John Hanson Mitchell
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Forever Common
Winter 2007-2008
The Ridge Watch
Fall 2007
Landscape Without Turtle
Summer 2007
How the Common Came to Pass
Winter 2006-2007
Archeology of the Garden
Fall 2006
Field Sketches
Summer 2006
Of Floods and Folklore
Spring 2006
Night Life
Winter 2005-2006
Chasing the Chat
Summer 2005
The Yard Watch
Spring 2005
The Clove
Winter 2004-2005
A Short Walk through the Shawmut
Fall 2004
Pasta la Vespa
Summer 2004
El Lobo
Spring 2004
The Forest Primeval
Winter 2003-2004
The Flight of the Wren
Fall 2003
Night of the Falling Stars
Summer 2003
The Breakup
Spring 2003
A Short Walk through the Shawmut
Fall 2004

On an otherwise unremarkable day last September, I got it in mind to undertake a short walk around the original Shawmut Peninsula to see if I could circumambulate the city of Boston by following wherever possible the extant or recreated green spaces that once characterized this little spit of granite-based upland. Suffice to say that this venture, as I knew it would be, was doomed from the start, and in the end I was forced onto city streets, exposed to dangerous traffic, and ultimately had to take a taxi to complete the circuit. But never mind. Armed solely with innocent ambition, a sketchbook, and a pen, I set out.

My little walkabout at least had an auspicious beginning. In a reversal of the epic journey of discovery of the classical hero, I struggled upward through a labyrinth of dark tunnels, emerged from the Underworld at the Park Street subway station, and burst into the upper airs of John Winthrop’s celestial City on a Hill. Here, under bright morning skies, I began my walk in the very place where, in a sense, the whole story of Boston began—on the original cow common. It was on Beacon Hill that the misanthropic Anglican clergyman William Blackstone, the first permanent European resident of the Shawmut Peninsula, settled in 1625.

Blackstone was a slightly eccentric character, the first of many who would later inhabit this place. He lived alone in his English thatched cottage, with his cow, his herd of pigs, a vegetable garden, and, in another enduring characteristic of the site, a library of more than 150 books. Five years later the Arbella landed with a company of Puritan settlers under the leadership of John Winthrop and, at Blackstone’s invitation, settled on the peninsula and renamed the place Boston.

For the first 15, 000 years of its existence, the tadpole-shaped strip of land that became Boston was characterized by sharp little hills—Copp’s Hill, Fort Hill, Dorchester Heights, Milton Hill, and, of course, Beacon Hill, the largest of them all. But unlike Blackstone, who chose to live with nature, rather than contrary to it, the Puritans began to remake the place shortly after they landed. They cleared the forests of oak and hickory that once supported Blackstone’s herd of swine. They constructed lanes, then streets, then a “Great Highwaye to Roxberre.” They built docks, ferry landings, windmills, meetinghouses, and when they were finished with that they leveled the hills and used the fill to widen the tail of the tadpole that once connected the peninsula to the mainland to create more dry land. In effect, John Winthrop and company began a process of leveling and filling, and digging and delving that is still going on in our time. Not surprisingly, Blackstone decamped for the wilds of Rhode Island shortly after the work began.

Things on the common are much improved since the 1640s. Under the management of the Puritans, the area was originally a treeless, barren plot, much overgrazed by cows and used for military training. But the Puritan descendants, having established themselves comfortably on the peninsula, banished the cows in 1830 and replanted the parade grounds with elms, oaks, maples, hickories, and other native trees—some of which are still surviving. From the summit of the hill, I could see this ironic wooded landscape, the wall of city buildings rising beyond. A few late-arriving commuters hurried along below me; there were many nannies and mothers out with their charges, some proudly pushing their own baby carriages, and many sojourners headed southward for the Frog Pond, the Boston Public Garden, and the Swan Boats—not to mention the Make Way for Ducklings statues. In some ways, this green heart of the city, with its trees, ponds, fountains, and public statuary became the defining characteristic of the Boston mind. It used to be said that the extent of a Bostonian’s worldview was limited to fifty acres—the size of the original common.

Even before I began my circuit, my plan went awry. Rather than make my way along the green allée of Commonwealth Avenue, I decided to take a little detour along the linear parklands of another defining characteristic of this coastal town, the great artery that is the River Charles. This meant that I was forced to weave through the warren of old streets on the back side of Beacon Hill, with hardly a tree in sight, and then cross over the deadly highway known as Storrow Drive to the Esplanade.

