Scenic


Rowboats

Yesterday J and I had an errand to run in Jamaica Plain, so we took a leisurely stroll around Jamaica Pond, one of the jewels in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and although J and I have spent a lot of time exploring the Necklace’s easternmost jewels, I’d only been to Jamaica Pond once and J had never been there at all. We were, in other words, long overdue for a visit.

Pond with clouds

On Friday night, J and I had watched a PBS documentary about Olmsted’s work designing parks all over America. The documentary was an hour long, but we thought it should have been twice as long, given Olmsted’s incredible body of work. New York’s Central Park was the first landscape Olmsted designed, working in partnership with Calvert Vaux, and that project alone would have been enough to make most designers’ career. But the green gem Olmsted and Vaux set at the heart of Manhattan proved to be so popular, a long list of other cities hired Olmsted to design similar landscapes, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a system of parks in Buffalo, the Niagara Reservation in New York, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Yellow iris

Olmsted began work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace relatively late in his career, after he’d established a home and landscape architectural firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. The goal of the Emerald Necklace was to connect Boston’s existing Common and Public Garden with the sprawling woods of Franklin Park, and it involved transforming the Muddy River, a sluggish stream wending from Jamaica Pond through the saltmarsh of the Back Bay Fens, into a scenic waterway bordered by wooded trails.

Mallard silhouettes

Whereas Olmsted completely transformed the Back Bay Fens from a stagnant backwater to a scenic lagoon, he did relatively little to re-engineer Jamaica Pond. A glacial kettle hole that once supplied both drinking water and ice to local residents, Jamaica Pond didn’t need the sanitary improvements that the Back Bay Fens required. Instead, Olmsted’s engineering at Jamaica Pond primarily involved the planting of trees and the placing of paths. Today, a paved pedestrian pathway surrounds the pond, which attracts a steady stream of locals looking to walk, fish, row, or simply relax in the sun.

Rowboat and geese

When you stroll through Central Park, you’re interacting with an entirely manmade landscape: before Olmsted and Vaux got their hands on it, Central Park was a featureless wasteland filled with shanties and pigsties. Central Park’s underlying terrain—its hills, stone outcrops, and waterways—were all designed and then assembled from the ground up to provide an intentionally picturesque backdrop for soothing strolls. When you look at Central Park, you’re not looking at a natural landscape as much as a landscape painting: a picturesque scene, that is, that was intentionally composed.

Turtle with reflection

Jamaica Pond, on the other hand, is a natural jewel, but even the most precious gem looks better in a well-designed setting. More than a century’s worth of fishermen, dog-walkers, joggers, baby-strollers, and sun bathers have flocked to Jamaica Pond, but the pond and its environs still look natural and even pristine. As J and I walked, I marveled at how simultaneously well-used and tranquil the park seemed. On our entire circuit of the pond, J and I were never out of immediate earshot of other park-goers, and for most of the way we could hear and even see passing traffic on nearby roads. But despite these omnipresent reminders we were in a popular and even bustling park, the pond and paths felt quiet and serene, as if we were further away from civilization than we actually were.

Pedestrian path

A well-designed park doesn’t shy from aesthetic deception, and visitors to an urban park are happy to be deceived. About halfway around the pond, J noted that all the people we encountered automatically observed the cornerstone of urban protocol, quietly smiling or gently nodding at passersby but otherwise giving them no notice, allowing strangers the privacy of their own personal escapes. Whether you’re on a bike, on foot, in a boat, or on a bench, you won’t be alone at Jamaica Pond, but you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away. The park’s that way by design.

Kingsley Park overlook

On Thursday afternoon, Leslee and I walked at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, where I’d somehow never been. When I lived in Cambridge years ago, I didn’t have a car and thus relied on public transportation, my bike, and my own two feet to get around; daunted by the traffic that converges near Fresh Pond, I’d never ventured there, preferring to make the longer, less-hectic pilgrimage to Concord to visit Walden Pond when I was in the mood for shore-side contemplation.

Land, ice, water

There are many ways that Fresh Pond in Cambridge is unlike Walden in Concord. Fresh Pond is a reservoir providing drinking water for the city of Cambridge, so you can’t swim there in the summer, as you can at Walden. Fresh Pond sits next to a busy intersection across from a shopping mall, and the trail around it is paved, unlike the wooded trails at Walden. You can pay to park at Walden, although the lot regularly fills in the summer, when locals come to swim and tourists come to visit Henry David Thoreau’s house site, but if you don’t have a City of Cambridge parking decal, you can’t park at Fresh Pond any time of year. The thing that Fresh Pond and Walden have in common, however, is ice: not just the present-day ice Leslee and I saw (and heard) on our Fresh Pond walk, but a history of ice-harvesting.

