In this everything turning and small being breathed in and out
by everyone with lungs during all the moments
— Juliana Spahr
One spring morning early in my time of coming to know the meadow, Barbara and I sit in the kitchen of the house that overlooks it, visiting with D’Anne. As we are finishing our tea, Harvey pops in to share some photos he made of a bird’s nest by the side door. We gather in close, watch as he scrolls through digital images of eggs becoming cracked eggs becoming hatchlings becoming fledglings becoming an empty nest, the young birds born and up and out on their own in no more than a dozen stills. Tucking his camera back into its soft, black case, Harvey asks D’Anne if she’s shown me the bird-doors yet.
“Bird doors?” I ask. “What’s a bird door?”
Emily Dickinson wrote that all it takes to make a prairie is “one clover, and a bee. / And revery.” It turns out that to know a prairie (or meadow) is a bit more complicated, as photographer Barbara Bosworth and writer Margot Anne Kelley have discovered. For more than a decade, Bosworth and Kelley have meandered in, studied and photographed a single meadow in Carlisle, Massachusetts. In addition to their own investigations, they have invited botanists, entomologists, naturalists and historians to consider the meadow with them. Also included are historic maps of the property dating to the 1800s, and a transcription of notes from a former owner whose family has continuously documented plant and bird life in the meadow from 1931 until the 1960s.
Part photo-essay, part journal and part scientific study, this book is a meditation on the shifting perspective that occurs when one repeatedly sees the same place through new eyes.
A look passes among them, charging the air. D’Anne smiles, stands, beckons us to follow her. We go out past the garage to another outbuilding. The door catches and scrapes as D’Anne opens it, pushing dirt and crushed stone into a pile that halts its progress. It hasn’t been opened yet this spring. And no wonder; inside, the filtered sunlight barely reveals old farm equipment, broken toys, cardboard boxes. There’s nothing here that I can imagine being inside their cozy house.
“They’re over there,” D’Anne points to the far wall. “I’ll get a flashlight.”
Barbara and I move cautiously, avoiding rusty lawnmowers and lifting aside disregarded bikes. Before us, leaning against the back wall, are some old interior doors. I’m not sure how many—six or eight, maybe more. I suspect they were once white, though now they’re gray with dust and age. When D’Anne returns, bearing flashlights, I see that the gray is neither uniform nor entirely due to age. A thin pencil scrawl fills each panel of each door. Words and numbers slowly coalesce as my eyes adjust to the gloom:
Jan 27 – Screech owl
Mar 3 – Song sparrow (singing), bluebird
“ 10 – Red winged blackbirds
“ 11 – Meadowlarks, grackles
“ 16 — Robins
“ 17 — Black ducks, hooded merganser, red shouldered hawk (11 geese)
Top to bottom, the writing stretches beyond easy discerning.
“Aren’t they great?” Barbara asks, delight limning her voice.
I’m confounded. In those brief moments between house and barn, I’d started concocting images of what bird doors would be, had imagined an advent calendar for nature lovers, some intricately wrought Victorian curio, a wardrobe decorated with Americana. Definitely something charming. But these, so far from anything I’d envisioned and so much more wonderful, leave me speechless, amazed.
D’Anne says the earliest list is from the 1930s, that they go all the way to the ‘60s. The doors had been on the upstairs closets when she and Harvey moved in. They’d taken them down and stored them out here, for fear that the penciled lists wouldn’t survive in a house with young children.
I read a bit farther down:
May 6: Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, rose breasted grosbeak, brown
warbler, yellow warbler
May 7: least flycatcher
May 12: bobolink, Spotted sandpiper, Maryland yellow-throat, night heron,
green heron, chestnut sided warbler, Cooper’s Hawk
There are a few more entries from that May, half a dozen for June. Then nothing for the rest of the year until December—Evening Grosbeaks (eleven of them) spotted on the 15th. Squeezed in before the next entry, in smaller script, the number 1946. 1946. That’s when I realize I’ve been reading entries from 1945. Scanning up, I find the first entry on this door. Sure enough, it’s from December 1943, followed by two dozen more from ‘44.
