Conserving ancient woods and ballads

Fruitful Fells Part One

Conserving ancient woods and ballads
Conserving ancient woods and ballads
Episode Trailer

There are little creatures, trees, ponds, and pedestrians all over the earth. And there are bushels of ballads about the charms of nature. And while there are ecological activists like Mike Ryan and 19th century Elizur Wright, and song collectors like Francis Child and Olive Dame Campbell who are out to enjoy and save the critters and the old songs… there are others who are less interested in preservation. This two-part story on the creation of Massachusetts’ Middlesex Fells Reservation takes a look at how trees, pedestrians, bikers, motorists, music collectors, and geese intersect. And sometimes collide.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Laura Johnson, Steve Wilson, Michael Stoner, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy


For SHEET MUSIC, downloadable recordings, and videos of all the ORIGINAL TUNES in this episode, please visit my Original Tunes Page.

Episode 72-Fruitful Fells Part One
Conserving ancient woods and ballads
This Irish Music Stories episode aired June 20, 2023

* * * * * * *

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

>> Mike Ryan: former executive director of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation (2003 to 2014)

>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories

* * * * * * *

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Music: “Bb Intro,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Like how critters and their offspring show up near historic parkways—and in traditional music.

[ honking car ]

>> Shannon: Haha! Those geese are NOT going to get out of the road, brother. 

>> Nigel: Hey look, there are four more little goose babies!

And how people can help preserve tunes (and animals)…

Or they can just run them over.

[ honking car and car squeals ]

>> Shannon: Look out!!!

>> Shannon: That big SUV roaring down Woodland Road nearly hit my son and me. I told Mike Ryan, the former director of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation about it…. and about the fact that the driver’s target had been the family of geese.

>> Mike: Tried to hit them. Wow.

>> Shannon: That was a bit frightening and angering. And then later that day I was on for a run and I ran around the old Langwood area. 

>> Mike: Yeah.

>> Shannon: And it’s just very discouraging to see that project there. And I just thought, you know, I’d like to learn more about that land.

>> Shannon: After my encounter with the angry driver and my run through the new condo complex built right near our local state park, I was pretty agitated. 

[ Music: “Mountain Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

With Mike’s help, I’m going to try to tap into the rhythm of agitation—and the dance between humans and nature—to take a look at how the pedestrians, bikers, motorists, music collectors, and geese in my backyard intersect. And sometimes collide.

Buckle up, Virginia. We’re gonna cover a lot of acres, and a lot of decades. Hopefully no one will get hurt.

[ Car screech & goose squack ]

[ Music: “Geese in the Bog,” from Living Room Session

Artist: Joey Abarta ]

>> Shannon: This old jig Geese in the Bog is usually played in the key of C – which is unusual for an Irish tune. Joey Abarta is playing it here on the C chanter, so it’s even lower.

When the jig first appeared in the Francis Roche collection in 1912, the Canada geese around here in Medford, Massachusetts were still migrating south for the winter. Nowadays, with increasingly mild weather, they usually stay in New England. They might just head down the road to a slightly warmer body of water, like the southeastern tip of Rhode Island. But they always come back in the Spring, to roost around the ponds of the Middlesex Fells Reservation.

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Journalist Sylvester Baxter gave the Fells its name in an article in 1879. He was describing our expanse of woods, just north of Boston. And he used this term ‘Fells.’ I guess it’s a word in Old Norse which means wild rock-hills. People liked the name and ran with it. 

I run in this rocky wooded forest many times each week. I’m just two blocks from Wright’s Pond, which isn’t officially part of the Fells. But many of the forest trails cross through it. And if you were a runner or hiker—or a goose—you might not know that the city of Medford actually maintains this part of the forest.

Calling The Fells a park doesn’t really convey its size and depth: all the animals, and plants, and trees; the huge old rocks and caves; many bodies of water; lots of geese and other songbirds; and an extensive system of trails. I know a number of these trails by heart. But one adventurous turn and I’m lost in the Fells again.

I can even still get turned around near Wright’s Pond, which is not named for Elizur Wright, who was the visionary and driving force behind the creation of The Fells. Which is  an annual destination for the geese. Every year the geese make it back to Wright’s Pond and nearby Spot Pond. And every year drivers honk at them. Because… they hate the goose poop? They hate being slowed down by geese or pedestrians walking in the road? 

Well the geese my son and I saw on the road the other day did end up living to honk (and poop) another day. And Canada geese poop a lot. They’re also loud and aggressive—especially when they have young ones to protect. But the baby geese are pretty cute. And they’ve been here longer than we have. The first humans appeared 5-7 million years ago; but there are Geese fossils that are 10-12 million years old. And geese evolved from dinosaurs that first appeared around 231 million years ago.

