On a gray, windy Friday morning in mid-April a small army of Fern Creek High School tree planters trooped its way down the steep hill toward the Miles Park canoe launch and a little bit of Louisville history.
Leading the way was their energetic outdoor education teacher Joe Franzen – a red cap on his head and a narrow planting shovel slung over his left shoulder.
Their mission – already accepted – was to plant the first 100 seedlings of what will eventually be thousands of new trees and shrubs in the 4,000 acres of the Parklands of Floyds Fork; dogwoods, redbuds, a new grove of American chestnut among them.
Joining the high school students were a few other volunteers and virtually all of the 21st Century Parks staff who had designed, implemented, worried over and raised funds for the $110 million project; all of them dressed in ready-to-dig-holes clothes.
The canoe launch area had been cleared of some invasive plants. The small seedlings waited in silver five-gallon buckets, their tops, showing faint signs of leafy green, barely visible over the edges. The seedlings – among them the white-flowering native dogwood trees, berry-laden dogwood shrubs and the Eastern redbud trees with their magenta bursts of spring color – came from the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
To expedite matters, the seedlings and their eventual location along Floyds Fork and nearby hillside had been colored-coded; the dogwood trees to be planted near small orange flags; the dogwood shrubs planted next to green flags; the redbuds near the pink flags.
Behind the silver buckets, a dozen long-handled shovels were propped up against the parking lot guard rail waiting planting team leaders – with three or four members in each team.
The biggest worry was rain; Louisville meteorologists had again painted local television screens in a long, ragged, north-south line of yellows and reds moving in from Evansville.
For all that, a man carrying a chartreuse canoe over his head made his way toward the canoe launch and the already rain-swollen Floyds Fork, and birds called to one another from behind the tall rangy sycamore trees along the river.
The morning’s guest speaker was David Miles, who once lived on the farm land along Floyds Fork where the new trees would be planted – land that would be named William F. Miles Park in honor of his father.
He told the gathered teenagers how proud he was the family farm was being saved and enhanced, and of his “summer job” back in the 1960s; picking up rocks from the fields and piling them onto a 16-foot hay wagon so the land could be planted in hay.
“It was a learning experience,” he said. “It taught us a lot of values…and when we had enough we’d jump in the lake up on the hill and then go back at it again.
“It’s a great thing that’s happening here. And if you get tired of shoveling and want to pick up rocks we can go back up there and get us a hay wagon and see what we can do.”
The instructional part of the morning began with Michael Gaige, the 21stCentury Parks Natural Areas Manager, standing on the guard rail supported by a shovel explaining to the students the need to plant the native trees and shrubs along the river to have their roots control soil erosion while their berries fed the wildlife.
He was followed by Parks Director Scott Martin, who also performed a guard rail balancing act while bringing a little levity to the proceedings by demonstrating the correct use of a shovel and then holding up a bare-root seedling to ask a fairly pertinent question:
“Does anyone have any idea which end goes in the ground?”
Someone answered “Roots,” the class passed the test and the planting seminar was all but completed.
“These will grow about six inches the first year,” Martin called out, holding high the seedling as the volunteers headed toward the silver buckets. “Come back next year and you’ll see some pretty good-sized shrubs.”
As the planting teams scattered across the landscape Joe Franzen – the environmental education teacher with the red cap and shovel slung over his shoulder – stopped to explain Fern Creek High School has developed a special relationship with 21st Century Parks over the last two years, a relationship with mutual benefits.
“These guys are our seniors,” he said of the tree planters. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to go out and do something where they can actually see change, where they can actually have a life skill and a tie to the community.
“Planting a tree is something that will last an incredibly long time.”
Within a few minutes the tree and shrub planters were scattered over a few acres of Floyds Fork bottomland and hillside. Some used the shovels as a wedge, creating a crevice in which to drop the roots. Others diligently dug small holes. One jumped up and down on his shovel like a kid on a pogo stick.
High up one hillside, David Miles, working near two of the Fern Creek students, carefully planted a dogwood tree on the land from which he had cleared rocks as a teenager.
Another senior, D. J. Stickles, was planting a dogwood shrub with two buddies near Floyds Fork. He said he had been in the park before, liked to visit it with his friends.
“I’ve planted trees before,” he said, “but not like this, bigger trees…”
Stickles, as with all the volunteers, would be rewarded with a baby blue Parklands of Floyds Fork T-shirt for his work – but maybe he took home with him a little more than that.
“It’s pretty cool what we are doing,” he said.
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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