The Quabbin Reservoir And The Spirituality Of Place By James Hunt

July 22nd, 2013 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

How A Man Made Reservoir Created A Wilderness

Short Biography of James Hunt

James Hunt has been an environmental and fine art photographer in Worcester, Massachusetts for about 12 years. He graduated from the professional photography program at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts. You can see more of his photography at and read his blog at James Hunt’s photography has been exhibited a number of times including in a show called, “Boston’s Water, Quabbin Memories” at the Jewish Community Center of Worcester, Massachusetts, a major venue in New England’s second largest city. His photographs have been involved in significant projects on urban trees and parks. James wrote, “My work explores the link between human needs and their actions in relation to the natural environment. In particular, I’m interested in the experience of ‘being there’ in the natural or man-made environment.” James is also an award winning associate professor of management at Babson College where he has chaired his department, teaches leadership, organizational behavior and most recently, sustainability. He designed and co-founded Babson’s Coaching Inside the Organization Program at Babson Executive Education and also co-founded and co-Faculty Directed Babson’s Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program. Babson College is one of the top colleges for entrepreneurship in the world.

The Quabbin Reservoir And The Spirituality Of Place By James Hunt

The Bridge at Gate 30. On the road to the lost town of Dana. Built in 1866 by a wounded civil war veteran for $55.00. Surrounded now by the accidental wilderness. Dana.

The Bridge at Gate 30 Near Dana, Massachusetts, copyright 2010 by James Hunt. On the road to the lost town of Dana. Built in 1866 by a wounded civil war veteran for $55.00. Surrounded now by the accidental wilderness.

Philip Hyde typically opposed building dams on rivers, but ironically in the case of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, the damming the Swift River has resulted in the kind of spirituality of place with important tangible and intangible benefits that he drew our attention to in his writings. I am grateful that I have had the chance to immerse myself in this story for the past six years and for the opportunity to share it here.

Seventy-five years ago this spring, four towns in the center of Massachusetts, ceased to exist by an act of the state legislature. The citizens of the farming towns of Enfield, Prescott, Greenwich and Dana were all put off their land for minimal compensation, to make way for the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. Two large structures, the Winsor Dam and Goodnough Dike, along with several minor dams were erected to contain the three branches of the Swift River that flowed into the valley.

The Quabbin Reservoir that resulted is one of the largest on the East Coast of the United States covering 39 square miles with over 180 miles of shoreline. It provides fresh forest filtered water to two million residents of Greater Boston. In order to filter that water, the custodians of the Reservoir helped to create, an “accidental wilderness” by planting millions of trees. Soon, wildlife, which had largely disappeared from the valley returned in force: bear, turkeys, coyote, deer, moose, and a host of other species including Bald Eagles by the 1980s.

This development occurred in the larger context of widespread Farmland abandonment throughout the Northeast and into Quebec for economic reasons. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, thousands of square miles of what once had been fields were naturally reforested. These “new” forests were doing yeoman’s work in creating habitat and absorbing Carbon Dioxide. But, there is yet more to the story.

The Intangible Benefits Of Wilderness

As Philip Hyde probably would have appreciated, the intangible, spiritual benefits of this wilderness have become increasingly clear. To go there, just two hours from downtown Boston gives you the opportunity to be alone if that is your choice. However, you are not truly alone. The forest is there with you, and you know it. You can feel it. You can also feel the presence of those who were put off the land. Signs are everywhere, from the few remaining structures to numerous cellar holes, to strategically planted but ancient shade trees and the occasional broken dish or other artifact. It is relatively easy to walk for miles by yourself, but occasionally you do run into fellow travelers. Often it strikes me that these fellow travelers are seeking a kind of spiritual tranquility, like myself.

Hanks’ Meadow Near Enfield, Massachusetts, copyright 2010 by James Hunt. Site of the Hanks’ farm and the Quabbin Reservoir Beyond.

