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View from the river

Four summers ago, nature writer David Gessner and Dan Driscoll, a director at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, paddled the length of the Charles River together. This excerpt from Gessner's new book touches on the highlights.

WITH THE FLOW Author David Gessner stands waist-deep in the sun-splashed Charles. WITH THE FLOW Author David Gessner stands waist-deep in the sun-splashed Charles. (Photographs by Josh Campbell)
By David Gessner
August 7, 2011

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We are guiding our rock-battered canoe down a particularly stunning section of the river, twisting between steep granite walls and overhanging trees, as we travel toward the hidden city at river’s end. Over the past hours, we have heard coyotes howl, observed a sharp-shinned hawk swoop into the canopy, swallows cut above the water in front of us, and kingfishers ratchet past, and toasted with beers to congratulate ourselves after an exhilarating ride through rapids.

If I squint I can imagine myself on a great and wild river, the Amazon or Congo or at least the Colorado, and can imagine the man steering the canoe behind me as an epic adventurer – Teddy Roosevelt, say, hurtling down the River of Doubt.

The truth is slightly less glamorous. This isn’t the Amazon, but the Charles – a name that conjures images more fancy and effete, not to mention domesticated and decidedly British, than adventurous and wild – and that the hidden city ahead is known in the native tongue as Bawhston.

What’s more, the dwellings we will soon pass will not be primitive huts but Super Stop & Shops, and the Homo sapiens we’ll encounter downriver will not be headhunters but Harvard students, and, if I am perfectly honest, the fearless leader in the stern isn’t Teddy R., but a state worker named Dan Driscoll, whom I once played some Ultimate Frisbee with and who was known in those days as “Danimal.”

We like to strip down myths, we modern folk, and it’s easy enough to quickly strip this journey of all its mythic qualities – to see it as a pretty modest trip on a pretty modest river with a modest enough guy. But if our adventure has not been a life-or-death journey into a vast, untamed wilderness, the truth is I have been consistently astonished over the last couple of days, not just by the hidden wildness of the river but by Driscoll himself. The man’s own considerable energy, which I had only previously witnessed when he was chasing down Frisbees like a border collie, is equally apparent when he talks about his efforts to revitalize the river we travel down.

“It started back around 1990, when I was working as a planner for the state,” he tells me as we paddle. “Someone in the office said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at the Charles?’ I think they were just trying to give the new kid something to do. Little did they know.”

Dan Driscoll is a man of average height and proportions, fit and compact, thanks in part to his daily bike commute in and out of Boston. There is something of the true believer to Dan, as there has to be in anyone who will take on the sort of fight he has, but that intensity is leavened by a certain regular guy-ness and sense of humor.

As he paddles, he describes what he calls his “radical idea” that being environmental isn’t about education or politics. It’s about what Thoreau called “contact.” Falling in love with something – a place, an animal – and then fighting for it.

“When I grew up in Newton, we always had our butts dragged out to Lincoln to learn about ‘nature.’ The way I look at it, if one kid walks out into his own backyard and has contact with nature, then maybe that will do something. Maybe he’ll be inspired to fight for the place. Maybe he’ll be the next John Muir.”

He pauses to correct his exaggeration.

“Or at least maybe he’ll just be less of a jerk.”

We paddle quietly for a while on the green, shadowy river, and then, as if on cue, a young deer, tawny and hesitant, emerges from the woods, freezing when it sees us. It is a stunning sight there by the bank, and we lift our paddles and let the current carry us, trying to stay as still as the animal. Once we round the next bend we laugh and hoot at our good luck.

“You see, that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t attuned with the river,” Dan says.

I nod, though I’m not so sure. The deer was pretty easy to see. But I listen as Dan launches into the first of the morning’s monologues.

“We nature lovers are hypocrites, of course,” he says. “We are all hypocrites. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say, ‘But you drive a car’ or ‘You fly a lot’ or ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that they are hypocrites lets people off the hook.”

I pull my paddle out of the water to listen.

