Kids’ Almanac columnist Erica Chase-Salerno was an early advocate of the Forsyth Nature Center, and in honor of her passionate support of the facility and its programs, last summer the Center’s caretaker Mark DeDea oversaw the construction of a new attraction: the Children’s Labyrinth. Approached through a rustic arbor constructed of bark-covered logs, a winding path of pavers culminates in a meditative circle, framed by plantings that attract birds and butterflies. A sign at the entrance quoting John James Audubon is a reminder of the debt that we, as stewards of the Earth, owe those to whom this meditative space is dedicated: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”
There’s a spirit of playfulness in the large boxwood topiary, sheared in the shape of a bear’s head, and the giant painted butterflies created by Laurie Berrios, whom DeDea described as “a longtime friend who is also heavily involved with the Friends of Forsyth Nature Center and in the same homeschooling circle as Erica.” Berrios’ husband, Randy, constructed the wooden milepost, which bears numerous wooden arrows inscribed with distances both regional and international, from Lake Tear of the Clouds to Timbuktu. It also indicates the exact latitude and longitude of the spot: a placemarker that serves as a literal and metaphorical pivot between time and space, the ground beneath your feet and the planet.
“I always preach ‘planting with a purpose,’ and usually that revolves around the needs of pollinators and birds,” said DeDea, noting that he was inspired by a visit to the Children’s Garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.
DeDea said that Chase-Salerno’s support has been vital to the success of the nature center. “Erica became an advocate for the Nature Center years ago, later joining our Friends board, and her infectious support of the facility and its programs and events translated to her column’s readership,” he said. “At the time, the Center’s existence was still tenuous and the rejuvenation far from complete. To have a whole new set of stakeholders and interested residents become engaged thanks to Erica’s enthusiastic writing was huge. Anyone who’s ever read one of her articles feels her personality right off the page. My wife says she even makes my bird walks sound interesting!”
The idea for a labyrinth was inspired by the meditative labyrinth that Chase-Salerno’s husband and friends created at her home. “There is nothing static about Erica and there never will be,” DeDea said. Creating a garden space that’s educational, beautiful and fun was the perfect kind of tribute. “A bench or a tree celebrating her involvement with the Nature Center would not have been appropriate or accurate.”
Since being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2015, Chase-Salerno has been writing a weekly column for Almanac titled “Erica’s Cancer Journey.” Each week, her descriptions of her treatments and physical and emotional challenges have been leavened by her extraordinary powers of imagination, irresistible humor and remarkable insights, resulting in writing that’s an amazing affirmation of life. Indeed, in last week’s column, which was about her decision to start hospice, she maintains her light touch, observing “There’s this tragic tinge that feels like I repel people (note to self: get more mouthwash).” Her energy, clearsightedness, honesty and love are truly awesome, in the face of heartbreaking physical pain (Chase-Salerno transforms such low points into existential journeys or, at the opposite end of the scale, describes cravings that are a mockery of etiquette). She takes us to the depths or the heights, and then grounds us with straight talk: In last week’s column, she concludes with, “What is like to know you are dying?” “What’s it like pretending that you aren’t?”
Many supporters contributed to the Children’s Labyrinth. They include the aforementioned Berrios family; 17-year-old employee Evan Berardi, who served as lead carpenter and chief paver installer; other members of the Berardi family; as well as the Geskie, Larkin and O’Brien families. Financial support was provided by Thrivent Insurance, Herzog’s and the Friends of Forsyth Nature Center.
“There was a concerted effort by our board to create something that might reflect how much we think of Erica and how much she has meant to our facility and the FFNC,” DeDea concluded. “I hope this project, like Erica, inspires young families to get out and enjoy the natural world and do it with big cheesy smiles on their faces.”
The Forsyth Nature Center is located off Lucas Avenue and adjacent to the Dietz Stadium Sports Complex in Uptown Kingston. Winter hours are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.