Conservation Land Feed

Looking for a Sunset Bird while Snowshoeing

Each time I ratchet my snowshoe straps tight and take my first step, I'm amazed at how ridiculous I feel.  There is no way I can take a walk like this, I think to myself and consider taking the snowshoes right off and making a break for the closest clean sidewalk.  Of course, if getting snowshoes on just right (toe properly positioned, back strap not flapping like an injured bird) is a challenge, taking them off has been known to make me swear.   So I take a deep breath and start my walk.  

Setting out 010414

I play around with my poles.  Am I gripping them the right way?  Do I even need them on this terrain?  I take a few steps holding the poles like a closed umbrella.  If I'm going to carry them anyway I may as well be using them I decide, so they return to their in-use position.   A cross-country skier slips past on my left and I feel as athletic as Big Bird.  A family up ahead lets their dog off its leash and it takes off running across the snow. The dog jumps, circles, races after invisible prey, rolls in the snow only to race off again.  I'm jealous...of a dog.  I'm not sure which feels worse, the jealousy or knowing how ridiculous it is.  

I walk a bit more, noticing the engagement of unfamiliar muscles. My mouth opens to get more air.  My cheeks feel hot.   I stop to take off my mittens and look around.  



What's wrong with me? I wonder, and this time it's not because I feel awkward and frustrated.  No, this time it's because I've been trying so hard to walk at my normal speed, and have been so busy criticizing myself that I haven't noticed where I am.  It's January in New England.  I'm in the center of a glittering field, surrounded by forests and farm houses, brilliant blue stretching into eternity overhead and crisp air in my lungs.  Who cares how fast I go?  These snowshoes that slow me down, also make it possible for me to be here.  

I walk on, across the field and into the silence of the forest beyond.  A tiny gray bird with stripe of bright yellow on his head flits from branch to branch.  I've never seen one before, whatever it is.  Smiling, I stand and watch as it moves about with near humingbird speed.  I try again and again to get a picture so I can ID it at home, each time getting just the branch where it had been moments before.  I adjust and fiddle with my camera, but give up in the end.  Maybe not knowing makes it more magical.  

The shadows grow and I realize at some point I stopped keeping track of which trail I'm on.  The cold is starting to seep through my layers and though I'm not in any real danger (I'm no more than a couple miles from civilization in any direction) I don't want to be wandering in the woods, in the dark in the cold.  I think I know which direction the field is, so I set off that way. 

No, the woods aren't suddenly much larger.  It's just my imagination.  Is it getting colder?  


And there it is, the field.  I don't know its name, but it's lovely in the gloaming.  The words of a Robert Frost poem I memorized in 6th grade come back to me, as if Frost himself had seen this place.


"Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter"

The west was getting out of gold,

The breath of air had died of cold,

When shoeing home across the white,

I thought I saw a bird alight.


 In summer when I passed the place

I had to stop and lift my face;

A bird with an angelic gift

Was singing in it sweet and swift.


No bird was singing in it now.

A single leaf was on a bough,

And that was all there was to see

In going twice around the tree. 

Tree silhouette lincoln 010414


From my advantage on a hill

I judged that such a crystal chill

Was only adding frost to snow

As gilt to gold that wouldn't show.

A brush had left a crooked stroke

Of what was either cloud or smoke

From north to south across the blue;

A piercing little star was through.



This walk was taken in the Mount Misery parcel of Lincoln MA's conservation land.  The Lincoln Land Conservation Trust puts out a terrific map and guide book.  They also provide downloadable maps on their website.  If you happen to visit on a Sunday and use the St. Anne's-in-the-Fields parking lot as your starting point, you should take a moment and go in. It's an incredible place, and and a lot of them love the out-of-doors too. 


Exploring New York

I've finally figured out how to travel.  I don't mean travel for work; I have no idea how those folks manage not to lose their minds with all that planning and packing (the two worst parts of travel).  No, I've finally figured out what to do once I've arrived at the place I've been daydreaming about. 

I can't be the only one who gets to point X and says "Now what?"  Some of you may, quite reasonably be saying, well if you planned ahead, you'd know what what to do; I disagree.  Planning is for figuring out the best times to go to must-see spots so you stand in the smallest line possible.  Planning is for figuring out what tickets and transportation it will take to get you to said must-see spots.  Planning does not help you feel like you know a place, that you've really seen it and experienced it.