Still not as old as the ferns.

Canada geese were only introduced to Massachusetts 300 years ago. And in the late 1800s, when Elizur Wright was in a flap over the Fells, it was still unusual for Canada geese to nest in Massachusetts. They nearly went extinct in 1930. But they made it. And every year in late April/early May, there’s a new crop of local goslings. Apparently, geese return to where they hatched, along with their hatchlings. So the guys I see this year are likely the same—or descendants of—last year’s crew. And the crew before that, and the crew before that.

There are gaggles of geese around the ponds in the Fells. Established in 1894, and spanning five towns, the Middlesex Fells contains the world’s very first public land trust. And as Mike Ryan told me, The Fells inspired other park systems around the U.S. and Europe.

>> Mike: It took the the National Park model, you know Yosemite and Yellowstone. And it applied it to a Metropolitan Park system. First time ever. 

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

By 1900 Paris had an international exhibition to talk about the future in the new century. It was an exhibition that went on for six months. And 51 million people attended it. Well, guess what? The Metropolitan Park Commission created a one ton plaster cast, a 3D model of what they had done. They were so proud of what they had done with this Metropolitan Park System. 

>> Shannon: They sent the model over and won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition. And an award in Berlin. And the whole thing inspired other US cities to commission their own Metropolitan Park systems.

This big idea—the park of the future— came from Elizur Wright, an abolitionist, insurance reformer, and bereaved parent. He’d lost four of his 13 kids in Boston to whooping cough and small pox. The big cities were turning out to be petri dishes for infectious diseases. 

 In 1864 he and his wife Susan bought land up in Medford.

>> Mike: Probably a place for a little, you know, breathing of fresh air of their own. But he gets there and he finds that, oh my God, you know, this is, this is a magnificent place. And look at what they’re doing: they’re cutting it down. The tree choppers are out, you know? And he looks around and he says, oh, this is the answer to Boston’s problems of kids dying, and typhus, and all of that. But he said, not another small park. He said what we need is the park of the future.

[ Music: “The Boy in the Wood,” from Open Hearth

Artist: Mary MacNamara & Andrew MacNamara ]

>> Mike: Wright’s vision was formed many years before in like 1847, when they wanted to build a new rural cemetery like Mount Auburn. And he said, you know, why not have nature for the living, you know. I think people need to breathe fresh air more while they’re alive, kind of thing, you know?

>> Shannon: Before it was called the Fells, Native people from many tribes, including the Massachusetts, Nipmuc, and Pawtucket people, hunted and gathered in these rocky woods. The first documented visit to these woods was by Boston’s Governor John Winthrop in February 1632. He and his party went over Mistick River at Medford, continued north for two or three miles, and eventually came to what he called

“A very great pond, having in the midst an island of about one acre, and very thick with trees of pine and beech. The pond had diverse small rocks standing up here and there in it, which we thereupon called Spot Pond.”

They walked over the newly named Spot Pond on the ice. And when they reached an enormous rock, they stopped for a snack. Turns out, all they’d packed was cheese. So they named the rock… Cheese Rock.

After that, John Winthrop goes back to Boston. He gets re-elected 12 times. And during his tenure they’re building taverns and schools. They’re weathering smallpox. And still rising in population. But Medford ran at a different pace. Like Boston, it was settled in 1630. But the industries were a little more laid back than Boston’s. In Medford it was farming, fishing, and ship building. By 1670 there was a sawmill surrounding little Spot Pond Brook. And after the American Revolution in 1763, more mills went in to help produce chocolate, spices, snuff, and medicine. There was a silk dying house, and boarding houses, and a few shops for the workers, all around that one tiny brook.

For a time, Elisha Converse ran  his shoe production at these mills. Then Nathanial Hayward and Charles Goodyear took over in 1858 with their rubber company. None of this rivaled Boston’s industry; but it was busy enough. And there was plenty of quarrying and deforestation. This was before Elizur came to town.

[ Music: “Barbara Allen,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

Down the way in Cambridge, Mass, Harvard professor and gardener Francis Child was working on his English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I talk extensively about his collection in Episode 52. Like Elizur’s passion for the woods, Francis Child believed in the power of folk ballads. He collected bushels of songs that had been passed on for generations. Even though a lot of them are supernatural tales, they’re essentially songs about jealousy, postpartum depression, addiction, discrimination. And about love. They are songs from the perspective of women, men, poor laborers, parents, siblings. Francis Child believed that ballads were powerful ways to pass on information, preserve history, and learn about different perspectives. 

