Nature and Nurture

Nature and Nurture

“The outside loop at Edgewood Park is two and a half miles. But when you take into consideration all the little paths that go here and there, you can easily have eight to ten miles,” says Martin Torresquintero as fellow ranger Harry Coyle fires up a reciprocating saw nearby. The paths’ collective length makes them a constant occupation of the outdoor staff at the Department of Parks & Trees. Rangers like Torresquintero—the city’s Outdoor Activities Coordinator, who oversees and offers instruction in water sports, mountain biking and rock climbing—and Coyle, an educator specializing in owls and turtles, occupy an ambassadorial role, connecting the public to their natural spaces, but they are also constantly laboring behind the scenes to carry out what Torresquintero calls “the public works” of the parks.

When I first caught up with Torresquintero in February, he was preoccupied, among other things, with Edgewood’s trees. “There are a couple of trees that fell down and became big obstructions on some of the popular trails. But because of ice and snow on the ground—unless it’s like a real emergency—we don’t cut any trees . We wait. It’s very slippery.” Winter weather is one way nature reclaims trails from people. Even once the snow had receded, a storm-tossed tree with twice the girth of a single ranger wielding a chainsaw couldn’t be easily rolled or hauled away. However, a trail-wide section of that tree could be cut out from the middle like a slice from a yule log cake, the remainder left to decompose. Such an approach makes for shorter work, but it also suits an aesthetic of negotiation with nature that inclines the Parks & Trees rangers to remove just enough and no more.

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Torresquintero got a call around the same time regarding another tree that had taken an ungainly fall into Edgewood Pond. But that one the rangers chose to leave alone. “What may not be visually impressive to somebody may be the best thing for nature,” Torresquintero explains. “And sure enough there are now cranes that shelter in there. Turtles love it” too. Torresquintero sees them basking on the tree most mornings, dotting the unsubmerged limbs like barnacles. For their part, the Parks & Trees rangers will rake, blow and cut out a path that gets people within view of such scenes, but they will also stop short where they’ve decided further cutting would supplant the scene itself.

Over the winter, Parks & Rec also christened new trails in several New Haven parks. In the planning and building process, every turn was as important as where a given trail ultimately wound up. “We want to make sure it will take us from Point A to Point B in an enjoyable way, but also in a way that protects what’s already there,” Torresquintero explains. “So if I have a choice to go over something delicate—like mountain laurel—or a little rocky terrain, I will much prefer the rocky terrain.” They built one scenic trail over a path made by the hoof prints of deer, figuring they couldn’t go wrong with a course nature had already charted.

Typically, spring brings walkers to trails that had already been made ready for them, but the pandemic kept otherwise quarantined people on the trails all winter. “In all the years that I’ve been here,” Torresquintero says, “I’ve never seen such a dramatic increase in the usage of trails.” This charged the crew’s maintenance routine with an element of improvisation, like laying the tracks in front of the train. “At East Rock, when the trails were so overrun with people, we figured out we need to do something.” So the city closed Farnam and English Drives to vehicles—though English has recently reopened—and essentially transformed the connected roads into a wide, paved footpath. “The trails were narrow, so it was hard to maintain social distancing. And people started going farther and farther.” Less popular paths became more popular as walkers fanned out across all the city parks, putting more distance among themselves.

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The pandemic also caused an uptick in bad behavior by parkgoers, including chopping down trees to make teepees and campfires. Anything could materialize on a trail inspection, taking over the Parks & Trees crew’s afternoon. They found themselves having to print and distribute signage with new things to tell people not to do. One morning, Ranger Coyle found a covered basket containing somebody’s deceased pet. He dug a grave on the spot.

As winter turns to spring, trail inspection becomes a matter of trail walking, noting new obstacles, then carving a person-sized column to walk through. Torresquintero’s attention migrates from the death of trees to the rampant growth of other plants. “We want to make sure that you have enough clearance so you’re not going to get snagged on anything with thorns or poked in the eye by a branch. In addition to that, we have to take care of the invasives.” By removing invasive plants from the trails, the Parks & Trees crew serves both the ecosystem and its visitors at the same time.

One such project—near the northern river crossing of the so-blazed Blue trail—had similarly started with the intent to make the trail more accessible and ended up making the river more accessible to itself. The trail had been subject to flooding for years, its marshy approach to the park’s only footbridge mitigated by three 10-foot sections of boardwalk built to US Forest Service specification. Over winter, the flooding had been bad enough that it took up one of the sections and deposited it 15 feet away. “We realized that… what appeared to be natural drainage was full of leaves and weeds that had created a kind of dam,” Torresquintero says. Going in with a backhoe to dig a channel through a thicket of invasive plants and garbage ended up restoring something like a natural cycle of overflow and drainage that, Torresquintero is certain, predated the transformation of that part of the riverbank into parkland.

The boardwalk could then be simply dragged back into place, but the Parks & Rec crew are resigned to the eventuality of building another boardwalk. Nature’s last and best weapons are erosion and decay. My final visits with the crew saw them replacing old, sodden infrastructure. They climbed into waders to erect new wood duck nesting boxes in the shallow parts of Edgewood Pond. More laboriously, they hacked away at water-soaked wooden steps with, by my count, five different tools of dismantlement, including Ranger Coyle’s reciprocating saw. “According to Harry’s record, this was done in the seventies,” Torresquintero says. “So when you think about it, this is probably 50-year-old wood… Everything has a life expectancy.” He hopes the replacement steps will last even longer—“because if you spend maybe 50 percent more, then you can more than double the lifespan of something”—but he also knows that, eventually, a future crew will be back to replace them again.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 2 features, from left, rangers Martin Torresquintero and Aaron Daniel Robles with Youth @ Work member R.J. Staggers.

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