Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ecological Succession

In 1859, Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay called "The Succession of Forest Trees" in which he described succession in an oak-pine forest. "It has long been known to observers that squirrels bury nuts in the ground, but I am not aware that any one has thus accounted for the regular succession of forests." His essay was more about replacement than succession as that term had come to be used in modern ecological studies. He first observed the obvious – that many tree seeds are designed to be transported by wind, also that the small seeds of wild cherry, wild grape and various berries can be consumed by birds and other animals and defecated elsewhere. (We know that Oriental bittersweet berries are consumed by robins and spread that way.)

Wreath of Oriental bittersweet vines, with berries. In the
spring, returning robins perched on it to eat the berries.
Thoreau also described the less obvious, how, for example, oak seedlings might emerge from the soil after a pine tree forest was cut. Some botanists of his era took the position that acorns could lay dormant in the soil for decades, even centuries, but when the forest trees above them were cut, be viable, triggered by sunlight. Thoreau observed, rather, that even in a mature pine forest, there were oak seedlings amongst the underbrush the result of squirrels burying acorns or else dropped by blue jays and other birds. The same dispersion seen for beech, hickory, chestnut and other nuts.

Ecological succession is the process of change by all species (plants, animals, bacteria) of a community over time. During the first half of the twentieth century, succession theory was dominated by the idea that for a given location there was a convergence toward a climax community regardless of the starting conditions, that, for example, that moist-soil lowlands in eastern Massachusetts would always end up as a forest dominated by sugar maple and beech trees regardless of whether the starting conditions were abandoned farmland, fire, flood or hurricane. Similarly, a drier, hilly terrain would always end up being pine/oak. In this school of thinking, a climax forest was a stable, interrelated community with a near-constant total biomass – trees dying being replaced by the same species.

Current theory allows for more complexity and chance. In these models the finding of certain species being found together is because terrain and climate are beneficial to each species individually without ‘community’ interaction. In both models, prolifically reproducing and fast-growing species will populate a disturbed area first, followed by shade-tolerant, slower growing but more competitively successful species. American beech is an example of an extremely shade-tolerant tree that can abide in the understructure for years until a break occurs in the canopy.    

One point that has become clearer is that it is not just about plants. The local extermination of beaver changed terrain. The return of same created wetlands and flooded ex-forests. The local extermination of deer allowed for lush undergrowth and greater survival of tree seedlings. The present-day surfeit of deer in New England – now at a population higher than before the European colonists arrived – is denuding all the undergrowth. Trees that were part of the North American mosaic got diseases. American chestnut trees are long gone, native dogwood, ash and hemlock are struggling. Invasive species challenge the status quo. Climate change is affecting the entire biome.         

Dandelion: The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was introduced to
North America be English colonists in the early 1600s as a medicinal plant.
In Maynard and Stow, some of the best evidence for ecological succession is abandoned farmland. Some of this was seized by the U.S. Army via eminent domain during World War II, subsequently allows to go to forest, now the Wildlife Refuge. The trees are all around 70-80 years old. There is not a lot of dead wood on the ground. Same for the Summer Hill forest. The woods traversed by the Assabet River Walk, once pasture, are older. There, there are many downed trees in varying states of decay.   

The greenspace bordering the Assabet River Rail Trail was cleared during construction. Dandelions, an exemplar of windblown propagation, are common, as are other early-growth perennials. Tree seedlings are present. Without maintenance of borders, our trail could become a green-flanked, green-roofed tunnel. An excellent report “Rail Trail Maintenance and Operation: Ensuring the Future of Your Trail – A Survey of 100 Rail Trails” suggests that trails need roughly $1,500 per mile per year in maintenance and operating costs. Maintenance tends to be a combined effort of municipal budgeting and volunteer organizations.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Cultural Council & District

The Maynard Cultural Council channels thousands of dollars of state money every year via grants, to support arts, humanities and science programs benefiting the Maynard community.  The Council – our local arm of the Massachusetts Cultural Council – was also instrumental in applying our cultural district designation, which encompasses and supports cultural, historical and recreational facilities including the Maynard Public Library, Acme Theatre, ArtSpace, art galleries, the Fine Arts Theater and other performance spaces, several live music venues, and access to the Assabet River Rail Trail.

The state program had its beginnings in 1975 as Artist Fellowships, funded by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. The organization morphed into the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 1990. Going forward, MCC continued to award fellowships, but also expanded a Local Cultural Council program, which award millions of dollars every year to towns and cities that have their own Cultural Councils.

David Mark selfie with Babe Ruth
Maynard’s Cultural Council, a volunteer organization appointed by the Board of Selectmen, accepts proposals once a year. One of the better-known projects was “Maynard as a Canvas,” which hired mural artists to create murals on both sides of the one-time Murphy & Snyder Printers building at the corner of Parker and Waltham Streets. Two entries were selected as winners from 80-some applicants. Completed in 2018, one side hummingbirds, the other incorporating portraits of Henry David Thoreau and Babe Ruth. Why them? Because both had visited, in 1851 and 1917, respectively.   

March 2017 saw the culmination of a multi-year effort to apply for and achieve state cultural designation. The application process started years earlier, with the formal submittal of the application to the state Cultural Council in early 2016. This designation is seen as a tremendous boost to Maynard’s growing reputation as a cultural destination, a place where residents and visitors alike can stroll from venue to venue, whether their intent is dinner and a movie, a pub crawl, Maynard Fest, or other events. As an annual event, the Council and District join the Town of Maynard in sponsoring ArtWeek, held during the end of April into early May.

This logo can be seen on a sign between Route 27 and the
Assabet River Rail Trail, near the golf course. 
The district designation was initially as “Assabet Village Cultural District,” but in early 2019 was changed to the more easily identified “Maynard Cultural District.” The logo is a triangle, tilted, with the words MAYNARD and DISTRICT bracketing a multi-color script Cultural.  The footprint of the district encompasses Summer Street from Waltham Street Bridge to ArtSpace on the north side (with a bulge to capture the Library), then south on Florida Road and west on Railroad Street to gather in Main Street, the mill pond and the mill complex, and then east along the river to return to Waltham Street. Doing so captures the smaller triangle of Summer, Nason and Main Streets, within a larger triangle of the town’s central business district. Going forward, the Council, District and Town work jointly to enrich Maynard’s art’s experience.

Maynard’s last Master Plan, issued in 1991, was designed to cover 15 years, i.e., through 2006. After a long ‘oops’ hiatus, Maynard restarted a master plan process winter of 2017, resulting in a 2020 Master Plan that will serve as a roadmap for the next 20 years. This plan is Maynard’s vision for the future and strategic outline for getting there. Per state law requirements, it addresses natural resources, economic development, infrastructure, transportation, historic and cultural resources, open space and recreation, land use, housing, and lastly, provides for a periodically updated action plan to implement all the objectives. The plan calls for promoting a high density, mixed-use core while preserving greenspace as urban tree planting, parks and forests. The Complete Streets Policy that was begun in 2016 will continue to promote a street and sidewalk network for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. The town encourages housing growth that fits into Maynard’s core walkability and also contributes to Maynard reaching the state goal of ten percent affordable housing. The plan also recognizes the importance of Maynard’s arts, dining and entertainment businesses in making the town an attractive place to live and visit.

Challenges faced by Maynard include an aging infrastructure, potential limits on water supply, need for more services for the fast-growing senior population, a school system with capacity issues and an antiquated fire station. Completion of the 129 Parker Street complex adds to the traffic burden and town services burden.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Assabet River Revisited

Recently, the Assabet River has been deeper than its long-term average for spring the reason being more than average rainfall. April, for that matter most months, averages four inches of rain (or snow equivalent) per month, year-round. Eastern Massachusetts does not have wet and dry seasons typical of some other parts of the country, although in some years there can be lengthy summer droughts. Oddly, after an unseasonably warm and low-snow February and March, this April was one of the coldest on record.    

