Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Nature and Science Education’ Category

Along the Blackstone River – Worcester to River Bend Farm

The Blackstone River project continues though I have no idea where it will lead.  Researching an idea and then getting out in the field is definitely an exciting experience.  The more I find out about the River then more intriguing it becomes.  It makes up in Worcester, the industrial heartland that it helped to create.  This view of Beaver Brook is less than half a mile from my home.

_1050758

The white object in the upper left is a mattress.  Fairly random I know.  Beaver Brook joins forces with Middle River about two miles away, to give genesis to the Blackstone itself.  As you can see, there isn’t terribly much left that is natural about Beaver Brook.  Where we’re standing is where the Brook comes out from below ground.  It is tunneled in for around a mile, reappears in Beaver Brook Park off Chandler Street in Worcester and then disappears again.  It would seem that civilization has trumped nature, in this case.  That is the story here I think, the tension and synergy between nature and civilization writ large.

As I said in the previous post, the Blackstone is one of the most polluted Rivers in the U.S., which is saying something.  It was indeed the home of the industrial revolution and it’s 400 plus foot drop from Worcester, Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island meant water power.  At Pawtucket, a Mr. Slater founded the first Cotton Mill in the United States, the very first one.  The impact of that bit of industrialization on the entire country cannot be over-stated.  More on that to come.

Nature has reasserted herself though along the way.  Just a bit of research pointed us toward River Bend Farm in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, less than twenty-miles away.  River Bend is actually a state park, managed by the Massachusetts Division of Conservation and Recreation, though it is affiliated with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor which is  under the management of the National Park Service.  It is perhaps ten to fifteen miles long.  It runs along a stretch of the Blackstone River and the Blackstone Canal itself, parts of which at this location are still clearly visible.  This is an image of the Canal from new the Visitor Center there.

Hunt_150502__DSC4107

The Canal Barges were propelled, or rather pulled along, by horses that trod along the tow path you can see to the right. In places, the Canal and River intermingle, as seems to be the case here at the Arch Bridge approximately half mile north.

Hunt_150502__DSC4138

But what about that 400 foot drop from Worcester to Providence?  The Canal required a series of locks to make the journey possible.  Here is the Goat Hill Lock, one of the few remaining that is still largely visible.

Hunt_150502__DSC4158

A barge would enter the lock and a door shut behind it.  There was also a door shut in front.   Water would be pumped out or in to the lock depending upon the direction the barge was heading.  The water level would reach that of the next leg of the journey and the door in front would open, allowing the barge to carry on.  This lock is ten feet wide.  That is not the pathway for flowing water, that is the entire lock, meaning that the barges were all less than ten feet wide.  All that, and it was still cheaper than sending goods over land, evidently considerably cheaper.  The barge then moved ahead into an area of the Canal or River such as this.

Hunt_150502__DSC4163

Obviously, no passing in the lock.  However, on the good side, very little need for a GPS.  More to come.

What the Landscape Tells Us

I’ve been working my way through a most interesting book, The Language of Landscape, by design professor and photographer Anne Whiston Spirn.  She is on the faculty at MIT and her work is very scholarly (I like that, but it might serve as a warning to those who don’t).  I will try to capture her point succinctly, though I’m sure I’m damaging it in the process.  The landscape we see is talking with us if we know how to listen.  In fact, the landscape is telling us about itself, its history and the forces that shape the landscape, be they geological, meteorological or human.  Some such stories are authored almost totally by nature, think of the Grand Canyon telling us about the power of the flow of a river.  However, such solely authored works are harder to come by then one might image.

Humanity is often on the cover jacket as well, working with, around, through or co-opting nature as a co-author.  The hand of humanity is obvious in some cases.  The suburban office building and parking lot tell us a story about the economic intent and values of the designers and perhaps the surrounding community, albeit one we might find boring.   Such is not always the case of course.  Sometimes the story is more complex and perhaps more interesting. Sometimes design, even design by humans, can result in something quite unusual.

