Wednesday, December 15, 2010

October 17, 1982 Q&A with Tom West and Tracy Kidder on "The Soul of A New Machine."

Folks who have read Tracy Kidder's book, "The Soul of a New Machine," will get a kick out of this transcription of a one-time event in Massachusetts in 1982 where Kidder and his book's real-life protagonist, Data General computer designer Tom West, reluctantly answer questions posed by an audience of computer enthusiasts. Both are candid, humble and very funny. In the photo Tracy Kidder is on the left and Tom West is on the right.

In 1984, when I was a sophomore at UMaine at Orono, my English professor, Richard Brucher, assigned us Kidder's book and a paper on it. Brucher was a huge fan of the book, though he did not let on how much (he had published a long analysis of it the year before).

I liked the book a lot, turned in my paper and got it back from Brucher covered with strident brackets and the words "So what?" all over the margins. I stopped by his office the next day and asked what he meant with all the "So Whats?" He said they meant my paper was at best hitting on one cylinder and I could do much better.

But what does "So What?" mean? I demanded. He said, "Every time you say something you need to stop and ask 'so what?'"

That was 26 years ago. I still have the copy of "Soul of A New Machine" I bought for Brucher's class. I've read it now about 6,000 times. Brucher's deadly red words of 'So What?' still haunt me every time I write.

Among all the compelling threads in "Soul ... " is the one where Kidder, the reporter and writer, and all of the people he is observing are all forced to ask themselves over and over ... 'So What'? Why am I doing this? Why are we doing this? For whose benefit? To what end? Why this instead of something else? Why even bother? Why not just go home? Why?

The closest antithesis to Kidder's book is Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, wherein Melville describes the day to day life of men dutifully and robotically doing the most boring job in the world -- copying with quill pen over and over lengthy, abstruse legal documents for an equally bored Manhattan real estate lawyer -- except for Bartleby, who decides to 'prefer' not to do the work anymore but 'prefers' to loyally stay at his desk but no longer do any work.

Kidder has said he began writing "Soul ..." as a magazine article upon the suggestion of his editor at Atlantic Monthly, Richard Todd, because Kidder at the time could think of 'nothing to write about.' He said he was shocked when one of the first computer engineers he met at Data General Corporation, Carl Alsing, took him aside in the cafeteria and described in terms more suited to Celtic battle myth what it was like to work at Data General building machines designed to manipulate large numbers at high speed.

Kidder berates his subjects, asking them over and over, 'why do you work so hard for so little'? He gets the computer designers to trust him enough to give him honest and questioning answers. Was Kidder the first journalist who ever took the time and interest to ask these questions of an engineer? Probably.

Kidder seems to have genuinely liked the people he interviewed, although interviewing is a pale word given how much time he spent with them, and they seem to have genuinely liked him. The proof this was not just a show is the discordant note from his sit-down interview with Data General's president, Edson de Castro. Intentional or not, Kidder's description of his interview with de Castro makes you feel like both are getting root canal work and waiting for the dentist to say "spit."

Even though "Soul ..." is meticulously crafted it seems almost created by instinct, as if Kidder had no idea what he was getting into but plunged in anyways, fell in way over his head, and faced a situation not too far from the one faced by the folks he wrote about.

It is easy to think of the millions of ways that "Soul ..." could have been a horribly boring or painfully trite piece of writing. It is exactly the opposite. While it often reads as fiction, it is not. Getting real, live people to open up to you to this depth is unbelievably hard. Writing something out of such an experience that is true but also does not hurt peoples' feelings is virtually impossible.

I am still amazed how Tracy Kidder did it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Status and Future of Atlantic White Cedar in Hockomock Swamp, southeastern Massachusetts.

"Of these swamps, the most notable is the Great Cedar-Swamp so prized for its timber in the early days of our history. These swampy lands have very little value now; but they contain abundant promise of making the best farming portions of the section. They only need thorough draining in order to utilize their deep, rich, vegetable deposits, and turn them into fertile fields. The day is coming when this will be done." -- W. Chaffin, History of Easton, 1886.

