Monday, November 18, 2019

Thank you for Trail of Flowers help

Letter to Editor of Beacon-Villager newspaper, serving Maynard and Stow. Submitted Nov 14, 2019

Trail of Flowers ( wishes to express thanks to the donors and diggers who made this year’s plantings of hundreds upon hundreds of daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs in Maynard and Acton this fall. 

DONORS: Pamela A. Agner, Assabet River Rail Trail Inc., Ellen C. Duggan Trust, Cindy Beck Goldstein & Roger Goldstein, Lewis & Judith Halprin, LOOK Optical, Dorothy MacKeen, Pam Margules Mark & Joshua Mark, Linda Oniki & Charles Mark, Maynard Cultural Council, Maynard Community Gardeners, Laura Moore, Pamela Newton & John Houchin, Roger Stillwater, Lois K. Tetreault, Maya Weiss, Suzanne & Corey Weiss. 

DIGGERS: Pamela Agner, Dia Chigas, Trevor Dawley, Cathy Fochtman, Kathleen Gildea, Stephanie Hills, Alexandra Howard, Craig Jones, Heather Nickle, Maynard Girl Scouts, Rheta Roeber, Lizza Smith, Steven Smith, Anne Sterling, Jeffrey Swanberg, Lois Tetreault, Mark Tricca and Loretta West (apologies if anyone missed). Blooms should be up mid-April into May. Major sites include near the Acton end of the Assabet River Rail Trail, the Marble Farm historic site (across Route 27 from Christmas Motors), a bit west of where the trail crosses Summer Street, and the east end of the footbridge over the Assabet River. Non-bulb plantings will continue in 2020, and more bulbs in the fall, with new planting sites added in Acton, Maynard and Marlborough. 

 - David Mark, Maynard

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ten Years of Columns

David Mark selfie: outdoors in all weather
My first “Life Outdoors” column appeared in the Beacon-Villager on November 12, 2009. Prior to that, I had several Letters to the Editor published that were about observations on nature. I contacted the newspaper’s editor, who at that time was Brian Nanos, to propose my writing a column on local history, observations on nature and outdoor recreational opportunities. Brian’s response was “Yes, but we cannot pay you.”  

In these ten years I have written close to 350 columns. I have not run out of ideas yet, but am always open to suggestions. I have written for five editors – the current one being Holly Camero, who has captained the Beacon-Villager since August 2013. Columns – with photos – have been posted to the blog  Roughly 100 columns were incorporated into two books: “MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors” (2011) and “Hidden History of Maynard” (2014). Those columns and some of the others have been removed from the blog. By far, the most popular column has been “Luna Moth: Photos, Symbolism and a Poem” (May 2013) with over 65,000 viewings. Second most popular is “Calories in Human Blood” (September 2010).  

My first column “Whatever Happened to Maynard’s Stone Walls?” 

New England’s famed stonework is a reminder of a period 150-250 years ago when dry-laid stone was part of every household: fences, walls, foundations, root cellars and more.  But anyone who has bicycled through Maynard and neighboring towns will notice Maynard’s relative dearth of stone fences and stone walls. Where did the stones go?  

It helps to know that during the Colonial era stone was the last choice of materials for fencing fields. Farming through the 1600’s consisted of laborious clearing of small fields for vegetables, corn and livestock feed. These plots were bordered by cut brush and branches. The fields were stump-filled and worked by hand. As the brush fences rotted they were replaced by fences made of logs laid horizontally so the ends would overlap as the fence zig-zagged along the edge of a field. The goal, always, was to keep livestock out of the fields.

Later still the stumps of trees cut to clear the fields were rotten enough to pull out of the soil and were laid along the edge of a field. As stones emerged through the eroding soil they were added to the fences. Stump fences were functional, but not handsome; hence the old-time insult “Ugly as a stump fence.”  When the stumps rotted away, post and rail fences were built over the growing rows of stones.

By the end of the Revolutionary War most of eastern Massachusetts was almost denuded of trees. What wood was left was used for building materials, heat and cooking fires. Stone fencing tall and strong enough to contain cattle took a day’s work from two men equipped with an oxcart to gather stone and build 10-20 feet of a fence. Most of what we see crisscrossing New England was post and rail over stone, and laid down between 1775 and 1850. Barbed wire, the easy solution, was not perfected until 1874.

Compared to the surrounding towns of Stow, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury, Maynard has very few remaining stone fences. As farms were divided into lots for houses and stone-bordered roads widened, many of the stones were hauled away to build the foundations of new houses. For example, the houses on Maple Street were built in the 1870’s with fieldstone foundations capped by brick above ground. But some remnants of stone fences can be found in Maynard. The hiking trail from Summer Street to the top of Summer Hill crosses a stone fence about half-way up, confirming that the top of Summer Hill was once a near-treeless cow pasture.  

Extensive stone fences can also be seen along the south side of ‘Track Road’ (the old railroad right-of-way and future Assabet River Rail Trail) as one walks from Maynard into Stow.  The woods south of one of these fences is all pine trees approximately 60 years old, suggesting that this pasture was abandoned when the land was seized by the U.S. Army during WW II.

Marble Farm historic site, Maynard, MA. Taken from Assabet
River Rail Trail, facing west. (Brick entrance is recent.)
Stone walls are rarer. Stone walls are what we see around churchyards, cemeteries and facing the road in front of the well-off homesteads.  In Maynard there are examples of these as mill races, river walls, and walls keeping private yards from washing away onto the sidewalks or streets. The Marble Farm historic site has impressive stone walls. A large retaining wall holds up the railroad right-of-way behind the apartment building at Nason and Summer Streets. Flat-topped ‘capstones’ line the tops of low stone retaining walls throughout town. In contrast, ‘copestones’ were set on edge on tops of walls to prevent wall sitters. Look for copestones near Maynard’s older churches.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Litter - Less Each Year

Litter is a pervasive, perpetual problem. And yet, decades of changes in manufacturing practices, anti-littering laws, public education, household recycling programs, plastic bag bans and single-use container refund programs (“bottle bills”) have combined to reduce the visual clutter that used to plague roadsides and parks in towns like Maynard and Stow.

This BUD LIGHT can is beyond the redeemable stage, but it
could be recycled with household recyclables.
Oregon was the first state to pass a bottle bill, in 1971, with a surcharge of five cents per bottle or can at point of purchase, refundable if brought back to a store or recycling facility. Between then and 2002, ten states followed: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York and Vermont. (Michigan and Oregon later increased the deposit to ten cents. Delaware repealed its law in 2010.)  Studies show that beverage container legislation initially reduced total roadside litter by 30 to 60 percent in those states. However, there have been increases of late, due to the shift away from carbonated soft drinks – in deposit containers – and to bottled non-carbonated beverages and water, as those may be exempt from the mandatory surcharge.

