By Tom Killin Dalglish
LITTLE COMPTON — John Gwynne Jr. of Little Compton has created a magical landscape and garden at the home he grew up at West Main Road, left for many years, and returned to in 2009.
On Saturday, July 26, about 3:15 p.m., the magic he began to work in the 1970’s will be accessible to the public. It has to be seen to be believed. (www.sakonnetgarden.com).
He and his neighbors have transformed their combined fields and back pastures, by trimming hedgerows, into an approximately eight-acre meadow, that showcases a protected habitat for ground-nesting birds such as the bobolink, quail, and the vanishing eastern meadowlark.
“There must be 100 species of wildflowers in these fields,” says Mr. Gwynne.
But that’s not all. A mowed grassy path from his 100-year old home leads east, out through the meadow, winding an irregular route several hundred yards long, past an overgrown pond he put in as a teenager a half century ago.
At the end of the path, back near his home, is a wondrous garden about one acre in size, with high walls, exotic plants, and landscaping — a microclimate vastly different from the meadows that surround it.
To build it, he “cut small clearings in a tangled thicket of local arrow-wood and bittersweet,” and populated it with plants he’d seen in his travels around the world.
“I’ve always been interested in the landscape and in birds,” Mr. Gwynne says. “My family had the farm pond where as a youth I went hunting for pollywogs. I’m interested in how nature works. How did an eel get here, why were there more frogs this year than last?”
Mr. Gwynne, 55, grew up in the Little Compton home, having moved there as a child from his grandparents’ home a few driveways north.
After many years away — in New York, Latin America, and Africa — pursuing an accomplished career in nature and wildlife conservation, Mr. Gwynne returned to his roots in Little Compton in 2009.
“There are few communities that care as much about nature as this one,” he says.
He now spends his time on the property he shares with Mikel Folcarelli, tending the garden, restoring the meadows and the natural habitat for disappearing species of birds, and fighting the invasions of plant species that don’t belong, such as black knapweed, rosa multiflora, black swallowwort and bittersweet..
He was the featured speaker at the Sakonnet Preservation Association’s annual meeting on July 8, where he spoke about his passions and what they might mean for the birds and land conservation in Little Compton and the larger community.
“Why do I care?” he asks. “Because I think it’s about protecting life on earth. I think Little Compton would be a sadder place if we didn’t have our meadows and our ecosystems.”
Examples of some of the losses abound. “In the northeast, we have no native earthworms,” he said. “The invasive black knapweed is starting to be everywhere.” It’s a scourge in some parts of the country, wiping out native grasses and bird habitats.
“Milkweed is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. But the invasive black swallowwort, which looks alike, but is deadly to monarch larvae, is seducing the monarch into laying her eggs on black swallowwort, thinking it’s milkweed.” Black swallowwort seeds are everywhere.
Throughout the meadows he’s created with his neighbors are blue irises. “It’s one of the things that makes Little Compton special, is these fields of blue irises. But these will be pushed out by the invasive black knapweed in five to ten years.”
In all those acres of meadows, he says, “I found only one clump of native grass.”
Mr. Gwynne laments the disappearance of birds that used to be abundant and local — the ground-nesters, and the American kestrel, for example — and attributes much of it to the loss of habitat.
“More and more of my neighbors are asking, what can we do to protect these birds?”
He says, “much of the land in southeast New England was not forest, but grasslands, maintained by Indians by burning for thousands of years. Those grasslands are vestiges or remnants of a prairie from 12,000 years ago. After the glaciers retreated, a whole ecosystem evolved of prairies and grasslands.” Much of Little Compton, he says, is comprised of old prairie land.
Prairies are his favorite ecosystem, he says. “I love them all, but what resonates with me is the grasslands. People love grasslands and prairies and open spaces.” Just look at the ads for cars, he says.
What he is advocating for, “is to see if we can hold onto the eastern prairie, the bobolink and the milkweed, and all the viable elements of an eastern grassland. Whether a viable ecosystem exists or not ,or whether in our lifetime it will snuff out, lies in our hands. I’m not trying to do this alone.”
Mr. Gwynne is a graduate of Princeton University, and holds a degree in landscape architecture from Harvard. For years he worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society, at the Bronx Zoo in New York and various international locations.
He has written books about birds in Columbia, China, Panama, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras, and is currently working on a five-volume series of guide books about Brazil’s 1,900 species of birds. (Peterson’s fabled guidebook about North American birds, focuses on 600-800 species, he says.) .
He helped to establish one of the largest national park systems in the world, in Gabon, and wrote an illustrated book about the system (“an interpretive document,” he says).
“I’m not an expert, I’m just muddling through, using experts, each with a piece of the puzzle. I’m just a gardener, a wildlife conservationist, an interpreter. It all comes back to my roots in Little Compton,” he said.
Sakonnet Garden is located at 510 West Main Road. It will be open on Saturday, July 26 beginning at 3:15 p.m. See: www.sakonnetgarden.com.