September 22, 2003



Putting Newburyport in focus


By Bill Plante

There is this about a new camera. Buy one, and there is an urge to take pictures.

I did. One of the new digital ones that let you see the results by plugging them into a computer, and, in living color, which I did as a break in the series on urban renewal while Byron Matthews is cogitating over some suggestions I have made for what will be three or four pieces dealing with his contributions as mayor.

The thing about photography is that it forces me to think about what is all around me instead of breezing past it with something else on my mind. And focusing through a camera lens narrows the field to sharpen that concentration.

I have long relished open space, but I think about it only when I close out everything else. But a few months back, my attention was invited to areas over on Cape Ann and the North Shore line leading through Manchester-By-The-Sea and Essex, outward to Halibut Point. That includes the huge area of absolute forest known as Dogtown Common, which I intend to visit with its constable, old friend and colleague, Joe Orange, once the frost puts the ticks to sleep.

But this is about open space in and around Newburyport. It has to be around, because Newburyport is as much a state of mind in such matters as it is a specific place. Go southwest or west from the city, and the open spaces meet. This photo trip was out Scotland Road to Turkey Hill Road's southeastern connection, and up past Turkey Hill itself and back up Hale Street.

It is truly beautiful, a combination of open pastures and meadows, the mighty, wooded brow of the hill laced with pastures and the serenity of the Artichoke as a mid-greenery gem.

I don't know the number of times I have either biked or driven down Scotland Road without paying more than passing attention to the black Angus beef cattle browsing. But this time, I stopped, focused, and clicked, noting with some surprise that the pasture led seemingly to Turkey Hill. Of course, it doesn't, because Route 95 intervenes. But later, I was surprised to see the outriders of that herd in the distance from Hale Street. And yet, when I stopped on Hale Street, and focused and snapped again, with the camera pointing west, there was pure, open meadow leading to the wetland growth between the pasturage and the City Forest of Newburyport.

I would imagine that few Newburyporters ever visit the City Forest (the official name on the small sign designating it on Hale Street) because it is all but impenetrable. I have not, for many years, but it was part of my early hunting days, as was Turkey Hill itself.

The hill is truly noble, having served farmers since its discovery, celebrated in many ways, but none as dramatically as by its western fringe being the scene of an Indian massacre of the farming residents.

I had hoped to photograph the space between the hill and Newburyport, having a sweeping panorama of the area in mind, because it reaches to the outer fringes of the industrial park area all the way to the settled areas of Byfield and West Newbury, with the only major intrusion being the housing development west of Hale Street on Turkey Hill Road.

That is the major change since my youth, because only a few farmhouses were in existence along its length, all the way to Route 113.

Another change is the woodlands growth on Turkey Hill. It totally flummoxed my attempt to take that overall picture to the northeast, because 65 years have brought so much tree growth; not, however, that it is solid woodlands, because farming owners have continued to maintain pastures and plantings. The trees just obscure a panoramic vista.

It is a very large hill, and while I don't have the actual numbers at hand, I am as impressed with its size as I am with Old Town Hill. I was especially impressed as I huffed and puffed in ways that were not required so many years ago, and felt rewarded all the same, despite the photographic disappointment.

I have come to believe, over the years, that what we call "open space" is almost as much state of mind as it is anything else. I don't know of anyone who is against it. It is like motherhood and apple pie, but it sometimes becomes such a cause celebre that other needs get short shrift. But, from what I have been able to glean from around about, matters seem to be weighted in favor of open space as related to "developed" acreage.

After I had done with piping my photos into my computer, I called up some data on where we stand with development vs. open space, and was pleasantly surprised to find that so much of the former exists between this end and Cape Ann. By far, most of it is protected in one way or another, given that there are different levels of protection, some of it as marshlands, the most significant of which, in my opinion, being the magnificent Rowley marshes, and the most personal, those off Hay Street and Newman Road. The protected area of Plum Island, marshes included, almost equals that of developed Newburyport, if the map I am looking at is accurate, so habitat for such creatures related to that particular environment, are getting a better than fair shake.

But it is the fresh water environment that usually comes into political play, and so far, common sense seems to be prevailing.

What remains is to gear up appreciation for the realities existing not just in Newburyport, but in the area from Groveland to the New Hampshire border, to the northeast and west through all the land and towns of the North Shore and Cape Ann's tip, where there are so many splendid vistas and so many productive habitats; even as we have managed to attract, and to hold, those who provide the living and working places that are as much a necessity to our quality of life as clean water and open sky. As long as there are farmstands and manufactories side by side, as long as there are grazing cattle, and questing fisher folk, as long as there is a healthy balance between open meadows and parking lots, the North Shore will remain one of the most livable on the Eastern Seaboard.

Get yourself a camera, and go see.


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is




(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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