For the remainder of the country, lobbying by the container industry has been successful in blocking passage of similar laws. Early on, companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi supported the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, in effect putting the onus on the consumer rather than the industry. Companies also supported the addition of household recycling bin programs as an alternative. This last can be very effective, especially when (as in Maynard), what goes into the big blue recycling bin is collected free whereas regular trash requires the purchase of stickers.  

Hard spirits bottles of any size are not
returnable. Mini-bottles like there are
common parking lot and roadside litter.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a bottle bill in January 1983. It applied to beer, carbonated soft drinks and carbonated (sparkling) water in glass, metal or plastic containers. The law did not apply to containers of non-carbonated water, flavored water, coffee, tea, caffeinated beverages or sports (electrolyte-containing) beverages. Or wine. Or spirits. The refund amount was set at five cents, and has remained the same even though that should be more than a dime if there was compensation for inflation. Subsequent proposals to expand the bottle refund law to bottled water, non-carbonated flavored beverages and sports drinks have failed to gain legislative approval even though some of our neighboring states have succeeded in just such an expansion of the law. What happens to the unrefunded nickel if a container is trashed or ends up in a household recycling bin rather than being taken to a refund center? Massachusetts is one of the states that declare unclaimed refunds as being abandoned by the public, and therefore property of the state. The money is used to support recycling programs.

OARS Assabet River cleanup, 2013. Click to enlarge photos. 
What other changes have taken place through the years? On the plus side, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its subsequent amendments made clear the idea that rivers and lakes are not dumping places for trash or polluting chemicals. Locally, since the Organization for the Assabet River (OAR) was created in 1986 (expanded to Sudbury and Concord Rivers in 2010), tons upon tons of trash have been removed from the rivers and their shores. New dumping has dwindled.

Cigarette butt littering has declined for several reasons, the largest being that the percentage of American adults who smoke has declined from 43 percent in the 1960s to 14 percent now. Massachusetts has the third-highest state tax on cigarettes in the nation, so that even people who smoke on a daily basis smoke less.

The use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) as fast-food packaging and as disposable cups has diminished. Maine and Maryland have enacted bans on polystyrene food containers, including restaurant take-out containers. On the downside, food stores switched from paper to plastic bags for being less expensive; in response, public awareness campaigns have led to people bringing their own reusable bags. Worldwide, more than 30 countries have banned the use of single-use plastic bags. California was the first state to do the same; seven states have since followed suit. Massachusetts is considering a ban, and some towns – including Concord – have already initiated their own ban. On a weird note, lobbying by the American Progressive Bag Alliance has led to a dozen states blocking any towns, cities or counties from passing a local law, in effect banning the banning of plastic bags.

The Maynard Litter League (on Facebook) was started in 2004 with the goal of combatting Maynard’s littering problem. The call to action is simple: don’t litter, keep your immediate neighborhood litter free, and participate in the annual town wide cleanup, held in late April.        

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The River Rises and Falls

From the late 1700s onward the Assabet River was less of a river and more of a series of narrow ponds, each created by dams that first backed up water for seasonal usage by saw mills and grain mills, those dams or their replacements later put into service for factories of the Industrial Revolution. Given the dams, the river was not a useful means of transportation either for people or freight; instead the river’s watershed became crisscrossed by railroads.

Figure from 2011 book "MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors"
shows water precipitation in inches per month and average river volume,
also by the month. Snow expressed as water inches.
Mill operations were initially all about how much water could be retained. With a sufficient supply, mill operations could be year-round rather than limited to the times of naturally higher water flow (late fall through late spring). When partners Amory Maynard and William Knight bought land in Assabet Village they also bought water rights upriver, include rights to dam up Boon Pond and to the Fort Meadow Reservoir in Marlborough. One nice thing about water power was that once the dam, canal and waterwheel were in place, power was basically free. Within years, however, the demand for power was such that instead of relying wholly on water, coal-powered steam engines were soon supplementing and then replacing water power.    

Ben Smith dam in drought conditions. Click photo to enlarge.
As to how much water flows in the Assabet River, a U.S. Geological Survey station ( located a short distance upstream from the Waltham Street bridge provides depth and flow information. The long-term average volume is 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). As the figure shows, March and April are the high-water months as a result of snow melt plus rain falling on frozen and therefore non-absorbent ground. July through September are the low-water months despite basically the same amount of precipitation every month, because of evaporation and transpiration (water molecules released into the air from plant leaves). A prolonged drought can reduce flow to under 20 cfs. An interesting legality here in Maynard is that while Mill & Main owns the millpond, it is restricted from diverting water into the canal that provides water to the millpond when flow volume falls below 39 cfs. The intent of the law is to prevent the river going dry for the section downstream from the dam. Only when the river rises, as it did after the October 17 storm, is Mill & Main allowed to top up the pond, and perhaps simultaneously release water from the east end, so as to both refresh and replenish the millpond.

The river also rises and falls after each rain storm. Case in point – after that October storm the river rose from 1.5 to 2.8 feet deep at the USGS gauge. Pre-storm volume was 30 cfs, peaking at 260 cfs about a day after the storm ended. There was then a days-long gradual decline toward pre-storm levels, reversed when rain started the night of October 22. Interestingly, a look back at historic floods finds that there was often a previous significant rainfall event that had saturated the ground and raised water levels in the river just before the big storms that pushed the river into flood. For those floods, the most recent in 2010, flood crest levels occurred three days after the heavy rains began. Sometimes the skies had cleared and the sun was shining while the water was still rising.

River depth markers painted on wall below John's Cleaners on Sept 22, 2019.
White paint markers spaced one foot apart were recently painted on the wall below John’s Cleaners, visible from the sidewalk on the north side of the Main Street bridge. These indicate how deep the water is at the wall. Nine feet is optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on hour you feel about floods), as for flood peaks measured at the USGS station, there have only been five that topped seven feet since 1942. Because river width is different at the gauge and the bridge, we don’t know yet how closely the two indicators comply.

There once was, actually, a bit of Assabet River boat transportation. From 1906 to 1914 there was steamboat service from a boat house near the Ben Smith dam, Maynard, and a landing wharf was installed at Whitman's Crossing near Lake Boon, Stow. The one-way cost was twenty-five cents. Disembarking at the crossing, a short walk brought people to a dock on Lake Boon, where a regularly scheduled steam launch would travel to docks along the shore, allowing people to reach resorts, club houses and lakeshore summer homes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Trail of Flowers 2019 Planting

Plantings of daffodils, tulips, crocuses and grape hyacinths are ongoing along the Assabet River Rail Trail. This is part of the second-year effort for the Trail of Flowers project. See for photographs. Last year - the first year - saw $600 raised from donations and the planting of 2,000 daffodils in Maynard. This year saw $1,923 in donations so far, the domain purchase and creation of the Trail of Flowers website, and an effort to plant nearly 3,000 bulbs in Maynard and Acton - the latter with help from the Acton Garden Club.

