Peabody Park: Walk Softly on Natural History

Feature column, The Greensboro News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 8 April 1998.

Peabody Park: Walk softly on natural history

Every day, traffic sails by unaware, as if there’s nothing there: a stretch of in-between woods with a carpet of decaying leaves and fallen trees. Empty and dormant in winter, impenetrably dense in summer.

But when early spring blooms on the West Market Street edge of UNCG, walk through this neglected tract of land with someone like biologist Robert O’Hara and see Peabody Park for what it really is.

Peel back the dead leaves to find the strange, barrel-shaped buds of Wild Ginger that never emerge in the sun. Squat on the bank of a nameless creek that flows over prehistoric flat rocks and under impassable thickets of rhododendron. Look for the dead trees with holes where the flying squirrels sleep all day.

And realize, all at once, that you’re standing in the middle of the oldest museum in Greensboro—500 million years old if you get right down to the bedrock. Ten blocks from the center of town, right in the shadow of multimillion dollar construction, lives an astonishing relic of what grew and flew and thrived in this area long before we did.

And at least while it lasts, the admission is free.

“The good thing in people not knowing about Peabody Park is that nobody comes tramping through here,” says O’Hara, a 38-year-old professor who teaches Campus Natural History. “But the fact that people forget about it can also mean we lose it.”

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, our only company is an undergraduate zoology lab trying to net horseflies and crayfish, and some students filming a toy boat practice run for the Buffalo Creek Regatta weekend after next.

This branch of the creek is becoming silted over with runoff from the baseball stadium being built upstream near Spring Garden Street. And the noise of heavy machinery at the new music building site that took part of the park has chased the plumed, black and white Night Heron from its nest in a towering Short-leaf Pine.

But in the quieter corners of Peabody Park, a sanctuary that was set up at the old Women’s College almost a century ago, life busily goes on.

The top canopy of trees is a combination of old White Oaks, Tulip Poplars and dramatic Shaggy Hickory trees that look like set pieces from The Enchanted Forest.

The next level down—the “understory”—is flowering dogwoods, magenta-colored Redbuds and Sweet-shrubs, a little-known variety with lacy maroon flowers that give off a complicated, spicy scent.

This is where some of the birds feed—Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Cedar Waxwings—a bird with a high-pitched trill and little red spots on its wing, like drops of wax.

And finally on the forest floor is what makes early spring spectacular in Peabody Park. Hidden among the dead leaves are native woodland flowers with names that may sound foreign. They go by quickly, and you have to know where to look: patches of May Apples and curly Christmas Ferns, Red Trillium, Crane-fly Orchid and the flourescent yellow Trout Lily, named for the speckled leaves.

By the time the leafy canopy opens overhead a few weeks from now, they’ll be gone. Not your garden-variety garden.

“I’ve been on campuses that had ‘field sites,’ but usually they’re 20 miles away,” says O’Hara, stepping carefully between triangular peaks of Rattlesnake Ferns in a section of the park no more than 50 yards from the Petty Science Building.

“This setting is a very ancient one. I tell my students, it’s a finely tuned and adjusted, interlocking system of plants and animals.”

The birds feed on the crayfish and berries. The beetles and the ants pollinate the flowers under the dead leaves. The fungi—even the ugly-looking Dead Man’s Foot—fertilize the trees, which drop leaves and needles that enrich the soil century after century.

The human contribution is pretty negligible. Except to walk softly around the edges and see that Peabody Park survives.

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