A brook overtime

Spring 2021
A brook overtime

Animation and sound

Canterbury Brook: Natural History and Sounds

Land formations are remarkable geological feats. If scraping and scouring by the glaciers upon the land never happened, what would the land look like? A twist of fate leads to astonishing beauty in geology – think of the Grand Canyon, or the Niagara Falls, or Lake Bikal. All are incredible geological wonders. But all wonders, do not have to seem larger than life. Drumlins are long, low hills that are formed when a glacier moves over resistant bedrock. As it moves over the resistor, the glacier grinds down some parts as it adds materials to other, shaping the drumlin into its characteristic oval form. The direction of the oval can show you which way the glacier was scraping across the land. A glacier that sculpted what I call, Wellington Hill, a 160 feet high drumlin, slopes down to what is now Canterbury Brook. Since that glacial event, the slope has been changed significantly due to the slow separation of human and nature cultures.

The Massachusett tribe inhabited the area where Canterbury Brook flows, part of the Charles River watershed and the Neponset River watershed. The language spoken amongst the Massachusett tribe had much variation but was recorded using European letters and translated into what was Massachusett, or now called Wampanoag. In the collection at Harvard University, a stone chisel that was found just a few feet hundred feet from Canterbury Brook is a reminder of the people that stewarded the land for generations before us. I can’t think of a better phrase from the Wampanoag language than Seepoowees (brook), seep (river) to discuss Canterbury Brook. Seep and Seepoowees both share seep. The Webster Dictionary defines seep as to flow or pass slowly through fine pores or small openings. For example, water seeps through soil or cracks in concrete.

The wetland that drains Canterbury Brook would have been an important site visited by hunting parties. The protection and camouflage that the wetland offered was helpful for surprising caribou, waterfowl, or small game. I am stepping into this space of writing with an intention to remember the past, while bringing your attention to present-day Canterbury Brook through sounds. May this piece also guide you to think about what lies ahead for the brook.

Construction of Morton Street was part of the changing surrounding area for residential and transportation use. Arthur Williams Austin, large landowner within the area, decided to build a road to facilitate easier traffic between Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. Arthur let capitalism drive him to build over his favorite birding spot. To build the road, engineers had to first better drain the water from the meadow. The shift in landscape, led to emerged ponds on the opposite side of the road. Increased construction of buildings and roads has altered the hydrology of the meadow, concentrating the water flow of the whole area into the remaining wetland and thus making it harder for the water to move in and out. Constricting the water in this way, took the water’s breath away. It was no longer able to move in and out, as breath and wind moves in and out of humans. Water, like breath, is experienced as a movement such as Tim Ingold (2011) describes sound, “a movement of coming and going, inspiration and expiration. If that is so, then we should say of the body, as it sings, hums, whistles or speaks, that it is ensounded.” Water is also ensounded, the movement of coming and going, inspiration and expiration. I may not have supersonic hearing to hear ensounded water, but as the water moves it transmutes itself into sounds. Some are audible to the human ear. Like when theSeepoowees seeps into the soil, it is creating a movement that translates into sound. The soils can feel it, and maybe the earthworms, too.

In the fall of 2018, I started an AmeriCorps service position at the Boston Nature Center in Boston, Massachusetts. My first week there was dedicated to exploring the wildlife sanctuary that sits hidden amongst tall trees and is surrounded by a century-old black iron fence. The place where I am writing from is in a Boston neighborhood by the name of Mattapan. On a misty day, my arms prickled by a slight chill in the air and my head filled with the fresh scent of decaying leaves. The air smelled clean here. The trees looked wild. The animals seemed healthy. A fluid connection stringing us together was only beginning to breech the surface. It was on my second walk around the trails at Boston Nature Center when I started to see the boundary between human and nature disappear. In this 67-acre area, there is a scattered wetland, a wet meadow, the largest community garden in Boston, stately pin oaks, and a diverse amount of wildlife. Listening to the wind, I could hear sloshing. I looked down and my feet were sinking deeper and deeper into the mud each step I took. I was approaching Canterbury Brook and the ground started to feel softer and spongier. Looking into the brook I saw floating debris, including Wendy’s cups, plastic water bottles, grocery bags, and unrecognizable human consumption. My body hurt.

A unique feature of this area is the water. I’ll remind you that water is a life force. Humans are entangled and inseparable from water. It flows in and flushes out of our bodies, while connecting them to other bodies, including other worlds that are beyond us (Neimanis, 2019). Canterbury Brook’s water comes from the subterranean water, the seepage of water through the soils, the runoff of water from the nearby highway, the rain that pounds the thick spongey soil, and more that I cannot begin to describe within the three pages of this essay. Without the water to sustain us, we become nothing. To think of our human selves as the water that flows through the river, the brook, the ocean, would blur the line between nature and human cultures. Rather than look at Canterbury Brook as this unique feature that offers an ecosystem service, or resource, I can look at the brook through a reflection. What are the similarities between where I stand on the edge of the brook to what flows beneath my feet and travels east to west in the brook? If what I see is a toxin, and the medium that carries that toxin is water, and the medium that brings me into being is mostly water, then I must also carry the traces of toxin in my body. I don’t harm my body, so I should not harm the water that sustains me.  

Continuing with this figuration of embodiment as water, I will also say that water are bodies, as humans are bodies. Thinking this way, water bodies should share the same rights that human bodies share. From there, it would no longer be permittable to morph and change a water body because it is then only the water body’s power to do so. Also, these rights mobilize for immediate action to help the waters that are continuously harmed by anthropogenic factors.  

Healing the water is healing ourselves.

Canterbury Brook has a song. Her song carries multiple sounds from a variation of actors, both human and non-human. What is a noise and what is a sound to you? If you could communicate with Canterbury Brook what do you think she would say is a sound and what is a noise?

Pay attention to the types of sounds you hear. They may be geophony, the non-biological natural sounds produced in any given habitat, like water in the brook. Or biophony, the collective sound produced by all living organisms that reside in a particular biome, the fish choruses or cicada sound production (Parsons 2016; Sueur 2001). And finally, you may hear anthrophony, all the sounds human generates, which are controlled, like music, but mostly they may be chaotic or incoherent sounds.


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Holmes, Steven. 2013. A Healing Landscape: Environmental and Social History of the Site of Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center. Lincoln: Mass Audubon.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. “Four Objections to the Soundscape.” In Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=363016&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

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Neimanis, Astrida. 2019. “Introduction.” In Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. 1-26. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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Sueur, Jérôme. 2001. Audiospectrographical analysis of cicada sound production: A catalogue (Hemiptera, Cicadidae). Mitteilungen aus dem Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin - Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift. 48. 33-51. 10.1002/mmnd.4800480105.