Donations of plants, mostly leftovers from the Maynard Community Gardeners annual plant sale in May 2019, meant that forsythia, beauty bush, irises, day lilies and goldenrod have also been planted adjacent to the trail.

Lastly, wildflowers of various types grew in the borders of the trail without any human involvement. These included goldenrod, black-eyed susans, Queen Anne's lace, cornfloweres, etc.

Volunteers planting tulips, crocuses and grape hyacinth on October 13, at the east side of the footbridge
Volunteers planting daffodils at the Marble Farm historic site on October 19. Includes three Girl Scouts who
helped put the bulbs into ground after the dirt was shoveled out. About 1,200 daffodils were planted at this
location last year - the intention for this year is to add about the same.


Volunteers planting daffodils at the north end of the Assabet River Rail Trail on October 20.

These flowers magically appeared next to the Trail along the section parallel to Railroad Street, Maynard.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Maynard's 50th Anniversary

April 1921 saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of the Town of Maynard, which had taken place on April 19, 1871. The date coincided with the then-time celebration of Patriots’ Day, traditionally on April 19th, changed in 1969 to be the third Monday in April. Interestingly, only Connecticut and Maine celebrate this holiday, and Maine – for some reason – calls it Patriot’s Day (note placement of apostrophe). And why Maine? Because until March 1820, Maine was a district rather than a state, and as a district, part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.    

Parade photo of Maynard's 50th Anniversary, corner of Main and Walnut
Streets. Note iron bridge in foreground, replaced by reinforced concrete
bridge in 1922. Click on photos to enlarge 
The Maynard Historical Society has on file a copy of the program for the Fiftieth Anniversary. Morning and evening church observances were held on Sunday, April 17th at six churches, of which only St. Bridget’s Catholic and the Finnish Congregational are still with us today. Monday saw a presentation pageant “Origin of Maynard,” performed by junior and senior high school students at Colonial Hall, admission ten cents. Tuesday, April 19th, started at 7:00 AM with a fifty-cannon salute, followed by a parade from the town hall east on Main, northeast on Nason (a two-way street at the time), southeast on Summer and then west on Main, to Walnut Street. Governor Channing H. Cox and others delivered addresses at the end of the parade. Plans called for the orations to be followed by choral singing, various speeches, a band concert, a baseball game at Crowe Park (Maynard versus Concord), concluding the day with ringing of church bells. Planning the whole event had happened quite fast, as only on March 7th had the concept been approved at Town Meeting, and budgeted at $1,000.   

In April 1966, Elizabeth M. Schnair, one of Maynard’s several volunteer historians, composed a description of the 1921 festivities. Details she added were that it was Battery D of the 2nd Field Artillery of Lowell that came with their cannons and gunpowder. The parade included Maynard’s police, Maynard Brass Band, veterans of the recent World War, veterans of the Civil War(!), the town’s various fraternal societies, the Finnish Temperance Band, Imatra Band, Girl Scouts, school children and other groups. The outdoor choral speaking, band concert and baseball game were cancelled on account of bad weather, but an indoor reunion of old-timers meeting with past- and present-day residents was a great success.    

Documents pertaining to the 50th anniversary include a book written by William H. Gutteridge, “A Brief History of MAYNARD MASS.” The book, 115 pages, including many photos of old buildings, describes the creation and growth of the town, schools and places of worship, and genealogy of the important early families. The Maynard Historical Society Archive has many photos of the celebration events, all viewable on line at (search on 50th, then ignore mentions of school buildings being 50 years old or high school 50th reunions). Among those documents, there exists a 13:25 minute silent film of street scenes of Maynard, with parade events starting at 9:06. Viewable at /items/show/3638.

Planning for the centennial celebrations of 1971 had a much longer lead time. The Maynard Historical Society was organized in 1961 and charged with – among other tasks – writing a comprehensive history of Maynard. The book was published in 1971 with the title “History of Maynard, Massachusetts 1871-1971.” The Maynard Public Library has a copy. A modest celebration was held to celebrate the 125th anniversary, in June 1996. Both a section of the newspaper and a booklet titled “A Maynard Sampler 1871-1996” retold historical vignettes, most taken from the centennial book. In addition to three days of musical events and one evening of fireworks, a road race was conducted in coordination with the passage of the Olympic Torch through Maynard on June 15th, on its way to the Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, GA.   

Plans for the sesquicentennial (150th) celebration are underway. The first official event will be the opening of a 1971 time capsule in April 2020.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Volunteers Needed to Plant Daffodils

Do you know which end of a shovel goes into the ground? Not afraid of the outdoors? Then there is a volunteer opportunity waiting for you this fall: Trail of Flowers (TOF). A website explains what this is about. Briefly, now that the Assabet River Rail Trail is paved in Acton and Maynard, a proposal was made in fall 2018 to embellish the trail with extensive plantings of spring-blooming bulbs and summer-blooming perennial plants. The proposer was David Mark (me). Donations were made to pay for the purchase of bulbs and volunteers helped plant. This year, on October 19, volunteers are again needed to plant bulbs. The event is BYOS, as in bring-your-own-shovel. And BYOW, as in bring your own water.

Trail Of Flowers, planting volunteers, October 20, 2018
Last fall, the volunteers planted 2,000 daffodils in Maynard, mostly at the Marble Farm historic site, which is at Maynard’s north end of the trail, across from Christmas Motors. Other bulb plantings were scattered along the trail between Concord and Summer Streets. The donor organizations were Maynard Community Gardeners (MCG) and the Assabet River Rail Trail organization. During the summer of 2019 perennial plants were added, some being donated leftovers from the MCG plant sale.

This year, the Maynard Cultural Council provided a grant, Maynard Community Gardeners again made a sizeable contribution, and many private parties donated – enough to purchase 3,000 daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs. Donations greater than $100 are acknowledged on the TOF website. The Marble Farm historic site will be added to, plus two new Maynard sites. If the Acton Garden Club comes through with providing volunteers, a planting site will be added in Acton.

First flower-viewing walk, May 4, 2019. Click to enlarge.
Next spring there will be an organized flower-viewing trail walk, with suggestions to wear flower-themed clothing (Hawaiian shirts, anyone?). And a flower poster to promote the event and list sponsors. The 2020 walk probably start at the footbridge over the Assabet River, pass by Tulip Corner (intersection of Summer, Maple and Brooks Streets), then proceed north on the Rail Trail to the Marble Farm site   

The Town of Maynard approved Trail Of Flowers. To wit: Will this cost the Town any money? No. Will this require the Department of Public Works to do any planting or maintenance? No. Will this interfere with DPW’s intent to mow the borders of the Trail? No. This is a great idea!

