Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Murder of Crows

We know to say “pride of lions, gaggle of geese, school of fish,” but why? As it turns out, social standing among Medieval European nobility required that men should know their venery – the proper naming of groups of animals – else be taken for crass and uneducated. Collections of these terms culminated in a master list compiled in The Book of St. Albans, in 1486. The term “A murder of crows” dates back at least that far, but unfortunately without any historic explanation as to why “murder.”

Anyone delving into the history of venery should consult "An Exaltation of Larks," by Jame Lipton. Older versions of "murder of crows" were written as "mursher of crowys" and "murther of crowes." The 'murther' (or 'murthre') spelling was common into the 1600s but is now archaic. Similarly, 'crawe' was Old English and 'crowe' Middle English before evolving into 'crow.'  

From Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."  Crows were trained to fly
to the jungle gym. Special effects crows were added to make the
number of birds larger than it actually was.
Crows do gather. One of the key scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, cuts back and forth between the inside of a small school and the progressively larger number of crows gathering on the playground equipment outside. In real life, when crows happen upon an owl they will sound an alarm call that draws other crows from miles around. The resultant mob of crows, all cawing loudly, will harass the owl until it leaves the area. Crows will also mob hawks. It sounds very much as if the crows intend bloody murder, and perhaps that led to the historic term.

An oft-mentioned folklore on “murder” is that a group of crows can decide to turn on one of their own, pecking it to death. The truth in this is debatable. A solitary crow happening upon a crow family’s space will be set on, but driven away, not killed. These attacks can be many-against-one because families are more than just the mated pair. Offspring from the previous year or two stay near their parents and help with feeding and defending the new babies.

During the spring/summer nesting season families are scattered, but in fall and winter crows prefer to congregate, especially at night. Foraging flocks of 10 to 50 will start to cluster as evening nears, then fly to join other flocks in a preferred night roosting area, where numbers can be as high as in the thousands. In northern regions these tree roosts may be in parks and cemeteries within cities; the thinking being that the winter temperatures in cities are slightly warmer than in the surrounding countryside, and also that the ambient night light of cities discourages marauding owls.

Locally, the population of crows has been impacted by West Nile Virus (WNV). The virus is endemic and non-lethal in many species of birds in Africa and the Middle East. It was first detected in the United States in 1999, in wild crows living at the Bronx Zoo. WNV then rapidly spread across the continent. Mosquitoes are the major vector, but raptors and scavengers can become infected by eating ill or dead animals. The viral strain that reached North America was particularly lethal to crows. The crow population in Massachusetts is half of what it was fifteen years ago. There is evidence that the negative impact of WNV is stabilizing in recent years, with some states showing recovery from the lowest bird counts. 

WNV also infects people. Most will have no symptoms. About 20 percent will develop fever, headache, muscle ache, nausea or skin rash (risk of symptoms increases with age). Less than one percent will develop a severe illness. In Massachusetts there were fewer than ten cases reported each year for 2013 and 2014.

WNV is not the only bird virus troubling the U.S. Apparently, wild ducks or geese migrating overhead over chicken and turkey farms in the mid-west have caused an avian flu epidemic. Tens of millions of birds are either dead, dying or else being euthanized to prevent spread of H5N2 avian virus to other farms. The risk of human cross-infection from this strain of virus is very, very low, but do expect to be paying higher prices for eggs, chicken and turkey for months to come. And pet food, too, as laying hens, when culled for declining egg production, end up in cat and dog food.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Screed about Litter

OARS: Assabet River clean-up, 2013
There are patterns to litter, and mysteries, too.  Litter is not the same as garbage or trash. The latter consist of miscellaneous items gathered about the household, and then disposed of as an assemblage - plastic bags in plastic bins, set out once a week for the garbage man to haul away. In passing, there are times families have to hastily decamp from their rent arrears or foreclosed abode, perhaps to some smaller space, perhaps a finished basement in a parents' home, where there is less space for their stuff. Said stuff, hastily stuffed into black plastic bags, ends up in rented storage. And when the rent goes unpaid and the lock is cut off the door preliminary to an auction of the locker's contents, the forlorn pile of filled plastic bags is referred to as "matching luggage."

