surface, held there by the backflow of the current in that spot, the way a kayaker could hang downstream from a boulder in midriver. I don’t mind these evidences of man’s carelessness much; in a way, they make me feel at home. This is a city and Mill Brook is living city life; but is that a good thing? And is Mill Brook alive the way Wellington Brook is? I look for fish but don’t see any.
I drive around Arlington using the map to follow Mill Brook upstream to the Reservoir. The blue line on the map is continuous, but the brook spends a fair amount of time underground. I document a few of its emergences into the light and get to the Reservoir, with the help of a couple of guys who work for the town and know where everything is, including the place I should park where I won’t get a ticket. Again the parking lot borders the brook.
The Res, as people call it, hasn’t actually been a reservoir since 1899. It was created by an earthen dam built in 1871, across Munroe Brook, and originally it supplied Arlington’s water, but in 1899 Arlington joined the Metropolitan Water District and ever since, the Res has just been an amenity. I scope out the gate that regulates the outflow from the Res into Mill Brook, which looks brand-new, and two spillways in case of high water, and a blue heron motionless in the shallow water along shore, watching intently for something edible to swim by. Under a tree near the water I find a bar of orange soap and two shirts. Despite the heron, and the woods and water plants along its edges, the Res is definitely not Blair Pond; somehow it feels man-made. The most intriguing piece of it, to me, is the backwater at the place where the outflow feeds Mill Brook. A marsh has formed in the low area between the dam of the Res and an embankment that slopes up to, what else, the parking lot of a public housing development for the elderly and disabled, called Drake Village. Lilies of some kind are growing in the marsh, along with sword-leaved water plants a good five feet tall, floating vegetation, a rotting log or two. Somehow this feels like it might be the thing I’ve come to find. But why? Maybe because it has no particular purpose?
Back in my study, I find some information about Mill Brook on the web and discover that the spillways do get used. The Res and the brook flooded in May of 2006. Mill Brook isn’t, after all, entirely under our control. It seems like a desirable sign of life.