Spring Fling

Spring is the horniest season, horticulturally speaking. One day it’s nothing but dirt the color of an ashtray left unattended at a casino slot machine and the next—shazam! Nature is all heavy-breathing and green tumescence. Tightly coiled buds pulse, eager for release like sweaty teens awkwardly pawing each other on the basement couch. No judgment. Spring is all about the freaky fling, horticulturally speaking.

The randiest seasonal offender is, without a doubt, the magnolia tree. Even before they bloom in earnest, they get you with this come hither move. Their buds look like fingers drawn up together as if rubbing something achingly fine between their tips. And when they bloom in full: shameless. Creamy pink, white, or yellow tea-cup sized blossoms audaciously unfurl themselves on the edge of branches, gleeful in their wanton arbor lust. I do believe they would make even Monsieur Toulous-Lautrec blush.   

I had never really experienced magnolias until I moved close to Boston. What in the world would a tree synonymous with southern belles and sprawling Mississippi estates be doing in the almost unseasonably cold Northeast? The short answer: science. Though originally acclimated to the southern states when they were brought to America in the 1780s, magnolias have spread and bred up the northeast corridor from Virginia to Maine. Then again, these saucy minxes are wired for resilience. They’ve been around for more than 90 million years (so, only slightly younger than Keith Richards). They existed before bees. Though we’re rapidly approaching an alarming moment when we might make that statement true again, it’s still mind-bending to think about. The trees we see today form a direct line to a world that included duck-billed dinosaurs and, of course, Keith Richards (just ringing every drop from that joke). That’s some serious staying power. Maybe we’ve done at least a small thing right by our weary earth.

In the early-1960s, a woman named Laura Dwight began a beautification project in her Back Bay Boston neighborhood. What began with planting a handful of magnolias around Dwight’s street grew into a large-scale effort to plant the trees throughout the Back Bay neighborhood. As a result, for a precious few weeks each spring, the magnolias drape themselves over the doorways of stately Boston brownstones. They caress the sides of buildings. They lure you underneath splayed canopies, your face upturned like a hopeful young thing waiting to feel their soft pink lips graze your cheek. At least that’s been my experience. The magnolias are the joyful riot and the sweet exhale of Mardi Gras. They seem to show up every year just when you need them most. Attention must be paid.

I recently learned about floriography: the language of flowers. A cryptology crafted from genus and species, a conversation conducted through petal shape and color and variety. “There’s rosemary,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that’s for remembrance.” The enduring powers of folklore and myth given to us in stems and leaves and roots and fruits to help us say what we can’t easily say ourselves. This seems worth hanging onto, especially in the spring when the harsh edges of the world start to soften, when our own selves become more pliable and we feel capable of gentleness again, and we find ourselves stopping in front of a luxurious cascade of pink and white and yellow blossoms that seem to murmur. And we find ourselves listening.  

Quitting Winter

Winter, I’m giving notice. I’m quitting. I’m out. I’m done-zo. No need to bring in HR for an exit interview. I barely have anything in my desk anyway—a packet of tissues, a pair of mittens, a small box of festering despair. You can burn my file. I was about to do that for warmth anyway.

This is the time of the season that breaks me. I think if you conducted an informal poll of New Englanders, the non-skiers, non-snowboarders, non-cold-weather-activity-enthusiasts, and I’m including the people who think it’s perfectly fine to jump into the ocean in the middle of January all in the name of charity (I see what you really are: equal parts decent and Vulcan), you’d find that many of us start to come apart at the seams right around now.

It’s the cold, the cold, the savaging cold. The raw, icy, forever damp, splits your skin, freezes your lungs shut like a vault, fuses to your goddamn bones, cold. There’s a lyric from a Patty Griffin song that comes to mind: “Where I come from/winter’s long, gets into your boots.” I hear that line and instinctively my toes curl to escape the swampy chill. Griffin knows what she’s talking about. She grew up in Old Town Maine, a small, rural town located about 3 hours from the Canadian border. Single digits make for a balmy October. In January and beyond, the thermometer plunges and stays well below zero. It comes as a shock to no one from around here that Griffin ended up settling in Austin, Texas.

