On a September field trip to Blackstone Park, Moses Brown environmental science students stood beside the meadow at York Pond while Coordinator of the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Partnership April Alix gave instructions for collecting “bugs” in the water to find clues to its health. She admonished them not to wave the nets over peoples’ heads after scooping mud up…and to take tiny steps in the shallow pond to avoid suddenly dropping into slightly deeper water.
No one ended up with a muddy head but, to laughter and shrieks, one student in waders did step off a ledge. It always happens, says April.
The class teacher, Tara Tsakraklides, thinks having fun is a fine side effect of the school’s partnership with the Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC). The goal is to help young people to discover nature up close using the 350-acre watershed bracketed by the school campus at the top and Blackstone Park by the Seekonk River at the bottom as a kind of outdoor laboratory.
In addition to learning the science, these students figure out how they and the larger community can collaborate to stimulate public awareness of the environment, including the impact of storms on the city in runoff and erosion. They are “trying to give back to an organization that has provided so much to the city,” says Tara. The BPC, she adds, is showing students how community and city government and state environmental agencies work together.
While walking down the hill from Moses Brown to Blackstone Park with City Forester Doug Still, the seniors explored trees and aspects of stormwater, noting the impact of runoff on York Pond and the Seekonk River. Once in the Park they explored the recent work on trails upgraded by BPC volunteers using state grants.
Down at York Pond, a former inlet blocked by River Road since the early 1900s, the class saw the results of neglect: bright green duckweed coating the water. The pond has long been a trap for sand spread during the winter and pollutants and debris from yards and streets in the watershed. The result is inadequate oxygen to balance the nitrogen and phosphates that promote algae growth.
Despite little evidence of life in York Pond, the students did find a tiny snapping turtle, and this pleased April, who had seen empty nests earlier in the summer that had been raided by predators. The pond is silting up with street sand, yet flourishing native plants installed at its edge by the BPC nearly10 years ago remain a source of food and shelter for wildlife. Herons, ducks, and other birds are often seen there.
Farther down River Road at spring-fed Hockey Pond below Angell Street, which is not oxygen-starved, there were more signs of life: dragonfly eggs and tiny fish, for example. The class collected more water samples, which they plan with April’s help to use as a baseline for future work in the Blackstone ponds.
On the Boulevard
On the Boulevard, volunteers nursed the gardens through a dry summer, and the BPC paid for extensive watering of saplings. Volunteer leaders now turn their attention to the many trees damaged by winter moths this spring. The Conservancy is now working with the City Forester to figure out whether it is safe—and affordable–to spray the injured trees.
Sometimes a local college will send new freshmen to volunteer in the Blackstone parks. In September nearly 40 new RISD students arrived in two groups to figure out how to take materials found in the riverside park and build temporary enclosures that could be knocked down and later reassembled—sort of like stage sets. The Education Committee project led by Chair Chair Rick Richards and Coordinator Elena Riverstone wanted temporary circles where children could gather for nature stories and songs.
There may have been a little trepidation on both parts. The Blackstone Parks Conservancy (BPC) had not worked with RISD before. Could they find an assignment for these talented artists that would fully engage them? Would it be a good enough experience that they would want to return?
The RISD student leaders, on the other hand, were unfamiliar with the Conservation District and had no idea what its rules are. And, not knowing the BPC volunteers, they might well have wondered: ‘Who ARE these people?!’
Complicating the project was the fact that it had to be compatible with the mission of the Conservancy to protect and maintain the Conservation District. People can’t just go around pulling up plants, not even noxious plants, except under the guidance of a URI-certified invasive plants manager, of which the BPC has two. If they are removed improperly, these plants can spread even faster than they otherwise would.
Nor can anybody just build things in the woodland, which is under the aegis of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and the Providence Department of Parks and Recreation. Fencing erected in recent years to protect plants is intended to be temporary.
Nevertheless, certain invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed could be carefully removed under the guidance of the certified managers and used for the project. Knotweed stalks look and feel much like bamboo, and grow vigorously in the ravine behind York Pond.
Not surprisingly considering the effort that went into planning the project and the creativity and dedication of everyone involved, the results were stunning. They can be seen this fall in the Park, and in photographs on the BPC website (see below).
An even more inspiring result was the enthusiastic engagement of the students during the several hours they spent in the Park on one of the hottest and most humid days of the summer. As the BPC had hoped, their leaders are keen to return next year with new groups of freshmen.
The Conservancy invited the RISD students to come back during the semester in this highly competitive school and unwind—turn off their cell phones and devices and soak up what the Conservation District offers to all who visit, a few calming moments. Evidence shows that even an hour in such an environment as this can lower blood pressure.
On Blackstone Boulevard
Under the attentive guidance of the founder and leader of the summer concerts, Gale Aronson, the BPC wrapped up its latest season with hundreds of enthusiastic listeners. The community and the BPC owe a huge debt to Gale for the way the Boulevard looks and sounds.
The Green Team, organized by Groundwork Providence, was none the worse for wear after a wilting hot morning cutting back the invasive black swallowwort in the south section of the Blackstone Park Conservation District under the guidance of BPC volunteers Elena Riverstone and Martha Fraenkel.
How do you bring a little magic into a park? You invite creative, energetic students in, give them materials, direct them a little bit, and stand back! This recipe was at work this September 2nd and 3rd in Blackstone Park. Around 20 RISD students showed up, learned about the park and set to work creating prototypes of structures that would be attractive to children and engage their imagination. They had to use natural materials from the area and build structures that are impermanent–structures that will be rebuilt over and over again in many different ways by the children and families who use Blackstone Park. Their prototypes have been left on site so we hope you will go down to the park, look at what they built and play a little.
Join us at Blackstone Field for two events on Saturday, October 17th and Sunday, October 18th.
On Saturday, October 17th, at 10:30 am, Nancy Nowak and Elena Riverstone, enthusiasts of these species, will lead the Moss and Mushroom Trail Walk. This year to complement our annual fungus search in Blackstone Park, we will also be looking at the different kinds of moss that grow in the park. Often overlooked or taken for granted, moss, like fungus,has a unique life story well worth leaning about. If it is too dry to find many mushrooms, we’ll focus our efforts on the modest moss!
On Sunday, October 18th, at 1pm, The Goats are Coming. See goats devour poison ivy! Observe a goat being milked! Learn about different kinds of goats! Find out what poison ivy really looks like… This event is co-hosted by the Blackstone Parks Conservancy and Silk Tree Farm.