Kayaker enjoying the rapids between Main Street
and foot bridge, Spring 2014
In the spring the river is exceptionally clear. The bottom is stony, versus how green it will appear in late summer when grown over with water milfoil, filamented algae and other bottom-anchored water plants. Year-round, the water has a low sediment content. This is because the Ben Smith Dam traps all the upstream sediment. A U.S. Geological Survey study completed in 2003 estimated accrued sediment volume at approximately 20,000,000 cubic feet. If ever there was a decision to remove the dam, some form of sediment removal would be required, elsewise vast quantities of sediment would shift down river, increasing the risk of floods in Maynard, Acton and Concord.

This time of the year the river mid-town is also mostly clear of surface plants. By late summer, every rain event that increases volume over the top of the dam brings floating plants like duckweed, watermeal and globs of free-floating algae through the center of town. Upstream of the dam, the near-shore shallows, also currently clear, will be covered by these floaters plus the flat leaves of white and yellow water lilies. Luckily for boaters, most of the river is deep enough to not sustain the surface-leafed, bottom-rooted, water plants.

The kayak and canoe launch dock at Ice House Landing
is back in the water for 2020.
Come winter, the plants will die, returning phosphorus to the bottom sediment. Even though wastewater treatment facilities are enjoined from adding too much new phosphorus to the river, this growth/death process functions as a self-sustaining cyclical phosphorus source, promoting next spring’s growth. Bad now, far, far worse 40 years ago. Ann Zwinger wrote in A Conscious Stillness (1982) "...the reach above the Powder Mill Dam [Acton, next to Route 62] is closed by joint action of the Maynard and Acton boards of health...the river smell is nauseating, reeking like an unpumped-out campground outhouse times ten." The smell emanated from rotting of bacteria, algae and water plants, the consequence of eutrophic growth promoted by the excesses of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the water as either inadequately treated waste water or farm and golf course fertilizer run-off, raw storm sewer discharge, etc.

As for why “Assabet,” once upon a time the Assabet River was known as the Elizabeth River, alternative spellings Assabeth, Asabet, Elizbeth, Elizabet…all thought to be Anglicized versions of a Native American name. One colonial era map had it as the Concord North River, with the Sudbury being the Concord South River. There was a map consensus in 1830 that Elizabeth Brook flowed into the Elizabeth River, but by 1856 it was Assabet Brook flowing into the Assabet River, with the pre-Maynard community identified as Assabet Village. Nowadays it is Elizabeth Brook flowing into the Assabet River.   

Removal of the footbridge, August 2016, in preparation for the new bridge,
installed February 2017 as part of the Assabet River Rail Trail.
The river is 31 miles long, from headwaters in Westborough to its merge with the Sudbury River in Concord to form the Concord River. Seven towns draw their well water from within the Assabet valley watershed and five discharge treated wastewater into the river (Westboro, Marlboro, Hudson, Maynard, Acton). There are six existing, intact, historic mill dams, plus one breached (Damonmill, West Concord) and one flood-destroyed (Papermill, Maynard). And there are two twentieth century flood control dams: George H. Nichols, Westborough, and Tyler, Marlborough. By having limited egress, those function to blunt peak downstream volume during times of heavy rain.

Sadly, in this time when so many people are looking for places to hike, there are few in Maynard or Stow with an actual view of the river. A suggestion: drive west on Concord Road into Acton, south on High Street, veer right onto Old High Street, and park at the trail head. The trail goes west, with water views.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Music in Maynard

Music has been an essential part of Maynard before Maynard was Maynard. The town's inaugural parade featured the Eagle Cornet Band of Iola Lodge and the Amateur Brass Band. The Maynard Brass Band came into being in 1875, reorganized in 1884 as the Maynard Military Band. The Finnish Imatra Band formed in 1898, the Finnish National Band in 1910. Various fife and drum corps, choral groups and glee clubs also entertained Maynard during the first half of the twentieth century.