In my twenties when my friends and I travelled, we planned out our must-sees and then figured we'd wing the rest.  That winging usually became shopping.  Not because we loved to shop, but because we wanted to get out, to explore and we needed a destination.  This was not particularly satisfying.  In my early thirties we tried the go-somewhere-and-relax vacation.  We'd see some sights and then have time for leisurely naps, reading on park benches or beach chairs.  This too was not particularly satisfying.  Not that I'm against naps and reading, but I can't see any reason to travel to do either.  It seems a waste to go so far and do what I could most comfortably do in my own home. 

Recently I tried something different.  My partner Z and I took a little weekend trip to NYC the weekend before Thanksgiving.  No reason.  Just to see some sights, visit friends and break with routine.  Z adores sleeping in.  A vacation is not a vacation for him if it involved alarm clocks.  I on the other hand feel a little gross, like I've eaten a whole chocolate cake on my own, if I sleep past 8.  So I decided while he slept, I would walk.  No, "walk" is too prosaic a word.  I would explore.  

Saturday morning: Chai in hand, I headed for Central Park.  We were staying in the upper east side, a place I only knew from TV shows, so I figured the park would make an easy landmark to start from.  I considered trying to look like I  belonged, not gawking at buildings and not taking a million photos, but soon decided with my mismatched knit wear and down coat, no one was going to mistake me for a local.  This was driven home to me when I saw a local.  He wore an  impeccably tailored suit, gleaming black shoes, perfectly gelled curls, and a bright red leather man-bag.  Oh and he was flossing his teeth while waving down a cab!  My first thought was, yeah, I don't look like I'm from around here.  My second thought was, wouldn't he rather spend a couple less minutes on his hair than be caught flossing in public?  Guess not.

I wish I'd got a picture of him, or the woman I saw wearing fun from head to toe while walking a dog the same color as her fur (yikes), but I'm just not that brazen with my camera.  I couldn't do it without being obvious, and that felt rude.  Here's what I did get pictures of.

IMG_5376Love those doors


 This old firehouse was now someone's home.  Are those water towers still functional?


I'm a sucker for lion statues


The city was getting ready for the holiday


It was freezing, 25 degrees, yet he was washing away the previous day's grime

As I approached the park the stands were still shuttered and locked up.  The homeless could be seen packing up their meager belongings.  There were no horse drawn carriages waiting for tourists, but there was a group of friends walking their dogs.  As soon as they stepped inside the gate they let them free.  Is that legal?  Weren't they afraid the dogs would run into traffic?  Nope.  The dogs jumped and sniffed and raced ahead to a clearing where more unleashed dogs were having a great time.

  IMG_5386For a moment I thought this was the entrance featured in

Mo Willem's Knuffle Bunny Too, but sadly I wasn't.  I never did find that one.  



The friendliness of city birds and squirrels was not a surprise,

IMG_5388but seeing a heron was.

IMG_5483This walk was not a workout.  I stopped to read the bench inscriptions.

IMG_5406I may or may not have squealed when I saw Sting's name,


but this one is the best by far.

As I walked through the park, I felt surprisingly at home.  I've only been to Central Park once or twice in my life, and I knew I hadn't been to this section.  I looked at this bridge and had my answer. 

IMG_3312It looks quite a bit like this one


and this one - in Boston.

Both Central Park and the Emerald Necklace chain of parks in Boston  were designed by Frederik Law Olmsted, who believed strongly in the importance of urban people having access to the serenity of nature.   

“We want a ground to which people may easily go when the day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them…”
(Frederick Law Olmsted, 1870)

Even though the city is never far from you, it is easy to feel apart from it in Olmsted's creation.

To be continued... 

Where to?

Thanks to a slow two day storm, our world is once again covered in white fluffy wonder, rather than the icy glaze we had Christmas week.  When I looked outside this morning I saw wild turkeys roosting on the wall separating my yard from my neighbor's, not to mention high on theneighbor's pergola and even their porch railing.  My neighbor's yard is bird heaven, with a dozen or so feeders which I imagine as the bird equivalent of Vegas' all-you-can-eat buffets.  These prehistoric looking behemoths may have had their fill for now, but they're not dumb.  They plan to stick close to the food, not go trudging through the deep snow wasting calories.  Which somehow made me realize, it's perfect weather for snowshoeing.

Turkey closeup 122113 Turkeys and wall 122113

The only thing is, and I hope I haven't talked about this here before, is that snowshoeing requires a  bit more thought than just taking a walk.  You need a place where there will be enough open space or trails that you can explore for a while.  If I'm walking and the conservation land I chose to visit  ends up being just a five minute detour, that's fine; I can keep walking on the sidewalk.  Not so with snowshoeing.  Take a look at this map of Lexington's conservation land to see just how variable these in size these saved areas can be.

