Tom Henry: Sharing the wealth of nature during an unlikely time

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Jun. 7—Improved access to parks and other natural areas — especially for low-income residents and people living with disabilities — has provided a much-needed boost for the Toledo area.

The national Trust for Public Land recognized this area’s efforts in its 2021 ParkScore index. Toledo moved up 27 spots, from 77th in 2020 to 50th in 2021, the second-biggest leap behind Baltimore’s 28-spot jump.

Rankings are fine, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Many of these inroads were made while Toledo and the rest of the world were caught in the grips of the most lethal pandemic in more than a century.

We were reminded how important it is to embrace nature’s psychological wealth.

The noble effort of making parks and other natural areas accessible to broader groups of people could have been shelved in such a trying time, but wasn’t.

Metroparks Toledo stuck to a plan it came up with years ago of creating a metropark within 5 miles of every Lucas County resident.

It made good on that promise in 2020 with the opening of the Glass City Metropark and the Manhattan Marsh Metropark while many of us were distracted.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his 1854 classic, Walden: Or Life in the Woods, in which he ruminated about his two years of isolated living in a cabin surrounded by woods along Walden Pond near Concord, Mass.

I’m not at all suggesting we all go off the grid and sequester ourselves in remote cabins, even though I agree with Mr. Thoreau on another one of his observations in that same book, about how we all “need the tonic of wildness” from time to time.

“We can never have enough of nature,” Mr. Thoreau wrote.

I want wild places to remain wild.

I want places such as Michigan’s Isle Royale to remain a wilderness island, America’s least-traveled national park by design.

Toledo-area parks aren’t so much about wilderness as they are about being safe havens for people to slip away into the serenity of nature, even if only for a few minutes at a time.

Life is about striking a balance, you know.

Last July’s opening of the Doneghy Inclusive Garden, a project undertaken by the Ability Center of Greater Toledo and Metroparks Toledo, was a charming example of how we can make life just a little easier for people living with disabilities.

Located inside Toledo Botanical Garden, it has some simple features, such as brick-patterned walkways that make wheelchairs roll easier and a raised-bed garden built to help accommodate wheelchair-bound visitors.

The Doneghy Inclusive Garden is dedicated to Lera Doneghy and her late husband, Charles Doneghy, a retired judge, community volunteer, and Army veteran who died in 2018.

“As he declined in ability to walk long spaces, he had gone to Toledo Botanical Gardens for a number of events, and in a wheelchair it was difficult to traverse,” Mrs. Doneghy, a vice president on the Metroparks Toledo Board of Park Commissioners, said at last year’s dedication. “This accessible garden is just marvelous.”

I feel sorry for Metroparks Toledo in a way, though.

Because of the pandemic, it had to settle for soft openings of its newest offerings, some of its most innovative.

Imagine spending millions of dollars, then not being able to throw the party you want.

I’ve always wondered why Toledo wasn’t doing more with the Maumee River and East Toledo in particular.

Now, it is.

With its Glass City Metropark, the park district is giving a largely forgotten, low-income area a shot at a comeback by providing it with more opportunities to play and recreate, thus making it more appealing.

Same with Manhattan Marsh.

Here’s another reason to like that project: Toledo Public Schools’ Chase STEMM Academy is next door. The idea is to use Manhattan Marsh Metropark to enhance lessons in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine for K-8th grade students who don’t always get such opportunities.

Shortly after I came here in 1993, activist Rick Van Landingham III took me out on a canoe and showed me what natural beauty still existed in an area written off as being too industrial and urbanized.

Twenty-five years later, a group of Flint activists took me and several other journalists attending the 2018 Society of Environmental Journalists conference on a canoe ride along the much-maligned Flint River to see the natural beauty that exists there, dispelling that river’s legacy of industrial pollution.

Seeing is believing, imagining the possible in seemingly unlikely places.

Nature shouldn’t be limited to rugged backpackers, nor should it be spoiled by tourists and commercial development.

There’s a balance, a sweet spot we all crave based on where we’re at in life.

Some people need a little comfort to engage with nature.

Everyone needs a little wildness.

The pandemic has reminded us there’s a need for balance.

First Published June 6, 2021, 12:00am

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