Science & Tech

A walk on the wild side

4 min read

Tour of Bussey Brook Meadow a blend of art and science

Can a botanical garden have an alter ego? If so, what would it look and sound like?

Peter Del Tredici, retired senior scientist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, and artist Teri Rueb think the Arnold Arboretum’s alter ego sits nearby in Jamaica Plain, just across South Street, in the 24-acre Bussey Brook Meadow.

The site looks like a natural forest, thick with trees, shrubs, and undergrowth, but it’s a modern concoction of native and non-native species, of escaped plantings from the surrounding city — the Forest Hills T stop is just across the street — and even fugitive specimens from the Arboretum’s collections.

Rueb, a resident artist at the Harvard metaLAB, and Del Tredici, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, share their take on the meadow through a new mobile sound tour, Other Order, developed by Rueb over the last two years and available as an app for iPhone and Android phones.

“I consider it as an alter ego of the rest of the Arboretum,” Rueb said of the meadow. “Peter says it’s the Arboretum gone wild.”

Set to launch on Saturday, the tour takes advantage of smartphone technology to share with visitors the natural and cultural history of the meadow. Once downloaded from the Apple or Google Play store, the app uses GPS to identify where in the meadow the visitor is, and then narrates the story of that spot, fading in and out as the user moves through the site.

The tour goes beyond science, said Rueb, who included music, snippets of cultural history, and even conversations with passersby. And there is plenty of material for repeat visits, with 1½ hours of audio for the 15-minute walk.

“It’s really an ‘other’ aesthetic. It’s a very structured environment in a way, with the underlying natural order expressing itself,” said Rueb, a professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who drew on her experience designing mobile sound tours for other venues.

Del Tredici was blunt about the area’s past, calling it “a history of abuse and neglect” and acknowledging that some parts of the land had been used for unofficial and often unwanted activities, as evidenced during a recent stroll by a fire pit surrounded by empty beer cans. Those uses are nonetheless part of the meadow’s cultural history and represent the way that some residents interact with the land, he said.

About half of the narration comes from Del Tredici, who described the land as an “urban wild.” The site’s deeper history has it as part of the original Bussey Farm, the bulk of which became the Arnold Arboretum.

But Bussey Brook Meadow wasn’t acquired by the Arboretum until 1996, and it has an interesting timeline before then. The meadow has been home to an 8-foot sewer line since 1901; an illegal landfill operated there during the 1950s; and a former MBTA parking lot sits under nearly 20 feet of a fill from a construction project at the T station in the mid-1980s.

The wetland that forms the centerpiece of the meadow has been slowly hemmed in by the surrounding neighborhood, raised areas, and the visitors’ footpath, part of which was built on imported fill.

Del Tredici’s enthusiasm for the site is apparent, in conversation and through his descriptions on the walking tour. Often, he said, places like Bussey Brook are considered from a builder’s perspective, and tend not to last long — a decade or two, perhaps — before being converted to another use. The Arboretum, however, has shown a strong interest in the meadow’s natural potential.

“It’s actually very hard to find places where there’s a long-term commitment to leaving urban wilds as they are,” Del Tredici said.

Despite the mix of native and non-native species, Bussey Brook Meadow has developed into a functioning ecosystem, Del Tredici said. It is not only home to wildlife — including deer, fox, and pheasant — it is also the site of one of Boston’s two remaining aboveground streams. In addition, its wetlands absorb stormwater, helping to protect nearby homes from flooding.

“The goal of the Other Order app is to change people’s attitudes about a site, to help people see it as a valuable piece of land,” he said.