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Column: The Natural Meets the Spiritual in Hanover’s Pine Park



Sunday, September 21, 2014
Hanover

Shafts of sunlight pierce the canopy as I descend into what I like to think of as my cathedral of the pines. Columns of stately conifers line the nave. High overhead, branches arch like flying buttresses. The ground is a muted mosaic of moss, lichen and fern. This parkland along the Connecticut River suggests that nature was the first Gothic architect: ribbed trunks rise, like medieval vaults, to reveal delicate pine-needle tracery, softwood spires poke through magnificent greenery, and everything seems to point toward the heavens.

For more than a decade, Pine Park, just north of the Ledyard Bridge, has been my sanctuary, a sacred space to soothe the soul and, more prosaically, release the dog from housebound boredom. My morning walk features a chorus of songbirds and, depending on the season, the rhythmic swish of a sculler’s oars or the occasional slap of a beaver’s tail — a warning to my domesticated animal to mind the territory. After all, the creatures of the riverbank and woodland claimed this land long before a group of Hanover residents intervened, more than 100 years ago, to preserve it for the “public health, growth and material prosperity” of the town.

I walk with particular purpose on this late-summer day, observing the landscape more closely than usual. Over the years, storms have knocked down a slew of shallow-rooted pines, leaving the aisles of this natural cathedral littered with windfall. Erosion along the Connecticut, a constant, has caused some of the pines to lean at acute angles precariously close to the water, as if about to fall in, which they will do soon enough.

Near the transept, where the park’s main path veers away from the river and heads east across Girl Brook, the ground is unstable, loosened by frequent foot traffic. It’s here that park stewards would like to build a bridge, so that pedestrians and sports enthusiasts, including local high school and college athletic teams, can cross the brook safely without further damaging the bank of a stream essential to the watershed.

In short, Hanover’s cathedral of the pines (not to be confused with the Rindge, N.H., park officially known by that name) could use some carefully considered restoration. No big deal, you might think. Clear the windfall, prune the trees, build a bridge. The problem is that Pine Park, a ward of both the town of Hanover and Dartmouth College, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. While town and gown both supposedly share in the park’s management, neither owns the property. Consequently, lines of responsibility and sources of financing for maintenance and capital improvements have become muddled.

Pine Park actually belongs to the Pine Park Association, a voluntary nonprofit formed in 1900 when a group of 17 people got together to prevent the Diamond Match Co. from harvesting timber along the riverbank at the edge of the Dartmouth campus. Landowner Arabella Hutchinson agreed to convey 45 acres to association trustees, and later more land off Rope Ferry Road was acquired from Emily Howe Hitchcock to form a park of almost 100 acres.

The association has a rich local history, if rather poor treasury. Papers documenting its creation reveal that some of the area’s most well known public citizens were early trustees — names such as Bugbee, Gile, Howe, Hazen, Tuck, Tucker and Wilder appear on the original agreement, which notes that the purpose of the park was to preserve Hanover’s “natural wind break of forest along Occom Ridge and the vale of Tempe.”

By sparing a large stand of pine and hardwood from the ax of the Diamond Match Co., the park’s original overseers conserved what has become, for all intents and purposes, Hanover’s central park, a place where Dartmouth students, faculty and staff escape during the day, where the Hanover High School track team often trains, and where people from all over the region come to walk, jog or ski the wooded loop below the Hanover Country Club’s 18-hole golf course.

Many who enjoy Pine Park probably assume they are on Dartmouth property; the college, a major land holder, owns the adjacent golf course, parts of which actually fall within the park’s boundaries, and it maintains a proprietary eye along the Connecticut’s forested riverbank in the vicinity of the campus. Others may assume that Pine Park is a town recreation area, funded through Town Meeting. In other words, users likely conclude that plenty of resources exist to optimally manage the park.

Alas, that’s not the case. Back in 1929, a report on the park recorded what has remained the Pine Park Association’s general approach to maintenance: “The means at the disposal of its officers being small, the actual administration of the Park was limited to its conservation, the thinning and removal of mature or defective trees and such minor improvements . . .”

Not much has changed. The means at the disposal of the association, which historically has not acted as a fundraising organization, remain relatively small. A 1913 agreement committing Dartmouth College and the town of Hanover to the “control, management and possession of all real estate of the association” doesn’t seem to have much force these days. College and town officials periodically offer labor and technical expertise, including engineering studies for the bridge and other projects. But there hasn’t been comprehensive land management, despite the fact that development in the town, on campus and at the golf course has affected drainage and led to the degradation of land along the stream flowing through the park. Occasionally a few volunteers take it upon themselves to clear dead wood obstructing trails. But that’s not enough.

Pine Park would benefit from a land management plan, a dedicated funding source and more attention, both from the institutions that agreed many decades ago to manage it and from the community at large. The college and the town have an obvious stake in enhancing the user experience and in ensuring public safety; a bridge across Girl Brook would improve the main trail and allow access for those who can’t, like the deer, dart across the stream or skip across uneven steppingstones. Local and regional conservation groups such as the Hanover Conservancy and Upper Valley Land Trust might also take an interest in the effort to spiff up prime parkland.

Perhaps most compellingly, the residents of Hanover and towns beyond who visit the park ought to consider their own role in its upkeep and protection.

As a newly installed trustee of Pine Park, as well as a resident of the neighborhood, I admit to a special interest in both rigorous stewardship and financial security for the park. But this favored refuge is not mine alone. The park is popular because of its proximity to town and the unexpected seclusion it affords, despite the number of visitors it receives. Indeed, I encounter no one on a recent morning as the dog bounds over pine logs and wades into the water. All around, the ferns are beginning to rust, a sure sign of summer’s end. In the distance, I hear the insistent cry of a merlin, followed by raucous crows offering a litany in return. Matins in our own cathedral of the pines, a service to which any and all are welcome.

 

Kathryn Stearns, a resident of Hanover, is a former editor of the Valley News editorial page and an occasional contributor. Anyone interested in learning more about the park can contact the association by writing to pineparkassoc@gmail.com.