We pull the door outside into the sunlight, and I can read it better—though not well. The writing is crabbed, and it’s begun disintegrating in places as the paint cracks and comes loose. But now I can see that in addition to birds, a few other things are noted—large snowfalls, the ice out dates for the pond, the first asparagus of each season, the first hylas. All those other observations are literally shunted to the margins. The main panel is reserved for the birds.
“They’re his first sightings every year,” Barbara whispers. “Look at them all!”
“Who did this?” I ask, my own voice barely rising above church-hush.
“Henry Greenough,” D’Anne says, “the one the land is named after.”
Had I thought for a moment, I’d have known that. Henry Vose Greenough and his wife Emery amassed almost three hundred acres here in the 1920s and ‘30s and established a gentlemen’s farm. Except for the cut-out of meadow and the house plots that Harvey and D’Anne and their neighbor own, most of that land was bought by the town of Carlisle from Greenough’s estate back in the 1970s and immediately put into conservation.
Harvey and D’Anne are also working hard to conserve their part of Greenough’s former property. In the 1990s, they placed it in an agricultural easement. In Massachusetts, such an easement requires that the land remain undeveloped, potentially available for cultivation; it doesn’t have to be farmed, though the town can lease it to a farmer if it so chooses. When we started visiting, the meadow was being hayed. But from 2006 until 2011, Carlisle leased the land to a local dairy farmer to grow his feed corn. It was hard not to hate that.
Let me be clear: I love corn. Love it so much that when I was a child, the rhetorical question in our home was not “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Does a bear poop in the woods?” It was, “Does Margot like corn?”
But despite my fondness for corn, I could not love this corn. I love corn bought off the backs of trucks or at farm stands for a few weeks when summer is edging toward fall, corn grown by the same families on the same land for decades, corn picked early in the morning, shucked that same evening and eaten within the hour. I cannot love this faux corn, modified to grow faster and be more resistant, yes, but also to be something decidedly other than a seasonal treat.
Plus, this corn undid the meadow-ness of the meadow. We’d been coming to this meadow, exploring it as artists and amateur naturalists, precisely because of that meadow-ness. A meadow is a moment of release—when cultivation has ceased, and forest has not (yet) re-claimed the space. A meadow is a pause, a breath, an exhalation that reveals the relationship between a people and a place in that moment. Meadows are fleeting, subject to change. Meadow may become field again. Or be flooded by a rising river. Or parched by three successive years of dry springs. Or quickly filled with a snarl of alder. But always, a meadow is more than a swath of grass.
Technically, of course, corn is a grass, one that was “born” 9,000 years ago on the other end of the continent. It is the bigger, sweeter, softer descendent of teosinte, a wild grass that grew well in what is now Mexico. Each year, early agriculturalists in the Balsas River region saved kernels from the choicest teosinte plants to sow the next season. By selecting for the traits they valued, they gradually created maize.
That maize made its way from Mexico to the meadow slowly, carried with migrating groups through Mexico into what is now the southwestern U.S., and from there slowly into the eastern United States and up into New England. Along the way, native peoples modified it time and again by selecting for the traits that worked best in their particular regions. About a thousand years ago, members of the Pennacook Confederacy began growing corn in New England—long before Solomon Andrews established his farm here. These native farmers continued tinkering with maize to get it to grow well in the shorter season, the cooler climate.
And by my lights, they did a great job. I read recently that there are over 28,000 landraces of maize. Twenty-eight thousand. With so many, you’d think that there’d be one suitable for every single micro-climate, that no one would need to tinker with them anymore.
But—apparently—you’d be wrong. At least, according to the largest agricultural supply companies.
During the time that the meadow was a cornfield, warning signs dotted the edges, alerting people to curb their dogs because the fields were drenched with the herbicide RoundUp. The corn in these fields was a commercial powerhouse that farmers use because it is “RoundUp Ready”; it’s been genetically modified by Monsanto to grow well and to be resistant to RoundUp (the trade name for the herbicide glyphosate) which means that the farmer can use the herbicide to kill everything growing in the field except the corn.
