September 2, 2016
Boston Nature Center, Mattapan
Mass Audubon operates only a few sanctuaries that can truly be categorized as “urban”, and of these, the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan best fits the description. Only a short distance from Mattapan’s downtown, and on the grounds of the former Boston State Hospital, this small oasis of green (67 acres) is surrounded by urban neighborhoods, highways and businesses. You’re never quite out of earshot of traffic, sirens, construction noise and other sounds of the city.
The Nature Center is a hive of activity when I arrive at 8 am. Today is the final day of summer camp, and a steady parade of parents are dropping off their kids. Counselors are busy preparing for the day’s activities and herding the campers into groups. I wander through the impressive George Robert White Environmental Education Center – the first “green” municipal building in Boston, and then stroll through the Butterfly Garden outside. A diverse assortment of trees surrounds the Center, many of them huge, venerable specimens. I get busy with a painting of a mourning dove basking in the morning sun.
The dove is perched in an old tamarack, and the twigs and cones provide an interesting pattern around the bird. A song sparrow and several goldfinches also make for good models, and as I work, a warbling vireo sings from a big poplar nearby.
I meet program coordinator Adam Leiterman and get a tour of the Nature Center, including the indoor observation hive of honeybees. Then, Adam offers some advice and helpful tips before I set out to explore the two miles of trails.
My first stop is the Clark-Cooper Community Gardens – one of the oldest and largest community gardens in Boston, providing garden space for more than 260 local families. With acres of flowers, vegetables and fragrant herbs, it’s a great place to escape the bustle of the city for a few hours.
On the Snail Trail, I pass through a mature forest of oaks and silver maples, interrupted by sunny glades of lush undergrowth. I watch a flock of young starlings gorging on wild grapes, and make some drawings.
Young starlings display this unusual plumage for only a short time in late summer. Their tawny gray heads are set off by black vests densely spangled with bold white spots. A black “bandit mask” on the face gives them an intense, slightly sinister look. The combination of the fruiting grapevines and the smartly dressed birds leaves a powerful impression – and one that I re-create later in my studio.
The Fox Trail circles a large cattail marsh. It’s an unexpected surprise, this expanse of cattails in the midst of the city. If it weren’t for the roar of traffic coming from the American Legion Highway, I could imagine I’m in a wild and remote place!
It’s been a very dry summer, and there is precious little water in the marsh. Deer and other animals have trampled down trails through the cattails, and several of these “game trails” can be seen from the overlook.
Back at the Nature Center, the last day of camp is winding down, and a group of kids are playing tag while they await their rides home. I live in a lightly developed, rural area of the state, where nature is right outside the door. To me, the city can seem like a place where nature is losing the competition for space. The Boston Nature Center demonstrates that the natural world can be accessible to all people in all places.