Photos by Tom Hallock
A year ago, when UUA/Beacon left our location on Beacon Hill to move to the Innovation District, I sorely regretted the change of scenery on my morning walk into the office. No more expanses of grass, tree-lined paths, dogs frolicking, tourists feeding the squirrels, songbirds chirping, the occasional hawk soaring over the Common. Instead, the walk through concrete—despite the oasis of the Greenway—was decidedly less green. I had hopes of observing sea life from the bridge on my daily walk over the channel, but the water seemed devoid of anything but ubiquitous seagulls. No happy little seal face broke the surface, no fish jumped, no migratory waterfowl paddled. And yet, over the year and much to my surprise, I learned much about the natural world.
For one thing, I’ve never lived on the shore, so I had never had the opportunity to observe the tides week after week. I noticed the normal high and low water mark on the pilings in the channel. One day, I was surprised to see the water reaching almost to the top of the pilings, and perilously close to the boardwalk attached to the buildings on the eastern side. Soon after, I noticed the lowest tide I’d seen, revealing more of the gravelly “beach” below the channel’s western wall. What was going on? Had there been a storm? I seemed to recall learning in school something about the tides and the moon, so I looked it up. As most people are probably aware, the tides reach their highest and lowest extremes as the moon is at its most full and when it is new, at the turning of its cycle. But to me, this was an opportunity to observe in the real world a long-forgotten lesson in action: when the sun, moon, and earth are in a line, the gravitational pull is strongest, causing the greatest range of tides.
I also learned that while the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it also moves north and south. My route to work fell between two tall buildings, and each day the sun shone directly in my face. Of course, it was morning and I was walking east. Yet as the months wore on, I noticed that I no longer needed to shade my eyes. Wait—I walked in the same direction at the same time every day, but the sun had moved to the right and behind a building. I had just read a book on Cape Cod, The Outermost House, in which Henry Beston writes, “All these autumn weeks I have watched the great disk going south along the horizon of moorlands beyond the marsh…” Now I saw what he meant. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the sun moves south in the fall and north in the spring. Again, maybe this is common knowledge, but I hadn’t really made the connection and only noticed it because of my daily walk in the concrete jungle.
I had seen plenty of white jellyfish floating (moon jellies), and besides the seagulls, an occasional cormorant drying it wings. And once or twice a small flock of Mergansers (diving ducks) by the Tea Party ships. I’ve never seen a fish there, or anyone fishing. One sporting website says of the channel: “Fishermen will find that there are no fish here. That's right, no fish. No rainbows, no steelies, no pinks, no perch, no muskies. Nothing. So keep looking for another spot nearby and you'll be glad you did.”
But one night I did observe the surface of the water puckered in hundreds of little spots, as if being pecked from below. Maybe a school of small fish surface-feeding? According to a summer program run by the Children’s Museum, a survey of the area found sculpins (a small fish) as well as green crabs and mussels. Other than that, the water doesn’t seem to sustain much, probably because of the polluted street run-off. (Another project, massoyster.org, was seeking to establish oyster colonies to help filter the water, but I found no mention of the proposed beds being established.)
As we moved into the depths of one of the coldest and the snowiest winter on record, the channel exhausted what little it had to teach about life, but opened up a fascinating symposium on ice. As the slightly brackish water froze, the channel’s surface became a collection of giant rounded puzzle pieces from five feet to thirty-forty feet across, fitted up against each other and separated by black seams. The pieces jostled almost imperceptibly, nudging up miniature mountain ranges of ice as frozen continental plates collide. Soon there was no open water left, and the solid surface became covered in snow. With no access to food, the birds mostly abandoned the area, but as garbage thrown from the bridge began to accumulate, footprints charted their investigations. Around a beer bottle, many prints converged, but across the expanse, a gull had left a single dotted line, a graceful arc of stitching across a white sheet.
The signs left by humans were less poetic. As I noted the same pieces of garbage day after day—an overturned cardboard box, plastic water bottles, Styrofoam coffee cups, a glove, a shoe, cigarette butts—I was reminded of the base camps on Mt. Everest, where, I’ve read, garbage and feces are preserved frozen for decades. At least we could count on a melting, a flushing of the landscape (though of course the plastic would persist out of our sight).
One amusing consequence of the great freeze affected the drama of the daily Tea Party reenactments: among the vociferation and cries of “Huzzah” the heroic colonists hoisted their boxes of tea overboard, not to a satisfying splash, but a decidedly anti-climactic thud.
Now that spring is finally here and the tea once again splashes hourly, the life returning to the channel is mostly human. We sit on the benches at lunchtime or stroll on the boardwalk enjoying the sun and the harbor, watching those ubiquitous gulls. But if we pay attention and observe the natural world around us, who knows what we might learn.
About the Author
Alexis Rizzuto, Contributing Editor: After teaching creative nonfiction for many years, Alexis Rizzuto started in the publishing business at the Kneerim & Williams literary agency, then moved to the editorial side at Da Capo Press before coming to Beacon Press, where she has acquired books about the environment (energy, climate, food, nature, conservation). Titles include: Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks by Michael Lanza, Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability by Phil Warburg, and Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas by Eva Saulitis.