August 15, 2010

1. The Tao of Physics (Part 2)

Having completed his survey of Eastern philosophy, Capra turns to “The Parallels” between Eastern philosophy and quantum physics. Chapter 10 is called “The Unity of All Things.” Capra begins by saying, “The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view... is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events.”1 This is a mystical view, the view of Eastern mysticism, and it agrees with the view of modern physics. It’s also an “important characteristic” of the occult worldview.

The occult is all about connections between seemingly disparate things: telepathic connections between people who are far apart, connections between people and animals, connections between people and inanimate objects, etc., etc. So the “connectedness” of the world is an important feature of the mystical worldview, the quantum worldview, and the occult worldview. By overlooking the occult worldview, Capra overlooks one of the most interesting and important parts of the argument. The Philosophy of Today should bring together all three — the mystical, the scientific, and the occult. A book about the Philosophy of Today should perhaps be titled Connections.

Capra says the old view that there are solid atoms, solid and independent building blocks, has been replaced by the quantum view that nothing is solid, nothing is independent, nothing stands alone. Capra quotes Niels Bohr: “Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems.”2 In this respect, particles resemble human beings, since no human being is entirely independent, each of us is connected to other people, to the world around us, etc., etc. As Donne wrote, before the Newtonian revolution,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Capra quotes Nagarjuna: “Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves.”3 And Capra quotes David Bohm: “Inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality.”4

Capra says that “the basic attitude of modern science [is] that all its concepts and theories are approximate”5 and therefore we can’t precisely define a distinct physical entity. Here, too, there may be a parallel with the philosophy of history, since concepts like renaissance and decadence can never be defined with mathematical precision.

I’m sometimes asked, “if you subscribe to a non-rational worldview, why do you use a rational style to explain your views?” The rational style may be best for communication — indeed, it may be the only possible style for communication — but this shouldn’t affect our choice of worldview. Likewise, quantum physics sometimes uses the language of classical physics, but this is just a matter of style. Capra writes thus:

We know that classical concepts are inadequate at the atomic level, yet we have to use them to describe our experiments and to state the results. There is no way to escape this paradox. The technical language of classical physics is just a refinement of our everyday language and it is the only language we have to communicate our experimental results.6

Chapter 11 is called “Beyond the World of Opposites.” Capra says that, in modern physics, opposites are often complementary, not completely distinct. For example, particles and waves may seem to be opposites, completely distinct, but physicists have learned to see them as different aspects of the same thing:

At the atomic level, matter has a dual aspect: it appears as particles and as waves. Which aspect it shows depends on the situation. In some situations the particle aspect is dominant, in others the particles behave more like waves; and this dual nature is also exhibited by light and all other electromagnetic radiation. Light, for example, is emitted and absorbed in the form of ‘quanta’, or photons, but when these particles of light travel through space they appear as vibrating electric and magnetic fields which show all the characteristic behavior of waves.7

The particle/wave paradox isn’t the only paradox in modern physics; there are many such paradoxes. Capra mentions several others: force/matter, motion/rest, existence/non-existence. The paradoxes of physics resemble the paradoxes described by the ancient mystics. Capra quotes the Upanishads:

It moves. It moves not.
It is far, and it is near.
It is within all this,
And it is outside of all this.

(These words probably refer to the world-essence, or Brahman.)

Capra concludes this chapter by saying that Niels Bohr visited China in 1937, and was impressed by the similarity between the Chinese approach to opposites and the quantum approach. He maintained his interest in Chinese thought, and when he was knighted by the Danish government, he chose as his coat-of-arms the yin-yang symbol, with the phrase Contraria Sunt Complementa (opposites are complementary).

Chapter 12, “Space-Time,” is one of the longest and most difficult chapters in the book, but it’s very interesting — so interesting that I decided Capra is as good as Zukav, as relevant to the occult as Zukav, and I decided that I should continue studying quantum physics because I still haven’t exhausted its philosophical import.