  Turkies 021013

There are three local conservation areas that immediately pop to mind as good snowshoeing spots: Willard's Woods and Meagherville in Lexington, and Great Brook Farm in Carlisle.  I've written about snowshoeing in Willard's Woods at least once here before.  And though the other two haven't made their way to posts yet, I have been to both many times.  I'm in the mood to explore.

There is a conservation area in Lincoln that I've been meaning to visit.  It starts out with a field and looks like it stretches into woodland.  Of course, there is always the question of whether or not the parking lot will have been plowed.  Maybe it's worth a drive over. 

I'll let you know.

Snowy birdhouse 021013


David Brown Walk through Estabrook Woods - Part 2

Saturday morning of the walk with naturalist/tracker David Brown, was cold and clear, just as a morning in February ought to be.  Parking at the appointed (for our walk) entrance to Estabrook Woods is nonexistant, so we parked along the side of the road, and made our way from there.  This area is quintessential New England, with stone walls, orchards and barns that belong on postcards.  

Estabrook sign 020213

Barn 020213

This was my first time to Estabrook, but anywhere that can manage to be beautiful in February deserves another visit.  As we left the pastural landscape, and the trees stretched out overhead we heard a strange vibrating noise above us.  One by one we began to look around for the source.  There it was, a tiny woodpecker at the utmost reaches of a tree.  It's pecking made the whole branch sway, distorting the usually familiar sound.  As we made our way over the hilly terrain, our guide, David Brown would stop, take a closer look at something he'd spotted on the ground and wait for us all to circle him.  Often we looked blankly at the same spot of ground that had caught his attention, not seeing a thing worthy of notice until he started to explain. 

I'd like to share with you the photos I took of those finds and what we learned about them.  I did my best to keep accurate notes, but if there are any errors, they are mine and not Brown's.


Fisher scat_squirrel Estabrook 020213
Fisher scat


Until hearing Brown's talk (see part 1), I'd assumed that people were crazy when they claimed fishers were responsible for the disapearance of cats and small dogs in the Boston suburbs.  I always picture these tree climbing predators as inhabiting upper Maine or maybe the White Mountains.  It turns out that I was only partly right.  The disappearance of small pets is more likely related to the increase in urban coyotes, but fishers live here among us too.  They prefer to stay away from us and our dogs, so they tend to come out around sunrise and sunset. 

On our walk we spotted two examples of fisher scat, both on logs.  Brown explained that this is a common fisher behavior.  There are several plausible explanations for the prominent location, including marking territory.  The scat is full of gray squirrel remains.  When fishers moved into this area they discovered a totally niave food source, squirrels.  These ubiquitous creatures were used to escaping predators by climbing up trees, but the fishers could climb too.  Sometimes's fishers will stash an uneaten portion of a squirrel in a squirrel nest, until it's ready to come back to finish it.  How's that for irony?

If you're in the area and would like to see a fisher, Drumlin Farm in Lincoln MA recently took in an injured one that could no longer fend for itself.  It's housed on Bird Hill. 

Intersting side note, the word "acorn" comes from an Old Norse word that means "Squirrel".  Where acorns are ample, squirrels will be too.

Deer scat 020213
This pile of feces was found along a deer trail.  Many of New England's roads were originally based on deer paths.  It would have been wasteful not to, considering the deer had already found the easiest way through the forest. 

A few things you may (or may not) have ever wanted to know about deer feces. 

  • It is common for deer to relieve themselves while walking, in which case the pellets are more scattered than they are here.
  • Rabbit and deer scat look quite similar.  You can tell this is deer, because each pellet has a bit of a point (like an acorn) and a cooresponding indent on the other side.  The reason for the indent becomes clear if you picture these pointy pellets lined up inside the deer's colon.  Of course, you may prefer not to picture that at all.

This walk was taken in early February, before the big blizzard, so scat was much easier to find than animal tracks.  It was funny to be out with a group of adults and talking so avidly about defication.  The only other time I think I've ever talked and thought so much about poo is while potty training a toddler!

Woodpecker hole estabrook 020213
This is a hole made by a piliated woodpecker.  The caverns inside were made by carpenter ants, the woodpecker's prey.  Here's a closer view.

Pilliated woodpecker hole_carpenter ant tunnels 020213
The cavern structure is quite intricate.  Over time this hole may be dug out a bit more to become home to any number of woodland creatures. 


