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Exploring New York continued

If you combine the three times I've visited NYC, my time spent there comes to less than a week.  What I know of NYC comes from books, movies and TV. 

In Central Park I tried to find the entrance shown in Mo Willem's book Knuffle Bunny Too, but I think I was on the totally wrong side.  If you aren't familar with the series, each page shows photos of real New York city places, with the characters hand drawn images added on top.  I heard somewhere that a laundromat which plays a central role in the first book is now a common tourist destination. 

I did run into the Central Park carousel that appears in When Blue Met Egg by Lindsay Ward.  The illustrations in this book are made all the more interesting by the fact that Ward appears to have used scrap paper to make her buildings.   You have to see it. 

IMG_5400The carousel was closed for the season when I visited.  

IMG_5402As I walked, I listened to The Age of Innocence (Craftlit), set in 19th centure NY.  I smiled thinking of how the characters complain of the park being so remote, and Archer fears one day the island will be connected to the mainland by a tunnel.

From the park I headed south, taking any road that looked interesting or had a familiar name: 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue...  I soon found myself in front of Lincoln Center, watching street venders set up their wares.  Of course Lincoln Center is famous in and of itself, but as a fan of Project Runway, it was exciting to see where their final runway occurs. 



I passed a diner with a sign in the window that said The Apprentice, no a Food Channel show had been there.  It didn't mean anything to me, so I kept walking.  But I was drawn to all the tiny diners where New Yorkers crowded, bunched shoulder to shoulder to eat their breakfast.   I imagined locals having their spot, whether it's near their home or on the way to work.   How else could so many of these places stay in business?

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I wanted to try every bagel I saw, it was after all NY, but ended up with just one perfect bagel, with a smear of Nutella, purchased from a fellow who teased that Nutella was gross and I really ought to be getting lox. I would have, if I wouldn't have been out $12 if I didn't like it.  That's a lot for a sandwich that might end up in the trash.  My server then had a friendly laugh over my confusion about what 3rd was, a street an avenue?  I still don't know.  I just knew I needed to head in that direction.  I was trying to find Mood, the fabric store featured on Project Runway. 

I never did find it.  I got turned around and didn't realize until I was on the opposite side of the island, but I did stumble upon some other well known spots.

IMG_5506Dylan's Candy where Runway contestants had to find supplies to make wearable outfits.

IMG_5424I used to watch the Late Show religiously.


Remember when Annie goes to see the Rocketts with Daddy Warbucks?


I think this might have been a casting call. 


Do you see the knitter? Red bag, in the center.  She'd wearing gloves!  I was tempted to go over, ask what she was working on and compliment her on being so hard core.  Instead I kept walking.


Times Square looks much more interesting on TV. 



I turned a corner and wondered why there were so many policemen and street crews until I noticed the Macy's sign.  They were in full parade prep mode.  The sidewalk was full of tourists taking photos and videos in front of the famous Macy's holiday windows.   Much of the window displays' magic was created with large TV screens.  Compared to the windows I'd seen in movies, a few computer animations were a disapointment.  It was just too easy to create.  The clock across the square, now that was impressive. 


I headed south and saw something vaguely familiar.  I couldn't place it, so I kept walking toward it.


I had no idea the new World Trade Center had been built.  I'd seen plans for it on the news some time back, but last I'd heard there was fighting about the design.  My first visit to NY was after 9/11 so I dont have any personal memories of that old skyline, but this was a surprise all the same. 

By now the temperature had managed to drop, rather than rise with the sun.  It was a cool 20 degrees with a biting wind, and the word "frostbite" kept popping to mind.  I considered taking the train back to the hotel, but there was one more spot I wanted to see with my own eyes.  I was so close, it would be a waste to turn back now. 


I'd always seen her with a soaring skyline as the backdrop.  A working dock full of cranes and equipment was not especially poetic.  It was a bit like seeing the Mona Lisa in person.  The professional photographs I'd seen all my life showed her at her best.  There was no way for reality to compete.


The must-see spots often as not can't live up to their hype.  It's the unexpected encounters and sights that make travel an exploration and not a to do list.



I can't help suggesting a couple great New York based books for adults

And some YA (Young Adult) classics

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... 

Mapping Home



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The lights are easily one of my favorite things  in the days leading up to Christmas.  Before the Thanksgiving turkey carcas has been made into soup, the first lit up house will appear.  Within 24 hours there are a few more; parents taking advanatge of kids home from college to reach those highest spots.  By the second weekend in December every street has something to show, whether its the classic candles in window or an inflatable Snoopy snow globe.  


