Friday, July 19, 2024

This is the third 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.

Fresh Pond. (Photo: Emily Hiestand)

Part Two | Alluvial Fan

By far the largest remaining feature of the Great Swamp is Fresh Pond itself, a 55-acre kettle hole lake surrounded by 160 acres. For more than 20 years I have circumnavigated Fresh Pond in all seasons, weathers and moods, running or walking the serpentine path that winds around the water. I have run with various companions: an energetic Dalmatian named Gus; Anne, who was shedding weight and the wrong husband; and Jim, who joined me on night runs during which we admired how Porter Chevrolet’s sign laid streamers of color over the black sheen of the pond. Recently, I walked around the pond with my husband and smiled to hear him use the word “rip-rap,” a word that public works cognoscenti use to describe the rocks placed along a shore.

Hearing Peter use that word, casually, reminds me that he is still something of a public works hound, having started his career as a reporter covering a suburban public works department. During those years he often returned home from embattled, all-volunteer board meetings exhausted but enthralled by some exotica of the municipal infrastructure. The word also transports me again to the places Peter arranged to take me during our courtship: tours of water filter systems for the whey runoff from ice cream factories; state-of-the-art silicon chip factories; the power station at Niagara Falls. At the Niagara facility, we were given hard hats to wear, and were allowed to touch one of the three-story-high steel cylinder turbines that generate the power for the Northeast corridor. (Talk about romance.)

Most often my companion on walks at Fresh Pond has been the surrounding land – filled with deciduous woodlands, a stand of white pines and a small bog with weeping willows – and, of course, the pond itself, on which ice sheets rumble against the shore in winter and canvasbacks bob for their favorite food, wild celery, in fall. From time to time I exchange rambles at Fresh Pond for lap swimming, weight training and a sauna. The health club in which these activities are accomplished has a skylight over the pool through which a backstroker can admire moons, clouds, pigeons and falling snow. Handsome palms surround the aqua water. A nice person at the desk gives you a piece of fresh fruit. Driving away from these rituals, I have but a single thought (if you can call it a thought), namely, “Everything is fine.” The effect is testimony to the health club’s powers, and bringing any calm into this society is good, but the influence of Fresh Pond is even more salutary.

Circling Fresh Pond in all seasons has immersed me in a nuanced portrait of the year, and the pond’s fable of constant change within continuity has voided several slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. You can never predict what you will find: a sprawl of tree limbs after a storm; white cattail seeds streaming on a breeze; a sodden creature darting from the pond into the woods; crows cawing over glare ice. A place such as Fresh Pond schools the eye, teaches one to expect surprise and to rely on minute things – a dark red leaf encased in ice – to unlock meaning for the metaphor-loving mind. The patterns of light and shadow, thickets and tangles into which we can see but partially, the unspoken-for patches, the water surface that skates toward the horizon – all these are forms and shapes that offer possibilities for mind, for ways of being.

Technically however, Fresh Pond is a terminal reservoir and purification plant for the city water supply, and that is why it survives. A greensward at the entrance is named Kingsley Park for a famous Victorian president of the Cambridge Water Board. The Honorable Chester Ward Kingsley tells his story of the 19th-century Fresh Pond water works pensively, as a man who loves his work and found few souls able to appreciate the grandeur of infrastructure: “I have never before had a chance to inform so many on this subject,” he writes, “and never expect another such opportunity.”

Kingsley was president of the Water Board for 14 years; during his tenure, in 1888, Fresh Pond was ceded to Cambridge by the commonwealth, the surrounding land included to preserve the purity of the water. “The City,” Kingsley writes, “has taken about 170 acres, and removed all buildings therefrom. The pond contains 160 acres, and a fine driveway has been constructed all around its borders, nearly three miles long. With the water area and the land taken, this makes a fine water park of 330 acres. The surroundings of the park are being graded and laid out in an artistic way, beautifying the whole region and making it one of the most attractive places in the suburbs of Boston.” He continues, “It will thus be seen that in an abundant supply of excellent water … Cambridge presents one of the strongest inducements … for any who may be looking for a home where good water and good morals prevail.”

“A fine water park.” The phrase conveys the expansive spirit of a people for whom civic works embodied the democratic ideals: proper comportments of land and water would invite city dwellers into vital and uplifting pleasures, even moral life. It is not hard to imagine Chester Kingsley, bearded, appearing at civic parades in a handsome Water Board Officer’s jacket. Kingsley’s comrades in civic proclamations sound the same pleased, confident note: Of one scheme for a riverside esplanade, the Cambridge park commissioner envisions that “launches may run from city to city” that “men [may benefit from] this little breathing-space … among beautiful surroundings.” It was not only a sweet boosterism that led to these claims. The Victorian planners, guided by Frederick Law Olmsted, had noticed the link between qualities of landscape and human well-being.