Litter is what people discard while in motion: cigarette butts, chewed gum, food wrappings, disposable coffee cups, lottery tickets and bottles that once contained beer, wine or hard spirits. In Maynard, a small park by the footbridge over the Assabet River has been a drinkers' haven long, long before it was a park. Annual river clean-ups have removed hundreds of pounds of broken glass from the river, but as spring's high water recedes, newly exposed pieces of old glass see the light. On a shelf in my office sits an intact glass Caldwell's Rum bottle at least fifty year old. Blessedly, more of the alcohol-related litter these days is plastic rather than glass.  

Bud Light can, very flattened
Empty beer cans in the woods are mute testimony to underage drinking. Bud Light is the most common find. This preference was confirmed in a survey of 1,032 teenage drinkers, reported in the science journal Alcoholism in 2013. Almost 30% reported they had consumed Bud Light within the past 30 days. Please! If you are going to drink beer and litter, drink a beer that tastes like beer.

As mentioned above, throwing something into a river does not make it disappear. There is an annual river clean-up every August that has removed hundreds of tires (tires!) from the ConcordSudbury and Assabet Rivers, plus the expected bottles, cans, etc. And shopping carts. And bicycles. One local kayaker, self-named the Trashpaddler on his blog, is on the water about 100 times a year, photographing nature and collecting litter (also photographed). Kudos to all those who haul trash out of our local waters.    

Discarded lottery tickets are rarely found more than 100 yards from the convenience store where they were purchased. So we are talking about a person without a car spending $1 to $5 on pieces of cardboard in a hope for instant riches. Non-winning tickets are instantly discarded. No one wants to put a losing ticket into a pocket, to be dealt with later, because the losingness of the card rubs off on the holder. A suggestion here - don't buy the tickets. Instead, walk along, dropping dollar bills every few minutes. The end effect for you is the same (good-by money), but you have made strangers very happy.  

CALDWELL'S RUM bottle (pint)
Plain white foam coffee cups, ordered in bulk, cost about two cents each. But very soon you may only be able to see these in museums. City after city have banned the use of foam for food and drink. New York's law goes into effect July 1st. Dunkin' Donuts has agreed to comply (at least in New York), but McDonald's is phasing out foam nationally. Plastic water bottles, another eyesore, were banned in Concord in 2012 and recently partially banned in San Francisco. And while on the topic of bans we never saw coming, smoking in bars was just banned in New Orleans. What's next - Vegas?

Back to local litter - for the many people who live near enough to town-owned woodlands to consider dragging a Christmas trees into the woods - don't.  I have seen paths at the end of dead end streets with the entrances bracketed by decaying tree corpses ranging from freshly green (some still draped in tinsel) to years old skeletonized remains. This is not returning your tree to nature. It is littering, plain and simple, and creating a fire hazard too. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

More Murders in Maynard

As noted in a column last year, Maynard 100 years ago was a violently different town than it is today. Town records and newspaper accounts show roughly a murder every other year during the period 1910-1940, placing our town well above the national average even during that violent era. A sampling of murders from long ago: 

1901: Joseph Fredesco, age 18, was found dead in the Assabet River. Fredesco had been in the country just two weeks, in Maynard just two days, and was employed with a railroad work crew as water boy. He had eaten the noonday meal with co-workers, but his absence noted late afternoon led to the search that found his body early that evening, upstream from the Ben Smith Dam. An examination discovered a head wound on the right side, bleeding from the left ear, and multiple bruises on his back, although the actual cause of death was drowning. The supposition was that he had gone to the river bank to bathe in the shallows, his clothes being found on the riverbank, and was attacked there by a person or persons unknown, then pushed into the river while unconscious. Fredesco did not know how to swim. This was the third sudden death in Maynard within 24 hours, but the other two were clearly natural causes.

