5. The Fresh Pond Marshes

Looking again at the trail map of the Alewife Reservation, I realized that the open water I had glimpsed out in the middle of it was called the Little River. There it was, plain as could be, on Google Earth. It’s a stream about a mile long that flows out of Little Pond, just over Cambridge’s western border, and at a certain point changes its name to Alewife Brook, which in turn flows to the Mystic River. Alewife Brook was so named because the alewives – herrings – used to run up it in great numbers every spring; many fewer of them still come up the Mystic River, and probably a few even make it into the brook.

Once I knew the Little River was there, I had to see it in real life.  The first place I encountered it was a bridge on the edge of the Alewife Reservation. Turtles were sunning themselves on a capsized shopping cart half-buried in the mud of the silted-up stream. Slightly downstream, it was so shallow that geese were resting in midriver on one leg. I wondered if the amount of silt in the Little River had increased since so much of the land near it became paved. Typically, when you pave over the land beside a stream, more water flows into it; more flow means more sediment going downstream, and it builds up at the stream’s mouth. Exactly this happened as a result of the construction of Bangor Mall. A small stream called Meadow Brook, the continuation of the one Vaughn and I photographed, runs down from the mall area to the Penobscot River, and sediment built up where that brook meets the river. The Penobscot is a tidal river, and salmon come up it from the ocean. Salmon would enter the brook at high water, but because the mouth of the brook was silted up, when the tide went out the salmon would find themselves trapped in a pool they couldn’t get out of, and would die there. Fortunately, a state biologist named Richard Dill noticed this, waded through multiple layers of bureaucracy, and got the necessary permits to dig out the channel.

I went upstream along the Little River, and in pretty short order, I found a broken-down dock that I could stand on and look more closely at the stream. In the mud-colored water, big mud-colored carp swam slowly, barely moving, their dorsal fins poking at the surface and making spreading ripples. In the shade, carp and water were almost exactly the same non-color; where sun hit the water in midstream, the water was more a cloudy yellow and the carp were still dark. There was about one fat carp’s thickness of water between the silt of the bottom and the surface of the river. As they lazily swam, or rooted around being the bottom feeders they are, they stirred up clouds of mud behind and around them.

I spent a long time picking my way along trails, or what I hoped were trails (otherwise I was lost), among the cattails and reeds and undergrowth, sumac and birch and various unidentified trees.

I crossed a little tributary on a plank someone had considerately placed there for the purpose, and found gorgeous moss growing on a pile of what I eventually recognized as crumbled asphalt. Through tall cattails I saw the top of a new-looking building, adorned with skinny silver chimneys that echoed the vertical plants. I doubted that the architect had built it with this view in mind.

I saw two fat groundhogs, monarch butterflies, bumblebees at work on the orchid-shaped flowers of jewelweed, a woodpecker and some largish interesting birds that I could never get a good look at before they flew away. A sign at the entrance to one of the trails said there were woodcocks in the reservation, making me wonder if that was what those birds were. I’ve never seen a woodcock; I think of them as exotic creatures that live somewhere I don’t. Once again, it was amazing how far I seemed to have traveled as soon as I dived into the plant life. The walk was short, yet it yielded two remarkable things: expanded space and expanded time. Why hadn’t I taken it before?

Down one trail I found a blue tent, like something a camper would buy at L.L. Bean and take into the Maine woods. Someone living there. Down another, a much less middle-class encampment, with plastic crates and beer cans and sheets of plastic hanging from trees. A gray-haired man, probably my age, silently looked out at me from within the habitation that had been made there. We made eye contact. I said nothing and left. Homeless people – this was their home. Both encampments were marked by cloth or clothing tied to branches by the trail as a sign: this place is lived in. On the way out I found wild grapes hanging in bunches. They looked ripe, and I ate one; it was not sweet but definitely tasty. I wondered if the secret inhabitants of the area ate them.


