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Modern Literary Alewife Meanderings: from Alewife Watershed to Ocean
By author Emily Hiestand
(Now doing photography of Alewife Reservation for a special Audubon spring edition on the Reservation and Friends of Alewife Reservation)
First appeared in the Georgia Review
©1999 Emily Hiestand
from Angela The Upside Down Girl
and Other Domestic Travels
True Stories by Emily Hiestand,
Beacon Press, 1999
first appeared in The Georgia Review
Cambridge, MA 02140
An Excursion in Four Parts
The idea of nature as a well-balanced machine has been replaced by complicated talk of dynamic and multiple equilibriums, chaotic systems, and other unsettling notions that undermine all the conditioning we received at the hands of Disney nature films and Mark Trail comic strips. Nature, we are learning, is enormously untidy and rarely predictable. Change is the rule, stability the exception.
—Paul Schullery, Searching for Yellowstone
Like travelers hoping to keep some rare place unknown, new residents to our neighborhood, an urban village on the fringe of the metropolis, will often say in a near-whisper, "There's nothing else like this in the city." Visitors who chance upon the neighborhood are also routinely surprised. They remark on the hush, on the colonnade of maples whose canopies have grown together into a continuous arch over the street, on the small, close-set houses with front porches (which older residents call their piazzas)—and on the overall sense of being in a little village. Maybe a fishing village on some out-of-the-way peninsula.
It is a small urban enclave located in the late Tip O'Neill's district, the so-called “lunch-bucket liberal” district—a working class neighborhood on the very edge of the city, a neighborhood built on land that once held our city's poor house and its bone factory, land that was the site of a trotting race course and blacksmith shops, more recently auto repair operations. Marginal land, on the other side of the tracks. The earliest inhabitants of these sweet, humble streets were predominantly French-Canadians fleeing British persecution, streaming south from the Madeleine Islands, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. Immigrants from other countries were lightly represented along our street, among them Felix and Juanita Granchelli, the former inhabitants of our house, who came from Italy and Spain respectively. But our enclave was principally French-Canadian, and the surround streets were home to Irish and West Indian immigrants, and African-Americans, free blacks and also former slaves, migrated and escaped from the South.
Together, the varied people of this end of town created a way of life based on dogged work and devotion, tolerance and too many donuts from Verna's coffee shop, some booze, lots of church and church bingo, and sitting on their porches (piazzas to the Italians) and talking to one another in the summer evenings. "Sitting out," they all called it. At the end of a road, on the edge of town, the neighborhood was a modest backwater. "No one came down here unless they lived here," says my neighbor Alice, who started living here herself seventy-four years ago, when she was two years old. But Speaker O'Neill took the local, big-hearted ethos national, where it made a difference across the length and breadth of the land.
The bones of the early demographics of this street are still visible where mailboxes read Beauchemin, Arsenault, Grenier, Ouellette, but the area is now also home to new citizens from India, Jamaica, Haiti, China, Cape Verde, and to northern European mestizos like myself. Many writers and artists have found a home in this urban village. It is still a quiet enclave, some of the quiet engineered by a rabbit warren of one-way streets that deters most incidental traffic from attempting the neighborhood, creating a precinct that is, for a city, positively serene. By day you can hear the tinkle of a small brass bell tied to the door of the mom & pop across the street; by night, the driving, lightly syncopated jazz of crickets and katydids. Not too quiet, though. The bells of St. John the Evangelist peel on the quarter hour, and Notre Dame de Pitié rings its three great Belgian-made cloches (named Joseph, Marie, and Jesus). By Verdin Bell recordings, Notre Dame also plays melodies, and in season, the carols "Venez Divin Messie" and "Dans Cette Étable." Daily a train whistle sounds its minor key, round as a Wurlitzer organ, and teenagers sometimes roil along the sidewalk at night releasing barbaric yawps.
Oh, way beyond yawps, my husband Peter reminds me. Completely over the top in the case of the five teenage girls with boomboxes who, one spring morning at three A.M., brought many sleepy and irate citizens onto our balconies. When it was suggested that the young banshees lower their volumes and go home, the girls used an old Anglo-Saxon word and showed us how very much louder their radios could go. (I have to say, I was a tiny bit proud of the girls.) In the late afternoons, younger children come by our house: girls in pleated, plaid skirts, often singing; boys whose leitmotif is the plump sound of a basketball bounced along the pavement—louder, louder, then fading—sounding all the way to the hoop in the corner park, where on any given summer day the wading pool is full of toddlers whose sleep-deprived parents confer on nearby benches. And recently there is a brand-new sound.
The brand-new sound arrives about nine o'clock on summer evenings. You can hear it coming several blocks away, crawling closer, growing louder until—as it passes our house—it is an earth-rumbling, glass-rattling sound, a rhythmic, ultra-low-frequency pulse, emanating not from a volcano, not from a shifting tectonic plate, but from a car. Peter, the musician, explains it to me.
"Well, it's kind of a guy thing," he says, which much I had guessed. To achieve the effect, a guy, usually a young one of seventeen or eighteen, retrofits his car with several high-powered amplifiers—one for treble, one for bass, as well as additional amplifiers for each channel. He also installs a couple of large, industrial-strength Bazooka brand loudspeakers, and hooks it all up to a CD player and tape deck. The resulting system is intended for a single kind of music, a kind called house music (though it would seem to have as little to do with a house as possible), which is a subset of rap.
"House music," Peter says, "is long dance jams of sampled loops and effects, heavily percussive, with huge bass sounds created by combined synthesized and electric bass, and drum machines. A common technique," Peter continues, unfazed by my wondering gaze, "is to have two or three drum sounds all hitting at the same time. That gives a fatter, chord-like sound from the drums. What they have learned is that if you take a plain eighty- or one-hundred-cycle tone, and hook it up so that it triggers simultaneously with a kick drum, it gives a massive low end."
