I got up early today to take the dog for a walk. She needs at least two solid hours of exercise a day. We can carve out about ninety minutes in the morning of we are careful. Earliest is best. That way we get ahead of the casual dog walkers; the ones to get tired quickly and let their pets off to roam and poop in the woods. With a puppy--or any energetic dog--it is good to be away from the folks who flaunt the leash laws. It is no fun negotiating an encounter with another dog whose owner's only aid is to say things like, "I don't know what has gotten into her..."
Anyway, it was raining a bit today, which also kept the numbers down. It is good for the dog to get comfortable with the wet weather. It is also nice to be able to grab some silent moments in this cluster of trees surrounded by suburbia. The second day in Advent, it turns out, started well with a stroll along the Charles.
I have written about the Charles River before. In fact, it has its own category. These days we also use the Algonquian name, Quinobequin. By either name it looms large in the literature of the area. The funny thing is that it doesn't really get that big until near the end, when it nears the very end outside Boston. Here in Metrowest it is slow, narrow, and marshy. It is a great place for birds. These days I can hear the geese calling to each other, with their wings pounding and whistling as they are started by a fox or--more likely--someone else's dog on the opposite bank.
In any case it is a good way to begin the first Advent workweek of 2023. It still feels like fall and will for a while. Given the state of the environment it may always feel like that now. My family is posting pictures of snow up in Maine but everywhere is warmer and it feels strange. That said, with some effort--and the sacrifice of 30 minutes of sleep--we got some quiet in a chaotic world. The big bang of church is behind us for a time. Now the still small voice.
I leave you with this video of our congregation participating in the "Sanctuary Lighting" yesterday morning. Every year we take the readings we will use for Advent, pick six of them to listen for, and then read them together on the first Sunday. Half are biblical and half are not. It was chaotic but we are enjoying ourselves....
I commenced the second day of Christmas by discovering the Latin and colloquial names of my houseplants. Then I made coffee. Then I went for a walk. On my walk I started to make a plan for surviving the next two months. As you may have gathered from my previous post, I am not at my best in winter. I must find ways to move from one thing to another, to another...
There is no reason to delve too deeply into all that again. It is just a fact of life that requires a certain amount of organization. Organization, however, is something I am very bad at. So I have some time between now and Epiphany to figure out an approach. No doubt it will involve being out in nature. There will be hikes, of course. Also, my Christmas gift to myself was a stack of gardening books so I can solidify my gains from last year. I have a tab open with tomato seeds! For part of the season I will be working at a job I usually enjoy. Then--for a little while at the end when I am most despairing--I will be on sabbatical.
So much of this time can feel restrictive. Hibernation-brain is right there picking away at our resolve. The trick is not to keep busy for busy-sake but to find ways to be excited about...something, even though it might take a herculean effort to get going.
One of the the things I will try to do is make some "top" lists for the new year that I can share with you. It is actually a big help for me and, maybe, you will enjoy it too. The ranking lists for blog posts and such is canonically around "Mount Roberts Day" when I began this project. These ones are more specific to the background of the project. To start, here are the six (6) most influential books I used this year for planning hikes and walks or planning for planning...if that makes sense. Some are trail guides. Some are practical, and one is historical. They have all been consulted before, after, and during hikes. Some of them are quite beaten up now as they have lived for a time in my backpack. I will hopefully deal with more speculative books and maybe even equipment in later lists....
1) New Hampshire's 52 With A View: A Hiker's Guide by Ken MacGray.
Ok so I have talked about the New Hampshire and New England "Hiking Lists". They exist elsewhere of course, but I don't so these are the ones I know best. My favorite list is the "52WAV". They range from relatively easy--you do have to be in shape--to rather brutal. Each one, though, comes with a view. The list is subjective. It is curated by a committee and so far their taste in views has been spot on.
Ken MacGray is a bit of an insitution. He has worked on a number of other hiking books and runs the Facebook page for the 52 group. His prose is accessible and clear while also being entertaining. Even though I have climbed more 4,000 footers in New Hampshire--the 52's are a bit of a me project right now and I like to hike with people--this is my favorite book and my favorite list. Five stars, buy it. Start with Willard.