Continuing on the topic of bugs, I've seen these little balls all my life and have never known (until now) where they came from.  There's a type of wasp that inserts its egg under the bark of the oak.  The oak is irritated by this and creates a pustule (the ball).  When the egg has grown into a worm, it eats its way out (thus the hole at one end).  Here's what the ball looks like on the inside.

Inside pustule 020213

Black locust estabrook 020213
While we're on the subject of trees, this black locust (right center) located not far from a stonewall caught Brown's attention.  He explained that this sort of locust is not native to the area.  It would have been brought here by a farmer who wanted to take advantage of its nitrogen fixing ability.  The farmer wouldn't have gone through all that bother for a hay field, so this land, now covered in trees, must once have been valuable farm land. 

Our final stop was along the shores of Mink Pond.  There's a lot to be said about this area, so I'll save that for a third post. 


David Brown Talk - Discovering Wildlife in your Backyard

On a bitterly cold, freeze the breath in your lungs sort of evening in January, at least 100 people squeezed into a conference room to hear tracker David Brown give a talk titled "The Forest is More than Trees: Using Animal Tracking Techniques to Discover Hidden Life in Suburban Woodlands".  The talk was sponsored by the Concord Land Conservation Trust.

Foot prints 2001
The ubiquitous gray squirrel

Looking around at his red nosed, wool and polar-fleece ensconced audience, Brown joked "You folks must have a serious case of cabin fever!"  He then went on to share stories from his career tracking the wildlife of New England, complete with photos, many taken not far from where we sat.  It was late in the evening, after a full day of work, but the time passed all too quickly.  Before we left, Brown invited us to sign up to go on a walk with him, sponsored again by the CLCT.  I couldn't believe my luck.  I'd joined the organization in order to get a copy of their trail maps, and now I was learning to read tracks, tree markings and scat.  And the amazing thing was that unlike when I was 7, reading Ranger Rick and dreaming about doing these things, now I was surrounded by people interested in the same things.  In fact, so many people signed up, that decided to have multiple walks, each with over 20 people attending. 

I hope you'll come back tomorrow to see what we discovered on the walk.

  Tracks 011511


In which I am surprised

A couple days back, I was making one last stop at the library, to pick up just one more tome of Thanksgiving ideas, when I saw a Lincoln Land Conservation Trust calendar for sale. 

That's odd, I thought.  I didn't get an email. 

Could it be a straggler left over from 2012?  I realized the ridiculousness of that idea just an instant before I saw the number 2013 emblazoned on the front.  Without meaning to, I signed.  That was it.  I wasn't in it.  None of my photos had made the cut.  I willed myself not to remember just how many photos I'd submitted.  I felt hot at the thought of so many photos that just weren't good enough. 

Suddenly I wanted to see the photos that had beaten mine.  I flipped over the calendar to the thumbnail images on the back,

and smiled.  I opened the calendar, taking in each photo, the full pagers and the tiny insets.   I was smiling so hard I wanted to dance.  It was true, I don't have a single photo in the calendar this year.  I have two!  

Heading West 012111 T. Crockett
"Heading West" December's image

Blink 071112 T. Crockett
"Blink" an inset in the calendar

If you'd like to have a copy of your own and support local conservation efforts at the same time, they should be for sale soon through the LLCT website

The Food Project + Starbucks = ?

It's funny how you can make a decision, thinking you know where it will lead, and then find the result is something totally unexpected.  I had one of those moments this spring, where the results were nothing less than serendipitous. See...

Sunflower with seed 051612
No?  Let me explain.

I was at Starbucks, waiting to get my chai fix, when I saw a poster on the community board inviting patrons to join the crew in volunteering at The Food Project. The Food Project is a Boston area CSA and so much more.  The Food Project is not certified organic (too expensive and time consuming) but they raisie their crops without chemicals; they have programs to teach school children where their food comes from, sell fairly priced vegetables in parts of the city where vegetables are hard to buy, support foodbanks, and offer an assortment of agricultural and leadership programs with teens.  It's impressive just how many programs for the betterment of the community have had their start on a couple Boston area farms. 

Sign 042012
So of course I wanted to join a work day at the farm.  My own tiny container garden was just started and wouldn't need any more help from me for a while, but I still had an urge to dig, to plant, to help spring turn the world from gray to green.  In short, a morning outside, getting dirty, helping out on a farm with other people who think that sounds fun was right where I wanted to be.

