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Willem Lange: Even in the Bustle of the City, People Crave the Natural World

The TV crew and I stood this morning beside a couple of fortresslike granite buildings with 19th-century-style hip roofs, ocher-colored grout, and fancy exposed rafter tails. They were designed, a brochure informs me, by the famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson. There was water on one side of the buildings: an imperceptibly flowing stream named, appropriately, the Muddy River. Both banks of the stream were lush with greenery; Canada geese paddled about leisurely, tipping their bottoms comically into the air as they fed. On the other side, a few yards away, Boston drivers channeled their favorite Formula 1 drivers as they raced by on the Fenway.

We were in a park named Back Bay Fens, a part of the so-called Emerald Necklace that swings in a big arc around Boston. Just a few blocks away, but obscured from us by foliage and tall apartment houses, rises Fenway Park. The Emerald Necklace is a string of nine loosely connected parks, most of them designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose signature accomplishment was Central Park in New York City.

I’ve long been suspicious of American guys who use all three of their names — John Wayne Gacy, John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray, for example — but have to admit that Richardson and Olmsted created a wonder here, a veritable silk purse from a sow’s ear. The Muddy River, before Olmsted persuaded the City of Boston to take it in hand, was essentially an open sewer. Noisome and pestilential as it was, it was also largely ignored because it was flushed twice daily by the tide in the Charles River Estuary.

Hired by Boston shortly after the Civil War to design parks preserving green space, Olmsted insisted on incorporating the reclamation of the Muddy in the design. The river was dammed near here in the fens, shutting out salt water and providing a modicum of flood control: One of the granite buildings is still a gatehouse regulating the flow of Stony Brook, a tributary now running through an aqueduct beneath the streets of Boston. Then he created a series of ponds, including some existing glacial kettleholes, and enhanced their connection to the Muddy.

We visited four of the parks in the necklace today. At each one we were greeted by volunteer docents or other lovers of the greenbelt. It was hard not to be impressed by their enthusiasm for the place. All of them expressed their delight with such a peaceful place where it was possible to get away from the stress of the urban bustle all around. I felt a slight disconnect there. I live in a state that’s pretty much a park already — that’s getting back its forests naturally as agriculture declines and large-scale logging gets smarter — and couldn’t help hearing the roar of the city always in the background. In recording studios, technicians have to turn off the air conditioning, no matter how quiet, or it’s audible in the result. These parks, peaceful as they are, feature of necessity a constant reminder of what you’re escaping.

As we strolled from the gatehouse to a picturesque bridge over the Muddy, a pair of walkers appeared who for some reason had numbers on their chests. Then three more, then dozens, and finally a parade of hundreds. Some walked with canes, one with crutches, and another was in a wheelchair. It was apparently a benefit walk supporting Home Base, a Red Sox initiative to aid returning servicemen. Around the edges of the column of walkers, bicyclists zipped here and there, among dozens of joggers and strolling couples. Not many couples, however, were lounging lazily on the lawns, even on a Saturday; the geese had gotten there first.

At the end of our trip through the Back Bay Fens, we bade adieu to our cheerful docents (the docents in the parks tend to be knowledgeable academics; one of this pair was a wetlands scientist and the other a landscape architect), and moved on to Olmsted Park, where a 79-year-old naturalist and active hiker showed us a pond about to be dredged to increase its volume for flood control, a brook named Babbling — though in this dry summer it’s better called Murmuring — and another, natural kettlehole pond formed when a buried mass of ice melted a few thousand years ago. Two younger docents, one a botanist, showed us specimens of invasive species they’d tagged to be uprooted by volunteer “Green Team” youth workers.

Then it was on to the Arnold Arboretum, managed by Harvard and the City of Boston, and home to about 15,000 species of trees and shrubs. There are Asian and American tamaracks here bigger than any I’ve ever seen before, a couple of dawn redwoods, and an Asian species of sequoia (if I have it right) that had long been considered extinct until two of them were discovered by chance in China a few years ago. The specimens here were started from seeds sent from China. The whole arboretum has the feel of a living museum.

Our last stop was Franklin Park, the largest gem in the necklace. It’s the liveliest, too, with an 18-hole golf course, a zoo, and large picnic areas with — as we discovered — electrical hookups for amplifiers and microphones for large parties. My guide here was Dan Richardson, a 75-year-old man who’s lived his life beside the park. As we hobbled with our canes across a road to get to Schoolmaster Hill, we laughed about the fantastic scene in Bowfinger, where director Steve Martin sends Eddie Murphy across the L.A. Freeway in rush-hour traffic. But we made it all right, and soon were sitting on a stone wall above the golf course. As we chatted, a broad-winged hawk climbed out of the trees behind Dan, grabbed a small songbird out of the air, and headed back to its nest and kids with afternoon tea. A perfect symbol for the Emerald Necklace: wild creatures living free in the midst of a huge, churning city.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.