2) Climbing New Hampshire's 48 4,000 Footers by Eli Burakian.
Actually there are more that 48 4,000 foot mountains in New Hampshire so--while the 48'ers like to pretend at objectivity--this list is subjective, too. This is the basic book for the task of hiking all those mountains. It contains suggested routes and maps. Maps are a plus, by the way. MacGray's book assumes you have separate maps on you--and you should--but it is nice to have these as well. I have used the routes in the book when planning. Most of the time I have taken the exact route. At other times I have modified my route using another book--in the honorable mentions--and/or those maps. The text is brief and to the point, which I like.
3) Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Winter Hiking by Yemaya Maurer and Lucas St. Clair.
I am in the process of re-reading this book right now. There is a great deal of difference between hiking in winter and hiking the rest of the year. It is imperative that we know at least the basics of what we are doing. I do not camp in winter, but those sections are good to be familiar with as well just in case you find yourself having to be out overnight. The presence of roads into the wilderness sometimes confuses us as to how at risk we are. Just because we can reach the foot of Presidentials in a couple hours does not mean we are strolling on the local rail trail.
This book covers the basics that one needs to know to be relatively safe and comfortable in the ice, snow, and dangerously low temperatures. There is some practical philosophy as well. I found the description and use of equipment, tips on reading the weather, and the basics of layering to be the most useful. The authors make you feel like you are part of a team, namely a team of prepared and educated winter hikers.
4) In High Places with Henry David Thoreau by John Gibson
This is the history book I was telling you about. It also has routes and maps! I am a big fan of Thoreau's writing--he will appear on a different list--and when I have managed to walk in his footsteps I have found this book to be indispensable. However, this is not a general book. The mountains picked are rather niche, thanks to the subject matter. Thoreau--who walked a great deal--needed to have spent some time writing about them in order for them to be included here. However, my readers will note the Thoreau-heavy blog posts for Katahdin, Washington, and Wachusett. I gotta get back out to Greylock, and when I do...this book is coming with me.
5) 50 Hikes in Massachusetts by Brian White and John Brady
Yes, there are hikes right here in the Commonwealth. When I feel like heading out but do not know where to go exactly, this is the book I take. I used it as recently as Thursday when I went to Leominster State Forest. Pretty much any hike in Massachusetts I have taken has been planned using this. It has maps but I often diverge a bit. This has nothing to do with their quality! It has more to do with my confidence with lower elevation hiking. I do, however, plan those alternate routes in advance as well...and I have detailed maps. Spontaneity isn't always a good idea in the wild.
Another great thing about this book is that it has many easier hikes. This, alone makes it worth having. Hiking doesn't have to be a toxic race to the highest, most dangerous peak. That is not very sabbath, after all...
6) Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region by the National Audubon Society
I picked this up out of envy. My brother Dan--who features largely in many of my posts--is a wildlife biologist. Hiking with him is a hobbit-like excursion where I follow him around as he identifies birds by their song, animals by their poop, and plants by their leaves, needles, bark, and roots. I wanted to get in to the game myself. What a great way to enhance one's dialogue with nature!
Anyway, I love this book. It takes a while to figure it out because it relies on the reader knowing at least the basics off what they are looking at. That said, I have enjoyed it during my sabbath breaks on smaller mountains. If you know anything from my various posts, sermons, and so on, you know that it is that it is OK to enjoy something you aren't good at. Also, I think it is helping me get better....
Here are two more that are deserving of note. The first is The 4,000 Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History by Steven Smith and Mike Dickerman. This thing is the Bible of the 48'ers. My wife swears by it. When I go off the suggested trail in the Burakian book, I always consult this. It only gets an honorable mention because I don't seem to use it as much. It is dense. There are no helpful maps. However, it has one big advantage that the other book does not; there is a winter description for each mountain. Had I consulted it before hiking Mount Jackson, I might have been more prepared for the icy ledge and the high winds that greeted me.
Finally, I wanted to mention the thin book entitled "Guide to the Wapack Trail" by the Friends of the Wapack. I have mentioned this trail before. It begins on Mount Watatic and runs to the Pack Monadnocks straight through some of my favorite landscape in the world. It is a long day hike--21 miles--or can be done in pieces. I would love to take a day and do it this year...
