Newton


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.

Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

Memorial Day 2013

For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.

Muskrat - May 27 / Day 147

On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.

Memorial Day 2013

Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.

You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!

Mockingbird on gravestone

Today one of the errands on my to-do list was to go to the hardware store to get two propane tanks filled: a task I do every spring in advance of the summer grilling season. Next weekend, there will be a line of suburban folks waiting to get propane for their Memorial Day cookouts, but today it was just me and one other man standing outside the fenced enclosure at one corner of the hardware store parking lot where the propane guy duly fills small tanks from a much larger one.

Stone wall with grave marker

Next to the enclosure where the propane tank lives is the South (or Winchester Street) Burying Ground, a historic cemetery with 357 graves, the earliest of which dates back to 1802. Although I stand right next to this cemetery every spring while I wait for the propane guy to fill my tanks, I’d never before today set foot in it because I could never figure out how to get inside. Like the big propane tank I visit for a fill-up every spring, the South Burying Ground used to be enclosed in a chain link fence, presumably to keep vandals and other troublemakers out.

Brick wall with grave markers

Today, however, the fence separating the hardware store parking lot from the cemetery next door was gone, and someone had put Betsy Ross flags–American flags with a circle of 13 stars–on several of the graves, presumably those marking the resting places of veterans. Although I didn’t have much time to explore the now-accessible old cemetery, the simple act of tearing down a fence and putting up some flags completely transformed the place, turning it from something that looked grim and foreboding–somewhere you’re not supposed to explore–into something more inviting: a green and grassy place where mockingbirds sing.

Graves on the hill

It seems strange to contemplate a plot of centuries-old graves while waiting for a propane fill-up, but that’s how life is, isn’t it? On one side of a now-absent fence lie folks now largely forgotten; on the other, living folks like me go about their mundane chores. It doesn’t seem fair that the dead should have to put up with the traffic, hubbub, and general disregard of those going about the business of living, but when has it been any other way? The best the dead can hope for, I suppose, is to be forgotten enough: forgotten by vandals, overlooked by troublemakers, and visited by nobody other than mockingbirds and the occasional birder or blogger.

Although the South Burying Ground lies beyond my own block, today’s post does represent a bit of local color. If blogging your own neck of the woods sounds alluring, you might consider taking this week’s “Daily Post” writing challenge, “Blog Your Block,” written by yours truly. Enjoy!

Honeysuckle

While I was grading, the honeysuckles along our driveway bloomed, the backyard pine trees dusted my car with pollen, and the neighborhood tulips erupted in a multitude of colors. Warblers appeared in the trees, our resident catbird returned, and the backyard rabbits appeared as if out of nowhere, nibbling our finally green grass.

Honeysuckle

While I was grading, the season kept springing, the birds kept singing, and the green kept growing. Not a one of them waited a moment for me and my silly paper piles. Having submitted my last batch of semester grades, I feel momentarily dazed, as if returning from a planet made up of words, words, words. Emerging into my finally green backyard, I feel as if a heavenly hand should hand me one of those pink memo slips outlining all the important things that happened while I was out.

2014 Boston Marathon

This year was the sixth straight year J and I watched the Boston Marathon from a vantage point between Miles 18 and 19, and this year was the third time in those six years we saw the same sign encouraging a runner named Rhonda to reach “Boston or bust.”

Go Rhonda

I have no idea who Rhonda is, but it’s encouraging to know she’s still running and she still has at least one loyal fan rooting her on, recycling the same sign with different balloons year after year.

Go Rhonda!

Shalane Flanagan takes an early lead

Today J and I joined more than a million other spectators in taking the final step of purification after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings: we took back the Marathon. Last year I wrote about the sense of outrage I felt after Marathon Monday—Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality—was hijacked by cowards with pressure cookers. Today, one of those cowards is dead and the other is behind bars, awaiting trial. In the meantime, a record number of spectators showed up along the 26.2 mile route between Hopkinton and Boston today to make one simple statement: we won’t be bombed into hiding.

Eventual winner Meb Keflezighi far ahead of the pack

Cowards with pressure cookers can kill and maim, but nearly a year and a week later, surging crowds of enthusiastic spectators came outside on a gorgeous spring day to clap, cheer, ring cowbells, wave signs, and remember. To paraphrase David “Big Papi” Ortiz, this is our fucking marathon, and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom.

'cause you're kicking ass

Today’s act of reclamation was a long time coming. Last April, less than a week after bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, J and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park: a way of reassuring ourselves that it still was safe to congregate with strangers in a crowd. A week after that, A (not her real initial) and I went for a walk and dinner in Watertown: a conscious attempt to reclaim the sleepy little town that became the site of Breaking News during the manhunt for the bombing suspects. And a few weeks after that, J and I visited the massive makeshift memorial at Copley Square: an act of purification in which we visited the very spot where people were killed and maimed, taking back Boylston Street as a peaceful place where remembrance happens.

This princess loves Boston

There was an increased and very visible police presence at today’s Marathon, which J and I watched from our usual vantage point between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. But this presence felt more reassuring than oppressive: the more eyes watching, the better. Given changes in official policies about what spectators could bring to the race route, I wondered whether families with small children would stay away from the race, uncertain whether strollers, wagons, picnic baskets, and coolers were allowed. I needn’t have worried, however, since families showed up with the normal accoutrements of a day at the Marathon, willing to submit those items to random searches but otherwise behaving no differently than they would any other year.

Three divas

If anything, there were more people lining the race route in Newton this year, not less. I think that others felt as J and I did: that showing up to the race today more than any other year represented a kind of civic duty. If we stop going to the Marathon—if we stop celebrating Patriots’ Day by holding a huge 26.2-long block party that happens to have a race running through it—then the terrorists will have won. Today wasn’t a day to cede victory to terror; today was a day to assert the fact that love, inclusion, and good neighborliness is stronger than any bomb.

2014 Boston Marathon

After spending a couple hours clapping and cheering ourselves hoarse between Miles 18 and 19, J and I headed home while even more spectators streamed toward the Marathon route, many of them wearing Boston Strong shirts and carrying an assortment of signs and noisemakers. J summed up my sentiments exactly as he watched the surge of happy, enthusiastic people and remarked, “I guess you lost, bomber guys.” On a beautifully sunny spring day in New England, how could the bad guys ever prevail?

Thank you for running

Click here for more photos of this year’s bright and sunny Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Don't disturb the daffodils

I confess: I’d begun to doubt the 100,000 Marathon Daffodils volunteers planted between Hopkinton and Boston as an emblem of hope and renewal after last year’s bombings would bloom in time for this year’s race. New England winters are brutal, and this past winter felt longer and colder than most. Although last weekend was warm, this week has been cold, and we don’t have any buds (much less blooms) on our backyard tulips and daffodils.

Imagine, then, my surprise and delight when I drove to the grocery store today and saw the following emblems of hope and renewal blooming along Commonwealth Avenue, just in time for Monday’s Marathon:

Marathon daffodils

Daffodils, it turns out, are stronger than I thought. For months, these bulbs lay sleeping, quietly waiting for the snow to melt and the days to lengthen. Even though today was cold enough for a jacket, hat, and gloves, apparently nothing can stop a daffodil with a deadline.

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