I once heard a charming story about a young boy named Johnnie who adopts a small corner lot badly neglected with overgrown weeds and litter. He painstakingly cleans it, plants flowers and cultivates a little garden. One fine spring morning the local parish priest walks by and sees the boy watering the plants and flowers. Nodding approvingly, the priest says, "That's a pretty garden you and God are caring for. Yes father, the boy replies, but you should have seen it when just God was taking care of it."
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Centennial Gardens. For years it was a 12 - acre unsightly recharge basin until, in concert with village government, a spirited group of local residents led by former Mayor Steve Corbett committed themselves to transforming a squalid sump into something resplendent, enduring and, in spots, breathtakingly glorious. Albert Einstein once famously said, "The mysterious is the most beautiful thing we can experience" but in truth, beauty is the most beautiful thing we can experience. I'm convinced that in all of creation there is no more eloquent expression of God's grandeur than the beauties of nature and we owe a debt of gratitude for those who have, in a labor of love, polished this jewel for us and generations after to enjoy.
This is not to say that Centennial Gardens is a finished work; many more hands and hearts are needed to midwife from the earth the wonders of nature. But we have, in this Centennial year, reached a milestone and because the gardens in so many ways symbolize the aspirations of our community we have, on Saturday, Sept. 20, devoted an entire day in celebration. I encourage all our residents to come down for the fun-filled festivities since these gardens belong to you, an heirloom to be cherished, nurtured and preserved.
You will, however, shortchange yourself if your stay is but a one-day festive visit. The tranquil mood of Centennial Gardens is best communicated in the morning hush or in the silence of a sunlit afternoon where the poetry of nature spills over into an exuberant display of sights and scents. Human beings respond to beauty and its effects are uplifting, emotional and immediate.
This is why any attempt to encounter nature and transmute it through the alchemy of words is bound to impoverish the experience. Nature, like life, must be encountered directly, personally and intensely. Still, the luscious nomenclature describing the genus and classification of plants and flowers are among the richest descriptions and a veritable treasure of the English language.
A walk around the perimeter is a feast in itself with flourishing islands of plant life seemingly floating on a sea of grass. To voyage into nature's kingdom is to disembark upon a pilgrimage of discovery and revelation. The walks are unexpected surprises with cascades of greens, purples, reds and yellows and scents that tantalize and delight.
A Paperback Maple with its thin cinnamon colored and peeling bark, a Weeping Cherry with pyramidal evergreen Magnolias with large creamy white flowers that bloom in late spring and early summer when its thick and waxy flowers are followed by showy red fruits. A Crepe Myrtle has a spectacular midsummer bloom with a variety of colors on small crepe papery flowers. A Weepy Copper Beech that can live for over 300 years and is suited for properties with great sweeps of lawn majestically marks its spot.
There is the odd and curious - an isolated Atlas Blue Cedar, forlorn of company, eccentrically unfurls its drooping branches in an exasperated expression of weariness if not exhaustion. On Raff Avenue there is a magnificent island whose foliage seemed to thirstily drink the air and is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Keith Fairben who seven years earlier heroically perished during the September 11, 2001 rescue attempt. Here nature serves as living memorials to the loved and lost and surely this is because its beauty, like our own lives, is but a brief and miraculous incandescence.
The Floral Parkway side is adorned with a Royal Star Magnolia that has pale, silvery pink buds that will eventually open into a clear ice white flower. Fluffy, puffed sedums triumphantly poke through the foliage while impatiens of whites, reds, pinks and lavenders embellish the surroundings with a celebratory display of color.
As I walk through the grass still blanketed with morning dew and onto a strewn path of gray pea stones leading into the entrance beyond the gardens I'm met by Tom and Rosemary Nevins who live across the street and have been involved with Centennial Gardens from its beginnings. As kind and patient tour guides they usher me inside the stately black gates where I embrace a world where God's green earth is copious and fragrant.
I focus upon a large stone excavated, I'm told, from the Cross Bronx Expressway furnished with an inscription from Hans Christian Anderson: "Just living is not enough said the butterfly. One must have freedom, sunshine and a little flower." As if to emphasize the point, a sculptured girl gently holding two butterflies is transfixed in childlike adoration of the wonders about her. Along with the birdhouses, the benches, wind vanes and gurgling fountains are iron cast statues depicting mostly children, cherubims and small animals. A statue of a firefighter, steadfast and fearless, guards a pathway and a favorite of mine "the digging boy" with a shovel planted in the earth reminds me of the story of the boy digging in the manure for the fabled pony. A metaphor for those struggling early days, only in our fairy tale the hidden pony is a radiant garden.
There are several paths, one leading to Crabapple Way and another to a spectacular shaded pathway where the leafy arms of two long columns of trees veil us from the sometimes-burning sun. Under the hazy pollen light, one is treated to the subtleties of tones and shadows that interchangeably lighten and darken the foliage. Soon these sunlit leaves will turn into autumnal colors of deep reds, browns, yellows and oranges enriching the landscape with raucously brilliant hues and tints even as the season itself reddens, brightens and ripens.
