Along a Nature Path with Chet Raymo

By Judy Buswick

Of the writers who might instruct us on the subtle points of how to Let Nature Be Our Teacher, Chet Raymo, author of sixteen books and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Stonehill College in Easton (MA), has a unbeatable combination of science interests and life experience. He leans toward astronomy as his favorite science, saying, I love the dark night sky, and love knowing what it is I’m looking at. The sciences, like the parts of nature, are each interrelated; so he notes that astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, biology all illuminate each other. All of them give depth and beauty to our local environments.


Chet Raymo

Readers in Cary Library’s Lexington Reads program this March will have encountered the connections in a number of sciences, as Dr. Raymo describes the one-mile path he walked for 37 years from his front porch in the village of North Easton to his office at Stonehill College. The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe (Walker & Company, 2003) is Lexington’s community-wide book selection and Dr. Raymo will be at Cary Hall (1605 Mass. Avenue, next to the Police Station) at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 27th to discuss his multifaceted study of nature and the history of his hometown. His observant, inquiring personality shows us how our own path of discovery may begin at our own front door.

Prof. Raymo demonstrates that every pebble and flower has a story to tell, which leads him to introduce geology, botany, genetics, environmental concerns, and the history of human intervention in nature. That scratch on a rocky ledge, he explains, may be the result of glaciers creeping across New England. That weed by the wayside may have descended from a seed that travelled here aboard a sailing ship in the 1600s. Thus, because he knows and loves this particular path, the light-years and the eons no longer seem quite so forbidding. He comforts us by adding that his path is quite commonplace for New England and any path we select for our careful observation and applied knowledge can be filled with surprises and appreciation of nature.

Historians and readers of history will be conscious of how Raymo incorporates the burgeoning wealth of one family and the industrial development of North Easton into his account of nature’s power. The Ames Shovel Shop moved to North Easton in 1803 and Oliver Ames tapped the energy resource of Queset Brook, built dams to control a consistent supply of water power, and watched his shovel factory grow to produce 20,000 dozen shovels in 1844, before converting to steam power. Historically, our nation needed shovels to build the Eire Canal, the intercontinental railroad, and trenches in the Civil War. With the discovery of gold in California and then in Australia, there was a worldwide demand for the high quality shovels produced by this one family.

The Ameses became wealthy and built mansions, public parks, and impressive public architecture in the village many of which are still evident today. They commissioned works by America’s leading architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The roles these men played in and beyond North Eastern become part of Dr. Raymo’s story.

Olmsted moved mountains of soil and stone, diverted streams, clear-cut forests, and planted local and exotic trees to create the Sheep Pasture estate, the Ames family mansion and property. Now, a hundred years later, the effects of the hand of man — that is, Olmsted’s hand — appear ostensibly natural on the grounds of Sheep Pasture through which Raymo walks. He passes through woodlands and meadows, crosses Queset Brook on a plank bridge and stoops to examine the astonishing sexual apparatus of the purple loosestrife decorating the banks of the stream, and stops in a community garden to chat with locals who sometimes offer him radishes. He buys bunches of flowers for a dollar (on the honor system) or chats with Bob Benson, the bluebird man who builds boxes for the breeding birds.

At the Olmsted Archives in Brookline, Massachusetts, the plans Olmsted worked on, including land surveys, sightlines from the home’s terrace, and sketches of the landscape he imagined are preserved. Raymo suggests to Lexingtonians, I would encourage everyone who lives in the Boston area to visit the Olmstead home and offices in Brookline. It is now in the care of the National Park Service, and you’ll get a lovely tour by a ranger in a Smokey Bear hat.

For Olmsted and his colleague Charles Eliot who designed the parks and parkways in the Boston metropolitan system, the harried urban middle class deserved landscape art that was beautiful and alive with the sounds of nature. Behind this was their understanding that we are part of an organic world, and that we need, as Olmsted insisted, relief from the too insistently man-man surroundings of civilized life.

Prof. Raymo believes that Olmsted surely had a greater influence on how Americans think about the natural world than any other person. Boston’s Emerald Necklace is his work, and many other of our favorite public spaces in the Boston area are works of his disciples. Not wilderness. Not urban sprawl. Something artful and natural all at once. Environments that nourish the human spirit.” During his program on Sunday afternoon, March 27th at Cary Hall (note this is NOT at the Library), Prof. Raymo is sure to have more to say about the lessons of nature and the gifts of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Another local author who has shared his ruminations and research about some walks he has taken is Massachusetts Audubon Society editor John Hanson Mitchell. He fully engages readers in The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008) about the series of exploratory walks around the old Shawmut Peninsula. In Walking Towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (Perseus, 1995), Mitchell evokes Thoreau with a jaunt entwining history and ecology. Raymo says, “I have long been a reader and admirer of Mitchell. He has a wonderful sense of the layers of a place, from the geologic to the human contemporary. I’ve been enlightened by his books and writings.

Noted author Dava Sobel wrote the foreword to The Path, at the request of George Gibson, Raymo’s publisher at Walker & Company. Raymo acknowledges that he is extremely grateful that she complied. Sobel and Raymo have never met, but she too has taken a familiar walk for more than twenty years. She feels an easy camaraderie with Raymo and knows he will understand when she says that something positive, even restorative happens to me out there on her walk along familiar wet lands. Though not a nature writer, but rather a science news writer, Sobel now authors non-fiction books with a scientific bent that share a complexity with those of Mitchell and Raymo.

Of her work, Dr. Raymo says, She’s a marvelous writer. I especially enjoyed The Planets. (Viking, 2005) Given his years of teaching astronomy, Raymo would obviously enjoy a book such as this that explores the solar system, using popular culture and current research. Her book titled Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (Penguin, 1996) is another that traces the scientific path of discovery and problem solving with a true story of a man once lost to history.

Wildlife artist and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie participated in the Cary Library series when she discussed her book Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You, (Storey Publishing, 2000) earlier in March. She and Raymo are friends and he praises her efforts encouraging children and adults to draw from nature. He explains that drawing from nature helps develop powers of observation and reinforce[s] curiosity about the natural world. These are the attitudes that lead to scientific exploration and the awareness of nature’s organic wholeness.

With all this, it becomes obvious why Chet Raymo is an ideal author for sharing Let Nature Be Our Teacher lessons. His science capabilities are matched by his deep affection and respect for the history of Easton, his hometown. He shares with Lexingtonians a love of local history and Massachusetts people whose lives affected our nation. Comparing Easton and Lexington, he says, Both towns are icons of American history, Lexington of the Revolutionary period, Easton of early industrialization. I believe a few Eastoners were there taking pot shots at the Redcoats on the Lexington road.

The lessons of nature are well worth our study. As The Path shows us, minute lived attentively can contain a millennium; an adequate step can span the planet.

Visit Science Musings by Chet Raymo for a complete and annotated list of his sixteen books at


Judy Buswick is the author of Slate of Hand: Stone for Fine Art and Folk Art (Trafford Publishing, 2007) and is working on a memoir of Massachusetts quilter Sally Palmer Field. Contact her at

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