Cambridge Outdoors

playing, learning, and being outdoors in Cambridge, Mass.

Tuesday’s Moth: National Moth Week 2017

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Pale Beauty, Campaea perlata, photographed in Cambridge, Mass.
Photo (c) Richard Lee Gardner.

It’s National Moth Week. Have you looked for a moth yet this week?

A woman uses a long pole reaching from a bridge into the water on a snowy day.

A Victory for Clean Water: Citizen Science Data Leads to Change

The following news is reprinted with permission from the Mystic River Watershed Association:

For years, the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA) and its volunteers have helped to document water pollution problems in the Town of Belmont. This week, that hard work paid off.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an Administrative Order on Consent with the Town of Belmont over years of water quality damages. Over the next five years the town has agreed to make a significant investment in repairs to its storm water system, which is discharging pollutants, including human sewage, into waters of the Mystic River watershed. We congratulate Belmont on their commitment to improve water quality to tributaries to Alewife Brook.


This is a success story for citizen science and for non-profit environmental collaboration with government agencies. Data acquired by MyRWA volunteers and shared with EPA was key to making progress. This has been a group effort—from the dozens of volunteer monitors who go out each month to collect samples, to the tireless work of others like Roger Frymire, who spent countless hours finding sources of pollution in the Alewife Brook area.

Since 2000, volunteers through the MyRWA’s Baseline Monitoring Program have generated water quality data that is shared with state and federal agencies. Each year the EPA in conjunction with MyRWA issues a water quality report card for the Mystic River watershed.
The 2015 water quality report card for the Belmont area tells the story: Alewife Brook earned a D grade with 50% compliance with boating and swimming standards for bacteria; Little River a D- grade at 44% compliance; and Winn’s Brook an F grade at 33% compliance.

One powerful aspect of the Baseline Monitoring Program is that it is poised to document success as well as problems. As infrastructure repairs are made in Belmont, we fully expect these grades to improve. We look forward to documenting and celebrating water quality improvements to Alewife Brook, Little River, Winn’s Brook, Wellington Brook—and the Mystic River itself—over the next five years!

Congratulations and thanks to everyone who continues to work with us for protecting clean water.

Locals Offset Carbon Footprint to April 29 Climate March

If you’re traveling to Washington, D.C., for the April 29th People’s Climate March from Greater Boston, you can now offset the carbon footprint of your travel through a GreenCambridge program that will provide  education and support local urban trees, plants and climate through the purchase of biochar.soil for climate.jpg

About Biochar (from the International Biochar Initiative)

The 2,000 year-old practice of making biochar converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.

photo of snow day challenge materials

Screen Wise Cambridge’s Snow Day Challenge: February 2, 2015

Make something using these items only:

  • 5-7 cylindrical household objects like cardboard tubes or water bottles
  • 5-7 rubber bands (hair bands are ok), and
  • 5-7 crayons or pencils.
photo of snow day challenge materials

Materials you can use for the Screen Wise Cambridge Snow Day Challenge.

Your creation can be a building, a human or animal figure, an abstract sculpture, a machine, a tool, a poem or story, in fact anything at all! Use the above items only. You can use scissors or other tools as long as you don’t add any additional items. i.e., no tape, no glue! (If you absolutely can’t resist using tape or glue, don’t give up—we’re still interested in what you make, but do try the real challenge first).

Post the photos of your finished creations (and a caption or description) to the Screen Wise Cambridge Facebook page or post them as a comment below. (Be sure to say if you have used tape or glue)

Also post your questions here if you have any. Multigenerational teams are welcome to participate, whether parent-child or not. There are no age restrictions.

Wild Medicine, City Medicine

Cambridge, Mass.’s Healthy Children Task Force (HCTF) examined Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) throughout the 2012-2013 school year as its window onto child and youth wellness.

Pardon me. That lead sentence should have read:

You have deep, deep problems. But our time is up.

Let me explain.


ACES sure has that wonky ring to it—just another one of those nasty healthcare sector acronyms. It’s as if we can cure a problem faster if we can say it faster. Experiencing abuse or neglect or growing up with an imprisoned parent are the more obvious ACES, but there is fuller list. Are they the lodestone of prevention measures, or hype? Researchers at Kaiser Permanente and the CDC have indeed correlated various concatenations of early trauma experiences  with graded levels of risk behaviors and disease in adulthood, showing that the childhood end of the timeline can make or break the health of an individual years later. The study surveyed 17,000 adults.

Check your own ACE score here.

HCTF gatherings are  lunchtime meetings, both efficient and informal, punctuated with the occasional repartee and salad fork sounds. The city staff from all reaches of Cambridge together to learn about a particular concept, problem, or perspective. Interested public school parents like myself sometimes attend, but most often you’ll see school committee members, Cambridge Health Alliance staff, a random sampler of clinicians, nutritionists, early childhood education specialists, MPHs, and people whose jobs are more on the front lines of defending the mental and physical health of urban youth and kids.

