Friday, July 19, 2024

This is the second of a four-part series by Emily Hiestand, a writer, editor and friend of History Cambridge. The series was first published for The Georgia Review and Beacon Press in 1998. It was updated slightly in 2021 for publication in This Impermanent Earth, and in 2024 for History Cambridge. The full series can be found on the History Cambridge website.

The Alewife silver maple floodplain forest. (Photo: Emily Hiestand)

Part Two | Swamp

The vast wetland began just north of the clam flats along the Charles River and lay about 9 miles inland from the coast. “The Great Swamp,” it was called by the earliest English settlers who inked its features on their maps. Not an especially imaginative name, but a tremendously accurate one for the acres of glacially sculpted swampland, a place laced with meandering slow streams and ponds, humpbacked islands that rose from shallow pools fringed by reeds and brackish marshes home to heron rookeries, wild rice, fish and pied-billed grebes. For some ten thousand years, the great swamp had been evolving, preening and humming.

The conditions for a swamp of such magnitude emerged as the last North American glacier melted and retreated, and the bowl-like shape of our region (the Boston Basin) 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 layers of gravel and a watery surface. The first human beings to arrive in this watershed would have found the vegetated marshes and swampland sprawling around two largish bodies of water, one of which is the amoebal-shaped pond known today as Fresh Pond.  

I have lived close to Fresh Pond for most my adult life and had frequented its shores for years before I came to know about the former swamp. If pressed, I suppose I would have realized that something must have existed in the place where there is now a megaplex cinema and an organic market where the cheese department carries small, ripe reblochons that delight my husband, Peter. I don’t think that I would ever have guessed that the shopping plaza was formerly a red maple swamp, a distinctive area 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.  

I learned about this former reality from the journals of William Brewster, a late 19th century Cambridge native, an ornithologist and curator of birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Not long after learning about the swamp, which Brewster explored throughout his life, I had occasion to drive to the Staples store in the Fresh Pond Shopping Mall. There, walking across the parking lot, I noticed my mind half trying to believe that if we could jackhammer up the acres of asphalt, underneath we would find – oh, not entire squashed red maples and blueberry bushes, but some incipient elements of a swamp, some slough or quagmire or marshy sponge – something of the liquid world lost to the single, dry world mall.   

The Fresh Pond Watershed. (Photo: Emily Hiestand)

In truth, I like the mall. Its designers thought too little about the pleasures of shadow, light and coincidence, and visually speaking, this standard shopping center seems unworthy of replacing a notable red maple swamp. But it faithfully serves up shelves of many excellent goods: pens and paper, goat’s milk soap, native corn, good running shoes, French wine and radio batteries. There are birds-of-paradise flowers at this mall, and a newspaper-vending box whose door opens on papers resting inside in a trusting stack. I also am glad for the adjacent utility station whose gray transformer towers carry the cables that step down 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 Inmetrix, and the eight gold ballroom-dancing trophies on the sill of one of the company’s windows, and another word for the restaurant that stands over a one-time rookery serving a dessert named Starstruck Sundae.   

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 lands, our countries, can be carnivals of misrule, as well as places of redemptive humanity. Still, this particular news, a whole gorgeous red maple swamp gone missing, hit me hard. I seem to have inherited the gene for liking to spend time in marshes and estuaries, floodplain forests and cypress swamps. The Great Swamp of this region had the usual wetland virtues (functioning as a nursery for life, an aeration and a sponge that prevented flooding), and it presents my mind with a nice conundrum to realize that the emergence of our dear neighborhood contributed to the demise of this wonder.  

Perhaps I also 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 and our irreplaceable friend. Certainly, I was beginning to like the past more as people, places and ambitions receded into it and became its populace. And perhaps that is why I began to go on long walks around the former contours of the swamp, seeking its traces and remnants.  

As it turns out, a glacial work is impossible to eradicate entirely. It is true that we are not going to find any quick phosphorescence of life under the asphalt that now covers so much of the former swampland. But vestiges of the swamp survive in a brook trickling through a maintenance yard, in a slippery gully of jewelweed, a patch of marsh, in the many wet basements of our neighborhood and small stands of yellow-limbed white willows (Salix alba). Great blue herons spend weeks on the river that runs alongside a local think tank, and there is still a lek ground where 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 soothes wounds – recently introduced species mingling with older ones. Killdeer, muskrat and ring-necked pheasant (the last a 20th-century arrival) have been seen in a small floodplain forest not far from the commuter trains, and against all odds, alewife fish run in the spring as they have for millennia, coming upriver from the ocean to spawn in the dwindling freshwater streams. Here and there, in a secluded patch of these old wilds, it is possible to get lost.