If you, readers of this column, or anyone you think of sharing this information with, are interested in becoming a TOF volunteer, please email your contact information to David Mark at Or just show up on Saturday, October 19, between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00 with a shovel. If you arrive by car, park on Acton Street south of the State Police building, as this is preferred to parking on Rockland Avenue.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Folate and Folic Acid

Folate is a B-vitamin that occurs naturally in plants – more in some than others. Folic acid is a synthetic compound incorporated into multi-vitamins, dietary supplements and used to fortify foods; once absorbed it is converted into folate. Starting about 20 years ago, the United States decided to mandate fortification of wheat flour and other grains with folic acid in order to reduce the risk of infants being born with spina bifida and other neural tube defects (NTDs). In effect, the decision was made to increase folate in 350 million people to prevent an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 birth defect births per year. At the time, concerns were raised that this folic acid fortification might have unknown health-positive and health-negative consequences, the latter including an increased incidence of cancer. So far, most of this has proven to be not true.

In general, beans, nuts and seeds are good sources of food folate, as are dark, leafy green foods (spinach, etc.) and cruciferous vegetables. Animal liver is a great source, but animal meat, dairy and eggs, not. People who adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet should have no worries about getting adequate folate from food, although there are other vitamins for which a general-purpose vitamin/mineral supplement is recommended. Currently trendy diets need to be examined for nutrient deficiencies. A ‘keto’ (ketogenic) diet avoids carbohydrates, but if it contains enough in the way of leafy green vegetables it should not shortfall the recommended intake of food folate. Exceptions are any women who might become pregnant, as the recommendation is to be consuming 600 micrograms of folate as folate and folic acid before and during the pregnancy. “Gluten free” diets can lead to folate deficiency, especially if people are replacing wheat-based foods with alternative sources of carbohydrates. Here too, consider a general-purpose vitamin/mineral supplement.

Worldwide, there were about 300,000 live NTDs per year before any country required folic acid fortification. The U.S. and Canada were the first countries to implement fortification in early 1998. For the sixty-some countries that now require fortification of wheat flour, and/or corn meal or rice, the incidence of NTDs has dropped by 25 to 50% (higher in countries that started with low folate intake from diet). The reasoning for fortification over advising women who became pregnant to start taking a folic acid supplement was they the risk for development of neural tube defects is greatest in the first few months of pregnancy – a time when women may not even be sure they are pregnant.

In the U.S., the decision to fortify food with folic acid resulted in roughly a 50 percent increase in total folate (naturally occurring from food plus folic acid). There were hopes among researchers that requiring fortification of foods, and thus increasing folate status in everyone, not just women of child-bearing age, would also have benefits for cardiovascular and mental health. The latest reviews of evidence report no change cardiovascular disease in general, but a modest decrease in the risk of stroke in people who already had pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Evidence for the last came from trials with folic acid supplementation in amounts higher than were achieved just from the food fortification program. In the arena of mental health, there are not enough human trials to determine if there are any benefits toward mild cognitive impairment, dementia in general or Alzheimer’s disease. One promising result is evidence that adequate folate status during pregnancy reduces the risk of the child developing autism.  

As for the whole cancer thing, long-term intake of insufficient amounts of folate appears to increate the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, lung and prostate cancer. Although there were theories that folic acid fortification of foods would increase risk of cancer, by promoting growth of preneoplastic lesions, this turned out not to be true. Even supplementation in amounts far in excess of what would be achieved by food fortification did not increase cancer risk – but with one exception – prostate cancer. Multi-year, high-dose trials with folic acid supplements resulted in a 15 to 25 percent increase in prostate cancer compared to unsupplemented control groups. 

The Wikipedia article Folate elaborates on information presented here. Major population centers not requiring mandatory fortification include China, India, the European Union and Russia. Instead, these countries have public health education programs recommending to women that a folic acid dietary supplement be consumed starting months before becoming pregnant and continuing through pregnancy. The U.S. and other countries that now require fortification found that health education alone was not sufficient.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Painting River Depth Markers

The Assabet River, as it flows through Maynard, has an average volume of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). Month-by-month, March and April average 400 cfs, while July, August and September average under 100 cfs. Drought can drop flow to 20 cfs. There is an internet-accessible gauge of river volume and depth, found by searching on USGS Assabet. The default is showing the last seven days of data, but a larger number of days can be selected.

At 100 cfs, depth is 2.0 feet, 200 cfs = 2.5 feet, 300 cfs = 3.0 feet, 400 cfs = 3.5 feet,
1,000 cfs = 5.0 feet, 1,700 cfs = 6.0 feet, and 2,400 cfs = 7.0 feet. The last significant flood was spring 2010, 2,500 cfs = 7.1 feet.
Wall under John's Cleaners, bordering the Assabet River in Maynard, MA, as
seen from the middle of the Main Street bridge. Click on photos to enlarge
While checking USGS Assabet is rewarding to data advocates, the idea of providing a publicly seen measure of water depth was a challenge. One location seemed ideal - the wall under John's Cleaners, bordering the Assabet River, next to the Main Street bridge.
Walking in the Assabet River from Tobin Park (north of the Rail Trail bridge)
 to the Main Street site, where a ladder had been lowered by rope.
As this was to be a very public project, seeking permissions seemed like a good idea. Queries to Town of Maynard management, including Department of Public Works and Conservation Commission, resulted in conditional approval. Facts learned in the process were that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 'owns' the water in the river, the Town owns the land under the river, and private property owners own land down to mean high water. What this meant was that John's Cleaners owns the wall, so permission was sought there, also. Finally, the project was proposed to the Board of Selectmen - and approved. A waiver was signed to absolve the Town of any liability in case of injury.
Using duct tape to attach a stencil to the wall. Two stencils were created, each five feet long
one taped above the other. The material was FedEx boxes. Making the stencils took four hours.
Stencils were created from FedEx corrugated boxes, incorporating five inch tall number stencils. Creating the stencils took about four hours. The duct tape and stencils were lowered by rope from the bridge. Discarded after the one-time use.
The paint use was Benjamin Marine D.M.T. Acrylic "Safety White,"
suitable for use in places that will be wet or under water.
From arriving at the site to completion of the painting took about one hour, including the walk in from and out to Tobin Park, which was over water-plant slicked rocks under one to two feet of water. The ladder was needed to tape and then paint the top of the upper stencil.
About to paint the top markers and numbers. Nine feet was chosen because since record
keeping began in 1942, no flood has exceeded nine feet, and only five have exceeded seven feet. 
Water depth records collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS Assabet) are for the gauge near the 7-11 store, and thus water depth at the bridge is not an exact match. The USGS defines the Assabet River as being in flood stage when depth exceed five feet. This happens at least once almost every year.
Wall painted, stencils removed. Except in time of extreme drought
the water is never low enough to paint a marker for one foot.
Historically, for floods for which water depth was measured, Hurricane Diane raised the river to 8.94 feet (at the gauge) in 1955. Floods in 1968 and 1979 reached 8.1 feet. Floods in 1987 and 2010 reached 7.1 feet. Volume at that 2010 flood was recorded as 2,500 cubic feet per second.
The wall, with water depth markers.
River depth is of interest to kayakers. Currently the river between the Ben Smith Dam and the east side of Maynard is blocked by many fallen trees, but if ever cleared (by Town of Maynard, or a significant flood), it is possible to kayak through town - under the bridges - when water depth is more than 2.5 feet and less than 4.0 feet. Too low, get stuck on bottom. Too high, get stuck under bridges.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Assabet Cleanup 2019

