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GENIUS LOCI: Down by the Riverside

I live close to the Charles River in Watertown and my “personal” territory extends from the dam in Watertown Square to the North Beacon Street Bridge in Brighton. It’s not a pristine stretch of the river, having been a site of factories and farms for well over 300 years, but it’s much wilder and less heavily used (and abused) than the lower Charles River Basin. On the Newton side, Nonantum Road hugs the river tightly, and boat docks and athletic facilities occupy the remainder of its shore. But the Watertown side is another matter. Located farther away from the edge, Charles River Road has much less traffic, leaving plenty of room for a pleasant walk where nature takes center stage.

My interest in this stretch of the river peaked in 2008, when I was deeply immersed in producing the photographs for my book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast (2010, Cornell University Press). Early in the morning I would walk my standard poodle, Lily, down to the river to see what was coming up, and then go back later in the day to take pictures. It was an interesting exercise to observe, in detail, how the vegetation on a single piece of ground changed over the course of the seasons. What I found was a cosmopolitan mix of species including native oaks, black cherries, beech, maples, elms, and white pines along with exotic Norway maples, glossy buckthorns, and trees of heaven. Most of the herbaceous grasses and forbs that grow along the sunny parts of the path originated in Europe, and many of the shade-tolerant shrubs — including multiflora rose and Japanese barberry — were brought to America from Asia. There are also a lot of vines along the river, including poison ivy (you’ve been warned), sweet autumn clematis, and oriental bittersweet, all of which flourish under the minimal maintenance regimen the site receives.

The Watertown Dam, October 2010. Photo: Youvathana Sok.

​Beginning with the tiny, ephemeral mustards that sprout up along the soggy edge of the basketball court in April and ending with the New England hawkweeds that bloom in October, there’s a procession of flowering plants that few people pay any attention to. I certainly would have included myself in this group until, in the course of working on my book, I became obsessed with the question: “What’s the name of that plant?” It wasn’t until I got down on my hands and knees to look closely that a hidden world opened up to me. I was amazed at the diversity — both native and non-native — that emerged from what, at first glance, seemed like a backdrop of green “weeds.” When one actually takes the time to look carefully at one’s surroundings, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

There’s also a lot of wildlife along the river that is much more visible than it is in the lower basin, mainly because of less vehicular traffic and more vegetation cover. Canada geese are ubiquitous residents throughout much of the year, along with mallards and an array of other ducks that are migrating to locations north or south of Boston. Cormorants and herons and a small flock of white swans also periodically come upriver from their home at Magazine Beach in Cambridge. A particularly striking show takes place from mid-May through mid-June, when the alewives are running. That’s when hordes of seagulls show up to feed on the fish that get stuck at the base of the Watertown dam. It’s a noisy, chaotic scene as the birds gorge themselves and fight for the best-positioned rock in the river.

Unlike the lower Charles River Basin, with its majestic views and roaring traffic, the upper basin in Watertown is a softer, calmer river, where the unkempt face of nature triumphs over the hard edge of urban infrastructure.