Friday, August 2, 2002


Thirty years of the Cranberry Bog

The life of the Mosquito parallels the transition of the cranberry bog from private ownership to our current town treasure. According to Susan Bassler Pickford's History of the Chelmsford Carlisle Cranberry Bog (1991), Carlisle's ten-year open space plan targeted the bog as a prime candidate for acquisition as conservation land. Carlisle and Chelmsford spent the next 16 years talking to the owners of the bog, and the plan was realized in 1986.

drawing by Phyllis Hughes
The bog that came into the town's hands was in sad shape, though it was still producing. Carlisle leased the agricultural rights to Mark Duffy in 1989, for 20 years, and he began harvesting and restoring the weed-choked bog. Now the older parts of the bog have been replanted and begin to resemble the well-tended bog of the Lowell Cranberry Company. I once met a man on the north dam of the bog who told me he was hired as a boy to weed the bog during World War II (for a high wage at the time — 50¢ a day) and that it looked like a "lawn."

When I started walking regularly around the bog and its associated ponds and island (those mostly in Chelmsford), it was pretty scruffy. I enjoyed the weeds — wildflowers to those who don't grow a crop — and the birds and wildlife they attracted. From 1991's harvest through most of 1995, I kept a journal on my discoveries at the bog, with photos, drawings, pressed flowers, and written observations. Thanks to regular visits and constant observation, I began to learn a bit about the natural world, which had been a quiet background in my life. When I found a flower or a bird, I'd track it down in guidebooks. Over the years, I learned the patterns of the seasons and what I could expect to see, where and when. When I started the journal, a sighting of Canada geese seemed exotic and rare; I thrilled at campion and asters.

I didn't find a peaceful "ecosystem," a word that represents more an ideal than a fact, in a world where change is more the norm than equilibrium and "balance." Flowers, abundant one year, would vanish the next. The gas pipeline, cut down to the ground in 1991, produced a succession of flora, including a brief but productive spell as blueberry and blackberry field. The northern dam broke after the great snows and early melt of 1994, draining the northern pond and completely changing the mix of plants until Duffy installed new aluminum flumes last year. A dam separating the older cultivated bog from the one under new development broke after the bog had been flooded on Christmas one year, but it was quickly repaired. Nothing ever stays the same.

The bog was an intimate part of my life for those years. I ate cranberries raw from the bog, I made grape jelly from the wild Concord grapes, I bought bog honey at the State Park, I made bouquets of goldenrod, loosestrife, meadowsweet, and Queen Anne's lace. I looked forward to the June flowers, which I drew and photographed every year. The snapping turtles appeared out of their mud in April, laid eggs in June, and hatched in September. I saw snakes swimming in ponds going dry in summer drought, looking like miniature Loch Ness monsters as they held their heads out of the mud. In the fall, I'd watch marsh hawks (harriers) swooping over the fields, snacking on a few mice, on their migration. Ospreys caught fish in both ponds. A great blue heron coped with a huge catfish; it speared it on its beak and opened its mouth, tearing the great fish gradually into bite-sized chunks. There were great battles between male Canada geese at mating time. I found a nest of snapping turtle hatchlings with the tiny turtles all dead from unknown causes — but I also found dozens of live hatchlings. I observed the milkweed from bud to pod formation and saw how the flowers dropped petals and swelled into great pods when pollinated. I saw a lone crawfish strolling along the path early one July morning. It was all a mystery and revelation to me.

I came to regard the bog as my private reserve, but it's open to everyone. The signs designed by Sarah Brophy are a good introduction, but you have to dig deeply to discover the wealth of wildness there. Walk there regularly — several times a week, every week, for several years — and you'll never look at the wild world around you the same way again. The bog was a life-changing experience for me, simply by being what it is.

· Bon Voyage to Jo Rita. She sold her house this week and heads west for a cross-country flying adventure to Oregon.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito