Spring is coming earlier than it did in the nineteenth century, a scientific study has found. One of the indicators of spring is the blossoming of trees and flowers. Author, naturalist, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was deeply interested in the unfolding of the seasons. On his daily walks in Concord, Massachusetts, he took notes whenever he observed such seasonal changes. He wrote in his journal “I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight [2 weeks], that I might know exactly when it opened.” An entry on May 5, 1855, notes “High blueberry beg[in] to leaf in some places yesterday.”
Biologist Richard Primack has mined Thoreau’s journals for these observations and compared them with current data. In 2010, for example, highbush blueberry first flowered in Concord on April 7. Comparing 32 plants from Thoreau’s time to today, Primack found the first flowering dates were now occurring an average of 11 days earlier. According to a United Nations panel, human activity has caused average global temperatures to increase 1.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In Concord, a suburb of Boston, the increase has been at least 2.0 degrees Celsius because of the “heat island” effect of dense development, pavement, and energy use compared to rural areas. Plants are responding to this warming by blooming earlier.
In recent studies, Primack has found evidence that insect populations shift their schedules in sync with the plants they feed on, which is not surprising. However, the arrival of birds who winter in the tropics has not, on average, shown much of a shift. As a result, one of the consequences of climate change may be a mismatch between bird populations and the availability of the insects they feed on. In 1852, Thoreau voiced a similar awareness of the importance of climate in the circle of life, noting that an unusually long winter could have deadly consequences for returning birds. But he did not foresee the steady retreat of winter that we now face.
Grow Native Massachusetts, based in Waltham, is a great resource for anyone interested in gardening and landscaping with native plants. They hold an evening lecture series every year from February to May at the Cambridge Public Library. Videos of past lectures are available online. They also have a plant sale coming up in Waltham on June 1, 2019.
There is no end to the variety of fascinating requests the land trust has received over the years for activities to be conducted on our preserves. Last spring, writer Jane Breakell set out to retrace the steps of banished Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson, who walked from Quincy, Massachusetts, to what was to become Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in April, 1638.
On April 10, 2018, Jane, midway through her journey, spent the night in a tent on the Leach Sanctuary. Two days later, she crossed Narragansett Bay by boat to reach her destination, Aquidneck Island, as did Anne Hutchinson before her. Below are some brief excerpts from an essay that Jane wrote about her experience for a recent issue of the New England Review (Vol. 39, No. 3).
Write Like a Puritan by Jane Breakell
“A woodcut shows a woman in a long black dress with a square white collar and a black hood, one hand at her side, one fist held to her chest, speaking, it appears, to a group of old men who are seated at a table, pulling at their beards, peering at her. If anyone can talk to God, then anyone can justify her own choices, words, actions, with or without the approval of the elders. From this kind of magical thinking, it is no great distance to amoral anarchy. When she would not recant, they kicked her right out. She had been a voluntary exile from England, braving the wilderness of the New World. She was now also an exile from Massachusetts, but she considered neither home. The bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, she said, and walked out of Boston, into the real wilderness. She resettled herself on an island to the south, in what became the state of Rhode Island, not far from where I grew up. What takes ninety minutes by car today took her, on foot in 1638, six days. Eventually she left Rhode Island for New York. There, after refusing to evacuate during a Siwanoy raid (against the advice of her more experienced neighbors), she was killed.
“I’ve come to understand that Anne Hutchinson’s story, the struggle between doubt and assurance, the voices of elders and the voice in her own head, must be part of mine.
“…Specifically, I must retrace Anne Hutchinson’s long journey from Boston to Rhode Island in an attempt to reconsider New England—home of self-satisfied tradition—as wilderness, frontier. By reenacting this long-past drama of belonging, I want to learn about those questions we still ask ourselves: what is the right way to live? On whom can we rely to tell us? What do I need to do, where do I need to go, to be the right kind of person?
“…Instead of woolen clothes and wooden overshoes, I wear yoga pants and hiking boots with Gore-tex. Instead of carrying or gathering food, I stop for lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s; instead of sleeping out, I book Airbnbs for all but one night. And while Hutchinson sent a scout ahead to plot a route through forests, I follow a route chosen by Google Maps. She walked through forests, dunes, and swamps that have since been replaced by paved roads, village squares, college campuses, and Dunkin Donuts. When I read the names of the towns we will pass through, they evoke not wilderness but radio commercials for discount shoes and tires.
The point is to walk where she walked, which I do. It’s just different now.”