Anyway, that is all for now. You got me through my morning! I hope your Christmas is going well... :-)
I was out in my garden this morning harvesting potatoes and then planting squash and peppers in their place. They are an experiment. Everything is an experiment these days. While I hope they grow and create food for my labor I do not expect it. I do it because I like being outside, even in this heat, taking part in the ecosystem around me. Its not like a hiking trip at all. However, in the midst of the constant sound and presence of cars, lawnmowers, walkers, and leaf blowers there is some nature to be had. It is in the garden and under the trees where the landscaper doesn't go. Sometimes, it is in the sound of the river that runs just across the street.
The Charles River (called the "Quinobequin" in Algonquin) here in Natick is a catalyst for argument these days. You see, there is the issue of the dam (an earthen barrier referred to more often as a park) and the spillway (a concrete barrier colloquially referred to as a dam). Regulators say that something must be done. It is unsafe as it is and the solution comes down to repair of the spillway--which would require removing all the trees (and therefore the ecosystem) in the park--or removal of the spillway (which would mean restoring the flow of the river and lowering the water level above it as well as taking away our tiny waterfall).
Emotions are high. It will be a change either way and people are rarely comfortable with change. I feel it too. I know that--after the better part of two decades living here--whatever will happen will feel a little bit like a loss to me. I have raised my children by the river. We have paddled as far as we could manage both upstream and down. I walk past it many times each day and wave to the people I know enjoying their coffee and watching the water go by. I have sat by the spillway with family, friends, and congregants having some fairly momentous conversations. I have made observations concerning the local flora and fauna here in the weblog. I will miss the way it is now and am grieving what is to come.
I have friends on both sides of this debate--repair v. removal--and I understand why people feel so strongly about this issue. We are talking about our home and our homes. However, things have gotten heated in some quarters in ways that reflect the current political landscape. No doubt they will continue to be. On the social networks (which I am not fond of but have to use) it seems that we cannot help but slide a bit from finding our way together into devaluing the opinions of others. There is lots of snark these days. There are arguments about whose opinion "matters most."
Just like on the national stage each side even has a different language for the discussion. I will tell you my opinion, but fellow Natickites already know it because I used the word "spillway" instead of "dam" to describe...um...well...the spillway.
I have recently noticed that most (but not all) of my neighbors have put up signs in favor of maintaining the spillway in South Natick. This does not surprise me. I will not hazard specific reasons because they can speak for themselves. It is a nice spot and--as I described above--part of a profound set of memories and connections for all of us who live on its banks. That said, I cannot agree with them. I am in favor of keeping the trees in the park and removing the spillway.
There are reasons for my position and, again, if you live here you probably already know what they are; Removal of the spillway would increase biodiversity, expanding the range of a number of species. This is something I believe in strongly. Heck, I have an ecology blog. Also, restoring the river has been a priority for the local Nipmuc people for a long time. After all we have done to Native Americans in this country, removing a spillway that serves no clear purpose seems literally like the least we could do. Finally, removal and restoration is the most cost-effective choice. This town is growing and will be for some time. Our needs are growing too. I would like the money to be put elsewhere in support of this community.
There is also another concern. Maybe it is a personal one but I will share it anyway. When I decided to become a minister (I was 19) I decided also to walk a path of faith as I see it. Seminary, fellowship, and ordination reinforced that decision. My theology has changed but my walk has not. Part of that walk is doing what you think is the right thing to do. I fail plenty of times. I am a pastor not a saint. That said, When faced with as clear a decision as this--where the ecological, cultural, and economic impact point in one direction--I cannot go back on that walk because right now it might feel inconvenient to me. I believe the world isn't about me. It is about the "Great Whatever." It is about living in harmony with nature and with each other. It is about taking the time to set aside my own ego to work for restoration of rivers and, frankly, of many other things. I have to stand on principle, even if I don't know exactly what will happen next.