Ice along shore

During our walk around Fresh Pond, Leslee and I saw a loon in drab winter plumage, two soaring red-tailed hawks, and a handful of scaups: I couldn’t tell with my bare eyes whether they were lesser or greater. We also heard the ice that remains after an unseasonable thaw chiming and knocking: chiming as bits of broken ice jingled in the water like rows of wine glasses tinkling in a rickety china cabinet and knocking as wind-blown waves hit the bottom of thin ice sheets near shore, the percussive sound amplified through melt-holes in the surface. In Walden, Thoreau observed how a frozen pond thumps like a drum when struck, and at Fresh Pond Leslee and I heard a partially thawed ice-drum struck from below by the watery slap of the pond itself: a wintery percussion section of ice drum, ice marimba, and ice chimes.

Ice shards

This ethereal ice-music is the kind of thing Thoreau himself would have been fascinated by: Fresh Pond’s own original composition. Ice groans and grunts when it breaks up in spring, and Thoreau describes the whooping and booming of Walden ice at various times of day as it warms and chills with the sun’s diurnal passing: “Who would have suspected,” he wrote, “so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?” These rhythmic sounds remind us, Thoreau suggested, that ponds are living, breathing things, with their own songs and calls as they molt from one watery plumage to another:

I also heard the whooping of the ice in the pond, my great bed-fellow in that part of Concord, as if it were restless in its bed and would fain turn over, were troubled with flatulency and had dreams.

Lone goldenrod

Leslee and I saw lots of dog-walkers at Fresh Pond—that is what the pond is most renowned for today, featuring prominently in both Caroline Knapp’s A Pack of Two, which celebrates the bond between humans and dogs, and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which commemorates Caldwell’s friendship with Knapp, including their many walks at Fresh Pond with their dogs. In Thoreau’s lifetime, however, Fresh Pond wasn’t a place to walk your dog; instead, it was renowned for its ice, as was Walden itself, both ponds growing a thick winter rind that icemen harvested and shipped to cities by the slab:

Southern customers objected to [Walden ice’s] blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.

Semi-frozen

Today, when we want to ice a beverage, we go no further than our refrigerator, but during Thoreau’s lifetime, northern ponds were the appliance that supplied massive blocks for city-dwellers and southerners, who had enormous cakes of ice shipped in to be stored in cellars and iceboxes:

Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation. They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever?

Ice along the edges

In the age of global warming, I doubt that either Fresh Pond or Walden freezes thick enough to yield the harvest Thoreau described, when “in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre.” On Thursday, most of Fresh Pond was open water, with only the frozen fringes singing an icy song. But after hearing the rhythm of wind-swept waves amplified through ice, I can easily imagine the tinkle of Fresh Pond ice cubes in 19th century tumblers, the sound of cool summer beverages echoing across the ages on a warm January day.

Click here for Leslee’s (illustrated) account of our afternoon walk around Fresh Pond. I shot several short videos of the wind-blown water and ice in an attempt to capture the chiming and knocking sounds. Although the sound quality is disappointing, you can check them out here and here and here.

Placid pond

On Saturday afternoon, I took a short walk from Hammond Pond in Chestnut Hill to Houghton Garden, which sits on the other side of the MBTA trolley tracks from the Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Conservation Area. On many occasions when J and I have taken the T into Boston, I’ve noticed people walking wooded paths near the D line, across the tracks from a marshy plot of conservation land. From my vantage point inside the speeding trolley car, I always wondered how those hikers got to where they were: where in suburban Newton are there wooded trails and wetlands right alongside the train tracks, and how do you get there from here? This weekend, I finally took the time to find out, parking my car near the Chestnut Hill Mall and walking through woods studded with outcroppings of Roxbury puddingstone to the park on the other side of the tracks.

Gnarly

Houghton Garden must be amazing in the spring because it’s brimming with rhododendron shrubs. Rhododendrons have evergreen leaves, so even now that most of the deciduous trees are bare, Houghton Garden is still a lush and leafy place, and it must be positively gorgeous when the rhododendrons are in full bloom. Houghton Garden was designed by landscape architect Warren Manning, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted who believed gardens should reflect the natural landscapes and native species of their location. Because Houghton Garden’s shrubs and other plantings follow the shape and contour of the surrounding terrain, I never realized from a passing trolley that the landscape I saw was a garden, not a patch of wild woods crisscrossed with trails. As a intentionally-designed “wild garden,” Houghton Garden blends into the larger landscape, looking like a natural outcropping of rhododendrons and other rock-loving plants rather than an artificially planted place.