In a non-fatal incident that same 4th of July week, Richard Parmenter was shot in the thigh while walking down a street with his daughter. It was determined that the bullet was from a stray rifle shot from some distance away. Unlike others mentioned in this column, Parmenter was not a recent immigrant - his family had crossed the ocean in 1639. Dr. Frank U. Rich came to Parmenter's house and removed the bullet with a forceps. The newspaper account did not mention any use of anesthesia, and this was decades before the invention of antibiotics. Parmenter survived his wound - Glenwood Cemetery records have him dead and buried in 1934. From an 1899 news item, Dr. Rich was the first citizen of Maynard to own an automobile.    

1915: Stefana Terrasi, age 27, was shot dead on a late Sunday night in April in the front hallway of a house not his own. Police identified him as living in West Concord and working at the gunpowder mills. The medical examiner determined Terrasi had been shot three times from behind. Given the position of his body - face down, head away from the entrance - the thinking was that he had been trying to get away from someone he knew (or else had recently meet and deeply offended). A news report at the time mentioned that "...there was a crowd of people about the place all the afternoon, Sunday, and there was a great deal of noise and evidences of drinking."

1923: Rosario Buscemi, age 38, shot in an apartment building on Main Street. He and his brother had gone there to confront someone. When that person would not open the door the brothers started shooting at the door. The occupant shot back through the door, hitting Rosario. His brother fled to New York, where he stayed and raised a family.

1924: The town's annual report listed two men dead from bullet wounds to the head, but perusal of newspaper accounts found both to be suicides. Frank Vodoklys, age 59, immigrant from Poland, was despondent over the failing of his meat and provisions business (in the building now Morey's Tavern). Survived by his wife and five children. Oscar Hietala, immigrant from Finland, age 45, had recently learned of his wife's death, in Finland. He had taken to drinking heavily (despite this being during Prohibition). Survived by four children in Finland.

Nationally, there were peaks in murder rates from 1920-1935 and 1970-1995; both periods exceeded eight per 100,000 population per year. Current national rate is 4.5 per 100,000 with Massachusetts at two per 100,000. There are some interesting theories as to why murder rates go up or down, such as up during bad financial times or popularity of new illegal drugs creating violent competition amongst sellers, down from better policing, more violence-prone people in jail for lesser crimes and the availability of birth control reducing unwed mother pregnancies. One novel theory is that childhood exposure to lead (from lead paint and leaded gasoline) results in violence-prone adults, so as blood lead levels decreased nationally so did murders, decades later.     

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

One Red Tulip in a Field of Yellow

Corner Maple and Brooks (click to enlarge)
May 5, 2015: The intersection of Summer, Maple and Brooks Streets is abloom with 400 tulips, courtesy of volunteer efforts of the Maynard Community Gardeners. Go look.

Every plant, planted, is a commitment to the future. Some commitments take longer than others. Nut-bearing trees take tens of years to reach good yields. Flowering bulbs, on the other hand, represent a gardener's shortcut. Because commercial bulb growing operations produce bulbs of optimal size, all the gardener has to do is make a hole in the ground, step back, and wait until spring. 

Tulips are packaged by type to bloom in early- mid- or late-spring. This week's flowers, from bulbs planted in the fall of 2012, are mid-spring blooming Darwin hybrids, in yellow, red, pink and orange. The planting closest to Summer Street is all yellow, with the exception of one red tulip.  

Planting in well-drained soil will all but guarantee the first year's bloom. Ideally, the plant's leaves will capture enough solar energy to create a good-sized new bulb for the subsequent year. But in less than ideal conditions the new bulb will be smaller, and the next year, smaller still. These compromised bulbs either put out one large leaf and no flower or small leaves and a stunted flower. And that is a signal to dig everything up and start over. In this year, the third year of blooms, most of the tulips are still uniform in timing, height and flower size, but a significant number are starting to fail.    

Balancing rock, near tulip beds
If you plan to plant bulbs this fall, know that any set of instructions beginning with "Make a hole in the ground..." is misleadingly simplistic. There are three basic strategies - make a hole for each individual bulb, digging a trench for a row of bulbs, or dig out an entire bed and put in lots of bulbs. My preference is to go big. Because, honestly, a row of a dozen tulips is pitiful. If you buy into making a big impact then purchase at least fifty bulbs of the same type. Next, dig a hole covering eight square feet, eight inches deep. Discard all plant matter, roots and rocks.