It’s also the weather, the weather, the unforgiving weather! The wonder and novelty of the early snowfalls in December and January have faded, or as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Those storms made us all briefly entranced. Like Dorothy stepping out of her house and past the unfortunate remains of the witch she just smoshed, into the glorious landscape of technicolor OZ, we marveled at the world transformed. We gawked at how the snow turned the gnarliest, sickly-looking house on the block into an iced gingerbread castle. We blinked at this newly made place in astonishment even though it happens every year; it’s remarkable how the first snow of the season manages to feel like the first discovery of snow itself. If only all of life held even a thimbleful of that kind of mojo.

But now: the cold air turns stubborn, refuses to give us more than a few degrees in either direction. The snow, the beautiful, sparkling stuff that looks like it belongs in a diamond engagement ring commercial, turns mean, unyielding. It gathers itself into small icebergs that squat on street corners. Sometimes they marshal themselves in a chain along the edge of a sidewalk like security guards standing at the apron of a stage at a Taylor Swift concert. The snow becomes leaden and dense; it fuses into a special type of hardpack with a polymer make-up of cement and Gorilla glue. In the city, streets shrink to half their width. Cars parked on the street become ensnared. Up and down the block, they look like insects wrapped neatly in spider webbing. Some are tilted uncomfortably on banks, as if The Hulk was in mid-lift when he got a phone call that his wife was going into labor and he dropped everything and ran. Driving is a dicey situation. These are the days that try men’s souls and side mirrors.

Why do I live here? This is also a question that circulates among us on Facebook and in text messages, accompanied by crying emojis and images of places like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s like we’ve collectively given birth and forgotten the pain and hardship of the experience, cheerfully signing up for the next one. It’s seasonal amnesia. Because prior to this period of winter slog, we are chirpy assholes about how lucky we are to live short distances in nearly any direction from the coastline and mountains and lakes and national parks and big cities along with small, historic towns. We’re eager to brag about the seasons—like, we have all four, you guys—as a selling point: #leafpeeping, #NewEnglandFall, #NewEnglandblossoms, #beachday, #ShutUpNewEngland. If there ever is another civil war, New England will get preemptively kicked out of the union for our unsufferable elitism alone.

I know there are plenty of other states with a love/murderous rage relationship with winter. Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska, both Dakotas—you win a prize for hardest seasonal pounding. I’m not unsympathetic. I just think you know what you signed up for moving to places where the wind doesn’t just come sweeping down the plains, it wrecks them and everything in its path. You clicked “agree” after not reading the terms of service. New Englanders are both gold-medal level whiners and stubborn old goats. You’ll never get us to admit you have it harder than us.

But this year I mean it; I’m not playing around. That’s it—khattam-shud, the end. I pile on my padding to take my usual morning walk and consider my options. I could live on a houseboat in the Aegean sea. I could become one of those RV people who rove the nation, their homes on their backs like diesel-fueled turtles, visiting places to get enough of my season on before splitting. A few more far-fetched ideas come into view: join Space Force, learn to hibernate like a grizzly, grow gills and take to the ocean.

My mind is so busy sketching my escape that I hardly notice coming to the fork in the bike path. Most days I veer left, a little on autopilot, following the natural continuation of the route. For some reason, that morning my feet turn me right. I cross over a busy road to pick up this other branch of path that I’ve never been on before. There’s a sign at the edge of a wooden fence telling me I’m at the edge of a wetlands preservation and restoration area.

