The errands and chores took up most of the day, and everything took more time than usual due to the traffic which got increasingly worse as the day went on, as the winter storm warnings for Wednesday grew more dire. Get your Thanksgiving shopping done today! shouted the news media. Begin your Thanksgiving travels now! But in spite of all the traffic, and in spite of the errands and chores I had to do, I did manage to get outdoors.

I got up early and drove to White Pond. I walked to the pond over the bluff on the southeastern shore, and as the pond came into view, the white sand banks stood out through the November gloom, and I was struck by how appropriate its name is. The rainbow trout were rising well within casting distance of the shore, little dimples of water appearing her and there as a fish sucked a fly underwater. But the trout didn’t like anything I cast; there was a hatch of flies going on, and I suspect they were completely absorbed by that; had I been fly fishing, perhaps I could have presented something they would have struck at.

A woman came walking down the shore, and we started chatting. “I haven’t fished here in a dozen years,” I said, “and the houses seem to keep getting bigger.” The houses on the pond started out as modest summer cottages, but now many have them have transmogrified into McMansions. “Oh, it’s terrible,” she said, “they keep expanding them. Some of them are huge now. Three, four floors.” I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought: this is what growing wealth inequality is doing to Concord, Massachusetts: changing it into an enclave of the elite. That thought dampened my mood, so I started fishing again.

After three quarters of an hour, the rainbows stopped rising, and I went off to start my errands. Sadly, I had to spend most of the rest of the day either in the car, or indoors.

But as the day turned towards dusk, I found I had just enough time to go to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and see what birds were there. I arrived too late to see the immature Bald Eagle that has been there for the last couple of days, but I arrived just in time for one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in months.


Above: Two Mallards swimming in the upper pool at Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

Tail race from Damon Mill

Dad’s condo is across the street from Damon Mill in West Concord, a mid-nineteenth century brick mill building now converted to offices. The old outflow stream from the mill, technically a “tail race,” flows right behind Dad’s condo and thence into the Assabet River.


Above: The tail race from Damon Mill; the main current of the Assabet River is visible through the trees.

A cold front went through last night, and this morning when we got up, there was a skin of ice on the tail race; leaves and twigs that had been floating on the surface of the water got frozen into the skin of ice. It was cold enough today that the ice never melted. I took the above photo at 3 p.m., and there’s the skin of ice, still holding on to the leaves and twigs.

A week ago, Dad and I walked around the edge of the field below his condo. But today it was too cold to walk that far. We made it to Dad’s garden, which is close by his condo, before he decided he wanted to turn around. We did see, however, that there is still one last pea plant struggling to survive the cold snap. It’s supposed to get up to sixty degrees on Monday, so perhaps the pea plant will revive then.

Assabet River


Above: The Assabet River, just below the Pine Street bridge in Concord, Mass., on 15 Nov. 2014

Tonight, my father’s brother Lee, and my cousins Lynn and Steve came up to visit Dad. Uncle Lee spent his career as a chemist, but I would be more likely to call him a practical icthyologist; he knows as much about the biology of fish as anyone else I know; he raises something on the order of a hundred different species of fish in his basement, and he’s an avid fisherman of wide experience. For her part, my cousin Lynn works for MassWildlife as a habitat protection specialist, and has a wide knowledge of many different Massachusetts ecosystems, including rivers, streams, and ponds.

As we were eating our dinner (we had fish, of course), Uncle Lee and Lynn got to talking about fish. Between them, they covered the possible effects of global climate change on lake trout in Canadian lakes; invasive Asian carp in the Midwest; the reintroduction of sturgeon into the Chesapeake River; which species of fish were native in Eastern Massachusetts rivers; etc. Since the Assabet River is visible from Dad’s living room window, of course we talked about the SuAsCo (Sudbury/Assabet/Concord) river system. I tried to participate in the conversation, but it was far more interesting to listen to the two of them. At one point, I looked at Steve and said, “Isn’t it interesting to listen to two fish experts talk?” He agreed. It’s always interesting to hear people talk about something they know well.

Wetlands, Concord, Mass.


Above: Cattails in a wetlands along the abandoned Old Colony Railroad (later New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad) grade that parallels Old Marlboro Road, Concord, Mass.