The 33th Annual River Cleanup took place on September 14, 2019. Teams volunteers were assigned locations along the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord rivers. In Maynard alone, decades of annual river clean-ups organized by the Organization for the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers (OARS) have removed tons upon tons of trash. This year, the focus was on trash, plus invasive and riverview-obstructing plants at Tobin Park, just west of the Rail Trail bridge.

One visible gain from cleaning up the Assabet River is that progressively, over the years, less new trash ends up in the river. The “broken window theory,” first in print in 1982, holds that vandalism is contagious, i.e., unrepaired vandalism triggers more vandalism, and perhaps more controversially, triggers an increase in more serious crimes. In theory, zero tolerance for small crimes reduces the rate of large crimes. Whether true or not for criminal behavior, littering is clearly contagious – the more litter remains visible, the more likely people will litter more.

Tobin Park, Maynard, 2019 Assabet River cleanup. Click photos to enlarge. 
This appeared to be a watershed year (pun intended), as Maynard had more volunteers than trash to be removed from the river. Past years had yielded as many as 100 car and truck tires, plus bicycles, shopping carts, and tons of iron pipe, scrap metal, broken pottery, old carpets and miscellaneous junk. This year, only two tires, one Styrofoam cooler and an estimated total of less than 200 pounds of glass, metal and plastic. Clearly, less and less is being thrown into the river each year. Hurrah! Similar results were reported for other towns.    

Glass bottle, 1953: CALDWELL'S RUM
Past years have also included intact glass bottles with a bit of history. From 2010, the find was a bottle inscribed HALF PINT LIQUID, HANS ERIKSEN, MAYNARD, MASS. The name’s spelling dates the bottle, because it was after World War II that the family, which was then also in the milk delivery business in addition to ice cream, changed their name from Eriksen to Erikson. From 2013 the find was an amber glass pint bottle embossed with the words CALDWELL'S RUM and the image of a three-masted sailing ship alongside a dock. The company had been started by Alexander Caldwell in 1790. Markings on the bottom signified that the bottle had been made for Caldwell's Rum in 1953 by the Anchor Hocking Glass Company. The yield from 2016 was a plain glass bottle with NEW ENGLAND VINEGAR WORKS embossed on the bottom. Turns out NEVW began its life in 1865 in Somerville as the Standard Vinegar Company. The name was changed to New England Vinegar Works in 1907. Another old find was a small bottle embossed with TURNER CENTRE SYSTEM, representing a dairy bottling and home delivery company active 100 years ago. 

As to the means by which thousands upon thousands of glass bottles ended up in the stretch of the Assabet as it wended it way through Maynard, think bridges and backyards, and the opinion that anything disposed into the river went "away." This is not a new problem. From the 1913 Annual Report of the State Board of Health "The Assabet River has at various times been seriously polluted in different parts of its course, the most serious condition in recent years below Maynard where the river receives sewage and manufacturing waste from a very large woolen mill and a considerable quantity of sewage also from the town... the river continues to be objectionable in appearance and odor, especially below Maynard."

Click on image to enlarge. Cumulative score for lower
Assabet River is a B. Weaknesses in yellow. Bacteria is a
planned future score, hence grey.
Going forward, OARS may consider its means of using volunteers for its fall event. Recently, a river health Report Card was created to assess the health of the three rivers, with each river divided into upper river and lower river sections. Based on twenty criteria listed at, the Assabet from headwaters to Elizabeth Brook, in Stow, was graded C+ and the lower Assabet – from Elizabeth Brook to the convergence with the Sudbury River – was graded B. Weaknesses include dissolved nitrates in the water (from fertilizer runoff and effluent from wastewater treatment plants), floating biomass (algae and duckweed on the surface) and aquatic connectivity (because the Ben Smith and Powdermill dams prevent wildlife movement up and down river). In the future the OARS Cleanup may expand to sending crews out to improve river-bordering trails, passability and riverviews. There are no current plans to remove any of the dams on the upper or lower Assabet.

Photos for this year's effort will posted at the OARS website.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Death by Exercise

Sudden cardiac death – as in the college-age basketball player or the hyper-fit triathlon participant – tends to make the news. As it should. Newsworthy death while exercising provides every non-exerciser with rationale for not exercising. “See” they say, “this person was an avid runner [cyclist, swimmer] and dropped dead at 40.” The contrarian point being that the endurance sports that are supposed to protect against heart disease sometimes appear to do just the opposite.

There is a wisp of truth to this observation. Estimates are that just under one person per 100,000 participating in a marathon, or 1.5/100,000 participating in a triathlon will die during or immediately after the event. Figure a collective three million participants in these types of races and that comes to maybe 30 to 40 deaths per year. There are fuzzier estimates of perhaps one sudden death per every million exercise events for other forms of vigorous exercise. So, the true answer is yes, exercise can kill the physically fit, but no, not a risk factor worth avoiding exercise entirely.

Internet image portraying a man having a heart attack while exercising.
There is more truth in the observation that exertion by the physically unfit can result in fatal cardiovascular events. The classic case is the middle-aged office worker who drops dead shoveling snow while attempting to clear the driveway and get to work. Contributing factors include the fact that blood pressure peaks in the morning a few hours after waking up, and the fact that exertion in cold weather constricts arteries, further adding to heart stress. Snow removal related heart attacks frequently occur in women and men with no known pre-existing heart disease.

