Two Parks, One Weekend

Though this series of wanders in the Dutch natural environment is about seeking and going into places well apart from the urban landscape, following the Driebergen wander, I had a planned surgery on my right hand—a small procedure, but involving stitches and immobility. This is written clumsily with my left hand.  I made two trips the weekend prior to the surgery during brief sunny moments, visiting two large parks at either end of Utrecht’s urban sphere to the east and west. I wanted to experience the difference wandering in these blended spaces where nature and urban environment meet.

1. Wandel 2(a) Máxima Park, Saturday.

The sun appears after a rainy morning and finds me lost in a computer screen, searching for freelance work. I wrench myself away and get on the bike, heading west over the Schippersbrug to the Groendijk. It’s a familiar route, gliding under old willows and past the century-old houses of de Meern. I’m  feeling for a place to sit under some trees, maybe do a session of qi gong. After too long “achter de scherm” I long to absorb some energy from the elements. In my bag is tea and an apple.

Past the sport facilities on Parkzichtlaan I reach an entrance to the middle of Máxima Park, gliding between high honeycomb “walls,” delicate cast cement installations that border this part of the park, partly covered with red and green leaves of climbing vines. Next to a high arching bridge over a long pond I lock the bike, golden beech leaves murmuring above. I begin walking along the paved path toward the end of the water. A moment later I step off  onto the grass. I didn’t come here to walk on pavement. 

Máxima Park is at the heart of the newest area in the city of Utrecht, Leidsche Rijn – named after the remaining aspect of the Rhine river that flows through it on the way to Leiden and the sea. It has been developing for 20 years and encompasses the older villages of De Meern, Vleuten and unincorporated rural areas in-between. In the center is a museum seated at the location of an old Roman Castellum and near where a Roman ship was found in the basin of the river – now on display inside. The park emerges west of here and spreads in a vaguely fish-shaped form west and north, surrounding the one-street village of Alendorp and its last-century houses, crossing under the Vleutensbaan and ending at the village of Harrinsenplaats. The park was designed by landscape architect Adriaan Greuze in 1997 after winning the proposal call and officially opened, by Queen Máxima, in 2013.[1] It has the feel of something meticulously designed to incorporate the desires of multiple stakeholders, with specific areas for recreation and sport, for climbing children, for thirsty and hungry strollers, garden watchers and with an emphasis on open sky, space, and useability. It has a cafe and reconstructed curving waterway along the old Rhine path, here called “Vikingsrijn,” where you can manouever large swan-headed pedalboats let by a dock next to the cafe terraces.  It has something for everyone, and checks all the boxes of what should be included in a city park in a newly developed neighborhood.  It is green, full of trees and bits of water and benches, meandering paths lovingly paved for the ease of strollers and other wheeled devices, and on a sunny Saturday in November well-trod.

This section of park has large swaths of young beeches planted in evenly spaced rows more reminiscent of a tree farm than a bosquet. There are hundreds in this area – just beeches and grass. I’m puzzled. Working with the ecologically-minded garden designers of #Wilde Weelde this year, I am sensitized to diversity in planting that invites and supports many forms of life.  Across the water I see a grove of something else and make my way to it. By the other end of the bridge are moderately full-grown trees in the cypress family – the leaves now red, their fringes reminding me of Japanese maples. They carpet the ground in crimson. 

This grove of 10 or so trees on the water’s edge occupies a small corner of this area, sitting in-between a thicker wood (of beeches) and the rectangular pond. The ground under them is carved by rivulets from the pond into marshy islands forming an attractive place to sit and look out over the water. There were gaps in the tall grasses along the water‘s edge where I could see the bridge, sky and various gulls scooting about, and it was relatively peaceful. I sat under a tree and ate my apple, and felt for whether I wanted to stay there for a while. Couples and families passed by, and there was a young couple playfully taking photographs of each other 10 meters from me. I could not settle into the contours of my mind, nor could I simply enjoy the liveliness of my surroundings.  I wanted to feel alone.

I had seen signs for a Japanese garden; hoping to find something interesting I followed them. In my life in New York and Philadelphia I had experienced many traditional Japanese gardens and enjoyed the qualities of unfolding vistas and the sculptural varieties of trees and plants. I had to walk quite a ways in order to cross the Vikingsrijn so I could enter. On the other side of the water, the garden seemed to be hiding behind a perfectly even berm of rhododendron.

I was still walking in the grass, zigzagging through more bosquet of identical young beeches, their newness naked under a now steel sky. I entered the Japanese garden, on a path passing between two berms. Rhododendrons in large even masses rode gently along both sides of a winding path, flanked with a curved pond featuring large stones—rarities in the lowlands. A section on one side planted with Japanese pines – four in a row! – and some azaleas for variety. Tucked away in further curves were grassy areas. One was occupied by two rabbits, munching on the grass. One was older, with mottled colors and very chill – it didn’t mind my presence. The other, a younger brown one, was quite skittish. I knealt in the grass and watched them for a while. People strolled by on the pavement behind me. This was my wildlife interaction for the day, and moment of stillness. All three of us had dropped out of the sky into this neatly manicured armpit of grass, but there was no looking-glass-or tea house-to be found.