“What we need are more hypocrites,” he says. “We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”

I think of my own environmental Achilles’ heel, a dainty preference for hot baths over showers. And then I think of everyone I know and know of and can’t come up with anyone who has an entirely clean eco-slate. Which seems to mean that, logically, Dan is right: If only non-hypocrites are going to fight for the environment, then it will be an army of none.

For most of the morning the banks have been wooded, but now, across from the sandbar we’ve stopped to eat lunch on, a wide lawn rolls up to a gigantic new house. I worry that we are resting on private property, but Dan assures me that while the riverbank may belong to the homeowner, the little island belongs to the state. Moreover, it is the property of the citizens of the state, which means us.

The main problem with the river, he explains, used to be water quality, but much has changed since the Clean Water Act [enacted in 1948 and significantly expanded in 1972 and 1977]. Now huge stripers chase herring 8 miles upriver in the once famously dirty water.

Dan knows he isn’t about to create a great trackless wilderness in the Boston suburbs. As it was, the Legislature scoffed at his early attempts to create a nature preserve along the Charles. Here common sense kicked in. To get his limited urban wildness, his practical political choice was to push for the creation of bike paths.

“Bike paths you can get funding for,” he explains as we lounge on the sandbar. “They don’t [care] about ‘wilderness.’ But bike paths they kind of understand. So you try to use federal money creatively by calling things ‘bikeways,’ but you’re really trying to establish a connection with nature. They don’t review the grants that closely. I’ll sneak in $100,000 for native plantings and they will say ‘OK.’ ” For Dan, the paths were just a means to an end, his Trojan horse. They allowed him to replant the banks and return some wildness to the river.

It would be nice to simply sleep here on our sandbar. But we have places to be, and so, finally, reluctantly, we stand up and push off. The mansions of Wellesley and Dover are behind us, and, as we enter Needham and Dedham, the river takes a decidedly urban turn. If the Charles has a St. Louis arch of sorts, letting you know you have entered new territory, it is Route 128. We cross under it quietly, unseen, beneath the unending roar of the highway, moving through the gateway to the city river.

‘The strange thing is that folks in the suburbs place great value on this land along the river,” Dan says. “But once you get here, in the city itself, it is devalued.”

The places we pass prove his point: industrial parks, car lots, chain-link fences right on the river. The Charles turns gritty. Dan plans to change that. He has vowed to revitalize this area as well. He points out that some here are trying to connect to the river: A hole in the fence yawns, and an old, stuffed chair has been plopped above the riverbank where people can creep down during their lunch breaks to watch the river flow – workers sneaking out the factory’s back door for lunch or a cigarette or maybe, on Fridays, a beer; looking down at the river and seeing where it had come from and where it was flowing; a place to briefly escape their jobs, sure, but also a point of contact.

True, it isn’t the nature you find in Sierra magazine. Instead, it’s the nature of the creek that runs through your neighborhood, the nature of the abandoned lot, the nature of the small secret patch of beach protected by rocks. I understand that there are those who would scoff at my trying to make claims of wilderness for Needham. But I think we are making a deadly mistake if we ignore the smaller, more compromised patches, since that is what so many of us are left with.

The section Dan first set out to reclaim is the same one that we will be paddling through this afternoon. Chain-link fences were up, the banks reduced to scrub, the river an afterthought. It was, hands down, the ugliest stretch on the river.

“That’s where I was when I first fought for the reservation,” he says, pointing toward Ware’s Cove in Newton. “At first, in those days, I just ran on raw enthusiasm. I had no idea what kind of fight I was in for.

“We had written up a master plan for what we called the Middle Charles River Reservation, but almost everyone was against it. I went to a meeting in Newton and 130 residents showed up – all angry, saying that the paths were going to bring crackheads into their neighborhoods. They said they would erect an 8-foot chain-link fence.’’

Dan set about trying to convert both his neighbors and his neighborhood. By all accounts it was his affable straightforwardness, as well as his stubborn streak, that allowed him to win over the angry residents. Often he would seek out the residents by knocking on their doors and showing them his plans, inviting them down to the river so he could give them a tour and describe his vision. He did this for three years.