"Are they trying to attract girls?"
"Well, sure," Peter replies. "But on some level they're trying to impress everybody. They want people to notice, to say 'There goes Rudy, he's got the loudest car in the neighborhood.' It's like hot-rodding a car, only instead of speed you're looking for more noise, more bass. They like to stop at lights, meet at certain places, sort of joust to see who can make the most booming sound—'n' stuff."
The house-music crowd has Peter, the ur-grammarian, the man who can fume about a misplaced modifier on the evening news, saying "'n' stuff." But does such fast, driving sound work on girls? On girl katydids it does. The journal Nature has reported that the rhythmic night chirruping of male katydids, the resonant sound which the males accomplish by rubbing their front wings together, is not a cooperative effort. Though it sounds like one of nature's most harmonious sing-alongs, the buggy nocturne in our summer grasses is the by-product of an intense competition. Researchers have found that males who can chirp only a few thousandths of a second ahead of others attract, in the words of the scientists, "most of the females."
I admit to being attracted to what Walt Whitman calls the hum of a valved voice, to the sound of my husband's voice reading Wodehouse's pitch-perfect comedy, to Alberta Hunter singing "I'll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey—Honey, don't be late, I want to be there when the band starts playing," and endlessly by the E-flat Trio, the passage where Schubert mourns Beethoven. And it is true that I hear the massive low end fleetingly, for a few minutes, once or twice a night. But it sends me to realize what these boys are up to: as the big hulk of the metallic car body vibrates, the whole vehicle serves as a resonating shell for sound. That is, the whole car has been turned into an instrument. Slipping through the night in their throaty, big-talking drums, these boys are broadcasting.
Not far from this urban lyric, there is a lumber yard, a Big & Tall men's shop, two grand churches, and two fortune-telling parlors. There is a genetics lab in our neighborhood, close to a Tex-Mex bar and grill where any escaping DNA on the lam could hide for days. There are fishmongers, lobster tanks, and think tanks here, and a storefront dental office with a neon molar in the window. There is a candy jobber and the Free Romania Foundation. There used to be a fast-food shack, name of Babo's, with a sweeping modernist roof, a Brancusi-esque bird blown off its flyway and landed on a local sub shop. There are sushi bars with sandalwood counters, and pizza parlors, and, all of a sudden, nail salons (four of them where before there were no nail salons and we all got by without anyone once saying "I'd give anything for a decent manicure"—so who supports these places, and why? Must find out.)
It is a dense, urban neighborhood, baroque with energies, more than anyone could ever say. Just last year we were all stunned to hear that a call-girl ring was operating on a block not too far from ours. According to the neighbors the people who ran it were "very polite." Even more surprising, to me, was the discovery that many parts of this neighborhood and its many activities take place on land that was—not so very long ago—a vast and ancient swamp.
It was situated a little north of the clam flats along the Charles River, about nine miles inland from the coast. The Great Swamp it was named by the earliest English settlers to ink its features on their maps: acres of a glacially sculpted meander, slow streams and ponds, humpbacked islands that rose from shallow pools fringed by reeds, brackish marshes that were home to heron rookeries, wild rices, fishes, and pied-billed grebes. For some ten thousand years, this fertility was stung with sun, was giddy with births and deaths, was preening, humming, and hungry.
The conditions for a swamp of such magnitude emerged as the last North American glacier melted and retreated, and the whole basin of our region became a shallow inland lake—an embayment contained by surrounding drumlin hills. Most locally, the waters were corralled by a recessional moraine whose gentle bulk still slants across our city, and by beds of impervious blue clays under the gravel and watery surface. The first human beings to arrive in this watershed found vegetated marshes and swampland sprawling around two medium-big bodies of water—one of which is the amoebal-shaped place we call Fresh Pond.
I have lived close to Fresh Pond for most my adult life, and had frequented its shores for years before I knew a single thing about the former swamp, although I suppose I would have said that something must have existed where now sits a megaplex cinema and the market where Michael runs the cheese department and sets aside small, ripe reblachons that delight my husband. Never, I think, would I have guessed that the shopping plaza and its hardtop parking lot were formerly a red maple swamp, distinctive acres within the larger swamp, with smatterings of rum cherries and tupelo trees, with water lilies, pickerel weed, and high-bush blueberries—"overrun," said one habitué, in vines of flowering clematis.
Shortly after learning of this former reality, I had occasion to drive to the Staples office supply store at the shopping mall. There, walking across the parking lot, I noticed my mind half trying to believe that if we could jackhammer up the asphalt, underneath we would find—oh, not entire squashed maples and blueberry bushes, but some incipient elements of a swamp, some boggy fen, or fenny bog, a slough or quagmire, marshy sponge or squishy mud—the whole exchanging, liquid world lost to the single, dry, abrupt syllable: mall.
In truth, I like the mall, or at least I don't stay away. Its makers thought little of shadow and light, of coincidence, learned nothing of design from once watching a bird fold its wings, but the mall serves up shelves of the excellent Pilot pen, of shampoo with conditioner mixed right in, of Maxell audio tapes in five-packs. There are birds-of-paradise to be found at this mall, and a newspaper vending box whose simple door opens on papers resting inside in a trusting stack. I also have reason to admire the nearby grid of transformer towers carrying cables that step down the voltage from the Northeast grid to a pulse our local wires can handle. There is a word to be said for the cement-block home of Intermetrix (whatever that is, there are eight gold ballroom-dancing trophies on the sill of one of the company windows, with eight gold couples spinning on top), and another word for the family-style restaurant that squats over a one-time rookery serving desserts with galactic names—Starstruck Sundae, Chaos Pie—and way too much whipped cream from a pressurized can.
