New England is so crowded by American – and Kiwi – standards that I have trouble believing sometimes that Massachusetts really is the ridiculous percentage forest that it is, although it’s helped somewhat by the American habit of building houses right in among the trees whenever and wherever possible. (This is one reason the October snowstorm wreaked so much damage throughout the region; Massachusetts is bad enough, but in Connecticut there isn’t a powerline that doesn’t have half a dozen big friendly oak trees snuggled up against it. Heavy snow with leaves still on the trees: chaos.) The most impressive thing, in a way, is that this is all relatively new growth; a century or two ago most of New England was farms, cleared first by Native Americans and then kept that way by European colonists before they realised that Iowa had much better soil and many fewer rocks. The Pioneer Valley, where we live, is essentially the only part of the region that’s really decent for agriculture. Everywhere else, forests sprang back. The Quabbin Reservoir, to our east, is now a large lake and water supply for the Boston area, but used to be four towns. Friends who’ve hiked there have come across walls, steps, whole iron bedsteads in the middle of the forest, the remnants of previous inhabitants.
Despite that. most of the Massachusetts forest I’ve seen has been while driving along Interstate 90 and 91, so last weekend we attempted to remedy that by taking the new car out for a spin to a nearby state forest. I still get ridiculously excited about the local wildlife in this part of the world, as long as it’s not squirrels, anyway; the idea that there are vaguely charismatic megafauna running around that aren’t a) birds or b) things you want to shoot is fascinating. The pond (in the American sense of “any non-moving body of water you can see across easily”) at this particular park was full of sunbathing (or deep-water-avoiding, probably) tadpoles well on their way to being frogs; we managed to get pictures of a couple by dint of shooting through our polarised sunglasses, but we didn’t capture just how many there were. The whole place was lush with life, getting in its six months of growth in the warm seasons. We even saw a beaver on the pond, though I couldn’t get any decent photos of it.
It wasn’t just that the area was beautiful, though it was; the part of the park we were in had surprisingly good facilities, the biggest charcoal barbeques I have ever seen, a pavillion, seats, a drystone-walled bridge over the stream coming into the park. All this was the work, at least originally, of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the many Depression-era construction projects.
America is full of these reminders of the last era of mass unemployment, if you know where to look – in Berkeley, I saw a museum display on works of public art funded under a similar programme.
The Civilian Conservation Corps created something lasting and useful for the community here. Something of the change in attitude in the decades since was perhaps demonstrated by the way we had to scramble for cash when we got to the park; there was a parking fee of five dollars. Not technically a fee to use the park, I suppose, but when there’s no other parking and the place is ten or twenty kilometres from the nearest place there might be other parking, if not more, then it ends up that way. And yet the website says it’s “Universal Access”. It hadn’t even occurred to me we might need cash to go to a state park; the closest thing you get back home is hut fees when tramping.
I really dislike this, I think because of the juxtaposition of this wonderful area, created at a time when it was recognised the largest problem with an era of mass unemployment was the bit where people had no jobs, not the details of financial systems, with its removal from the arena of public good into user-pays. I feel really strongly – and this is entirely personal – that the whole point of state parks, national parks, any damn sort of publicly-owned park, is that there shouldn’t be barriers to public use. Is $5 that big a deal, in the scheme of things, especially when getting to the place requires ownership of a car in the first place? Well, no. I’m sure there’s a bunch of budgetary good reasons why they charge for parking, even in a place as relatively remote as this. (You’re not going to get your average tourist making your way here, that’s for sure.) But there’s some symbolism in it that I can’t like, in the face of evidence that once upon a time it was thought worthwhile to invest public funds in creating places like this.