Hell’s Half Acre, Mass.

The Easy Chair,  Harper’s, September 1955

I must begin by explaining that, notwithstanding widespread libels in the press, I am neither a nature lover nor an outdoorsman.  For years the conservation war has kept me in active alliance with the organizations of those who are, but I puzzle them.  I have not tried to catch fish since my early twenties and, though I was an expert shot till I sold my guns, I have done no hunting since my late teens.  Because I learned the requisite skills early in life, I get on comfortably in the wildernesses to which my trade takes me every little while, but though I have no objection to a sleeping bag I prefer an innerspring mattress, and though I am a competent camper I would rather end the day at a good restaurant than at a campfire.  I much prefer an automobile to a horse, I have never liked canoeing, and a distaste for birds that I was born with often becomes hostility.

I have one marked superiority to most outdoorsmen, though that is not the noun they use when alluding to it: nothing bites or stings me.  Mosquitoes settle on and ants crawl over my companions, not me; ticks, midges, black flies, wasps, hornets, and all other bugs and insects invariably detour me to get at the poets and sportsmen I associate with in the wilds.  You will guess that I have been offered many explanations of this immunity.

But though my tastes are metropolitan and I have no urge to be active in the wilds, I agree with the outdoorsmen; life would be intolerable if I could not visit woods and mountains at short intervals.  I have got to have the sight of clean water and the sound of running water.  I have got to get to places where the sky-shine of cities does not dim the stars, where you can smell land and foliage, grasses and marshes, forest duff and aromatic plants and hot underbrush turning cool.  Most of all, I have to learn again what quiet is.  I believe that our culture is more likely to perish from noise than from radioactive fallout; noise is the worst torture we inflict on one another.

Nothing in this is sentimental or poetic.  It is necessity.  And to get to my point, it is necessity to a hundred million other Americans.

Interest in natural history normally awakens in the early teens.  This spring and summer I have watched a number of boys of high-school age pursuing that interest.  The schools, which did nothing about it when I was that age, now provide quite remarkable training, but the training can be put to use only with difficulty.  With these stirrings has come, inevitably, the desire to go camping in the outdoors that is pure fantasy at first; for some of these boys it is going to remain fantasy unless they get some unlikely breaks.  One of them lately dug out of my shelves a book called Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart, which in its way is as remarkable as the same author’s standard work, Our Southern Highlanders.  The copyright date is 1917.  I had not looked at it for years; glancing through it now, I realize that its fascinating lore must remain just reading matter to a great many people.  When Kephart wrote it, the experiences it deals with were open to anyone in a few hours and at the cost of a few dollars.  Now, in the East, in practically all the Middle West, and in most of the South they call for a formidable outlay and a lot of time.


A month ago I was called on to drive one of these boys, with a load of collecting and killing jars, Riker mounts, microscope slides, scalpels, and scientific manuals, to some place where he could pursue his field inquiries amidst some natural abundance.  The nearest place that would do (but only barely) was a Massachusetts state forest, ninety miles from Cambridge.  A drive of about a hundred miles would have taken us to the Green Mountain National Forest or adjacent Vermont woods owned by power and lumber companies which are willing to have people use them if they will behave intelligently.  On the trip we settled for we reached portions of the White Mountain National Forest in about a hundred miles, but to find all we wanted we had to drive through Crawford Notch to the vicinity of Fabyan, thirty-five or forty miles farther.  Of course, there are plenty of woodlots and some fine hills and even peaks much nearer.  But the woodlots are private property that you don’t want to trespass on, and are usually forbidden to, and few of them are large enough anyway.  Hills and mountains so near to Boston are a kind of park, and parks are not right for the study of even elementary ecology.  Well, to go 140 miles to reach a reasonably neglected natural area is quite an undertaking for a boy who is too young for a driver’s license, and though I can easily rearrange the working-hours my trade calls for, most fathers can’t.

To make their notes on birds, these boys have been going to Mount Auburn Cemetery.  It is excellent for that purpose and besides is beautifully landscaped and has many species of trees and shrubs not native to this region.  About three miles farther out, in the town of Belmont, there is a swamp in a first-rate condition of neglect and they have done there some investigations that seem to me truly remarkable.  But most of their nature study has been carried on in an area which, I learn, they are calling Hell’s Half Acre.  I had not visited it for some years, for reasons that have led them to give it that name.  Recently, however, some of them took me there on a guided tour, for purposes of propaganda.


By the time the Charles River reaches Cambridge it is foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrial wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.  Still, it is a river.  And between the river bank and the Cambridge Cemetery which is on a slight rise, there is a narrow strip of neglected land about a mile and a quarter long.  It follows some pleasing curves of the Charles, crosses the Cambridge line, and extends to the U. S. Arsenal at Watertown.  During many years I walked there often and so did a lot of other people.  There were trees, grass, a lot of mixed vegetation, minute watercourses, and so much small wildlife that the myriad rats and the always-burning Watertown dump never invaded it.  It was from here that an occasional skunk wandered down to startle some Cambridge gardener.  I cannot say that it was a beauty spot and the Cemetery insisted on littering one edge of it with withered floral pieces, but it was open, tolerably quiet, tolerably fresh, and a pleasant place to have in a city of 130,000 people.