Certainly by middle age one knows that ours is a paradoxical paradise, that all times, all lands, all selves are an alloy of scar and grace, that blight may turn to beauty and beauty to blight, like mischievous changelings teasing the stolid. Certainly we all know that our land is one supple carnival of misrule, a mesh of redemptive improbability and change. Still, this particular news—a whole drop-dead gorgeous swamp gone missing—hit me hard, for I am very partial to swamps. My mother was conceived in one, and I have the gene for growing quiet before the lines spun out from some orb spider's holy gut, for watching wading birds resemble Yuan dynasty works on silk. The Great Swamp of this region was also a sponge, a nursery, and an aeration—and it presents my mind with a nice conundrum to know that a neighborhood I cherish was its demise.
Perhaps I brooded over the great lost swamp because I had attained an age when sympathy for vanished things comes easily, when we are aware of mortality as real and not some absurd concept that has, in any event, nothing to do with ourselves, our only parents, our irreplaceable friend. Certainly I was beginning to like the past more as people, places, and ambitions receded into it, became its populace. And perhaps that is why I began to go out walking on long tours across the urban moors of one edge city, circumnavigating the former contours of a swamp, seeking its remnants.
As it turns out, a glacial work is hard to eradicate entirely. It is true that we are not going to find any quick phosphorescence of life under the asphalt slabs, because the lowland environ of this fringy area has been the place where, for several hundred years, townspeople have seen fit to locate everything from almshouses to latex plants. But vestiges of the Great Swamp survive in patches: in the trickle of brook through a maintenance yard, flanked in spring by tall gray pussywillow wands; in a slippery gully of jewelweed; in a patch of riverine marsh; in wet basements and yellow-limbed willows. Nor am I the only one to spot the remains. Nine great blue herons spend weeks on the river that runs alongside the think tank, not far from the grounds where male woodcocks perform their spiraling courtship flights. Wild Saint-John's-wort, healer of melancholy, grows here, also tansy and yarrow, Achillea millefolium, the spicy-smelling plant that sooths wounds—recently introduced species mingling with older ones. There are killdeer, muskrat, and ring-necked pheasants (the last a twentieth-century arrival) not far from the commuter trains, and against all odds, alewife fishes manage still to run in the spring as they have for millennia, coming upriver from their ocean home to spawn in the dwindling freshwater streams of our watershed. Here and there, in a secluded patch of these old wilds, it is possible to get lost.
And one late afternoon as I was driving home on a road that passes a mucky pond just behind the Pepperidge Farm outlet, something huge began to lumber across the road: a low, round, dark creature walking sweetly, serenely, ever so slowly toward a roadside barbershop. The turtle was so immense, with a shell easily four feet around, that it seemed it must be transplanted from a more exotic habitat—from a place like the Galapagos. Worried at what a highway, and trip to the barbershop, could hold for an old reptile, I was even more astounded to discover that our present-day city contained such a being. It walked deliberately, unaware of the dangers on every side, huge and unassimilated, darkly radiant, a tragic-comic amalgam: Mr. Magoo and Oedipus at Colonus. All the cars on that road came to a halt, and all the drivers got out of our cars, and we stared as the creature crawled across the macadam, lumbering like memory out of a mostly unseen quarter.
"We will never know," one of my neighbors says in his living room, speaking of our predecessors in this watershed, the tribe who called the swampy area Menotomet. For many thousand springs, the Pawtuckeogs migrated east from inland forests to set up their summer camps not far from the clam flats of the river and the swamp terrain that gave them water and waterways, fishes, fowl, and silt-rich land for corn. Professor Karl Teeter is a linguistic anthropologist who has spent his life studying the Algonquian family of languages, to which the local tongue, Massachusett, belonged. No living speakers of Massachusett survive, he is saying now, but the language is similar to that spoken by the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy of Nova Scotia. See how the word for "my friend," neetomp in Massachusett, is close to the Maliseet nitap. But when I press my learned neighbor for native names for the swamp, he has to say, "Place-names are the hardest to recover, and the landscape has changed so much now that I cannot even speculate." We sit for a moment turning the pages of the large green book that holds their vocabulary. Karl says some words, and I pronounce them after him: kushka (it is wide), (nu)keteahoum (we cured him), kohchukkoonnog (great snows).
As the native culture reeled, the swampland lay shimmery and resistant to the colonizing touch for another century. Europeans settlers were revolted by the miasmic terrain, and their disdain turned it into a kind of a natural ally for the cause of independence. It was in the swampy outskirts of the Newtowne settlement that patriots could meet and openly plot their revolution. And yet, as soon as technology permitted, the new Americans began to eliminate the wetlands. Orchards first, then a single road through the marshes—the "lonely road," one man called it, "with a double row of pollard willows causewayed above the bog." Just before it began to disappear in earnest, the swamp found its poet in an awkward boy who grew into one of America's finest field ornithologists and taught himself to write a liquid prose:
When there was a moon, we often struck directly across the open fields, skirting the marshy spots. . . . Invisible and for the most part nameless creatures, moving among the half-submerged reeds close by the boat, or in the grass or leaves on shore, were making all manner of mysterious and often uncanny rustling, whispering, murmuring, grating, gurgling and plashing sounds.
In that passage, William Brewster was remembering his boyhood days. But just after the turn of the century, when the wide river that drained the swamp was narrowed and straightened, and began to receive the discharge of a city sewer, Brewster had to write, "Thus has [the Menotomy] become changed from the broad, fair stream . . . to the insignificant and hideous ditch with nameless filth which now befouls the greater part of the swampy region through which it flows."
