The Vale of Cashmere

IMG_8249 (2)50 Favorite Places #19

First off, that name: Vale of Cashmere. Whisper it to yourself. What do the syllables bring to mind? For me, they promise magical forests, enchanted pools, knights bold and ladies fair.

In fact, the Vale of Cashmere is a small section of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, tucked away in its northeast corner and accessed by one of several winding, descending walks. And although its name always puts me in mind of Arthurian legend (the “vale” part, I suppose), it’s actually grounded in Orientalist fantasies (the Cashmere part). The name was bestowed by the wife of Brooklyn’s then-mayor, who lifted it from an 1817 poem by the Irishman Thomas Moore. Moore’s poem recounts the legend of Lalla Rookh, a princess engaged to a prince who falls in love with a poet who – surprise! – turns out to be the prince in disguise. (Under a different spelling, Lala Rokh was the excellent Persian restaurant, now sadly closed, where I celebrated surviving the 2017 Boston Marathon. But I digress . . . )

When she came up with the name, Brooklyn’s first lady was probably thinking of this section of the poem:

“Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,
With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave,
Its temples and grottos, and fountains as clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over the wave?”

In the late 19th Century, the Vale and the Rose Garden above it were the closest thing the borough had to a botanical garden, full of a variety of exotic plants: hybrid roses, of course, as well as water lilies with leaves large and strong enough to support a small child. Both the Vale and the Rose Garden were graced with fountains. As for grottos . . . long before I was aware of Moore’s poem, I always thought there was something grotto-like about the piled stone slabs that define the undulating edges of the small, overgrown pool at the Vale’s center.

There are no fountains in the Vale of Cashmere today. Most of the time, unless it’s been raining heavily, there’s little or no water in its pool. Nor will you see roses, apart from some prickly and ineradicable wild ones. You can still find exotics – weeping cherries, Japanese bitter-orange, an unfortunate experiment with bamboo – but the slopes that surround the Vale are being restored to emphasize native plants and wildlife habitat.

This multi-year restoration effort got an assist from the state and federal governments and . . . goats. In 2016, a post-Sandy recovery grant paid for a small herd of goats, trucked down from Rhinebeck in the Hudson Valley. They were voracious eaters of invasive plants, including poison ivy. I grew particularly fond of one, Zoya, for her long, silky ears and appealing disposition. Unfortunately, Zoya was not invited back for a second year. According to the park staff I spoke with, she wasn’t pulling her weight in the poison ivy-eating department; too busy flirting with her admirers, I guess. (To the extent my own visits played a role in that, I’m very sorry.)

Another post-Sandy change was the creation of a natural play area just outside the Vale. Artfully-arranged stumps and trunks of downed trees invite kids to climb, jump, and hide. Unfortunately, the lack of nearby bathroom facilities led parents to direct their tots to relieve themselves behind the dense growth at the center of the Vale’s pool. Or, if they were very little, to help them squat down in the mud.

The result was that on warm days, the area reeked of piss.

It seems to have improved somewhat in the last couple of years. Have Park Slope parents become more considerate? Or, perhaps, did the number of lurking birders with high-powered telephoto lenses make them think twice?

I tend to think the latter is more likely. (Just to be clear, lest I upset someone, birders are not intentionally creeping on your child. We’re there for the birds that pass through the Vale on migration, or that nest above it. But, you know, we do tend to carry a lot of photographic equipment. And we notice stuff.)

Old-timers who knew the Vale of Cashmere in the dark and distant days of, say, the 1990s – even the early aughts – must find all this talk of habitat restoration and goats and playscapes hard to fathom. What happened to the drugs? The public sex? The undercurrent of menace and fear?

Part of the answer is falling crime rates generally. As the park got safer, more people used it, which made even its most secluded sections, like the Vale, safer still. Gentrification also played a role: all that money sloshing around the borough, overflowing into giant strollers and personal trainers, generating a cascade of Lululemon apparel and rescue dogs that tumbled people into the park. And part, I think, is that we’re just a bit more relaxed and tolerant. The last time I went out looking for Fox Sparrows and instead found people having sex was a few years ago now. And honestly, while it was a little embarrassing and led to a flurry of “oh, sorry’s” on my part, I don’t think anyone concerned was overly rattled.

We’re Brooklyn. We’re chill.

As with many of my favorite places, it was birds that first drew me to the Vale of Cashmere. Its flowering trees are magnets for tanagers and orioles; woodpeckers and flycatchers love its snags; warblers come down low to feed in the bushes and cool off in the puddles that form in the pool after spring rains. But even at less birdy times of year, such as now, the Vale’s seclusion, its aura of mystery and decay and faded elegance, make it special.

My favorite chance encounter in the Vale was with an artist who staged and photographed action figures in elaborate tableaux. He was also drawn to the mystery of the place. We chatted a bit, I watched him construct his setting and pose his figure on the ledge of the pool, and then we went our separate ways.

I can’t imagine that encounter taking place anywhere else.

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