This might not be startling if it weren’t for the fact that the bike path bisects city territory, only slightly insulated from the urban junkscape—highways, apartment complexes, shopping centers. But here I am, suddenly transplanted to Narnia. Wooden footbridges snake over marshy inlets serviced by the nearby river. Snow covers much of the landscape, but stalks of tall, tan reedy things and bushes palming bright red berries growing all over the perimeters create a painterly scene. Stone markers announce the habitats of animals, insects, and native plants. As if to give it all the touch of an attraction at a Disney park, I encounter a stoic blue heron, a squadron of ducks and geese, more cardinals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and a burly hawk perched in a tree.

I visually gobble up all of it, but it’s the hawk that makes me stop and really ogle. She literally doesn’t have to do anything but sit there to be fearsome, awe-inspiring, totally badass. She indulges me anyway. Arching her wings she drifts a few feet away to settle on a nearby utility pole. She swivels her head in a way that feels like a challenge, as if to say: “Yeah, I can make this thing my tree if I want to. You got a problem with that?” No ma’am, I do not. I’m standing off to one side as joggers and people out walking dogs breeze past me. Are they getting any of this? I take what feels like a million photos of this majestic bird, not registering that my hands are freezing. I’m too busy marveling at this incredible landscape, that should not even exist, but has been hiding in plain sight all this time, right where I live! And there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in this sublime, wild place, here, in the middle of winter.

Timing Is Everything

The heron glided silently along the river’s surface like a heat seeking missile. The snow had been falling softly for hours. The landscape blanched like an over-exposed negative. Street signs, trees turning black against the blank canvas, the occasional fearful, red flare of break lights were the only distinguishing markers. It was a not unpleasant disorientation. These days, variety in any form is welcome.

I almost didn’t go down to the river. I had gotten about half-way, slipping and sliding along what I assumed to be sidewalks, wading into snowbanks to avoid getting clipped by the plows out roving like East German gestapos. My camera thudded against my coat, already warped with layers. I cradled it awkwardly. I had it wrapped in a thin, waterproof covering that came with my camera bag. It worked similarly to one of those flies that go over tents and about just as effective.

It was beautiful to be out in the snowstorm. It was work to be out in the snowstorm. Both things can have equal weight. As I trudged, halting every so often when something caught my eye, my mind picked up its own badminton game. The volley:

Haven’t you been out here long enough? It’s kinda cold (whine). You still have to walk back home, you know. Not like you can just pop into a café to get warm. What do you think this is? 2018?

The response:

(Eye-roll) It’s not that cold, c’mon. And it’s gorgeous out here! You’re lucky to even be out here! And haven’t you had enough of the couch and the blanket and the bag of salty chemicals and the book you’re not even pretending to read anymore and the vague sense that your brain is slowly turning into some kind of viscous molasses-like substance that any day now will just start to ooze out of your ear and pool in a puddle of sap that you’ll notice with only the smallest register of astonishment but mostly disinterest because really this seemed like a foregone conclusion after months of festering existential ennui?

Point. Set. Match. I kept moving.

And so it was that I put myself on the trail that runs along the river, which had become one of my favorite and reliable walking destinations in these past months of restriction and caution. It’s not a spectacular route. There are no rocky outcrops singing with the crush and crunch of roiling waters. No bends delivering a stunning vista of hills and fields. No tire swings dangling over irresistible drops into deep kettles of water. The river is an urban waterway—functional, hearty, modest, a sports bra, a metal thermos, a well-oiled baseball glove passed down from parent to kid. Boston’s lumbering Charles River can have the pizazz and the tourons that come with it.

The seemingly unremarkable nature of this stretch feels like a challenge to me. I return and return and return and I always find something that not just catches my gaze, but holds it. I keep expecting the well to run dry and then KERBLAM! I’m 25 feet from the shoreline and just happen to glance to my left, the snow raining down harder now, and I’m gifted with the spectacle of this ethereal creature that seems like she belongs in Jurassic Park than in a suburb of Boston in 2021. And it feels staged. It feels very Disney theme park, cue the animatronic bird to give the tourons a thrill. It works. I’m standing stock still as if breathing too heavy will make it all disappear. I see a couple about fifteen feet ahead of me, a little closer to the edge of the river in the same pose. Witnesses to this strange and beautiful synchronicity of things—the snow, the river, the bird generous enough to give us a viewing, and the astonishing ballet of moments divided into what appears on the surface as random decisions, arbitrary maneuvers, orchestrated by something unseen, but not unfelt, bringing us all to this spot at the exact right time.  