The morning started off cool and misty, nothing like the freezing rain the Starbucks crew said they'd worked in the year before.  One manager remembered her hands were so frozen when she was done that she had to put her fingers in her armpit so they'd warm up enough to be able to handle her car keys.   Fortunately we had nothing like that.  By the time we finished, 15,000 (or was it 150,000?) planted onions later, the sun was out and coffees had been replaced by  water bottles.   We were dirty, smiling and no one was in a hurry to go home, even those with tired toddlers in tow.  The morning had been just what I hoped for, and more.

Volunteers and woods 042012
I leared so much about gardening that morning, not from the experience of planting onions, but through conversation with the Starbucks folks planting alongside me.  Of course I also learned plenty of Starbucks gossip...

Back to the plants.  For much of the morning I worked along side Stephen, a true gardener.  Last year he had over 100 tomato plants in his garden!  Thinking of the four plastic tubs that held my garden, I couldn't begin to imagine the size of his.  I asked Stephen about some of the plants I was considering adding.  He taught me a book full as we worked.  Among other things,  he explained that cucumbers don't grow the shape we're accustomed to unless they're lifted off the ground.  Fast forward a couple months and here's my DIY cucumber trellis. 

Cucumber trellis 072812


Cukes for pickling 080412
My 1st two cucumbers. I still can't believe I grew them from seed.

Remember that photo of a tiny spout at the beginning of this post?  Do you want to see what it looks like today?

Green giants 081112

It towers over my head and has just started to grow its famous flower.  What intrigues me is that the head of the plant has been following the path of the sun for the last month, long before there were any signs of an actual flower.  Each day the whole line of green giants performs a silent, synchronized dance as they turn to the dawn, face heavenward at midday, and bow toward the trees as the sun slips away for the night. 

I wouldn't have had the fun of experiencing all this, if it hadn't been for Adam talking about being a flower gardener at home, with sunflowers a specialty.  I had it in my head that such a large plant must need special care, so even though I wanted them, I'd already ruled them out as an option for a beginner like me.  Adam set me straight saying once sunflowers get past the early weak stemmed stage (Starbucks cold cups make great planters/supports for young plants) they're incredibly resilient, even growing horizontally before starting their ascent if it means finding more light. 

I went to the hardware store on my way home and picked up a pack of seeds.  In my excitement I didn't read the package carefully.  I thought I'd picked up a 12" (inch) variety and only later realized it said 12' (feet)!  I never would have purposefuly chosen the grandaddy of all sunflowers on my first attempt at growing them, but I'm so glad I did.   Just another serendipitous step in my first season as a gardener.

Planting onions 042012




Busa Farm's Bird Songs

Could you see a bird, just a black silhouette against slate gray sky and identify it as a chimney swift?  Could you then see another bird (similar in size and flight), and be just as certain it's a barn swallow?  Nope, me neither, but Herb Pearce can and did for the small group of bird enthusiasts who joined him for a bird song walk through Busa Farm and the Arlington Resevoir.  The walk was sponsored by the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, a.k.a. LexFarm.

Busa sign 060312

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I arrived.  I tend to avoid group walks, probably due to too many elementary school field trips where we were herded, bovine like, from place to place without any chance to explore what interested us.  I decided to take a chance on this one, however; because I've always wanted to recognize birds by their song.  I get a little better at it every year,  but there are still so many to learn.  It turned out that bird songs played a rather small role in our walk.  Herb simply used them to help point us in the direction of interesting birds, but I learned so much about bird behavior and the plants I walk by every day, that I was anything but disapointed.

We started off with a look inside one of the buildings at Busa Farm, where both house sparrows and barn swallows make their nests. 

Back of beyond 060312
Barn Swallow 060312

Barn swallow tails 060312You can just picture the two little birds snuggled together in the nest.

Swallow eye 060312"I've got an eye on you..."

I was amazed at how unperturbed the birds were by our presence.  As a kid my friends and I would race fearfully across the field that separated our houses, as swallows swooped and dove menacingly at our heads.  Now here we were just feet from their nests, and though they arced and spun among the rafters, they took no notice of us.  I now suspect those swallows of my youth weren't interested in us either.  They were probably diving to catch insects, too small for us to note. 

Here and there on the floor of the building lay evidence of the less idyllic side of bird life.  Eggs had fallen from their clay cradles, either from an accidental push or during an attack from the neighboring house sparrows.  These tiny brown creatures are surprisingly visious. 