Traversing over this picaresque scene one almost expects to hear strains of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream or Vivaldi's Four Seasons. But in truth nature's hymnal is best heard in the sanctuary of silence. It is enough to hear the birds, the wind rustling the leaves or the murmurings of fountain waters in order to make peace with oneself and the unfairness of the world.
As a roped barrier protects the wayfarer from the steep slopes on either side, it is but a short walk to the walking bridge that spans some 72 feet across symbolizing not only a connection linking the north to the south but a transition from the past to the future. On both sides plants, flowers bushes, vines and shrubs thrive in profusion and conspire to rouse in one's soul a natural piety for all living things.
A Thundercloud Plum happily greets you with fragrant mid-pink flowers that open before the leaves, which are purple and hold their color until late summer. Meanwhile exquisite Japanese Maples stubbornly defy anonymity among their surroundings and the magnolias with their creamy large flowers beseechingly lure searching eyes. There is the Eastern Rosebud whose purplish rosebuds string like jewels along the black furrowed branches and open to reveal small, pink to lilac blossoms. There are weeping cherries whose velvety red strikingly contrasts with a bright blue sky. A Pussy Willow that is native to northeast Asia and Europe trembles in the mild breeze and a Black Alder Holly well, Dios santos --- it's magnificent! The Hosta Plants are inviting and the flowering Crab Apple, the Hydrangea Tardiva and the Snow Fountain Cherry that produces white flowers in the spring with the foliage turning orange to red in the fall are all bewitchingly intriguing.
Multitudes of roses donated by the family of Robert Duggan who for years cultivated rows of them at his home on Willow Street have, in his memory, been transplanted to Centennial Gardens. These red, yellow, white and salmon colored roses are a fragrant bouquet that invokes in us, what Martin Buber called, the hallowness of the everyday. The perfume and showy flowers of the lilies attracts the bees that pollinate with seeming liberality and a neighboring butterfly bush attracts all kinds of this fluttering species to the delight of the ardent or aspiring lepidopterist.
During my itinerary around the Gardens I see, working on her hands and knees, Carol Coogan whose devotion to the Gardens is not only evidenced by her daily toil but also her encyclopedic knowledge of virtually everything that is growing on the land. Without pausing from her planting and pruning she generously answers all my questions about the pink dogwoods whose branches in early spring are adorned by red berries, the varieties of flowers planted in the clumped dirt and the gorgeously eye catching red and purple Celosia Annuals.
Enlightened, I meander to the overlook situated on the east side and perfectly positioned to survey the Garden's lower regions. Equipped with binoculars, one begins to appreciate the expanse, the openness that gives an even greater illusion of bigness from its already vast size. Below are alluring triangle gardens, geometric gems that breathe vitality and exuberance into the nostrils of a landscape that was once dead and wearied acreage. In the neighborhood resides a Red Horse Chestnut tree whose scarlet blooms in springtime are stunning with its showy red panicles standing up like candelabras at the branch tips late in the season.
The work down here in this once secluded hollow of the earth is both hard and hot as the temperature, especially in summer months, spikes uncomfortably upward. Despite the sultry atmosphere, it is here we find a 300-foot low stone wall that was erected under the supervision of Terrence Christman as part of his Eagle Scout project and has the pleasant appeal looking like something you might see in an English countryside. Here also is the Children's Garden with its tulip bulbs and assorted catchalls. One also finds marigolds and petunias as well as Asiatic and Oriental lilies. The fittingly named "Giving Garden" where produce is grown for the needy is prodigal with fruits and vegetables, as our growing rabbit population has discovered. There are now plans for the Children's Garden to expand east of the bridge where a large white gazebo earmarks the aspirations of the future.
Perhaps the most poignant vista of all is the "Garden of Remembrance" that is domiciled near Carnation Avenue. Here a Montgomery Spruce forms into a broad silver blue cone, a Deadis Cedar, which was introduced in the year 1831 from the Himalayas has found roots in our soil and a golden Hinoki Cypress with its brilliant gold over green coloration year round are all nestled around a waterfall whose waters softly babble over the silent, mounted stones. They are mute witnesses that there are things in life that cannot be understood only felt; and whether one sojourns here in the pallor of dawn or the velvet dusk one senses in this remote spot, peace, freedom, a higher power.
At the dedication of this waterfall, not one year ago, I noted that, "Centennial Gardens has brought us closer together as a community by uniting hands, hearts and minds. It has humanized a common cause, it has strengthened our commitments, enriched our lives, deepened our sense of purpose, made us proud of where we live and prouder still of who we are." There is also, something else.
Late in the 19th century when Henry Adams visited the Chartres Cathedral in Paris, France, he thought the glories of its architecture represented the struggle of man's own littleness to grasp the infinite. It is, I would conjecture, no different at Centennial Gardens. By bringing art to nature we, like Johnnie and his little street corner, leave something better than we found it. I am certain that the beauty we contribute to Centennial Gardens will outlast our lifetime and point to something beyond us. Like our children it is our passport to the future, the answer to our mortality and the bearer of our hopes and dreams. Let's roll up our sleeves and be a part of it.
If you wish to become a volunteer please send a note to the Centennial Gardens Committee in c/o 140 Verbena Avenue, Floral Park.