By Chaffin's description of the Hockomock Swamp in 1886, he established that the Hockomock Swamp was originally an Atlantic white cedar swamp and by the time of his generation, the Hockomock had been almost completely logged of its cedar and 'had little value now.'

In this recent overview, I presented aerial photographs from 2001-2008 showing the contemporary extent of Atlantic white cedar stands in the Hockomock Swamp.

The scientific literature on Atlantic white cedar swamps suggests a combination of several forces -- clear cutting of cedar, changes in drainage patterns due to road and rail bed construction, and an asymmetrical dominance relation with swamp red maple -- have conspired to create permanent changes in the balance of cedar and red maple in the Hockomock to the great detriment of cedar.

Based upon these factors, it is unclear if the extant coverage of white cedar in the Hockomock can or will increase in the future on its own; if the remnant cedar stands in the swamp today are in decline and will continue to decline; and if active remedial efforts are necessary to increase the size of the stands or, perhaps are necessary to prevent further loss over time.

Laderman (1989) offers some sobering thoughts with relevance to the Hockomock:

"Hardwood and shrub leaf litter inhibit cedar germination to less than one percent."

"The floor of a wetland previously supporting Atlantic white cedar is the most favorable substrate."

"Cedar swamps have generally higher water levels than nearby red maple swamps and are flooded for longer periods."

"It would be expected that definitive guidelines for management of a tree that has been harvested since the first Europeans settled on the continent would have been developed long ago, yet this is not so. As with many other plentiful resources in the early days of development, the supply of cedar seemed endless. When all the cedar that was easy to remove was gone, the operators moved on. If less desirable cedars remained, they were commonly taken for fence posts, shingles or even firewood. Fast growing hardwoods often replaced cedar, and the nature of the forest changed."

If Laderman's conclusions are true, this offers little hope for natural regeneration and expansion of Atlantic white cedar in vast portions of the Hockomock where it is now completely absent; and little hope for the expansion or even continued maintenance of small, isolated stands.

Atlantic white cedar are now completely absent from the Hockomock in a zone extending east from the old railroad bed, to Route 138 and to the abandoned Maple Street/Hall Street road grade from Raynham to West Bridgewater, except for one small, isolated stand just west of Maple Street. This area comprises a large portion of the Hockomock.

This aerial shows a complete absence of cedar east of the railroad grade (yellow line) to Route 138 (red line) and beyond. The dark green areas are cedar. The question is: are these green zones of cedar shrinking or growing? If they are shrinking, then we are watching the demise of the last large remnant of the Great Hockomock Cedar Swamp.

If we assume this entire area was heavily logged for cedar in the 18th and 19th centuries (which general information suggests was the case), the aerials suggest that the area west of the railroad grade successfully regenerated in cedar while the swamp east of the railroad grade did not. What is striking is the high density and large expanses of cedar all the way up to the railroad bed and its complete replacement by swamp red maple on the other side of the rail bed. Having walked through this area extensively and field checked the aerials, I can confirm that cedars are completely absent east of the rail bed to Route 138 and the swamp in this area is virtually pure red maple.

The pattern exhibited at the 1880 railroad grade suggests it dammed the swamp enough to 'dry out' the swamp east of the grade, thus making conditions more suitable for colonization by red maple which now totally dominate the Swamp to Route 138 and almost to Route 24. This fits a pattern seen across the swamp, wherein extant cedar stands are invariably found 'above' (ie. upstream) of these roadbed dams (where the water is impounded) and are absent directly below them (where the roadbed has made the swamp slightly drier). This presence/absence pattern is seen at the north/south crossings of the Old Colony railroad bed, at the abandoned roadbed at Maple Street and at Route 24.