House Sparrow 060312
House Sparrow back 060312I'm not sure why this fellow looks so downy.  Maybe he's a juvenile?

From there we made our way along the edge of the vegatable fields (where their pea plants were four times as tall as mine) to a spot where Herb had recently seen a family of robins

Walkers 060312
Following the chirps of the juveniles, he lead us to where two siblings were following their mother and persistantly begging.  As soon as a baby gulped down the worm the mama offered, it immediately began to beg again.  I think all of us with experience around little ones of the human variety, felt for the mama bird and thanked heaven that kids' needs aren't so incessant.

Robbin family 060312
The juveniles are paler than adults.  The mother has her back to the camera.

A little further on one walker discovered a snapping turtle who appeared to have made her way from a nearby river to lay her eggs.  She'd chosen the shadow of a hulking John Deer tractor as a secure site.  Outside an aquarium, the only turtles I'd ever seen were tiny, adorable painted turtles.  Aside from the shell, they look nothing alike.  The snapping turtle was roughly a foot long, and at first glance resembled a rather flat boulder.  Her tail looked lethal, all spikes and muscle like an aligator and her face came to a beak-like point.  This creature appeared prehistoric.  She was the image of latent strength. 

John Deer and turtle 060312
Snapping turtle 060312
Stumbling on that turtle was the start of something neat.  The walk became less of a guided tour and more of a pooling of knowledge.   One walker pointed out a nearby patch of pineapple weed.  We all stopped to bend down and roll its golden flowers in our hands, breathing in its sweet citrusy scent.  It smelled like sunshine and pina coladas, a world apart from the wet gray field where we stood.   I've read that pineapple weed can be used to make tea, but I haven't tried it yet.

Pineapple BUSA 060312
We nibbled on the rosy flowers of Lady's Thumb plants (named for the dirty "thumb print" on their leaves), and  

munched heartily on the succulent tops of lamb's quarters.  This plant has a pleasant al dente feel as you bite into it, with a taste similar to spinach, only milder. 

Lambs quarters 060312

And then there was jewel weed.  I was completely unfamiliar with it, so one of the walkers offered to demonstrate how it got its name. 


This effect is caused by the interaction of the tiny hairs on the back of the leaf and the water in the puddle.  Aside from being entertaining, the plant can also be used to combat the itch of poison ivy.   A quick internet search later lead me to pictures of the plant's flowers and the realization that I've seen this plant all my life and had known nothing about it!

At the edge of the field farthest from the farm buildings, we encountered a pair of killdeer.  These shore birds can often be found around farms.  The two we met clearly had a nest nearby and were intent on drawing us away from it.  One ran back the way we'd come, stopping to look at us now and again like, "Hey guys, what's the hold up? Come on!"  The other moved toward us hobbling, its wings held out at an awkward angle as if broken.  I'd seen this sort of behavior on documentaries, but never in real life.  It was a fascinating act of bravery on the parents' part, serving as decoys.  As much as we wanted to stay and watch, we moved on to save the birds from uneccesary distress.

Killdeer 060312

Killdeer wing displacy 060312

Killdeer distracting 060312
A quick scramble over a rock wall, and we were on the trail that surrounds the Arlington Resevoir.  I'd been to the Res about a year earlier, in the fall, and had found it a bit depressing.  It was still in the center of town, with houses always visible, but this visit was entirely different.  Herb showed us Jack in the Pulpits, the largest Poison Ivy plants I'd ever seen, and an entirely safe-to-the-touch plant that is nearly identical to Posion Ivy. 

IMG_5187Poison Ivy

Do you see the differece?  On this plant the center leaf starts really close to the other two.  On poison ivy that middle leaf has a longer stem than the other two do.  Please DON'T take my word for it.  I'm just passing along what I was told, and it's always possible I misheard the explanation.  

As we continued our route, Herb suddenly broke off from telling us about a plant and cocked his head.  "Did you hear that?  That's an orchard oriole!"  With that he was racing toward the sound, his eyes raking the leaves overhead.  Above us a bird, all rusty red and black sat singing among the leaves.  A moment later it had taken flight and though we continued to look for some time, we never caught another glimpse.  Herb explained that the orchard oriole is quite rare in this region.  We probably would have missed it entirely if it weren't for its song, and most importantly Herb's recognition of it.

We continued on around the resevoir and back to the farm, but for me the walk ended with  sighting that rusty minstrel.  I was mentally overflowing with all that I'd seen and learned.  What a great way to start a Sunday.





The Garlic Mustard Pull is On!