Thinking like this has helped me take a different approach to some of my photography over the past several years.  In particular, I’ve been hanging around the Winsor Dam and Goodnough Dike, the structures that are largely responsible for holding back the waters of the Swift River and creating the massive Quabbin Reservoir.  The Reservoir, for the new visitor, is the source of drinking water for much of eastern Massachusetts.  It is a marvelous resource that is also surrounded by an accidental wilderness, with wonderful forests and wildlife.  It was created at great sacrifice, particularly for the several thousand people put off the four towns take to create the Reservoir.  As I have said many times here, we should all be thankful for the sacrifice of others.  (If you don’t see the importance of a resource like the Reservoir, Google “Sao Paolo Drought.”  You will see a horrific story of the very rapidly dwindling supply of water in the reservoirs surrounding Brazil’s largest city.  The supply in the main ones is down to around 5 – 10%.  They may run out of water in just a few months.  Twenty million people.  There for but the grace of God and the sacrifice of others…..  But back to my story.)

So the creation of the Reservoir is a complex, sad and wondrous story.   These images were taken on or below the largest of the structures, Winsor Dam, located in Quabbin Park, Belchertown and Ware, Massachusetts.  What is the landscape saying?

_DSC7435-Edit _DSC7444 _DSC7448-Edit _DSC7450 _DSC7469-Edit

There are I’m sure many answers to the question.  I was talking with a friend the other day, a colleague at Babson who loves to fish in the catch and release area just below the Dam.  I asked him what the Dam looked like to him.  He agreed, it’s not your typical dam.  I’ve been trying to find out the motive behind such an unusual design.  There are many engineering related answers.  An earthen dam makes sense given the location.  There was appropriate soil nearby for the construction of such a dam.  You have to plant grass on the side of an earthen dam and keep trees off of the dam itself.  That part of the story seems very relevant.  But does it explain the way it looks?  In his book, From Valley to Quabbin, author J.R. Greene quotes an article from the Amherst Record, dated October 11, 1946; “This is the Quabbin Reservoir created by  man for utilitarian purposes yet so panned that a great engineering feat has been skillfully blended with nature,” (Greene, 2010, pg. 126, Athol Press).    I suspect the story the landscape here is trying to tell us has more to offer.

The Mystery of Nature

I’ve been keeping my head down, figuratively that is, more like sticking it in front of the computer. I’m working on a book about a very special place, and I’ll share more about that soon.  One of the inspirations for the work is the notion of “mystery” and what we don’t understand.  There is really so much in nature that escapes us and I’ve been looking at images from my collections that illustrate that joyous yet perplexing fact.  Here’s one from Manteo taken in 2012.

Gulls over Roanoke Sound - 2012

Obviously it’s a bunch of gulls in a frenzy.  But, what was the frenzy all about?  Normally you’d think “gulls going crazy, must be a fishing boat around here someone throwing some waste overboard.”  Good guess, but in this case, no boat.  I’m standing on the deck of a condo in Manteo, North Carolina. I felt I could practically reach out and touch them.  And no, I didn’t have anything for them to eat.  (You should never feed wildlife, even gulls, with the exception of the strategically thought out bird feeder.)  Of course, maybe they were hamming it up for the camera.  Glad I could oblige.  They were quite professional as colleagues go.

The Quandry of Simplicity

I’ve been seeking the “Holy Grail” recently and as is typically the case, coming up empty handed.  So what constitutes a good photograph?  Stupid question, I know. The answer is “a good photograph.” There is no answer other than, it all depends.  But that doesn’t stop us from trying.  As many wiser people have told me, or written, art is so subjective that if you’re aspiring to practice it, you are buying yourself an on-going confidence problem.  Is it any good?  Well, it really does all depend. You’re supposed to learn the rules of photography when you start getting serious, but then you’re supposed to break them routinely.  My most recently I have been worshipping at the alter of simplicity.  Edie Adams famously said that the best photographs are simple, they have just a one or two elements.  You try to get everything else out of the frame.

