3. City Nature

Once we got home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the experience at Bangor Mall convinced me that I should look for unnoticed waterways in my own neighborhood. There had to be places where water flowed through the interstices in the built environment. The first one I thought of was near the vet we once went to, back when we had furry pets instead of hens. There was a bit of a stream, I remembered, flowing past the parking lot – actually between two parking lots on a commercial strip. I went there on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend; the parking lot was empty, no one else was around.

The stream, which is called Wellington Brook, flows out of a culvert under a busy street. This is the boundary between what we’ve built and something else that we didn’t create.

The water was low; August had been dry. Interestingly, along the edge of the parking lot hay bales were staked to the bank as if not too long before, people had been worried about flooding. I clambered down the bank and tried taking a few pictures. But of what? It wouldn’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. Capturing a deceiving appearance of bucolic countryside wasn’t the point. I didn’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 were available, right in front of me, but they would have been cheap shots and anyway, I wasn’t there to repeat what a bunch of slobs we humans are, even if it’s true. I wasn’t making a public service announcement about picking up after yourself. What was the picture I wanted to take? I worked my way down to the pond which is at the back of the parking lot; I remembered 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 that day, I remember, and there were geese on this visit as well, lined up on the water, feeding in a row.

The pond had a sign it didn’t have before, identifying it by name – Blair Pond – as part of the Alewife Brook Reservation. There was 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 was at the back of a big parking lot dotted with low, featureless commercial buildings and loading docks. There was a brief transitional zone from the parking lot to the pond, a patch of very thin and brownish grass sloping down to the edge. I stood there and almost at once ducks started swimming toward me. They must have been trained by experience to believe that if a person showed up there, that person would throw out something to eat. In no time, I was being eyed by a dozen ducks. I sat down on the ground and watched them. Geese started to come over. Pretty soon I had a dozen geese interested, too, and they were 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 was pretty sure one of them was planning to try biting at the camera, so I stuck my foot out at it. The goose hissed and backed off about six inches.

After a while the geese decided I wasn’t a walking lunch counter after all, and forgot about me. Ducks and geese hung around the immediate area nibbling at plant life. It was quiet – the back of a commercial parking lot on Labor Day weekend. I got up and studied the trail map on the notice board for a while. When I turned around, I saw that the geese had decided to go and forage on land. In their deliberate way, they headed across the thin grass, picked at it along the edge of the parking lot, then set off across the asphalt. The environment.

This, perhaps, was the picture I should capture: geese under the “Blair Pond” sign – 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 was the pond, reeds, ducks, an enormous willow overhanging it.

The picture I wanted would be not one or the other but both: the boundary zone between nature and our humanly built world, the geese inhabiting them both matter-of-factly, taking them for granted as where they live. I couldn’t figure out a way to get the juxtaposition into one shot. And the even harder problem was, how would I take the picture so it wasn’t just cheap irony? How would I 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 people have constructed? Because if humans are part of the ecosystem, then a scene like this isn’t irony, it just is.

The pond’s outflow goes into a culvert under the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks, where commuter trains run. I photographed that – another boundary – but not a big empty can of Jolt Blue, whose label featured “natural caffeine.” People do leave a clear trail behind them, that’s for sure, and I wasn’t finding anything others hadn’t found before me. There were some small fish, almost the same color as the bottom, darting along in the stream barely visible.

I contemplated crossing the tracks on foot, which I easily could have – they weren’t fenced – but decided to play by the rules and go around via the street. As I was leaving the area I found a pretty terrific piece of graffiti art painted on an old cement-block building by the tracks, a cartoon version of a factory with belching smokestacks, labeled “Byzantium.”

Beneath it was a thick wavy blue line, seeming to represent a stylized river. Maybe the whole thing was some kind of reference to the immediate surroundings. The painting was half screened by sumac, presided over by a telephone pole with a rusted metal box about ten feet up that said “General Electric” in faded letters. The door of the box was ajar and dead grass was sticking out of the opening, as if it had perhaps become a bird’s nest. At the foot of the pole was a mattress. I emerged back onto the parking lot and saw the geese feeding in some weeds along the side of a building. The weeds were slightly taller than the geese, and the big birds were half hidden, causing the weeds to wave and rustle as they busily picked at the ground. As I was trying to photograph this, they decided to head back to the pond, slowly and deliberately as usual.

While they were crossing the parking lot a red VW Golf drove past them; the geese paid it no attention. In the back seat of the car I noticed a can of Jolt Blue.

I crossed the tracks and found the spot where the stream came out on the other side. I clambered down to photograph this and was rewarded by finding clumps of fur on a rock, suggesting some animals got into a fight there, and a piece of pink plastic tape hanging from a vine over the culvert opening, on which was printed the words WETLAND DELINEATION.