Once I got to know the Little River by wandering up and down it as the seasons changed, I started to wonder about its history, which led me to the Cambridge Historical Commission and a collection of documents about the “Fresh Pond Marshes.” Fresh Pond is a sizable lake, formed by glacial activity, on the western edge of Cambridge, bordering the town of Belmont. It has been a source of Cambridge’s drinking water since the 19th century; currently it is where that water arrives after being pumped from larger reservoirs a few miles to the west. In the nineteenth century, the area west of Fresh Pond, extending to Little Pond in Belmont and to Spy Pond in Arlington, was known as the Fresh Pond Marshes. Around 1860, according to a 1906 book on Birds of the Cambridge Region, “the meadow grass which covered them was regularly cut and drawn off in hay wagons.” The water in the marsh’s streams was clear and drinkable. It was possible to canoe from Fresh Pond up the Little River, through the marshes, to Little Pond and Spy Pond without once getting out of one’s canoe.

It’s fascinating to compare the area as it is today to a map of Fresh Pond and its surroundings, circa 1866. The present-day Alewife subway stop is in a spot that, in 1866, had marsh on three sides, with two clay pits to the southeast – the local brick industry was in full swing – and beyond them a “Wooded Island” about where Cambridge’s municipal landfill later was, and its largest city park is today. To the south of the subway stop was a “Maple Swamp” that is currently Fresh Pond Shopping Center, to the southwest “Glacialis or artificial ice pond” – the ice business was a major local industry – and to the west “Pine Swamp,” now mostly offices, warehouses, stores, light manufacturing. To the northwest of the subway stop was all marsh, with the Little River running through it. Today that area is office parks, industrial and high-tech firms, and the Alewife Reservation. The Route 2 of today crosses what in 1866 was a “Cart path shaded by willows” and the “Site of former Heronry of Night Herons, also of Robin Roost.”

People have been engineering this watershed for many years, by digging ditches to drain fields, re-channeling streams, damming Alewife Brook, and so on, for different reasons at different times. As population and industrialization grew in the late 19th century, the marshes, and the water supply of Cambridge and part of Belmont, were subject to multiple types of pollution. The worst offender was a slaughterhouse, built north of Fresh Pond in 1878, that dumped its waste into the wetlands. Cambridge and Belmont traded accusations about whose sewage was polluting the area. Malaria, I was not expecting to discover, was rampant around the marshes. In the Historical Commission’s collection was a map that showed specific houses whose residents had malaria in 1904, and some were within a block of where I live. By 1900 local conditions had become a recognized crisis. The Cambridge Chronicle of August 4, 1900, ran an article headlined “Wellington Brook Must Be Purified,” sub-headed “Petitioners Declare That Its Condition Is Offensive and a Menace to Public Health – Thursday’s Hearing at City Hall.”

Today’s Little River is in fact a new channel that was dug in response to the public health crisis and the need to drain the marshes better. Not only the current river, but indirectly the whole Alewife Reservation, stems from a project authorized in 1903 “for improving the sanitary and drainage conditions of Alewife Brook” and the marshes. Once again, it was necessary to re-engineer the watershed, to fix problems humans had brought on themselves. By 1908 the state had taken the land that is now the Reservation, having received advice from a civil engineer that “The cleanliness and care of the banks of this drainage channel ought to be protected by public ownership of a strip of land on both its sides.” Originally all of that land was known as Alewife Brook Parkway, which is now the name of a major 4-lane artery clogged with traffic at rush hour.

In the spring of 2008 I noticed that a remnant of the old Little River is shown on a map that seems to date from the 1970’s, even though by then the new channel had existed for 60 years. I decided to see what I could find of the original Little River, which ran to the north of the current channel and entered Alewife Brook at a slightly different point (Alewife Brook then flowed out of Fresh Pond rather than being a continuation of the Little River).

Through the back fence of a motel by the side of Route 2, I glimpsed open water with two geese on it, next to a newly built office building called Discovery Park. The water’s edge by the building was landscaped in compulsive corporate style, but the water itself was coming out of a tangle of reeds and saplings that looked like what I was after.

