by Chris Whitney
“Plant the seedling, water it, and say ‘I hope you grow!’” Harry our guide at Brook Park, a thriving community garden in the South Bronx, said as kids from the Bread and Yoga/Scribble Art Workshop Summer Camp helped plant on a field trip there last summer. I left thinking a lot about that statement – “I hope you grow!” – and I began using it as I’ve been planting – and I’ve been planting a lot recently.
My friend Luis Ramos planted the seed of taking care Inwood Hill Park in my mind several years ago when I heard his ceremonial drum thumping outside my apartment. I was drawn outside my building, which borders the park, to the sound and Luis. Luis spoke to me of the history of the Lenape on this land and his desire to tell that story, care for the land, and try to heal generations of abuse. After that meeting, I worked with Luis and other “Shorakapok Earthkeepers” on beautifying our park and learning its history.
When Luis could not continue that work last spring, Sally Fisher, my friend and fellow Earthkeeper, and I decided to organize “The Friends of Inwood Hill Park” to keep uniting members of the community in service of stewarding, learning about, and enjoying Inwood Hill Park and The Shorakapok Preserve – the 136 natural acres of that are designated as “Forever Wild.” Those 136 acres are natural, but take lots of human intervention to restore and to keep healthy after years of neglect. With limited staffing and budget in the Parks Department, it became necessary for some other kind of support that is filled by volunteer groups like the Earthkeepers and Friends of Inwood Hill Park.
The mission was clear, a small group of our friends were interested in volunteering, and we received the necessary training and support from the Parks Department to form our group. Initially, we wanted to hold monthly stewardship events and grow our group to 50 members. Little-by-little, we worked toward those goals as we connected with friends to paint park benches and trash cans, to pull out decades of garbage and non-native species from the forest, and to create art together. It was physically demanding, but satisfying work in the company of friends – yanking vines from treetops, hauling tools to the site, and hefting out seemingly endless bags of garbage.
After a season of work with our group and reaching our goals, we applied for and were awarded a grant by our neighborhood’s Councilmember, Ydanis Rodriguez, to expand our work in the park. We partnered with the Parks Department to develop a plan to reforest a section of the park along Payson Avenue. The plan involved clearing the site of non-native plants to make way for 380 trees and shrubs, 2000 native plants, over 10 pounds of native wildflower seed, and fresh compost. We began the clearing, compost spreading, and seeding work back in February with bi-monthly workdays and finally, on Saturday, April 23rd – the day after Earth Day – we were ready to plant.
I worked alongside over 60 friends and neighbors ranging in age from a few months old to over 80 years old to plant over 300 trees and 1000 native plants in a section of our beloved Inwood Hill Park. The work that day was filled with laughter, love, and strong sense of purpose as the plants were introduced to their new home.
Amidst the planting, kids were finding worms, birds were trying to roost on the new trees, and curious passersby were stopping to find out what was happening and to express their gratitude to the volunteers for their efforts. I stood as proud and tall as a Tulip Tree thinking about how far The Friends of Inwood Hill Park had come in only a year.
As the new plants sink their roots in, I too sink my roots into this piece of Earth called Inwood, Shorakapok, home. I hope the plants grow, I hope I grow, and I hope you grow… I hope we all grow, together.