Chapter 12 begins by saying that geometry (Euclidean geometry) played an important role in Greek thought; it was the “central feature” of Greek math, and its deductive mode of reasoning influenced Greek philosophy. The gate over Plato’s Academy said, “Study Geometry Before You Enter Here.” “Plato believed that the atoms of the four elements had the shapes of regular solids.”8 According to Plato, God is a geometer. It was believed that geometry wasn’t just a mental construct, it was part of nature itself. This belief lasted until Einstein.

In the East, on the other hand, people were apt to view space and time as mental constructs; one might say that they were relativists before Einstein. They let everything follow its own Tao, and didn’t try to force nature into the Procrustean bed of straight lines and perfect circles. While the Greek worldview was static and non-relativistic, the Eastern worldview was dynamic and relativistic. If you look at a Taoist Diagram of Change (or at a Magic Diagram), you see how un-geometrical the Eastern worldview was.9 Perhaps the three best ways to contrast East and West are:

  1. the Diagram of Change vs. a page of Euclid
  2. the Buddha in meditation vs. Christ on the cross
  3. a Japanese rock garden vs. Michelangelo’s statue of David

The title of Chapter 12, “Space-Time,” refers to the fact that Einstein introduced a fourth dimension, Time, and showed that space and time are inter-related. Capra quotes Hermann Minkowski:

The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.

Even before Einstein, astronomers were familiar with a kind of relativity:

The intimate link between space and time was well known in astronomy, in a different context, long before relativity theory. Astronomers... deal with extremely large distances, and here again the fact that light needs some time to travel from the observed object to the observer is important. Because of the finite velocity of light, the astronomer never looks at the universe in its present state, but always looks back into the past. It takes light eight minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, and hence we see the Sun, at any moment, as it existed eight minutes ago. Similarly, we see the nearest star as it existed four years ago, and with our powerful telescopes we can see galaxies as they existed millions of years ago.

Relativity theory is very difficult for the human mind to grasp. It’s difficult to grasp, for example, how a rod changes length when it moves, becoming shorter with higher velocity. And it’s even more difficult to grasp the “twin paradox,” which deals with how time changes length, becoming longer with higher velocity:

If one of two twins went on a fast round-trip into outer space, he would be younger than his brother when he came back home, because all his ‘clocks’ — his heartbeat, bloodflow, brainwaves, etc. — would slow down during the journey, from the point of view of the man on the ground.10

Capra points out that, before Einstein introduced the idea of a curved space, a non-Euclidean space, the mathematician Georg Riemann had developed a non-Euclidean geometry, unaware that his new geometry reflected reality itself. The curvature of space is most pronounced in the case of a black hole, which is so massive, and exerts so much gravitational force, that light can’t escape. Here on earth, however, our everyday notions of Euclidean space and absolute time are usually valid.

Modern physicists study particles by accelerating them, colliding them with other particles, etc. After showing the reader diagrams of particle interactions, Capra says that these diagrams are timeless, they have no “temporal sequence.”11 Capra quotes Louis De Broglie:

In space-time, everything which for each of us constitutes the past, the present, and the future is given en bloc ... Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them.12

Capra says that the world of space-time resembles the timeless world of the mystic. But someone receptive to the occult would say that it bears a striking resemblance to the occult worldview, according to which it’s possible to foresee the future since the future already exists. Thus, quantum physics confirms the occult worldview in the most striking way.

Because the particle interactions explode our everyday notion of linear time, they also explode linear causation:

All events in [space-time] are interconnected, but the connections are not causal. Particle interactions can be interpreted in terms of cause and effect only when the space-time diagrams are read in a definite direction, e.g. from the bottom to the top. When they are taken as four-dimensional patterns without any definite direction of time attached to them, there is no ‘before’ and no ‘after’, and thus no causation.... Like our ordinary notions of space and time, causation is an idea which is limited to a certain experience of the world and has to be abandoned when this experience is extended.13

Quantum physics bends our everyday notions of space, time, and causation, just as occult phenomena bend these everyday notions. Truth agrees with itself and confirms itself. What Jung and Shakespeare and others saw in the world around them is strikingly similar to what the physicist sees in his diagrams of particle interactions. Capra quotes Swami Vivekananda:

Time, space, and causation are like the glass through which the Absolute is seen ... In the Absolute there is neither time, space, nor causation.14

Chapter 13, “The Dynamic Universe,” is also a stimulating chapter, highly relevant to philosophy. Capra says that movement and change is the way of nature, and we must accept that nothing is permanent.