The sun behind a shelf of cloud and a cold wind dropping the temperature encouraged me to return home.  Other parts of the park hinted at by signs, such as the Vlindertuin (Butterfly garden) would have to come another time.

After struggling with how to write about my experience in Máxima Park, I acknowledge I haven’t given myself much time to explore it. The park website offers a lot of information and an interactive map. Studying the map you see more than a dozen different features highlighted, each of a different sort, to the point that you might think, if you had not visited, that Máxima Park resembles more of a theme park than green space. It is somewhere in-between. 

It also occurs to me that the point of a park in general, and Máxima Park specifically, is not to be ‘natural’ at all – but to integrate.  As with so many areas of this city, the parks and green areas are a binding factor masquerading as open space. Like the invisible meridians in the energetic body of Chinese medicine, the parks and green spaces are as much a part of the dwelling constructions as the streets. It has a seamless quality, where the green is not distinct from the surroundings but interwoven with it, and thus never without the energy of development and occupation. This tension is not negative. My experience of Utrecht is that the green spaces – Griftpark, Kromme Rijn, Biltsegrift & Zilveren Schaats, Oog in Al and the Merwede’s Kanaalweg, Strand, and Keulsekade; the greenway along the Vecht to Slot Zuilen, Julianapark, even the hofs and old monastic medicinal gardens of the binnenstad, and the meandering greens along its singel, help each neighborhood maintain its integrity, each with its own unique qualities and feeling, while being part of a collective whole. This is something that dense cities like New York lack. As a cyclist moving around and through the city from any direction to any other you experience continual moments of sweetness in how the fabric of each neighborhood fits like a singular piece in a quilt. 

Beeches in the Hoge bos, Amelisweerd

2. Wandel 2(b) Fort Rijnauwen, Amelisweerd Estate, Sunday.

Last day before surgery. Today I finish cooking the last dishes for the next ten days: ratatouille, Lentil soup, roasted root vegetables, rice, potatoes, salmon, chicken thighs, quinoa with feta, cassoulet. I start in the morning, early, because the sun is coming out in the afternoon, according to “buienradar.”  I finish around two and hop on the bike in low, full sun – sunset in 3-ish hours. It feels fantastic to be out in the golden light. After a short detour by the Exbunker exhibit in Wilhelmina Park—a mature, elegant park with curving pond and many large trees in fall colors—I thread myself between the old Tolhuys and the Kromme Rijn to the backside of the Uithof, facing Fort #Rijnauwen.

I first encountered this route when I did reconaissance for a Walking Meditation workshop I led for students at Utrecht University during their first-ever “wellness week” this past spring.  On a map the areas of #Amelisweerd and Fort Rijnauwen are clearly just next to the modern Uithof campus, but in my mind and body they had been two distinct places, totally unconnected as destinations.  

It’s delightful to set off from the “back corner” of the airy, open campus on the tree-lined allée Zandlaan that makes a straight 1,2km shot across green pastures in the direction of the small burg of Bunnik. In this place one can imagine for a moment a time a century ago when asphalt roads for buses and cars didn’t exist. It’s one of the magical influences of bicycling on the infrastructure here that has always impressed me: there are many areas where as a bicyclist (or walker) you move through spaces between built areas absent the presence of motorized vehicles of any kind. The resulting quiet is key to the experience. In pasture-lands between de Bilt, the Uithof, Zeist and Bunnik are car-free havens for bicyclists, walkers, and sheep.  

I left my bike locked by a tree on the edge of the Hoge bos, the triangle of forested area between the fort and the Uithof, and then walked on the narrowest paths into the middle of the wood — whatever side trail looked least used, I took.  Being Sunday and sunny there were many people out. I ran into someone I knew. But this was quite a special walk. The atmosphere of this tiny forest is of a portal whose older origin is not fully diminished by the control exercised upon it.  It is relatively wild: unlike the tightly curated Máxima Park, the trees have a considerable and lively mix of undergrowth and deadwood, and there’s a nice mixture of different species, though nothing very unusual. Older beeches tower with their smooth skins and the eyes that remain from being limbed-up, oaks and a handful of birch, ash, chestnut, hawthorn mingle throughout.  I had the idea to find a place where the sun would be on my face, but there are no hills or knolls clearly inviting this – and in the end it was also cold, so I decided to walk paths I didn’t know. At one corner on the Bunnik side of the Fort, five different paths come together to connect various places – there is a wayfinding post with direction indicators for Houten, Bunnik, Utrecht, Zeist, and Fort Vechten. Though busy with couples and families in every direction, I felt again the sense of being in another time where the horse and carriage would not have been out of place. Indeed, the area of Rijnauwen and Amelisweerd are heritage land and estates that have been in place for 200 years or more. Sights of the homes of knights and nobility, they often have many hectares of land shaped for pleasure and preserved from extensive agricultural use. Their forms – geometrically shaped forests with wide and narrow paths; allées connecting vistas, suggesting movement across domains; designated areas for animals, for orchards, parterres and enclosures for herbs or flowers—are similar here to their formal cousins in France and England, sharing a long history that reaches not only into the past of the Netherlands, but of Europe overall since the Renaissance and before. To speak of this as nature is to deploy the word, ‘nature’, as an 18thc. lord or horticulturalist might – a dance where the human’s insight is helping nature to show her best face. It is a version where nature is an artist’s material, rather than an ancestor, host, or fellow traveler. To walk in such gardens and forests is illuminating, gives pleasure, but is not a place where connection to the invisible power of primordial environments is very accessible. This I recognize as my dilemma, the one which inspired this series. Where to be apart from the hand of human ingenuity?