Hanks’ Meadow Near Enfield, Massachusetts, copyright 2010 by James Hunt. Site of the Hanks’ farm with the Quabbin Reservoir Beyond.

It is of course not the spiritual nature of the place that protects it from development. Economic conditions are such that there is little commercial urge to develop the area. The over 38 square miles inside the Reservoir perimeter is protected by two state agencies Boston’s source of drinking water.  Only passive recreational activities are allowed inside the perimeter. That is not to say, however, that the Reservoir and the larger region do not face challenges. Commercial logging has supposedly only been allowed inside the Reservoir perimeter for the purposes of forest management, in other words, to protect the filtration of the water. However, much of the forested land outside that perimeter is private property.

Threats To The Quabbin Reservoir Wilderness

A brief bio fuels push a few years ago threatened the Quabbin and other forests of the area with aggressive wood harvesting until regulatory changes ceased to encourage the large scale burning of wood as an alternative fuel, at least in Massachusetts. Climate change is a significant concern however, as the forest must continually fight off a variety of invasive species that challenge the viability of the area as tolerable habitat for wildlife.

Over the past two years the Red Pine Trees planted at the creation of the Reservoir to provide a natural filtration system have been under attack from Red Pine needle scale. Pine needle scale has no known treatment and can decimate a stand of trees in just a few years. Bittersweet, the vine with which many of us in North America have become familiar, is visible everywhere. The evidence, though tentative, is growing for a direct relationship between climate change and the spread of such invasive species. Regardless, the message is clear: the tangible “wilderness” resource that emerged from the farmlands of the 1820s is fragile and its protection requires vigilance.

The intangible, spiritual benefits of the area are not widely known, except by the people of the towns surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir. Most people I ask in Boston do not even know where their water comes from. At least they did not know until a couple of years ago when there was a catastrophic leak along the tunnel that brings water into Boston necessitating a boil water order from the authorities. Suddenly the water could no longer be taken for granted. People then took notice, at least for a time.

The lessons from this story are complex. The Quabbin’s creation required the forced sacrifice of thousands of homes. It occurred, in that place on the Swift River, in large measure because those communities were without much political clout. The good news is that the Quabbin Reservoir and the resulting wilderness nourish body and mind, as well as even our, souls, if we so choose. It is an incredible resource now, but one that we cannot take for granted.

Nature Photography And The Quabbin

Pine Plantation, Enfield, Massachusetts, copyright 2011 by James Hunt.

Pine Plantation, Enfield, Massachusetts, copyright 2011 by James Hunt.

I began my photographic relationship with the Quabbin in 2008. The nature of that relationship evolved over time. Initially, I had thoughts of taking a documentary approach to the project but I found that somehow, I was not capturing that intangible quality that is so critical to understanding the Quabbin. Inspired by artists such as Philip Hyde, I have tried to create compelling artistic images that can communicate something of what it feels like to go there. Perhaps, if we can create art that gets people’s attention, we can inform at the same time. In that regard, I have two simple messages in my work on the Quabbin: First, people should be aware of where their water comes from, and second, I hope that through my work, people will become more aware of, and appreciate, the intrinsic values that other great photographers have portrayed so well.

What intrinsic values do you look for in connecting to a place in the “natural or man-made environment”?


  1. James is a great choice as a guest blogger, David. He is a fine photographer and has been photographing and posting for the Quabbin for a while now. Almost a neighbor too although we have not met yet.
    His images speak of the beauty that has been created by this land taking although that was not the intent. And even though “Accidental” it provides an experience for urban folks to get an idea of wilderness and, hopefully, an appreciation for wild land that needs to be conserved.

  2. Hi Steve, appreciate your comment. When James told me that you had also photographed the Quabbin, I thought perhaps that was where I had heard of it before, from your blog. His guest blog post came out of a conversation we had by e-mail about his environmental photography and his photo blog that I had noticed has a strong activist flavor. I try to feature landscape photographers who not only make great photographs, but also are actively working on conservation projects the way my father did.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    Thanks for sharing James’ images and essay, David. This is a really wonderful view into a part of the country I haven’t visited, but have actually become quite familiar with through the work of Steve Gingold, another MA resident/photographer who spends quite a bit of time in the Quabbin.

