Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Thomas Green, of the Massachusett Tribe, shows kids how to build a fish weir on April 23 at the Jerry’s Pond PondFest. (Photo: John Doucet)

For a brief moment during last month’s PondFest, a fish weir stood beside Jerry’s Pond. Built under the supervision of Thomas Green, vice president of the Massachusett Tribe, and by the labors of Cambridge children thrilled to be entrusted with a dangerous-looking set of shears, it consisted of perhaps 30 sapling trunks driven into the ground in upright pairs. Flexible branches were woven horizontally among them, making a graceful serpentine across the grass at McCrehan Park. Green explained how the weir would catch fish if placed in flowing water: The loose mesh of branches would let small fish pass through, but trap the larger ones in the shallows where they could be scooped out with a net.

The weir was an object of fascination to the hundreds of Cantabrigians gathered for the festival. It was out of place, of course, on the grass. Triply out of place: Jerry‘s Pond will soon be returned to public access as a green space, but it features no flowing water. Alewife Brook, flowing nearby, features no fish – it’s too contaminated and sediment-clogged and channelized to be good habitat. And though we’ve borrowed the Massachusett name for our state and for the main road through the city of Cambridge, the Massachusett people and their uses for this land have long vanished from living memory and city plans. In fact, not long after he’d supervised its construction, Green dismantled the weir. “Who knows what the city would make of this?” he said, nervous even though Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui was there and had been looking on approvingly.

Through its brief life at PondFest, though, the weir invited participants and observers to relate to the land in a new (old?) way. To remember that beneath our daily errands and zoning schemes and development deals is a natural topography of soil and water whose healthy management determines whether our homes can last and our lives sustain themselves.

In the past, healthy management meant harvesting fish in a way that preserved next year’s catch. At present – this was the message of PondFest – health means planning greenspaces to mitigate the heat island effects from our paved roads, settle the particulate pollution from our cars and ease the stresses of living in dense enclaves. It means anticipating much, much higher tides from the harbor and arranging open spaces to absorb the water.

PondFest volunteers work on a cleanup upfront nearby Yates Pond. (Photo: Neheet Trivedi)

Call it placemaking, this act of building a weir, throwing a party. Investing a site with meaning. PondFest started to take shape in 2015 when Lewis Weitzman, John Doucet, Eric Grunebaum and other leaders of Friends of Jerry’s Pond organized an Earth Day cleanup of the surrounding area (with the Pond itself remaining fenced off and inaccessible, as it has been since 1961). Several annual cleanups later, the effort combined forces with Jean Devine, an environmental educator and native plant coach, to build gardens with Cambridge high schoolers through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. This was an effort not just to establish greenery, but to build a generation of young people who would relate to this place as if it mattered.

The cleanup gained a party atmosphere with the involvement of activist brass band BaBam. (A tuba, as you’ll be well aware if you’ve marched alongside, turns any moment into an occasion.) Community outreach brought in a crowd more representative of the Pond’s highly diverse neighborhood, with members of nearby Reservoir Church and residents of the Rindge Towers joining, alongside a troupe of Bangladeshi dancers who contributed the magic of their performance and their skills painting henna tattoos. By 2022 there were wildlife arts, Mass Audubon and new Jerry‘s Pond site owner IQHQ with its plans for returning the pond to public access with boardwalks, an Ecocenter and community garden. This year PondFest grew to include weir-making, NoCA Arts, History Cambridge, Cambridge City Growers, Save the Alewife Brook and climate activists from Mothers Out Front as well.

BaBam performs at PondFest. (Photo: Kristine Jelstrup)

PondFest isn’t the only placemaking going on in the neighborhood. On Earth Day in April there were cleanups sponsored by the Mystic River Watershed Association and the Charles River Conservancy touted as among the largest in the country. The BaBam orchestra marched alongside volunteers from Save the Alewife Brook, accompanied by wildlife arts installations of ghost fish hanging where the most significant weir used to be, right at Massachusetts Avenue where there’s now an outlet for sewage overflows. And it’s not only Earth Day: Many of us will have joined in the joyous Cambridge River Festival, and will again once it recovers from the pandemic. If you walk a few steps from the Alewife T station, right now you’ll find the trees and fences festooned with the artwork of Fayerweather Street School students informing passersby about wildlife such as the woodcocks and herons and imploring us to clean things up.

Biologists have built a map of how we experience our human bodies from the inside, the “sensory homunculus.” It’s shaped by density of nerve endings. The face and especially the lips and tongue loom huge, as do fingertips. What passes along nerves is information. Pleasure. Pain. We’re exquisitely sensitive to the things that keep us alive: food, temperature, touch.

A young visitor investigates a plant at Pondfest. (Photo: Sarah Gyorong)

A map could be made along similar lines of how we relate to places. The inside of our homes would overshadow nearly everything outside, our coffeemaker standing taller than the Bunker Hill Monument. Our children’s schools, our food sellers, the landmarks by which we steer our way to and from work, would be sizable – and the tourist sites that make up visitors’ Boston-and-Cambridge experiences would nearly vanish.

In just this way, studies have shown that when it comes to parks, the grandeur of Niagara Falls and Cadillac mountains matter most to visitors from far away. Greenspaces near our homes loom large for entirely different reasons: fresher air; paths untroubled by traffic or litter; space to let kids run free, to walk dogs, to throw a frisbee.

Remember the weir – its brief existence at a festival that’s swirled to life because neighbors cared and reached out and connected to each other and to history. Remember, when it comes to investing your time and money and concern: We live in the places we make.

Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.