About a year ago I wrote a piece that still is one of my own favorite articles, Libertarian Park.
Unfortunately, editors didn’t love it as much as I did and so it never found a home beyond my computer. Maybe I just didn’t do a good job of placing it. It seems the best I can do is share it here for now. Anyway, here’s the story of a spontaneous park that has afforded me much enjoyment in recent years, delivered in two installments. All the photos were taken on location.
Chalfant Run seeps to the forest floor in a tangle of underbrush between blocks of planned housing in east Pittsburgh. It winds through what had been a golf course, a vestige of a more prosperous era, and before disappearing into a quarter mile of culvert under the parkway east, it rushes through a seldom-seen municipal tract called “Bullock-Pens Park.” Chalfant Run’s waters will meld with those of the hopelessly polluted Thompson Run before emptying into one of the most richly waste-imbued conduits anywhere, Turtle Creek.
Bullock-Pens Park is typical of Pittsburgh’s unheralded municipal green spaces, a few acres on one hillside, several wooded acres on the facing slope and a trickle of water dividing the two hillsides. This is the type of park born of municipal planning for green spaces: there’s a trail to walk on covered in annually replenished wood chips, a couple of new pavilions and their accompanying picnic tables. There’s a gate that a police officer closes and locks nightly and there’s signage near the postage stamp of parking that keeps visitors within the bounds: “No Vehicles Beyond This Point,” “No Hunting,” “Stream Water not for Drinking or Wading Including Pets.” Dog waste is a prominent theme of the posted imperatives. Closer inspection reveals the “fine print” statutes:
- Park Hours: 8 A.M. to sunset
- A permit from the Churchill Borough Office is required for groups of more than 4 people.
- Excessive noise is prohibited.
- Bicycles are prohibited.
- Mini-bikes are prohibited.
- Snowmobiles are prohibited.
- Overnight camping is prohibited.
- Parking in non-designated areas along access roads is prohibited.
- Use of Chalfant Run for recreation or consumption is (again) prohibited.
- Possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited.
- Trapping, air guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and explosives are prohibited and punishable by fines.
- Fires must be confined to the charcoal grill.
Looking about one of the two pavilions, you’ll notice that the trees are labeled and, passing by the verboten brook, you’ll notice one more conspicuous sign warning humans and pets alike to eschew its tainted waters.
I’d rather have Bullock-Pens Park than no park. I like to have a place more convenient than the Appalachian Mountains at times to stretch my legs and breathe for a bit. I’d just like to suggest that there are better green spaces to be had.
Hiking upstream a bit from Bullock-Pens Park, a new visitor would find himself in a narrow corridor of meadow between hardwood forested hillsides, the gentle gurgling sounds of Chalfant Run still permeating the valley. Further upstream still, the meadow would broaden, interspersed with patches of inhospitable thorny-looking bushes and flowering trees. Looking closely, this visitor might recognize many of the oaks as old growth trees, having sprung from rotting acorns dissociated at least a hundred and fifty years earlier. Our putative wanderer would pause here, no doubt, to consider the drive in through Pittsburgh’s suburbs or the city’s urban core and wonder why he was now surrounded by bucolic meadow and a forested perimeter. He might remain confused for some time as he’d putter around crumbling asphalt trails, wondering whether he was supposed to be here at all or whether a jealous landowner were about to release the proverbial hounds. There just aren’t any signs here at Churchill Valley to tell a wayfarer anything about the place, whether he’s supposed to be here or not or what the rules are.
The meadow of Churchill Valley, however, is not always as it has been or always will be. It spent most of the last century as an ecological wreck, an attractive, flowery, carefully groomed wasteland. It’s healing now and the years ahead may find it a better place for man and beast, due to no one’s intelligent design.
Churchill Valley Country Club came to be when its four founders acquired the original hundred and nineteen acres in 1931. Affluent middle-aged duffers found entertainment here for eighty years or so, ritualistically pursuing monochromatic flying marbles from one closely-mowed oblong to the next and elevating the contrasts and advantages of dwarfish hockey sticks to high-minded analysis; a description of historic land use which also showcases my broad knowledge of the game of golf. I only knew the club by the property’s clubhouse where my employer’s Christmas party would be catered year after year.
