Nathan's Park

Fri, 04/17/2015 - 8:30am
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Old signs disappear and fall from memory. Some, if we are lucky, reappear, such as the one that once graced the entrance to the Nathan Mott Park.

It is big, neatly lettered, including the names of the original park trustees: Clarence Lewis, Lester Dodge, Russell Champlin, Harry Smith and W. Earl Dodge. It was found in a shed behind the Darius on Dodge Street and brought to the Historical Society. We can only speculate why it was taken down and never restored.

The park was created by the will of Lucretia Mott Ball, written in 1939, two years before her death. She had named the trustees, and even left an endowment, tiny today but at the time more than adequate.

The original tract, in the will identified as “my father's farm,” stretched west from Center Road, pastures and hillsides almost completely clear in the 1940s. At the outset there were more than 50 acres of land in the first dedicated green space, and the first trustees talked of creating a golf course; this when Block Island already had one at the Vaill on the nearby bluffs.

There was not, however, an airport and less than 10 years after its inception the park began losing land to the state, first its easternmost part which would become the west end of the new runway. Center Road was relocated, swung out into a wide curve. Later, more land was taken and landing lights — since removed — were installed on a hilltop west of the highway. The sole trustee in 1975 wrote of the loss of land to the state: “One can only assume again that since at the time the economic state of the island was at a very low ebb, the Board may have felt that this economic stimulus to recovery was needed more than a park, hence they did not throw any obstacles in the way.”

The trees planted under the direction of W. Earl Dodge came to be all that remained of the efforts of the first trustees. Evergreens, for the most part, rows and rows of little saplings, took root and grew into the Enchanted Forest, a place dark and cool on a sunny day, a slope so steep the layers of fallen needles were a magic carpet well hidden from airplanes so close and so far away.

The fact of the Nathan Mott Park being the island's first dedicated green space fell away from awareness. Eventually, the park land was transferred to Block Island Conservancy with easements to The Nature Conservancy which maintains the trails interconnecting the system of greenways that tie together the island's open spaces.

The Forest is a memory, a name on a map, a few dead trunks remaining, a haven for wild things. The stand was a victim of time, the odd direction of the wind of Hurricane Bob, disease and, the ultimate culprit, the airport when it was determined the remaining trees were too tall and had to be removed or topped.

On a day in spring it is a wonderful place. Peepers do not wait for twilight around the vernal pond on the path to the Enchanted Forest site. They sing in full chorus, not quieting even with the approach of a big dog. It is a bit of an Emerald Kingdom, the vines around the water are brightly green in this protected spot, so closer to summer than most around the island that are only running red with new life. 

It is the path less familiar to me, not the one that goes sweeping around the wide meadow rather heads straight into the depths of the park, tall brush on either side, a better choice when accompanied by a dog whose idea of staying with me is keeping me in sight. It has been awhile since I have gone that way but it feels oddly unchanged from an inaugural walk years ago, demanding the same “watch your step” caution that makes me check to be sure I have my phone in my pocket.

I love my Autumn but Lassie she is not. Were I to sprawl on the ground, she would want to play then would simply lie down beside me and wait for me to move; I have no delusions on that score.

The terraced “steps” look as endless as those leading to the beach below Mohegan Bluffs and it has been a long winter inside. Planes roar overhead with the constancy of a Sunday in summer. A wonder of this place has always been looking back to see the length of the runway seemingly at eye level. It is an oddity, the very facility that consumed so much of the park being a part of its appeal, at least visually.

The trail is steep, along the edge of the old forest, and I know these awkward boxes that are too high to be real steps are part of a land stabilization effort. As empty as it feels in April I know it is necessary, the traffic is greater than those days when we slid down the hill on a blanket of needles. At the top of the world I look back and my eye is caught by white, a dead deer lying on the south side of the steps, only the width of them away from where I walked. Neither the dog nor I noticed.

To the west is cleared land, old pastures where the view is of the Beacon Hill tower. We leave the deer behind, go out to Old Mill Road and walk the longer way back by the main road. It has been a while and I am surprised that cars there when I arrived are still in the little parking lot, more surprised when people I did not encounter, one with two dogs, get into them and drive away.

It was been a beautiful afternoon, a light jacket day, perfect to meander what was once Nathan's farm.