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Heading north

One of my favorite vistas in Boston is one you see when you’re headed northbound out of the city toward either New Hampshire or the northern suburbs. After you’ve snaked through the subterranean labyrinth that is the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, you suddenly are above ground and bathed in light as you ascend the Zakim Bridge with its gleaming white cables.

Zakim Bridge

I don’t know if heaven has a gate, but if it does, surely it can’t be any lovelier than the Zakim Bridge arching overhead on a sunny afternoon.

Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.

Eclectic

A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.

Braids

I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.

Thoreau's Maine Woods

Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.

Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Aqueduct trail

Not far from our house, a pair of paths comes close to crossing, their two courses running along a pair of underground aqueducts that once brought water from the outlying suburbs of Boston into the thirsty city. During the proverbial dog days, the aqueduct trail nearest our house offers a welcome spot of shade, and year round, it provides a green corridor for the wild creatures who find shelter in the suburbs: the turkeys who stride through backyards, the hawks who perch over parking lots, and the raccoons that doze in the forks of fat pine boughs, visible only to the folks who look up and into the trees.

Red-tailed hawk

I used to walk Reggie religiously on the segment of trail nearest our house, using it to circle our block: a quiet place for an elderly dog to sniff and pee. I still walk this trail several times a week, either with J or with our beagle, Melony: it’s a shady shortcut to other places, or a green detour around the block. I’m sure we have neighbors who have never set foot on this trail, which wends through backyards and occasionally skirts quiet driveways, the trail seemingly ending at a stranger’s house. But the path predates any of these backyards, driveways, or houses: the path continues on, further than I’ve ever walked on it, ending at a reservoir several miles from our house, a lingering sign of urban thirst.

Red-tailed hawk

Whenever I walk along the aqueducts, I encounter people I seldom see elsewhere in our neighborhood: dog-walkers, joggers, mothers walking their backpack-laden children to school, and pairs of women pumping their arms as they walk-and-talk their daily workout. One morning while I was walking Reggie, who was old and arthritic at the time, we passed an elderly woman wearing a neck brace sitting on a log, as if her caretaker had planted her there to rest a while. “You’re so patient with him,” the woman said, nodding toward Reggie: one old soul recognizing another. “What other choice do I have,” I thought but didn’t say, returning her silent nod instead.

Red-tailed hawk

We live in an age where most of us don’t know where our water comes from. We turn the tap and water magically appears, or we buy water in plastic bottles at the store, our empties choking the ocean for all eternity. In our neighborhood, household water coolers are popular, so we see a steady stream of trucks delivering large jugs of spring water for home consumption. Water from one state is trucked into another to perpetuate an illusion of purity: if you can’t see where your water comes from, you don’t have to worry about where it’s been.

Molting

I seldom think about the old aqueduct while I’m walking the path that marks its course, but sometimes I do stop in my tracks, imagining the pipes that still lie buried like a bony spine beneath my feet. My walks trace an abandoned way of water, but does the water itself remember how it once flowed?

Several years ago, a catastrophic leak in the present-day water supply for the greater Boston area forced local officials to draw water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, which was formerly fed water from Framingham sent along one of these old aqueducts. I’ve walked past the reservoir in Framingham, I’ve walked along the old aqueducts here in Newton, and I’ve walked around the reservoir in Chestnut Hill, my feet tracing the ways that water once wended to quench the thirst and douse the fires of Boston. Now that the western suburbs suck water from even more westerly communities, we drink the water in our own backyard only in an emergency.

Red-tailed hawk

In the natural world, water carves its own channels, finding the lowest course and following centuries-old paths. In the natural world, water has a memory so long and strong, Native Americans made promises intended to last as long as the grass grows and river flows. The way of water is steady and resilient, effortlessly returning to its accustomed flow. We humans are the ones who forget the way of water: we humans are the ones who don’t know where to quench our thirst or how to wend our way home.

Although I did indeed walk on the aqueduct trail today, I didn’t take any photos. The picture at the top of today’s post comes from last October, and the other photos are from July, 2011.

Squirrel midden

Our backyard dog-pen is fringed by a row of towering spruce and pine trees that serve as a curtain between our yard and our neighbors’. They say good fences make good neighbors, but a line of towering trees makes the best fence of all because it shelters an assortment of nonhuman residents. By day we’ve seen red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks in “our” backyard conifers, and after dark we’ve heard both screech and barred owls. At least one raccoon occasionally naps in these trees, and year round they harbor chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.

Squirrel midden

Right now, our backyard spruces are particularly attractive to our neighborhood gray and red squirrels, who have been feasting on spruce cones. Squirrels eat spruce cones the way humans eat corn on the cob, sitting on a comfortable perch and biting off one scale at a time to expose the tasty seeds within. What’s left behind is a pile of green and brown scales and the central “cob” that held them together. These castoff piles of inedible detritus are called “middens,” and they serve as an undeniable sign that squirrels have been feeding here, just like the snack wrappers and soda cans left by hungry litterbugs.

Squirrel midden

I read that red squirrels in particular can build middens large enough for them to burrow into, like human hoarders wedged between piles of salvaged newspapers and pie tins. If you’re going to assemble a trash heap as large as a garage, you might as well get some use out of it. Our backyard dog pen is right next to our garage, and so far the scattered piles left by snacking squirrels haven’t come close to rivaling its size, but I’m still surprised at how many middens I found this morning once I started looking for them.

Squirrel midden

I knew our neighborhood squirrels are voracious things, gladly cleaning out our bird feeders as quickly as we fill them. Now I know that squirrels are as messy as they are insatiable, leaving behind spruce tree “empties” to map the geography of their appetites.

Northern flicker - June 6 / Day 157

This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.

Flicker in foreground; flying sparrow in background

After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.

Flicker in foreground; mourning doves in background

Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.

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