I followed a trail – one of the trails on the map of the Alewife Reservation – for quite a while, between the tracks and the brook. There was a low, worn-down ridge of earth between the trail and the water. Periodically I climbed over it, through the undergrowth, to see what was on the other side; after a while there was open space where cattails and reeds were growing. A marsh? A flood plain? In the 1990’s this area flooded in a spectacular way, the same flood in which the Muddy River, in Boston, poured into a subway tunnel and filled it to a depth of ten feet. Maybe the embankment paralleling the trail was a levee that was built a long time ago; this area has been settled for centuries. At one point, I could glimpse open water amongst the tall reeds. I saw a goldfinch and a mockingbird and quite a few dragonflies. There was a fair amount of loud rustling going on in the dry leaves around me and overhead, presumably squirrels, though it occurred to me it could be coyotes. There are coyotes everywhere. What do you do if you meet one in the underbrush? That was not in my skill set.

It was hot and I was getting thirsty. I decided that the next time, I would come on my bicycle and carry water with me. At a sunny spot on the trail, there was a picnic table shaded by a massive old willow tree; the picnic spot was behind a white warehouse whose back wall provided an ideal graffiti canvas.

It was densely covered from end to end with a hundred feet of elaborate painting, as high as a person can reach. The day had stretched the boundaries of my categories of “nature” and “art,” and here the two ambiguities lived side by side, again not in irony but in something that felt like a novel harmony.

A few days later, when I was getting a propane tank filled in the neighboring town of Arlington, I noticed a stream behind the Bar-B-Q Barn. My map told me its name: Mill Brook. It starts from the Arlington Reservoir, runs through Arlington and eventually drains into Lower Mystic Lake.

Not far upstream from the Bar-B-Q Barn, Mill Brook emerges from under a street and runs between some businesses and backyards on one side, and the Mill Brook Apts. on the other. For a short distance, by the apartment building’s parking lot, the banks are not confined by stone masonry or shored up with cement blocks. It’s a fairly idyllic spot, where a person could sit and watch the water flow by; this would be a lot more likely to happen if it weren’t also a parking lot. Cars can spend the day there sitting by a stream, while we work to feed and maintain them.

I explored up and down this stretch of Mill Brook, taking a few pictures. As before, I had a hard time framing an image of the boundary between us and nature – if Mill Brook was nature, which was hard to claim when it disappeared under pavement or ran between perpendicular stone walls.

There were the requisite beer cans and Dunkin’ Donuts cups along the banks. I noticed a white plastic milk jug bobbing in an eddy behind a rock that barely protruded 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 didn’t mind these evidences of human carelessness as much as I might have; in a way, they made me feel at home. Arlington is a city, and Mill Brook was living city life; but was that a good thing? And was Mill Brook alive the way Wellington Brook was? I looked for fish but didn’t see any.

I drove around Arlington using the map to follow Mill Brook upstream to the Reservoir. The blue line on the map was continuous, but the brook spent much of its time underground, having been covered over by pavement and buildings. At the Reservoir, the parking lot again bordered 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 a stream called 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 passed the gate that regulates the outflow from the Res into Mill Brook, which looked brand-new and almost unused, 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 found a bar of orange soap and two shirts. Despite the heron, and the woods and water plants along its edges, the Res was definitely not Blair Pond; somehow it felt more artificial. Which is an interesting difference, considering that Blair Pond is a human artifact as well; it was once a clay pit, dug for the local brick industry in the 19th century. In our interactions with the landscape around us, there is some difficult-to-detect threshold, some level of our intervention beyond which the landscape around us loses its autonomy. At the Res the threshold had been passed; at Blair Pond it had not.

The most intriguing piece of the Res, for me, was the backwater at the place where the outflow fed Mill Brook. A marsh had formed in the low area between the dam of the Res and an embankment that sloped up to, what else, a parking lot. This one served a public housing development for the elderly and disabled, called Drake Village. Lilies of some kind were growing in the marsh, along with sword-leaved water plants a good five feet tall, floating vegetation, a rotting log or two. It had no obvious human purpose; it seemed to have organized itself. It felt like the thing I had come to find.

Back in my study, I found some information about Mill Brook on the web and discovered that the spillways do get used. The Res and the brook flooded in May of 2006. Mill Brook wasn’t, after all, entirely under our control. That too seemed like a desirable sign of life.

One thought on “3. City Nature

  1. I had to puzzle over this sentence for a few minutes: “In our interactions with the landscape around us, there is some difficult-to-detect threshold, some level of our intervention beyond which the landscape around us loses its autonomy.”

    I think, finally, what you mean is that a lot of landscape has been fiddled with by us humans, and some a lot — so that it is no longer automonous — and some not quite as much (yet) — so that the landscape remains “itself,” if nature can have a self.


    I really like the twin Blair Pond images, and thought about the whole view presented in a panoramic shot. But then I discared that idea. I think the bifurcated presentation is powerful, reminding the reader of a photographer’s choice and selection, and how selection can sometimes be unethical, when it deliberately edits out messy truths. And that sort of represents human attention and awareness: if we edit out of our awareness the stuff that is messy or frustrating to deal with, what we end up knowing about may not be fully truthful.


    I missed something. At beg. of part three you say, “Looking again at the map of the Alewife,” and I went back to find earlier reference, and wasn’t sure what prior moment you are referring to.


    I like how you, here and there, document our use of language to name and map, not just dance clubs, but streams and marshes, things that themselves don’t need names. (Although a dance club or a little medicine bottle does need a name.) We name them, I guess, to show that they are for our use.

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