In the evenings, light spotting makes even the most boring of outings a bit more fun.  There's the giant peace sign that appears among a stand of trees on my commute home, or the stone sculptures that have been wrapped in twinkling white on the Lincoln green.  The trees of Burlington are a crazy riot of primary colors, like a giant splashed glowing acryllic paint across the park.  Then the restrained joy of Lexington's wreaths, greens and star-like lights.  One one side of the street a neighbor has made grand loops across her bushes, reminding me of a string of cursive "e's".  Just around the block there's a house where every eave has been traced in glowing icicles, like a giant gingerbread dripping icing.  



This year I considered making a photo-map of my neighborhood's Christmas lights.  I got the idea from a story I heard on This American Life about Denis Wood.   Mr. Wood has been mapping his neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina since the 70s, but not in the usual ways.  He's made maps of what you would see underground (pipes etc), of who appears in the newspaper, pools of light  cast by the street lamps and my favorite, jack-o-lanterns.  Wood then layers these maps to see what connections he can discern (he shares some of them in the This American Life story).  It got me wondering about the houses I pass each day.  Are the people who decorate with lights the same ones who make jack-o-lanterns?  Do people without kids (at least outdoor evidence of kids)  decorate for the holidays?  Have more people been planting vegetable gardens lately?

I've decided I probably shouldn't do a photo-map.  To shoot in the dark would require setting up a tripod and that simply calls too much attention to myself.  If you saw someone with a tripod in front of your house, wouldn't you wonder what she was up to?  Yeah, that doesn't sound like a fun conversation.  But I do love the lights, and as they start going dark over the next couple weeks, I'll miss them.  Why is it that just as winter gets its nastiest and the dark feels the most foul, we take down our amulets against its depressive influence?   There are always a few folks who don't care ab0ut the expense and keep them lit throughout the deepest winter.  And to them I say a silent "thank you", each time I pass. 



Photos in this post were taken in York ME, Portsmouth NH, Cambridge MA and Lexington MA.

A New Day in Boston

A week has passed since bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. 

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So much has been said and written about the events of that day and the days that followed.

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So much compassion, misery, determination and bravery has been shared.

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What can I add to the discussion?

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I can tell you about people in Boston who know violence, who know it first hand, and have refused to let it break them.  I can tell you about people who during this troubled week have reached out to the suffering with acupuncture and counseling.

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I can introduce you to the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute which aims to "transform pain and anger to power and action."  The Peace Institute works every day, here in Boston, with people whose lives have been changed by homicide.

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The Peace Institute works in communities, in schools, in the halls of the statehouse to change attitudes, to teach new skills, to simply stated, stop the violence.

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 On Sunday, May 12th the Peace Institute will hold its annual Mother's Walk for Peace in Dorchester.  This event is a chance to stand with those who have lost loved ones through violence and send a message to our politicians and community leaders that we need to work together to achieve peace.

You can sign up for the walk or make a donation to the Peace Institute at http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/index.html


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!

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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.

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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. 


Walking Groups

I haven't been walking enough lately.  What's "enough"?  For me, it's however much it takes for me to feel at home in my skin.  When I've been walking regularly I feel like my skeleton, joints, muscles, even my breath are working as one to help me move through the world.  When I haven't... I feel a bit like Pinocchio, limbs all wooden and akimbo. 

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There's no doubt that I enjoy walking, but I'm sure I'm not alone in needing the occasional nudge to help get me out the door. I hear there are a number of aps that use your social network to guilt you into doing what's best for you (read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney  to learn more), but I'm resisting the smart phone phenomenon, so I've signed up for several walk related events.  I've done the bird song walk, I just recently posted about, and an Introduction to Foraging walk that you'll be reading about soon.  I've also gone back to using MeetUp.com to find fellow walkers and walk-related events.  It's just what I needed.  I have walks lined up for both Saturday and Sunday of this week.  I can't wait to explore  with new, and hopefully, some familiar faces too.  

If you're in the Boston area, here are a few events you might want to check out.

  • Circle the City - a chance to explore Boston area parks joined by temporary car-free zones.
  • Battle Road Trail Walks - Walk historic Battle Road with a park ranger explaining the history
  • Lantern Festival Based on the Japanese Bon Festival
  • Walden Pond Tours - Understand Walden in a new way through a guided tour
  • Museum of Fine Arts - You'd expect them to offer tours of their galleries (which they do), but on certain days they also offer neighborhood tours.  Scroll to the bottom of the page for details.


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. 

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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. 

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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.

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Killdeer wing displacy 060312

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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.





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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Battle Road - Minute Man Historical Park

Visiting a place like Gettysburg is powerful, not for what you see, but for the experience of being in the very place where world changing events took place.  Touching the mundane reality of the place, the roll of the earth, the slant of the sun, the birds that swoop across the sky, helps turn the people who fought there from story characters to flesh and bone people, with lives that stretched beyond that moment in history. 