It is difficult to look at the aerial image above and not see that the white cedar swamp originally extended well to the east of the railroad grade and was somehow, in the past, truncated by it. But if our model assumption is true that all of this area was logged for cedar in the 19th century, something other than logging alone caused cedar to fail to regenerate east of the railroad grade. The most likely answer is a change in seasonal water table due to the grade itself that favored red maple on the 'dry' side. If we assume the area on both sides of the railroad grade was logged equally, we have to assume conditions were sufficient for cedars to regenerate from seedlings and small trees on the left side of the grade but conditions had changed enough on the right side of the grade to allow red maple to get the upper hand. And according to Alderman, once red maple gains a strong foothold in a logged-out cedar swamp its dominance becomes permanent. This appears to be the case from the railroad grade to Route 138.

The Uniqueness of the Hockomock

As noted by Laderman, most Atlantic white cedar swamps in southeastern Mass. were formed in kettle hole depressions after the Wisconsinan glaciation, wherein large blocks of glacial ice were buried by outwash debris and created isolated, deep depressions in the landscape after deglaciation. The Hockomock is 1-2 orders of magnitude larger than these small cedar swamps and is much more hydrologically complex (it's a lake bottom, not a kettle hole). The large expanse of the Hockomock and its numerous lobes has made it much more susceptible to man-made water level changes (due to large-scale road building, primarily) than much smaller and hydrologically simple kettle-hole shaped cedar swamps. Despite its larger size, I believe this has made it much harder for the Hockomock to regenerate its cedar stands after severe or total cutting because drainage changes have tended to fragment the swamp and cause large scale water table changes that tend to favor regeneration by red maple over cedar at a magnitude not seen in smaller, much more confined cedar swamps.

The area surrounding Nunkets Pond in the Swamp supports this hypothesis since (assuming a 1800s heavy cutting) its cedar have regenerated and its overall drainage pattern has not been altered:

While I have not extensively investigated this hypothesis, there does seem to be a correlation between the size of a cedar swamp and the degree its drainage patterns have been altered and its ability to regenerate and maintain its original Atlantic white cedar stands after severe cutting. Smaller, more hydrologically simple and isolated cedar swamps tend to be better able to regenerate and not succumb to takeover by more aggressive and generalist swamp red maple.

As a simple matter of area, you could fit a lot of small cedar swamps into the Hockomock. It's just that big. But regeneration of cedar after cutting during the past 150-200 years seems to be much more depauperate in the Hockomock than in smaller cedar swamps. Moreover, wide swaths of the Swamp today have the appearance of a monoculture -- red maple -- and what is known of cedar swamp dynamics suggest a 'tipping point' where a swamp dominated by red maple tends to stay that way permanently due to the highly specific germination and growth needs of cedar.

This suggests a disturbing hypothesis; either the extant wide swaths of pure red maple in the Hockomock were always pure and always there (which means most historical accounts were completely wrong), or the Hock has been radically and permanently altered by severe cutting of its cedar and drainage changes due to road building that favor red maple over cedar.

Why Should We Care?

As much as I like tromping about in the vast, pure red maple stands of the Hockomock, I can't help feeling I'm walking (slogging) through a man-made monoculture. Aerial views of the Hock show actual tree species distribution patterns that are explained better by human intervention than natural distribution of tree species and suggest human intervention in the last 200 years as radically and negatively affected the habitat value of the Hockomock, which after all, was preserved in the 1960s solely for its value has habitat, particularly for rare and endangered species requiring large amounts of undisturbed natural habitat.

Laderman (1989) reports unique and high habitat values for large intact Atlantic white cedar swamps, all the more important in Massachusetts because most of its cedar swamps no longer exist:

"In the Northeast, a preferred winter browse for white tailed deer is white cedar foliage and twigs. Cottontail rabbit and meadow mouse and feed of cedar seedlings ....

"Cedar stands in the Great Dismal National Wildlife Refuge supported the great bird density of coniferous forests censused in the United States in 1981. These stands held nearly twice as many birds per unit area as a surrounding maple-gum forest. Parulid warblers are the most dominant birds in Great Dismal cedar stands; prairie, prothonotory, hooded and worm-eating warblers, oven birds and yellowthroats comprised about 3/4ths of the breeding birds found. Prairie and worm-eating warblers appear to be particularly dependent on the Great Dismal cedars. An "over mature" stand, one with most trees over 100 years old, was particularly well populated."