Exercise can also result in accidental death. In the U.S., walking, running, bicycling, swimming, boating and winter sports add up to about 10,000 deaths per year. Subtract half who are either children or are adults under the influence of alcohol (as in walking or riding a bike home from a bar, at night), and it’s still a big number. But the total pales compared to the 2,800,000 total deaths per year, of which many are premature cardiovascular deaths brought on by a lifetime of inactivity.

The good news is that benefits from even modest amounts of exercise are becoming clearer. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, but notes that even a few minutes per day was better than nothing! Studies have reported the greatest improvement for modest exercise compared to no exercise at all, and diminishing but still cumulative returns for progressively more exercise. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that endurance fitness was a better predictor of good cardiovascular biomarkers (cholesterol, etc.) than strength.

The theory that aside from injuries, over-doing exercise may cause more harm than good has been disproven. A science journal article reviewed studies of longevity of elite athletes. Athletes from endurance sports had 3-6 year longer life spans than the general population. The authors cautioned that elite athletes may by genetically different from the population as a whole, with both their abilities and lifespan being consequences of their genes rather than one causing the other. A review article encompassing 48 published studies confirmed that people doing as much as 7-14 hours per week of moderate to vigorous exercise were had a 15 percent lower mortality risk than those doing only 1-2 hours per week, with no hint that the benefit fades toward the high end.  

There is a non-fatal problem with exercise – it is potentially addictive. As one well-known fitness expert author put it, “…people reduce their lives to fitness routines, training as many as 40 hours a week. That the effort may wreck marriages and compromise immune systems isn’t even relevant. To these people – demographically a diverse lot – exercise is addictive. The more the body gets, the more it wants. In return, the drug of exercise infuses the swimmer, cyclist and runner with two powerful illusions: that he/she is escaping the horrible, and progressing toward the divine.”

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Overtourism (Walden Pond, MA, USA)

“Overtourism,” a relatively new word, is the perceived overcrowding from an excess of tourists, to the detriment of the local population, the tourists, and/or local ecology. According to Wikipedia, it is now the most commonly used expression to describe the negative impacts ascribed to tourism. The quality of life of local citizens is affected, but there is also a negative impact on the quality of the visitor experience. Ask anyone who lives in or has visited such popular locations such as the French Quarter of New Orleans, or Venice, Italy, during the tourist season.

Locals are crushed by crowding. Moving about by car, or even on foot, becomes difficult. Any variety in shopping opportunity is crowded out by souvenir shops selling t-shirts and coffee mugs, and by fast-food restaurants. The tourist experience is also degraded by the crowding. Long lines plague getting to the attractions, and even walking across a plaza or down a market street becomes a shuffling daymare. Littering, water- and air-pollution become problems when local government infrastructure cannot keep up with demand.     

Can overtourism be overcome? A quote attributed to Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra, but actually much older, is: “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” Popularity can wane once the reputation for an unspoiled and authentic experience is lost, but not if the core attraction is famous enough. Neither scores of tour buses (Chichen Itza, Mexico), nor cruise ships by the dozens (Barcelona, Spain), nor New York City by the tens of millions, have diminished the tourists’ desire to visit these locations.

Overcrowding occurs even on mountains. Nepal refuses to limit the number of permits to attempt Mount Everest, resulting in deaths because climbers run out of oxygen while waiting their turn at the peak. In Switzerland, numbers attempting the Matterhorn are limited. In Australia, climbing of Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, will be banned effective October 26, 2019.

Walden Pond beach, Concord, MA
The closest experience residents of Stow and Maynard have to chronic overtourism is in neighboring Concord, both downtown and at Walden Pond. The former accommodates by providing off-street parking, a staffed visitors’ center (with bathrooms), and starting in 2013, a ban on the sale of bottled water. Walden Pond State Reservation now closes access to the park when the parking lot reaches capacity. The path around the pond is managed to minimize soil erosion.

The pond has its own problems. As a kettle pond, Walden Pond does not have streams flowing into it. This means that most of the water in the pond is a result of rain water and snow melt sinking down into the surrounding sand/gravel soil, then subterraneanously filtering into the pond. Historically, this resulted in a nitrogen- and phosphorous-poor body of water that did not support water plant growth. Thoreau’s description in 1854 was of water “so transparent that the bottom can easily be discerned at the depth of 25 or 30 feet.” One of Waldon Pond’s problems today is that of too many people peeing in the pond, contributing nutrients that promote algae and plant growth.

Improved bathroom facilities and signs advising against this practice are helping, but because there is no outflowing stream to remove nutrient-rich algae and surface water plants such as duck weed, the nutrient cycle is vertical: summer’s growth dies in fall, sinks to the bottom, there to decay, and thus releasing nitrogen and phosphorus back into the water. The same vertical problem plagues the Assabet River to a much greater extent, as the dams prevent the river from being flushed clean by winter’s snow melt. Town sewage treatment plants along the Assabet are now required to further restrict nutrient release, but tributaries bring in nutrient-laden sediment, with contributions from farm, lawn, garden and golf course fertilizer treatments.  

Neither Stow nor Maynard have much in the way of tourist attractions. (At apple-picking season, Honey Pot Hill Orchard, Stow, does cause traffic jams.) There have been recent and future changes that bring more visitors to Maynard: designation as a Massachusetts Cultural District, Emerson Hospital’s establishment of an out-patient center at the former Walgreens building, the Assabet River Rail Trail – including the nascent Trail of Flowers project – and the pending operation of two or three marijuana dispensaries. None of this will make Maynard a tourist Mecca. Stow gets it leaf peepers, but the effects are at most seasonal and modest.  

Not Historic Enough

42 Summer Street, Maynard, MA - before demolition.
The yellow, wood-frame building at 42 Summer Street, Maynard, is on the verge of being torn down to be replaced by an apartment building. The existing building is not historic enough to justify any attempt to preserve the exterior while repurposing the interior. In general, “not historic enough” can be applied to much of Maynard’s private residences due to those buildings not being particularly old (by New England standards), never lived in by someone famous, nor designed by a famous architect. The Town of Maynard has established a Demolition Delay Bylaw, at the instigation of the Maynard Historical Commission, to slow or stop demolitions of significant buildings.

Maps from 1875 and 1889 show the Summer Street property with no house on it, owned by Mrs. T. Brooks. Adjacent property shown as owned by T. Brooks. The same map shows L. Brooks and S.P. Brooks owning land across Summer Street, including a cider mill. Those people were Rebecca Brooks, wife of Thomas Brooks, Luke, their son, and Silas, brother of Thomas. The Brooks clan were early settlers and extensive land owners on the north side of what would become Maynard.