Only gentleman naturalists like Brewster and others not especially enamored of the industrial adventure sorrowed when a stand of pines and beeches was cut to make way for an abattoir, when offal was released into the swamp. Or when Fresh Pond was surrounded by icehouses and machinery, when the ice was cut in blocks and sailed in sawdust to Calcutta, Martinique, and the Southern plantations (the ice inspiring, it is said, the Mint Julep). Rail lines appeared just before mid-century, and the story goes quickly then: cattleyards, tanneries, carriage factories, and after the clay was discovered, acres were soon covered in pugging-mills, chimneys, and clay pits—and the kilns baking their small red loaves. The malleable substrate of the swamp was dug up and made into red-brick Boston, while here, in a gamey landscape, brickyard and railroad workers began to build their modest houses on the edge of the sandy plain adjacent to the swamp. Finally, the terrible malarial epidemic of 1904 and its many small caskets aroused the Commonwealth to civil engineering of a place that was by then commonly referred to as the "menacing lowlands," the area of "nakedness and desolation." Its streams were channeled and sunk in culverts; some of the swamp was dredged and filled to make the site for a tuberculosis sanitarium. Over the next decades, more wetland was filled for pumping stations, suburban subdivisions, housing projects, for chemical plants, a highway, office parks and playing fields, for a golf course, a gas storage depot and a subway terminal—the last named Alewife, after the blear-eyed herring.
Laying a modern map of our part of the city on Brewster's ink map, I can cobble together an overlay. Where the older map reads "large oaks & Willows" is the site of Porter Chevrolet. Where it says "muskrat pond" is Videosmith. Where it says "heronry of night herons" is Bertucci’s Pizza in the Alewife T-Station complex. "Pine swamp" is a grid of two-family houses. Each change was welcomed, was cheered, by the bulk of the population in a country where land seemed unlimited, where swamps were vile and filling them an act of civic heroism.
Once people hear that you are out walking around the neighborhood, nosing into the past, they send you pieces of folded, yellowed paper, copies of photographs and letters. "I'm not a historian," I had to say, "I'm not writing a proper history." But people are generous, and want to make your picture clearer, and want a repository for memory. They bring you the horseshoe they found in their basement. They stand with you in the street, turning the piece of iron over in their hands.
"Yep, a tannery—right where our house stands."
They call you up and tell you about their father, who worked at the rubber factory, their great-uncle from Barbados. At the pizza parlor they say, "This was Lynch's Drugstore. You could get a lime rickey."
At the electrician's office where a neon fist holds a bolt of blue lightning, the polite young electrician who wears Chaps cologne (a lot of it) and is not one bit afraid of electricity but terrified of flying, says, "This was the Sunshine Movie Theatre."
A newspaper clipping comes in the mail: a 1908 headline reads, "Famous Horses Raced Here." And so I came to know the names Flora Temple, Black Hawk, Trustee, the great trotters of their day, and the greatest of them, Lady Suffolk, descended from the legendary Messenger. She pulled her sulky around a race course whose four boundaries have become the four streets that define our enclave. (And she went as fast as a locomotive, 2:26, under the saddle—a time so fast that one track reporter gushed it made her name "imperishable.")
My neighbor Joan, a woman who is a candidate for the Society of Those Still Living in the House in Which They Were Born, tells me, "We used to swim in one of the clay pits after it flooded. That was Jerry's Pit. My father sat on the beach barechested and showed his tattoos to the kids. He had an Indian maiden on his shoulder, 'True Love' on his fingers, a goddess jumping rope on his arm, and a navigational star just above his thumb." Another day, over dinner, Joan continues her story: "All of the brickyards but one had closed by the time I was a girl, and there was a lot of trash and white powdery stuff lying around the yards and pits. And some green liquid that never froze. At one place, where the apartment towers are now, the owners put up a sign, 'Clean Fill Wanted,' and one night someone dumped a whole dead horse in the pit. I remember my mother and her friends laughing at that joke until they cried. And I remember the year the city closed our swimming pond down because chemicals had leaked into it. The last clay pit closed in 1952, after it collapsed on a man; it swallowed him and the whole steamshovel he was operating. And that was the end. Later that pit became the town dump."
By the time I arrived in this watershed, the dump was rolling foothills of ooze and decay, fenders, tires, avocado peels and bones, dunes of newspapers and failed appliances, curling irons, bedsprings—all of the trash hummocks circled by scavenging gulls calling their ocean sounds over an inland rot, portions of which were often smoldering with little fires. There were sometimes human scavengers at the dump, a man or woman in a dark overcoat salvaging a child's highchair or a table, an old tradition in this neighborhood. And then it was a park with fields and wildflowers, and a spiraling, sparkling path made of glassphalt. On a recent Sunday, a croquet match was underway—older couples in traditional whites, younger players in flowered shorts and retro Hush Puppy shoes. Under the wickets is the refuse of four decades, capped and monitored, threaded with pipes that allow the melange to exhale methane gases and unknowns.
On planning documents the former great swampland is now called the Alewife Area—a place where a modern land-use opera is raging, a big opera with mercantile princes and women in armor, with public officials, a chorus of citizens, and at least one man who sits in a high window and scans for barred owls through binoculars.
The other day I went to the site of the former muskrat pond to rent 'Round Midnight—to watch again the scene of the old jazz man at his hotel window in Paris, saying, "You don't just go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is inside—growing naturally." Speaking in a voice so graveled with whisky, age, and disease that you have to run the tape back again to make sure you hear him right, Dexter Gordon is talking about being inevitable. Inside you, he says, growing naturally. Isn't that always the hope: that the human music, our works and chaos pies, could be as right as rain, as a tree, as a glacier coming, gouging, melting into something great.