Remnant

Houghton Garden isn’t large, but it’s designed in such a way that you can meander the trails there without constantly realizing you’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with trolley tracks on one side and suburban backyards on the other. The trails at Houghton Garden skirt the banks of Houghton’s Pond, which is a narrow and meandering body of water fed by Woodman and Hammond Brooks: a human-engineered widening of two streams. The trails at Houghton Garden remind me of a maze, where sometimes you have to take a long, winding way to get from Point A to Point B. While I was exploring the trails at Houghton Garden, I encountered a couple and a family who were also enjoying the mild weather, and the park never felt crowded even though there was nothing but a thin veil of rhododendron leaves between them on their trail and me on mine.

At one point when I was circling back to the well-marked train-track crossing, a D-line train went rattling by, and I wondered whether anyone sitting inside the trolley car looking out was wondering where I was, exactly, and how they might get here from there.

Goldenrod meadow

Autumn is when the trees turn to gold and the goldenrod goes gray.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Change of Season.

Stopping by woods...

On sunny autumn days, I remember how lucky I am to live in New England, a place some people only get to visit on vacation. This past weekend was Columbus Day, an excuse for Massachusetts residents–leaf peepers–to invade New Hampshire in search of foliage, but their annual pilgrimage is one I do twice a week, there and back.

New England asters

On my Tuesday commute, the road from Newton to Keene was fringed with color like a swaddling scarf. Mostly red and gold, these colors glowed as if illuminated from within. The air itself even looked golden: the sky pale blue and trailed with wispy clouds, with everything tinted with a yellow metallic glint that occurs only this time of year. These golden days are precious because they never last.

At one point as I steered my car along a gray ribbon of road wending between glowing trees, a crew of inmates in eye-smarting orange safety vests clustered along the berm, gathering litter into bright yellow bags. On the opposite side of the road, a stubbly brown farm field was liberally dotted with orange pumpkins. Driving from Newton to Keene on days like these is like unrolling an earth-toned panorama, but instead of looking at the scene, you’re in it, wondering if your own skin glows gold and electric.

I wrote this entry on Tuesday in one of my Creative Nonfiction classes, in response to the prompt “Morning Commute.” Many times I’ve wished I had a camera attached to the hood of my car, so I could show you what I see on my Tuesday and Thursday drives between Newton and Keene.

Tuesday was so lovely, I had to stop to snap at least one picture, taken in the parking area of the High Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Westminster, MA, which I pass every time I drive to Keene. Today, it’s pouring rain, making for a much gloomier commute.

Enjoying the view

It’s become something of an annual tradition. About once a year, J and I take the T to Revere Beach, where we have lunch then walk, people-watching and taking pictures while gulls and low-flying airplanes soar overhead. We’ve gone to Revere Beach in the off-season, and we’ve gone at the height of summer. This year, we timed our visit to coincide with the annual Sand Sculpting Festival, so there was plenty to look at.

Towering

I’m not much of a beach person: although J and I live about 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of times I’ve gone swimming there. But even if you’re not much of a swimmer or sun-bather, occasionally it’s fun to be near the shore, to watch the tides and hear the crying gulls. This weekend was hot and sunny, but with low humidity, so it was lovely to sit in a shady, open-air pavilion eating seafood–clams for J, scallops for me–within sight of the chairs, umbrellas, and volleyball nets other beach-goers had set up.

Beach bathers

I like beaches because they are probably the only place it’s socially acceptable to read, take a nap, or pretty much do nothing in public. (Perhaps that’s why you’ll occasionally find Buddhas there.) J and I love to walk, and beaches are perfect for that pastime, as you can stroll without worry of getting lost: walking for walking’s sake. Nobody asks you where you’re going or what you’re doing on a beach; you’re just free to soak in the sights, smells, and sounds while the waters of the world ebb and surge at your feet.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Seashore. Click here for more photos from our outing, including images from this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival. Enjoy!

Fall foliage with contrails

When you spend your weekdays in New Hampshire, you don’t have to drive for miles to see beautiful fall scenery; you just have to wake up and walk the dog.

Click here for the rest of my photos from yesterday’s morning dog-walk at Goose Pond. Enjoy!

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