Of course, another part of the walk of faith is understanding that change--the very thing that makes us anxious--does, in fact come. We cannot stop it. There will be change either way. Things will not be the same. Both paths can lead us to wonder what it will be like in our neighborhood in a few years. However, I have spent a great deal of time on and beside rivers without dams and honestly they are pretty, too. I expect that--no matter if the spillway is there or not--people will still be called down the banks of the Quinobequin with our coffee and our thoughts for a very long time.
This post is already too long. I am going to stop now and just leave you with some links to more information that might help if you are interested in either my reasoning or the specific issue here in town.
First, my ecological theology is in development. However, I have posted a three-part "curriculum" that I wrote here at the Walks Blog;
Environmental Literacy In Creation I
Environmental Literacy in Creation II
Environmental Literacy in Creation III
Also here is the link to the FAQ page from the town government. It is regularly updated as we learn more about the project and its impact and is worth looking at. Generally the evidence here--written by engineers and scientists with expertise in dams and their removal--supports spillway removal. So...
Here is the webpage of Save Natick Dam
Finally one version of a psalm I wrote for the river as the first thing I posted here.
As some of you know from an earlier post, one of the things I am doing to connect with nature is spending time on the river across the street from my house. The plan is the engage in close observation. This project brought me into closer-than-usual contact with skunk cabbage.
I watched Symplocarpus Foetidus over the course of a couple weeks. It was always on the list because–it being early spring–there were few plants available along the banks of the Charles River where I live outside of Boston. The most prolific early grower in my area of observation, in fact, was the “burning bush” (Euonymus Alatus) an invasive that is now illegal to sell in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of the tenacious hold it has on the local environment. It came here as an ornamental for lawns and "gardens". Other landscaping staples like Rhododendron can be found along the banks as well. Some migrated, no doubt, and others were planted.
Skunk cabbage, on the other hand, is indigenous to this part of the world. Perhaps ironically, part of my interest comes from the fact that it, too, has been banned or regulated in parts of Great Britain. Apparently context is everything with invasive species. They are survivors, which also attracted me. These days--much of the time--I and the people I know are thinking hard about survival. Economic crises, plagues, and war seem closer to us than they were before. Our human ecology is frayed and fraying. Taking the boat out to visit a species resisting the incursion of civilization is restful, even inspiring in ways.
Henry David Thoreau recognized this in his own observations. Writing in his journal on October 31, 1857, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.”
Along the river–even when the invasive burning bush is just beginning to awaken–the skunk cabbage is already well established. If the observer is in the right mood, it can be remarkable to look at. Its broad green leaves and alien flower evoke the times of the far past or far future. Its smell--designed to attract pollinators--is more rude than off-putting.
Unlike most plants, the skunk cabbage is “thermogenic”, meaning it generates its own heat. This keeps much of the frost at bay, allowing it to establish itself in the wet areas of its habitat by spreading roots out and down for the majority of the year. This aspect–possibly more than its famous smell of rotting meat–is a key element to the survival of its habitat along riverbanks and other areas susceptible to erosion. My own observations, of course, did not cover its fall transformation, when the old leaves die off to reveal Thoreau’s “spears” underneath. However, I was able to see some of the benefits this provides the landscape.
The approach for my observations--as I noted earlier--included regular trips by canoe or kayak out on the Charles to see how the cabbage and the ecosystem itself is doing in the human-dominated suburban community where I live. The role of the cabbage–particularly during this early spring part of the year, is a key element. It is easy to miss in many ways, but if one knows what to look for, the situation is quite clear.
The Charles River (Its Algonquin name is “Quinobequin”) is a narrow, meandering body of water as it passes through Natick, MA where these observations occurred. On each side of the river at its widest points are large marshy areas that are home to a larger percentage of the wildlife that makes the Charles home. The tall grasses and brush rising out of these banks provides protection to at least two species of turtle as well as nesting areas for Blue Herons, Canadian (and feral) Geese, 3 observed species of duck, a mating pair of swans, amphibians in their various stages, and fish. There are also insects and songbirds in abundance.
During this time of year the grasses have yet to recover from their winter. The wildlife conceals itself within the gray, dried remains of last year. The lone green–with its complex root system–belongs to the skunk cabbage.
