By Kelly Brown
We urban humans are “of nature,” but our cities and suburbs can feel disembodied from the very natural resources we use to create our living spaces. As a child I watched fields and wetlands bulldozed, replaced by stately homes and treeless sidewalks. So much greenery vanished as the inevitable roads were added. I wanted to know the names of the plants that were disappearing. Wasn’t there club moss and skunk cabbage? Yet the only distinctions among plants that I was certain of were: grass and weeds, vegetable and garden flower, and those maple trees along Maple Avenue.
Now, as a metro-riding denizen of the city, I am acquainted with my dendritic city counterparts. The hearty willow oaks, massive stately elms, and ghostly sycamore giants line sidewalks in single-file phalanxes; they reach awkwardly around telephone wires with branches that managed to evade the latest power-company-administered amputations. But to walk through an unruly stand of trees, I get in my car and drive to the nearest urban park.
As I walk the trail at Potomac Overlook Regional Park, I inevitably recall snippets of what I’ve learned since joining my ARMN class. This includes a lot of names, definitions and descriptions of local plants and critters, mostly common names, but sometimes I can hang onto a Latin name.
Assigning a name to the redback salamander, for example, seems to help me remember something, like the coppery skunk-stripe down its back from shoulder to tail. Knowing the name of a “redback” also helps me remember there are other salamanders in Arlington that I aspire to encounter one day, such as the yellow polka-dotted spotted salamander.
So, then, I wonder: what do I really know about a park? I’m personally acquainted with urban parks on small land parcels that were preserved from real estate development by the protection of previous ownership. Perhaps a scion hung onto a family farm, or a minor celebrity maintained a modest “estate” - long enough for someone else to come up with the idea for a park after they were gone. I’d bet that in a few cases the slopes of a stream and its feeder creeks were spared when developers deemed the land too steep to justify the expense of building on them.
These parks don’t feel particularly wild. Come to think, am I, in effect, walking in a well-designed garden of trees? The definitions of “park” I find convey varying degrees of tameness, planning and maintenance, and include as examples industrial parks and amusement parks. Does the wildness matter? What do these parks provide to me, to others?
The degree of wildness seems to provide a definitional hierarchy. Grand national parks of the West are physically (and, for me, mentally) far beyond the boundaries of this little urban park. Those wild places harbor mountain cats and grizzlies, and backcountry trails to get lost on; I think of them as scary but exciting prospects for possible future vacations. Yet even those parks carry a human imprint; they must be less dangerous now than when European settlers first “discovered” the areas. And at Potomac Overlook, I at most warily eye the tell-tale triplet of poison ivy leaves waving cheerily in the breeze at ankle height. Or I may worry about stumbling upon a copperhead, hoping my heavy tread provides enough warning for snake and human to avoid contact.
I still wonder when that human sculpture of the natural ingredient–be it mineral, herbaceous or woody–becomes an urban park. And when is a park so well-planned that it is really a garden? The square-block of grass and sand, sprinkled with a handful of trees and three or four park benches near the metro stop and next to the high-rise is where I would eat lunch on a sunny day if I work nearby. That square block feels like an outdoor sitting room with the sky for a ceiling. Still, it is a prelude of a Potomac Overlook Regional Park with a trail and a patch of woods, which in turn could inspire a person to hike a 15-mile loop trail in the Shenandoah Mountains. That hike might serve as an introduction to a trek in a mountain-lion-home of a park out West.
Garden or not, after walking the circuitous path through the woods at Potomac Overlook, I gain a bit of calm. As I walk among the trees, my mood shifts, extraneous thoughts ebb, and my head clears of stressful lists of things to do, and random internal complaints about run-ins with unpleasant persons at work. I know that this urban park is different enough from where I normally tread to jolt me out of my usual ways of thinking. I pay attention to the immediate world around me as I attempt to put a name to a tree’s bark, a beechnut, or a pignut hickory, and make mental notes to try to remember and later look up some bird calls. And as I learn more about the natural world, I gain knowledge of how I fit in. Slowly I begin to feel I am a very small part, but a part nonetheless.