So as a general rule, the extent to which the Hockomock today has veered away from its natural condition detracts from the very values for which it has been recently preserved. What's missing is an analysis of to what extent and in what fashion the Hockomock no longer resembles itself, as defined by its character prior to being mauled by loggers in the 19th century and road builders in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Laderman, A.E. 1989. The Ecology of Atlantic White Cedar Wetlands: A Community Profile. U.S. Dept. of Interior. Biological Report 85 (7.21). Washington, D.C.

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.

Bigfoot Paw Print Discovered in Bridgewater Triangle !!!

Well, it does look amazingly like a human-type footprint. But it's actually Nunkets Pond, just west of the Nip in the Hockomock in Bridgewater.

They don't grow small BigFoot (feet?) in the Hock, you know.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Reconstructing the Hockomock Swamp: What Used to be There and How Do We Restore It?

By Douglas Watts
Augusta, Maine
November, 2010

Commonwealth of Massachusetts aerial photos from 2001-2008 provide a good overall picture of the landscape and vegetation types which exist today in the Hockomock Swamp. These photographs show that today, only 15-20 percent of the Swamp is dominated by Atlantic white cedar and most of the Swamp is bereft of the species. These photographs suggest that road and railroad grades built through the swamp have changed drainage patterns in the Swamp in favor of regeneration of pure stands of swamp red maple and against regeneration of existing and former stands of Atlantic white cedar. This essay proposes that unless active efforts are made to eliminate the negative effects of these man-made drainage changes and to actively re-seed Atlantic white cedar where it once grew and has been eliminated, Atlantic white cedar will eventually disappear from the Hockomock and be replaced by pure stands of swamp red maple. Such an event will eliminate much of the biodiversity of the Swamp and allow it to become a man-made monoculture, rather than a natural place.

In the map above, I have arbitrarily broken the swamp into four sections or "lobes." Section 1 is that portion from Howard Street in Easton east to Route 138, south of Route 106 and north from the Snake River at the outlet of Winneconnet Pond and Route 495.

Section 2, the "Central Section" is south of Route 106, north of Route 495, and east to Route 24, including the Nip and Nunkets Ponds.

Section 3 is the long vertical lobe east of Route 24 where the waters of the Nunketetest (Town River) join with West Meadows Brook south of Prospect Street and Route 106 in West Bridgewater.

Section 4 is Dead Swamp in Raynham, and just to the east, Titicut Swamp, both cut on their northerly sides by Route 495 and its cloverleaves. While I could add Little Cedar Swamp in Easton, just above Route 106 and Pine Swamp in Raynham, this map gives the lay-out of what most people consider the Swamp proper.

Looking at the large scale map, it is easy to see the Hockomock's ultimate origin as a glacial lake bottom, with the swamp now forming the 'shoreline' of the lake. This glacial lake is variously called "Glacial Lake Taunton" or the "Leverett Sea" depending on which geological text and author you look at. The higher grounds, easily seen because they are now the sites of roads and houses, are peninsulas in the original glacial lake where the land was higher. The smaller 'dots' of swamp and lowland on the peninsulas and around the main mass of the Hockomock correspond to 'deep' holes in the glacial lake.

Once you view the Hockomock as a glacial lake you can see how it formed: the lowest spots in the lake bottom, not having an outlet (due to various restrictive bottom conditions), slowly infilled over the past 8-9,000 years with vegetation which kept decaying into peat, creating a flat, level surface of rotted vegetation spanning 6,000 acres and five towns.

Mass GIS imagery from 2001-2008, taken in late fall and/or early spring, gives us a unique tool to gauge the existing vegetation types of the Hockomock because during these times of year, the deciduous trees in the swamp (mostly swamp red maple) have lost their leaves and look greyish purple at high altitude. White pine and Atlantic white cedar retain their evergreen color.