Hunt_140610_DSC_0380-Edit-2

That little clump of grass has a true life of its own.  It survives storm after storm, and it’s still there, by itself.  (All the images in this blog are from my recent trip to Manteo, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  This is an early evening shot of Roanoke Sound.)  There is a large bridge just to the right of the frame and closer to the photographer, on either side of the frame is significant and quite attractive foliage.  There is very little beach.  You just get a hint of the rocks in the fore ground.  The image is then heavily cropped, albeit in the lens.

Hunt_140609__1020944-Edit

Here’s a somewhat messy location on the other side of the Island, overlooking Croatan Sound.  I have cropped (in camera and in the digital darkroom) severely to simplify the image.  This is a public location but it is poorly kept. This was actually the location of the  Confederate Battery that was supposed to stop the Union Navy from capturing the Island and controlling sea access to North Carolina during the Civil War.  The Confederates were shall we say not successful.

I enjoy the simplicity of the image and the one or two elements (I guess you’d say four actually, counting the sky.)  But can you live your life that way?

Hunt_140607__DSC6759-Edit

Let me say it for you…”what the hell is that?”  That is the bottom of the root system of an overblown tree, half submerged in the water.  You find it along a charming nature walk at Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge in Columbia, NC, not far from the Outer Banks.  It sits there, providing house and home for all sorts of critters.  The Park Service will not touch it, and they shouldn’t.  This tree is going to keep on giving for many years, even though it’s formal life is over.  I find it joyfully complex, almost overwhelming.  Who knows what’s going on in there at any given time.  Probably a lot.  Nature perhaps is not simple.  There are indeed quiet and one could say simple moments of harmony, but the constant state of change we find in nature is neither simple nor harmonious. Photography and art more generally has to somehow grapple with those discontinuities.  My pursuit of a perfectly simple world was off target.  Glad I figured that one out.

Down Under the Highway

Contemplating the passing of another fall, I’m always reminded that fall is why I got into photography in the first place.  When you stop to think about it, why should nature put on such a light show for us?  Seriously???  But she does thank goodness and so we appreciate.  Nature meets humanity.  It is one of the great conundrums of our lives and impacts everything we worry about and enjoy at the same time, from a wonderful day at the beach to global warming.  It’s all about what we experience, or rather notice, and how we interpret what we notice.  So I’ve been looking for points of intersection that seem particularly interesting and I found one, under the highway.  In this case, I’m referring to Route 146, AKA the “little dig” which was transformed a few years ago into the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor that runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Rhode Island.

The Blackstone River has followed that basic route since the last ice age, but it was also the location of the Blackstone River Canal which was designed to run from Worcester to Providence before their war railroads, in the early 1800’s.  Alas, the railroads were not far behind and the Canal never saw much service.   Route 146 was the connector between the two cities and when it was being redesigned at the Worcester end, the State wisely, thankfully, decided to include a path/bikeway and connect the people once again to the river.

Hunt_131013_133720-Edit-Edit

As you can see, however, the connection is, to a degree, quite funky.  The river and path share the road with, well the road, the road supports and graffiti artists.  Late at night, we could probably add some other elements to the menu, but you get the idea.  Urban meets nature.  Nevertheless, it creates a compelling, though tough to photograph view.

Hunt_131013_130928-Edit-2

We were of course lucky to be there just at the peak of the foliage.  The contrast between nature and the artifacts of the urban was intense, but somehow enjoyable.  The river, depleted a bit because of the lack of rain and because of well, the fact that it has a tough life at this point in its career, keeps on flowing nevertheless.

Hunt_131013_131146_50_54-Edit

Till next time….

Tech Note:  Photographers will recognize that these shots are “HDR” or high dynamic range shots, pulled together in Photomatix.  Under the highway the difference between dark and light is too great for the sensor to comprehend.  Multiple shots, taken on a tripod, hopefully with no wind and no touching, allow you to capture the highlights and the shadows.  However, the results sometimes don’t look that natural (though I tried to stay true to what I saw), which is the case here.  This to me represents another piece of evidence that nature (our eye balls in this case) can still trump technology, at least for now.