Exploring Brooklyn Bridge Park

August 15, 2016

We are diving back into New York by visiting some of our favorite parks. Last week I shared our walk on the High Line. Today's field trip recap is of Brooklyn Bridge Park. As with the High Line, we explored portions of the park we've already spent time in; for BPP that means the Main Street to Pier 1 stretch.

One of the reasons we enjoy coming to this park is the access to water. Look at this proximity! This is the East River which is actually a salt water tidal estuary. At this point in the park we are below the Manhattan Bridge.

When you turn inland from the water, the park is verdant. I enjoyed peeking through the various layers of vegetation to observe architectural and natural features. The waterbody seen above is part of the salt marsh habitat in Pier 1.

After time on the beach, picking up rocks and watching the waves, we headed to a playground. The gate in the fence is on the path to the playground and it reminds me of a feature you would see in a rural setting. It is sweet that the gate opens unto a specimen tree. The lush vegetation extends into play spaces, too, as seen in the second image above. This photograph was taken inside the playground gate. I like the peekaboo aspect of this pathway to the jungle gym.

There are many more leafy pathways throughout the park.

You won't be starved for skyline views, however.

But the experience of being close to the water is treasured.

Walking Phase One of the High Line

August 12, 2016

Yesterday I posted photos of the Gansevoort entrance to the High Line taken in 2010, 2013, and 2016. Pictured above is entrance latter. Earlier this month we took a walk on the High Line, the first phase only. On arriving I immediately noticed how lush the birch woodland has become.

There are always multiple artworks installed throughout the park. This one, Kathryn Andrews's Sunbathers I, was particularly engaging. In the top photograph she is pointing out to her "Nana" that the art spins. From here we kept walking north and discovered Valentin Carron's Wall Bell which we ran for several minutes. It was hard work!

It's hard not to notice the plants in the High Line. I'm pleased that I brought my camera. I was able to zoom in on the bees so I didn't disturb their foraging activities. And look at the pollen on the mallow petal!

She spent a long time watching the street life from this perch. There is something on the High Line for everyone. When you visit a park, do you people watch or do you observe the wildlife and plants?

P.S. She also liked walking in the water feature above the marsh plantings.

The High Line in 2010, 2013, and 2016

August 11, 2016

When I first photographed the entrance to the first phase of the High Line, I did not intend to photograph the same site every three years. However, I have coincidentally. The park's evolution is striking along its entire length but there is something particularly appealing about the Gansevoort entrance.

Have you walked the High Line? What is your favorite spot in the park?

Play In & With Nature to Prevent Summer Slide

August 1, 2016

Although we are past the halfway mark of summer, there are still five weeks left before school starts which is a significant amount of time for academic skills enrichment through playing in nature. When I first heard the term summer slide I did not have children. I did not see the downsides of not engaging in school matters for three months. Now that I am a parent of a grade-school-aged child, I am more aware of the impacts of forgetting reading and math skills, or at least becoming less adept with these skill sets.

The historic emphasis in summer slide reduction has been on reading but maintaining proficiency in both subjects is a high priority today. Studies reveal that students from “low-income households without access to books” experience the highest rates of summer slide. Interestingly, with access to books, students from low-income households students outperform students from high-income households (also with access to books) on reading tests. Another point of interest is that elementary summer slide or lack thereof influences high school graduation rates. Two takeaways are then access to books and access during the grade school years. So what does nature have to do with summer slide if (early) access to books is the key prevention factor? Learning and playing in natural settings and using natural objects in study and play have well documented positive effects. Here are four ways to utilize nature to prevent summer slide.

1: Do activities including reading in natural settings

Unquestionably it is easier and more enjoyable to read when one is relaxed. Research has shown that spending time in nature has a calming effect on our central nervous system. Research by Dr. Ming (Frances) Kuo and her colleagues at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show that symptoms of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder are reduced in children who play or read in “green outdoor settings” versus paved outdoor and indoor settings. [Link: http://lhhl.illinois.edu/adhd.htm] In their classic book With People in Mind, Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, and Robert Ryan summarized studies of the restorative effect of nature. Spending time in nature, doing nature activities, and looking out at natural settings improved concentration, physiological recovery, and academic performance. Last year, the New York Times wrote about recent research that demonstrates that walking in nature – your local park is a natural setting – is good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing.

