Outdoor Families Magazine, October 31, 2015–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 can’t have a pet of their own, because our apartment, on the first floor of a two-flat in Boston, is just too small. 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 and drive through Boston to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation. According to our guidebook, “100 Places to Get Outdoors with Children in Boston,” Belle Isle is the site of the last remaining salt marsh in Boston.
Before being settled and filled, back when Back Bay was actually a bay, Boston was a land mass edged by salt marshes. Along Boston Harbor, Charles River, Mystic River, up to Saugus and down to 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.
Now, we drive up 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 neighborhoods on the northern edge of Boston—East Boston and Chelsea—and the ocean, near Logan Airport and across from a horseracing 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. At the very edge of our sight, in every direction, are buildings:wooden tenements marching up the the hills of East Boston, skyscrapers huddled in the downtown Financial District. Our daily life at the periphery, we are reminded of the world as it was, before we started clearing and building, electrifying and plumbing.
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, balancing on single legs.
We pass scrubby pines, birches, beech, oak trees, and in the mid-distance, the dark skeletons of tree branches, beyond which there are other trees, bright circles of yellow. There is a narrow muddy path into the reeds. My husband heads in with his camera, and we follow him. This does not seem like a great idea. The park is too quiet and the path, with reeds several feet above our heads is too hidden. “I feel like I am in a movie and something bad is about to happen,” says Naomi. After a few yards, we reverse course.
On the car ride back, we talk about how, while the park was pretty, it is not a place the kids should go to by themselves, how it is important to be with other people when visiting an isolated place.
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.