It’s a bit odd to sit in that windowless room around a square of conference tables, as I do every few months, thinking to myself, “Does anyone else in the room feel like there’s no air in here—no bit  of sky to see?”

The reason I’m in that room is to understand how we could give a jumpstart to kids’ wellness with a particular prescription: Cambridge’s vast and vastly under-appreciated open spaces.  By open spaces I don’t mean the manicured parks, nor the new artificially turfed soccer fields rimmed with highly adaptable trees.  I don’t mean our city’s many beloved pocket parks, whimsical playgrounds, or the CitySprouts gardens that thrive at every public school in Cambridge. Those outdoor resources are indispensable in their own right.

I’m thinking of those areas that—whether ecologically restored and kept in shape by human labor (think Lusitania Meadow) or not (think parts of Alewife Reservation)— provide shelter to animals, old specimen trees, and serve as wildlife corridors. I’m thinking of places where a child can run, not just a few hundred yards, but perhaps a bit farther.

G. holds a squirrel's leavings.

What the squirrel left. Winter in an open space in Cambridge, Mass.

Perhaps in such places, a kid can even slip away to the secret folds of the woods where play and fantasy (as well as jeans) are smudged with dirt and broken wild berries.  I’m thinking of the abandoned farm next door to my third-grade friend’s house, the trees we climbed there, the territories we invented in its spaciousness.

We have the equivalent of such places here.  It’s good for all kids. My theory is that they offer something more to certain kids—a kind of complementary therapy for children who experience trauma, or who may do so in their future. Open spaces could be a kind of medicine—not as panacea, but as kind of pemmican for childhood’s journey. Richard Louv has recently commented

parks with the richest biodiversity appear to have a positive impact on psychological well-being and social bonding among humans. Those

While we can’t say with certainty that these influences play a direct role in early brain development, it’s fair to suggest that the presence of nature can soften the blow of toxic stress in early childhood and throughout our lives. It’s understandable that researchers have yet to explore the natural world’s impact on brain development because the topic itself is rather new. Also, scientists have a hard time coming up with an agreed-upon definition of nature – or of life itself.

via Do Early Outdoor Experiences Help Build Healthier Brains? | Psychology Today.

Brain research has also contributed to an understanding of the role of trauma in health. ACES Too High News, a blog devoted to the unfolding view of the original ACES study and its offshoots, reports:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

552px-Smoking_(9418449684)What all this means…is that we need to prevent adverse childhood experiences and, at the same time, change our systems – educational, criminal justice, healthcare, mental health, public health, workplace – so that we don’t further traumatize someone who’s already traumatized.

via ACES Too High News

Black's Nook, Fresh Pond Reservation, 2013

Black’s Nook, Fresh Pond Reservation, 2013

Resiliency, of course, is a factor that cuts across exposure to different levels of trauma. Arming children (and adults) with the building blocks of resiliency could be a critical corollary of  identifying the many faces of trauma. Nature alone may not lead to resiliency, but I’d be willing to bet that it could play a significant role, and without side effects.

Giving kids a chance to spend regular and sufficient time in full-fledged habitats, more wild than not, isn’t possible in many cities. Even here in Cambridge, our habitats of caliber lie mostly in the north and west of the city, with little to no functional habitat in East Cambridge, Cambridgeport, Riverside, Central Square, and adjacent areas. To Though I enjoy and value Northpoint Park myself, it doesn’t provide East Cambridge residents the equivalent of what Fresh Pond Reservation does to its neighbors. The Charles River Reservation is a critical open space for its adjacent communities, and meets the needs for respite and democratic enjoyment of nature. The more intact habitat within it, however,  is concentrated in the western part of the city.

The HCTF members have immersed themselves in the subterranean factors that make a child an unhealthy adult. These same factors make it difficult if not impossible to learn at school, particularly if the child is inadvertently re-traumatized by unaware teacher or youth workers.  Staff of agencies and departments that work with children and youth are getting an overview of the teachings of the ACES study at a November 21st event convened by the city’s Kids’ Council. The next step is titrating policies to reduce and mitigate children’s experience of trauma in the schools and other places where municipal government has a role.

Tree time is quality time.

Tree time is quality time.

There’s a bigger step I’d like people in the city to take—reframing nature (not just playground) experiences for kids as essential, not optional, as in the program launched this week by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Richard Louv prompted members of the American Academy of Pediatrics with this idea in 2010.  It’s not a new shtick by any means, but perhaps the time is ripe. Traction time for Vitamin N, you might say.

Let’s not underestimate the power of modeling an individual connection with the environment, either. Doctors, out-of-school-time programs, teachers, counselors, parents—we can all put aside our cell phones, iPads and e-readers and take the kids outside.