2: Read nature or science themed books

Your child might enjoy natural history or math concepts, so providing or suggesting books that deal with these subjects would encourage reading. I am a picture book enthusiast; there is really not enough time to read all the great picture books that are published each year, but don’t limit your young reader to fiction. Although nature and science themed picture books tend to provide accurate information and realistic portrayals of their subjects, check out nonfiction titles too, or a creative mix of both such as the Magic School Bus series.

3: Pair reading with hands-on activities

To extend the knowledge gained from reading, young readers can complete complementary activities in outdoor settings.

Nature Scavenger Hunt [The Bird Feed NYC]

Outdoor Math Games [Creative Family Fun]

Outdoor Measuring Activities [Mother Natured]

Make a Sun Dial [Paging Supermom]

Rock Stacking [Rain or Shine Mamma]

Small World Exploration or what I call "Mini Sample Plots in the Urban Forest" [Rain or Shine Mamma]

These activities work well as stand-alone projects, too.

4: Go beyond books -- read magazines and other written media

Finally, although the emphasis seems to be on books, I don’t think this has to be taken literally. (Disclaimer: I am not an educator.) There are well-produced nature magazines that might interest your young reader. A title that immediately comes to mind is National Geographic Kids. Other sources of reading material include the printed instructions to the projects mentioned in the previous section, newsletters and pamphlets from local nature organizations.

Have you been playing in natural settings this summer? Have you used outdoor time to reinforce math or reading skills? Please share your ideas in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Edible Plants in the Wilderness - Wild Strawberry

June 28, 2016

The wild strawberry is no longer dotting our lawn red. We haven't been to a nature park in a month so I don't know if they are still brightening the understories of local woodlands. We knew the wild strawberry was edible before I looked them up in Edible Plants in the Wilderness, Volume 2, but it was satisfying to read the entry on our walkabout at Gulf Branch Nature Center. I received two volumes of Edible Plants in the Wilderness and one volume of Poisonous Plants in the Wilderness from Leslie of Urban Plants Research. She was paring down for a move and I volunteered to house these gems.

The children especially enjoyed the fruit. Botanically, the strawberry is not a berry. It is an aggregate accessory fruit. Each strawberry has multiple matured ovaries each containing one seed (aka pericarps but note that some ovaries can hold more than one seed) on the exterior of the fruit. More specifically, according to Harold William Pickett in Botany for Gardeners, in the case of the strawberry, each of those pericarps, which some think of as seeds, is actually "a minute nut containing a seed".

The leaves of the wild strawberry can be steeped as a tisane but I have not tried to do so. Have you eaten wild strawberries or drank a herbal of its leaves? Do you forage?

You might be interested in these posts on foraging and eating wild edibles:
Eating the fruits of street trees
How I drank a street tree
Eating your urban forest

Book Review - 'Lassoing the Sun', by Mark Woods

June 23, 2016

The first thing I will note about Lassoing the Sun by Mark Woods is that I cried often. You might think that the vivid descriptions of the beauty of our national parks prompted my tears. Mark Woods did chronicle evocatively the splendor of our national parks from the most wild and remote places to our most urban and nearby settings but it wasn't the natural landscape that elicited tears. This book is also a memoir of the last year of Woods' mother's life as well as an autobiography of his own childhood and adult life spent in our national parks. The stories of the lives of his family set against the backdrop of some of our most shared sacred spaces is highly emotional.

Much has been written about the origins of our national parks system. Woods set out to answer the question: what is the future of the national parks system especially in light of radical changes in technology and climate? To address the question, Mark Woods visited 15 national parks. The book is organized as a year long itinerary of visits to national parks with each chapter telling the story of a park and its resource management challenges. For example, the issue of dark skies is discussed in the context of Acadia National Park; the ripple effects of species reintroduction in the context of Yellowstone; and the fit of urban parks in the context of a predominantly "wild" parks system. The observations that Woods' makes during his visit to Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn underscore a quote he includes earlier in the book: "'Can national parks evolve successfully in a world where nearly all of their founding assumptions have been proven wrong'?"