At the beginning of the war, the government fenced off the upstream third of this stretch, to provide a storage area for the Arsenal.  Immediately after the war a new bridge was built across the downstream end, so that one of Boston’s improved access roads could connect with a state highway.  Promptly bulldozers and graders chewed up the lower end of it and the construction company dumped thousands of tons of earth and rubble on it, so much that a range of small hills several hundred yards long resulted.  It heaped its miscellaneous junk there too.  The citizenry of Cambridge began to do the same; the place is not officially a dump, in fact dumping is prohibited there, but it is being used as one nevertheless.  It is hideous and offensive.

Diminished by about half, a stinking and scabrous dump, littered with oil drums and automobile fenders and old refrigerators, that is Hell’s Half Acre.  Yet the apprentice naturalists rejoice in it as a convenient place to study nature.  The small range of hills blocked off some of the minute watercourses, which ran through patches of peat bog, and a small pond has formed, with an equally small marsh at one end of it.  The marsh is thick with cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and blue and yellow flags.  Bindweed, milkweed, pokeweed, blue toadflax, tansy and the like have covered much of the contractor’s litter.  There is a luxuriant growth of vetches, docks, mulleins, sheep sorrels, and sweet clover.  You can find white campion, cinquefoils, evening primroses.  Poplars and wild cherries have appeared in quantity and some gray birch is coming in.  (“No fungi, ferns, horsetails, mosses, or liverworts,” say the notes which my guides made as we explored it.  Those notes list more than twenty species of plants, worthless weeds to you, that I have not mentioned.)  Muskrats have taken up residence in the marsh; I am sure there were none before.  Several families of mallards were being reared on the pond.  We heard bullfrogs and saw a couple of pheasants, a night heron, a number of killdeer and kingfishers, many red-winged blackbirds, and of course all the species of birds you see in city parks.  My guides have listed several species of butterflies and scores of species of other insects, arachnids, and myriapods.  There are turtles and various kinds of snakes but, I fear, no longer any skunks.


I was taken on this tour because my instructors attribute more power to the press than it has.  They hoped that if I mentioned Hell’s Half Acre in the Easy Chair, the City of Cambridge could be induced to fence off the lower end and so keep people from dumping any more refuse there.  They had still dizzier hope that less than three-quarters of a mile of rubbish-befouled wasteland could be constituted a nature preserve — that the highway to be built there would be routed somewhere else.  They believed that Cambridge ought to maintain a few acres of land in a condition of judicious neglect.  So that mallards and muskrats could breed there, night herons could stalk among the sedges and bulrushes, wild radish could cover the rusty tin cans, and people could look at plants, flowers, birds, and spiders in natural associations and, seeing them, could learn a little, reflect a little, and refresh their spirits.

The boys’ cause is hopeless.  The City of Cambridge could do nothing, even if it saw any reason to, for the area is under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan District Commission, the highly effective intergovernmental organization that grapples with the problems of Greater Boston.

But the boys’ argument is entirely sound, entirely unanswerable.  If civic intelligence did not contain a built-in factor of social stupidity, the new highway would be routed up the street on the far side of the Cemetery and these few scarred acres would be fenced off and let alone.  If this should cost ten or fifty times as much as taking the highway across Hell’s Half Acre, it would nevertheless be an economy — a cash and tax economy — so great that a commission endowed with proper business sense could never consider any other course.


Because my instructors will not accept the explanations I have offered them, they may learn from Hell’s Half Acre a second lesson, as important as the one they have learned about nature’s ability to heal its injuries and cover its scars.  I have explained the fearful pressures that are at work on every aspect of our municipal life — constantly growing population, heavier traffic, greater crowding of business, diminishing living space, diminishing space of every kind.  I have made clear that city planners, engineers, architects, and the political bodies that direct them are, contrary to what my instructors and many austere adult thinkers believe, dealing with these problems more effectively than there was any reason to hope they could.  But the boys dismiss all this as irrelevant and are moving directly to the perception that counts most — to the knowledge that civic intelligence does contain that component of social stupidity.  So a few years from now they may decide that they had better get to work eradicating the component before it is too late.

For Hell’s Half Acre is as nicely mounted a specimen as any slide of infusoria in their collections.  Cambridge has some parks but by no means enough, and sometime will have to construct a lot more at fearful expense; the one place where anyone, including high-school boys, could see a little of the web of nature is now a dump, it will presently be a highway, and from then on forever the city will have no place at all.  You must now drive a hundred miles to get to a patch of natural woods large enough to justify studying it.  And Cambridge is Massachusetts, which has lately arranged to spend two million dollars to get a public sea beach and will eventually have to spend scores of millions of dollars to provide open spaces, and forests and semi-natural areas which it once could have got for a few hundred thousand dollars.  In fact, Cambridge is the United States.  Anywhere in the country the distance to unchlorinated water, clean air, and the quiet of nature is the distance to the nearest state or national forest.