Ballads struck a chord with Francis. And the Medford woods resonated with Elizur Wright. Elizur had grown up in Connecticut, one of ten kids raised by devout Christians. His parents offered their home as a refuge for fugitive slaves. And after graduating from Yale (where ELizur met and married Susan Clark), he co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City. Later he edited the Massachusetts Abolitionist, and was indicted for helping Shadrack, a runaway slave. 

>> Mike: Oh, and people were threatening him, you know, well, because of his anti-slavery and abolitionist viewpoints.

>> Shannon: Anti tyranny kind of dude.

>> Mike: Oh, he was!

>> Shannon: And anti big business insurance companies.

>> Mike: That’s right. He proposed a law that would protect people from being cheated out of their life insurance. 

>> Shannon: For his day job: Elizur worked as the insurance commissioner for Massachusetts, a calling he’d pursued after a trip to London. He’d seen an ad there in the Daily Telegraph selling old life insurance policies. It was these guys peddling their own policies, because they couldn’t afford the premiums. So they’re too old to work, but they couldn’t collect on the policies, because they weren’t dead yet.

When Elizur got back to the States, he discovered similar problems and worked to reform the U.S. insurance industry, to make life more fair for people, regardless of economic status or race.

[ Music: “Barter’s Hill,” from Jolie

Artists: Nightingale ]

>> Mike: He created something called the Arithmeter. It was a calculating machine that could do thousands of calculations. And he sped up the whole system of doing actuarial tables and all of that. And he actually patented that machine.

>> Shannon: This early calculator helped mechanize the American life insurance business. AND the patent for his Arithmeter earned Elizur 10,000 bucks. He used that to buy his place in Medford, during the final year of the U.S. Civil War. 

Just one year later—on June 19th, 1865—250,000 enslaved people in Texas were told that the Civil war was over. And by the way, slavery had ended two and half years ago.

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Hiking around the woods near his new home, Elizur’s vision of a grand public park came into focus. As nearby cities were expanding, he wanted to make this place, with the shade, the oxygen, the birdsongs accessible to everybody. Feed souls, dissolve dissent. A place where people could feel refreshed. An enormous sanctuary where my family could go 158 years later, to have a picnic and commemorate Juneteenth.

There are picnic benches around Bellevue Pond. That’s right near the old Wright land.

>> Mike: My wife and I 40 years ago or so, we were about a mile from Bellevue Pond. And I couldn’t believe it. Oh, 3600 acres. What was this place? We called it the Medford Woods back then. And just like you, I would go running in the Fells. I would put my son, our new baby on in the backpack and go hiking and all kinds of stuff. But I said to myself, why? Why is this here, you know?   

So I started to look into it. I wanted to find out. What is this Medford Woods? It was to me almost like a miracle that you know, the background story. And I felt that the way that they did, there were lessons for us, the benefactors. 

>> Shannon: Mike learned more and more about the Fells and about how Elizur built a coalition to preserve these woods. It all started with the vision: protect this land, make it available to everybody, and keep the woods wild. Just a few rustic bridges and pretty groves. 

[ Music: “Aisling Gheal,” (Bright Vision), from Bright Vision

Artists: Renee Anne Louprette And Ivan Goff ]

When they could, Elizur and his wife Susan bought additional land as a way of keeping it safe.

Susan Wright had the distinction of being the first woman to practice as an actuary in the U.S. And as a supportive partner to Elizur, she kept a bunch of his published essays and personal writings in a binder called ” Household Stuff.” My favorite is this  poem about a mama bird in a nest.

My memory holds a vision

Too beautiful to die.

A swinging hemisphere

Whereout a blissful eye,

Between the tender oak leaves,

Looked wonders into mine.

O, who would harm the goddess

Of such a holy shrine?

There sits she, fearful, trustful,

A diamond of a wife,

On orbs that heaven has moulded,

Love warming into life.

That’s just an excerpt of one of the many poems that Susan saved. Along with an excerpt of a piece of music called “Bright Vision” from Renee Anne Louprette And Ivan Goff. I had Elizur’s poem in mind when, I wrote a tune called Mind the Wren. Another little meditation on the sweetness of birds and their nests. And on coexistence. 

The tune came after my friend Lynn mentioned the wren nest she’d found inside the hanging basket on her front porch. Instead of just moving the basket, she learned to be more gentle when going in and out of her home. 

She also mentioned the wood thrush in her yard. So the tune starts with a few wood thrush notes. 