By far the largest feature of the Great Swamp to remain is Fresh Pond itself. For twenty years I have circumnavigated Fresh Pond in all seasons, weathers, and moods—running or walking the serpentine path that winds around the water like the rim around an enormous, slightly melted clock. I have run with various souls: a sly, hedonistic Dalmatian named Gus, who unless deeply exhausted could deconstruct whole dinner parties; Anne, who was shedding weight and the wrong husband; Jim, who joined me on night runs during which we admired how Porter Chevrolet’s sign laid streamers of sizzling color over the ink-black sheen of the pond. And recently I walked at the pond with my husband, and heard him use the word "rip-rap," a word that public works cognoscenti use to describe the rocks placed along a shore. Hearing Peter use that word, casually, reminds me that he is still something of a public works hound, having started his reporter's career covering a suburban public works department. During those years, he often returned home from the embattled, late-night, all-volunteer board meetings exhausted but enthralled by some exotica of the municipal infrastructure. The word also transports me again to the places Peter arranged to take me during our long courtship: tours of waste-water filter systems for the whey runoff from ice cream factories, state-of-the-art silicon chip factories, the power station at Niagara Falls. At Niagara we were given hardhats to wear, and I was allowed to touch one of the chrome sheaths around a three-story-high steel cylinder turbine generating the power for the northeast corridor. (Talk about romance.)
But most often my companion on these walks at Fresh Pond has been the land, the acres that encircle the pond—deciduous woodlands, a little meadow and swale, a stand of white pines, a bog with yellow-limbed willows. The land and the pond itself, on which ice sheets rumble against the shore in winter and canvasbacks bob for their favorite food, wild celery, in fall.
From time to time I exchange rambles at Fresh Pond for lap swimming, lifting weights, and then lolling in a hot tub. The health club in which these activities are accomplished has a skylight over the pool through which a backstroker can admire moons, and during the day, clouds, pigeons, falling snow. Handsome palms surround the clear, aqua pool water. After one's sauna, a nice young person at the front desk gives you a piece of fresh fruit. Driving away from these rituals, I have but a single thought (if you can call it a thought), namely, "Everything is fine." The effect is testimony to the health club's powers, and bringing any calm into this society can only be good, but the effect of Fresh Pond is both more complex and more salutary.
Circling Fresh Pond in all seasons has immersed me in a nuanced portrait of the year, and the pond's fable of constant change within continuity has voided several slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Here, there will be a feather on the path, a sprawl of tree limbs after a storm, the arrival of geese, the dart of a sodden creature into the woods, a murder of crows cawing over glare ice. Here, the eye is schooled in the play between diffuse and close, taught to count on surprise, to rely on minute things—a dark red leaf encased in ice—to unlock meaning for the metaphor-loving mind. The patterns of light and shadow, thickets and tangles into which we can see but partially, the unspoken-for patches, the water surface that skates toward the horizon—all these are forms and shapes that offer possibilities for mind, for ways of being.
Technically however, Fresh Pond is a terminal reservoir and purification plant for the city water supply, and that is why it survives. A greensward at the entrance is named Kingsley Park for a famous Victorian president of the Cambridge Water Board. The Honorable Chester W. Kingsley tells his story of the Fresh Pond water works somewhat wistfully, as a man who loves his work and finds few souls able to appreciate the grandeur of an infrastructure: "I have never before had a chance to inform so many on this subject," he writes, "and never expect another such opportunity." Kingsley was president of the Water Board for fourteen years; during his tenure, in 1888, Fresh Pond was ceded to Cambridge by the Commonwealth, the surrounding land included in order to preserve the purity of the water. "The City," writes Kingsley, "has taken about 170 acres, and removed all buildings therefrom. The pond contains 160 acres, and a fine driveway has been constructed all around its borders, nearly three miles long. With the water area and the land taken, this makes a fine water park of 330 acres. The surroundings of the park are being graded and laid out in an artistic way, beautifying the whole region and making it one of the most attractive places in the suburbs of Boston." He continues, "It will thus be seen that in an abundant supply of excellent water . . . Cambridge presents one of the strongest inducements . . . for any who may be looking for a home where good water and good morals prevail."
A water park. How the phrase conveys the Victorian confidence and expansive gesture of a people for whom civic works embodied the democratic ideals: proper comportments of land and water would invite city dwellers into vital and uplifting pleasures, even moral life. It is not hard to imagine Chester Kingsley, bewhiskered, appearing at civic parades in a Water Board Officer’s jacket. (Fitted with clever epaulets from which small fountains of water shoot when a concealed bulb is pressed?) Kingsley's comrades in civic proclamations sound the same pleased, confident note: of one scheme for a riverside esplanade, the Cambridge park commissioner envisions that "launches may run from city to city" that "men [may benefit from] this little breathing-space . . . among beautiful surroundings." It was not only a sweet boosterism that led to these claims. The Victorian planners, guided by Frederick Law Olmsted, had noticed the link between qualities of landscape and human well-being.
Reading the Victorian’s plans, their bursting pride and energetic efforts, one cannot but feel a tender spot for these city builders who were helping to finish off the exquisite meadows and wetlands. It is hard to fault them when even today many seem not to have understood that only an astonishing one percent of the earth's water is fresh. As the original wetland filtering system was destroyed, modern water planners turned to extraordinary engineering to deliver safe and plentiful water to the city.
One day last winter I visited Mr. Chip Norton, the Watershed Manager, in his offices on the east side of the pond. The Water Department building is a fine old thing from the twenties with Palladian windows whose lobby is a near-museum. The space is untended and empty save for a large yellow map of the reservoir mounted on the wall above a fading, dusty model of same, and a very dead rainforest plant near a peeling radiator. The floor is swaddled in brown linoleum, the walls painted pale pink with aqua trim, the effect one of bleak assurance that not one dime of tax money has been wasted here. From the back of the lobby comes a most extravagant and luxurious sound—the thrilling rush of fast water which spills ceaselessly from three holding basins over aerating tiles.
To be greeted by the roar and rush of water is the most brilliant possible entrance to a water department. In the upstairs rooms, city servants are outfitted with carpets, recessed lighting, and the hum of computers, which is well and good, but one prays that the city will have the sense to keep the aura of faded sanitarium that it has going downstairs, in the lobby. At least if this treasure has to yield to renovation, move it to the Smithsonian as Calvin Trillin's office was moved (ratty daybed, unspeakable heaps) when The New Yorker moved from one side of 43rd Street to the other.
