Exploring the Geology of the Fells with Prof. Jack Ridge

A guest post by Stephen Engel

It is easy to wander through the Fells without thinking about when or how the rocks beneath your feet formed. Rocks in the Fells are 900-580 million years old and formed adjacent to what is today West Africa. This ancient landscape had many volcanic eruptions of lava and ash, and large bodies of granitic magma crystallized in the subsurface. The rocks were later separated from Africa to form a microcontinent called Avalonia. Avalonia eventually collided with North America about 430 million years ago and now forms southeastern New England and part of Newfoundland. Since that time, the Boston landscape has been heavily eroded, exposing rocks once deep in the crust.

Beginning about 2.5 million years ago the area was covered by large ice sheets during successive ice ages. Glacial ice left the Fells for the last time about 17,000 years ago, leaving behind large glacially transported boulders and glacial scratches and grooves.

All photos by Prof. Jack Ridge

Recent investigation of the Fells’ geology has brought the details of its rich pre-history to light. Beginning in 2007, Prof. Jack Ridge in the Earth and Ocean Sciences Department at Tufts has made geologic maps of the Fells as part of his research. Because of abundant rock exposures in the Fells it is perfect for detailed geologic investigations. It really is the low hanging fruit!

Ridge’s research is now accessible to the public online in the form of geologic maps. A bedrock map shows the area’s many rock formations and their relative ages. Another map shows the surficial geology that depicts glacial features and deposits above the bedrock surface. Each map has detailed explanations. “Jack” has also prepared a 7-part, self-guided tour of the Skyline Trail with other tours planned for east of Spot Pond. Each part of the tour is 2-4 miles long and can be completed in a few hours. The public is invited to investigate the downloadable maps and tours on “The Geology of the Middlesex Fells” web site at: https://sites.tufts.edu/fellsgeology/. Jack hopes the web site will serve as a resource for teachers and those interested in the natural history of the Fells.

Steve Engel is a Friends of the Fells board member and resident of Winchester.

A guest post by Anita Brewer-Siljeholm

True crime writing has arrived on the doorstep of the Fells. In their absorbing new book, Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore, authors Douglas Heath and Alison Simcox, who wrote Images of America: Middlesex Fells and The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells, reconstruct a grisly murder investigation at what is now DCR’s Breakheart Reservation in Saugus.

With impeccable research and endless curiosity, evident on the walks they lead in the Fells for the Friends of the Fells, Heath and Simcox turn to a true crime story that riveted Boston 120 years ago. They discovered the case while researching another Images of America book, Breakheart Reservation, released in 2013. Time and again, people asked about a murder that had occurred more than 100 years earlier, well before the 600-acre reservation became state property in 1934.

On October 8, 1900, the caretaker of a gentlemen’s farm in Saugus called Breakheart Hill Farm, an unpleasant man by the name of George Bailey, disappeared. A few days later, a burlap bag containing his dismembered torso floated to the surface of a pond in Lynn, followed by the remaining body parts in more ghastly bags dredged up by police teams. Before long an arrest was made, followed by a trial in Salem. Throughout the court proceedings, no lurid detail escaped the daily newspapers – or the trial transcript which is now online – providing extraordinary insights for the authors.

“These sources allowed us to tell the story using the actual words of the people involved,” Heath and Simcox say in their Preface. To do this they bend the narrative into well-paced modern crime writing, complete with dialogue, while remaining faithful to the inevitable uncertainties of the lives they depict. As part of the story, they weave a fascinating historical tapestry whose landscape is familiar today but whose inhabitants are no longer known. Readers follow the movements of itinerant tradesmen shifting among jobs, part-time farmers in Saugus selling milk to Lynn, orphans and widows sent to the almshouse, and factory owners able to buy large tracts of nearby land. There are immigrants from the Maritimes hoping to find work in Lynn, while laboring families struggle to survive in the changing shoe industry — all captured by the tabloid press of 1900.

Heath and Simcox have special expertise in uncovering historical photographs. Grainy black and white images of stiff collared men and tight waisted women, unexpectedly caught up in the case, are supplemented by newspaper drawings that illustrate the blow by blow reports published daily to satisfy horrified readers who devoured the papers — the social media of the day. Little has changed; personal photos and heinous plots still intrigue us. Who really was the murderer? Was justice served? That is for readers to decide, ideally with a map at hand to follow the course of this remarkable story not far from the Fells. Recommended winter reading!

Signed copies of Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm, as well as of Heath and Simcox’s prior books about Lake Quannapowitt, Breakheart Reservation, and Middlesex Fells, may be ordered via email (simcoxheath@msn.com) or phone (781-640-7881). The cost is $20 for the first book and $15 for each additional copy, with $3 per volume if postage is needed. The authors will deliver books within 20 miles free of charge. Cash or checks are accepted.

Anita is a Friends of the Fells board member and long time volunteer in the Fells.

Since the announcement of our ‘My Fells’ community expression project this past spring, members of the Fells family have shared their inspiring words, pictures, and videos with us.  In doing so, they have provided us with a way to “share our shared love for the Fells” with all of you, as well!

