The Paradise of All These Parts
A Natural History of Boston
By John Hanson Mitchell BEACON PRESS
Copyright © 2008 John Hanson Mitchell
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8070-7148-9
Chapter One A Short Walk on the Shawmut
The Place That Was Boston
On a bright day in early September, when the morning was fresh and sweet, and the goldenrods and asters were all abloom, and everywhere in thickets and field edges and woodlots the little white-throated sparrows were whistling, I set out on a short walk around the old Shawmut Peninsula. My intention that day was to see if I could circumambulate the boundaries of the original town of Boston by following the primordial shoreline of the little spit of upland upon which the city was built. But suffice it to say that the venture was doomed from the start. There have been any number of changes in the topography of the peninsula since those unrecorded days in the sixteenth century when the first European voyagers discovered the harbor, and in the end I was forced onto city streets, exposed to dangerous traffic, swept up by rushing herds of commuters, and assailed by noise and noxious fumes. But never mind, armed solely with naive ambition, I set out.
Boston in our time is a great, sprawling port city, stacked with the towering monuments of commercial accomplishment and set on the northwestern edge of a large bay dotted with many green islands. Seen from the height of one of these towers or from the window of a descending airliner, the town appears to roll out west, north, and south in a gray-green landscape of developed land that feathers gently into a vast leafy forest stretching south to the slopes of the Great Blue Hill and west to two eminences, Mount Wachusett and, farther off and standing alone, Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire. But the built city is an illusion, a later addition to the real bedrock landform that for 14,000 years lay silently on the right bank of a wide tidal river known since colonial times as the Charles. The original Shawmut Peninsula was a tight little island attached to the mainland by a narrow neck and remarkable primarily for a series of sharp hills that were visible to mariners from far out at sea.
My walkabout over this aboriginal landscape that day had a significant beginning on several levels. In a reversal of the epic journeys of classical literature, in which, after many adventures, the hero descends into the Underworld, on that fateful morning I had struggled upward through a labyrinth of dark tunnels, emerged from the Underworld at the Park Street T station, and burst into the upper airs of John Winthrop's celestial city on a hill. Here, under the translucent morning sky, I began my walk in the very place where, in a sense, the recorded story of Boston began-on the original cow common. It was on Beacon Hill that the misanthropic Anglican clergyman William Blackstone, the first permanent European resident of the Shawmut Peninsula, settled in 1625.
Blackstone was a slightly eccentric character, the first of many who would later inhabit this place. He rode around the countryside on the back of a brindle bull, lived alone in his English thatched cottage, and kept a few cows, a herd of pigs, and a vegetable garden, and, in another enduring characteristic of the site, he maintained a library of more than 180 books. He had come over with a company of Anglican adventurers headed by Robert Gorges in 1623 that settled temporarily south of the Shawmut, near Quincy. In less than two years, having had a taste of two New England winters, Gorges gave up and returned to England, but for reasons known only to himself, Blackstone chose to remain. He moved up to the peninsula and eventually established himself on its western slope, just above the mouth of the Charles River. Five years later the Arbella landed with a company of Puritan settlers under the leadership of the colony's first governor, John Winthrop, and at Blackstone's invitation, settled on the peninsula and renamed the place Boston.
All that came very late in the geographic history of this little patch of the North American coast, however. The real story begins with the land. In fact the real story begins in the Underworld, wherein lies the evidence of the elemental forces that formed this particular place. Just beyond the tiled walls of the Boston subway system lies the dark matter that makes up the real foundation upon which the celestial city was built. Geologist friends of mine, whose time lines tend to run in millions of years, explain that construction of the subway system, later excavations for the Boston Common Parking Garage and Center Plaza, and, most especially, work on the aptly named Big Dig and its harbor tunnels, encountered a deep bed of shale, forged more than 600 million years ago, when the general landscape around Boston was characterized by a massive chain of volcanoes and associated earthquakes and mudslides. The ever-changing patterns of the earth's crust and the upheavals of vast, eruptive volcanoes and sinking terranes created, among other landforms, an immense depression in this region known as the Boston Basin. Over the eons, rains fell; rivers streamed down from the rising continent; the very earth shifted in its orbit around the sun; the climate cooled; and immense plates of ice came scraping down out of the north and then retreated. Seas fell away and rose again, and then, in the final act of stage setting, a tiny band of people from Siberia followed the walls of receding glacial ice northward and began settling in temporary hunting camps on top of the hills that the glacier left behind.
