Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fitchburg Line

When your office is more than five miles from the nearest convenience store, there is no way to avoid commuting. 150 years ago, it might have been possible to enjoy rural life while walking everywhere, but, these days, services are so consolidated that living in the country means a lot of driving.

I decided to balance my love of the forest with my dislike of driving by renting a tiny apartment in the middle of Boston, spending one day a week on campus in Cambridge, spending two nights a week at an apartment at Harvard Forest, and traveling from the city to the country twice a week by commuter rail. I dislike suburban car culture so much that I sometimes shop at my neighborhood grocery store in Boston, and then use my rolling suitcase to carry groceries by train to my field station apartment.

From my office in the Forest, it’s a 25 mile drive to the nearest train station, at the end of the Fitchburg line. The line used to extend through Athol, the town with the convenience store. According to Wikipedia, they have started rebuilding the line, at least in terms of breaking ground for one more station (Wachusett), which would be an easy 20 minute drive from my office. I am cautiously optimistic.

Now, the Fitchburg line runs from Fitchburg to Boston through picturesque New England countryside…

… and towns:

I get off the train at Porter Square in Cambridge, from which it is only one stop on the “T” (subway) to my office on campus, and only four stops to my apartment in Boston. They allow dogs on the train and on the T … at the discretion of the conductor.

In spite of the dog policy, the Fitchburg line is not entirely convenient. The earliest morning train leaves Boston at 9 AM and arrives in Fitchburg at 10:30. In the afternoon, I have a choice of leaving at 3:15 or 6:45. According to Wikipedia, the Fitchburg line “ranks as one of the worst lines in terms of on time performance”. This general trend must be compounded by 2011’s record-setting winter snows. I’ve learned to be ready for long waits in cold and sleet. I’ve also learned to carry a shovel in my car. But if no one rides the train when it’s inconvenient, there will be a lot less momentum to improve public transportation.

When I get frustrated with commuting, I wonder if it might make sense to settle somewhere between the country and the city. Concord seems to be the sweet spot along the Fitchburg line. It’s a pedestrian-friendly town just outside the city traffic. There is better train service between Boston and Concord than between Concord and Fitchburg. Concord also appeals to the history buff in me, as the starting point of the American Revolution, and the former home of literary greats like Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. (The plaques on the houses tell you who first lived there in the 18th or 19th century…)

Right now, there happens to be an Elizabeth-house for sale in Concord: small, cute, historic, within a mile of the train station, and with an obvious project or two to keep me entertained. Hmm…

Full disclosure: One of the reasons I can’t quite find the time to seriously shop for houses, or even decide where I’d want to buy one, is that, in the same year as I was offered a job at Harvard, I was also awarded two large research grants. One grant is to study endangered butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, and the other is to compare wildflower populations in Montana and Finland. Harvard was happy to accept the grants, in spite of the geographic complexity. But it’s a bit overwhelming. One advantage of my apartment in Boston is that it’s a 20-minute ride on the T from there to the airport.

Since moving to Massachusetts at the beginning of January, I’ve already flown out of Boston-Logan airport twice. I spent the past week in Oregon and Washington, looking at potential sites for our butterfly research. It was raining every day, so I don’t have pictures from our soggy search for checkerspot caterpillars. (Maybe I need to invest in a waterproof camera.) But one of my collaborators has a family cabin on the Puget Sound, and we spent a slightly drier weekend there, analyzing data and writing research papers:
My other Oregon collaborator said, “My kids have a book that you have to see.” And so – in Portland, Oregon – they read me a story about 19th century philosopher-naturalist Henry David Thoreau and the train to Fitchburg.In some ways, Thoreau and I have a lot in common. We are both opinionated, we both live alone and like small houses, and we both spend a lot of time walking and writing and thinking about forests and butterflies. On the other hand, Thoreau wrote, “I might take the cars and go to Fitchburg to see the country. But I am wiser than that…” Unlike Thoreau, I am not quite ready to settle in Concord. Or Fitchburg. Or Cambridge. Or Athol. Or Boston. Instead, I am feeling rather committed to the Fitchburg line.

Staying in place just long enough to post this letter…

…but writing with love,