Sunday, December 05, 2010

"Hockomock: Wonder Wetland" is now on-line thanks to Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts.

If you walk very deep into the Hockomock Swamp on a fall day and lie down on your back, this is what you see.
The Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts has reproduced and put on-line (mirrored here), the full text and illustrations of the landmark 1968 book: "Hockomock: Wonder Wetland." It is in PDF file format and can be read and downloaded here.

For many years, in a cardboard box up in our attic in Easton, our dad, Allan Watts, kept about 100 copies of this seminal book, and around 2001 my brother Tim Watts grabbed a copy and hunted and pecked on the keyboard of his computer to write much of the book's text onto his website, GlooskapandTheFrog, to preserve it. As Timmy wrote:

"We have shamelessly copied the book here on our website. The only contact we could make about using it was with Ted Williams. Ted wrote the history chapter. He was pleased that we wanted to use his writing on our website and was surprised that copies of the book were still around after thirty years. We were unable to contact the others who contributed, but we used their writing anyway. It's just too good and too important to be out of circulation. This booklet came into my hands only because my dad was part of the small group that recognized the value of the Hock thirty years ago. Although I was quite young thirty years ago, I can still recall seeing bumper stickers around the Town of Easton where I grew up. They said, "Don't Knock The Hock."

Black Brook, Hockomock Swamp, at the southeasternmost corner of Easton. October 10, 2010. This is very good drinking water.
This site, "Tispaquin's Revenge," and its mirror site, "Lost in Easton," and Tim's site, "Glooskap and the Frog," are no more or less our attempts to build upon the power that "Hockomock: A Wonder Wetland" held within our small, pliable heads when we were 12 and wanted Dad to bring us down the Snake River or the Hockomock River after work in the canoe to fish for perch and pickerel and look for giant snapping turtles in the depths of the Hockomock.

Now that my dad has been gone since 1996, and it is more than 40 years since Betty Anderson, Ted Williams and Henry Moore wrote "Hockomock: A Wonder Wetland", something in me feels a need to take stock of what has been gained and what has been lost in the Hockomock since that pivotal time; and as important what has changed, or has not changed, in peoples' psyches about the Hockomock since that time. In other words, my key concern is where is the Hockomock headed? Who is taking care of it? Who is looking out for it? Who is keeping their finger on its pulse and vital signs? Do we even know if it is healthy or not? And how do we know? What are its vital signs?

Those who wrote and distributed "Hockomock" in 1968 had a more daunting task than we have today. During their time, as the bulk of the text shows, it was a huge task just to explain and defend a wetland's very right to exist. At this time, swamps were considered vile, useless things that needed to be quickly filled or drained and converted to 'useful' land. "Hockomock" was a brave and unrelenting scientific assault on this false paradigm, and shows a young Ted Williams exercising the type of muscle and sinew he has since parlayed into becoming one of America's finest conservation writers. It is not coincidental Ted cut the first notches in his belt defending right of the Hockomock to exist.

But as Ted knows well, the places championed by rising writers need to be continually protected long after the fanfare and hubbub and grant funding has passed them by to newer frontiers. The Hockomock is one of them. Where in the past, engineers with drafting pencils could obliterate the Swamp with one stroke (as they tried in the 1960s), the Hockomock and many places like it now face death by one thousand tiny paper cuts. None of these paper cuts is in isolation enough to raise the ire of alert citizens groups, but collectively, over time, they are enough to make a place not function anymore, except as a shell, a spot on a faded map, a forgotten sign nailed to a dying tree.

This is what I fear for the Hockomock. Today the Hockomock is not healthy. It is not in good condition. It is being pelted by blunderbusses of insult from all directions. These insults are not abating. What is abating is interest and vigor of those who profess a goal of protecting the Hockomock. Which brings us to the key questions:

What is the Hockomock?

What is the baseline to gage its health?

As the Hockomock existed in 1660, 1760, 1860, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 or 2010?

Who gets to choose?

The folks who wrote "The Hockomock" in 1967-68 knew they had started a battle, not finished it. They expected us to finish it.

Do we care enough to finish it?

Are we aware enough to finish it?

It's up to us now, in 2010, to frame the debate in the same way Kathleen Anderson, Henry Moore and Ted Williams did in 1968.

In the fall of 1990, me and my friend Bob LeSieur took a rental plane from Mansfield Airport at night to Buzzards Bay and back. Bob flew, I looked. It was night by the time we got into the air. Once we got up to about 1,000 feet we could clearly see the entire landscape in which we grew up below us, defined by light and lack of light. What I noticed was that from Mansfield south to Cuttyhunk was an almost relentless onslaught of artificial light. Except in the ocean itself, not a single small space, from Plymouth to Providence, was not dotted by a Christmas Tree necklace of bright sodium lights.

Except the Hockomock Swamp. The Swamp stood out as a giant black spot of no light surrounded by endless light. I could discern the Swamp's bounds in the night, at 1,000 feet of altitude, just by seeing where the light stopped and the darkness began, from Taunton to Easton and Norton to West Bridgewater. Bob and I touched down in Mansfield after about an hour.