This wetlands area has a substantial expanse of open water, due to beaver dams; in the photo there is open water on the far side of the cattails, and you can see the grey trunks of dead trees, trees which could not survive the flooding from the beaver activity. Beyond that, you can see hills covered mostly in white pine (Pinus strobus), with some red oak (Quercus rubra) mixed in; this mix of pine and oak is typical on upland glacial till soils in eastern Massachusetts.

These are characteristic colors of mid-November wetlands in Concord: the dull brown and white of dead cattails and their seeds and the grey of dead or leafless deciduous trees; a sky covered with dull gray clouds above; and in the background, the dark green of white pines with a few spots of dull red provided by the red oaks which still retain their leaves.


Thirty-six years ago, my mother called up her best friend Dorothy Lob, and asked Dorothy if she would come help with some sewing. I was about to head off to college, and my mother wanted to sew name tags into my clothing, and on all my sheets and blankets.

I was not allowed to help with the sewing. For all that she was a feminist, my mother never taught me to sew, never let me learn how to use her sewing machine, washing machine or dryer, or her iron or her ironing board. My sisters were allowed, even required, to learn how to use these things, but I was a boy, and boys mostly didn’t work with cloth and fabric. I was, however, allowed to hang out laundry to dry on the clothesline upon occasion, and in this I suspect that my mother was more progressive than her mother.

Although I was not allowed to sew, I did have to sit with Dorothy and my mother while they sewed on the name tags. We sat around the dining room table one bright summer day, and Dorothy was her usual cheerful self, chatting away and making my mother laugh and smile. Dorothy had a musical German accent; she had grown up Jewish in Germany, and had fled to America to escape the Nazis. I never heard her talk about it, but my mother said that was why she wanted nothing to do with organized religion, and that was why she could not believe in any god who could let something like that happen.

I vaguely remember helping fold clothes, and handing things to my mother and to Dorothy; mostly I probably just got in the way. I definitely remember that Dorothy was faster at sewing on name tags than my mother, and even I could see that she took less care at it. My mother took small careful stitches, securing each end of the name tag, while Dorothy sewed in big, bold stitches that quickly circled the entire name tag.

Although all the clothes I brought with me to college have long since gone to the rag bag, I still have some linens and bed clothes with those old name tags sewn in. I just found a comforter with a name tag sewn on by Dorothy:


And I found an old towel with a name tag sewn on by my mother, so you can compare their stitches:


Their sewing reveals something about each woman’s personality: Dorothy, bold and unafraid and exuberant; my mother, cautious and careful. After they had finished sewing and Dorothy had gone home, my mother looked at Dorothy’s sewing with with some disfavor, and worried aloud that the stitches would come out and the name tags would fall off; thirty-six years later, I can say with some assurance that her worries were unfounded.

With two children in college and another in middle school my mother never had time again to sew name tags on my clothes or linens. Both women are now dead, and the dining room in which we sat is gone because that house was torn down to put up a McMansion. I get a little catch in my throat sometimes when I catch sight of one of those old name tags: you can still see something of those two strong personalities in those stitches.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

I took a short trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., today to pay a visit to the grave of my favorite Transcendentalist. The bronze plaque that marks her grave reads:

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
A Teacher of three generations of Children,
and the founder of Kindergarten in America.
Every humane cause had her sympathy,
and many her active aid.


One of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s protegees was Lucy Wheelock, the founder of Wheelock College. My mother attended Wheelock College to train as a teacher, and learned from Lucy Wheelock herself. I learned some of my teaching skills from my mother, so Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was the teacher of a teacher of one of my teachers.

While I was there, I walked over to Author’s Ridge to walk by the graves of the most famous Transcendentalists buried in Concord: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Tourists had piled small stones, pennies, and twigs on top of and around their gravestones.

Thirty years ago, no one piled stones or pennies on the authors’ gravestones. When this first started happening, it annoyed me, and I’d clean off the gravestones of all that litter. But now this act has become a part of New England folk culture, and you will not only see stones placed by tourists on the graves of famous people, but also stones placed by people on the graves of their family members. Now I leave the stones and twigs, although I still stop to sweep off the pennies, because the copper dissolves in New England’s slightly acidic rain and discolors the gravestones.

I wonder if this act of placing small stones arises out of some deeply-held religious memory in Western culture. These look like small cairns to me — in ancient Greek religion, Hermes, the god of travelers, dwelt in cairns — though gravestones don’t mark a physical path, they can mark a spiritual path.

