In the days of dreaming when the Indigenous ones still walked freely among the misty mudflats
and green hills of the Massachusett, there was a well.
It was a deep hidden pool, narrowed by points of land boasting nine strong hazel trees1 whose
red nuts would drop softly into the deep reflecting mirror of the well.
Within its depth the wise ones, the reliable ones, the salmon and the alewife alike, consumed
each kernel of wisdom, each nut of inspiration, for did they not sustain the whole world with a
nutshell and their great sacrifice?2
It was a deep place of wonder, of enchantment, of understanding, but above all a secret place.
A secret until Charles. Charles was a young scholar from an old, noble English family with
everything an Englishman could want, wealth, lineage, titles, men of arms, and many acres of
newly Christianized land.
He lacked only for poetic inspiration. And when his mania came upon him he reached for it in
vain and plunged into the water beneath the hazel trees. Charles believed he alone ‘discovered’
the well and swam down into it.
As Charles breached the well, it transformed into a wave, rode up the land, and spread the
seeds of the tree of knowledge along the banks of the river. First, hockey. Then, medicine.
Then, technology. Then, music. Then, terriers. Then, nobility. Then, industry. Then, braille.
Then, keeping time.
Charles – his mind raging with the whole of the world’s knowledge –
desperately shook off the seeds. Even the dregs.
And when none were left, Charles’ slowing, lapping waves left the seeds of the invasive species,
the imposters of knowledge. First, conquest. Then, law. Then, title. Then, money. Then,
authority. Then, exclusivity. Then, vanity. Then, extraction. Then, division.4
And bit by bit the great wave that was Charles gave of itself until it was but trickles into the
marshy soil. Charles let out a faint cry of exhaustion “Mm Mm Mm Mm Mm.” The farmers who
heard it could not agree on Charles’ words, but their guesses gave name to the last towns
Charles touched. One insisted Medfield. Another, Medway. Another, Mendon. Another, Millis.
The last, Milford.
Charles possessed but lost true poetic inspiration, the knowledge of the world as spoken from
the elders who could still read the land and understand its language. Charles decided he must
have it back.
He began to flow back towards the Well of Knowledge, but before the last of him could enter,
the well rejected him. For the seeds of the imposters of knowledge contaminated his waters.
Charles tried again, and again the Well expelled him.
Charles tried a third time, on the full moon, at Samhain. He summoned the confidence of the
mediocre English nobles from which he descended, and his waters rushed forth leaving behind
the seeds of the imposters of knowledge until he disappeared into the Well of Knowledge, land
carved into mud and muck behind him.
But after twelve hours, the Well expelled Charles again, for twelve hours was all the Well could
take of the haughty Charles. Yet each time, Charles would regroup and flow back to the Well,
only to be expelled back up onto the land twelve hours later, again.
And so, Charles tried ceaselessly, each twelve hours for 280 years to re-enter the Well of
Knowledge. The people who lived on Charles River’s banks prospered from the seeds of
knowledge and the seeds of the imposters of knowledge in equal measure. But each twelve
hours the muck Charles left behind while he went down the well assaulted the people’s senses.
And so on Bealtine, Craigie led the people to dam Charles, to keep him away from the well.
They enjoyed the sparkling beauty of Charles at its fullness, moved only by the winds, not by
the pursuit of the Well of Knowledge.
But Charles, cut off from the Well, filled with the refuse of the people and their imposters of
knowledge. The city turned its back on Charles and treated him all the worse as his ignorance
and pollution grew. Charles, in turn, gladly accepted the corpses of their damned and relished
making some himself.
Slowly, the people began to understand that by damming Charles they’d damned themselves in
return. But even they could not conceive of letting Charles free, despite the affront to their
honour. They could no longer read the land or understand its language.
But when the people’s king was denied the ard-ri because of this affront to their honour,they
lifted their damming of Charles but kept it locked, freeing Charles just enough to sip from the
Well of Knowledge. Just a taste, but it calmed Charles so that he grew healthy and sparkled
blue. People learned to understand his ripples as he changed his moods, but they still could
not understand his language. And so, Charles sips at the Well of Knowledge while he and the
people on his banks remain dammed
Footnotes to the story.
- 1. Hazelnuts were native and highly valued in Massachusetts as well as Ireland.
- 2 We now (re)know that many inland forests depend on nutrients from these returning fish. It is why the salmon is
- sacred to the peoples of the Pacific Northwest too
- 3 Nine specialties practiced on the banks of the Charles River today, in order going upstream: Boston Garden, MGH,
- MIT, Berklee, BU, Harvard, North Brighton, School for the Deaf, Waltham watch factory
- 4 Nine techniques used to colonize, in chronological order
- 5 Often the highest tide of the year.
- 6 English settle Boston in 1630; first Charles River dam built in 1910
- 7 The dam opened July 1, but close enough for a story
- 8 Name of the bridge on that spot today.
- 9 You can see traces of the era when Bostonians viewed the river as just sewage. The 19th century brownstones along the river front towards the avenue, backs to the river.