Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Relationship of Fresh Pond and the Charles River in Cambridge

Marilyn submitted the following column to the Cambridge Chronicle in the February 10 to 12 period:

Skip Schloming’s column, “Don’t fence me out at Fresh Pond” (Cambridge Chronicle, January 26, 2006), raises important issues. I’m unfamiliar with the details at Fresh Pond except as given by him, but many aspects of that project sound
like plans for Magazine Beach.

As at Fresh Pond, the city’s $1.5 million project at Magazine Beach began with ripping out crabapples and other plants, including pine trees, asters, goldenrods, and evening primroses in full bloom. In both places, the official explanation is that public open space is being “restored,” to “a natural habitat for native plants and animals.” Fences are coming to open space—-a contradiction in terms—-and public access will be restricted.

Schloming says that Cambridge is trying to “increase the parks available for people and dogs,” but evidence from Fresh Pond and Magazine Beach indicates otherwise. Indeed, he and Lenore Schloming (letter, Cambridge Chronicle, February 2, 2006) observe the city’s new enforcement of an obsolete leash law diminishes the space
available for people and dogs.

My own observation is that the city is using the “restorations” and leash law to convince us that shuffling the design and designations of existing open space equals more open space. Each project is touted as a new item to satisfy some constituency displaced by previous shuffling. Yet as Mr. Schloming observes, the shuffling does not—-it cannot—-actually create more open space. The effect at Fresh Pond is “to reduce the recreational area available to the public,” be they primarily soccer players, dogs and their walkers, joggers, or nature lovers.

The interlocked story of “restorations” at Fresh Pond, Lusitania Field, and Magazine Beach shows that the city has chosen, as the 2000 Green Ribbon Report recommended, to pit active and passive users against each other rather than to acquire new open space to satisfy increased demand as the city gets built out and more populous. Organized sports and nature lovers have previously been set against each other. Now dog walkers have been added to the list. In the confusion we lose sight of the city’s policy.

Mitigation for habitat destroyed at Neville Manor is to be at Lusitania Field. Organized soccer players ejected from Lusitania Field are promised the open
space at Magazine Beach. At Magazine Beach, if the city proceeds with plans to destroy the wet meadows there and install fences and bright lights, Frisbee
players, pick-up soccer teams, as well as nature lovers, wildlife, and anyone who wants a quiet walk by the river will be the losers. We should all be calling for real, new, open space.

Cambridge’s “restorations” are designers’ concepts tethered to little in evolutionary science. Their “native plants” invoke some indeterminate era after the last Ice Age and are not now, contrary to assertions, best adapted to either Fresh Pond or Magazine Beach. These “native plantings” need special treatment to survive and money to replace as they die. At Magazine Beach, Jersey barriers, plastic fences, and coir fascine protect the designer plants stuck in after the ones the wind and birds planted were ripped out. The last time coir—-the prepared fiber from coconut husks—-was seen on the Charles was probably the last time sailing ships anchored at Cambridgeport with coir ropes. This may be the historical period to which the “restoration” refers. The “natives” planted in the coir fascine, however, never grew in Magazine Beach’s salt marshes while those ships sailed by.

So at Magazine Beach, the “restoration” doesn't mean undamming the Charles and returning Cambridgeport to tidal marshes. Similarly, the “restoration” of Fresh
Pond doesn't mean eliminating the golf course, water treatment plant, or Neville Manor and restoring the ecosystem of Alewife, of which Fresh Pond is a part.
Again, they are design concepts in the service of a city budget with no new open space.

These design concepts also seem to be the last refuge of nativism, an argument for the moral and practical superiority of natives that wouldn’t be tolerated in
any other sphere of life in Cambridge. Natives, according to the late Cantabrigian Stephen Jay Gould, are

only those organisms that first happened to gain and
keep a footing. . . . In this context, the only
conceivable rationale for the moral or practical
superiority of “natives” (read first-comers) must lie
in a romanticized notion that old inhabitants learn to
live in ecological harmony with surroundings, while
later interlopers tend to be exploiters. But this
notion . . . must be dismissed as romantic drivel.
(Arnoldia, Spring 1998, p. 8).

We are all familiar with the unfortunate political uses of such arguments when applied to persons. Applying them to the city’s open spaces devastates our
natural environment and deprives us of present beauty in the name of what is destroyed. We urgently need to halt these ruinous “restorations” and have public
hearings to address the issues Mr. Scholming raises.

Marilyn Wellons