I remember looking at the rows of stubby chartreuse tips curving across the fields, inhaling the musky, mushroomy scent of loam during one of those corn seasons. It was 2010, the moment still so clear because I was growing corn myself for the first time that year, in the garden at our house in Maine. I was trying two kinds, an heirloom called Stowell’s Evergreen Sweet Corn and a contemporary hybrid I’d chosen almost entirely for its name—Serendipity. Growing food satisfies my spirit as much as my stomach; when I see seeds starting to sprout each spring, I feel I inhabit a world aright. But as I compared my nascent crop to these pert starts, the results were not pretty: Serendipity was maybe half as tall as the corn in this field, and Stowell’s Evergreen lagged even further behind. These Roundup Ready rows left me cranky, heavy-hearted—and not because of envy.
I’ve tried to see it from a farmer’s point of view. It’s absurdly difficult to make a living as a small-scale farmer; most years, you’re just one terrible hailstorm or wet June or outbreak of rust or smut or wilt away from economic disaster. So, of course a product that can give you some leeway—that can not only help increase yield but also decrease labor costs—sounds like a godsend.
To be honest, though, my compassionate reasonableness never lasts. While I imagine that the farmer looks at these fields and sees his future harvest, the bobbing tassels against a cerulean August sky, I look at them and see not abundance, but lack. I cannot help but tote up the losses that will grow plainer with every passing year. Already, the bobolinks who used to nest here are all gone; already, the fireflies are much diminished. And slowly but surely the soil itself grows poorer. Soon, it will be unfit for any crops that are not Monsanto-enhanced. The old maize variants that grew here for a thousand years won’t stand a chance.
The meadow is back to meadow now—it hasn’t been corn since 2011. I ask D’Anne why the farmer stopped leasing it from the town. She doesn’t know; the town isn’t obliged to tell her. She said she’s just glad to have the meadow planted for hay again.
When Henry Greenough owned this land, from 1928 until 1973, corn—regular corn, one of the 28,000 landraces that had been modified the old-fashioned way—was grown in the meadow, which is indicated in the old map below as “open fields.” It was a highly productive farm, and the corn grown there was so much a part of Henry’s persona it is even mentioned in his son’s obituary.1 Which makes it ironic that Greenough didn’t actually do much of the farming. His farm manager, Alfred Windhol, did.
What Henry liked to do on his farm was bird watch. And as the bird-doors suggest, he was quite good at it. In fact, even as a child, he was a precocious birder—so skillful at avian identification that when he was 12 years old, Reginald Heber Howe, Jr., dedicated his book Every Bird, a guide to the identification of the birds of woodland, beach and ocean (1896):
MY YOUNG FRIEND
HENRY VOSE GREENOUGH
WHOSE BRIGHT EYES AND QUICK EARS
MANY A BIRD TO MY NOTICE
THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED
When I read that dedication, I felt a twinge of envy. At the age when Henry was honing his ability to see the differences between one small bird and another, I was still learning to see. Profoundly nearsighted, with lots of astigmatism in both eyes, I got my first pair of glasses when I was five. But it wasn’t until I was nine that I could answer “which is sharper, A or B?” with enough precision to get an accurate prescription. On a wintery afternoon, I left the optometrist’s office wearing green cat’s-eye glasses and saw—really saw—tree bark for the first time. I couldn’t resist running my hands across the ridges and crevices that unsettled its gray-brown surface, happily caressing that little city tree ‘til my father brusquely insisted I get in the car right this instant.
My child self couldn’t possibly explain the bodily pleasure—and deep relief—when what is seen and what is felt suddenly, gloriously, finally match. I’m not even sure my grown self can.
I stopped hugging trees (literally, at least) soon after. But the bright-eyed boy continued avidly birding. He became a member of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, a group whose roster has included some of the most influential ornithologists in the world, among them Roger Tory Peterson and Ernst Mayr. And for decades, through World War II and the Korean War, into the early years of the War in Viet Nam, Henry kept careful track of when the birds came back to their patch of grass in Carlisle, Mass. As presidents came and went, as American culture underwent massive mid-century sea changes, he focused his sights on the avian inhabitants and visitors to this place. No world news, indeed very few details about the human realm at all, appear on his doors.
Starting in 1959, his already challenging handwriting became increasingly illegible, and in 1962, he stopped recording sightings altogether. I imagine both his bright eyes and his hands were failing as he aged; in 1962, Henry was 79. Thanks to his lifelong curiosity—and to D’Anne and Harvey’s foresight—he’s left a trove of information that might help us see how climate change is affecting migratory birds in this part of New England.