White pine only grow on islands and high ground in and along the swamp. Atlantic white cedar prefer much wetter areas that pine cannot grow in. By comparison to USGS topographic maps, comparative foliage color, and field checking, it is easy to distinguish stands of pine and cedar in the swamp. Through this process we can generate an accurate map of contiguous Atlantic white cedar stands in the swamp. By looking at such a map we can see there are surprisingly few stands of Atlantic white cedar in the Hockomock today.

The largest Atlantic white cedar stand is in Section 1, between Howard Street in Easton and the Raynham Dog Track on Route 138 in Raynham (click on image to see full size). I've drawn yellow lines to delineate the Swamp boundary from the 'high ground' around it. This helps to see the Swamp as the level remnant of a glacial lake bottom, with 'islands' as well as 'tributaries.' Route 495 and the Snake River, the outlet of Winneconnet Pond are at the bottom of the photo. The red line is the old railroad grade east of Route 138. The Atlantic white cedar stands can be easily seen as the green foliaged area in the middle of the photo. You can tell at least part of this aerial montage was taken in late fall, due to the cranberry bog in the left center being bright red. The Easton Rod and Gun Club and dug trout pond off Howard Street is just above and to the right of the bog.

In the above photo, I've narrowed down on the Atlantic white cedar stand in Section 1 to show it in greater detail. Here, the coloration difference between cedar and white pine is obvious (the white pine has foliage that is a 'yellower' green than the cedar); and I have been able to field check these differences in the photos by walking this section of the Swamp. The color differences are real. What is immediately obvious is the sharp line between the cedar stands on the left (west) side of the old railroad grade (the yellow line) and their complete absence east (right) of the railroad grade; and how dense cedar stands tend to hug the edge of the Swamp on its west side to the right of the cranberry bogs.

The yellow line is not an arbitrary marker: it is the railroad bed of the Old Colony Rail Line, built through the Swamp c. 1875-1880. It is raised above the Swamp by about 10 feet and is made of imported earthen fill. When it was built, a number of narrow 'box culverts' of roughly cut granite were placed at its base at scattered intervals to allow the water from the Swamp to continue moving from West to East (left to right). As these aerial photos show, the railroad grade has prevented the growth and regeneration of Atlantic white cedar on its east or 'downstream' side. As the photo shows, there are no white cedar stands east of the railroad grade, yet they are are very expansive on its west side right up to the grade. This is because the grade acts as a dam in the Swamp and makes the right side (the downstream side) drier than it used to be and dry enough to keep cedars from effectively competing with swamp red maple, which can tolerate drier conditions than cedar. From the railroad grade east to Route 138 and then to Maple Street/Hall Street, Atlantic white cedar are completely absent.

In these closer photos of the Swamp next to the old rail grade, you see darker 'lobes' moving left to right. These correspond to slightly wetter areas, which correspond to the location of box culverts on the railroad grade that let water through. In these aerial photos, denser stands of smaller swamp red maple are slightly darker in coloration and correspond to a wetter area.

In the second photo, I've drawn with yellow the 'plumes' of water flowing from the box culverts as they exit the railroad grade and travel due east. Three plumes are clearly seen in the photos. Note how they match well with dense stands of cedar on the left side of the railroad bed, but the cedar does not continue on the opposite side of the bed, which is pure swamp red maple.

To me these photos suggest that prior to construction of the railroad bed, the cedar stands continued to the east of the grade but were logged out and, for some reason, have not regenerated. This is odd if only because if we assume that the cedar stands were logged equally on both sides of the bed, both sides should have equally regenerated during the time it is presumed they were cut (150 years ago). Why the disparity?