As I pore over the dizzying engineering and planning reports that Mr. Norton has placed on a table in a small reading nook near the reception area, a woman behind the partition is talking on the telephone about where to get some chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. She recommends Armando's Pizza. Long silence. Next she offers to go to Sage's Market, where, she says, they make a delicious chicken salad. Another long silence. Armando’s comes up again; the deliberations continue. From behind the other side of the nook a youngish woman sasses an old walrus of a man who has apparently asked her to do some extra task. She replies that she has much more work to do than he does, and besides she has housework on top of that. "Peg always does your housework, I'm sure," she says tartly. The man agrees, takes the comments in stride, sighs, says that it's going to be that kind of day, and then, after a long awkward silence, that it's time for a cigarette.
Other than these essential bureaucratic activities, the municipal water system seems to work by such devices as: having bought water rights a hundred years ago to sources in outlying suburbs; an underground eight-mile-long pipe; gravity; the chemicals alum and chlorine; testing; sedimentation beds and flocculation chambers; sand and charcoal filtration; monster pumps; holding tanks in Belmont; shut-off valves; and more gravity. Mr. Norton lucidly explained all the workings in front of an enormous, wall-size handpainted map of the twenty-three-square-mile watershed for which he is responsible. Merely to gaze on the territory gives one a feeling of expansiveness and excitement—like that associated with mounting a campaign or planning an adventure meant to prove something. The watershed is twice the size of the city it serves, and the wall map reaches well beyond the city, north to the Middlesex Fells, where Mr. Norton used to work and upon which he looks wistfully, recalling how peaceful life was in that rural outpost. In its scale and precision, the map gives the Water Department antechamber the air of a war room, the territories of conquest displayed in crystalline detail. But what makes this map wonderful is that its mission is the peaceful delivery of water for washing babies and boiling potatoes—well, for MIT’s little nuclear reactor, too, but mainly for aiding the daily lives of citizens.
Perhaps a woman who considers her bathtub the single most important device in the home, whose favorite work is watering plants, and whose day begins with cups of Darjeeling can be forgiven for looking on Mr. Norton a bit dreamily as he pours forth the story of our city's water. It grieves me to see that his nails are bitten to the quick, and I wonder if the Water Department doesn't want to put in a calming eucalyptus tub or steam room at the filtration plant. Like Mr. Kingsley before him, Mr. Norton's chief responsibility is to protect the water quality within his watershed; at Fresh Pond, every use of the land must, he emphasized, be compatible with this goal. Once, while explaining that Fresh Pond is the only place in the state ("maybe in the world, save for the Ganges," his look implied) where dogs are allowed to range freely near a public water supply (thus, swim in and befoul it), the watershed manager let a wry look stroll across his face as he added, "But this is Cambridge." He said this with a complex tone that bodes well for his tenure. As we spoke about the reservoir, I was also impressed by Mr. Norton’s crisp analysis of what we can and cannot control. "We cannot," he said, "control the past, or birds, for instance. But we can control dogs."
This seemed as he said it like a gnomic reduction of wisdom, and I felt immediately relieved by the idea that the past can be let go of (as far as us controlling it), and also by the clear, calm way he said it. That's right, I thought, admiringly, the past is over. What's done is done. Later I recalled fiction, Proust and Nabokov, and the fact that modulating our idea of the past alters the present. But I know perfectly well what Mr. Norton means. He means, rightly, that he's got a dealt hand. And he is especially not going to be able to control what happened to his watershed and Fresh Pond during the Pleistocene. It was while sitting quietly at the metal table in the Water Department office, studying a heap of maps and surprisingly passionate master plans, with talk of chicken salad sandwiches in the air, that I suddenly, unexpectedly found myself descending again on the plumbline of time, plummeting far past the Great Swamp and its lost heronries to arrive in an entirely other incarnation of our neighborhood.
One Newton Chute provided the geology for the1944 surficial geologic map of our area. Glancing back and forth between Chute's map and his report, I slowly grasp that Fresh Pond exists, and that Peter and I make our home on what was the eastern slope of a river valley. That is: where now exists the ground on which have variously stood drugstores, dray horses pulling blades, and apples in blossom was once merely a volume of air above an enormous river valley that ran southward from present-day Wilmington to the Charles River (which had not yet come into being). A rock terrace at about eighty feet below present sea level was the bottom of this deep, broad valley; the valley also held an inner gorge that cut down another ninety feet. The presence of the inner gorge indicates to Chute and his colleagues that "at least one important uplift of the land or lowering of sea level occurred during the formation of the valley."
In part, it may be a recent appointment with my dentist, Dr. Guerrara, in which he filled an unusually deep cavity—first boring it out, then filling it in discrete stages with various substances—that makes me riveted by the geological process by which glaciers filled the deep valley. As you may know, the modern human tooth cavity is filled first by a layer of calcium hydroxide, a liquidy paste like Elmer's glue that hardens quickly on the floor of the prepared cavity; then with a thin, cool varnish, painted on to seal the tuvuals; finally with the silver amalgam (copper, silver, tin, small amounts of mercury) that is tamped in, carved, and burnished. The gorge in one's mouth—for so these minute spaces feel to the tongue lost and horrified in the new cavern—is topped up. This is very like what happened all over New England about twenty thousand years ago, in the Pleistocene.
Chute identifies ten principal events in the centuries-long process by which an old valley was filled with successive layers of till, clay, peat, and gravel—materials pushed, trailed, and extruded by a glacier advancing and retreating over the land, moving south and east, a chthonic grading of the surface. Chute accompanies his glacial geology with a map that shows which of these glacial fill events figure on the current surface, and where. With mounting excitement, I locate the area of our street on the map: our homeground is Outwash 4, the eighth event, an outwash of sand and pebble-sized gravel that occurred as a large alluvial fan spread southward over the "rock-flour" clays deposited in the exciting seventh event, the clays that would have such consequences for our neighborhood. A small ridge two blocks away, which we now know as Massachusetts Avenue, is thought to be "too high to be part of the fan" and probably was overlayered by its powerful flowing outwash.