Spark Bird

Three middle-aged men stand in a small section of parking lot in front of the iron gates of the boating club. The club sits on the edge of a dam splitting the upper and lower portions of the lake. In the pink light of dawn, the men adjust their spotting scopes and peer through cameras outfitted with comically long phallic lenses. I watch them as they chat and sip coffee from their travel mugs and thermoses. Every couple of minutes they lean down, their heads bobbing behind their scopes much like the creatures they are intent to observe. Birdwatchers.

Suddenly one of them breaks off and steps behind his scope. He tilts it up to a near 45-degree angle, training it on a stand of trees across the lake. The others follow. Excitement! One quickly holds his camera at the end of his scope. What began as my routine morning walk by the lake is interrupted. I initially detoured into the parking lot to admire the sunrise over the lake, but now I have to stay for the show.  

I follow the long black pointer of the man’s camera lens. Two bald eagles perch on the uppermost branches of a cluster of spiny pines. Even from my distance, without any fancy “spotting scopes” but the two on my face, I can make out the white crest of their heads, the soft curve of their arched wings equipped with ferocious velocity. I take out my phone and use the camera to zoom as much as I can to see more detail. Grainy and pixilated, the birds are still majestic.

And I think they know it.

With their classic, chiseled features and aura of confidence and command, eagles are like Cary Grant in bird form. They are also America’s national symbol, something that almost didn’t happen. Eagles became the national emblem in 1782 (#branding), beating out Ben Franklin’s first choice for a national symbol: the turkey. Franklin claimed the eagle was a bird of “bad moral character” for its tendency to poach other birds’ captures, going so far as to harassing another bird until it gives up what was theirs to begin with. To review: Ben Franklin criticizing a super power, alpha species whose natural proclivity is to take something that doesn’t belong to it, by force if necessary.  Let us pause here for a moment of silence as we mark the death of irony.

Birdwatching wasn’t really recognized as a “thing-,” neither a pastime nor amateur scientific or naturalist pursuit–until the early 1900s. Newly formed organizations like the Audubon Society aimed to protect and preserve bird populations from the deadliest predator of all: man and his staggering ignorance. It’s not like we’re just going to run out of birds, people said as they loaded their guns. That’s like saying cigarettes are bad for you!

Bird watching books, field guides, the affordability and accessibility of binoculars following World War II, and America’s automotive and interstate booms all contributed to a steady uptick in this pastime that, unless you were traveling great distances, required not much else but standing around looking. Of course, I say that with some sarcasm, but when you consider the basic birdwatching principle in relation to our high holy culture of perpetual distraction and micrometer-sized attention spans, birdwatching is kind of the balls.

My friend Alex fell into birdwatching when he was eleven. He told me about growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and having limited access to nature. His house anchored the end of a dead end street that rested against a few acres of overgrown field and trees that had once formed part of a nearby estate. A chain link fence marked the perimeter of the field. Alex found it was criminally easy to ease his seven-year-old self over the chain link fence and drop into what, to him, looked like Oz. Weird deposits of abandoned building materials—marble pillars, old light fixtures—mingled with tall, reedy grass shot through with daylilies and blue bells, plants more often found occupying prize positions in domestic gardens than amongst the concrete and sandy soil of city land. Over time, Alex not only mapped the geography of his own personal Arcadia, he also began noting and compiling the various bird species he encountered—topping out at 90 by the time he left home for college.

“Everyone has a spark bird,” he told me.

“Spark bird?”

 “Yeah, it’s like the first bird they remember really seeing that gets them hooked on birding.”

