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Urban nature trail tells story of city's past

The Baltimore Sun

John Smith explored the Patapsco River here in his search for a passageway to the Pacific Ocean. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passed through here. Blacks fought against slavery and segregation here, and community members fought here against plans to run a highway through the trees and brush.

All of these events happened on soil that is now part of the Gwynns Falls Trail, which winds along Gwynns Falls and up the Patapsco. At 15 miles, it is one of the nation's largest urban nature trails. And this summer, its caretakers are celebrating its rich past with a historical scavenger hunt and an outdoor folk art exhibit.

"The history is quite unknown," said Gwynns Falls Trail Council Vice President Heide Grundmann. "We wanted to add an educational component to the trail."

A series of 24 placards - the last of which were installed this month - dot the trail, each telling a different story about Baltimore's past. This summer, hikers can collect information from the panels to answer questions on the trail's Web site. Everyone who answers all 12 questions correctly will be eligible for prizes, including a new bike, a free trapeze lesson and camping gear.

The contest coincides with the return of the "Art on the Trail" folk art exhibit, which this year has a historical theme and will run for months instead of weeks.

The trail "offers a wonderful opportunity to tell the complex and layered history of the city," wrote urban historian Edward Orser in an e-mail interview from Wales, where he was teaching last week.

Orser, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, researched city history for the scavenger hunt's informative panels, and was intrigued by the stories he found.

There were the important families that had owned and contributed to the land: the Winans, the Carrolls and the Ellicotts, with their mills that helped spawn Baltimore's first economic boom.

There were the maps and photos that traced the Gwynns Falls area's development from a rural valley on the outskirts of Baltimore to an urban center of industry.

And there were the accounts of ordinary people fighting for their rights and their community, including one battle Orser didn't need to look through dusty archives to research: the controversy over plans to build Interstate 70 through Leakin Park that ended 25 years ago with the park untouched by highway.

"My hope is that the panels will help trail users appreciate the layers of history literally in the city's own backyard," Orser wrote.

The trail council hopes the art exhibit will do the same thing. Many of the pieces in this year's collection, titled "A Place In Time," deal with the history of the park.

This summer marks the first time the exhibit includes sound. One piece recreates the sound of rushing water near a water wheel that hasn't run for more than a century. Another, titled "What is Now and What Could Have Been," alternates recordings of birds chirping and bicycle horns with the sounds of a busy highway - what the park would have sounded like had the I-70 plan gone through.

The recording blends so well with the trail's natural environment that it's hard to tell the sounds aren't real, which is exactly how the artist, Towson University audio recording teacher Elsa M. Lankford, wanted it.

"I like how when people are listening to my piece, they're not just listening to it, but listening to the sounds around them as well," she said.

Lankford also recorded an online video of the exhibit and a podcast with artists explaining their works that people can download and listen to as they walk among the art.

Other pieces continue the exhibit's tradition of mixing art and nature. There is a wall-less house complete with a door and a visitors' log on the table; a giant "beached" fish made of trash found in the stream; and knitted cobwebs and psychedelic clay mushrooms in the trees.

Art on the Trail started in 2001, when two teachers at the Maryland Institute College of Art proposed a partnership between the school and the trail, and a student came up with the idea of an outdoor art show. The student, Brooke Sturtevant-Sealover, has a piece in this year's show.

"I just remember thinking, 'Wow, you know, this is so gorgeous. We just have to get people out there, because when you live in the city for so long, you forget about the woods and trees and grass,'" said Sturtevant-Sealover, who now teaches art and lives in York, Pa.

This year, the trail council spent about $4,000 on Arts on the Trail, said Grundmann. The funding came from city, state and corporate grants.

The council spent 10 times that much on the historical panels, said Guy Hager, a director at the city's Parks & People Foundation. That money was acquired through private donations and grants from the National Park Service and the mayor's office. Businesses donated the contest prizes.

The panel detailing the history of Leakin Park stands at the trailhead in Winans Meadow. The meadow is also home to the art exhibit, which some found hard to fathom without the nearby explanatory brochures.

Resident George Jones, 41, walked through the exhibit with his black Labrador, Bo. He had heard of the show but forgot about it until he brought Bo to the park.

"Some of it I liked," he said. "Some of it I understood."

On their way to the stream, two city water testers stopped to stare at one piece, a giant pyramid made of scrap wood.

"We don't know what we're looking at," said Matt Cherigo.

In past years, Michael Schlenoff said he had passed through the exhibit on the way to the testing site, but this year he took the time to pay more attention.

"It's like taking a step away from the city when you come in here," he said.

alia.malik@baltsun.com

To visit the scavenger hunt, go to www.gwynnsfallstrail.org. To see an online video of the art exhibit or download a podcast to listen to while walking the trail, go to www.elsalankford.com.

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