Rita and I are country mice, through and through. So strong is
our attachment to our old farmhouse and to this little upland
valley in western Maine that Rita once said, “I think this place
has gotten into my DNA.”
“I’m sure it has,” I said, in full agreement with her metaphor,
if dubious of its biological accuracy.
But, that said, we are not above making occasional visits to
the city. If we’re feeling bold and feisty enough, we’ll even take
on New York, though not too often. Boston is more our speed.
For one thing, it’s a lot closer, just three-and-a-half or four hours
by car. For another, it’s the unofficial capital of New England,
maybe not politically but spiritually. Don’t people in the northernmost reaches of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire all
root for the Red Sox? Bostonians may be city people, but they’re
still New Englanders. We speak just slightly different dialects of
the same language. And despite the crop of skyscrapers Boston
has sprouted over the last several decades, it still feels more
like a big village than any other megalopolis I know. It’s got the
Charles River and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace
of parks winding through it. It has lots of ponds. It has cobblestones on Beacon Hill and streets that meander every which
way. It also has old friends of ours who are roughly our age,
which makes them old friends indeed.
In Aesop’s fable of the country mouse and the city mouse
– and in the many adaptations of it ever since – the country
mouse goes to the city, drawn by the promise of fancy foods
his city cousin claims are far tastier than any rural fare. Though
we grant there’s some good eating to be had in cities, venison
tenderloin from the Maine woods and fresh kale from Rita’s
garden can hold their own against anything an urban five-star
restaurant can cook up; so what we’re looking for on our city
visits is a different kind of nourishment, a connection with the
energy and imagination and productivity that critical masses of
people engaged in shared pursuits can generate, whether in the
arts, sciences, or whatever.
A case in point: On our last Boston visit, we stayed with a
young couple who live in Jamaica Plain just a block away from
Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. After we’d arrived on a Friday
afternoon, we walked over there and wandered around until dark
among all the exotic trees on the arboretum’s 281 acres. Despite
the distant origins of those trees, the genera of many of them
are familiar to any visitor from our northern forest: Acer, Tsuga,
Pinus, Quercus. I’ve rarely, if ever, met a tree I didn’t like, so I take
particular pleasure in making the acquaintance of Japanese or
Chinese or Korean cousins to our own maples, hemlocks, pines,
and oaks, seeing how much alike yet also how different they are.
The creation of this extraordinary living collection of some
3,800 primarily woody plants from temperate regions around
By Robert Kimber
Country Mice, City Mice
the world has been the work of many hands over many decades,
but considerable credit for shaping the arboretum as a scientific
institution as well as a park for the education and enjoyment of
the public must go to its first director, Charles Sprague Sargent.
Collaborating with Frederick Law Olmsted, Sargent chose to organize the plantings by family and genus. “It is hoped,” he said, “that
such an arrangement, while avoiding the stiff and formal lines of
the conventional botanic garden, will facilitate the comprehensive
study of the collections, both in their scientific and picturesque
aspects.” Over the next 54 years of his directorship, he had the
satisfaction of seeing those hopes realized many times over.
A second case in point: The next morning we took a bus
downtown to the Museum of Fine Art, where Rita and I had
not been since long before the new Art of the Americas wing
opened in 2010. Once there, we headed straight for an exhibit
of photos by the great African American photographer Gordon
Parks. This collection records Parks’ return to his home town of
Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1950 to find and photograph 11 classmates
with whom he had graduated from the segregated Plaza School
in 1923. If Karen Haas, a curator at the MFA, had not happened
across a single photo by Parks showing a young couple outside
a movie theater, she might not have been moved to contact the
Gordon Parks Foundation, which had the other 42 photos from
the series that Parks had shot on that assignment for Life magazine. Never published in Life or shown anywhere else in Parks’
lifetime, this collection is but one of the thousands of treasures
the staff of the MFA has found and made available to us all. Get
enough talented, public-spirited city mice together and these are
the kinds of wonders they can work.
I’m happy to report, too, that the restaurant in the spacious
atrium of the new wing serves up a superb lunch, and unlike the
mouse cousins in Aesop’s fable, we could enjoy our meal in peace
without being chased away from our food by a pair of dogs.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.