By Mitchell H. Lowe, A.I.A., NCARB, LEED AP BD+C
President’s Day Weekend in New England is generally a time to be worrying about digging out from 30 inches of snow and suffering through days when the temperatures are struggling to get out of the single digits or teens. Instead, this has been an unseasonably warm winter; one should take advantage of the weather, and perform outdoor activities normally relegated to the spring, summer or fall. So, with that in mind, I hopped on my bike in mid-afternoon to see what I could see. It was a glorious day in the mid 40’s, a few high, puffy clouds in the sky, a brilliant sun, and a slight wind out of the north. Let’s see how far my legs, my pedals, and my two wheels would take this middle aged body of mine. What a great time to for random musing about the paradoxes between the natural environment and the man-made world.
As architects, we are constantly working on one home improvement project after another. We don’t even have to finish one before we start the other. They just keep on coming. We are never satisfied, and always want more, better, different, or something else. We are also tinkerers and pseudo craftsmen. This day, I was working on sanding, taping, and then staining the closet door and frame in our newly constructed mudroom. “Enough of this already,” said I. “Get outside. Let’s head north to Plum Island, and see what the day brings.” So, I put on my cold weather riding gear, grabbed some liquids, and $3 for the entry to Plum Island.
Right out of my street, I head up High Street in Ipswich, MA. High Street and Summer Street (my street) have some houses dating from the mid 1600’s, and many from the 1700’s. Most have been well preserved and renovated many times, but the bones of the houses are still there. The Puritan ethic of simple, clean structures lives strong in my neighborhood. However, there is something a bit odd about looking in the window of a 350 year old house, and seeing a 50” big screen TV mounted on the wall. I’m sure the original elders of the town never figured their houses would have contraptions such as that in them.
As I near Rowley, I notice some buckets hanging off the trees in the front yard. Then I look closer, and see spouts in the trees. It must be time for sugaring. Man using the resources provided to him from nature in a clean, natural way to feed himself, and get a bit of sweetness and enjoyment out of life.
As I travel north on Route 1A, I enter into parts of the Great Salt Marsh near the Parker River. In Massachusetts, the North Shore’s Great Marsh is the largest continuous stretch of Salt Marsh in New England, extending from Cape Ann to New Hampshire. The unique complexes of natural systems add ecological, economic, recreational, and cultural value to our daily lives both on the coast and inland where land is connected by river and stream networks. It is now low tide, and the clams are out waiting to be picked. The marsh has different smells during high tide and low tide. During low tide, the smell of salt encrusted soil reminds me slightly of the heavy sulfur smells of Yellowstone National Park, but not the kind of smell that makes you reach for something to cover your nose. The web of rivulets, streams, channels, rivers, and the bays must be preserved for our enjoyment, for future generations, and for the great natural benefits it provides to our environs.
Farther up in Newbury, 1A runs along a crest that divides Plum Island Sound to the east and US Route 1 to the west. This path has probably been used for long before the English settlers came to the New World, connecting the town on Agawam (what is now Ipswich) with what is now Newburyport and the Merrimac River Valley. The view from along the ridge line allows one to see out to the ocean toward the east. It makes you want to get there faster.
Finally, I’m over the bridge at Plum Island Sound and onto Plum Island. Luckily, this day, the gate to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge was open, but no one was collecting entrance fees. Plum Island is a barrier island. It moves, shifts and is constantly reshaped by the forces of the ocean. What is here now was not here before. What is here now, will not be here in a hundred or a thousand years. People have built their beach houses right on the sand. Obviously, prime beachfront property is very valuable. However, the houses have been falling into the sea. Little wonder why; mother nature does what mother nature does, and there is not much we can really do to stop it. Stop building so close to the shore, and you won’t have these problems.
As I turn onto the island, the breeze shifts to my back. I pick up speed, and am so enjoying the day. Perhaps I will ride forever. The sun is on my right and is starting to create long shadows across the road. It must be getting ready to set in the next half hour to forty-five minutes. As I travel along the road south, I start passing tidal ponds and pools. The sun is shining off the water and creating interesting patterns in the ripples of the water. There are small black blobs on the water. Occasionally, the blob picks up its head for air. They must be geese looking for sustenance.
And there on the horizon looms Tiger I making its graceful swoops through the wind. Tiger II is the new wind turbine erected by the Town of Ipswich at the mouth of the Eagle River where it dumps into Plum Island Sound. The turbine is well situated to pick up shore breezes. At peak production, the turbine provides enough energy to power for all four public schools in town, plus provide some additional power for some homes. Soon, Tiger II will be built near Tiger I, and it will provide power for another 400 homes. Here we are using mother nature to provide power to our town, but not generating any carbon emissions during the production of electricity (of course, there were carbon emissions used to make it and transport it here, but we try not to dwell on that).
As I approach the end of Plum Island, there are scores of bird watchers lined up along the road. They have their cameras and binoculars covered in camo gear so as not to be obtrusive. According to Sunday’s Globe, the snowy owl has been breeding here this season. They spend much of the year in the tundras of far northern Canada. I didn’t see the birds because I was travelling along too fast; I hope the bird watchers saw what they were looking for.
All the way at the end of Plum Island, the rock outcroppings of Great Neck and Little Neck spring out of the ground. These are communities perched high on the hills that overlook the Sound, as well as Ipswich Bay, and onto Rockport and Gloucester. This is where I like to go on a short ride from my house. The views from the tops of the hills allow one to sometimes see the islands off the Maine coast.
Well, by now, I’ve travelled 20 miles and the sun is looking like it is starting to set, as it is wont to do everyday. I guess I will be travelling home in the twilight. Time to turn back. The colors of the sun against the winter sky turn a beautiful, deep pink and orange. Luckily, I’ve been over these roads many times before. It is best now to turn on my blinky lights on my bike so the cars will know I’m here. The lights give me enough visibility so I can see the potholes and follow the road markings. I turn back south onto 1A, and the breezes help push me home.
I finally get back to Ipswich, and pass the iconic White Farms Ice Cream Stand and the Clam Box. Both buildings have architecture made as a billboard. White Farms with the cow on the roof, and the Clam Box built in the shape of a take home food bin. Robert Venturi and his polemic study Learning from Las Vegas would be proud of these monuments to commerce, the Duck versus the Decorated Shed. (Plus the food is known throughout the region!)
Finally, onto home. By now it is dark, but I am being guided by some of our nighttime lights in the sky. On my right are Venus and Jupiter. Here is where the AHA moment for the day arrives. We are just small specs in the Universe. Mother Nature will keep on keeping on doing what she has been doing for the last 14 billion years. The earth has been here for 4 ½ billion years. We as man have been here on earth for less than a million years, have been in our current forms for 10,000 years, and have been industrialized for maybe 200 years. However, if we keep on pushing on the Earth the wrong way, it will chew us up and spit us right out. The Earth will continue on its merry old way for billions more years. We will just be a blip on its radar, just like the dinosaurs of the past, and other species that have perished along the way. We must respect the Earth, treat it well, and learn to live on what is given to us, and use it gently, replace what we are given, and nary leave a mark on the land.