by Laura Spark
Plumpkin is dead, and we have to get out of the house. Our neighbor Lila won Plumpkin in a school lottery. A squeaky-voiced, black guinea pig, Plumpkin was much loved by Lila and my twin 12-year old daughters, Lea and Naomi, who don?t have a pet of their own.
Our usual solution to the no-pet problem is to get outside. Hang out on the front porch and admire the neighbor?s cats. Run in the park at dusk and see if we can spot newborn bunnies. But today is one of those cold, grey days when it is hard to get moving?and maybe Plumpkin?s death calls for something more than a neighborhood walk.
So Lila has come over, and my husband, the girls and I get in the car. Our destination? A drive through Boston to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation that is, according to our guidebook ?Outdoor with Kids Boston: 100 Fun Places to Explore in and Around the City,? the last remaining salt marsh in Boston.
Before being settled and filled, back when the Back Bay area was actually a bay, Boston was a land mass edged by salt marshes, coastal grasslands that are regularly flooded by sea water. Along Boston Harbor, the Charles River and Mystic River, up to town of Saugus and down to the town of Quincy, the Massachusetts coast was lined with grasses and reeds. Soaked twice daily with ocean water, the marshes buffered the land beyond and provided a rich environment for birds, marine life and plants.
To get there, we drive up U.S. Route 1A, past tightly packed wooden houses, beyond the New England Casket Company, past Royal Roast Beef, past the Subway sandwich shop, then past the real subway, until we get to the Suffolk Downs MBTA stop across from the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation. Sandwiched between two densely populated areas on the northern edge of Boston?East Boston and the town of Chelsea?and the Atlantic Ocean, near Logan International Airport and across from the famous Suffolk Downs horse-racing track, this natural refuge seems wholly out of place. But of course the marsh was here first; the houses, donut shops and churches came later.
On a fall day, Belle Isle is all yellows, greys, rusts, orange, greens and browns below low-hanging cloud cover, a grey blue sky. Belle Isle Marsh is known for its birds, but all we see is airplanes: Alaskan Airlines, Southwest and Jet Blue. Lea, Naomi and Lila jump on a park bench and wave energetically at the sky. ?Bon voyage,? Lea calls.
We seem to be the only people here. We walk out one boardwalk to a small circle of water, then onto another that heads toward the ocean. The marsh is an expanse of low, horizontal yellows and greens, spotted with open water that?s surrounded in the distance by evidence of civilization: wooden tenements dotting the hills of East Boston and skyscrapers huddled in the downtown Financial District. Although our city life looms in the periphery of our vision, we focus on what?s before us: a flat, open space, wide with possibility.
Turning back, we pass concrete blocks, remnants of the Suffolk Downs Drive-In movie theater. There are orange pine needles on green grass, brown oak leaves curling on grey stone dust. As we cross a bridge spanning a clear stream, my husband, a seventh-grade art teacher, takes photos to post in his art class. We arrive at a wooden observation tower. From the top, we finally see birds: six great egrets, motionless, each balancing on a single leg.
We pass scrubby pines, birches, beech, oak trees, and in the mid-distance, dark skeletons of tree branches beyond which are trees, bright circles of yellow. My husband heads toward a narrow, muddy path into the reeds, and we follow. But the park feels so quiet, and the reeds reach several feet above our heads. Suddenly, taking this path doesn?t seem like a good idea.
?I feel like I am in a movie, and something bad is about to happen,? Naomi says.
Although we love finding solitude in outdoor spaces like this one, where the land gives clues to its past, it feels a little too quiet, the way a silent alleyway can feel ominous. We follow our instinctual unease and reverse course, heading to our car for the drive home.
When my daughters were 4 years old, Naomi said she didn?t like hiking. When I asked why, she thought for a minute and said, ?Too much walking.?
So why are we still dragging our kids out to the woods and marshes, occasionally heading down paths we really should avoid? Exercise, fresh air, exposure to different landscapes, I guess. But mostly we do it because we love the few moments we see animals in nature like egrets, reminding us that there are other worlds out there.
There are, of course, animals on our city street: cardinals and blue jays, mice, bees, spiders, and the occasional guinea pig. But there is something comforting about seeing animals in the wild, and a comfort, too, in the way nature can take back what was disrupted, the way white egrets can stand still in the water while planes roar overhead and subways roll across the street.
Laura Spark is an urban planner with expertise in affordable housing, homelessness, anti-poverty programs and sustainable development. She lives in Boston with her husband, artist Joe Carrigg, and twin daughters, Lea and Naomi Carrigg.