“We kept pushing the idea that the river belonged to the people,” Dan says, “that the people could be its stewards.”

As it turns out, many of those who opposed the idea are now its greatest backers. So far, the paths haven’t brought crackheads to Newton. Instead, the banks flower with viburnum, berrying shrubs, native blueberries, and white pines while supporting an ecosystem of increasingly varied animal life: roosting herons, fox, muskrats, and white-tailed deer.

Finally we paddle into Waltham, the site of Dan’s earliest success story. “On the left here is Nova Biomedical, the first commercial property where we replanted native species,” he says. “That was the biggest eyesore on the whole river. There was a parking lot right to the edge of the water. Now it’s a restored wetlands and everything’s thriving, a true habitat – from a parking lot to a complex ecosystem.”

Below a dam, on this once-grim 8-mile stretch through Waltham, Newton, and Watertown, was where Dan first came with survey crews and old maps and learned almost immediately that the land had been claimed by encroachment. He had to knock on doors and make phone calls and try to convince homeowners that property that they thought was theirs was in fact not.

He points at a building that we glimpse through the trees. “These guys had a hundred-car parking lot – an illegal encroachment. They fought me tooth and nail at first, but now they love it. They have a full maintenance agreement – they offer to take care of their part of the river for us. They have their meetings out here. Encroachers have now become stewards.”

A little farther along he points again. “Stop & Shop gifted us 2½ acres of critical land. We, of course, were coming in and cleaning up pretty neglected land. And they had conservation easements, so they still owned the beach. So I think it was put together in a way that was pretty positive for them.”

“Note the houses to the right. We had to switch sides because of this private property.” We cross under a delicate suspension footbridge. The 140-foot bridge was one of Dan’s crowning achievements, connecting the paths of Newton to Watertown and then, nearby, Waltham. Today the Blue Heron Bridge is in full use: people chatting and kids with balloons and bike riders zipping across. On the same bridge, Dan once came upon a woman spreading her father’s ashes. She told him that her father had lived his whole life in Watertown and that this had become his favorite spot on the river.

I like traveling with Dan. He is a good guide and a lot of fun, but there’s something else that puts him above other copilots. He provides a relief, maybe even an antidote, to the tone of environmentalism that makes me want to thumb my nose and turn away.

What continues to bug me, when it comes right down to it, is the sheer earnestness of environmentalism, the conviction that the world is doomed and the compulsive need to share this cheery news.

Of course the world is doomed. Human beings cover the earth like maggots, species are wiped out daily, land is gobbled up by developers, the great migrations are dying out, the world is warming, sea level rising. All true. And then throw in the fact that, while all this is going on, most people seem less concerned with the fate of the world than with the fate of the latest starlet to enter rehab. Nature writers are accused of being apocalyptic, but the facts themselves are pretty dire.

Which tends to have this result: Human beings, most of whom are not really very good at dwelling in hopelessness, turn away. Maybe it’s just too much for the mind to live in a constant state of world anxiety. It not only doesn’t help the mind much, it only rarely helps the world. Yes, we live in desperate times, and it’s true that desperation can sometimes energize. But hopelessness, as a rule, does not inspire. We are not very good at fighting apocalypses. We are better at fighting for our neighborhoods or for sections of river we’ve grown up on.

Most of us need at least a dollop of hope to nudge ourselves into action. It does seem hopeful to me that, paddling into a metropolitan area of more than 4 million, we can still see a deer on the banks, a sharp-shinned hawk in the canopy, stripers swimming below. And it does seem hopeful that imperfect human beings have fought to redeem something that seemed unredeemable, like this river. It’s not the ultimate answer, but it’s something. The beginning of something.

Excerpted from My Green Manifesto, by David Gessner (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2011). Copyright©2011 by David Gessner. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • August 7, 2011 cover
  • August 7, 2011 cover
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