In mid spring each year, signs start popping up along the road side announcing that it's time for the annual garlic mustard pull.  In the library there are signs made by school children, in the center of town more professional placards make the announcement.  It's a right of spring.  On the appointed day, people of all ages can be spotted, bent in two, or down on their knees among the poison ivy and skunk cabbage that grow along our roads.  There's an odd air of festivity about it all.

For years I've believed garlic mustard was an herb that is only here for a short time, like strawberries.  So each year those in the know gather it when it's at it's peak.  This year, I picked up a handout on the annual plant pull, and as you've probably already guessed, I learned I was as wrong as wrong can be. 

Let me share with you a few of the things I learned:

  • The Europeans brought it over to use in cooking and medicines.  Of course nothing here eats it, so it just spreads and spreads unless people step in.  So far it sounds a lot like dandelions.
  • This next fact is so fantastic I have to quote it "One plant can produce up to 6,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for up to 7 years!" (
  • Once the plant has flowered, it will go to seed (see above) even if you rip it out of the ground.  So proper disposal is important.
  • Why does it matter if this plant spreads?  "garlic mustard eliminates native plants, which wildlife depend on, and it can stunt the growth of native trees....Even worse, garlic mustard roots produce a chemical that prevents other plants from growing in the soil!" (

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For such a predatory plant, it looks quite dainty.  (click the link for more photos).  The leaves are like a rounded heart, similar to the leaves on violets, and the flowers are tiny and white.  Just like purple loosestrife (the plant that is taking over our marsh lands), garlic mustard is lovely until you realize all the damage it does. 

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I took a quick look around my yard and realized most of what was in bloom, was probably an invading, pernicious force.  I crumpled the leaves to check for the tell-tale garlic odor, and hoped that what I had was another white wildflower.  It was growing so well, I hated to pull it.  But the facts couldn't be denied, my yard was under attack.

I pulled the first few clumps reluctantly.  I've been trying to get things to grow in my incredibly shady  lot for years and now there was something not just growing but thriving!   I ripped clump after clump from the ground, and something changed.  I was on a mission.  I got a thrill watching the landscape change under the work of my hands, and it felt good to do something that was so unequivocally "the right thing".  How often does that happen?  I ripped and I pulled and I grabbed anything that looked remotely similar to this charming villain.   By the time I was done, I'd gathered 5 overflowing bags from my tiny (maybe 1/8 acre) lot. 

Those were grocery store paper bags, not the giant lawn bags.  It would be truly frightening if my tiny lot had produced that much.

Now I see garlic mustard everywhere,

along my commute,

in front of the post office,

in my neighbor's lawn, 

at an open house. 

I'm tempted to rip out each and every stalk, a sort of reverse Johnny Appleseed.



Battle Road - Minute Man Historical Park (Part 2)

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When we look back on history, it's hard to see events without a sense of inevitability.  We think of the siege of Fort Sumter as intended to launch the Civil War, when in fact other southern forts had been ceded to southern control without launching a war.  The chain of events is only obvious in hindsight.  This is true too of the American Revolution.  The colonists did not set out to start a new country.  They intended to work within the system to gain more equitable treatment.  It was only after their complaints were ignored (or greeted with punishment) and the crown rescinded their right to self govern, that the idea of separation started to take hold.  This is just one of the little tidbits of knowledge I gained while walking Battle Road.  I grew up in New England where there is only one war that matters, in a school where the Revolution dominated any discussion of history, daughter to a woman who enjoyed visiting historic homes of that period; so the fact that I learned something new about this topic I thought I knew so well, was truly exciting.  Did I mention that Johnny Tremain was my favorite book in 5th grade?

Battle Road does a wonderful job of showing how ordinary people make history.  There's the Nelson's house (Ok, doorstep and well at this point), where a member of the family heard steps on the road, went out in the dark to ask for news of the soldiers' advance, and was shot by those very soldiers.  

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There's the field where a farmer waited for the line of soldiers to pass, and shot at them from the relative safety of the boulders.  As I looked at this "field" full of new growth, I was reminded of something Bill Bryson said in one of his books.  Modern day New England is a veritable forest compared to the same land a couple hundred years ago.  All those stone walls hikers come across in the woods once marked the edge of a field.  Of course back then the cleared land was not covered in strip malls and parking lots, so our current abundance of trees is not a clear win for Mother Nature.