1914 Postcard of Main Street, Maynard, looking east. Bandstand at right.
Electric trolley (tracks, center) operated until 1921.
In 1904, Abel Haynes donated a bandstand to the Maynard Military Band. It stood at the corner of Walnut and Main Streets and was illuminated by electric lights – electricity courtesy of the woolen mill. Concerts were Wednesday evenings, June through Labor Day. Hundreds of people would stand (or sit, if they brought chairs) to listen to the music. This was not as traffic-disruptive as one might think, as there were fewer than a dozen cars in all of Maynard. However, the crowd did have to make way periodically for the electric trolley. Sadly, a feud erupted over which bands would use the bandstand. While MMB claimed it ‘owned’ the bandstand, it stood on town property. The town called for sharing. The bandstand was moved on June 4, 1915, to a yard on Acton Street until the dispute was resolved. It never returned. A fieldstone bandstand was constructed in Crowe Park in 1939, torn down in the 1990s.

The Maynard school system offers many opportunities for the musically inclined. The Concert Band, Pep/Marching band and Concert Chorus are credit-earning courses, while the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Honors Chorus and A Capella Choir are non-credit electives. The school functions are supported in part by the Maynard Music Association.

In addition to Maynard’s own bands, choruses and glee clubs, innumerable were the times that organizations in town brought in dance orchestras for dances. The Historical Society has in its collection posters for dance marathons, masked balls, and even “Battle of Music” events, at which two bands would play, and attendees would vote for the best.

At times, there were problems. November 14, 1913, the weekly local newspaper The Maynard News carried this item: “At the Selectmen’s meeting Wednesday evening, it was decided that the objectional dances which have been indulged in in the dance halls in this village must be stopped. All parties holding dances in the future will be notified that these objectionable and so-called animal dances are prohibited and must not be permitted in any dance hall in this municipality… in this action for a cleaner and better Maynard.”

The “Animal Dance” craze was directly related to the popularity of ragtime music, derived from African-American traditions, with a syncopated beat. Maynard was not alone in prohibiting provocative dances. In 1912, New York City placed the Grizzly Bear under a "social ban", along with other "huggly-wiggly dances" like the Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, Texas Tommy and the Boston Dip.

Worth a mention: Once upon a time, gods and demigods of rock and roll walked the streets of Maynard. It was the 70s. Aerosmith, The Talking Heads, The Cars, Tommy Bolin Band, Johnny Barnes, Thundertrain... all recorded at The Great Northern Studio aka Northern Studio, Northern Recording Studio, Northern Sound or Northern Lights Recording Studio, upstairs at 63 Main Street. The studio was started by Peter Casperson and Bob Runstein, both out of Boston. Life at the studio must have been interesting. This from a forum post: "The first time I ever saw a 'beer machine' [soda machine stocked with cans of beer] was at Northern Sound in Maynard…I thought it was the coolest thing in the world!!!"

Maynard Community Band, 1918. Courtesy of  Jonathan Daisy.
Present day, the Maynard Community Band performs in Memorial Park. The band – all volunteer – was started in 1947. It was brought together when Louis Koski, an immigrant from Finland, a professional conductor and composer, invited musicians from the existing Maynard Military, Imatra and National Bands to become one band. In time, Koski turned over the reins to Ilmari Junno, in turn to Alexander DeGrappo, and then in 2003 to Michael Karpeichik. Musicians from surrounding towns are welcomed. The band plays a wide variety of band literature, focusing on quality concert music, standard band repertoire and modern compositions. A “Star Wars” medley is always a crowd pleaser. Performances include 10-12 annual outdoor summer concerts as well as spring and fall performances ending a Holiday Christmas concert at The Sanctuary in mid-December.