Boston’s Third Biggest Park (for now)

The Friends of Mary Cummings Park have posted a helpful list of Boston’s biggest parks inside of Route 128. Mary Cummings Park, which is owned by Boston but located in Woburn, is the twelth largest park hereabouts – but if you’re just counting parks owned by the city of Boston, Mary Cummings Park is number three.  At 210 acres, it’s smaller than Waltham’s Prospect Hill, but larger than Salem Woods (129 acres) and the Alewife Reservation (120 acres). If you count the 130 acres of undeveloped land around the park (owned by Northeastern University, among other groups), you have a parcel of open land bigger than the Arnold Arboretum.

Mary Cummings Park, which sits on the Burlington/Woburn border near Route 3, has been controversial.Cummings bequeathed the land to Boston in a will that says, in part, “To the City of Boston, Massachusetts, I give [my land] in the City of Woburn and Town of Burlington, Massachusetts … for the following purposes and uses: To hold and keep … forever open as a public pleasure ground, and to maintain and care for the same in a suitable manner in accordance with that purpose.”

The park was once the site of summer farming and gardening programs for Boston public school students. Those programs ended in 1985, and the park has been more or less neglected ever since. In the past decade, Boston has seriously considered selling the parcel, and there have been charges that the city of Boston has used income from Mary Cummings’s legacy to draw up plans for condo developments on the land instead of maintaining the park. Naturally, the Friends of Mary Cummings Park oppose building on the land.

I recently went on a walk through Mary Cummings Park with staff from the Burlington MA L.L. Bean Store.  L.L. Bean leads hikes to various locations near the store every Saturday; contact the store for details.

We entered the park from Sylvanus Wood Lane; the entrance on Blanchard Road was judged too muddy for visitors. About fifteen people turned up for the walk on a sunny mild day. Unfortunately, spring hadn’t quite reached Mary Cummings Park yet. The trees weren’t leafed out, there weren’t any spring ephemeral wildflowers blooming, and the only green plant I saw was garlic mustard, an aggressive invasive non-native plant.

The hike took us on level paths through oak-hickory forest with plenty of stone walls out through an open field edged with unpruned fruit trees and staghorn sumac. Obviously, someone has been mowing the field–but who?  The Friends of Mary Cummings Park claim that Boston is abstaining from maintaining the park for now. Still, it was a pleasant place to walk, if not terribly remote. At one point, we heard the buzzing of the model airplane club that flies their crafts in a field next door to the park.

One of the L.L. Bean staff on duty that day was a wildlife biologist who has spent time putting radio collars on Weddell seals in Antarctica, among other things. She located fox tracks the size of a quarter among the dog prints in the mud that day. Plenty of foxes, coyotes, and rabbits make their home in Mary Cummings Park. There are many wildlife corridors around the park, she said, rows of back yards leading to the Battle Road area and on to Horn Pond where wildlife can travel; but Mary Cummings Park is one of the few places with a significant interior, where animals can get away from roads and raise their young.

I asked the biologist why she cared about Mary Cummings Park. There are no “charismatic megafauna” there, no big animals like buffalo or wolves or wild horses for people to love, and no mountains or caves or cascading rivers. Why bother with a field and some trees in the middle of Woburn?

Because kids grow up in Woburn, she said. When she was a child growing up in town, the biologist got her first taste of nature at Mary Cummings Park. She would come on walks and look for tracks, feel the tree trunks, search for bugs, and do everything that books like Last Child in the Woods say kids are supposed to do outside. That experience–that sip of nature– made her thirst for more contact with animals and the natural world, and eventually led her to Antarctica and to tracking animals all over the world.

We need places like Mary Cummings Park so every child can dream of the wild.

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