[ Music: “Mind the Wren,” from Living Room
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Susan Wright died of tuberculosis in 1867. It was three years before the 15th amendment granted African American men the right to vote. And now Elizur was dedicated to his forest mission full time.

[ Music: “Man in the Bog,” from A Sweeter Place

Artists: Girsa ]

Across the pond in Ireland, dancer and musician John Roche was playing laments… and jigs, like the Geese in the Bog. He taught his kids to play. James, John and Frank, they all played fiddle and piano. And they all ran a music and dance school together in Limerick.

The Roches were all English speakers. But Frank also adopted his dad’s native Irish language—he was devoted to it and translated local English language songs into Irish Gaelic. He started using the Irish form of his name, Proinnsias. I imagine he felt some agitation at the thought of losing Ireland’s indigenous language, and also its traditional music. 

When he was 25, Frank (or Proinnsias) Roche began putting together his own book of Irish melodies. He wanted to document and preserve tunes not just for traditional musicians. But he also dreamed that Ireland would develop a national art music style. He thought his collection could provide basic material for emerging classical composers. Interesting motivation for a lover of native language and traditional music, and dance; though his brother John was a composer, and his other James was a church organist. We all have our own unique stew of influences and interests. Like these fine musicians, who played with the band Girsa.

Back in Medford, Elizur’s fourth daughter, Ellen Martha emerged as the collector of the family. She pulled together everything that mom had saved in the household binder and documented his work. She wrote that for her dad, preserving the Fells was “deep calling unto deep: a stifling city to an abused and struggling woods, each for the help the other alone can give.”

Elizur believed that people needed the woods. And people also needed the cities—they needed one another. Elizur also believed that protecting the Fells and abolishing slavery were common causes that would benefit everybody. 

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Fortunately, he had the stamina and stomach to deal with the tedious work of building a coalition. It’s one thing to sing and dance about birds and justice. It’s another to try to solicit institutional support. And to consolidate ideas and coordinate people. That’s hard.

From working as an abolitionist and insurance commissioner, Elizur had connections. He was accustomed to filing petitions, attending meetings, wading through bureaucracy, enduring setbacks. He had a lot of allies who had worked with him in the anti-slavery crusade. And he called on many of them now, to fight for the Fells.

But it wasn’t all yelling and agitation. Even more than the committees and lobbying, Elizur believed that if enough people could just get out and spend time in the woods, on the ponds—like Governor John Winthrop had on his 1632 cheese party—people would rally to save the forest.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

In the summer of 1880, he ran an invitation in a few local papers:

The subscriber invites all persons irrespective of age or sex, who are fond of studying life and natural scenery to meet at his house, Pine Hill, Forest Street, Medford,…. for mutual instruction and exploration of the wild region about Spot Pond…  It is a volcanic locality full of rocks, small trees, birds and glacial scratches—the school apparatus of Nature. After short exercises at the house … the school will adjourn to the cart-paths, prepared to geologize, botanize, etc. 

It is best to have on work-day clothes and something in pocket to allay any casual gnawings of hunger.”

Only a few people took him up on it that Sunday morning—two girls and a toddler. But Elizur and his daughter showed the kids the prehistoric marks on the rocks. They pointed out the sparrow and wood-thrush songs. Ellen admitted that the girls were more interested in keeping their dresses clean than exploring the trees and birds and glacial scratches. But they showed them the woods, nonetheless.  

[ Music: Little Bird Lullaby reprise ]

Elizur tried again a few months later. This time a dozen people showed up, including the naturalist Wilson Flagg. Wilson had different ideas about preservation. He wanted a garden for indigenous plants and animals for scientific study only. No pleasure seeking. But Wilson joined up with Elizur to form a forest where people could enjoy nature, instead of destroying and dominating the woods—or one another. That was worth compromise.

Elizur and Wilson founded the Middlesex Fells Association. And John Owen, a die hard naturalist, also joined the steering committee. There were 200 people at the first meeting on Bear Hill in the Fells. The idea of a protected nature reserve was becoming popular, thanks in part to Sylvester Baxter’s articles—he was the one who’d given The Fells its name.

Spot Pond and its Vicinity1879 Boston Herald

Elizur’s plan was popular. And it was frugal. He didn’t think Boston should buy the park or run into debt. He thought private landowners could just get together and work it out. Make the arrangements. Present a whole tract together.

He wrote an appeal to residents of Medford and nearby Malden, Winchester, Stoneham, and Melrose

When I speak of giving, he wrote, I speak as one of the proprietors; for I live on the hither brim of the basin. I should be glad to make a present of fifty or sixty acres that would be included in the park.

