Sense of Place, 

a column


Sense of Place

Alewife Brook Reservation in Massachusetts is no one’s idea of pristine nature.  Within its 130 acres it counts as one of its most attractive features a reconstructed wetland, dug by tractors less than a decade ago, and used by the city of Cambridge as water treatment for storm sewage.  Its scrub forests are hemmed in by biotech buildings, luxury condos, and affordable housing towers.  Only the unhoused camp there.  One of Massachusetts’ major east-west highways cuts through, as does one of the state’s major natural gas pipelines. The vast brutalist terminus of the MBTA’s Red Line, one of Boston’s busiest transit hubs, sits not near, but actually in, Alewife Brook itself. Alewife Brook’s water quality routinely gets rated “D” or “F,” making it one of the most problematic stretches of the Mystic River watershed, a watershed more troubled than the “Dirty Water” of the Charles River made famous by the Standells over 50 years ago.

And yet: it’s among the most visited parks in the Northeast, because it sits at the intersection of so many busy thoroughfares. Not everyone who visits even knows they’ve crossed into its borders, though they may thrill to the sight of a Great Blue Heron standing watch above the waters, or be half-deafened by the raucous chirps and honks of migrating birds. Or turn, at midnight–this happened to me–to witness disappear into the brush a pair of coyotes loping down Massachusetts Avenue, following the same path William Dawes rode the night he and Paul Revere warned that “the British are coming.”

For an increasing number of people, though, this last, largest remnant of Cambridge’s urban wild is a source of contact with nature, a sanity-saving open space for recreation, and increasingly, a cause. Can Alewife be restored?

Adding urgency is the threat of climate change. Boston faces rising sea levels and, with real estate among the most highly valued in the country, a shrinking number of places where floodwaters might safely collect. In a podcast and series of blog posts and articles, “Idle Weeds” chronicles the surprising, illustrious past of Alewife Brook, the efforts by citizens and naturalists to save it, and the transformations its future may hold.

This is a story local to Boston–and of national importance. If we are to live sustainably, and sanely, as a primarily urban civilization, we will need places like Alewife. We will need to know them, and protect them. Come along on the journey.

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