Decades of assiduous fertilizer applications came and went. Chalfant Run was put in its place between restrictive river rock retaining walls. The perimeter was trimmed continuously, keeping the aggressive hawthorns, blackberries, and dogwoods at bay. Sand bunkers were renovated and drainage pipes evolved from steel to PVC. The greens were scalped religiously, stimpmeter readings scrutinized with consternation.
Churchill Valley may have been failing already before 2007 but the crash hit golf hard (more attuned folk might claim that Churchill was tee’d off by the blow of a heavy titanium wood). In desperation, management was forced to throw open the gates to the public, inviting the unwashed masses to stroll about the hallowed links, cursing triple bogeys and affecting aristocratic postures. But even their contribution wasn’t enough to bankroll Churchill’s debt payments and tax liabilities and so, about the time I moved in nearby, barriers were being erected up in the parking lot and there was little sign of life across the rolling, open hills. Changing economics had conspired, even before the collapse of Lehman, to close the landmark club; and so the Chalfant Valley was re-born.
And how was Churchill Valley re-made? Well, first, all of the aforementioned upkeep of the grounds ceased in 2013. The sun shone, particularly on less cloudy days. The earth rotated on its axis, tilted and orbited the sun in a somewhat predictable ellipse. Wind, mostly the reliable westerlies, blew across the ridge between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, often bringing rain as clouds would begin to ramp over the Appalachian rise. The rain percolated into the poisoned soil and re-charged the aquifer, dribbling its excess into Chalfant Run. Chalfant moved tons of leaf and coarse woody debris from the valleys above into the aesthetically-crafted golf course channel. The golf course grasses photosynthesized as did the new “weeds” popping up without invitation. Nature had found in Churchill Valley the closest thing she’d seen to a “vacuum” and she’d abhorred it. No one thought through the re-planting of Churchill Valley.
The change was momentous and rapid. Seeing no signs barring entry, I intruded, finding opportunity as a runner in the still-solid asphalt golf cart paths. Over the last few years Susan, my long time companion, and I have become frequent visitors, observing transformation from multiple biological perspectives – lowest lichens to top level predators. More than anything else, we watch the stream that is the focal point for all of the environmental change. It’s impossible to see, on a single visit, but the water flows in places it didn’t back in cultivated days, a mere three years ago. The stream wants to meander again, as all lowland flowages do, and so the wild pattern of alternating errosional and depositional banks of the stream is re-emerging. Stone retaining walls are being undercut and culverts circumvented. Boulders buried in topsoil become more exposed after each successive flood.
There had once been groundskeepers here to tractor away the out-of-place fallen dead wood that littered the grounds after windy nights. No more. For three years, much of that wood has been washing toward and into the stream, diversifying and enriching the formerly homogeneous flowing water trap. I help it into the water sometimes myself. Large branches, root masses and whole fallen trees help to sculpt the watercourse into meanders and deep scour holes, all good things for the fish who find reproductive and feeding advantages in the most tepid flows. We watched a few minnows darting around the deepest pools the year after the stream banks lost their cultivation. The next year showed a more promising year class and the year that’s just passed showed us hundreds, perhaps thousands, of large creek chub and blacknose dace successfully spawning on the formerly degraded riffles of Chalfant. These are resilient species, commonly the last fish “standing” in marginal habitat, but it’s a start.
I would have walked right past the gravelly voices barely perceptible around twilight in a certain secluded glen. Susan recognized the intermittent rasping though, and insisted we sit to wait for the appearance of an owl too young to effectively hoot. We weren’t disappointed when, just before dark, three down-clad great horned owls along with their attentive mother perched on the nearby branches of an ancient oak. Throughout the year, the owl family could reliably be found acting as exterminators for the rodents who were discovering regions of grass going to seed instead of remaining in compliance with the mower’s blade.
Migratory birds rest and feed here now; Susan won’t let me forget this and, frankly, it’s hard to miss when hundreds of goldfinches descend on the thistle of Chalfant Valley. This on a very recently uniform green surface where thistles would have been whacked or, worse, sprayed. It’s not taking the birds long to figure out where acres of seed are available. At least one hawk can generally be found on any given day watching Churchill’s change from an optimal perch.