Honestly, I don't know. But I think it has something to do with a complicated interaction with the fact that Atlantic white cedar trees propagate by dropping their cones on the floor of the swamp and the water levels of the swamp being changed by the erection of a 'dam' (the railroad grade) that made the east side of the grade not conducive to regeneration by cedar and also, by it being kept physically separate from extant stands of cedar on the west side of the grade.
Section II -- The Hockomock Central Portion

In Section 2, cedar are in a small cluster (I) just west of the now-abandoned Maple Street at the extreme southeast corner of Easton; around the shore of Nunkets Pond just west of Nippinicket Pond (II) and in a wide vertical swath just west of Route 24 (III) (click on image to see full size). The red line is Route 138 in South Easton and Raynham. The very high resolution photo below, of Nunkets Pond next to the Nip, shows how easy it is to discern white pine from cedar and high ground from low ground.

Hockomock Section III -- the Eastern Portion

Despite its size, Section 3 contains no contiguous stands of cedar, although scattered, isolated clumps appear to be present (click on image to see full size). Route 24 is on the left. The Nunketetest (Town River) is in the upper part of the photo, flowing left to right.

What Do the Images Tell Us?

Just as a ball park estimate, the Hockomock today appears to be comprised of less than 20 percent Atlantic white cedar; and those trees are in widely separated stands with vast, nearly pure swaths of red maple between them. Was it always this way?

Most likely not. Due to the durability of the wood and their straight trunks, Atlantic white cedar swamps were aggressively logged for their trees in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Hockomock. Logging was most likely done in the dead of winter when the swamp was frozen and paths the width of oxen or horse team could be made to cut and remove the trees. In all likelihood most of what remains standing in the Hockomock today are the chest-high seedlings Atlantic white cedar left over from those cutting operations, now grown up over the past 100-200 years into mature trees. What is puzzling, and the real point, is why most of the swamp's Atlantic white cedars have never regenerated. I believe this is due to a complex folding of the cutting with the construction of roads and railroad beds; and when these factors conspired to prevent the logged out stands of Atlantic white cedar from regenerating, even after 150 years, and has allowed swamp red maple to become the apex and sole canopy tree species in the 'new' Hockomock Swamp.

Evidence for this is shown in that the wide and broad monotypes of swamp red maple east of the railroad bed and Route 138 show no sign of re-emergence of cedar (ie. no seedlings) and total dominance by swamp red maple. This represents a paradigm change in the forest pattern of the swamp; and one that appears to be permanent. By our understanding of the cedar/red maple interaction, the remaining Atlantic white cedar stands of the Hockomock are most likely headed toward extinction and eventual piecemeal replacement by swamp red maple. Should we care?

You Can't Prove A Negative

Was every pre-colonial Atlantic white cedar in the Hockomock chopped down? To show that you'd have to physically inspect every cedar tree in the Hockomock: a daunting task. Was it possible? Yes, given Yankee 'greed and ingenuity' from the 1800s and 1700s to cut down every tree in sight. Did it actually happen? Nobody knows because nobody today has done the type of exhaustive checking such a conclusion requires to be valid.

But from a landscape restoration and preservation perspective for the Hockomock, this question is secondary. The primary question is what are we going to do today? Because most of the Hockomock is protected as state wildlife management land, any further cutting is basically illegal. That's good.

But that 'steady state' of preservation alone does not provide insight into what used to be, what it could be, what is stopping it, and what can be done now to bring the Hockomock in a direction toward -- rather than exorably away from -- what it was.

The Dams of the Hockomock

This photo shows perhaps the best evidence of how the dams across the Hockomock Swamp have altered its natural character. Note how the large Atlantic White cedar swamp west of the old railroad bed abruptly ends at the bed and disappears on its 'downstream' side and does not re-emerge. It is hard to envision a scenario where 18th and 19th century loggers would selectively clear-cut only the cedars on the right hand side of the railroad grade and leave the left hand side uncut. This suggests that a change in hydrology due to the railroad bed must be the cause of the complete absence of cedars on the right hand side of the railbed and their continued abundance on the left hand side.

