The Fourth and Gill Park, recently renovated, is the closest park to my apartment. It is a nice park, with huge oak and catalpa trees, picnic tables, and new playground equipment. Unfortunately, it is a 20-minute walk away—too far for a small child to walk without getting tired. For us, it's more of an occasional excursion than a daily hang-out. Another, smaller, park on Gratz Street, created by the neighborhood association when it seemed the Interstate 40 road construction would wipe out the old park, recently closed and the land was sold for residential construction. The city refused to maintain two parks in Fourth and Gill. This is too bad, because children are better served by many small parks scattered throughout the neighborhood, within walking distance of their house, rather than one large playground to which a parent must drive them.
Even tiny scraps of land can be used as parks. It is only a two-minute walk to a sliver of public land between Luttrell Street and Glenwood Avenue, just before Glenwood bridges to cross Hall of Fame Drive. This space belongs to nobody, and so dog owners walk their dogs there so they don't have to pick up after them. In our family we call it the Dog Poo Corner. Still, it's the closest public space, and we play there more often than one might expect.
A few years ago, someone planted a group of trees in Poo Corner that partially block the horrifying view of Hall of Fame. There are several evergreens, a redbud, and a tulip poplar. The tulip poplar, with its tall straight trunk and evenly spaced limbs, is a particularly good climbing tree.
I pick my way across the dog poo and lift my oldest child into a tree. It's best to keep them off the ground here, anyway. She climbs like a possum and soon she's in the top of the tulip poplar.
"The Tennessee state tree," I am proud to tell her.
In December, Bazillion Blooms planted three dogwoods, another regionally significant tree, in Poo Corner. Attached to each tiny trunk, like a note pinned to an orphan, is a card that reads, "Take care of me. Water me. Don't mow over me." Bazillion Blooms, under the umbrella of the Dogwood Arts Festival, is "a dogwood tree-planting program to beautify our East Tennessee communities, improve the health of our environment and foster community support and pride in our beloved native dogwood," according their website.
How could I say planting trees is anything less than a noble endeavor? And yet: Even in full flower, dogwoods are tame little trees—not likely to fall on powerlines, but not likely to inspire awe, either.
Way down the street, a truly awesome oak looms over the 800 block of Luttrell, dwarfing the three two-story Victorian houses beneath its vast canopy, attesting to power greater than ourselves. Someone, long dead, had the courage and vision to plant it. Last spring another huge oak tree fell on the lawn of the North Knoxville Branch Library. Bazillion Blooms volunteers planted a cluster of dogwoods in its place.
Nevertheless, there's something satisfying in arboreal motifs: Dogwoods in Dog Poo Corner, Magnolias on Magnolia Avenue, ornamental cherries on Cherry Street. About the pair of 100-year-old oak trees on the crest of East Oak Hill Avenue, I've often wondered: Which came first, the name or the trees?
Across the street from Poo Corner is an unusual road sign—a yellow rectangle with black arrows pointing in two directions. On its reflective surface, someone has sketched in black marker a cartoon dog and a message one can only read at night. "Everything fits...but me...."
I am always thinking about the way people fit into their landscapes. I am intrigued by the ways people use public space. Some have used Poo Corner as a dumping ground, because it didn't belong to anybody. But, because it belongs to everybody, some have planted trees there, trees my children can play in.
While I'm spacing out, my youngest is climbing down.
"I'm going to jump," she says, swinging from the redbud, her sneakers aimed for the befouled ground. Whoops. I catch her just in time.