For the Buddhists, an enlightened being is one who does not resist the flow of life, but keeps moving with it. When the Zen monk Yun-men was asked, What is the Tao? he answered simply, ‘Walk on!’15

Just as Buddhism sees nature as dynamic, ever-changing, so too modern physics sees matter as constantly moving. Particles can’t be pinned down, can’t be observed at rest:

The being of matter cannot be separated from its activity. The properties of subatomic particles [can] only be understood in a dynamic context; in terms of movement, interaction and transformation.16

Einstein showed that matter and energy are equivalent. Thus, particles aren’t “grains of matter,” they’re energy, they’re process, they’re relationship.17 Likewise, Eastern philosophy always denied “the existence of any material substance.”18 Capra quotes Joseph Needham: “While European philosophy tended to find reality in substance, Chinese philosophy tended to find it in relation.”19 Instead of speaking of “thing” and “substance,” Eastern philosophy speaks of “event” and “deed.” “Buddhists understand our experience in terms of time and movement.... Buddhists see all objects as processes in a universal flux.”20 The world as conceived by Eastern philosophy isn’t the static world of Euclid, it’s the dynamic world of Einstein.

Capra says that when particles are confined (as they generally are), they move around; the smaller the area in which they’re confined, the faster they move. He calls this a “quantum effect” — that is, “a feature of the subatomic world which has no macroscopic analogy.”21

According to quantum theory, matter is thus never quiescent, but always in a state of motion.... The material objects around us may seem passive and inert, but when we magnify such a ‘dead’ piece of stone or metal, we see that it is full of activity. The closer we look at it, the more alive it appears.22

This scientific view agrees with the occult/mystical/Eastern view that the universe is suffused with a kind of life/energy/consciousness. If inanimate matter were entirely dead/dumb/inert, it’s hard to see how there could be any communication, any connection, between living things and inanimate things. Because matter has a kind of life, it’s possible for matter to have some sort of connection/communication with people. As I argued in a previous issue, “everything is connected.” Matter can communicate with people, and distant particles can communicate with each other. The universe is alive.

Capra points out that not only are subatomic particles constantly in motion, but very large things are also constantly in motion: stars aren’t static and permanent, they’re evolving and changing. Likewise, galaxies aren’t static, they rotate. Finally, the universe itself is expanding, not static. So change and movement are continual — in both the microscopic world and the macroscopic world.

Chapter 14, “Emptiness and Form,” is also most interesting. While the previous chapter argued that matter is restless, constantly moving, and has a kind of life, this chapter argues that empty space also has a kind of life. In fact, there’s no sharp boundary between matter and void, they’re both a field, an energy field. Out of the void can come particles, and particles can vanish into the void. Just as Eastern philosophy blurs the boundary between Self and World, so modern physics blurs the boundary between matter and the surrounding space. The whole universe, both “matter” and “emptiness,” is buzzing with energy, with a kind of life, with what the Chinese called ch’i (also spelled qi). Just as there’s no “dead matter,” so too there’s no “dead space.” The universe is one, and the universe is alive, and all parts of the universe are connected to, one might say communicating with, all other parts.

In classical, Newtonian physics, there were solid particles and empty space. But in modern physics, particles aren’t solid, and space isn’t empty. Capra says that, in quantum field theory, “the distinction between particles and the space surrounding them loses its original sharpness and the void is recognized as a dynamic quantity of paramount importance.”23 A dualistic worldview (matter and void) has been replaced by a monistic worldview (field). Matter is just an intensified field, a concentrated field; the field is the primary reality, and the field is “a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space.”24

So modern physics and Eastern philosophy agree that the universe is a field, and the field is (often) invisible and immaterial. Doesn’t this support the occult worldview? Occult phenomena are generally invisible and immaterial; the word “occult” originally meant “hidden.” A rational thinker might say, “How can there be life after death if there’s no ‘stuff’ after death? How can ghosts exist if they have nothing solid or tangible?” But now we see that we have no “solid stuff” even while we’re alive, we’re really just energy, just field.