So when Harvey told me the bobolinks were all gone from the meadow, naturally I checked to see whether they’d been plentiful when Alfred Windhol had been planting Henry’s fields with ordinary corn. And they most definitely were, spotted first on May 12 in 1933 and ’34, May 10 in 1935, May 8 in 1936, May 14 in 1937, May 7 in both ’38 and ’39. Year after year, he noted their presence—except in 1942 and ’52. (Actually, it’s entirely possible they were there in ’42 and ‘52; like that famed naturalist in the next town, Greenough’s handwriting is often terrible.)
I want to blame Monsanto for the absence of the bobolinks. But if I’m being fair, I have to acknowledge that the dairy farmer planted all the open fields in corn at once, rather than rotating among them, which left little space for the bobolinks. And I should also probably take into account that bobolinks are widely in decline, so maybe fewer are making their way back to this area generally. And yet, I can’t help but find the Monsanto products partly at fault; the farmer almost certainly wouldn’t have planted every field at once if he’d been worried about conserving soil quality. Plus, I can’t get those signs out of my mind, the ones he posted on the edge of the fields, warning dog owners away. At best, those signs can only stop attentive humans (and their leashed companions) from wandering into the field; they can’t stop anything from getting out—not the Roundup Ready pollen, not the Roundup itself, not the assorted critters who wander through, relaying effects in all directions.
How different those edge texts are from the ones Henry made, scrawled reminders of the many things affecting his beloved birds. Unusual weather events, flood dates, and descriptions of the quality of the ice on the pond are all noted, as are arrival dates for asparagus and spring peepers and skunk cabbage. Sure, he placed birds front and center, but he didn’t ignore the rest. It seems he knew that even the many species of birds who were just passing through were part of a complex whole.
John Muir described this sort of ecological intertwining more than a century ago. In his book My First Summer in the Sierra, he famously wrote that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (p. 110). Such hitching is dizzying, carrying the vertiginous promise and terror of the sublime. How different that sounds from the manageable nostalgia of “meadow.” But as Henry knew, as those who give themselves over to meadows know, meadows are never sedately contained; they grow larger with each looking.
After a few decades of decent vision, I have begun the slide so many experience in middle age. When I got new glasses last month, the doctor couldn’t completely correct my vision by tuning the prescription. Going forward, I will see less sharply than I had. Plus, I now need reading glasses, so I’ve begun switching between being able to see near or to see far, but not both at once. And rarely am I able to see whatever lies at the periphery.
Though I’m not particularly happy about this decline, it has a faintly silver lining. Without glasses, I live in a world where nothing has firm edges. What I see is a continuum, where book comingles with table, cat with rug, husband with computer keyboard—just like the fuzzy, interpenetrating world that one encounters at the atomic and molecular (and even organismal) levels. The outdoors is even more fluid; there, swathes of color give way to one another, unfurling in ways that’d make an Impressionist giddy. Like the pleasure my child-self felt when the physical feeling of and the sight of bark at last aligned, my grown-up self takes some satisfaction in knowing the amorphousness I see is a truer view, ecologically–even ontologically–speaking.
Even with my glasses on, I cannot do what Henry did—cannot parse the distinctions that allowed him to know one bird from another—except in the case of the most familiar ones. Still, I learned viscerally what his birding skills taught him to know visually, that every anything is hitched, more than hitched, to all else, a convergence of being, unbound.
Barbara Bosworth is a photographer whose large format images explore both overt and subtle relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. Her publications include Trees: National Champions, Natural Histories, and most recently, The Meadow, in collaboration with Margot Anne Kelley. She currently lives in Massachusetts, where she is a professor of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. Bosworth is currently working on projects about moonlight and the color blue.
Header image of detail of writing on closet door by Barbara Bosworth.
- “Not infrequently, fresh corn brought over from the gentleman’s farm his father had in Carlisle outside Boston was served, driven down from the farm to Woods Hole, along with other fresh produce and then brought directly to the Big Pier by boat.” (Obituary: “Peter B. Greenough, 89, Was Financial Columnist and Editor,” by Phyllis Meras, Vineyard Gazette, September 14, 2006). ↩