We are very appreciative of all the submissions that have been shared with us so far!  If you would like to share a ‘My Fells’ submission with us, here’s how:

Tell us how YOU experience the Fells!

In one minute or less, using whatever media you like, share your own version of My Fells with us.  Use photos, video, poetry, prose.  Post it to your choice of a YouTube or Vimeo account, Facebook page, blog, website, online photo album, Google Drive or Dropbox folder and send us a link.

Send your submission to myfells@fells.org.

Our next ‘My Fells’ submission comes from long-time member Shelby Meyerhoff.  Her project, entitled Zoomorphics, is a series of self-portraits inspired by the plants, animals, and natural features of the Fells.

Zoomorphic #25 (Rocks), 2019 by Shelby Meyerhoff


Zoomorphic #28 (Monarch butterfly), 2019 by Shelby Meyerhoff

Describing her project, Shelby states:

“I start by painting on my own body, to transform myself into a new creature: a blue-ringed octopus, an owl, or a monarch butterfly. Then, alone in my studio, I set my camera on the tripod and pose. Although it’s make-believe, it doesn’t feel like I’m pretending. The emotions of this new creature well up inside me. I let my body move in unexpected ways. I am expansive, and I do not constrain myself….”

To see much more of this project, visit Shelby’s site:


UPDATE:  Shelby’s Zoomorphics project can also be seen in person!  The Series is on display at the Griffin Museum’s WinCAM gallery through Wednesday, November 4th, 2020, at 32 Swanton St. in Winchester, MA. 

Next, we have a submission from photographer Kayla Johnson–  three landscapes that convey the vibrancy of the Fells in spring:

by Kayla Johnson (@kaylawanders photography)

by Kayla Johnson (@kaylawanders photography)

by Kayla Johnson (@kaylawanders photography)

More of Kayla’s Fells photos (along with an excellent set of hike recommendations and reviews) can be found at her website:


The increased popularity of the Middlesex Fells these past months has also brought more attention to the park from regional news outlets.  Here are some of the recent news articles about the Fells, and the Friends of the Fells.

In August, the Boston Globe opinion page featured a column by Joan Wickersham reflecting on the creation of the Fells– ‘A voyage of discovery about home:’

We decide to go for a drive. It’s aimless, like so much in this uneasy summer of the pandemic. We drive through Somerville, Medford, Malden.

And suddenly the road stops being suburban and starts looking like something you would find in Maine. Deep woods, lakes, no houses. It goes on for miles. We are in the Middlesex Fells.

Later in the month, the Globe printed a response from our own Jeff Buxbaum and Chris Redfern, titled ‘The vital public good of public lands:’

…As COVID-19 spurs historic visitation at the Middlesex Fells and other nature refuges in the region, we must protect the long-term investments in these nature spaces more than ever, as impacts to trails and fragile ecosystems take a toll.

DigBoston writer Caitlin Faulds writes about the state of Massachusetts parks and how the pandemic has impacted park upkeep and volunteer projects, and features an interview with Friends volunteer coordinator Jesse MacDonald:


Due to COVID-19 and strict health guidelines, MacDonald said Friends of the Fells have had to cancel all volunteer trail care events, which typically address some of these issues, while DCR itself is struggling to run with a “skeleton crew.”

Last, we are happy to share that the Friends of the Fells has been awarded two grants through the Tufts University Community Relations program:

In May, the Friends was one of the local organizations to be awarded a grant through the Tufts Community Grants program.

Thirty-four local organizations in Tufts’ four host communities have been awarded $28,000 in grants from the Tufts Community Grants (TCG) program. The grants, which are fully funded by donations from Tufts University faculty and staff, are awarded each year to community-based charitable organizations in Boston, Grafton, Medford and Somerville.

These funds have been allocated towards the purchase of graffiti removal equipment and supplies which will be used this fall.

And in August, the Friends of the Fells was a recipient of a $1,000 COVID-19 emergency response grant, awarded to local nonprofits “in an effort to help its neighbors impacted by COVID-19.”

“During these trying times, it’s more important than ever for us to support our neighbors and the non-profits that do such important work in our home communities,” said Rocco DiRico, director of the Office of Government and Community Relations at Tufts. “We always strive to be the best neighbor that we can be, so we’re pleased to be able to provide this essential support to local organizations that are assisting local residents with the challenges they face as a result of the pandemic.”

These funds were utilized by the Friends’ 2020 Fells Forest Camp program to directly defray the expenses for essential purchases of safety and sanitizing equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning services, and other COVID-prevention plans that were necessary to hold this summer’s programming safely.

Hundreds of children escaped their largely house-bound lives to disappear into the woods for hours of exploration amidst the rocks, mud, frogs, and trees of Lawrence Woods in the southern Fells.

This summer’s Fells Forest Camp enjoyed record enrollment, as families flocked to the unique offering of an all-outdoor camp experience for their children. “This camp was the highlight of our whole summer,” wrote a parent afterward.