If any of the other proprietors are similarly minded, I shall be glad to hear from them; and my post-office box in Boston is 109.

Elizur, Wilson Flagg, and John Owen kept at it. They wrote stuff. They met with people. And they took people out on walks through the forest. And  Elizur organized seasonal Forest Festivals, just to get people out in the woods.

“So that interest and knowledge of the Fells would become the property of all the people, rich or poor, distinguished or not.”

There were counter forces at work, of course. There always are.

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

An accountant from Malden bought land he thought was rich in ore and hired workers to dig a silver mine shaft. It didn’t amount to much, but it disturbed the land surrounding it. (Morandi, 1881)

[ Music: “Dark Low Jig,”  from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Meanwhile, across from Spot Pond, where a guy called William Lang had built a fancy stone mansion, George Butterfield set his sights. He purchased the land next to William Lang’s mansion. And around 1880, while Elizur was taking people on walks in the woods, George Butterfield prepared to clear an entire grove of hemlocks with his silver spoon to build his schwanky Langwood hotel. The Langwood ended up costing him 200 grand, which would be about 5 1/2 million dollars today.

>> Mike: Elizur Wright, you see, he was negotiating with Butterfield to save those hemlocks. Butterfield wanted too much money. They were in negotiations. And then they were logged off. And that became a rallying cry.

>> Shannon: People called the destruction of these old hemlocks, “the Ravine Road massacre.”  

In response, Elizur, Wilson, and John organized a meeting in Medford. People were really charged up about this. Ellen Wright wrote about speakers coming in covered in snow, from brisk sleigh-rides through the Fells. It was a big to-do. The hall was packed.

And this is what helps fuel change. People showing up and clamoring. It doesn’t guarantee success. Some lobbies and special interests are harder to overcome, even if they’re less popular. But without public interest, engagement, and commitment—without ordinary citizens crying out for the woods—well, it’d be a little like a jig or an old ballad falling in the forest with nobody to hear it.

Bearing witness and speaking or singing out. That’s what the forest crusaders were doing. And it’s what a song catcher dow. Like Olive Dame Campbell. 

[ Music: Barbara Allen reprise ]

When she travelled with her husband John from Medford to Appalachia—a little later, in the early 1900s. They went to help with education reform down there. They lived out of a wagon, learning about mountain life from Georgia to West Virginia. And as they roamed, Olive heard people singing versions of old folk songs. She started writing them down. Once word spread about the Campbells, people in the community began inviting Olive in to share their family favorites. That’s how we know how Ada B. Smith sang the old ballad of Barbara Allen in 1908. Because Olive Dame Campbell from Medford, and earlier Francis Child from Cambridge saved these songs. 

But without people singing them, there wouldn’t have been songs to save. 

 And without Ellizur’s broad coalition of supporters, we wouldn’t have the Fells today. He had a lot of supporters. And some very eloquent advocates. Like abolitionist Theodore Weld:

“Muster all you can to the rescue of the forests. If this universal vandalism that sweeps down the forests, millions of acres every year, can’t be stopped, the life of the whole nation is sapped; half a century more will drag it to death’s door.”

Elizur, Wilson, and John kept at it. And in 1882, they were able to pass the Massachusetts Forestry Act. Shortly after that, John Owen died. 


Two days later, Elizur held a Forest Festival at Cheese Rock. It was right around June 19th, the date we now recognize as Juneteenth. It was a celebration of John Owen, of the passage of the Forestry Law, and of protecting the woods so they could be enjoyed freely for all people.

There were fun and games at this Forest Festival. Elizur wrote a poem about Winthrop’s Cheese party  

Up northwestwardly they climbed

A hill well crowned with trees,

And hungry there, as well might be,

They dined on simple cheese

For, why, the guv’nor’s man in haste,

And careless how they fed

His basket loaded with the cheese

And quite forgot the bread

But that day Elizur was also deeply serious. He pushed people to move and act. To grind the metaphorical ax. To keep stating their opinions strongly and tirelessly: 

It is everybody’s axe, and if nobody grinds it, it will be dull for generations to come. The wood choppers are sure to grind theirs while a tree is left. Here is work for the press, the pulpit, the platform – for every one that likes to breathe pure air, drink pure water and see green things.

