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Mass: Spring is bursting out at Alewife
Ellen Mass
Belmont Citizen Herald Opinion piece, May 8, 2008
original at

Plenty of trees and brush lie stacked neatly on the Belmont Upland’s Cambridge Partner's owned property of J. Brian O'Neill, directly at where the entrance is planned. It makes no difference to the developer that the Belmont Upland's conservation regulations state that no work can commence on the property until legal and municipal permit matters are settled.

A carpet of purple violets invite you to enter. All along the forest floor bed are red quarter inch fruit from the silver maple trees, soon followed by sugar maple fruit. Many animal and bird homes fill the fallen section of the mother tree, one of the largest silver maples in Massachusetts before it became habitat for small mammals and birds such as possum, raccoon, wren and mice.

Strolling today through the remnant of Cambridge's great swamp, soon to be unpassible thickets, I was surprised to find at the top of the Uplands many wetland plants and moss covering the Hill Heustis farm house land, now only a cellar foundation. King Charles granted the property area to Amos Hill in 1845. It became a noted vegetable, fruit, especially strawberries, and pig farm of perhaps 40 acres or more, one of the largest and most successful enterprises in Belmont for more than 50 years. The farmland included the presence of a railroad to take the fruits of the farm to Fannueil Hall to feed the multitudes in Boston. The Mass Historical Society knows of the historic land, and must therefore be involved if the municipality chooses to overlook the danger to its past legacy in the present Alewife wooded location. The Hill Heustis farm will be bulldozed and buried without plaque in anonymity if the developer succeeds in covering over the town’s worthy past and no one speaks for that which has no voice. Our New England Great Swamp agricultural past embodied by the massive silent boulders where I stood, was sweetened everywhere with a bird symphony of spring mating calls of attraction and nest building and searching.

I presumed they claimed the once thriving farmland for their own. I saw robins, chickadees, red-winged black birds, juncos, small woodpeckers. Everywhere geese honked searching for nesting sites all along the Mystic River watersheds Little River, and Perch and Little Pond. Deep vernal areas with hummocks and large ridges of several acres lie at bottom of the hill slope. On this day, mallards were swimming in the pools covered with white and red oak leaves. Amphibians or evidence of vernal life should be initiated. I could only imagine those insects and snails, etc. that dwell in the brackish clean and clear water, filtered from Little Pond and absorbed by at least 15 acres of wetland swamp which surrounds the Pond and Little River. A spritely kingfisher darted my way with shaggy crest and blue chest band, but it disappeared immediately. During deep water flooding, the maples beech, oak, ash and birch resemble a Gulf Coast Louisiana or Florida bayou setting. When waters recede there are 1-2 feet of mossy and wet trunk bottoms. In the middle of several pools among small tree islands of verdant moss grew the stems of blue flag iris. Cinnamon fern stalks dotted the pool edges. Small mammal holes under the thick island and in the birch tree suggested mink or otter. A clean severed carp head in the water indicated possible mink.

A beautiful Mourning Cloak butterfly dancing in bright sun rays. “Mourning” or “morningcloak” is a woodland species remaining over the winter in "cryo-preservation" (insect antifreeze) status in tree cavities, beneath loose tree bark or tiny dens on forest floor.

Coming back up the slope, two Carolina wrens were constantly chipping. I attributed it to me, but they were warning of a red tailed hawk with me in the middle. It extended its head and neck to peer at me. I surmised I disturbed its wren plan. As the hawk moved away with back to the birds, it pecked at the ground leaves near a bush, searching for a morsel of possible mouse or vole. As I moved towards it to leave, the great buteo continued, oblivious to me, even within 10 feet. The brown markings and chest stripes with the white and brown mottling on back were gorgeous. Another good sign on this lovely day for protecting this threatened wilderness. The Campaign to preserve the Belmont Uplands is in full gear and encourages others to join and assist. Call 617 415- 1884.

Ellen Mass is President of Friends of Alewife Reservation. She lives in Cambridge.