I was careful when taking the above picture not to disturb any of the geese who were nesting in my proximity. However, it shows the very edge of the largest of these marshes which, in addition to providing habitat for wildlife, also are responsible for flood prevention, absorbing a large portion of the excess water we experience in March and April. The limited number of green grasses that can be seen around the base of the cabbage may actually be benefiting from the warmth of the cabbage itself. It is not unusual in the spring and fall for them to heat the ground enough to eliminate the frost layer nearest their roots, giving other species a head start as well.
Just visible in the picture above is a large, white house. The Charles is not in a wild and remote place. Over 900,000 people live in its watershed. Even more commute into the area daily for work or other activities. This means the ecosystem must contend with air, water, light and noise pollution on a regular basis. There are human-made structures that disturb the flow of the river and the ability of plants to take root. There is toxic runoff from the street above. Those invasives abound. The invasive plants are mostly from a couple of centuries of home and public landscaping projects. Some invasive animals–like the red-eared slider turtle–are descendents of pets and were later released into the river when their novelty wore off. Others--like the rat--are opportunists. Some of these species play nice with the environment. Others do not.
The skunk cabbage functions as part of the team of species keeping the river habitat together and is frequently able to make headway in places other species cannot. At the top of the first picture, in fact, one can see the barricade that indicates the presence of a major commuting road into Boston. Twice a day it is clogged with cars and trucks going to and from the city. However, just below, in the mud that has gathered around the foundations of that road are the skunk cabbages, helping to absorb sound, clean the water, and provide safe haven for the rest of the river community. They are hard to kill and impossible to remove, which is a problem in Britain. However, it is ideal for life on the Quinobequin, where it has always made its home.
Yes... I know that this is the non-church blog. Still, this is more about nature and spirituality than anything else and that is really what this is about. I am taking a course/workshop online about ecojustice and ecological literacy for religious leaders. We had an assignment to write a "psalm of praise" for our local social ecosystem. The "praise" part hung me up a bit because humans--even well-meaning ones--make quite a negative impact on the environment wherever they live...and that is pretty much anywhere.
But this is what I came up with after taking the kayak out on the Charles River (Quinobequin in Algonquin). I could praise the river and the life it supports, and the people who are fighting to restore and protect it...
April on The Charles: A Psalm of Praise
by: Adam Tierney-Eliot
Praise God for the awakening of creation
In the In the temperate biomes of New England
In the Inland marshes and deciduous forests of Massachusetts
In the fertile valley of the meandering Quinobequin
Praise God in all the miraculous wonder
That emanates from its waters
From the kin-dom of animals;
Both sliders and painters
Rolling off the logs at another's approach
The rustling on the banks of new life;
Of Rodents and their predatory foxes
finding their place by the water
The swans on their nest,
The geese (mostly Canadian),
And mallards on the river current
Searching for insects darting under the surface
And in the air;
The red-tailed Hawk,
The Herons hidden away
Waiting for their fish,
And the frantic flight of the red-winged black bird
Reveling in the new growth
Of new buds and insects on the old decomposing logs
Praise God for the kin-dom of plants, too;
Growing river grasses pushing up amid the spindly burning bushes
on the wet, spongy soil
Too new to know their names
And the first buds on the pines, the maples,
The native skunk cabbage
That thrives early on Quinobequin’s banks
All these many organisms and more
Diverse yet overlapping helping, feeding, being fed upon
Native, non-native, and invaders
In a constant cycle of life, death, and new life
Each organism reaching out to others
Both hostile and hospitable
Praise the power of life and wildness
To flourish in the cramped confines
Of human sprawl
And praise the river-keepers
Working for its return
Walking onward toward reconnection
To the ecosystem no living thing can escape
Praise God for the power of creation
From the small local habitats
To the grand biomes
That ebb and flow
According to the shifting
Of temperature, water, light, heat and cold
God’s creation is beautiful in its complexity
And its interconnection
Beautiful Creation in its complexity
We are connected and interconnected
Praise for all God’s people
Praise all God's beings
Who also praise and act
And bring us closer
To the divine universal interconnection
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.