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Not far from here stands one of the many memorials along the route to the British soldiers who died in the fighting.  I heard a battle reenactor explaining that many of these impromptu graves were found when digging began for Route 2A (relatively recent history).  As he explained, the colonists didn't want any sign of the enemy dead to remain near their homes, out of fear that the British would come back and take vengeance. 

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Just think about that for a moment.  This was not a battle fought in the open, far from women and children.  It was fought over thirteen long hours, along a well travelled road, from behind hedges and stone walls,  across farmers' fields, and  just steps from civilians' homes. 

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There's a scene in the miniseries John Adams that illustrates the proximity of the war to civilian's lives beautifully.  This is a bit later in the war, but you an imagine it playing out hundreds if not thousands of times.  In the scene, you see Abigail Adams tending to the family farm, feeding the chickens, hanging out clothes, and then she and her children stop what they're doing because they've heard something in the distance.  The rumble of drums and footsteps, the sharp squeal of a fife and before you know it there are soldiers marching down the road just a few feet from her and her babies.  If you have any interest in this period of history, I highly recommend the miniseries and of course the book it was based on, by the same name.

One of the best known structures along Battle Road in Minute Man Historical Park belonged to one of Abigail Adams' relatives. 

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The Captain William Smith house stands in a meadow abutting the intersection of Route 2A and Bedford Street.  Runners can often be seen using the stone wall to stretch.  Children run happily through the field, after the relative confinement of the wooded trail.  The house is closed to the public, but people peek in the windows to see what's there.  

Several of the houses in the park have this saltbox silhouette.  It's a style that originated in New England in response to the weather.  The bulk of the house's windows were on the southern exposure, taking advantage of the sun's light and heat.  The northern exposure was low and often windowless, ensuring that precious heat wasn't lost.  The sloped roof helped heavy snows slide off, rather than accumulating and endangering the roof.  

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If you've ever read or seen anything about the Revolutionary War, you are probably aware of the disadvantage the Bristish army's red uniforms placed them in.  This year, spring came early and the landscape is unusually lush for April.  Even so, those red coats stand out like a beacon.

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As you can see, I was lucky enough on my walk to run into some pre-Patriot's Day events in the park.

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I'm assuming the white uniforms were the equivalent of the dress whites today's navy wears on formal occassions, but that's just a guess.  If you happen to know, please be sure to leave a comment.

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The colonists may not have had the same gun power as the soldiers, but they blended into the countryside (their clothes dyed using local plants).  They had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and were fighting for their lives.  As I write this I can't help but think of the similarities between these early patriots and the people our modern day military is battling overseas.  Yes, there are important differences, but the similarities give pause.  Our national heroes, the original patriots, the people who everything (and I do mean everything) is named after in this region were rebels and terrorists in the eyes of the King. 

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Yes, that's a patriot on the side of a port-o-potty.

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Today, a good section of the park borders Hanscom Air Force Base.  At some points on the trail you look down through the trees onto base housing, at the families who today continue to place their security and happiness second to the needs of the country.  I often see solderies training together, running the Battle Road trail, and I wonder if they give any thought to the events the park commemorates.  Do they see themselves as inheritors of that tradition?

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The Minutemen who answered the call some two hundred years ago, didn't know what the outcome would be.  They didn't know that their actions would become the stuff of legend, or that their actions were one step along the way to the founding of a new domoctractic nation.  their legacy is alive in this man.  He's a candidate for the state legislature.  While people gathered to listen to music and hear the details of Paul Revere's capture, he was making his way through the crowd, introducing himself and talking with potential voters.  As I watched him I marvelled at his willingness to go up to stranger after stranger and insert himself into their day.  Everyone I saw him talk to was polite, but I'm sure that's not always the case.  No matter our political system's flaws, the people who get elected really have to work for that office.  There's beauty in that.

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When I set out to walk the Battle Road trail, I did it more out of a sense of duty than pleasure.  So I was surprised at just how moving I found the experience.  As I walked, read the signs, and listened to the audio tour, I found myself wondering if I would take the kind of risk Mary Hartwell did, when she left her children asleep in their beds, to get the message of the British advance to the Minutemen leaders in time for them to act.  I was made uncomfortable as I realized that our bitter enemy in the late 1700's, is today our closest ally.  While this gave me some hope for a more peace-filled future, it also highlighted just what an inevitable waste enmity between nations is.

By the time I got home again, I was tired and sore (I really hadn't realized just how substantial a walk it would be), but it felt like a day well spent.  I had no idea how much I'd see and learn when I left the house that morning, and for that, the surprise of life, I'm grateful.

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