Reading the Victorians’ plans, their bursting pride and energetic efforts, one cannot but feel a tender spot for these city-builders who were helping to finish off the exquisite meadows and wetlands. It is hard to fault them when even today many seem not to have understood that only an astonishing 1 percent of the earth’s water is fresh. As the original wetland filtering system was destroyed, modern water planners turned to extraordinary engineering to deliver safe and plentiful water to the city. 

One day in the winter of 1995, I visited Chip Norton, the watershed manager of Cambridge, in his offices in the city’s water works building. The building is a fine old thing with Palladian windows, a 1922 pump house and a lobby that is a near-museum. The entrance area is empty save for a large yellow map of the reservoir mounted on the wall above a fading, dusty model of same, and a very dead rainforest plant near a peeling radiator. The floor is swaddled in brown linoleum, the walls painted pale pink with aqua trim, the effect is of age, time and complete assurance that not one dime of tax money has been wasted here. And then, from the back of the lobby comes a luxurious sound – the rush of fast water spilling from three holding basins over aerating tiles. To be greeted by the roar and rush of water is surely the most brilliant possible entrance to a water department.

In the upstairs rooms of the building, city servants’ offices are outfitted with fresh carpets, recessed lighting and the hum of sleek computers, which is well and good, but one prays that the city will have the sense to keep the aura of faded sanitarium that it has going downstairs in the lobby. (At least if this treasure has to yield to renovation, move it to the Smithsonian as Calvin Trillin’s entire writing office was when The New Yorker relocated from one side of 43rd Street to the other.)

As I pore over the dizzying engineering and planning reports that Norton has placed on a table in a small reading nook in the upstairs rooms, a woman behind the partition is talking on the telephone about where to get chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. She recommends Armando’s Pizza. Long silence. Next she offers to go to Sage’s Market, where, she says, they make a delicious chicken salad. Another long silence. Armando’s comes up again; the deliberations continue. From behind the other side of the nook a youngish woman playfully sasses a man who has apparently asked her to do some extra task. She replies that she has much more work to do than he does, and besides she has housework on top of that. “Peg always does your housework, I’m sure,” she says. The man agrees, takes the comments in stride, sighs and then says that it’s time for a cigarette. 

Along with such universal activities, the municipal water system seems to work by such devices as: having bought water rights a hundred years ago to sources in outlying suburbs; an 8-mile-long underground pipe; gravity; the chemicals alum and chlorine; testing; sedimentation beds and flocculation chambers; sand and charcoal filtration; monster pumps; holding tanks in Belmont; shut-off valves; and more gravity. Norton lucidly explained all the workings in front of an enormous, wall-size, hand painted map of the 23-square-mile watershed for which he is responsible. Merely to gaze on the territory gives one a feeling of expansiveness and excitement – like that associated with mounting a campaign or planning an adventure meant to prove something.

The watershed is twice the size of the city it serves, and the wall map reaches well beyond the city, north to the Middlesex Fells, where Norton used to work and upon which he looks wistfully, perhaps recalling how peaceful life was in that rural outpost. In its scale and precision, the map gives the Water Department antechamber the air of a war room, the territories of conquest displayed in crystalline detail. But what makes this map wonderful is that its mission is the peaceful delivery of water for washing babies and boiling potatoes – well, for MIT’s little nuclear reactor, too, but mainly for aiding the daily lives of citizens. 

Perhaps a woman who considers her bathtub the single most important device in the home, whose favorite work is watering plants and whose day begins with cups of Assam tea can be forgiven for looking on Norton a bit dreamily as he pours forth the story of our city’s water. Like Kingsley before him, Norton’s chief responsibility is to protect the water quality within his watershed; at Fresh Pond, every use of the land must, he emphasized, be compatible with this goal.

Once, while explaining that Fresh Pond is the only place in the state (“maybe in the world,” his look implied) where dogs are allowed to range freely near a public water supply (thus, swim in and befoul it), the watershed manager let a wry look stroll across his face as he added, “But this is Cambridge.” He said this with a complex tone that boded well for his tenure. (Norton died in 2014 after serving as watershed manager for 23 years.) As we spoke about the reservoir, I was also impressed by Norton’s crisp analysis of what we can and cannot control. “We cannot,” he said, “control the past, or birds, for instance. But we can control dogs.”

This seemed as he said it like a gnomic reduction of wisdom, and I felt immediately relieved by the idea that the past can be let go of (as far as us controlling it), and also by the clear, calm way he said it. That’s right, I thought, admiringly, the past is over. What’s done is done. Later I recalled fiction, Proust and Nabokov, and the fact that modulating our idea of the past alters the present. But I know perfectly well what Norton means. He means, rightly, that he’s got a dealt hand. And he is especially not going to be able to control what happened to his watershed and Fresh Pond during the Pleistocene.