I sit back in the Water Department's chair, nearly faint from the morning's events, and my idea of home rearranges itself once more, assimilating the knowledge that we live not only atop a lost swamp but over a buried river valley and on an alluvial fan. It changes things—everything somehow—to know that during all the years I have yearned for life in a bucolic valley my wish has, if prehistorically, been true. And what shall we make of the news that we dwell on an alluvial fan—of all geological events, the one with the prettiest name. While the fine sandy fan was spreading out, Fresh Pond must have still been entirely occupied by a stagnant ice block, for, as Chute reasons, "if the fan had been deposited after the ice block had melted, the depression occupied by the pond would have been filled."
Even the alluvial fan does not prepare me, though, for the fact that our neighborhood, our city, indeed the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Nova Scotia, takes place on a crust of earth that was once the west coast of Africa. The crust is named Avalon, and it arrived when a piece of Gondwana, ancient continent, broke away, swept across the ocean (not the Atlantic yet, but Iapetus), and collided with the old North American continent. Our most local crust came from the part of the earth that is today Morocco (and which shares with the Boston Basin the lumpy-looking rock we call puddingstone). It has been quite a long while since these mighty things took place, and it is hard to say what, if anything, they have to do with the realpolitic taking place on the underlying Avalon. But, as always, the familiar when closely observed reveals itself as an exotic.
Beyond its transforming information, a U.S. Geological Survey report enthralls because of the language scientists use to convey glacial events: here there are "geophysical raverses," "thrust faults in overridden sand," "uplift of the land," and "marine embayments." The souls who spin off these phrases in longish sentences that describe—calmly—seismic events that rumbled over millennia, sound as if they know what they are talking about, as if they know what is going on under there down deep, at the level of accurate subsurface information where knowledge is grounded.
Although I was born decades after early twentieth-century physicists had their near-nervous breakdowns at the implications of relativity, the fluid epistemology implied has come only slowly and imperfectly into my psyche, which seems to cling to a pre-modern, limbic hope for solidity. As my life's education has proceeded, each new knowledge gradually reveals that it too rests on gossamer metaphor. Reading the geologists, I feel the tantalizing hope that with this vocabulary I might grasp the real nature of things. Perhaps here are the minds and ways of talking that take one through loose gravel, till and sand, through bands of clay, to bedrock. And if it all be gossamer, what better gossamer than bedrock?
One afternoon, circumnavigating Fresh Pond with a xerox of an eighteenth-century map in hand, I see that our local pond was once linked by a series of rivers to the Atlantic Ocean, that for all but the last hundred years of its existence our inland region had a direct channel to the sea. On the old map, the river Menotomy rises out of Fresh Pond, winds through the Great Swamp, joins with the Little River and flows into the Mystic, which empties into the Atlantic. I also see that some vestige of that former water route would still be navigable by canoe. The Little River is extant, and flows into a stream called Alewife Brook, which was formerly the last stretch of the Menotomy. A present-day river guidebook tersely describes Alewife Brook as "not recommended," but Peter and I cannot resist taking a canoe down the pungent, olive-brown stream. As we float past half-submerged shopping carts and debris, we will be moving along the oldest artery of our watershed.
The route will take us through a lock at the Amelia Earhart Dam on the Mystic River, and Peter says, "I think we should get an airhorn to signal the lock keeper," and I say, "Great," because I have learned that Peter is always right about gear. There was the time with the maglight, the incident with the duct tape, the super glue, the extra bike tire, even the three illegal boxes of Happy Lamp fireworks. Many times I have owed my happiness—and once my life—to Peter's gear and his skill with it. He selected an airhorn at the sporting goods store and together we read the instructions, which were very explicit, saying in essence: Do Not Ever Use Your New Air Horn. It Will Destroy Your Ear Drums, So Just Do Not Use This Device Under Any Conditions.
"Oh, they have to say that," Peter said, hefting the little horn. "Some rude people take them to sporting events."
The only other special thing we will need for this journey is an idea about where to land a canoe in a big-city working harbor. The canoe is seventeen feet of a dull green material called Royalex, a stable boat with a low-slung profile, named in honor of the Victorian traveler Mary Kingsley, who liked to paddle in African swamps. We want to land Mary Kingsley somewhere along the banks of the inner harbor, near the Tobin Bridge. On the early summer evening that Peter and I prowl the harbor, we discover not a single take-out site for a canoe, but many other supremely interesting things, including the marine shipping terminal, the titanic legs of the Tobin Bridge, a burned-out pier, the U.S. Gypsum Company, and a mountain of road salt offloaded from an Asian freighter. Near sundown, an oblique red light slants over pools of steamy gypsum tailings. This extravagant light and the sheer muscle of the place make for a seriously romantic landscape, and for romanticism's dark undertow, there is the pier off which things can be tossed. As is often the case, Mr. Emerson has been this way before, admiring the potentially fine face of industry:
It is vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company; our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist's retort . . . The boat at St. Petersburg, which plies along the Lena by magnetism, needs little to make it sublime.