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I think that's why any day when the sun shines bright, you're sure to see visitors at the site of Paul Revere's capture along what's now known as Battle Road in Minute Man Historical Park.  There's little to see.  It's a small field split by busy route 2A.  There's a stone circle, where parents and children, Boy Scout troops and folks walking their dogs, all stop to read the inscription and learn of how Revere was taken into custody, but Prescott bolted into the woods and evaded pursuit.  It's just a field, like a hundred others, but there's magic in imagining what that field looked like in the predawn hours of April 19, 1775.  What amazes me the most is that Revere was taken unharmed, and according to his own account willingly answered the soldiers' questions about his intentions that night.   

It's these little additions, to a story I thought I knew, which made me glad I decided to walk the length of the park last weekend.  Prior to that I'd visited several parts of the park, trying with nominal success to understand what people saw in it.  Based on these visits I'd concluded visitors were either tourists looking for a bit of history or locals who appreciated the wide, well maintained paths, six parking lots and proximity to Rt 2A.  It was really because I write this blog and Patriot's Day is the biggest event of the year around here, that I decided to give it one more shot.

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The park stretches across three towns: Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord.  Parts of the park (The Wayside and the North Bridge) are satellites, unconnected to the main Battle Road Section.  I opted to start my walk not far from the Lexington Battle Green, where the first shot was fired, a couple miles from the actual park.  You can view the route at GMap if you like. 

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When I set out for the walk I figured it would be good exercise and I'd finally be able to cross this blog post idea off my To Do list.  My expectations were not especially high, but then I arrived at the eastern edge of the park, the Ebenezer Fiske house site, a place I'd never been.  I know it doesn't look like much, but these stones put a smile on my face.  Here's a place where you can step into history.  Walk over the doorway and notice just how small the house's footprint is.   From that front step look to the right where a small orchard still exists and imagine the family gathering its fruit.  Out behind the house see where the Fiskes dug into the hillside to house their animals, and reinforced that structure with stones so heavy that they stand to this day (look near the treeline in the photo). 

It was through this yard that British soldiers and the local militia continued the battle that had begun four hours and many miles earlier.  Just steps from the house, there's a well where it's said that two opposing fighters met, one told the other that he was about to die, the other said, you are too and they shot each other at point blank range. The British soldier lived for some time and was taken in and cared for by the Fiske family.  A reminder that the colonists were still part of the British Empire and that not everyone in New England saw the King's Regulars as the enemy. 

Let me take a moment to set the scene.   The British had set out from Boston under cover of darkness, to capture the militia's arms supply in Concord, some twenty miles away.  Nothing went according to plan.  They left late, their approach was announced well in advance and when 77 militia formed a line in Lexington "to make a display of patriot resolve" (park map), someone fired on them.  By the time the British got to Concord and started searching houses for arms news had spread, more shots were fired and the British had to fight their way back across the 20 miles they'd just hiked. 

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There are many points along the trail devoted to the fighting of that day.  Along with the stone markers there are also signs which depict the route, the number of troops on both sides at that point.  In addition there's an audio tour available via cell phone.  I'd never run into one of these before and I was impressed.  You can take a listen right now, wherever you are by dialing (978) 224-4505. 

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To be continued...

Patriot's Day

If you don't live in Massachusetts, you've probably never heard of Patriot's Day, but people here are getting ready.  Hotels are at or near capacity, signs to direct the waves of visitors are being posted and anything that doesn't move has been draped in flags or bunting.  You see Patriot's Day, the third Monday of April,  commemorates the battles at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) which started the fighting of the Revolutionary War.   It is also the day when the finest long distance runners in the world take on Heartbreak Hill as they compete in the Boston Marathon.  The marathon may get more television coverage, but you can imagine which event is considered more important here in Lexington. 

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Each year that I've lived here I've watched, intrigued by the town's excitement, but unable to share in it.  I love living in a place where history remains a part of modern day life; I pass the tavern where the Minutemen awaited the arrival of the Regulars (they didn't call them the British then) on my way to the bank,

IMG_6453Buckman Tavern

and the field where soldiers faced off, is now a place where families play Frisbee and have picnics. But I've never been all that interested in the actual fighting.  It's the idea that farmers, blacksmiths and teachers put their lives on the line to right an injustice, which makes my mind swirl and my eyes shine with pride.  So I've steered clear of the festivities, unless you consider being woken by musket fire "taking part".

Minuteman from behind 070111Minuteman Captain John Parker

Of course, now that I write a blog where I talk about exploring home and finding the richness close at hand, it feels disingenuous to ignore Patriot's Day.  So last Saturday I decided I would walk from one end of Minute Man park to the other and see what draws so many visitors there, not just on Patriot's Day weekend, but throughout the year.  The walk, and the park were more than I'd expected. 

I'll save the telling of that story for tomorrow.


PS The links in the final paragraph will take you to a schedule of this year's events and an overview of the historic sites of Lexington.