Deep problems, indeed, define the field of trauma,. Those deep problems may need deep, essential, but simple solutions, including, but not limited to, romping in the woods.

I hope it can happen before our time is up.

Next installment: Communities Get Serious About Nature.

What’s up with Raffi and National Screen-Free Week?

Screen-free week has a whole different meaning for my city now. I’ve become even more convinced that being glued to the screen is terrible for adults and kids if that screen holds a wellspring of horror. News media can be inflammatory and inflationary. By repeating scenes of crisis and mayhem, injury and shellshock, television news media inflates, for children who are in the room,  the actual imminent danger. And you know what I mean by inflammatory here.

Before the recent tragic events on home turf,  however, I wanted to get some answers to this weird animal called “Screen-Free Week,” so I talked to Josh Golin, Associate Director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. Here’s what he said.

Q: Before I ask anything else, I’ve got to know, is Raffi [Cavoukian] really coming to the Boston area under your auspices? What’s the Campaign’s connection with Raffi?

A: Raffi once turned down a lot of money to have his song Baby Beluga made into a film. He refused ever to market to children and has been a really outspoken critic of advertising to children.raffi

The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood has permission from Estate of Fred Rogers to give out the Fred Rogers Integrity Award in his name.  We’ve given it out four times and Raffi is one of the honorees.

We have a May 4th concert at Berklee School of Music. We see it as a screen-free week celebration because its the next to last day of the weeklong campaign. It’s co-sponsored by Raffi’s Center for Child Honoring.

He really did have a lot of opportunities to increase his bottom line by being more aggressive in marketing to children. It’s really honorable that he refused.

Does Screen-Free Week look different in one community, like Cambridge, and different in another place, say somewhere in the Midwest, or in Texas?

We’re struggling with children and adults being so media-saturated everywhere. We’ve had people doing amazing things, all over the country. Bozeman, Montana went all out  and has their entire community behind Screen-Free week, with events at the children’s museum one night, an outdoor event next night, and so on. The success of Screen-Free Week in a given community depends on whether there are a few people to get behind it and support.

The places where communities have embraced Screen-Free week has less to do with geography than where there are people willing to commit to doing something.

What does a successful Screen-Free Week look like?

It means so many different things to so many different people that there’s no one way of success. The most success is where people are creating some level of community around the issue, whether as a classroom or a town, not just taking on the challenge to go screen-free as a family.

Do you go around and evaluate the impact of Screen-Free week in various places?

No, but what we’re really looking for is for people to have fun—for screen-free week not to be this burden with kids feeling “Oh, three more days until I can turn the video games back on!”

Interesting events, gatherings and creative ways of doing screen-free activities are the ones that we find most exciting.

What’s the history of Screen-Free Week?

We took it over in 2011. It used to be TV-turnoff Week, housed at the Center for Screen Time Awareness, which unfortunately went under because of funding difficulties. We were approached by their board and we jumped at the chance to adopt the campaign. In this day and age, it didn’t make sense anymore to call it “TV-turnoff” week. We were worried about changing the name because it was so well recognized.

One of the things we’re trying to do is raise awareness about screen-time as a whole. I think there is already a broader understanding among parents limiting kids time watching TV. But because so many of the technologies are now “educational,” and because some are simply more interesting than TV, we don’t always think of the amount of screen time itself being an issue.

Screen-Free Week is a campaign to help parents think through what all those hours, on all different kinds of screens, add up to on a daily basis. It’s six, seven hours, for a kid or teen, in many cases.

How is that “screen-free” term working for you?

We do get a lot of pushback. But what we stress is that this is about entertainment. We’re not saying don’t go to work, or if kid has a homework assignment they shouldn’t do it. Sometimes that message doesn’t get through as clearly as we like.

Some people say it’s not realistic to expect people to actually go screen-free. I find that interesting! If our lives have changed so much that just going a week without TV or video games for kids isn’t thinkable, well, that says a lot.

I think a lot of where the value comes from is the cold turkey aspect. In my own life, it’s really interesting to see the changes that take place in me.


February 11 and February 16 Environmental Events in Greater Cambridge

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is wildlife.

Climate Change in the Mystic River Watershed: Vulnerabilities & Adaptation StrategiesJoin the Mystic River Watershed Association for a special presentation by Paul Kirshen, PhD, Research Professor at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire on February 11th.
Dr. Kirshen will address the impacts of Climate Change that one can expect to see in the Mystic River Watershed and how local water quality will be affected.
When: Monday, February 11th, 7:00PM
Where: Tufts University, Anderson Hall, Nelson Auditorium, Medford, MA
This free event is part of the Mystic River Clean Water Campaign. Learn more about the campaign and get involved see
  • Location: Tufts University, Anderson Hall, Nelson