That same night, John DeVillars, then the Mass. Commissioner of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, had convened a meeting in Bridgewater Town Hall to hear public comments on the state's proposal to declare the Hockomock Swamp and its surrounding environs an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), a new and untested state designation that would subject any new and large development (like a huge shopping mall) to a higher level of regulatory scrutiny than would otherwise be provided. At this time, a developer had just proposed such a shopping mall near Route 104 just south of Nippinicket Pond and the state felt the need to oppose it because of the damage it would do to the Hockomock Swamp.

At that meeting in the very old Bridgewater Town Hall, I had just come off a small plane flying over the Hockomock at night. And I told the 50 or so folks there what I had just seen. What I told them I saw was an island of darkness in a sea of lights, traffic lights and street lights from Boston to Martha's Vineyard. The only dark spot was the Hockomock. And I asked the folks in Bridgewater what could possibly be gained by our kids if that one place, the Hockomock, was slowly, year by year, criss-crossed so much by streets and roads and trains and highways and malls so that it looked exactly like everything else does at night: a giant parking lot.

That was 20 years ago. In 2002, the Massachusetts Legislature illegally pushed through a number of bills which forbade the state's own environmental department to examine the effect of putting a high speed passenger rail line through the last and most remote section of the Hockomock Swamp: in Easton. This was despite the ACEC designation given to the Swamp just 12 years earlier. Every effort by local Easton citizens over the past 30 years and John DeVillars himself in 1990, flew out the window because the MBTA decided to ram-rod a train line through the Hockomock because it was the path of least resistance, ie. who cares about a swamp anyways? Some battles are never truly won.

So here we stand today. Like the Dickey-Lincoln Dam Project proposed from 1955-1970 in northern Maine's Allagash and St. John Rivers, the MBTA's plan to wreck the Hockomock will never be truly dead so long as they cling with their cold dead fingers to the 1880 right of way through the Swamp and pray over chicken heads and feathers for a U.S. Congress dimwitted enough to fork over $5 billion to put it up 6,400 feet of tracks on stilts to satisfy George Carney.

This is not the debate we should be having in 2010. My father fought and won this battle in 1966. We, as a State, decided the Hockomock should be protected and preserved. An entire generation of kids, like myself, have grown up with the safe knowledge that the Hockomock will not be screwed with again and the battles our parents fought to save it will not need to be fought over and over and over again.

My friend Bill Townsend said to me, "we are the water that slowly wears away the stone." But the corollary is, "these bastards have endless supplies of sand to wear the gears smooth." Choose your aphorism; but follow the dollar.

The Hockomock Swamp today is losing. Losing ground. Losing vitality. Losing support. Losing its life.

As any map from 1968 shows, the Hock's trajectory since has been toward retreat, not advance, and like Pometacom and Tispaquin in 1676, it has nowhere to go. Is anyone breaking ground to build new swamps lately?

Looking down at the Hockomock from Bob LeSieur's rented Piper Cub in 1990 and seeing the sea of darkness in the Swamp was like in 2003 when I wandered deep into the swamp and noticed how unbelievably quiet it is. Henry Moore wrote in 1966:

"Why do we value a swamp that cannot be drained, filled, flooded or even "used" or "improved" in the modern sense of those overworked words? Stop reading here if you know the answer. Keep going if you don’t.

The Hockomock Swamp is a 10-square-mile living example of why the best "use" or "improvement" of most wetlands in this or any other state is often to simply leave it alone. Twenty-five thousand years ago the Hockomock was buried under glacial ice. Twelve thousand years ago it was a lake.

Today it is a self-perpetuating 7 1/2 billion-gallon water storage and flood control project that didn’t cost a dime to build or operate – and never will if it is preserved. It is also a treasure house of bird, animal, fish, reptile, insect, plant and forest life that didn’t cost a penny to assemble and house – and never will if it is preserved."

Possibly most important, it is a 6,000 acre oasis of peace and quiet in a world gone mad with speed, noise and strife. It can always remain that way if it isn’t destroyed in the name of "progress."

The next day, in 1990, after the meeting at Bridgewater Town Hall, I told my friend about it at the construction site we were working on at Titicut Street on the Raynham/Taunton town line. He said, "Douglas, if you want wild animals, why not go up to Maine."

While he didn't mean it, my high school friend's casual words stung me so deeply I have never forgotten them. I wanted to scream, "I shouldn't have to go up to Maine to see the outdoors."

I didn't know I was just repeating what an old time muskrat trapper, Harvey Ellis of Bridgewater, told Ted Williams when I was still in diapers. Mr. Ellis told Williams, "They ask me why I don't go North and I don't say too much. Why go North when I've got it all right here?"

If you lie your head on the trunk of a swamp red maple in the heart of the Hockomock Swamp, look up, and then turn your head gently, this is what you see.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the work and keep the information out in the public. We need to preserve our natural ecosystem.

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