Most people ascend East Rock for the views. Atop the 366-foot basalt cliff, they can admire office towers, steeples, neighborhoods, and harbor views of New Haven, Connecticut, and, on a clear day, glimpse Long Island Sound. But for me, climbing the stony Giant Steps Trail recalls my first heady night in graduate school, when new friends suggested a moonlit hike in a city park. That dark scramble, more than the starry summit vista, filled me with wonder and freedom as only an outdoor adventure can do.
The 427-acre East Rock Park originated as a naturalistic landscape in 1884, designed by Donald Grant Mitchell as a respite from mounting urban stresses. Soon carriages rolled up the curved road to the overlook, so that prosperous citizens could see the growing city they both lauded and sought to escape. Thirty years later, Yale freshman Aldo Leopold headed for East Rock whenever he could trade forestry books for a quick dose of the wild things he could not live without. One winter night hike moved him so deeply that he wrote home, “I needn’t try to describe it—the glorious moonlight, the untrodden purity of the snow, the rare sweetness of the cold air. . . . Yes, it was two o’clock when I got back, it was foolish, and all that, but Thank the Lord I went!”
By the time I attended Leopold’s alma mater, East Rock was far from untrodden. Decades of abuse by visitors and financial neglect by the city had led to eroded paths, crumbling retaining walls, and vandalized outbuildings. I managed some memorable outings between lectures and library hours—romantic bike rides with my future husband included—but mostly we escaped by car to parks and preserves farther out of town.
Like most graduate students, I was busy and, perhaps more important, transient in New Haven. It didn’t occur to me to join Friends of East Rock Park or other organized efforts to protect and restore that place I loved. I picked up the odd empty Coke can, but never helped FERP volunteers collect litter, plant trees, or repair trails. Their devotion made a difference, and, thankfully, continues today, mustering weekend weed whackers, native plant gardeners, and canoeists willing to scoop trash out of Mill River. Bikers pitch in too, annually hosting a cross-town ride raising funds to hire a few local youths for summer park crews. Receipts are modest but begin to chip away at a core threat to East Rock: chronic poverty and unemployment that limits park support in the broader community.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” wrote Leopold, frustrated by destruction of private forests and prairies for extractive farming and other development. But public open spaces become commodities too, when used to our advantage without personal investment in protecting and restoring them. In the quarter century since leaving New Haven, I’ve grown closer to Maryland’s parks and refuges than I ever felt in Connecticut. Planting trees, cleaning streams, and organizing fundraisers with friends and neighbors (old and new) has built collective attachment—to places and to other people who care about them also. Of course, Leopold put it better: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Though it took too long to understand, climbing East Rock helped me see the key to saving the places we love: community.
By Julie Dunlap (Award-winning author of children’s books including Parks for the People: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted)
Take-a-way: It takes us al,l working together, to the places we love.