For the first 15,000 years of its dry-land existence, the tadpole-shaped strip of land that became Boston was characterized by these sharp little glacial hills-Copp's Hill, Fort Hill, Pemberton, Mount Vernon, and, of course, Beacon Hill, the highest of them all. Then, in the autumn of 1630, John Winthrop and his company of Puritans moved across the Charles River to the Shawmut Peninsula. Unlike Blackstone, who chose to live with nature rather than contrary to it, the Puritans began to remake the place shortly after they landed. They cleared the native forest that had supported Blackstone's herd of swine. They constructed lanes, then streets, then a "Great Highwaye to Roxberre." They built docks and tide mills, ferry landings, windmills, and meetinghouses, and when they were done with that, in order to create more dry land they leveled the hills and used the fill to widen the tadpole tail that once connected the peninsula to the mainland. In effect, the Puritans began a process of leveling and filling and digging and delving that is still going on in our time.
Not surprisingly, given his character, Blackstone decamped for the wilds of Rhode Island shortly after the work began.
These distant events, which seem far removed from the traffic and the politics and the hot pulse of contemporary Boston, are not so far removed nor as insignificant as one would think. The native people of this place, the linguistically associated group that came to be known as the Massachusett Indians, chipped their spear points and arrowheads from the volcanic rocks of the nearby Blue Hills. The freshwater spring that bubbled up from ancient gravel beds on Beacon Hill is one of the resources that encouraged the Puritans to settle on the peninsula. And many of the modern buildings that rose up in subsequent centuries were constructed of local granites laid down in a time when all the earth was young and life was just struggling upward out of primordial seas.
* * *
September is a fine month for a walk in Boston. From the summit of Beacon Hill above the Common on that bright morning, I could see below me an anomalous wooded landscape, its scrim of lacy branches and leaves nearly obscuring the wall of city buildings rising beyond. In the upper canopy of the city trees, I could see the little darting forms of migrating wood warblers, which had spent the summer in the vast spruce and fir forest of the Laurentian Shield in Canada and now, in late summer, were headed southward for Central America. Lower down, in remnant patches of shrubbery and the flower beds of the Public Garden, the ubiquitous white-throated sparrows were still moving through. I could hear their plaintive little whistles as I made my way along and also hear the rhythmic, bouncing song of goldfinches, the chuck of robins, the clucking of flocks of blackbirds, and even the periodic cry of a creamy white-winged gull slipping over the gold dome of the State House.
The leaves of the oaks and maples were just beginning to show the first tinges of autumn, and in spite of the surround of traffic, the air carried a fresh smell of vegetation and old moist earth. Elsewhere in this greening city, honey mushrooms and boletes and meadow mushrooms were forcing their way up out of the soils and logs in those little shrubby patches as yet untended by the vigilant city landscaping crews. Young spiderlings had climbed out onto the edges of leaves, high in the trees, and were paying out strands of gossamer in order to catch the breezes and parachute off to new territories. And even here, in the heart of the city, you might hear the scream of a red-tailed hawk, a species that has returned to the city in recent decades, along with peregrine falcons, owls, and other formerly banished predatory species.
A few late-arriving commuters were hurrying along below me on the paths of the Common. I could see nannies and mothers and au pairs out with their charges, some of whom, I noticed, were proudly pushing their own baby carriages. Tourists were headed south toward the Frog Pond and the Public Garden, and also in evidence that morning, on one of the lawns below the State House, was a group of five or six men and women with bedrolls and backpacks who, for one reason or another, having found themselves without shelter, had spent the night under the stars. These people, I had learned from previous encounters, have an understanding-if not an appreciation-of certain aspects of the natural night life of this city, the rats, bats, owls, raccoons, possums, and other dark creatures that emerge with dusk.
Over the years, the former cow common became the defining characteristic of the Boston mind. It used to be said that a Bostonian's world view was limited to fifty acres-the size of the original Common. And while it is true that the stage sets have changed over the past four hundred or so years, and the cast of characters has shifted decidedly, here under the sheltering trees is a remnant, or at least a hint, of the last of the unmade landscape that was the place the Massachusett Indians called Shawmut.
The Common has been much improved since the 1640s. Under the management of the Puritans, this area became a treeless, barren plot, overgrazed by cows and used for military training and, by way of entertainment, the exhibition of malingerers in stocks and pillories, not to mention the periodic hangings of criminals and witches, as well as those unfortunates who did not happen to agree with the strictures of Puritan doctrine. But the Puritans' descendants, having established themselves comfortably in the place, banished the cows in 1830, ceased the hangings of dissenters and witches, and replanted the parade grounds with elms, oaks, maples, hickories, and other native trees-some of which still survive. On this clear morning, the basketwork of their branches provided a pleasing contrast to the walls of glass and steel beyond.