[ Music: (Jigs) Tommy People’s – Michael Dwyer’s Jig, from “Traditional Music On Fiddle, Banjo & Harp”

Artist: Oisin Mac Diarmada, Brian Fitzgerald, Micheal O’Ruanaigh ]

Lots more successes and inspirations ahead for our heroes—and for the trees, the birds, and all of us. But first, here’s one of my biggest inspirations to thank this month’s supporters. Take it away, Nigel.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Laura Johnson, Steve Wilson, Michael Stoner, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy.

>> Shannon: Thank you so much folks for believing in this project. And thanks to this coalition of supporters, I’m able to produce these stories. Please head to to help underwrite an episode … and to find a playlist of all the tunes in this episode, including this set of jigs played by Oisin MacDiarmada .

And  back to the 1880s 

So The Forestry Act had put some protections in place. But the land for the reservation still needed to be secured. No trails and picnic benches in the woods just yet.

Elizur wrote a piece for the Melrose Journal, one of the towns that was yet to give land to the State [in 1883]

“Everybody seems to be enthusiastically in favor of having the thing done – at the expense of somebody else. To have a nice pine forest of four thousand acres, within a nickel ride of Boston City Hall, would be a valuable thing for men, women, children and birds…

It only remains for the city of Malden and the four towns of Stoneham, Melrose, Medford and Winchester .. decree that the land within the jurisdiction of each shall be ceded to the State…for proper care of the forest and .. enjoyment by the public.”

Elizur also re-printed an earlier piece he’d written called “Voice of a Tree,” which I’ll be exploring in a future episode. It’s an appeal from the point of view of an Eastern White Pine. In it Elizur explains that just 2/3 of the five municipalities would need to vote for State protection and care of this tree and all its siblings.

“If you do not believe all this,” he writes, “call on Mr. Francis Brooks,

of 97 Beacon Street, Boston, or write to him for a copy of

the ‘Conditional Obligations’ 

The list of conditional obligations was a list of people who’d promised to contribute money for the Fells as soon as land was handed to the state. 

[ Music: Heartstrings Theme ]

 Francis Brooks, another local advocate for the Fells, managed to put together a bunch of pledges. Elisha Converse was the highest: over $5,000, followed by Elizur Wright, and then Francis Brooks himself. 

When the Medford Public Domain Club formed, Francis was named president. And in May 1884, shortly before the club’s inaugural meeting, Elizur’s buddy Wilson Flagg died. 

[ Music: Heartstrings reprise ]

“We feel,” Wilson had written in 1872, “while rambling under these lofty trees, and over this carpet of leaves and mosses, that nothing which art has accomplished will compare with the primitive works of nature. There is no architecture so sublime as that of a forest; there are no gardens like the little paradise to be found here.”

[ Music: Piano Meditation, from Lounge Session
Artist: Agnes Murphy ]

A few decades before Wilson Flagg, John Owen, and Elizur Wright were fighting for the Fells, Scottish poet Robert Burns was speaking for the birds and the woods in his Song Composed in Autumn

“The partridge loves the fruitful fells, and the plover loves the mountain”

In the song” he called out man’s tendency to colonize and tyrannize. He condemns the slaughtering guns, the murdering cries. But the song’s punchline is pure hopefulness. All we really need to do is take a walk outside, which is what Elizur kept inviting people to do. Men may be shooting birds out of the sky, and chopping down hemlock groves, and trying to run over geese with SUVs, but that doesn’t prevent a walk around the block.

[ Music: “Westlin Winds” (Song Composed in August), from Rough Mix

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

But Peggy dear, the evening’s clear, thick flies the skimming swallow

The sky is blue, the fields in view, all fading green and yellow

Come let us stray our gladsome way, and view the charms of nature

The rustling corn, the fruited thorn, and every happy creature

Still going at age 80, Elizur kept fighting to protect the birds and the trees He wanted people to start Public Domain clubs all over the U.S. He wanted to incite a public craze. 

[ Music: “D chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

He held one more forest festival. And in November 1885, in the middle of a rainstorm that lasted six days and six nights, Elizur died in Medford.

Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about the epic quest to protect the woods. 

“I shall never forget the inexhaustible faith with which Elizur urged it. In his presence it was almost impossible not to believe in its speedy success… As Elizur Wright, Wilson Flagg, and John Owen sat leaning toward each other, with long, grey locks flowing, I always felt as if I was admitted to some weird council of old Greek gods, displaced and belated, not yet quite convinced that Pan was dead, and planning together to save the last remnant of the forest they loved.”

[ Music: Meaning of Life Reprise ]

Elizur managed to preserve the woods by launching a movement, starting with a morning hike with his grown daughter and three local kids. The legal channels for acquiring and maintaining the space hadn’t yet been secured yet. But he’d laid out the plan and put the wheels in motion. 