I walked from the fort south on a long allée lined with old beech and oak lit from the side by the sinking sunlight, leading to the 18c. #Oud Amelisweerd estate house, now a museum, and to de Veld Keuken, a farm-to-table restaurant in the old coachhouse next door. This sits at the southern heart of the landgoed[2], where I’ve been many times but always coming from the south, and always by bike. It’s a lovely, lively place on the meandering Kromme Rijn, in a place where the river has flowed since ancient times. Naturally it was quite busy, but I managed to have a hot chocolate on the terrace, gazing out over the landscape, pretending this was what I sought. I returned to my bike with the sun on my shoulder, heading below the horizon. A place where it is so pleasant to walk with feet on dirt and sand, surrounded by some ecological diversity and history, and yet so accessible, is a balm even if it isn’t remote and wild. Is that a problem?  

At the most basic level, why leave the house at all to go outside? Especially if you have a garden, like your house, and relish time alone? Ming Kuo, a researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has published results from years of controlled studies on the impact of green spaces in urban environments and natural spaces overall that suggests they are more than “amenities” or provide space and service to essential species, but serve important roles in shaping how people behave towards each other, criminality, psychological stability and physical health. The impacts are eye-opening – a brief couple:  Blighted urban neighborhoods where abandoned lots were converted to parks and gardens saw a 9% drop in their crime rates. A stay in a forest for three days increases the number of the immune system’s natural killer cells 50% – and is still heightened above pre-forest-walk levels a month later.  The story of Kuo’s research and her own surprise at the significance of the results came to me through the podcast Hidden Brain last year – here is a link to the recording, the episode called “Our Better Nature.”

Wandering in a park or a landgoed, I understand that it’s purpose is not to provide an experience of nature – it’s purpose is to provide culturally-conditioned open space.  Parks such as Máxima and the estate grounds of Amelisweerd are curated experiences on-purpose – so they will not satisfy the same needs as a walk in places allowed to be (or preserved as) natural, but they still feel necessary to me as part of the fabric of where I live, what makes it liveable.

My reference points for parks also suggest bias to my analysis – growing up in southeast Pennsylvania, parks on the edges or outside of cities tend to be preserved nature around exceptionally special features of the landscape such as natural rivers and waterfalls, and elevated landforms.  Wissahickon Park for example, along the stream of the same name, descends through a 30-meter gorge along the western flank of the city from several springs to the north. This area was frequented in the early 19thc. by spiritual practitioners attracted to the remarkable natural beauty and energy of the place. The waterway began to develop into an industrial resource with mills along its length as the century progressed. The city realized it was going to lose a valuable source of drinking water and moved to preserve the watershed and also provide a space of light and air for citizens living in the pollution of the industrial age town. Today the 5km2 Wissahickon Park is semi-wild, forested and crossed with narrow trails for hiker, horse, and mountain biker – leaving room for solitude and the inherent energy to appear.  I also lived for many years near Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead’s 19c. Central Park, which was pioneering in providing a 9.7km-perimeter English landscape garden-style park and incorporating “recreational areas” seamlessly within broad areas of naturalized forest and rocky outcrops. These “wilder” areas of Central Park are host to hundreds of species and transport one away from the feeling of urban life.

But even in these cases, the intention is still to create a green space for the enjoyment and edification of humans – a public garden expanded into extraordinary proportions, in a land where there is so much room[3] for such things.  They are a space of remove from the idea of concrete, stone, asphalt and motors, from the density of living in close proximity to many strangers, an “antidote” to the end of the pastoral age brought by the rise of industrialization.  

In a nearly new city park such as Máxima there is a superficial remove from stone and concrete, but the curated feel highlights its urban dependence. Rijnauwen and Amelisweerd, having pre-industrial origins, open small windows to a past world, but merely whet the appetite for a world where the human’s adventure in her own development is humbled a bit by the greater achievement of the ancestors – trees, rocks, water and sky— that she is descended from. 

[1] Recalling the world of 1997, so far removed from the environment and social concerns of today—I wonder how many points of reference embedded in the winning proposal are still relevant.

[2] A landgoed is an estate in the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium), often serving as a public garden or green space. They can be several hundred hectares.

[3] Size of the NL landmass: 33,700sqkm, 18,5m people or 418/sqkm. Size of the state of Pennsylvania in the northeastern US:  116,000sqkm, 12.8Bn people but a mere 110/sqkm. Source: Wikipedia.

Note: this text has been edited for clarity since first published.

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Originally published in “Field Notes” November 12 2019