The building itself dates to only 1948. The property may have been unattractive to earlier development because it was adjacent to the coal yard and fuel oil tanks owned by the United Co-operative Society. Warren A. Twombly purchased the property for a relocation of the W.A. Twombly Funeral Home, which had been on Main Street, near the Methodist Church. Twombly’s was one of four funeral homes in Maynard, and was in business into the late 1960s. From records in the collection of the Maynard Historical Society, it is apparent that Twombly’s handled many of the burials of people of Finnish descent – at one time a very significant portion of Maynard’s population.

The next occupant of the house was Century 21 Classic Properties, a real estate business owned and operated by Paul Boothroyd. This business was replaced by Call-A-Copy Inc (later renamed CAC Digital Copy & Print Center). Over time, the copying and printing business shrank, to be gradually replaced by Summer Street Fine Consignment, under the same management. The property was purchased in 2018 by James MacDonald, a developer/operator of several apartment buildings scattered about Maynard. The consignment business wound down operations in 2019 as preparations for the demolition took shape.

The building, scheduled to be demolished soon, sits on a bit more than half an acre of land that slopes from 190 feet elevation above sea level on the north (street) side to 175 feet on the south side. The shape is odd. To fit in a 24-unit apartment building, the narrow end of the rectangle will face Summer Street, but at an angle. The driveway, on the west side, will run the length of the property, to enter underground parking from the south end. The three-story building will have siding and a peaked roof rather than be brick with a flat roof. The smallest units will be studio apartments of 500 square feet, the largest, duplexes with two bedrooms.     

The Maynard Historical Commission has identified a “List of Historically Significant Properties in Maynard” that encompasses about 60 buildings. The Demolition Delay Bylaw (2017) provides for up to a 12-month delay of the demolition of buildings or the exterior façades of buildings deemed historic. (Interior demolition and subsequent construction not affected.)

Some buildings, while parts are old, have been modified so extensively as to be not historic enough, an example being the Gruber Bros. Furniture building at 117 Main Street. The original building dated to 1868, built by Amory Maynard, called the Riverside Block. It hosted the first town meeting, April 1871. A severe fire in 1934 destroyed the second and third floors; what remained went through several remodelings during the Gruber family tenure. This building is fated to be demolished and replaced by an apartment building with commercial businesses on the first floor.   

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Three History Books

Three history books, in order published: “1421,” by Gavin Menzies (2002), has as its subtitle “The Year China Discovered America.” Second, “1491,” by Charles C. Mann, published 2005, has as its subtitle “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.” Third, “1493,” same author, published 2011, has as its subtitle “Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” Each describe the consequences of explorations and colonization between the ‘old world’ of Europe and Asia and the ‘new world’ of North and South America.  

Three hefty-sized history books about discovering the New World
Menzies’ book has to be read as an alternative history. He postulates – on a mountain of flimsy evidence – that the Chinese treasure fleet expeditions went FAR beyond reaching the west coast of Africa. The core truth: under the leadership of Zheng He, the Emperor’s Grand Eunuch, China sent ‘Treasure Fleets’ of trade ships, war ships and support vessels on seven multi-year expeditions to lands bordering the Indian Ocean. The purposes were diplomatic, military and trade. Estimates are that each expedition was staffed by as many as 30,000 people, occupying 100 to 250 ships, some as large as 200 to 400 feet long. (Columbus’ largest  was about 60 feet.)

Upon returning from the sixth expedition of 1421-23, Zheng He found that the Emperor had died, and that his successor had no interest in China’s reign over the sea. The Treasure Fleet journeys were discontinued (one last in 1433), ships destroyed, records of the journeys destroyed. The government’s attention turned toward defending against the Mongols in the north. In effect, China had given up being a sea-going power as too expensive, with little financial benefit and no strategic benefit. Foreign trade was forbidden, not to be restarted until more than 100 years later, when silk and porcelain could be traded for silver mined from the Spanish colonies in South America.     

Menzies controversially proposed that rather than being limited to the Indian Ocean, portions of the Treasure Fleet of 1421-23 rounded the Cape of Good Hope, thus entering the Atlantic Ocean. From there, they explored up and down the east coast of what became the Americas (including the Merrimack River!), as far north as Greenland and far enough south to reach the tip of South America, there to divide again, some going north along the west coast of the Americas, other touching Antarctica before sailing eastward to Australia, thence home. Apparently, the Chinese sailed everywhere – except Europe. All in all, entertaining reading, but not part of accepted history.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Click on photos to enlarge
In “1491,” Mann is in the universe of accepted history. He makes a strong case against the “empty America” image of an American near-pristine wilderness in which small native villages or nomadic tribes were populated by hunter/gatherer peoples lived in harmony with nature, but with a minimal or non-existent sense of history, religion or culture. This ‘Noble Savage’ stereotype colored Henry David Thoreau’s thinking; he wrote of “…in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man.”

In contrast, Mann describes densely populated regions – city-states in the north, Aztec and Inca empires in the south – with extensive agriculture, trade routes, and significant impacts on plant and animal life. Old estimates – that the total population of the New World was fewer than 10 million people – were replaced by Mann and others with estimates ten-fold higher.

Without steel for axes and saws, fire was a predominant tool for managing terrain. Fall-season deliberate burning of prairies, meadows and undergrowth in forests made for the spring grasses preferred by herbivores, which in turn were food for the native peoples. Here in the northeast – deer. Elsewhere in North America, elk and bison. In South America, hillsides became terraced farmland, while in the Amazonian rainforest the land was terraformed via canals and mounds. Aerial photography has revealed what is under ‘pristine’ rainforests.

Mann’s second book explores the consequences of what happened post-Columbus. European diseases killed 90% of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Very few diseases went the other way. “Old World’ diseases such as malaria and yellow fever also killed European immigrants to the Americas. Africans had a genetic resistance to malaria, which led to a preference for African-born slaves over European-born indentured servants or English criminals as plantation labor. Over a period of 400 years, an estimated 10 to 15 million people were enslaved in Africa and shipped to the Americas.

The deliberate or accidental movement of plant and animal species to other countries – importantly corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes from the Americas to elsewhere – led to population explosions in China and Europe. Three American-origin cash crops changed the world: tobacco plants, cocoa (for chocolate) and rubber trees. Rice, sugarcane and bananas were imported to the Americas. Horses and pigs are examples of large European species gone wild, earthworms and honey bees, same, but on a smaller scale. This globalization, sometimes called the “Columbian Exchange,” continues to this day, but now we tend to describe it as invasive species. It still goes in both directions. Across Great Britain, our grey squirrels are displacing the native red squirrels. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Women and World War II

With the advent of World War II, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) in May of 1941, under a Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The MWDC worked closely with the Massachusetts State Guard, the U.S. Army, state agencies and local communities. Its function was to assist in training women volunteers in five areas: medical, transportation, communications, canteen, and air raid precautions.