Capra discusses the concept of a field, noting that it originated with Faraday’s and Maxwell’s work with electricity. Then gravity was also treated as a field. While electromagnetic force could be either attraction or repulsion, gravitational force was always attraction. Furthermore, Einstein showed that gravitational force curved space. Einstein’s relativity theory blurred the distinction between matter and space, just as quantum field theory blurred that distinction.

In Einstein’s theory, then, matter cannot be separated from its field of gravity, and the field of gravity cannot be separated from the curved space. Matter and space are thus seen to be inseparable and interdependent parts of a single whole.25

Ernst Mach pointed out that “the inertia of a material object — the object’s resistance against being accelerated — is not an intrinsic property of matter, but a measure of its interaction with all the rest of the universe.”26 This is called “Mach’s principle.”

Thus modern physics shows us once again — and this time at the macroscopic level — that material objects are not distinct entities, but are inseparably linked to their environment; that their properties can only be understood in terms of their interaction with the rest of the world.... The basic unity of the cosmos manifests itself, therefore, not only in the world of the very small but also in the world of the very large.27

Capra says that this modern notion of a field is strikingly similar to Eastern notions, such as the Chinese idea of a Tao that is empty and formless, yet produces all forms. He also says the notion of a field is similar to the Chinese notion of ch’i:

The Neo-Confucians developed a notion of ch’i which bears the most striking resemblance to the concept of the quantum field in modern physics. Like the quantum field, ch’i is conceived as a tenuous and non-perceptible form of matter which is present throughout space and can condense into solid material objects. In the words of Chang Tsai: “When the ch’i condenses, its visibility becomes apparent so that there are then the shapes (of individual things). When it disperses, its visibility is no longer apparent and there are no shapes. At the time of its condensation, can one say otherwise than that this is but temporary? But at the time of its dispersing, can one hastily say that it is then non-existent?”28

One comes away from Capra’s book thinking that the Eastern thinkers were closer to the truth than the Greeks, especially the Greek atomists/rationalists/Euclideans. This suggests that Eastern views on other subjects — religion, ethics, etc. — may well be closer to the truth, too. The various facets of philosophy are related, and if the Eastern view of the universe is on target, this should predispose us in favor of Eastern views on other subjects. As they say on Wall Street, when shares of Euclid, Democritus, and Newton start falling, it’s time to sell Socrates and Plato.

Nietzsche deserves credit for supporting the view that there’s no “solid stuff.” In general, Nietzsche wasn’t as knowledgeable about science as Schopenhauer or Kant, because in Nietzsche’s time, science had become specialized, and was no longer part of general education — the sciences and humanities had split. Furthermore, Nietzsche wasn’t as attuned to Eastern philosophy as Thoreau, nor as attuned to the occult as Poe. But Nietzsche praises the 18th-century Croatian scientist Boscovich for overturning “materialistic atomism,” calling this “the greatest triumph over the senses that has been gained on earth so far.”29

If Newton’s world is a world of billiard balls striking each other, the Eastern world is one of invisible waves/vibrations. Capra quotes Joseph Needham:

The Chinese physical universe in ancient and medieval times was a perfectly continuous whole. Ch’i condensed in palpable matter was not particulate in any important sense, but individual objects acted and reacted with all other objects in the world... in a wave-like or vibratory manner.30

Several decades ago, when I was writing about the life- and death-instincts of societies, I asked, What exactly is a life-instinct? Now I would answer thus: Society’s instincts aren’t material things, they’re energy, they’re ch’i, they’re fields. As a gravitational field operates in a certain area, so the instincts of society operate in a certain area, in a certain society, not throughout the world (though someday the world may become one society, under the sway of the same instinct).

In classical physics, force and matter were distinct. In modern physics, however, force and matter are the same; forces are particle-exchanges; “the concept of force is therefore no longer useful in subatomic physics.”31 Newton described objects affected by external forces, but in modern physics, and in Eastern philosophy, objects are themselves forces: “Eastern mysticism... regards motion and change as essential and intrinsic properties of all things.”32 This view that force is internal, not external, adds to the picture of the universe as having a kind of life — there is no dead matter, no inert matter.