And human dramas and missteps complicated and slowed progress. 

[ Music: Dark Low Jig Reprise ]

Like.. these moths that Étienne Trouvelor had brought from France—they used to be called gypsy moths, and they’ve been renamed spongy moths. Étienne brought some over for silk production. A few escaped from his Medford home, and at first they were just a nuisance. But gradually they began eating all the leaves off the local trees. Caterpillars covered the houses and sidewalks. Spraying was expensive, so crews scraped away the egg masses, wrapped trees with burlap, and burned some of the hardest hit sections. 

This was a setback.

But on the plus side, when the nearby city of Lynn reserved land around its water supply, the Fells towns realized the importance of keeping contaminants out of Spot Pond. So that was a win.

And the Fells project did keep keep moving forward. Thanks in large part to journalist Sylvester Baxter.

[ Music: “Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Mike:  Sylvester Baxter wrote a series of articles, three articles. He was laying out the need for an overarching supervisory function. As people were moving to the suburbs, those suburbs were gobbling up green space.

>> Shannon: Sylvester’s ideas caught the attention of Frederick Olmsted. He’s the famous landscape architect who had designed Central Park in 1858 and had just designed Niagara Falls State Park in 1885. Years before, Frederick Olmsted had gone out to California to try to manage a mine. That was a flop. But while he was there he saw Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of redwoods. He wrote reports that convinced Abraham Lincoln to deed this land to the state of California. And that allowed him to design Yosemite National Park, which includes the Mariposa Grove of over 500 Giant Sequoias.

>> Mike: He laid out all of the reasons why you would want to create and save the natural area. In subsequent years, that became the basis for the creation of our national park system. So he talked about what was needed and why. And it had a lot to do with democracy. You wanted these areas to be open to the public. And protecting nature—that was very important. And he talked about, if you don’t do that now, you’re never gonna be able to do it. 

[ Music: “The Garden of Daisies,” from Cover the Buckle

Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean Mccomiskey, And Kieran Jordan ]

>> Shannon: Frederick Olmsted and his apprentice Charles Eliot were committed to green spaces. They wanted to make them available to people and design them beautifully. They thought big. But they didn’t have the angle that Sylvester Baxter had. In his articles, he was basically was writing about city planning. He connected architecture and social design.

>> Mike: So when Olmsted read those three articles, he went to Baxter, and he goes, you should turn those into a pamphlet, and I’ll pay for that. And so that pamphlet was published. And when Eliot read it, Eliot went to Baxter and says I need you to help me build the Metropolitan Park System.

>> Shannon: So Charles Eliot (from Cambridge Massachusetts) had recently returned from a European walkabout to observe parks and gardens. He’d already worked with Olmsted on urban public parks like Boston’s Franklin Park, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Fens in Back Bay. After he and Sylvester Baxter connected, they worked together—and pulled in support from the Appalachian Mountain Club—to cross the finish line on the Fells project. 

They helped pass the The Trustees of Reservations bill in 1891. This gave legal power and resources to acquire land. It cleared the path for the the world’s very first public land trust.

This is a big deal: it was now possible for landowners to voluntarily and officially donate private land for public benefit. Finally, the fruitful Fells could be formally established.

[ Music: “Wisteria,” from From Portland

Artist: O’Jizo ]

The first piece of the Fells was a gift from Fanny Foster Tudor. She and her husband Henry had raised three kids in a stone mansion near Spot Pond. The fancy home is long gone, but the little carriage house that was on their property is still there.

When the Trustees Act passed, Fanny who was now a widow donated a big chunk of wood, just above the old industrial village at Spot Pond Creek. She named it in memory of her third and final daughter Virgina, who had died at the age of 36.  

With the gift of Virginia Wood, the Fells was off to an exciting start. But because the Fells sprawled over different cities and towns, there were inconsistent ordinances from one zone to the next. This got in the way of getting stuff done. But Charles Eliot hung in there. Petitions, signatures, meetings, blah blah blah. He and Sylvester Baxter put together this huge public hearing—there were around 300 people there . And this led to the passage of the the Metropolitan Park Act of 1892.

>> Mike: The Metropolitan Park Bill passed. But it was a temporary commission that was set up. What Eliot and Baxter needed to do, and they were commissioned to do this, was to lay out the plan for the Greater Boston Metropolitan Park System. They went out to these municipalities, and they set up these visits. Baxter called them “voyages for discovery of home.” In other words, these were places that the people who lived in these areas didn’t even know how beautiful they were. Eliot said we needed to picture what this would look like. 

[ Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: They took photographs, drew illustrations, and pulled their big report together.

>> Mike: That was bound into a book. And it became a bestseller in Boston.

>> Shannon: 9,000 copies printed. A bestseller urging the state to create a system of parks. A whole network of woods, spread over 36 municipalities. The book—and the idea—was a sensation. And then photographer George Davenport started giving slide shows about it.

>> Mike: He got the Mystic Camera Club out there taking all these pictures, you know? And he did what Elizur did. He took it out to broader audiences, this slideshow.  

[ Music: “Rathawaun/The Hare In The Corn (Slides),” from Kitty Lie Over

Artist: Mick O’Brien & Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ]

>> Shannon: George Davenport used lantern slides—the image is on a sheet of glass, covered by another piece of glass, bound with black tape. Simple, effective technology. And of special interest to Mike Ryan and Kyna Hamill. Kyna teaches at Boston University, and she’s the reference volunteer for the Medford Historical Society and Museum. She hunted around for those old George Davenport slides.

>> Mike: I’ll never forget the day that Kyna called me and says, Mike, I found the slides. They were in a flat file deep in her archives, you know, <laugh>.

In 2019, Mike and Kyna rebooted George Davenport’s lecture. They used the same images, and shared them at the some of the same venues George had visited.

>> Mike: What an interesting collaboration, because she is an English teacher. When she read through the Davenport script and looked at the pictures, she said to me, you know, Mike, there’s a lot of code in there. Because they were mystics. They were poets. They really grasped nature in a deeper sense, I think, than a lot of people. 

[ Music: Mountain Grooves Reprise ]

So when we put that slideshow together, you know she would present like something I had never seen before. And then she wrangled an invitation to the St. Botolph Club. She told them that over a hundred years ago this slideshow had been shown there. 

[ Music: “Tir,” from Live at Cwmyoy Church 

Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]

>> Shannon: Everything old is new again (or is just still around): like lectures and pamphlets.. and virus pandemics… and deforestation and racism. There’s still a lot of ground to cover… and protect. George Davenport had also been involved in the anti-slavery movement. This theme of protecting the woods and other people seems pretty related. 

Like Elizur, George passed his love of the woods on to his family. His youngest daughters Alice and Florence would join him on walks through the Fells. There’s this amazing photo of the three of them at Druidical Rock. You can see a blurry line in his hand. That was string that he used to trip the camera. Like a selfie. 

George gave these lectures to show people the wonders of these woods, and to educate and agitate the public about the dire consequences of not protecting the trees and the water supply. Back in the day, the Medford Historical Register said his lecture “aroused greater public interest than any plan ever adopted to aid the Fells movement.” 

George Davenport remained devoted to these woods, until he died in 1907 while taking a walk in the Middlesex Fells. By then, the public reservation was well established, all because of Elizur’s vision and because of a dedicated team of dreamers and foot soldiers. Wilson Flagg, John Owen, George Davenport, Charles Eliot, Sylvester Baxter, Ellen Wright. 

But we’re not there yet. There are many miles to go before we hike and picnic in the Fells. Lots more heroes to tell you about (and a few villains, blunders and absurdities). And that’s all coming up in Part 2 of the Fruitful Fells. 

For now, I’m gonna hit the trails… maybe pack a cheese snack for later on. And hope to meet you back here next month for bushels of ballads and tunes, and more tales about the fruitful Fells. And the people who’ve fought to preserve beauty for the rest of us.

[ Music: “Bird in the Bush,” from A Very Siúcra Christmas

Artists: Siúcra ]

>> Shannon: This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you, Mike Ryan, for all the time and care. Thank you, Medford Public Library for all the hard copy resources, and all the archivists who’ve scanned and made all these historical documents available to everybody. I learned so much from all these old sources. And also from my friend David Lucia and Alison Simcox’s and Douglas Heath’s book Middlesex Fells. Thank you Katie Weber, Leilani Germaine, Angie Dombroski, and Jess Garton for running through the Fells with me, and listening to me rant about all the things I was learning. Thank you, Matt Heaton for the production music. Thank you Nigel for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. And thank you Joey Abarta for your beautiful music and humor. When I asked for “goose squawking noises on pipes into one time through the Geese in the Bog” you did not say ‘huh?’ You said, “Sure, D or C chanter?”

For playlists and transcripts and to kick in to help make more Irish Music Stories, please visit . 

See you next month for the thrilling conclusion of the Fruitful Fells.

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

Mike Ryan


Former executive director of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation (2003 to 2014)

The Heaton List