Pin that had belonged to Mrs Louis Boeske.
Women's Defense Corps Pin. “ARP” for
Air Raid Precautions; “PARATUS ET FIDELIS”
 translates as Ready and Faithful
From a start as a Women’s Civilian Defense School in Boston, the organization had quickly grown to having more than one hundred auxiliary defense schools by the end of 1941. Maynard was one. The Maynard Historical Society notes that in November 1941, Maynard women of the MWDC Motor Corps received diplomas from their instructor, Mrs. Frank Sheridan. The following March the women conducted a drill involving a convoy of twelve cars. The women drove to a rendezvous site in Clinton, where their final test was a tire change. Mrs. Louis Boeske was complimented for her speed at this skill. She replied that she had spent many years in and around cars with her husband.

Later during the war, the various states’ organizations were superseded by federal government action. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was made active duty status on July 1, 1943. The idea behind WAC was that women serving in non-combat roles would free up men for combat assignments, essential because the Army was running out of men to draft. WACs initially served as switchboard operators, clerk/typists, mechanics and in food preparation. In time, other classifications were added, such as transportation, postal clerk and armory staff. WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were the Navy equivalent, SPARS for the Coast Guard, WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flying planes, and Marine Corps Women's Reserve. The previously existing Army Nurse Corps dating to 1901, expanded to 60,000 women during World War II. All totaled, more than three hundred thousand women served in the armed forces during World War II. Per the plaques in Memorial Park, this included more than two dozen women from Maynard.

All was not champagne and roses for the women who volunteered for military duty. There was serious backlash. Men in service who had a safe, stateside or behind the lines job did not want to be sent to combat. Mothers, wives and girlfriends did not want their men being sent to combat. Priests and ministers sermonized against women joining the military. There was a slander campaign – much of it initiated by men in uniform – that women who were enrolling were prostitutes, or that they were sexually promiscuous, becoming pregnant, spreading venereal diseases…  Part of the motivation was a fear that if their wives, fiancés or girlfriends joined the army they would be far from home and in the company of other men.

In Massachusetts, soldiers in the Fort Devens area were credited by investigators with originating the rumor that "fantastic" numbers of pregnant women had been sent back to Lovell General Hospital from North Africa. Agents descended on that hospital's records "without prearrangement" and reported, "No record of an overseas pregnancy was found." Another Fort Devens’ rumor was that the venereal disease rate was skyrocketing. Also not true. A third rumor was that women in uniform were officially advised to utilize prophylactics, or even issued same. Agents interviewed hundreds of women and were unable to find even one who had ever been so instructed.

Locally, whether women were in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps or not, enrolled in WAC or not, all were deeply affected by the war. Rationing included gasoline for cars (three gallons per week), also fuel oil for houses, sugar and coffee (one pound per adult every five weeks). Meat, butter and canned goods were in short supply. All new car manufacture ceased February 1942, to not be resumed until the war was over. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel. All forms of rationing ended in the United States in August 1945. In stark comparison, rationing of many good and foods continued in the United Kingdom until the summer of 1954. George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” was completed in 1948; the title stemming from an inversion of the last two numbers of the year. Food rationing was present in Orwell’s real life and in his novel.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Swans on the Assabet River

Mute swan at rest, Assabet River, Stow, MA
Mute swans reside on the Assabet River, either as solitary birds or nesting pairs. These swans can occasionally be spotted from the Ice House Landing dock, but will always be seen when kayaking or canoeing upriver into Stow.

Swans are long-lived, and return to the same nesting place. Of the 5–8 eggs laid each spring perhaps 1–3 cygnets will reach maturity. Unlike Canada geese, parent mute swans do not allow the yearlings to return to the same area the next spring, so in any summer the local populations are either solitary birds or parenting pairs with the new cygnets. Hatchlings start off gray in color, not turning white until their second year. They can paddle about within days after hatching, but need 60 days to mature enough to fly.

In flight, swans make Canada geese look small and slow. Low-flying geese meander about at 20–30 miles per hour. Higher-flying geese, the ones actually migrating, are at flock speed of 35–45 mph. In contrast, once swans have powered up they are doing 50 mph. At more than twice the weight of a ten-pound goose and with a wingspan of almost eight feet, this is one impressive bird. The wings of mute swans in flight make a distinctive whooshing sound that on still mornings can be heard more than half a mile away.

In the U.S., mute swans do not migrate southward. Come winter, they shift to the ocean shore, where they may congregate in groups. Come spring, the existing pairs head back to their nesting waters, while the three year-olds will be pairing up for the first time before seeking nesting waters of their own. Lifespan in the wild can by 10–15 years. Swans will often stay in mated pairs for many years, but if one dies, the other will take a new mate. And they are not actually “mute,” as they can hiss, snort, yip and so on; it’s just by comparison their not being as loud as North America’s native trumpeter swans.

The business end of a mute swan (internet download)
Boaters of any type should not approach mute swans during nesting and cygnet-raising seasons. These birds are SERIOUSLY territorial. On land or on the water, males act to prevent any animal or human from getting near the nest. That yard-long neck may look like a cute sock-puppet, but it is wielded more like a poking, pinching hand, combined with hard blows from the forward edge of the wings. Swans have been known to attack dogs and children. Swans have been known to attack swimmers, canoes and kayaks. Swans can sink jet skis, flip ATVs and down ultralight aircraft. OK, maybe not those last three, but really, leave nesting swans alone. There is one reported instance of a man (not wearing a life jacket) knocked out of his kayak and drowned by a nest-protecting swan.

Mute swans are not native to North America, and in fact are viewed as an invasive and destructive species because of their voracious appetite for aquatic vegetation and harassment of other water bird species. The first introductions were in New York state prior to 1900. Escaped swans initially established feral populations along the Hudson River, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay, but have since spread to the Mid-west and North-west regions, numbering in the tens of thousands and increasing by more than 10 percent a year. A single mute swan can consume four to eight pounds of plants a day. Continuous feeding by a flock of mute swans can destroy an entire wetland ecosystem.

Various state programs attempt to control local populations. Some states along the Atlantic coast have hired professional hunters. Another control method is to coat the eggs with corn oil, which will prevent hatching (removing the eggs triggers the female to lay replacement eggs).  

“But they are really pretty.” Yes, they are. Mute swans were imported from England starting in the late 1800s as living ornaments for private and public garden ponds. The Swan Boats in Boston Public Garden are modeled on mute swans, right down to the orange beak and half-raised wings. Swimming, mute swans hold their heads curved down a bit rather than looking straight forward. Mated pairs oft face each other in the water, so in silhouette their necks and heads make a heart shape. The website takes the position that mute swans are in fact native to North America, and thus deserve the same protections as native birds.