Set aside for later examination all mysterious foreign objects. Things I've unearthed in my yard include cattle-sized bones, pottery shards, a 1968 quarter, square-cut nails, roofing nails, whole glass bottles and lots of broken glass.   

Next, put back two inches of the dirt, add an equal amount of compost (either from your compost pile or purchased) and mix. Firmly press the tulip bulbs into the loose soil about four inches apart. Avoid making rows. Cover with another two inches of dirt and then water copiously. Add another two inches of dirt, then walk all over to pack it down. Add the rest of the dirt followed by an inch of mulch. All this will take many hours. Many body parts will hurt.

One red tulip in a patch of yellow (and a pansy in the front row)
The one red tulip amongst the yellow was deliberate. There is a Japanese term, wabi-sabi, described as "Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modest, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes." [Wikipedia]

Spring 2014, as the tulips began to show their color, someone removed the one red flower. Perhaps for this person the odd flower was an error by the gardener, to be improved by a judicious beheading. As of today's writing the one red tulip still graces the flowerbed.  

Wild pansy - origin at this site mysterious
Tulips, as is true for many other flowers, have symbolic meanings. In general, a gift of tulips is a declaration of love. Red for true love, with the black of the inside center said to represent the heart of a lover burnt to a cinder with passion. Pink means friendship and affection without the overtones of romantic love. Orange tulip flowers symbolize warmth and happiness. Purple tulip flowers are traditionally associated with royalty - but now show up in bridal bouquets.

White tulip flowers are a means of asking for forgiveness, but also represent purity, innocence and respect. So again, brides. Cream-colored tulips confer commitment. Variegated/multi-color tulips are thought to symbolize beautiful eyes because of their gorgeous color patterns, perhaps making the perfect date flower. Black tulips, actually, a deep violet, maroon or wine-dark color, symbolize farewell, or perhaps not-that-into-you, so are NOT the perfect date flower.

George Daley Square (bronze sign in first photo), honors one of Maynard's soldiers who died in World War I.  Daley was one of eight who died in that war and are honored with plaques about town.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hidden History of Maynard


Cover photo from 1910

128 pages. 54 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.62619.541.7
Price: $19.99 (e-book $9.99)

The book is available in Maynard at The Paper Store, as e-book at various venues, or directly from the author, who will be at the Maynard Farmers' Market on opening day, 2015.

Maynard resident David A. Mark brings his years of experience as a writer to create this fact-populated collection of fifty short essays gathered into seven theme-linked chapters. The contents were originally published 2012-14 as Mark’s column in Maynard’s newspaper, the Beacon-Villager.

I continue to write for the newspaper.
My more recent columns are posted at

In this, his second book, the content is 100% history. Chapters again cover the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus a focus on the unusual people and unusual businesses that prospered here. So, from the question as to why there was a mink ranch in Maynard, to whether Babe Ruth came a-drinking here when he lived in Sudbury, here is David Mark with his well-researched and entertaining answers to those questions.  

Only in Maynard
Meet the Maynard Family
19th Century
20th Century
Unusual Businesses
Unusual People
21st Century
Click on photo to enlarge


MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors (2011)
128 pages. 53 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.60949.303.5
Price: $19.99

Maynard: History and LifeOutdoors mixes 2/3 local history with 1/3 observations on nature and local recreational activities as a means of exploring what Maynard, Massachusetts offers to anyone willing to get away from too much time looking at screens and not enough time spent seeing, hearing, touching and smelling the life going on outside. History starts with eighteenth century stone walls, then carries forward to twenty-first century river clean-ups and farmers’ markets. Nature spans skunks to skunk cabbage, deer to deer ticks, and birds to bird food. Recreational sports essays range from describing the slow-motion, nightmarish feel of snow shoeing to how to avoid overhydration – the potentially deadly opposite of dehydration.

Author selfie, one fine cold morning (5ยบ F)
Maynard – Why “Outdoors”
Eighteenth Century
Birds and Bugs
Nineteenth Century
Assabet River 
Twentieth Century
Marble/Whitney/Parmenter Farm
Twenty-first Century