Like most urban rivers, the Charles went into a sad decline with the advent of the industrial revolution. It was originally a narrow winding stream that curved in and around the cities of Cambridge and Boston, with wide tidal flats on either side that provided a nutrient-rich environment for uncounted numbers of shellfish, sandworms, and migratory fish such as shad and alewives, and in the lower reaches, oysters and mussels and huge twenty-five-pound lobsters that, in better times, the resident bears would snatch from between the rocks. Even into the nineteenth century, early photographs of the tidal flats, taken at low tide, reveal clam diggers bent over the glistening banks. Generally though, by the 1850s, with the expanded population, what had been a valued resource became a plague. The flats had accumulated so much sewage and offal from the housing and slaughterhouses and fisheries that lined its banks that it had become a stinking quagmire that infected the city twice a day at low tide.

As the end of the century approached, many public officials and private citizens began to lobby to have the river and its banks transformed into an environment that would contribute more to the fitness and pleasure of the population, rather than serve as a health hazard. One of the prime movers in this effort was Charles Eliot, who worked for the firm of Fredrick Law Olmsted and was of the belief that all those who value natural beauty should band together to preserve something of the native environment for the people of the city.

The result—with some adjustments—was a linear “water park,” an open green space with promenades and greenswards that extended for nine miles along both banks of the river. In order to halt the natural flow of the tides and keep the stinking flats permanently drowned, a dam was constructed near the mouth of the river at the base of Beacon Hill in 1910, and by 1930, thanks to a generous donation from Helen Osborne Storrow, the widow of one of the major backers of the project, James Jackson Storrow, the park was finally completed.

I suppose if I were to follow the metaphor of the hero’s quest on this little venture, I would have crossed the dark river at some point and made my way over to the mythic Isle of the Dead, the famed Mount Auburn Cemetery. But I had an intentional circuit of Boston in mind this day, and so, once more deserting the shelter of trees, I crossed instead the river of traffic at the Mass. Avenue Bridge and worked my way up through the hellish overpasses of Charlesgate to the Muddy River and the Back Bay Fens.

The original Charles River Park has been termed Boston’s “Central Park” by urban watchers. Highways notwithstanding, it is still considered one of the major public green spaces of any city in the United States. But it is rivaled by Olmsted’s ambitious ring of green known as the Emerald Necklace. The riverside section of Olmsted’s chain of parks once offered a pleasant gateway to the parks at the confluence of the Muddy River with the Charles, but in the fifties and sixties the entire concept of pedestrian flow between the city center and the riverbank was destroyed. In her will, Helen Osborne Storrow had specifically granted the funds to complete the riverside park on the condition that no road ever be constructed through the greenway; but, after her death, the auto-maniacal city father’s saw fit instead to construct a highway anyway, and as if to add insult to injury named the road Storrow Drive. Further damage was accomplished in 1966 with the construction of the Bowker Overpass down the middle of the Charlesgate.

The idea for a rural park for the city began just after the Civil War, in the bright years of city planning in the United States and England. There was an emerging social conscience in these decades that held that the one great benefit for the struggling working classes, trapped as they were in their squalid tenements, was access to space, air, and light. Although he didn’t think of it that way, Olmsted’s intention with his Emerald Necklace was to reverse the clearances started by the Puritans and bring the countryside back to the city. He proposed a continuous seven-mile park that would begin at the common and public gardens and then flow down Commonwealth Avenue along a tree-lined esplanade to the Back Bay Fens. From here it would follow the course of the Muddy River, upstream through marshes of the Fens to Jamaica Pond and along a strip known as the Arborway, on to the Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park, and thence on to end at another park and promenade out to Castle Island where the tired workers could stroll on a Sunday afternoon and benefit from the salutary effects of sea breezes.

It took decades of political maneuvering to establish the Emerald Necklace and complete the construction; but now, after a hundred growing seasons, we have become the beneficiaries. There are sections in this system, mainly in the Arnold Arboretum, with its diverse collection of herbaceous plants, trees, and shrubs, where, with a little imagination, you might think for a minute that you have somehow been transported to the shadowed glens of the European countryside. The deception is intentional, of course, and the fact that it works is a credit to the designers.

In some ways, the Arnold Arboretum with is 4,500 trees and shrubs, its rolling vistas, and its world-renowned botanical collections are the crowning glory of Olmsted’s ring of green. His hand is very much apparent here in the three miles of curving, landscaped roads, pathways, and the open vistas across to the groupings of azaleas, some 250 varieties of lilacs, as well as a rich collection of flowering trees. In fact, Olmsted was so enthusiastic about the project that he designed the arboretum for no fee. Neither Olmsted, nor Eliot, nor Charles Sprague Sargent, the prime mover of the idea for the creation of an arboretum for the city, lived long enough to experience the full florescence of this urban haven, but all their trees are fully mature now and flourishing. The rare and elusive Franklinias were in bloom when I was there, along with the sweet autumn clematis, hibiscus, and cascades of drooping hydrangeas, just assuming their warm pinkish glow.