One afternoon as I was driving home along a road that passes a mucky pond behind the Pepperidge Farm outlet, something huge began to lumber across the road. I stopped my car and watched as a low, round, dark creature – it was a snapping turtle – walked slowly across the road, going directly toward a roadside barbershop. The turtle was so large, with a shell easily 4 feet around, that it seemed to belong in a more exotic habitat, in a place like the Galapagos. Concerned about what a highway and a trip to the barbershop could hold for an old turtle, 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, a tragic-comic amalgam: Mr. Magoo and Oedipus at Colonus. As one by one the cars on that road came to a halt, and all the drivers got out, we stared together as the creature crawled across the macadam, lumbering like memory out of an unseen quarter.

“We will never know,” says professor Karl Teeter, a linguistic anthropologist who lives across the avenue and next door to our friend, the historian Judith Nies. It’s an early fall afternoon and I am talking with Teeter about our pre-European predecessors on this watershed, the Pawtuckeog and Massachusett people. For many thousands of years, the Pawtuckeogs migrated annually between the inland forests and the coasts of an area they called Menotomet. Their sensible, appealing seasonal rhythm was to spend winters sheltered in the forest, then move to set up summer camps close to the clam-flats and the swamp that provided fish and fowl, waterways and silt-rich land for corn and beans. 

Teeter has spent his adult life studying the Algonquian family of languages, to which the Pawtuckeog language, Massachusett, belongs. Sadly, no living speakers of Massachusett survive, but Karl explains that the language is similar to the one spoken by the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy of Nova Scotia. He shows me how close the Massachusett word for “my friend,” neetomp, is to the Maliseet word nitap. When I ask my learned neighbor if he knows any native Massachusett names for the Great Swamp or its features, he says, “Place-names are the hardest to recover, and the swamp landscape has changed so much now that I cannot even speculate.” We sit for a while turning the pages of a large green book that holds the Pawtuckeog 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 and collapsed in response to European diseases and violence, the swampland lay shimmery and resistant to the colonizing touch for another century. European settlers were revolted by the miasmic terrain, and their disdain made the swamp a natural ally in the cause of American independence. It was on the swampy, lowland outskirts of the Newtowne settlement, safe from the Royalists who lived on higher ground, that the patriots could meet to plan their revolution. The gift of protection was not returned, however; as soon as technology permitted, the victorious Americans began to eradicate the wetlands. Handsome orchards were the first incursions, then a single road built through the marshes – the “lonely road,” one writer called it, “with a double row of pollard willows causewayed above the bog.” Shortly before it began to disappear in earnest, the swamp found its poet in William Brewster, a shy 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, Brewster was remembering boyhood days. Later, just after the turn of the century, when the wide river that had 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 naturalists such as Brewster and the rare person not enamored of the industrial adventure sorrowed when a stand of pines and beeches was cut to make way for an abattoir, or when Fresh Pond was surrounded by icehouses and machinery to cut ice in blocks to be sailed in sawdust to Calcutta, Martinique and Southern plantations. Rail lines appeared just before midcentury, and the story then begins to go quickly: more swamp drained for cattle yards and carriage factories, and, after vast beds of clay were discovered, acres covered in the pugging-mills, chimneys and kilns of a brickworks that turned out most of the bricks that built red-brick Boston. 

Close by the brickyards, workers constructed modest wooden cottages on the edge of the dry, sandy plain adjacent to the swamp. The malarial epidemic of 1904, and its many small caskets, aroused the commonwealth to civil engineering projects designed to eliminate what remained of a wetland then commonly referred to as “the menacing lowlands” and the area of “nakedness and desolation.” Streams were channeled and sunk into culverts; one large area was dredged and filled to make the site for a tuberculosis sanitarium. Over the next decades, the ever-dwindling wetlands were filled for pumping stations, suburban subdivisions and veteran’s housing, for chemical plants, office parks and playing fields, a golf course, a gas storage depot and a major subway terminal. In a nod to an earlier incarnation, the terminal is named “Alewife,” for the small, blear-eyed herring that was the fertilizer for the cornfields that sustained Native and early European settlements.

Laying a modern map of our part of the city on Brewster’s ink map, I can cobble together an overlay. The place on the old map marked as “large oaks & willows” is the site of Porter Chevrolet. The spot marked “muskrat pond” is the Fresh Pond Fish store. “Heronry of night herons” became the Bertucci’s pizza parlor in the Alewife T station complex. “Pine swamp” has become 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, and bits of stories. “I’m not a historian,” I had to say, “I’m not writing a proper history.” But people are generous; they want to help make your picture clearer, and they want a repository for memory. Along with paper and stories, I was also shown a horseshoe and a very old, red brick stamped with the letters Nebco (which stands for New England Brick Co.) that our neighbors Toni and John had found while digging in their garden. 

