April 25, 2011

My Patch - birding the "Lot"

my childhood patch now landscaped...
We moved to the last house on a dead end street in a modern enclave amidst Tory Row, Cambridge. Our street, unlike our neighbors to both the east and west was a relatively recent development of split family houses built during the post WWII boom . Since that time each house has been bought by young families, split and re-walled into apartments, and larger residences. Had our street continued north it would have emptied onto Brattle Street and the monstrous mansions of Tory Row, but instead it ran into a monstrous chunk of undeveloped land, once part of a larger estate. What I affectionately titled “the Lot” was in fact property owned by a prosperous Boston architect that by some fate of bylaws was not allowed to develop it. “Street frontage” was the short coming and this beautiful ¼ acre of fields, fruit trees, hawthorns, and spruce sat wild and calm in the heart of Cambridge.

Our small back yard was separated from this wilderness by a low chain link fence, the links of which were spaced perfectly for a small child’s shoe. I try to remember what year it must have been when I first put toe in chain and hopped the fence. It must have taken effort, hand over shaking hand, leg flip, tender straddle, foot onto the concrete retaining wall, and then a small drop onto soft soil. I can’t imagine my mother allowing me to make this jump, let alone having the agility to have done it in my first few years of life. It must have been roughly at age seven when I made the leap.

The Lot was a wonder of nature tinged with humanity, enough to make it hauntingly fun, forbidden, and secretive. The architect, to whom the land belonged, left enormous hunks of marble and granite from some strange project left unfinished. Piles of stones, one which read, “Court House,” were stacked in the far corner adjoining an abandoned house. There were old light fixtures on posts around the field, the kind one would expect around a skating pond or makeshift ball field. There were pre-existing paths, and patches of non-native plants like crocus, blue bells, day lilies, and rhododendron. No one used the field but for an annual mowing, an older neighbor and his arthritic dog, and on occasion a homeless man who would sleep in the far corner. It was for the most part, mine.

I ran the lot one part Robinson Crusoe and one part Park Ranger. I made mazes in the grass and hid from goblins in winter snow caves. I mapped the paths and began recording the species of birds I found, which came to almost 90 before I left home. I rode my bike, shot homemade arrows, climbed apple trees, and buried pets. I took friends there, but more often hopped the fence alone after school or on summer evenings and listened to the click of bats while chewing on the mint that grew everywhere. Overtime, I moved from a childhood romance to an adolescent relationship with this piece of land. I studied the wildflowers and trees, knew where the rabbits burrowed and the Carolina wrens fed. It was a natural coming of age in the middle of Cambridge on a small chunk of land that grounded me in a love of natural history, the outdoors, and the very idea of place to this day.


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic backyard! Gloria Hall

Anonymous said...

each person's paradise is what we make of it..sounds like a perfect place for a boy. Dachsiemom

jfitzgd said...

I know where this "small chunk of land" is and it is encouraging that one small child found in it a wellspring for his imagination as well as a place to inspire him to learn how to see. It was your 100 Acre Wood, Alexander - and perhaps your blog post gives us some indication that at least to a young imagination, scale is relatively unimportant.

bio and contact

My photo
is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

Schedule Alex for a field trip, lecture or classroom visit

Enter your email address to receive notifcations when new posts are published:

Delivered by FeedBurner