Capra concludes Chapter 14 thus:

The vacuum is truly a ‘living Void’, pulsating in endless rhythms of creation and destruction.... From its role as an empty container of the physical phenomena, the void has emerged as a dynamic quantity of utmost importance. The results of modern physics thus seem to confirm the words of the Chinese sage Chang Tsai: “When one knows that the Great Void is full of ch’i, one realizes that there is no such thing as nothingness.”

Not only is the world of “stuff” alive, but the world of “empty space” is also alive.

2. Trails and Travels:
Four Concord Circles

I recently visited my old haunts in the Concord-Lincoln area. One of the highlights of my visit was a guided tour of the Old Manse, which is near the North Bridge, where the Concord Battle took place. Emerson wrote “Nature” during a brief sojourn in the Old Manse. Hawthorne lived in the Old Manse for three years, and wrote a short-story collection, Mosses From An Old Manse. You can still see the words that Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, inscribed on the window-panes with Sophia’s diamond ring.


I call this route “Three Ponds” because it goes along Sandy Pond (also called Flint’s Pond), then Walden Pond, and finally Farrar Pond. It’s 9.3 miles. It starts and ends at the Lincoln Train Station (I’ve marked two other parking possibilities). Most of it is on packed earth, where there are few ticks; much of it is under tall pines. There are some short stretches on roads, but the roads are quiet, or have sidewalks.


Here’s a route that starts at the North Bridge Visitors Center, then loops through Great Meadows, then walks through downtown Concord. It doesn’t go through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. This route is 8.5 miles.

 

Late October, North Bridge, from Old Manse Boathouse

 

Here’s the route of my “Cemetery Circle” (about 1.5 or 2 miles):
You can park near the North Bridge and the Old Manse, and visit both sights. Then walk south on Monument Street (toward Concord Center) for about 250 yards. Turn left onto a trail that heads east, toward Bedford. Walk about 600 yards until you see a big, stone marker on your right, and a path (the marker mentions the Concord Battle). Take the path to the right (south), and in about 10 minutes you’ll be in the rear section of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, near Authors Ridge, where you’ll find the graves of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, etc. If you walk through the cemetery (toward the south), you’ll come out near the center of Concord, then you can take Monument Street back to the North Bridge.

I began my visit to Concord-Lincoln by parking at Walden Pond, and taking a 4-5 mile walk that I call The Adams Woods Circle. If it’s a hot day, you may want to swim in Walden Pond, which is large, clean, and clear enough for snorkeling (Thoreau would surely have been an avid snorkeler). If you’re interested in Thoreau, the shop at Walden Pond has a great collection of books and memorabilia.

There were several Russians at Walden Pond, and when I was on Nantucket a few weeks ago, there were Russians everywhere. I’m not sure how to explain this influx of Russians, some of whom are teenagers with summer jobs, while others are adults with permanent jobs.

Here’s the route of my Adams Woods Circle:
I started at Walden’s beach (where the changing house is, close to the parking lot), then walked along the left side of the pond (the south side) for about .8 miles. A circle of the pond is about 2 miles, so I walked slightly less than halfway around, to a cove that the map calls Long Cove. Then I took a sharp left turn, and crossed the railroad tracks. If the trail around the pond is blocked, to protect the shoreline from erosion, you can follow Esker Trail, which is a bit further from the shore.

Once you cross the tracks, you’re in Adams Woods.33 I suggest you keep to the left, and head south. Adams Woods is a maze of trails, and it’s easy to become confused, but it isn’t very big, so you probably won’t be seriously lost. If you keep to the left, you’ll come to a T after 15-20 minutes; at this T, you’ll have to turn left or right. A left turn should bring you down to a brook, then you can turn right (west) and follow the brook for about 10 minutes. Then look for a left turn (south), which is called “the trail to Mt. Misery.” (You can find trail maps at Lincoln Land Conservation, or you can consult A Guide To Conservation Land in Lincoln, which you can obtain from Drumlin Farm in Lincoln.)