Next to the motel stands the ruin of a nightclub known as Faces (its decrepit sign is still there), deserted for years now. The building is a decaying wreck and nature is visibly reclaiming its parking lot; moss is growing on it, and grass is coming up through big cracks in the asphalt. It won’t be too long before this space is overgrown.

Behind the parking lot I clambered over fallen trees and dead limbs, avoided sinking into mud, found a very old brown bottle with “Uncle John’s Medicine Lowell Mass.” molded into the glass, and came to a wetland; despite roadways and parking lots, these are still the Fresh Pond Marshes. According to the 1866 map, this is also about where the Little River used to flow. The channel was probably not well-defined as the water found its way through the marshes. At what may once have been the riverside, I stood on the edge of open water; on the other side were reeds, then trees.

The top of a building was only barely visible in the distance. This particular parcel of land is not part of the Reservation, but it has been left alone for a long time. Those who drive by can’t see it from Rt. 2; if they notice anything, it’s the crumbling and graceless building and its pointless sign, FACES in giant capitals, signifying nothing. Those who own the land have done nothing to it. Our ignoring this area, thinking of it as invisible and worthless, has left space and time for water, plants, creatures, and weather to do their thing. To some extent humans made this area what it is, by digging the current channel of the Little River and draining the marshes in a different way, but that was a century ago. I suspect that this particular stretch of the landscape, not being part of the Reservation, was designed by no one, that it thought itself up. If someone were now to make a nature trail into and through the wetland, it would not disappoint the visitor. Yet it seems as though almost no one registers the existence of this beautiful open secret. Nature is hidden in plain sight.

There is a definite current of water flowing out of the ultra-manicured bit of stream beside Discovery Park, under the road out front,

and emerging on the other side. From that point, the water flows down a roadside ditch and into a marsh that drains into the present-day Little River.

The living continuity, from the wetland behind Faces to the present-day river, matters to me; the landscape preserves a faint memory of the Little River that once was. The past is not quite as distant as it might seem.

In the past 150 years, there have been losses and gains on the Fresh Pond Marshes, some of which are obvious, and some of which are not. Looking at the map of the area circa 1866, one can’t help but regret the loss of a “cart path shaded by willows”; but at the same time, slaughterhouses no longer dump their waste products into the local water supply. A proposed subdivision that was on a 1903 map of the area (street names and all) was never built; the Metropolitan Park Commission prevented that, for better or worse, by taking the land. The fact that malaria was once a threat here is not obvious to us today.

My wanderings up and down the Little River tell me that today the Fresh Pond Marshes area is mostly ignored. Some homeless people live there, some people who live nearby go there to enjoy it, most people rush by. But it’s still there, and though it’s certainly not nature primeval, it is nature. Its history says that it is both open to being shaped by human interventions, and persistently itself. The original channel of the Little River is still a wetland for a reason. We can’t change the fact that water goes where it needs to go. We’re steadily moving away from the worst excesses of 19th-century industry, and simultaneously creating excesses of our own, like our dependence on cars and our level of consumption. Our standards of public health are infinitely superior to those of a century ago, and still evolving. I hope that our notion of public health, our notion of our own self-interest not only in Cambridge but anywhere, will once again come to include the health of waterways like the Little River and the local marshes, Wellington Brook, Blair Pond, and countless other bodies of water named and unnamed. I don’t think this is a sentimental idea. It certainly was not in 1900, when the public demanded action before the Board of Health.

People get used to everything, and the human time horizon is very close in. We tend to think that the way things are today “just is.” But the way things are today is a history of decisions, some good and some rotten, the outcome of a chronicle of consequences intended and unintended. There’s no way we’re going to “just leave nature alone”; it’s centuries too late for that. The arrow of time only points one way, and we have one choice: let go of the past. But letting go doesn’t mean erasing it from memory, and remembering it would help, as we confront the decisions we have to make now.


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