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The Self-Taught Gardener: The experience of place

Nature and the man-made world. Can they coexist? Our Self-Taught Gardener thinks yes, with a little effort.

Gardens, parks and public spaces play important roles in our lives. They allow us to disengage from the travails of everyday life. Sometimes they connect us to nature, giving us a reverence for the natural world. Other times they connect us to our history, reminding us that we humans leave our footprints behind wherever we go. Both types of spaces remind us of the delicate relationship between humankind and nature.

Squirrel corn returns to Bartholomew’s Cobble in April and May.

In the past month, I enjoyed the full range of these experiences in visits to two very different public spaces — a trip to Bartholomew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls and a walk with my dog Fred on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, when we were in the city to visit my friend Michelle’s wonderful nursery. (Gowanus Nursery is where New Yorkers go to dream when they don’t have a weekend house on Long Island or in the Berkshires, and where country folk go in search of great plants when they are in the city).

Blue cohosh seeds at the Cobble.

A tour of the Cobble in the spring delivers the full impact of the beauty of our region in its natural state. A rare limestone outcrop that is managed by the Trustees of Reservations, this woodland is filled with squirrel corn, wake-robin, and other spring ephemerals that come to life each April and May, almost as if they were sprouting from the pages of an 18th-century naturalist’s notebook. One learns to look not at the vistas beyond (the serpentine river and surrounding mountains are glorious from this outlook), but closely at the emerging plants all along the woodland floor, some of which seem to be growing out of nothing but rock, putting on a spectacular show.

Bloodroot pushes forth at Bartholomew’s Cobble.

A walk through the area (Fred-less as dogs are not allowed to enter this rare ecosystem for fear of disrupting the landscape or introducing the seeds of invasive plants that may cling to their coats) always lowers my blood pressure and makes me remember the gifts that nature provides for us each season. Flowers and ferns come forth with such unbound energy, moving forward full force without us. Seeing the bloodroot push forth its leaves and flowers with such intensity reveals the power of the earth coming back to life, as these plants find a place in the woods or on a stony outcrop to set flowers so that they can be fertilized and bear seed for the next generation of plants. It is a reminder of their perspicacity and will to survive and to colonize the world, not unlike our own human nature. This pristine landscape is meant to remind us of what there is to cherish in a world unsullied by humankind and to promote our stewardship of such spaces.

Fred joins me in my love for the seating at Erie Basin, which calls to mind the industrial past of this area, while the plantings remind us of what would have inhabited the area before it was filled with longshoreman working long hours.

The waterfront in Red Hook is something else altogether. If the industrial nature of the site, with its boardwalk and old shipyard stanchions, were not enough to show mankind’s impact on the land, the view across the river to lower Manhattan certainly drives the point home. But on this sunny morning, as Fred and I walked about the boardwalk at Erie Basin Park adjacent to the Brooklyn IKEA, the park enchanted me. Native grasses, beach roses and bayberries that would have inhabited this windswept area before it was taken over for industrial use have all been replanted here.

The entrance to Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Beach roses add color and a touch of the past to Erie Basin Park.

Moreover, old ropes and lanyards that embrace the area’s other history are strewn about as works of art, offset by native trees and reminders of an earlier time. The seating throughout the area is made of wooden beams, galvanized metal, and steel with shapes that call to mind the boats and cargo containers that once made this a thriving port. This site felt like it honored both the original natural setting and what had come afterward. And I could almost imagine a time when the plants, not unlike those at the Cobble, would have wended their way between boardwalks and concrete piers.

Here we can enjoy both the industrial past of the site with its view of the city and the plantings that make this park a haven from the city that surrounds it.

I had an insight here into how humankind and nature can join forces to achieve a workable balance between the world that was, and the world that has come since. I revere both these sites. One expands my reverence for nature, while the other gives me hope that we can happily, albeit with effort, coexist with the natural kingdom.

Moorings and other nautical equipment pay homage to the history of this site.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.



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