The trail to Mt. Misery crosses some tiny roads and small clearings, and goes through some stands of giant pines; after about 10 minutes, you break out into an open field and a charming farm. You have to turn right (west), but after a short distance (100 yards?), turn left (east) and walk into the middle of the farm. Then I turned right (south), and bushwhacked through high grass to St. Anne’s Church, on Concord Road (Route 126). To avoid this high grass (the result of flooding and trail closure), skip the right turn, and go straight to Old Concord Road, then turn left to Concord Road. Either way, you’ll be on Concord Road, and you can turn left (north), and walk back to Walden Pond (a bike path along Concord Road makes the walk a bit pleasanter). You’ll pass another farm or two as you walk along Concord Road. This is what I call The Adams Woods Circle.

If you’re more ambitious, you can try what I call The Great Circle. Follow the directions for The Adams Woods Circle until you come to “an open field and a charming farm. You have to turn right (west), but after a short distance (100 yards?), turn left (east).” For The Great Circle, don’t make this last left turn, just keep going west, you’ll see signs for Mt. Misery, which will be on your left. Your goal is the canoe landing and parking area, which is on Route 117 (South Great Road), close to the Sudbury River. To reach this goal, you can stay to the right (west), or you can go left (south) and climb Mt. Misery (just a small hill), then turn to the west. Once you reach the parking lot and the Sudbury River, cross Route 117 to Farrar Meadow (follow the trail markers, or use a map), then follow the trail as it winds around the south side of Farrar Pond.

At the end of Farrar Pond, I usually turn left (north), then a right (east) brings you to Concord Road (Route 126). Turn left (north) on Concord Road, and you’ll get back to Walden Pond. Since it’s a long walk, and not very interesting, you may want to leave a bike, or a second car, somewhere near Concord Road. Or you can return to Walden Pond via Adams Woods. If The Adams Woods Circle is 4-5 miles, The Great Circle is 8-9 miles. If you want to see Mt. Misery and Farrar Pond without taking a long walk, you can park at St. Anne’s Church, or on Old Concord Road, thus skipping the first half of The Great Circle (skipping the Adams Woods portion).


Here’s a 5-mile walk that starts at Lincoln train station, then goes around Mt. Misery, then to a charming picnic spot on the Sudbury River. This route is a blend of forest, field, pond, and river.

There are other historic sites in Concord, such as Emerson’s house, The Wayside (where Hawthorne lived later in his life, and where the Alcotts lived for three years), and Orchard House (where the Alcotts lived for twenty years). There are also other places for walking, such as Estabrook Woods (about 1,200 acres), and Great Meadows, a marshy area popular with bird-watchers.

You may want to reach Concord via the train from Boston; if you drive, you’ll find that highway traffic is heavy around rush hour (but not as heavy on Route 495 as on 95).


Here’s a one-mile hike to Tippling Rock in Sudbury, Massachusetts (actually it ends about 20 yards from Tippling Rock). From Route 20, a dirt road leads to a parking area and the start of the trail. If you drive west from the parking area for about a half-mile, you’ll get to the Wayside Inn, one of the oldest inns in the U.S. It has extensive grounds (grist mill, chapel, ice house, etc.) and a welcoming atmosphere. It was originally built on the Boston Post Road — more specifically, the Upper Post Road.

Tippling Rock is on a broad ledge that affords a broad view; you can see the Blue Hills, and two towers in Boston, the Prudential Center and the Hancock Building. To the northwest, you can glimpse Mt. Monadnock (if the leaves are out, you probably can’t). This hike follows the BCT (Bay Circuit Trail).

If you continue on the BCT for another mile, you’ll get to Nobscot Hill. The summit of Nobscot Hill is crowded with towers (fire-spotting towers and communications towers), but if you continue on the BCT for 125 yards (descending), you’ll get to a lookout. You can see more Boston skyscrapers (not just two), but if the leaves are out, your view will be obscured.

If you continue on the BCT, the guide says you’ll get “views of Mt. Wachusett and Mt. Monadnock,” but I didn’t find any such views, perhaps they’re overgrown.

