The History of a Cambridge Landscape
208 pp., 11 x 8 in, 137 b&w illus.
- Published: February 13, 2009
The history of Fresh Pond Reservation—onetime summer retreat for wealthy Bostonians, center of the nineteenth-century ice industry, and stomping grounds for Harvard students—told through photographs, maps and plans, and stories.
Fresh Pond Reservation, at the northwest edge of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been described as a “landscape loved to death.” Certainly it is a landscape that has been changed by its various uses over the years and one to which Cantabridgeans and Bostonians have felt an intense attachment. Henry James returned to it in his sixties, looking for “some echo of the dreams of youth,” feeling keenly “the pleasure of memory”; a Harvard student of the 1850s fondly remembered skating parties and the chance of “flirtation with some fair-ankled beauty of breezy Boston”; modern residents argue fiercely over dogs being allowed to run free at the reservation and whether soccer or nature is a more valuable experience for Cambridge schoolchildren.
In Fresh Pond, Jill Sinclair tells the story of the pond and its surrounding land through photographs, drawings, maps, plans, and an engaging narrative of the pond's geological, historical, and political ecology. Fresh Pond has been a Native American hunting and fishing ground; the site of an eighteenth-century hotel offering bowling, food and wine, and impromptu performances by Harvard men; a summer retreat for wealthy Bostonians; a training ground for trench warfare; a location for picnics and festivals for workers and sporting activities for all. The parkland features an Olmsted design, albeit an imperfectly realized one. The pond itself—a natural lake carved out by the retreating Ice Age about 15,000 years ago—was a center of the nineteenth-century ice industry (disparaged by Thoreau, writing about another pond), and still supplies the city of Cambridge with fresh drinking water.
Sinclair's celebration of a local landscape also alerts us to broader issues—shifts in public attitudes toward nature (is it brutal wilderness or in need of protection?) and water (precious commodity or limitless flow?)—that resonate as we remake our relationship to the landscape.
Sinclair's richly illustrated study traces the shifting cultural meaning of Cambridge's most important public landscape through generations of use and abuse. Well researched and eloquently written, this is landscape history at its best.
Robin Karson, author of A Genius for Place
Jill Sinclair has written a wonderful account of Cambridge's most prominent natural feature, Fresh Pond, so aptly named by the colonists who noted its connection to the tidal waters of Alewife Brook. After centuries as a venue for fishing and fowling, the pond became at once a pleasure ground for Bostonians, a prolific source of ice for export to world markets, and a public water supply. Engineers tried to tame Fresh Pond into a reservoir at the same time that Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Jr. were hired to enhance the surrounding landscape as a public park, which Harvard students turned into a miniature Western Front as they trained for World War I. Sinclair explores these and many other aspects of Fresh Pond's history with amazing skill.
Charles M. Sullivan, Executive Director, Cambridge Historical Commission