A cursory glimpse at aerial views of the Hockomock shows four long dams crossing its mid-section, three formed by roads and one formed by a railroad grade. These are from west to east, the N-S railroad grade east of Route 138, Route 138 itself, Maple Street from Raynham to West Bridgewater and Route 24 itself. The first three lie 'straight through' the Hockomock, while most of Route 24 follows a peninsula of naturally higher ground except where the Town River itself crosses beneath it. The first three function as low, but potent earthen dams that greatly alter the depth and movement of water in the swamp; and in doing so the habitat for trees and wetland vegetation.

Should we care? I think so. Waterflow in the Hockomock travels from west to east. All three of the first barriers constrain this water movement, forcing it to flow through small culverts, now mostly clogged with debris. Walking on these barriers, their west side is obvious the "wet side" and the opposite side is noticeably drier. Water flowing through the swamp from west to east is forced to pool up against these dams and flow parallel to it until it finds a small box culvert that is still not totally clogged with debris.

A cursory examination of the railroad grade east of Route 138 shows a high density of cedar swamp on the west side of the grade and a total absence of cedars on the east side remarkably coincident with the railroad grade itself. This railroad grade was built c. 1875-1880. The MBTA prizes this overgrown railroad grade because it wants to use it to build a high speed railroad line from Stoughton to New Bedford. But now, because of the enormous, and admitted, negative effects of raising and rebuilding the grade to accommodate 80 mph passenger rail, MBTA has proposed putting the rail line through the Hockomock on stilts, or as they say, a 6,400 foot long 'trestle.'

Well, fine. This means that whether the train ever passes through or not, the existing railbed can be dug up and removed, restoring the swamp's natural flowage pattern. I am not concerned at how this might affect existing ATC and dirt bike use, since this use is being conducted illegally anyways.

The old Maple Street/Hall Street 'grade' from Raynham to West Bridgewater is another story. Except as a conduit for illegal ATV traffic, it serves no purpose except to radically and negatively alter the drainage pattern of the Swamp. As you can tell by walking along it from the Raynham end, it forces Black Brook to flow parallel to it for more than 1,000 feet, making the west side of the berm unnaturally wet and the east side unnaturally dry. In a place like the Hockomock, where just a few inches of difference in standing water and water table changes the entire tree species assemblage, the berm has a decidedly negative effect, heaped upon the fact the grade/berm never should have been built in the first place and will never carry any traffic ever again.

Simple Solutions?

It would take one summer season with a couple excavators and a few dump trucks to remove both of these post 1880 'dams' that cross the width and breadth of the Hockomock, just by digging them down to swamp level and removing and trucking out the artificial fill used to create them. The cost would be less than repaving a similarly long section of Route 24 which is done almost every year. And unlike repaving Route 24, once done it would be done in perpetuity. The natural drainage pattern of the Hockomock would be permanently restored and rescued from a time when people wanted to destroy it but only lacked the capital to do so. Then put in boardwalks so people can walk through.

Time to End the Trope of the Abused Child

Efforts to save what is left of the Hockomock date back to the 1960s. For obvious reasons, which I do not knock, the emphasis was placed on not allowing the rest of the Swamp to be filled and destroyed, as was certainly the tenor of those times. But that was nearly 50 years ago. The available land was bought and a fairly good-sized chunk of the Swamp was placed under state ownership. The path toward the destruction of those purchased lands was averted. The folks involved rightly breathed a sigh of relief. They deserve immense credit for what they did.

But this is 50 years later. During this time the uplands and swamp directly adjacent to the state-owned part of the Swamp have been chewed and ravaged by umpteen subsequent encroachments. All of which trend negatively on those values for which the Hockomock was first preserved: as a wild, clean and unspoiled place amidst a helter-skelter of urban-suburban pavement of ugliness.

I use the "Abused Child" analogy here in the sense that it is good for the police to come and stop your husband or boyfriend from beating your kid to death with a tire iron; but that interdictment alone does little to help the kid figure out how to save her sense of self and make it in the world. There is a difference between a tourniquet and triage and a stable existence. The preservation efforts on the Hockomock in the 1960s were the tourniquet and Medivac triage. But it is foolish to confuse these efforts as commensurate with a stable, normal and healthy post-traumatic existence.