Grist Mill near Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Massachusetts, mid-April

About four miles west of Sudbury’s Wayside Inn is the Assabet River Rail Trail (ARRT). The south end of this rail trail is in Marlboro; the trail goes through Hudson and Maynard before ending in South Acton. The trail is about 12 miles long, and goes through (or near) several downtowns. Though the northern half is unfinished as of 2017, most of it is expected to be finished by 2018. If you take the ARRT from Marlboro to South Acton, then a short ride east will bring you to Concord, where you can pick up the Battle Road Trail and then the Minuteman Bikeway, and eventually reach Boston. If you want to take a train back to Marlboro, the closest stations to Marlboro are South Acton (12 miles north of Marlboro) and Southborough (6 miles south of Marlboro).

If you want to paddle the Assabet, you can go four miles from just below the Damonmill Dam to Lowell Road in Concord; you’d be paddling with the current, not against it. This section of the Assabet was designated a Wild & Scenic River. The Damonmill Dam is on Main Street (Route 62) in Concord, near the intersection with Pond Lane.

Some mills were built along the Assabet. Click here for walking tours of Maynard, tours that focus on mills, etc. If you prefer a nature walk, nearby is the 2,300-acre Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.

The Assabet and Sudbury rivers both start in Westborough, and both flow north to Concord, where they meet to form the Concord River. The Assabet flows through Hudson, Maynard, etc., the Sudbury flows further east, through Framingham, Wayland, etc. (map of drainage basins here).

A group called Oars has a website with information about the Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord rivers.

About four miles southwest of the Assabet River Rail Trail is the Sudbury Reservoir, which is actually a series of reservoirs. The Sudbury Reservoir was built between 1875 and 1900, to provide water to Boston. It was built to supplement Natick’s Cochituate Reservoir (Lake Cochituate), which had been built about 1850. The Sudbury Reservoir was rendered largely obsolete by the construction of the Wachusett Reservoir (c. 1900) and the Quabbin Reservoir (c. 1935).

There are trails around the Sudbury Reservoir:

3. Charles River Rambles

The Charles River is a few miles south of Concord. A 16-mile trail called the Charles River Link Trail runs from Newton southwest to Medfield; much of it is in Wellesley. Sections of the trail don’t allow bikes or dogs. If you start in Medfield, and take the trail northeast, you can go from the end of the trail (in Newton) to the CharlesRiver bikepath, and follow the river to downtown Boston. (See map of Charles River Reservation; this route is sometimes called the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path.)

Here’s the “official” map of the Charles River Link Trail:

Here’s a map of the northeastern half (actually 40%, 6.5 miles) of the Charles River Link Trail, with some points of interest:

Waban Arches, built to carry the Sudbury
Aqueduct over WabanBrook/FullerBrook.

 

View from Pegan Hill, Natick, looking northwest.

The route below is about 7 miles, and continues the previous map, heading southwest toward the end of the Charles River Link Trail.

Below is a map of the route from Wellesley Square (Wellesley Center) to Boston. The first 7 miles follow the Charles River Link Trail, then there’s a 2-mile stretch on quiet streets to the start of the Charles River Reservation, then a 13-mile stretch along the Charles River. If you want to bike along the Charles, and skip the Charles River Link Trail, you may want to park near Auburndale Park in Newton, where the Charles River Reservation begins, then bike along the Charles to Boston, then return via train to Auburndale.

 

The start of the Charles River Reservation (Charles River Greenway)
at Auburndale Park.
These stone pillars, with blue herons, can be found all along the trail.

As you bike along the Charles, you’ll pass a giant Watch Factory in Waltham; the factory made watches from about 1850 to 1950. You’ll also pass the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill in Waltham, which started about 1814, and used the power of the Charles River to make textiles. Part of the mill is now the Charles River Museum of Industry. Francis Cabot Lowell is an important figure in the history of American manufacturing. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, is named after him (after beginning in Waltham, his company expanded to Lowell, and harnessed the power of the Merrimack River). For more on the prominent Lowell family, see The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds, by Ferris Greenslet, or The Lowells of Massachusetts, by Nina Sankovitch. James Russell Lowell was a prominent man-of-letters in the 1800s; his former home, Elmwood, is in Cambridge, near the Charles River. Robert Lowell was a prominent poet in the 20th century.

