You have to love local politics. The world at large can be in turmoil over big issues—immigration, North Korea, Russia, tariffs, to name a few. In our town, the battle is over a dog park.
The portion at issue is to the rear of the field
In 1973, the town acquired over 100 acres in the center of town from a prominent local politician. Much of it is wooded, but there is some acreage near the road that is mostly cleared. In a nod to our agrarian past, several acres are farmed as cornfields. They are circled by a mile of packed stone dust paths, which were installed in the 1990s and intended for walking, running and light exercise. Since the mid-70s, a portion was approved for community gardening and divided into multiple plots. Depending on the year, the plots are mostly intensively planted or completely overgrown. In the past, some could be a borderline eyesore when abandoned and left with old carpet, fading plastic furniture, and assorted other detritus.
About 10 years ago, the local land trust, in a joint research project with the American Chestnut Foundation, planted an acre and half with 100+ trees, part of an effort to develop a blight-resistant American Chestnut tree. This acre and a half is located close to the center of the cleared portion of the property, borders a walking trail, and is a stone’s throw from the community garden. To protect the trees and the integrity of the project, the chestnut grove is surrounded by a sturdy fence that mostly disappears into the landscape, suited to the character of this mostly undeveloped property. A fraction of the trees originally planted remain–perhaps 30 at most. The healthiest appear to be about 30 feet tall. A number are much shorter.
This property, and the one and one-half acres planted with chestnuts, is the subject of an intense tug-of-war between dog park proponents and “open space advocates” and community gardeners. Though there are several sites in town that could accommodate a dog park, dog park proponents want to site the park in the chestnut grove because it is already fenced and many dog owners already use the property to walk their dogs and socialize with others. In fact, dog walkers are some of the most reliably consistent users of the walking trails and fields. Like the American postman, neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night stays them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
There are several arguments against siting the dog park at the chestnut grove. A dog park is not necessarily compatible with passive recreation and activities such as gardening and birdwatching. In groups, dogs may bark and may run along the fenced area distracting walkers and runners. The property has limited parking—about 40 spots in a lot near the road, which is not contiguous to the chestnut grove. If the dog park Is a draw, which is possible given over 600 have signed a petition in favor of it, some users will have to find parking elsewhere, which for those with limited free time is a hassle. Finally, opponents argue that the chestnut grove is unsuitable for a dog park. The trees may be damaged, adversely affecting the outcome of the research project.
Though I am one of those reliable dog walkers, I was inclined to oppose siting the dog park at this property. I use the trails mostly for exercise, reflection and listening to books and podcasts. I worry that more intensive use, especially where it borders the trail, will cause noise and disruption. When I want to walk, I want to find a parking space easily, not spend my time searching for one or waiting for someone to pull out.
A civic-minded bird enthusiast planted a shrub border for all to enjoy
The community gardens are perhaps my favorite place in town. I love to lose myself in them and ponder how each one is different, reflecting the hand and imagination of the tender. Some of the plots are planted conventionally, some are so private you can’t easily see into them. A few have been developed for public consumption. One plot is a rose garden dedicated to a man’s deceased wife, with inscribed stone benches assembled in a shaded area—a natural spot to stop and think. Another, created by a bird enthusiast, is a native shrub border. I have watched it grow over the years—first with virburnum, blueberries, ilex, juniper, chokecherry, bee balm and honeysuckle. A few years ago, he added a grove of apple trees. I marvel at the way it has developed into a thicket, dense with birds. Just this morning, a flock of goldfinch flew across the meadow toward it—I was awed by the blur of yellow before me and the sheer number. Another plot is planted with a gardener’s surplus of perennials, a lush corner of color and peace.
Another civic-minded couple planted and maintain an unfenced perennial garden
Will a dog park disturb this activity? If they build it, will the dogs and their owners flock to the dog park—clogging the parking lot, disturbing the quiet with barking and loud chatter?
Outside, looking in at one of the tended plots
Recently, I turned on the public TV access channel and a hearing on the dog park was in progress. My friend, Bob, who is in his early 80s and owns perhaps the most confident pug on earth—completely unafraid to mix it up with the gentle Burmese Mountain dog that is a regular—spoke. A fierce proponent of the dog park at the property, he is angry about the hypocrisy of the gardeners. He summarizes their view as “they have their cheese and don’t want anyone else to have some.” He strongly believes that the dog park will not be disruptive, will not draw huge crowds or really anyone who doesn’t already use the property, and that the chestnuts can be protected and the grove is the natural place for the park: dogs and their owners already use the property; this would give them a place to congregate and let their dogs off leash.
Bob’s frustration is understandable. Last year, a sign appeared on the property. An auxiliary parking area near the community gardens was now off limits to everyone but public vehicles and community gardeners—even though community gardeners only use the plots for a fraction of the year and most days there are only one or two cars in the area. I, like many, were troubled by this arbitrary and seemingly selfish fait accompli. Community gardeners pay almost nothing to lease their plots: is it fair to restrict others’ responsible use of the property? Are the interests of gardeners, open space advocates and dog park proponents incompatible?
The next speaker was another dog park proponent. After describing why the dog park should be at the property, she said, “I am a gardener. I am a birder.” In essence, the property could accommodate everyone. As I listened, I wondered which plot was hers. I hadn’t noticed her working before.
Over the next few weeks, I saw a plot transformed. This particular plot always fascinated me because it was completely overgrown and bordered by what looked like an outhouse. In all the years I’ve walked the trails, I never saw anyone in the plot and wondered about the structure. What was in it: Bats? Mice? Nothing good, I thought.
I was impressed by the bravery of the gardener. The door was ripped off the structure and it was open. I didn’t have the courage to peek inside, just watched from a distance as the garden evolved.
First, the garden was rototilled and thoroughly weeded. Then a gate appeared, a beautiful robin’s egg blue with a whimsical cap. Freshly built boxes for raised beds were unloaded and filled with soil and then plants. A perennial bed flanked the gate on both sides, inside and out, symmetrical and plants thoughtfully chosen. The gardener laid down straw in the paths to keep down weeds.
Soon, an antique iron bird bath, pleasantly curved, was set in the center of the garden. Two Adirondack chairs, painted blue to coordinate with the gate, stood in a back corner with a table, two folding chairs, and a charming shade umbrella. There was a small bucket for mulch, a water collector, a wheel barrow and the piece de resistance, a small basket near the gate. For what, I wondered? Mail?
I stalked the garden on my walks hoping to see the inspired creator and discovered it was the woman who spoke at the hearing. She explained that the basket was indeed for “mail.” She already got notes from friends walking by telling her when they’d be around for a walk and bug spray—because they are ferocious right now. I asked about the shed. Look inside, she said. I turned and saw a bird’s nest. Robins just hatched. She told me to stop by again, but to watch out for the mother, who had flown at her a few times to keep her away. Once the nesting is done, she intends to store a shovel and some tools in the shed.
Just little old me–nothing to be afraid of
Her plot is my new favorite at the community garden. Yes, she is a gardener and birder. And a dog park proponent. Maybe we can all co-exist.