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 www.maynardlifeoutdoors.com.  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.