Kayaks and other water-craft can be rented at Charles River Canoe & Kayak.

Kayaks on the Charles River

One of the largest parks along the Charles is Cutler Park, which is mostly in Needham (small sections are in Newton and Dedham). Cutler has wide trails, and good views of the Charles River and Kendrick Pond. Cutler Park connects to historic Brook Farm. Some of Cutler’s trails are part of the “BlueHeron” trail system, which follows the Charles. Just north of Cutler Park is Nahanton Park, where you can rent a kayak.


Here’s a circular trail that goes through Cutler Park and Millennium Park; it’s 8.5 miles long. If you visit Brook Farm (marked with a B), the trail will be about 2 miles longer. You may want to visit Brook Farm by car (you’ll see a sign on Baker Street for Brook Farm and Gardens Cemetery.) Little remains of the Brook Farm that Hawthorne lived at, and Thoreau jeered at. This trail isn’t one of my favorites because you’re usually near roads and houses. Most visitors to Cutler Park take the loop around Kendrick Pond.


Dedham was founded early (1635), and has many historic houses, churches, and mills. Like Concord, Dedham was founded to relieve population pressure, and to act as a buffer against Indians (it is said that Ipswich was founded as a defense against French assault from Canada). Dedham originally stretched all the way to Rhode Island. Dedham has three town commons (marked with C on the map). You can also explore old mill sites along Mother Brook. Click here for a walking tour, or here for a canoe tour.

The Charles River starts in Hopkinton, just south of the starting-point of the Boston Marathon. But while the marathon goes straight to Boston in 26.2 miles, the Charles winds around for 80 miles before reaching its mouth in Boston. The Indians called it Quinobequin, “the river that circles around.” During its 80-mile course, the Charles drops about 350 feet. (Because of this drop, the Boston Marathon is considered a downhill race, so it doesn’t qualify for marathon records.) The biggest drop in the Charles is at Hemlock Gorge. The Sudbury Aqueduct, which goes through Hemlock Gorge, is about 15 miles long, drops about 15 feet during its course, and can carry 80 million gallons of water in 24 hours.

There’s a 2.5-mile trail around Wellesley’s Lake Waban; about half of this trail is owned by Wellesley College. For more information, visit WellesleyTrails.org. There are some pleasant trails through Wellesley (map here). Some of the trails in the area follow aqueducts, such as the Sudbury Aqueduct and the Cochituate Aqueduct.

South of Wellesley is Hale Reservation, in Westwood/Dover. Hale contains Powissett Peak, which has a view of Boston, and Hale connects to Noanet Woodlands. Hale is “private non-profit,” while Noanet is owned by The Trustees of Reservations. Hale is about 1,200 acres, Noanet about 550; together it’s open space of about 1,750 acres.

One of the largest and most popular parks in the Boston area is Middlesex Fells, which straddles Medford, Winchester, etc. It has 2,200 acres, and includes several ponds and reservoirs. Medford also boasts the Brooks Estate, ancestral seat of a prominent Massachusetts family. The preacher-orator Phillips Brooks is from this family, as are Henry Adams and his brother Brooks Adams.

Below is a map of a 5-mile walk in the western part of Middlesex Fells.

The Waltham Land Trust has maps of Waltham trails, including a big loop called The Western Greenway. Click here for info about Natick walks, here for info about Weston walks, and here for info about scenic drives in Massachusetts.

© L. James Hammond 2010
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Footnotes
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8. Ch. 16, p. 257 back
9. The Diagram of Change is on page 188, the Magic Diagram, page 112. back
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29. Beyond Good and Evil, #12. A few pages later, Nietzsche takes a skeptical view of classical physics: “It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world... and not a world-explanation; but insofar as it is based on belief in the senses, it is regarded as more.... Eyes and fingers speak in its favor... this strikes an age with fundamentally plebeian tastes as fascinating, persuasive, and convincing.” (#14) Was Nietzsche skeptical of Newton’s worldview? Did the anticipate its downfall? back
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33. Adams Woods is near Wright Woods and Fairhaven Bay. back