Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Paradise of All These Parts

I just finished reading The Paradise of All These Parts, a new book by John Hanson Mitchell. It's a really interesting new book on the natural history of Boston, a topic that the author notes is one that has been sparsely covered. Geography is such a major factor in the unfolding of human history (think how many wars have been fought over land, access to seaports, etc.), and Boston is no different. 

Mitchell lays out his approach right in the preface when he talks about "querencia," a Spanish term for a sense of place, and he asks questions about why certain areas have emerged from the wilderness to become powerful cities or historic towns, including Boston. Mitchell points out that the city would not exist without its deep-water harbor and navigable rivers, its nearby wooded hills, and its abundance of fish and waterfowl. (It's a theme I touch upon in Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands as well. The city would never have become a maritime power without its islands that afforded protection from nature's fury and enemy attack.)

Mitchell then sets out to educate the reader on the city's actual nature of the place. His narrative is part travelogue, part history, part nature lesson. At times it gets repetitive with certain facts that pop up in multiple chapters, but it's a good read. The author uses visits to downtown Boston, East Boston, Route 128, Franklin Park, Blue Hill (I hadn't known this was the highest point within 10 miles of the coast along the Atlantic seaboard), the Fenway Victory Gardens (the only extant victory garden in the U.S.), and Boston Harbor, among other places, to help advance the narrative. Mitchell tells the story of how Native Americans and Puritans approached nature in very different ways, with the Puritans viewing the wilderness they discovered in America as a foreboding place to be feared and conquered, and how those attitudes carry on to this very day. I only wish I had more knowledge of flowers and birds, so that when Mitchell names particular species, I could better visualize. 

The book is not a tome solely focused on flora and fauna; there is discussion of the city's climate, urban planning, and history, which Mitchell talks about to make the case that the geography of the city influenced many historical events (even the witch hysteria in 1692) and to show how man has dramatically altered the natural surroundings of Boston. For example, Mitchell describes the menus of Locke-Ober and the old Taft 's Hotel in Winthrop, which were filled with many shorebirds in the early 1900s, reflecting their prevalence around the city back then. 

If you want to read a different take on the evolution of Boston, check out The Paradise of All These Parts. 

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