Life in the Big City

THE phrase ``urban wilds'' may conjure up an image of bright lights, big city nightlife; or worse, the kind of troubled neighborhood to be avoided in broad daylight, let alone after dark. But to an environmentalist ``urban wilds'' are those open spaces within the city that connect metropolitan man to the natural world.

Boston goes back three and a half centuries. But there remain within city limits dozens of little wildernesses, 143 of them to be precise. Some are them were known to the 17th-century Puritans, perhaps even used by them for woodlots, but never built upon. In these places the elemental world of rocks and streams and even wildflowers breaks through the concrete and asphalt overlay.

There are also what we might call restored wilds, places that have been built upon or developed but then allowed to lapse into a state of nature.

A large tract of land within the secure perimeter of Logan airport is one of these. The airport has attracted a certain amount of local publicity over the past few years as a favorite haunt of snowy owls. They find the areas around the runways prime real estate; they are expected in for the season within a few weeks.

When the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Boston Natural Areas Fund offered a walking tour of the area, the opportunity proved irresistible.

The area we visited was the Wood Island Bay Marsh, created when the old Wood Island Park, an 1891 Olmsted design in East Boston, was consumed at mid-century by the expansion of the airport. What was at one point the beach at this resort, intended to be accessible to the humbler classes, has become in effect a manmade salt marsh, brimming with plant and animal life, just as the old beach presumably once was filled with shopgirls and factory workers enjoying some time at the water's edge.

Salt-water plants are much like desert plants - if they are to survive, they must retain their own fresh water within themselves. And so the pickleweed plants growing in the marsh look like tiny saguaro cacti. The seaside goldenrod looks like its dry-land counterpart but for its thicker, juicier leaves.

The sharp-eyed observer can look across the waves of green and find the line of the tide, where one type of marsh grass yields to another: Spartina alterniflora needs daily flooding with salt water to flourish, whereas the lower-growing spartina patens prefers less water, and grows only in the relatively drier precincts of the marsh.

The marsh is a great place for birds, too. Not a quiet place, to be sure; the roar and the whine of jet engines is inescapable, and the birds that flourish there tend not to need to rely on their hearing as they pursue their prey. Audubon Society naturalists report that they have found at least one type of bird that can muffle the airport noise somewhat by arranging its feathers over its ears.

The little sandpipers making their way along the beach, threatening to bounce out of binocular range at any moment, made for a curious juxtaposition with the great birds taxiing down the runways with a certain gravity and 'elan. Off in another direction, graceful egrets of impressive wingspan were taking off.

Without the careful tutelage of the naturalists in our group, we would never have spotted the little mud snails in their round brown shells, all closed up against the world to hold in their water supply. Still less likely would we have figured out how to charm them out of their shells: The way to do it is to hum. Not necessarily any particular melody, just a sort of ``hmmmm.'' Three in the group able to overcome their understandable feelings of silliness in all this were able to coax one of the creatures to poke out its head to see what was going on.

From the broad flatness of Logan we could see downtown with its little island of skyscrapers, and the cheek-by-jowl narrow houses of East Boston, and the houses of Winthrop, which are more spacious but which still look so New England from the air. And the thought came that the cities, in their compactness, may be a better friend of the natural world than the sprawling suburbs, which chew up acres and acres just for parking lots and access roads.

We got back onto our port authority bus to the Wood Island station and headed back downtown. And so ended our visit to the wilderness accessible by subway.

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