“The ornithological gateway drug?”

He laughed. “Something like that. You know, it sparks you up, fires you up to see more.” He shrugged. “At least that was the case for me, but it was more than just birds. It was all of nature.”

I nodded. This made sense to me. If our encounters with nature aren’t mediated—the African safari, the guided tropical forest excursion—they feel increasingly rare. When it comes to things like grizzlies and pumas, this is a relief. But the more our world shrinks to fit in a screen, the more time we spend serving the bankrupt gods of technology, the less time we’re spending, as gamers say, IRL: In Real Life. And that includes in and with the natural world.

Each time the birdwatchers raise their binoculars to their eyes or peer through their scopes, they are waiting for something to happen, for a secret to reveal itself in the form of a shock of scarlet head or in the unexpected return gaze from two eyes like and both unlike their own.

Spark.

Into The Mystic

The first snowstorm of the season came on hard and fast. Streets became slalom courses. Trees dripping with meringue. The world finally hushed and stilled for all the right reasons instead of for all the strangest ones.

Snow needled my face as I carefully made my way through the slippery, thickly carpeted streets down to the Mystic River. Named “missi-tuk,” which means “large estuary,” by the Algonquan first nation tribe, the Mystic originates north of Boston. It snakes through various communities like East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, eventually cutting across Medford, where I live. In addition to being an old waterway, the Mystic has historical significance. That’s one of the things I love about living in New England—you can’t get more than a mile in any direction without running across a house that belonged to a Puritan shoemaker or, if you’re in the historically sexy town of Salem, Massachusetts, the park where they hung witches. New England still pulses with the heartbeat of generations past.

Touching upon so many towns, the Mystic quickly became a major artery in the new colonies. In 1774, 260 British soldiers rowed from Boston up the Mystic to an area in Somerville known as Winter Hill. They marched about a mile to an old stone building where the Puritans stored the largest supply of gunpowder in the region: The Powder House. The British raided the supply, touching off a regional skirmish that came to be known as the Powder Alarm (the colonists were not known for clever branding). Later on, the Mystic supported a thriving shipping industry. The creation of the Middlesex canal joined the Charles and Mystic with the Merrimack River that bypassed Lowell, a center of industrial revolution in the 1800s. Schooners cruised the watery highway transporting timber and molasses for rum distilleries between Medford and the West Indies. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to Paul Revere galloping along the Mystic on April 18, 1775, warning patriots against a British attack. The Mystic has seen some action or, to put it another way: if these riverbanks could talk.

Despite its importance, or, at least, former prominence, the Mystic is missable. It’s not very wide or pronounced. Trees and houses line its banks along with the depressing cache of litter. Its waters are the color of dirty, boiled laundry. Swans, ducks, and geese make homes in its reedy shoreline. For all of its former prominence, the Mystic has made itself quietly unobtrusive in the midst of urban sprawl. Kind of like an elderly retiree.

It’s possible to feel sorry for a field, to pity a patch of woods, to have remorse for a river. I know this because I feel bad for the Mystic. And I’m not ashamed of my sentimentality, which in these parts is usually spent on mourning the loss of a beloved dive bar or pining away for world championship banners. It’s our lack of empathy for nature that has put us, in some cases, literal hot water.

In the many months of staying close to home, I’ve gotten to know this part of the Mystic and appreciate her humble beauty—the way the water mirrors a Tiffany blue sky in May, how the trees along her banks explode in golds and oranges in the fall, turning the landscape into a Bierstadt painting. Resilient. Generous. A place, like a person, contains multitudes.

Reaching the overpass where the Mystic flows under, I sunk in the snow up to my shins, enjoying the quiet, deserted atmosphere. Maybe it was like this in 1630 or 1790, nothing to obscure the river or detract from her power. Patches of ice and snow spread out from the shoreline, the water turning a lethal blue under the stormy sky. The Mystic resting like a sapphire necklace against a pale neck—luminous and precious and enduring.