As we stood in their backyard passing around the piece of rough iron, turning it over in our hands, Toni said they had learned that there was once a blacksmith shop on the site of their house. From another neighbor, I learned about a great-uncle from Barbados who had worked at the rubber factory. At the pizza parlor, an elderly diner told me, “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 is not one bit afraid of electricity but terrified of flying, says, “This was the Sunshine Movie Theatre.”  

One day the mail brought a photocopy of a newspaper clipping from 1908. The headline read: “Famous Horses Raced Here.” And that is how I came to know the names Flora Temple, Black Hawk and Trustee – some of the great trotting racehorses of their day – and the greatest of them, Lady Suffolk, a horse descended from the legendary Messenger. Trotting horses are the kind whose jockeys ride in the small, light vehicles called sulkies. Lady Suffolk was also apparently a saddle racer, because the article mentions that her time for a mile “under the saddle” was 2:26, a time then considered so fast that the reporter gushed that it made her name “imperishable.” I mention her story to do my part to make that so.  

My neighbor Joan, a woman who would be a leading member of the Society (if it existed) of Those Still Living in the House in Which They Were Born, remembers other now-vanished features of our landscape, including swimming ponds. “We used to swim in one of the clay pits after it flooded,” Joan tells me. “The one along Rindge Avenue, we called Jerry’s Pit. I remember my father sitting on the beach of Jerry’s Pit, bare-chested and showing off his tattoos. He had an Indian maiden on his shoulder, a goddess jumping rope on his arm and a navigational star just above his thumb. By the time I was girl, all of the brickyards but one had closed, and there was trash and white powdery stuff lying around the yards. One summer, in the place where the apartment towers are now, the owners put up a sign that read ‘Clean Fill Wanted.’ Later that week, at night, someone dumped a dead horse in the pit. I can remember my mother and her friends laughing at that joke until they cried. There was not much sympathy for the owners of the pits because of the trash and the chemicals they had left on the place. Then there came the year the city closed our swimming pond because chemicals had leaked into it. The last clay pit closed in 1952, after it collapsed on a man. The collapse took the whole steam shovel that the man was operating, and the man himself. They could not rescue him. And that was the end of the clay pits. Later that pit became the town dump.”  

By the 1970s, when I arrived in Cambridge, the dump had been operating for several decades, and had grown rolling foothills of unwanted material, dunes of newspapers and old appliances. Many of the trash hummocks smoldered with fires and all of them were circled by scavenging gulls. There were sometimes human gleaners at the dump, a man or woman salvaging a child’s highchair or a table. 

In the 1980s, after years of behind-the-scenes planning, the landscape began to change again, this time into a city park with playing fields, hills covered in wildflowers, a restored wetland swale and paths made of a sparkling, recycled material called 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. Not far under the decorous new lawn and the wickets lies the refuse of four decades, capped and monitored, and threaded with pipes that allow gases to vent.  

On contemporary planning documents the former great swamp is now called the “Alewife Area.” It is a place where a modern land-use opera continues to rage, a public policy drama complete with mercantile princes, dueling experts, public officials, citizens for whom the natural world is itself a form of wealth and at least one man who sits with binoculars, at a high window of the apartment towers, scanning the landscape for barred owls.  

The other day I went to the site of the former muskrat pond to rent a video of Bertrand Tavernier’s brooding 1986 film “’Round Midnight,” in which jazz great Dexter Gordon plays the role of saxophonist Dale Turner, a fictional character based on Bud Powell and Lester Young, and their years at the Blue Note jazz club. The center of gravity may be the scene in which Gordon stands by his Paris hotel window talking to a young fan and aspiring musician. In a voice gravelly with age and hard living, Gordon tells the young man about the essence of creativity: “You don’t just go out and pick a style off a tree one day,” he says, “The tree is already inside you. It is growing, naturally, inside you.” 

Isn’t that always the hope: that the things we make and build will be as right as rain, as a tree, or a glacier coming, gouging, then melting into something great.


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Emily Hiestand and her husband lived in the North Cambridge neighborhood described in this essay for 20 years. Her writing appears in magazines (including The Atlantic, Salon and The New Yorker); anthologies (including Best American Poetry, The Norton Book of Nature Writing and “This Impermanent Earth”); and many literary journals. She developed the communications program for MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and served as its director for 15 years. Earlier, Hiestand was the Literary Editor for Orion Magazine, working with America’s leading nature writers and introducing themes (including environmental justice) into the magazine’s pages. She has served on the boards of PEN New England and the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

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Watershed: An excursion in four parts (Part III)