It was while sitting quietly at the metal table in the Water Department office, studying a heap of maps and surprisingly passionate master plans, with talk of chicken salad sandwiches in the air, that I suddenly, unexpectedly found myself descending again on the plumb line of time, plummeting far past the Great Swamp and its lost heronries to arrive in an entirely other incarnation of our neighborhood. 

A city worker surveys Fresh Pond’s low water level in November 1950. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

One Newton Chute provided the geology for the 1944 surficial geologic map of our area. Glancing back and forth between Chute’s map and his report, I slowly grasp that Fresh Pond exists, and that Peter and I make our home, on what was the eastern slope of a river valley. That is to say: Where now exists the ground on which have variously stood drugstores, dray horses pulling blades and apples in blossom was once merely a volume of air above an enormous river valley that ran southward from present-day Wilmington to the Charles River (which had not yet come into being). A rock terrace at about 80 feet below present sea level was the bottom of this deep, broad valley; the valley also held an inner gorge that cut down another 90 feet. The presence of the inner gorge indicates to Chute and his colleagues that “at least one important uplift of the land or lowering of sea level occurred during the formation of the valley.”

In part, it may be a recent appointment with my dentist, Dr. Guerrara, in which he filled a cavity – first boring it out, then filling it in discrete stages with various substances – that makes me riveted by the geological process by which glaciers filled the deep valley. As you may know, the modern human tooth cavity is filled first by a layer of calcium hydroxide, a liquidy paste like Elmer’s glue that hardens quickly on the floor of the prepared cavity; then with a thin, cool varnish, painted on to seal the tuvuals; finally, with the silver amalgam (copper, silver, tin, mercury) that is tamped in, carved and burnished. The gorge in one’s mouth, as these minute temporary spaces feel to the tongue, is topped up. This is very like what happened all over New England about 20,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene.

Chute identifies 10 principal events in the centurieslong process by which an old valley was filled with successive layers of till, clay, peat and gravel – materials pushed, trailed and extruded by a glacier advancing and retreating over the land, moving south and east, a chthonic grading of the surface. Chute accompanies his glacial geology with a map that shows which of these glacial fill events figure on the current surface, and where. With mounting excitement, I locate the area of our street on the map: our home ground is Outwash 4, the eighth event, an outwash of sand and pebble-sized gravel that occurred as a large alluvial fan spread southward over the “rock-flour” clays deposited in the exciting seventh event, the clays that would have such consequences for our neighborhood.  A small ridge two blocks away, which we now know as Massachusetts Avenue, is thought to be “too high to be part of the fan” and probably was overlayered by its powerful flowing outwash.

I sit back in the Water Department’s chair, nearly faint from the morning’s events, and my idea of home rearranges itself once more, assimilating the knowledge that we live not only atop a lost swamp but also over a buried river valley and on an alluvial fan. It changes things, everything somehow, to know that during all the years I yearned to live (for a while) in a bucolic valley, my wish has, if prehistorically, been true. And what shall we make of the news that we dwell on an alluvial fan? While the fine sandy fan was spreading out, Fresh Pond must have still been entirely occupied by a stagnant ice block, for, as Chute reasons, “if the fan had been deposited after the ice block had melted, the depression occupied by the pond would have been filled.”

Even the alluvial fan does not prepare me, though, for the fact that our neighborhood, our city, indeed the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Nova Scotia, takes place on a crust of earth that was once the west coast of Africa. The crust is named Avalon, and it arrived when a piece of Gondwana, ancient continent, broke away, swept across the ocean (not yet the Atlantic, but Iapetus), and collided with the old North American continent. Our most local crust came from the part of the earth that is today Morocco – and the only country that shares with the Boston Basin the lumpy-looking rock we call puddingstone. It has been quite a long while since these mighty things took place, and it is hard to say what, if anything, they have to do with the realpolitik taking place on the underlying Avalon. But, as always, the familiar when closely observed reveals itself as an exotic.

Beyond its transforming information, a U.S. Geological Survey report enthralls because of the language scientists use to convey glacial events: Here there are “geophysical traverses,” “faults in overridden sand,” “uplift of the land” and “marine embayments.” The souls who spin off these phrases in longish sentences that describe – calmly – seismic events that rumbled over millennia, sound as if they know what they are talking about, as if they know what is going on down deep, at the level of accurate subsurface information where knowledge is grounded.

Although I was born decades after early 20th-century physicists had their near-nervous breakdowns at the implications of relativity, the fluid epistemology implied has come only slowly and imperfectly into my psyche, which seems to cling to a pre-modern, limbic hope for solidity. As my life’s education has proceeded, each new knowledge gradually reveals that it too rests on gossamer metaphor. Reading the geologists, I feel the tantalizing hope that with this vocabulary I might grasp the real nature of things. Perhaps here are the minds and ways of talking that take one through loose gravel, till and sand, through bands of clay, to bedrock. And if it all be gossamer, what better gossamer than bedrock?


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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 IV)