    The end of James’ essay captured my attention, in that he is trying to portray something of a documentary feel to his images in that he wants people to understand the source of their water, but he also wants to create fine art. I think his goal is achieved here, and am glad to see it is–I don’t think many photographers could pull it off.

    Another thing that strikes me is that James refers to this as a wilderness. The ‘wild’ as it were is something I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought and reading to lately. This continues to keep my wheels turning…thanks for that James!


  4. Hi Greg, Isn’t it refreshing to find two gentlemen who have many of the same values we western wilderness landscape photographers do? I too have enjoyed Steve Gingold’s blog for some time now. I believe he told me about James, or I saw one of James’ comments on a blog post by Steve. It is interesting how a man-made wilderness can become as wild as a human-free wilderness. On the East Coast, man and nature are more intermixed than out West here, but we are mixing them up more and more all the time. Reminds me of a somewhat silly, but real example: when I saw a Coyote in downtown Los Angeles.

  5. pj says:

    Good stuff. There are movements in places to protect not only untouched areas as wilderness, but to reclaim previously altered and even ravaged areas and set them aside to let them return to a wild, natural state.

    We need to broaden our narrow definition of the ‘wild’. Quabbin might offer a viable blueprint for those efforts. Fine work Mr. Hunt.

  6. PJ, I’m glad you mentioned the efforts to restore wilderness from devastated lands. Wildness and wilderness are really states of mind, more than anything else. As such, they can happen anywhere.

  7. Now this is another place I would enjoy visiting.

  8. Thanks, Monte. Me too.

  9. Mark says:

    Fascinating story, and provides much to think about in private land ownership vs. what may be for the “greater good.”

    Thank you for introducing this place so eloquently.

  10. You’re right Mark: James introduces the Quabbin eloquently in both his photographs and writing. Thanks for reading.

  11. James Hunt says:

    Thanks for the comments and thanks to David for the opportunity. I feel lucky to have had a chance to work there and contribute to the awareness of the area. It gets remarkably little attention. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the taking of the land. The only mention I could find of the event in the Boston area was in an article about a photography exhibit. I would add that there are a few other photographers who work in the area and Steve Gingold is one of the best. If you ever do get a chance to visit there and would like some pointers, don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail. Thanks again.


  12. Thank you, James for all your good work on the Quabbin and for bringing it alive for us here, on your blog and elsewhere. It has been a great experience interacting with you and getting to know you a little more. Someday, hopefully we’ll meet in person. If you ever make it out to California, you have an open invitation to visit the Philip Hyde Studio and our small slice of paradise in the mountains.

  13. Very interesting read! I had never known about this place, and find it somewhat uplifting that its had what appears to be, at least at the surface, a positive effect on the nature and wildlife of the area. The reservoirs and dams I’m more familiar with, here in California, are almost universally hailed as quite detrimental to fragile species, like some local trout 🙁

  14. Hi Matt, Dams in California, in most other states and around the world in nearly all cases, are detrimental to their entire watersheds, but the trout you mention, plus salmon, sockeye, steelhead, and others carry more weight politically in the Golden State and elsewhere in the Western US than keeping watershed ecosystems balanced and healthy. Thank you for your comment and important point. The above article by James Hunt is certainly not intended as an argument in favor of dams. On the contrary, this blog is loaded with posts of articles delineating the many points that make dams environmentally unsound, and in the long run, maybe not so long now, we’ll see that anything that is bad for water and watersheds is very bad for people too. See also one of the posts with the most comments (link in main blog sidebar), “Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde 1,” the cateogory “Book Excerpts” that contains the series of blog posts, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism,”, the blog post, “A River Will Run Through It,” and others.

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