I grew up in the Bronx, New York.
Most people tend to think of the Bronx as a dangerous and menacing place, dark and gray, filled with angst, depression and difficulty. That is somewhat true. The one thing that people often don’t realize, however, is that the Bronx wasn’t always the inner-city—the Bronx had a green soul. It was the countryside where Edgar Allen Poe brought his wife to recover, and where many family gardens have thrived over the decades. Today you can still see glimmers of the Bronx’s natural past. We have the Bronx River that runs through the New York Botanical Gardens, Van Courtland Park located in Riverdale and the beautiful homes and architecture that recall a different time of the same place. Most people think that those of us who grew up in the Bronx had no outlet to the outdoors, that it’s a shame we didn’t get to play in the sun, lie down in the grass or swim in a nearby brook. To those people, I would say you are missing the beauty of urban nature and its distinct personality. I may have not grown up hiking in the Rockies or canoeing on a local river, but I valued the small, unsung moments of nature in my childhood. Stepping onto the baseball field down the block from your house on a summer day, running around in the sunshine after you hit your own version of a home-run and then putting on your bathing suit to play in the water hydrant—these were ways in which we sought to incorporate what was natural into our daily city lives in the Bronx.
But more importantly, we city kids understood a thing or two about the subtle moments that enforce change.
My grammar school used to release us into a concrete school yard fenced in by what I can only describe as that diamond shaped fencing that felt indestructible to the touch. It ran around the perimeter of the schoolyard and looked out to the rest of the neighborhood. In the corner of the school yard, creeping out of the next-door neighbor’s garden and over our fence was a beautiful dogwood tree. The tree, particularly when it bloomed, managed to canopy that corner of the schoolyard. Its beautiful pink flowers would fall to the ground and we would all gather them in our hands, save them and search for one that had not turned brown yet. The tree’s presence was captivating. We spent all of recess putting our hands through the fence to touch its branches, collect its flowers and create games with our natural findings. Our relationship with this tree was meaningful because its flowers were so rare in our neighborhood. For many of us, we had never seen anything so pink and so full of presence and arrival. Years later I joined a local ecology group for Bronx youth and then became a volunteer. I had the opportunity to walk through the oldest forest in New York City and wade through the Bronx River. I began to understand the connections between the urban landscape and its natural origins.
I understood that nature had not disappeared, but became redefined through us in our city lives.
Taking a semester off from college in New England, I returned to the Bronx and taught at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden at the New York Botanical Garden. I usually took the kids through the garden where we learned about pollination, went pond dipping and created our own herbarium specimens. One afternoon, a group of preschoolers from Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx came in. They listened to me wide-eyed as I showed how seeds explode from jewelweed and the furry touch of lamb’s ear. As we exited one of the exhibition spaces, they immediately ran towards a man-made waterfall located in the garden and stared silently mesmerized. The teacher asked, “Do you mind if we stop for a little bit? I think this is the first time they’ve ever seen water running like this.” And there it was again, the natural element of water cascading down rocks, the presence of natural force and its immense character. It was small, not even the real thing, and yet they stood there in awe of what it represented. They understood that there was a connection between them and this waterfall. The Bronx has housed many family backyard gardens, tomatoes on front lawns and grape vines in makeshift arbors. Our neighbor grew roses on the tiny plot of land sitting in a cement frame in front of her house. These little green spaces were small, and to some may be easily overlooked. Yet, for those of us in the inner city, these little spaces encapsulate the aura of nature, the Bronx’s green past, and symbolize our relationship with nature. Even though it is a small connection in size, its impact and significance continue to be great.
Andrea Rose Caluori is a Bronx native and transplant to New England. Thanks to some great educators and outdoors enthusiasts in the Bronx and Massachusetts Andrea has discovered a love for the New England landscape, local farms, hiking, canoeing and all things/creatures outside. Andrea practices mindfulness daily through yoga, running, fiber arts, writing, and cooking vegan meals. She blogs about trying to live mindfully at: http://themindfulcafe.tumblr.com/ ~
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Ed: Brianna Bemel & Evan Livesay