My plan that day was to make my way across the Common toward the Charles River, cut through the area where Mount Vernon once stood, then turn and head south back through the Public Garden to Park Plaza and the theater district and thence northward through the financial district to the North End. From here my intention was to skirt the harbor and come back to the Common by way of Salem Street.
Roughly speaking, this route would follow the original shoreline of the peninsula, although with all the wharf building and tearing down of hills and filling up of wetlands it would be hard to know exactly where I was. For all I know, had I undertaken this walk in 1630, I would have been forced to walk on water at some points.
The name Shawmut is variously translated from the Algonquian as "land of living fountains," because of the many freshwater springs, or as "land accessible by water" or "place where we land our canoes." This last seems unlikely, since the whole Boston Basin, with its three rivers, must have been accessible by water from many points. For a while the Puritans also used the name Shawmut for their settlement, as Blackstone had. But early on they changed the name to Trimount, or Tremount, for the three sharp hills on the northwestern side of the peninsula. It was only later that they called the place Boston, an appellation borrowed from a town in Lincolnshire, England, whence some of the Puritans had come. Interestingly enough, the British Boston had a reputation for liberality, and in the early part of the seventeenth century it sheltered, albeit briefly, the company of extreme separatists who became known as Pilgrims and in 1620 made their way to Plymouth.
"Tadpole" is perhaps not the best description of the Shawmut Peninsula, in spite the wide seaward-facing head and the narrow tail connecting the land to the continent. Some land-use historians have seen a salamander in the landform, some refer to it as a pear, and along the way, some English settler must have seen a head, since for decades-until it was obliterated by filling-the tail was referred to as the Neck. Others have seen a closed fist, with knuckle-like hills. But perhaps the blobby, rounded shapes of Joan Miró's paintings best describe it. In fact, even "peninsula" is not an apt description, since the neck or tail commonly flooded at high tides and was swept by storm surges, creating a temporary island.
The hills were the most impressive characteristic of the place. One of these, Beacon Hill, was high enough to be seen from miles out at sea, and early in its English phase, it was the site of a literal beacon that helped guide ships. Beacon Hill was flanked on the west and east by Mount Vernon and Pemberton Hill. The three hills were steep, and as early as 1633 they were described as grass-covered, the trees having been stripped for fuel and house construction. The nearby islands in the harbor were thickly wooded, although some had been cleared by the Indians. When John Smith arrived, many of them were laid out with gardens of native corn, beans, and squash.
It is likely that earlier the whole Shawmut Peninsula was forested and interspersed with sinks and wet hollows where frogs and salamanders lurked. These murky freshwater wetlands must have resounded with music in early spring when the ice melted back and the wood frogs and spring peepers and toads began to sing. Their songs, which were among the earliest voices of the primordial peninsula, can be heard even today, according to one of my sources, a man named Earl, who sometimes sleeps on the Common. He described to me a sound like sleigh bells ringing from the empty sky that he had heard one night in spring: "I'm thinking Santa Claus is coming," he told me. "Then I remember it's spring and I don't know what the hell's going on."
The bells, I determined after some questioning, were the collective calls of spring peepers, tiny, two-inch-long tree frogs, which elsewhere in Boston have been recorded calling every month of the year, including January.
In the seventeenth century the hilly northern slopes of the landform were covered with native wildflowers, as well as blueberries and what the English called whortleberries, a European species closely related to huckleberries. One early record, written by Susan Pollard, the first white woman to set foot on the peninsula, described brushy hillsides, swamps, rough terrain, and vegetated hollows. Better records of the plants of the period come later, from an odd source-namely the privy of one Katherine Nanny Naylor, an upright citizen of the early settlement who lived on Cross Street in the North End in the late 1600s.
During an archeological survey for the Central Artery Project, researchers uncovered the privy of the household of Mistress Nanny Naylor and from their findings were able to piece together a sense of what life was like for those who had settled here.
Katherine Nanny Naylor was born in England in 1630 and died in Boston in 1715. Around 1650 she married a rich merchant named Robert Nanny and when he died after a few years of marriage, she married Edward Naylor. Brother Naylor, although rich from trade in the West Indies, was what we might term today; an abusive husband-an admittedly relative term for a man who lived in an era when women were viewed as chattel and there was a strong movement among Boston Puritans for women to be veiled in public. But old man Naylor was violent enough to have brought down the heavy weapons of Puritan law upon his property. We know all this, not from the archeological dig but from court records. Katherine Nanny Naylor petitioned the General Court for a divorce from Edward. The documents outline the abuses she and her children endured. Among other things, he kicked one child down a set of stairs. He also engaged in dalliances with his female servants. The court sided with Katherine, and she lived for the next thirty years on Cross Street, where the privy was uncovered.
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Copyright © 2008 by John Hanson Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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