Meeting hurdles that closed many other summer camps, the Friends of the Fells staff, supported by its Board of Directors, hired a cadre of experienced counselors, adapted programming and policies to adhere to new health regulations, and moved camp to Medford High School when the Commonwealth closed Botume House, our original camp location, at the last minute.

In seven weekly sessions, almost 500 campers aged 4-12 from a dozen nearby communities hiked the trails, learned to bushwhack, built structures with natural materials, discovered insects, birds, salamanders, frogs, snakes, and other native species, played outdoor games, took turns leading with maps, shared jokes and stories, and arrived home muddy, sweaty, and newly energized.

Reflecting on the camp season, Jesse MacDonald, co-director of this year’s Fells Forest camp, said, “we were in the very fortunate position to provide a much-needed summer option to the families in our community. Being a fully outdoor program, we had the ability to make Fells Forest Camp a safe environment for our campers while providing a rewarding nature-based experience to children. And based on the feedback we have received from many families, it was a service that was urgently needed.”

Chris Redfern, executive director of the Friends, added “We’re grateful for the last-minute hospitality of the staff at Medford High School – without their welcoming, can-do spirit, camp could not have happened this summer.”

Many parents described a positive experience at Fells Forest Camp:

New to the woods

“This was our daughter’s first camp experience and she loved it!”

“My kids have not been huge fans of the outdoors in the past, but this camp really helped to get them to enjoy going into nature, hiking, and exploring. Each day they came home with stories about animals they had seen in the woods.”

Great staff

“The counselors were a lot of fun- many animal observations, jokes of the day, new and fun games, forest building, bush whacking, mud slope sliding, my son came home every night with a story. The leaders were easy to communicate with if adjustments were needed. Thank you Friends of the Fells for making our COVID summer more bearable and fun.”

“The counselors seem to perfectly balance letting the campers explore and providing games, etc. to structure the day.”

“Our cautious and somewhat shy 5 year old daughter absolutely loved camp! The instructors were fantastic, they were caring and nurturing and provided a safe space for her to step outside of her comfort zone a bit while exploring nature. All around a wonderful experience!”

Breath of fresh air

“The Fells Forest Camp was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air for our family this summer. It was just a joy to pick them up each afternoon, joyous and exhausted, ready for a bath, and full of stories to share.”

 “The kids loved the chance to explore with their peers. The staff supports curiosity and learning in a nurturing, flexible environment. Great outdoor camp for nature lovers!”

“This child-led, outdoor, place-based opportunity was just what they needed; we saw our sons grow and thrive through the experience. Thank you for making this a safe and fun possibility for our boys!”

Enthusiastic children

“My son had a great time–he often complains about camps after a day or two and asks to skip a day, but he was enthusiastic every day and was sad the one day we skipped because it looked like thunderstorms. He loved that he got to be the “navigator” on the first day and held the map. He says he definitely wants to do it again next year.”

“Our 9-year loved this camp and he doesn’t usually respond with enthusiasm at the prospect of a hike (maybe that’s just with mom and dad), but he was happy every day. He also had lots to share about things they saw and adventures they had in the woods. Thank you!”

“Our five year old loved exploring the Fells: walking over tree-trunk bridges and exploring the frog pond. He came home excited every single day!”

Dirt is a good thing

“Our kids come home so dirty (this is a good thing in my book!) and full of stories about all of the interesting things they did that day. We love that they are now our guides in the Fells as they discover new places which their parents don’t know. It’s clearly empowering for them and fun for us.”

“I am so grateful for this program and the experiences it provided for my son. Every day I picked him up exhausted, covered in dirt, and full of new information and stories about his new friends and adventures. I couldn’t ask for anything better!”

The Friends of the Fells YouTube channel continues to be a source for engaging educational content related to the natural history of the Fells.

Over the past months, more members of our community have offered to share their expertise with us to create informative and entertaining videos for you!

Here are just a few examples of the new content now available:

First, local expert and long-time hike leader Boot Boutwell discusses some of his favorite native plants:

More from Boot can be seen in the ‘From the Fells with Boot Boutwell‘ playlist.


Next, Claire O’Neill discusses her organization Earthwise Aware (EwA), and the work it does in the Fells.

Claire is the founder of EWA, and a Friends of the Fells board member and chair of the Nature/Conservation Committee:

More from Claire and EwA can be found at the ‘Found in the Fells with EwA‘ playlist.


Boston University Ph.D. candidate Lucy Zipf explains the strategies of different trees in the forest when it comes time to “leaf out” in spring:


And Tufts professor Colin Orians discusses how the Eastern Hemlock manages to survive despite attacks by the hemlock woolly adelgid and other insect species:

Many additional videos are available now on our channel, with more in the queue! To see all our videos, or to subscribe to our channel, click on the YouTube icon below.

Special thanks to Board President Jeff Buxbaum for his continued curation of the YouTube page.

If you have an idea for video topic that you would like to share, or have any interest/experience in videography or video editing and would like to volunteer those skills, please contact us!