When I bike, I’m always on the lookout for birds, but I’m also watching for history: street signs that tell stories. Along with the humdrum street names in our state, the Mains, Middles, Gardens, are more evocative names that draw me into the past. The story is geological at High Popples Road, a short, winding Gloucester street that ends at Bass Rocks, where boulders have been tossed up by the sea and heaped along the shore. A “popple” is a heaving of water over stones: Storm surges here send waves crashing over abraded rocks, sometimes swamping Atlantic Road. Drumlin Road in Rockport was named for one of the rounded hills, formed by glacial deposits, that mark eastern Massachusetts from Hog Island in Ipswich to Bunker Hill. A Boxford street is called Bald Pate, a name for a bald hill above a prairie (in a location now neither bald nor prairie) and for the American Wigeon, a dabbling duck with a creamy cap. Other names recall human history. Wonson Road on Rocky Neck was named for Captain John Wonson, who ferried passengers to East Gloucester in the mid-nineteenth century when the neck, now an art colony, was an island. Near Wonson Cove a plaque marks the spot where Samuel Champlain put ashore in 1605 to get water for his crew and called the place Le Beauport (beautiful port). In the only firsthand European account of Cape Ann’s aboriginal settlers, Champlain described Pawtuckets dancing onshore in what he thought were Portuguese clothes, and he claimed they danced better after he gave them some knives and biscuits. He drew a map depicting habitations and garden plots around Gloucester Harbor, and at his request the natives drew an outline of the coast to the south.
Names like Rocky Pasture Road and dead-ended Labor in Vain Road in Ipswich conjure up the hard times when farmers struggled to cultivate fields strewn with rocks, some of them enormous erratics or “orphan boulders” left behind by moving glaciers. Any number of New England roads might be called Rocky Pasture. After the Civil War most farmers here abandoned their lands, leaving behind stone walls that had marked boundaries, and went west looking for pastures less rocky and labor less vain.
Naturally I watch for streets named after birds, like Hoot Owl Way, a little cul-de-sac in Rockport near a cemetery where I’ve heard hooting Great Horned Owls. I’m gratified by the enclave of bird-honoring roads on Great Neck in Ipswich — Pintail, Merganser, Nuthatch, Longspur, Kingfisher — all species that can be found here or just across Plum Island Sound. Gulls fly over Gull Lane, a tiny dead-end street just down the hill from us. Ravens have yet to nest on Gloucester’s Raven Lane, but they’re among the world’s most adaptable birds, breeding from the Aral Sea to the Mojave Desert, and they’re coming our way. A few years back, a pair bred on a cliff not far from our house, and I’d hear their expressive croaks and pick out their diagnostic wedge-shaped tails as I rode around their neighborhood.
One day in search of birds, I hit the brakes when I passed a sign for Meadowlark Farm Lane. I’d never seen this street before. I was sure it wasn’t in my road atlas. I rode to the end, another cul-de-sac, and listened. Not a whisper of birdsong. What had once been farmland and woodland was now a tract of trophy mansions (one priced online at $1.4 million “for the discerning buyer”), each house guarded by a landscaped terrace and sprinkler-fed lawn barren of birds. Sprawl: the bane of birds, trees cleared for new developments, then more roads and shopping plazas, until even the preserved places become stranded islands too puny to provide good bird habitat.
A scowl came over my face, and I thought of my mother. A hard woman, Mother used to tell stories about her no-count brother-in-law, Walter Tanner, a man so lazy that when her sister died at home, her body had to be squeezed out through a window because Walter had never gotten around to fixing the rotted planks and gaping hole on the front porch. Years after Mother died, I went to Wilmer, Alabama, outside Mobile, to meet my southern cousins. My cousin Margie drove me across town to visit cousin Gene and his daughters, who lived side by side in the only houses on a short dirt road. As we turned on to their street, I burst out laughing. “What?” Margie asked. “What’s wrong?” Convulsed, I pointed to the green sign on the corner. Surely Mother was glowering in her grave, as I glowered on Meadowlark Farm Lane. My cousins had named the street in memory of their beloved slacker father: Walter Tanner Road.
