By Jeff Keeling
A Monarch butterfly dipped and swooped along Sinking Creek, past a large footbridge that hadn’t been there during Monarch migrations a year earlier. A moment later it fluttered over a field planted in the milkweed that’s essential to the endangered Monarchs’ survival – a field that, since the last migration, had been designated a Monarch Waystation.
Jacob’s Nature Park, the site of the Monarch’s flight last week, continues to change like a butterfly metamorphosing from egg to larva to pupa to adult. The 28 acres of wooded ridge, creek, wetland and bottomland named for the late Jacob Francisco saw a major accessibility upgrade with the handicapped accessible bridge construction last August and September.
Since then, grant funds and volunteer labor have combined to add tasteful features that preserve the largely natural setting of Johnson City’s newest park, and the coming year will be no different. With the bridge having eased access to the mile-plus of trails on the park’s ridge side, visits (parking is just past 1214 King Springs Road) have steadily increased.
“There’s people here all the time now,” Jacob’s father Bill Francisco said, taking a break from mowing grassy paths in the park’s bottomland. Francisco has been the driving force behind the park’s development since it began in 2013. He lives upstream from the park on Sinking Creek, which was one possible source for the e coli infection that led to Jacob’s untimely death when he was just 6 years old.
Indeed, there are people at Jacob’s Park all the time now, and not just visitors. The past four years have seen a broad array of volunteers cut trails, build benches, plant native flowers and more.
Francisco is appreciative, and said he foresees the intensity of his own role decreasing.
“It has a life of its own. There’s a community effort behind it. It doesn’t need Bill Francisco out there leading the charge. I can be the cheerleader and say, ‘You go.’ ”
In the last 12 months, three high-quality interpretive signs have been added. Each features a different topic – salamanders, eastern Box turtles and pollinators – and has a silhouette of Jacob at the bottom to match the park’s large entrance sign. They were funded in part by a $25,000 Tennessee Department of Agriculture grant.
That grant, administered by the Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP), has been followed by another that will fund an outdoor classroom near the park’s initial makeshift plank and rope bridge, which still remains in place.
Jacob’s Park is eligible because Sinking Creek is an environmentally impaired stream, and because the wetlands inside the park help filter pollutants. It’s also a beautiful place, made moreso by its commitment to sustaining and improving its rich habitat.
The Monarch Waystation component was driven by one of the park’s many advocates, Melanie Kelley, whom Francisco dubs “Madame Butterfly.” Kelley continues to engage with the park, helping lead selection and planting of pollinators and other plants appropriate to the natural setting.
Saturday, Kelley received one of BWP’s four 2017 Aquatic Stewardship Awards. Another went to the Carter County Work Camp, which sent a team of inmates to construct the new bridge last summer, saving many thousands of dollars. A crew is on offer when the time comes to construct the outdoor classroom as well.
Dripping with sweat from his work mowing the grassy paths in the bottomland, Francisco said he sees an end to the steady changes that have marked the park’s past few years. The outdoor classroom dedication may fall on what would have been Jacob’s 21st birthday (Oct. 30, 2018). It could represent the last of the major built components at a place Francisco hopes will remain the kind of tranquil, natural setting that Jacob loved.
“I come out once in a while and just walk it and think about my son and what he would probably be doing running through here,” Francisco said. “He’s still in my mind a 6-year-old. It’s hard to envision him as a 21-year-old as I watch his brother (Josh) applying to colleges.
“There was one day (several years ago) I was out here working, and I don’t know if it was from fatigue, or being delirious or what, but it was when we had all the yellow swamp sunflower and the black-eyed Susan, and they were popping out in this meadow. We had the trail that is now going through the goldenrod. But (the flowers) were just as high, and the bees were flying everywhere.
“And I come down and I’m walking down the trail, and it’s the only time it’s ever happened to me. I guess I keep wandering around hoping it’ll happen again, but I saw the back of a dark-haired little boy running through the flowers, giggling. And I just had to smile. It made me smile.”