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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Where the Wild Things Are: The Arnold Arboretum

Where the swamp meets the wall
Where the swamp meets the wall

Sprouts poke up through the turf. Crews of landscapers lay fresh mulch on gardens from Dorchester to Cambridge. Trees bud. Birds return for another summer in New England. The days get longer. The bees emerge as more and more flowers blossom. People ride bikes, push scooters, or ride around with the windows down. The best place to see foliage in all its wild splendor is the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain.

The New Bedford whaling merchant, James Arnold left a large sum of money to Harvard with the stipulation that Harvard must build an arboretum. Five years after Arnold’s death, Charles Sprague Sargent became the Arboretum’s first director. According to the Arboretum website, “[The way] Sargent envisioned it, ‘a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage.'”

On a recent Sunday, the Arboretum bustled with activity. Couples nestled on the lawn. People posed in front of flowering trees. A group of boys played in the muck in Goldsmith Brook. On top of Bussey Hill, I introduced myself to Meg and her friend Sarah. Sarah’s great-grandfather, Karl Sax used to run the place half a century ago. Sarah and Meg both live in JP and work at local community farms. This was Sarah’s first visit to the Arboretum, but Meg had been many times before. She likes the Arboretum because there is always a new path to explore.

The Arboretum is part of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and an extension of Harvard University. The Arboretum functions as an outdoor laboratory. According to one of the horticulturists the Arboretum only accepts wild plants. The purpose is to study wild plants from all over the world. Horticulturalists work and study in the Dana greenhouses off of Centre street. The Arboretum is 265 acres big, and contains 4500 kinds of woody plants. The Arboretum is organized by families of plant.

There is a shady path called Conifer Path where you can see hemlocks, firs, spruces, larches, redwoods, and pines. The Japanese red pine looks like the perfect tree for a gnome to live underneath. The Serbian spruce resembles a cocktail dress. The leaves and branches look as though they have been draped over the trunk. Travel to other locations around the Arboretum and you might see gnarled trees that look like ginger root. Meg’s favorite spot is the birches at the base of Bussey Hill. If you are walking up the Chinese path, look closely at the seed-pods on the ground. Some seed-pods are incredibly complex. Proponents of intelligent design might find some new ideas by looking at specimens in the Arboretum.

The best way to learn about what the Arboretum has to offer is to talk to people. Woody is a guitarist who moved to JP from Michigan. When I met Woody he was hiking up Hemlock Hill. Woody cut quite a figure walking through the woods by himself with a hiking stick. He seemed more suited for the Adirondacks or Yellowstone than a plot of woods within walking distance to the Orange Line. I spotted Forest, Kim, and Eric sauntering down Hemlock Hill Road. These three moved to JP recently and go to the Arboretum because it is so close. “What do you like to do in the Arboretum?” I asked. “Smoke trees,” said Eric.

Jermaine came to the Arboretum with three friends to practice Kung Fu. The group usually practices at the Grover Cleveland school in Fields Corner, but on this sunny day they decided to come to the Arboretum. That day’s lesson was praying mantis style. Jermaine is from Boston, “I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. He likes to walk around the park, write, and meditate. “[The Arboretum is] that peaceful place where I don’t have to worry about nothing.” Jermaine likes to lie down under a big tree that acts as his umbrella.

There are three hills in the Arboretum, Bussey Hill, Hemlock Hill, and Peters Hill, the tallest. It is about 140 feet above the street. Meg said that it is great sledding hill. From on top of Peters you can see the tall buildings downtown. Bussey Hill is a quarter of a mile north east of Peters. Bussey Hill was beautifully designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect who designed Central Park. Bussey Hill Road winds up the hillside to a circle at the top. Benches overlook grassy highlands dotted with cedars and the Blue Hills in the distance.