Because the book is both journalistic reportage and a memoir, Woods extracts life lessons and insights from the approaches to solving challenges in our national parks. Without quoting literature on the benefits of time spent in nature on our emotional and mental well-being, he makes a solid case for the value of landscape in not only making memories but also in holding memories. I already mentioned that his mother dies during the course of the travels that form the basis of this book. But, also, he engages with a family who lost a son, Gabe Zimmerman. Both Woods' mother and Gabe Zimmerman had strong connections to national parks and the outdoors. Both sets of families relied on the landscape as almost an experiential album of their deceased loved one.

There are so many great elements of this book. I will discuss one more before wrapping up this review. Sensing the landscape comes up in several chapters and parks. Going back to Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn, Mark Woods quotes Thoreau writing that "the question is not what you look at, but what you see'." Woods initially overlooked some of the natural processes occurring in GNRA. The GNRA is not a traditional national park and doesn't fit within popular conceptions of what is natural. Woods' remarks that the GRNA represents "a new kind of natural". But is it a new kind or are our standards too narrow? In addition to seeing a landscape, Woods tackles engaging with our national parks through hearing, specifically he spends time with an advocate of the "One Square Inch of Silence" in Olympic National Park in Washington. For me, the last many lines of the chapter resonated the most with a description of hearing a rain event. Here is an extensive excerpt:
And then it started to rain. Before I saw the rain, I heard it. Before I felt drops on my skin, I heard them slowly, sporadically, plucking here and there on the canopy high overhead. When they started to fall harder, their pace and pitch rising....And when the water eventually started to cascade through the trees, the individual drops turning into a collective chorus....
When was the last time you heard the rain fall from start to finish? Do we give undivided attention to natural phenomenon?

I recommend Lassoing the Sun! If you love natural histories, memoirs, travelogues, this book is a great blend of these genres. Mark Woods' ties our lives to our landscapes. He celebrates our commitment to the national parks model and holds us responsible for sustaining this particularly American legacy.

This book was provided for review, and I am glad to have read it.

Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park

June 16, 2016

We usually favor parks that are destinations in and of themselves. However, last month, one of the parks we visited was a linear one with multiple destinations along its length. The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park or W&OD Trail for short is 45 miles in length (with a parallel 32 miles of trail for equestrians). It's also known as "the skinniest park in Virginia". The rail line was built in 1858, became defunct in 1968, and was purchased by by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority in 1982. NOVA Parks and Friends of the W&OD manage the trail. There are twelve access points which basically means parking lots but you can also walk onto the trail. Along its length you have access to other regional parks, local parks and playgrounds, creeks, and even an old railcar at the Arlington access point off Wilson Boulevard. We began our walk near the Bluemont Tennis Courts heading east then looped back and ended at the railcar.

One of the first things we noticed was the row of trees at the edge of Asher's Baseball Field. These trees are a field marker of the former Reevesland dairy farm.

We've noticed art installations in several of the parks we have visited in Arlington County. On the W&OD Trail are the Named Stones sculptures by J.W. Mahoney. It's always a treat when you can engage with art with more than one sense.

The light through the trees was pretty. The ducks moved slowly through the creek facilitating photography. One of the destination point on the trail is the disc golf course. We did not know about the course in advance of our visit and wished we had. I have never played disc golf. Have you?

Peering in and around Four Mile Run didn't yield additional sightings of local fauna.

The trail is multi-use so although we walked we saw recreational runners and cyclists. We didn't hop off the trail to play at any of the playgrounds along the way although there was a half-hearted request to visit the Bluemont Playground. The highlight destination along the part of the trail that we walked was the railcar at the former Bluemont Junction which is where we ended our visit.

The older child climbed the car like a jungle gym while the younger one pretended to be a train engineer. We may have a budding rail buff!

The W&OD Railroad Regional Park is a rails to trails project and is listed in the database of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Learn about the history of the concept and the conservancy here. If you are curious about the development of bike and walk routes adjacent to active rail lines, consider this article at Streets Blog USA.
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