It’s a pet peeve of mine — not the honoring of work-shy relatives but the practice of naming streets or entire developments after birds that have no connection to these places or, worse, have been driven out and supplanted by those very roads and houses. Granted, among the world’s problems, this one ranks low, but I can’t help feeling irked when I come upon a Woodcock Lane that harbors no woodcocks, an Eagle’s Nest Lane where no self-respecting eagle would nest, or a Black Duck Circle that lacks any habitat for waterfowl unless you count a blue plastic swimming pool. Down the road from us is the Village at West Gloucester — “luxury living” if you’re fifty-five or older — blasted out of granite and forest on a hillside above the marsh. Its logo features a Great Blue Heron. Its streets include Heron Circle, Plover Lane, Dowitcher Drive, and Curlew Court, but you won’t find these birds at the village. Before I moved to Gloucester, developers had wanted to build along a nearby causeway called the Window on the Marsh, where one can gaze across an open expanse of salt marsh toward Ipswich Bay. Had locals not stopped the project, we’d now have streets here named for former bird inhabitants— Killdeer Boulevard, Greater Yellowlegs Avenue.
But it’s the meadowlark, Eastern or Western, that seems most favored by builders, businesspeople, and street-dubbers who poach on bird names for their own uses. There’s Meadowlark Hills retirement home in Kansas, Meadowlark Country House in California wine country (“the atmosphere is HETERO, GAY, and NATURIST friendly” — well-behaved dogs allowed, but no children), and Meadowlark RV Park in Rhode Island, along with countless streets and businesses in other states. The word itself sounds musical, and for those who live, work, or recreate at these places, “meadowlark” may summon a pastoral vision — country living amid birds and wildflowers in those bygone days before North America had retirement homes and RV parks. I don’t object to every appropriation of the name. I’ve got no beef with Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
My annoyance extends to streets and developments named after ruined habitats as well as threatened birds. Ride down a road named for woodlands, like Forest Street in Georgetown or its neighbor Tall Trees Way, and it’s probably a road that fragments what was once more or less intact forest. In The Undertaking (2009) poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch notes that cemetery names are often interchangeable with those of golf courses, a truth that also holds for bucolic-sounding housing tracts. In fact, if you ever have occasion to christen a development, I recommend the following: choose any one item from Category A (Meadowlark, Mockingbird, Tanager, Cardinal, Bluebird), one from Category B (Grove, Ridge, Valley, Brook, Hollows), and one from Category C (Farms, Estates, Manor, Acres, Court). Put the three together, and you’ll do just fine. If you’d prefer a less birdy, more historical flavor, substitute a Native American name for Category A: Pequot Valley Farms, Choctaw Ridge Manor. The Natives need not be native to your particular locality.
Mind you, I’m no purist. You won’t find quail or pheasant running on Quail Run Road in North Andover or Pheasant Run Drive in Newburyport (just around a bend from Fox Run Drive and Quail Run Hollow), but pheasants were never native here anyway, and if quail ever ran in these places, they stopped running long before these roads were built. If prospective buyers imagine that owning property there will transform them into fox-and-hounds English gentry, who am I to snipe? I can even sympathize with the golf course owners in Ohio and New York who succumbed to the same urge and called their establishments Bob-o-links.
I’m not opposed to all development, especially on land already degraded as bird habitat, and I do appreciate the dilemma faced by developers. Truth in advertising has its limits. You won’t attract buyers by naming your projects No More Meadowlarks Farms or Wood Thrushes Gone Woods. And I can’t honestly endorse the alternatives proposed by one J. L. Seagull in an online post: Falling Timbers, Hawkless Ridge, Leveled Hills. Maybe some places should remain nameless.
One day as I biked around Cape Cod after a date with a Yellow-throated Warbler, I stopped at the corner of a side street. A thought came to me like fate: “Mary and I should move here.” There was a newish development down the street, Pine Oaks Valley, a fine place to live, I was sure of it. I’d just seen a For Sale sign put up by a real estate agent with my name. Maybe my brother-in-name would swing us a good deal. But it was the street sign that got me. Years ago, a former student of mine had sent me a photo of herself posing satirically with a saucy hand-on-hip stance and a goofy grin. She was pointing proudly at this very sign: John Nelson Way. Now that’s a nice name for a thoroughfare.