My second favorite Transcendentalist is Louisa May Alcott. Her grave had no pennies (she’s worth more than a penny, I guess), but people had piled stones and twigs around her headstone with her initials — she’s in a family plot with a main gravestone, then all the family members have small stones with just their initials — and the flush stone with her full name that was installed later. Someone had left her a note, now in tatters from exposure to rain and sun, and unreadable. In the past, I’ve read other notes that people have left for her, saying how much her books have meant to them. I think about it this way: casual tourists can leave stones without any forethought; those whose lives have been changed by Alcott’s books think to leave a written memorial.

Grave of Louisa May Alcott

Above: Louisa May Alcott’s gravestone, Author’s Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.

I couldn’t figure out who some graves get stones, and some don’t. Lidian Jackson Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife, had stones piled on her gravestone, but Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, had none. As much as I like Lidian Jackson Emerson, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne strikes me as the more impressive of the two women. Before she was married, Sophia Peabody pursued a career as an artist, something unheard of for women in early nineteenth century America; she was an intellectual, though somewhat overshadowed by her older sister Elizabeth, and part of the Transcendentalist circle. Does Lidian fill more of an archetypal role in the common religious imagination of New England folk culture? Or is it simply that the people who would value Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as an artist, and intellectual, and a symbol of early feminist consciousness are not the type of people who leave stones on graves?

Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment



Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)


Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator

The Saturday Bag

Mom got tired of her two children leaving their toys and belongings all over the house, and so she came up with the idea of the Saturday Bag. Mom explained how the Saturday Bag was going to work: If Jean or I left something around the house, she would pick it up and put it in a brown paper bag high up on the top shelf of the closet in the kitchen, where we could not reach it. On Saturday morning, she would bring down the Saturday Bag from its high shelf, open it up, and Jean and I could get back anything of ours that was in it.

Jean and I asked questions about how this was going to work. Would we really have to wait until Saturday morning to retrieve our belongings? Yes, said Mom calmly, we would. But what if we forgot, and left something in the kitchen? Mom said, then it will go into the Saturday Bag. And we won’t be able to get it until the next Saturday? That’s right, said Mom. What if we leave something out that’s too big to go inside the Saturday Bag? Then, said Mom, it will just go up on the top shelf next to the Saturday Bag.

This Saturday Bag idea worried me. I pretty much knew that sometime during the week I would forget and leave a favorite toy where it didn’t belong, and Mom would put it in the Saturday Bag. And of course I did leave things out, and they promptly went into the Saturday Bag. I have a vague memory of saying, Mom, I can’t find something-or-other — and Mom telling me that it was in the Saturday Bag. I have a distinct memory of looking up at the high closet shelf where the Saturday Bag was, knowing that some of my things were up there, in the Saturday Bag, where I couldn’t get them back until Saturday.

I was only about five years old, and so it seemed like it took forever for Saturday to arrive. It was a bright sunny morning. After breakfast, Mom reached up and took down the Saturday Bag. At last I had my toys back! But I knew, I just knew that it would all happen again in the coming week: once again I would forget and leave something out, and Mom would pick it up, and put it in the Saturday Bag.

I don’t think Mom kept the Saturday Bag idea going on for very long. Or maybe it went on for years, but I don’t remember it after the first few months because I got good at putting my toys and belongings away. Kindergarteners can be trained to put things away, and my mother had been a kindergarten teacher for a decade before she got married; if anyone could train a five year old boy and a seven year old girl, it was my mother.

Snow and dialect

On the last morning of my trip back east, it started snowing. I hadn’t seen snow falling for more than four years, not since we moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I got that familiar, mesmerized, contemplative feeling that you get when you watch snow falling; and almost immediately the worry kicked in: will this affect driving? will my flight be delayed? are my shoes waterproofed? Fortunately the snow stopped after about ten minutes, leaving no accumulation: I got the pleasure of seeing it without all the discomfort that goes along with snow.

While I was in the Boston area, it was interesting to again speak in what the linguists call Eastern New England dialect — popularly known as a “Boston accent,” though really there are several Boston accents which are a subset of Eastern New England dialect, and actually my accent is west of Boston, with a does of New Bedford from my time living there. Whatever my accent, or the accent of the natives I talked with, I found it’s much easier for me to communicate when speaking Eastern New England dialect, and I realized I always feel there’s always something missing when I have to speak American Standard English, that bastard dialect of television and movies that lacks subtlety and emotional nuance.