Not to advance the metaphor of the classical hero’s journey into Judeo-Christian mythology, but just east of the Eden of the arboretum I was cast into the wilderness of Franklin Park—quite literally. One of the wildest spots in Boston can be found in Franklin Park in the wide, semiwild area that Olmsted aptly named “The Wilderness,” an eighty-acre section of native oaks and hickories and shaded dells of hemlock. Olmsted’s goal here was to leave a representative model of the primal landscape of the Shawmut Peninsula that William Blackstone and the first Puritan settlers would have known. In fact, the idea worked better than the planners expected. Each spring and fall this landscape of trees and shrubs—interwoven with meadows, community gardens, ponds and fresh streams, and freshwater marshes in the midst of an urban setting—attracts to its thickets and pools any number of resident birds, as well as flocks of migratory land birds. But this green archipelago, flowing through a desolate concrete sea, also harbors wildlife long banished from the peninsula such as turkeys, raccoons, snakes, red foxes, and even coyotes and possums—which would not have been here in Blackstone’s time. Moose have almost made it into Boston, and, out in the greening suburbs just beyond the limits of the old peninsula, bears have come tantalizingly close.

In all the mythic journeys of history, the hero sets out on a quest to discover some treasure, endures hardships and trials along the route, and passes through tempting landscapes that lure him to rest and give up his quest. The real heroes forge on against all odds to gain a boon, which they then carry back to the real world. My little walk was, as I say, a reversal of this traditional rite of passage, but that is not to say I did not meet with hardships.

Olmsted’s grand design for a ring of green around the central city never reached the shores of the harbor. As a result, in my quest for the sea, I was quite abruptly thrown out of the wilderness of Franklin Park into the busy streets of Jamaica Plain. At this point I realized I probably would not complete my circuit before dark, so I began to look for public transportation to carry me over to the coast. But out in the real world of streets beyond the parklands, things began to go downhill. Within the first five minutes, two cars, apparently in pursuit of a third, came wheeling around an intersection against a red light and nearly killed me. A few blocks farther along, a shambling giant with matted blond hair and much plied with drink stumbled into my path and began apologizing with such enthusiasm that I feared he would fall on his knees and attempt to kiss my hand. I withdrew, and began to make my way onward, but, as is so often the case with the hero, I was totally lost by this time and had to ask directions from the natives, none of whom knew any way to get to Olmsted’s park at Castle Island except by private car. Finally, an elderly gentleman with a porkpie hat and a cane took my arm and guided me to a place where, he claimed with almost mystical clairvoyance, a taxi would soon arrive. Within minutes, it appeared, and I was on my way to my final destination.

In 1846 Olmsted and the Boston Parks Commission began to develop a harborside green space at the site of the old Fort Independence. The idea was that the area would someday be connected to Franklin Park by a series of smaller, linking greenways. Although slightly altered from Olmsted’s original plans for the harborside park, the project was ultimately completed, and a footbridge and causeway now connect Castle Island with the mainland. As Olmsted had hoped, the old fort and its grounds have become a favorite walking place for those dwellers of the hemmed streets of the inner city. And it was here, as the sun began to sink below the city, that I reached the end of my journey. I sat against an embankment and watched the harbor lights slowly illuminate, one by one.

Out beyond the ramparts, in the wide harbor, I could see the scattering of island drumlins left by the glacier, the original architect of the place that is Boston.

I was coming back from these islands on another September day a few years ago when I saw, in the offing, what appeared to be a fifteenth-century caravel plugging along under full sail with the clifflike towers of the Boston city skyline rising in the background and low-flying jets roaring overhead. It turned out to be a replica of John Cabot’s brave little vessel the Matthew on her way home to Bristol from a trans-Atlantic passage undertaken to celebrate the five hundreth anniversary of Cabot’s exploration of the New England coast.

On a subsequent voyage, Cabot’s son, Sebastian, landed somewhere along these shores and described a rich land of fruiting trees and berry bushes, an account filled out in later years by imaginative chroniclers who also put in here. The tight little island that would become Boston was alive with strawberries, whortleberries, larch, birch, witch hazel, as well as pine, spruce, beech, oaks, and elms. There were wild turkeys, martens, strange animals with flattened tails called beavers, and other marvelous creatures, including the “strong-armed beare, large-limmed Mooses, and the tripping Deere” to quote one source. (Never mind that these early explorers also encountered here the Kingly Lyon and Tritons and peppered their maps with images of sea serpents and mermaids.) Captain John Smith, who anchored in the harbor in 1614, looking over the green shelter of the islands, the low hills of the mainland, the rich of coastal meadows, and the rising continent beyond, thought the place was an Eden of sorts, “The Paradise of all these parts.”

No one would make such claims for the Shawmut Peninsula in our time. But with a little judicious tinkering of the sort that began with the visionary concepts of Olmsted and Eliot there is no reason we should not give it a try.


© 2011 John Hanson Mitchell
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