Jeff Gilbride writes in a front page story for the JP Bulletin dated April 6th, 2006, “In the coming months, it is anticipated that Harvard University and the Arnold Arboretum will submit a master plan to the city, seeking approval to change zoning at the Weld Hill section of the Arboretum, in order to build a 40,000 square foot institutional complex.” Weld Hill is public land across Walter Street from Peters Hill. Jamaica Plain residents are concerned that Harvard is trying to seize even more public space. Residents have reason to worry, Gillbride reports that the parcel of land that Weld Hill shares was all public space until forty years ago when the Hebrew Rehab Center developed there 40 years ago.

When I visited the Arboretum, the Karl Sax Forsythia was in full bloom and the Sargent Cherry was just getting started. Sargent Cherry is named after the Arboretum’s first director, Charles Sprague Sargent. Karl Sax Forsythia is named after Sarah’s great-grandfather. He was the director of the Arboretum from 1946 to 1954. In May we can expect the flowers to really take off, magnolia, spiraea, paulownia, and rhodedendrons. The bees must be salivating.

Sarah moved to JP from Amherst Massachusetts. She manages a one acre farm in Dorchester called reVision Urban Agriculture Project. reVision shelters young mothers and their children. According to the website, reVision has helped over 700 families. reVision has a job training program to help the unemployed learn how to be a good employee. The farm harvests organic food and supplies the restaurants Icarus, in the South End, and The Square Café in Hingham, with mesclun and seasonal produce. Meg runs a non-profit farm in Waltham called “Waltham Fields.”

The Arboretum feels like a different world. City buildings and traffic are invisible from everywhere but the tops of hills and the borders of the Arboretum. Trees filter the air and sometimes the climate feels slightly different in the Arboretum. The great thing about the Arboretum is that it is within the city.

If you favor raw, blemished plots of land to pristine, nature preserves be sure to visit the Stony Brook Marsh by the South Street Gate to the Arboretum. The swamp is impassable unless you want to get your feet wet and step on who-knows-what. Stony Brook Marsh is a buffer zone between the commuter rail tracks and the rest of the Arboretum. The milieu of Stony Brook Marsh is decidedly different from the rest of the Arboretum. Graffiti writers have covered the wall separating the tracks from the preserve with colorful pieces and characters. The path is gravel whereas in the rest of the Arboretum, the paths are made of smooth asphalt. The swamp is littered with strange trash. When I visited the area it was evident that a major fire had occurred. A swatch of land abutting the train tracks was scorched and there were burnt sticks strewn around the area. A lantern and some burnt up bedding appeared to be the culprits. Stony Brook Marsh is an interesting part of the Arboretum and there are some paths to walk. I would advise bringing a friend along as protection because it looks like a pretty dicey area.

Who likes lilacs? “Lilacs were some of the first cultivated plants to be grown at the Arboretum,” reads a brochure for Lilac Sunday. “Benjamin Bussey, the wealthy merchant who donated much of his land for the Arboretum, built his home on the southeastern side of Bussey Hill. A lilac hedge enclose a portion of his land, remnants of which you can still see today near the Bussey Hill summit.” Lilacs are an aromatic flower. Lilac flowers are very little and grow in bunches. Lilac Sunday is a little party thrown by the Arboretum that, according to the brochure, draws 20,000 to 30,000 visitors.

If you go to the Arboretum during the summer, don’t miss out on the Bradley Collection of Rosaceous Plants by the Forest Hills Gate. There is nothing more spectacular than a bunch of blooming roses.

UMass Boston horticulturist, Jim Allen has lived in the Dana Greenhouses since 1991. Allen is the Arboretum’s defacto night-watchman. Allen said he has “some of the finest 300 acres of Boston park land as my back yard.”

The Arnold Arboretum is free and open to the public from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. The Arboretum is a five minute walk from the Forest Hills (T) stop. The address is 125 Arborway, Jamaica Plain. The website www.arboretum.harvard.edu is very informative. Lilac Sunday is May 14, 2006.

reVision Farm, 38 Fabyan Street, Dorchester. www.revisionfarm.org

Waltham Fields, 240 Beaver Street, Walthm. www.communityfarms.org