On the other side of the river lies the city of Chelsea, nearly all galvanic battery, a welter of scrap metal yards, weigh stations, warehouses, sugar refineries, gas yards—the last a sinuous complex of pastel pipes almost equal in convolution to that wonder of nature, a Jamesian sentence. As night comes, and a hazy fog begins to materialize, we happen on the Evergood Meat Packing Company, where beams of light from mercury vapor arc lamps rain down on a parking lot, carving the lot out of the night and lighting up this scene: three meat packers in long white butchers' coats, the men running through the lot passing a soccer ball back and forth expertly. The ball bounces from a corrugated wall, skims under the axles of a fleet of trucks. The long white coats are brilliant in the vapor arc light, the fabric flowing, flapping like the wings of birds, like angels, ghosts, like meat packers. It is the quickest glimpse, and now the road climbs a dark hill. From the summit, the city's financial district is visible across the river, its lights flickering, cleaning crews at work. Down the hill, on the river itself, and moored to the bank, lies the object of our search: a small pavilion and public dock.
The most succinct account of our river journey is that we launched a canoe amongst somnolent lily pads and took it out near a Brazilian cargo tanker. The trip begins on the Little River, where, passing the mouth of a narrow, brown ditch full of appliances and engine parts, tin cans, a sodden teddy bear, we are passing the paltry remains of the wide Menotomy. Along one stretch, the Little River is so shallow that it is more a skim-coat of water than a channel, and here the dorsal spines of carp crest the waterline, giving the river the appearance of being alive with silver grey snakes. (See "Rime of the Ancient Mariner.")
As it deepens again, the Little River becomes Alewife Brook, and when we pass the gas station near Meineke Muffler, we are at the old site of a basketry weir, a spot that both native Americans and settlers used for harvesting shad and alewives—the latter plentiful still enough in the nineteenth century to move one observer to write, "I have seen two or three hundred taken at a single cast of a small seine." Up to the present day, new citizens come to this watershed in spring to catch alewives. On another day at the Mystic Dam, we meet three delicate Cambodian men whose fishing gear consists of a box of large pink garbage bags. The men are barefoot, wearing dated bell-bottoms and white dress shirts (vintage Goodwill), and they fish from slippery rocks, dipping the pink plastic bags into the causeway spill. Although the numbers of the fish are greatly diminished, at this dam in spring they can look abundant, flowing over the spill into the plastic bags like grains of rice from a bulk bin—that thick and fast. The bargain-brand bags that the men wield are so thin that the fishes deform the poly, stretching it until eyes, fins, and tails are visible through the petroleum pink.
An alewife is an anadromous fish ("running upward"), and its presence in our watershed is known as ephemeral. The fishes are seasonal transients, coming from the ocean to freshwater to spawn. Continuing south now on the Mystic River, we are following the young alewives' fall route back to sea. They would pass, as we do now, backyard barbeques and hammocks, and then the backside of a downtown, where retaining walls read "Sally luvs Rick," "Just Say Yes," and "Dragons Rule," where a crumbling infrastructure crawls with organic patterns, subtle grays and browns, white encrustations—a spectacular topography whose decay and struggle engage the eye, which recognizing its own condition, sympathizes.
Here and there, trees overhang the river, dappling its surface of lily pads and oily gloves. As the river widens the treebreak disappears. We pass by an Edison power plant, and under a bridge that bears eight lanes of interstate traffic. The Amelia Earhart Dam comes into view. Peter readies the airhorn, and when the dam is close, he presses the small button. It delivers one of the loudest bursts of sound I have ever heard—next to the time a lightning bolt hit the house and made me wonder, for a second, if I had been shot. The lock keeper likes the airhorn, likes being hailed in the proper nautical way, and gives Peter a crisp salute. As Mary Kingsley glides into the narrow chamber, two powerboats hurry in behind us. The doors of the lock slide closed, the water rises, and when the lock opens again, the still, olive river water has vanished and we are in an ocean-blue chop with whitecaps.
The powerboats take off like rodeo cowboys on broncos, and I am wishing that we had something to rev too, some throttle to gun. As the wind picks up, first tugboats, then small freighters appear. Conveyor belts, rigs, and tall booms are cantilevered over the water; an inverted silver dome built to cover twenty tons of unrefined sugar glints on the bank. By the time the big bridge looms into view, our canoe has shrunk to a bobbin—a bit of flotsam below the gantry cranes. We are gawking at the cranes like rubes on Broadway when a rogue ocean swell rises out of nowhere, tosses the canoe four feet into the air, spins us a little, breaks across the side, slaps us full-face with salty water. The pavilion and dock are just visible now on the other side of the river, and as we struggle toward the landing in the chop, we marvel at the people who took their thinner, lighter canoes out much farther, into open ocean, and up and down the Atlantic coast.
At the dock we are met by two small boys, brothers, who shyly stare and beam at the canoe, and within seconds of our invitation are in it, are touching its sides, are gripping the paddles, are putting on lifejackets, are not sitting too still but gently rocking the boat to get a feel for it. Their names, the boys tell us, are Ulysses and Erik.
I wouldn't dream of making that up, and where else but a big-city waterfront would you expect, these days, to be met by the two chief heroes of epic seafaring? True to their names, the boys cannot take their eyes off our boat. They are intrigued by paddles. Fascinated by the weight and color of life jackets. Overjoyed by ropes, by tying knots. Desirous to know what the canoe is made of. Running their hands over the cane seats and wooden thwarts. In love with all things nautical. Beside themselves with happiness when their father says, yes, they can take a short ride with us, just around the perimeter of the dock, not far. And when at last we must head home, the legends (as gallant, as bold, as clever as ever) cajole us, insist on hauling some of the gear up the slight incline to our waiting car, where they are further enthralled by the every detail of mounting a canoe on a Subaru coupe: how the canoe is lifted up by two people, how it is strapped onto the roof of the car, how foam clips are slipped over the gunnels, how ropes are laced and tightened.
Ulysses and Erik tell us that, yes, they were born here, in this city, but home is an island far from here, somewhere over the water. The each point out to sea, not exactly in the same direction. When the canoe has been secured in place, and all the gear stowed, the hero-boys shimmer away, are last seen lying flat on their stomachs, their arms submerged in water up to the shoulderblades—as close to being in the ocean as boys on dry land can be.