Go anywhere you choose.  See the suburbs and the shopping centers spreading into the fields.  See the expressways carving up open areas whose loveliness and quiet are indispensable and are also ended forever.  Pick up any newspaper and read what is happening everywhere.  For everywhere natural areas, semi-natural areas, and wholesomely disregarded areas in a partially natural state, are being obliterated.  The growth of towns, cities, and industries is swallowing them up.  No end to this process can be imagined, and it is irreversible.


Forty years ago Cook County, Illinois, began to buy small groves and residual patches of woods and marsh, hoping to link them loosely together in a kind of belt round Chicago.  The result is the Cook County Forest Preserve, 42,000 acres, partly park, partly semi-natural area, which serves a hundred villages, towns, and cities.  It is perhaps a fifth of what the County needs and a tenth of what it could use.  See any part of it on an August Sunday when 400,000 people, a tenth of the population, are using it, and you will perceive that it is Cook County’s most valuable possession.  The commissioners acquired these areas with infinite labor and at always increasing expense; their plans call for acquiring 8,000 acres more, which will be even harder to get.  And the pressure by towns, institutions, and corporations to carve up the Preserve and use it for what they regard as practical purposes it never lets up.  Oak Park would like ten acres of it for a parking lot and twenty for for a playground.  River Forest wants fifty acres for a high school.  A club demands a hundred acres for trap shooting and similar sports.  The University of Illinois would like three hundred acres for its Chicago campus.  The Corps of Engineers wants to dump its excavated material on another part of the forest.  And so on, every day, year after year, with increasing urgency.

No doubt the towns and cities Cook County need space for these things.  Rudimentary financial judgment would bid them rip up the belt railroads and demolish the Loop rather than encroach on the Forest Preserve.  Chicago may not be forced to such drastic actions but the leveling of expensive portions of some big cities is predictable.

The demand for the conversion and destruction of state reservations is even stronger, though the most populous states have learned that this cannot be listened to.  Far more dangerous are the unceasing attempts to reduce the size of federal reservations, and to convert them to “sensible” and “profitable” uses.  Readers of the Easy Chair are familiar with the efforts of the Bureau of Reclamation to destroy Dinosaur National Monument (with holding companies lined up behind it eying eight other national parks), and with the continuous effort of Western stock growers to get hold of the national forests, an effort that would bankrupt the West if it were to succeed.  As I write this, the House of Representatives is inquiring into intention of the Department of the Interior to get rid of large portions of the wildlife reserves and to convert other portions to what it considers profitable use.  Lumber companies, corporations that raise cattle, and a few millionaires’ clubs would get part of this loot, but even less pardonable is the effort of the Army to get in on the steal.  The Army has even been lying to Congress to get what it wants.  (It would cost a lot of money to build and maintain Army installations for the proposed purpose in the Nevada desert, but the total would be only a small fraction of what the conversion of the wildlife reserves would cost.)  The Forest Service is under constantly increasing pressure to reduce the size of the portions of various forests which it reserves in their primitive condition as Wilderness Areas.  The sum of these pressures is terrifying, it is a national danger.  But, far from learning as some states have learned that they must be resisted no matter who loses a profit, the Administration is enthusiastically yielding to some of them.


And the population keeps on growing, the suburbs extend farther into the fields, a high-school boy has to be driven 140 miles to find some Fontinalis, and the ordinary citizen must go always farther to find clean water and a natural silence.  If we do not soon acquire a little business sense and some social intelligence, the nation will collapse from spiritual hemorrhage.

God knows it is good to have a President who is a real fisherman, not one who puts on the costume for the sake of the photographers.  But he ought to look at the rivers he fishes.  He likes the Fraser; does he know that its doom has been spoken?  Some once equally delightful Colorado rivers are now dead, more are dying, many are seriously sick.  Some are out of control, none flows as much water as it used to.  I understand that every trout taken from its river costs Colorado four dollars; it will be eight dollars in a few years.  The President lately went fishing in New England.  I do not know how much Maine and New Hampshire fish cost, but I do know how much the rape and spoliation of the New England woods and wilderness is costing the people of New England.  Mr. Eisenhower should have tried the Connecticut River, an open sewer where once he could have caught salmon as far up as Second Lake or crossed the river dryshod on the backs of shad as far up as Brattleboro.

I know that the President has not got time to look at the right places.  But someone close to him should certainly look at them.  If Mr. Sherman Adams or Mr. Robert Cutler will give me a ring the next time he is in town, I will be glad to show him Hell’s Half Acre.