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Charmed Life

A Walk In The Woods

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/28/2001

Jastrow Levin has been climbing this old, closed-off road through the Gwynns Falls Valley all his life, but at 92, what once felt like a mild incline is a tough climb. He stops five times to catch his breath and nearly finds himself pinned as he stoops on his walking stick to limbo under a fallen tree. Levin shakes with determination but comes up on the other side with a smile.

He stops at a stray stalk, silky silver fluff billowing out of the husk. "Cotton?" his walking companion asks.

"No, milkweed," corrects Levin, a former Baltimore Polytechnic Institute chemistry teacher and a lifelong student of nature. The sight prompts an impromptu poetry recital:

The Golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
The gentian's bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods the milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.

Completing Helen Hunt Jackson's "September," Levin surveys the view back down the hill and out toward the wooded valley. This may be public property, but after nearly a century of walking every trail in West Baltimore's Gwynns Falls Park and bushwhacking a few of his own, Levin can be forgiven for a proprietary attachment to this land.

Levin grew up on the park's edges, on tree-lined Chelsea Terrace, and raised his kids farther down the same street. His parents, lovers of the outdoors, fell for these 2,000 acres that defy urbanization. Here one finds what may be the best window into what pre-Colonial Baltimore must have looked like. Even the huge Patapsco Valley State Park doesn't offer the variety of thick oaks, tulip poplars, sycamores, and elms that can be seen along the Gwynns Falls.

Levin has been coming to the park since the 1910s. As an infant, he's quite certain, he was pushed in a carriage along the trails. The park's caretaker once gave him a ride home up Windsor Mill Road on a cow. As a teenager, he'd pause during his hikes to see a pickup baseball game or would trespass on the Winans Estate before it was acquired by the city to become Leakin Park in 1941.

Today Levin lives at Roland Park Place retirement community on 40th Street. Since he doesn't drive, he relishes any opportunity to catch a ride out to the park and hike, especially through the swath of reportedly virgin forest on Bean Hill overlooking the twists of Franklintown Road. Picking him up on a crisp November day, I find him in the lobby, water bottle and worn-smooth hiking stick in hand, looking like a kid with a whole snow day in front of him.

His last such outing was two weeks earlier, when he got to the top of Bean Hill with his daughter, Betsy. Today he's happy just to tramp out to the end of the old road and the head of the Jastrow Trail, named in his honor by the city after he helped an ill-equipped troop of city-organized teens blaze the path in the early '90s.

Betsy Levin, a law professor at the University of Colorado and Duke University who has journeyed to Alaska and the Himalayas, traces her wilderness wanderlust to her childhood spent exploring the Gwynns Falls with her father. "He loves teaching," she says. "He loves to tell you the names of the trees and plants. . . . When we were little, we would go out and pick mushrooms and have them for breakfast. 'Dad, are you sure it's not poisonous?' 'I don't think so.'"

After showing off a portion of his namesake trail, Jastrow Levin opts to head back to the car for a road tour of the park--explaining how a portion of what is now the Gwynns Falls Trail was once a 2-mile-long millrace, pointing out a 19th-century stone wall now obscured by brush and the remnants of crushes memorialized with carvings on beech trees, with dates like 1918 and 1932. "The old art hasn't died yet," he muses, finding fresh cuts in the bark. Gesturing across the falls, he points out the site of a now-demolished stone structure thought to have been slave quarters. A family crowded into the one-story building until it was torn down in the '70s, he says.

A lot has changed since his younger days. Families no longer dress up for weekend picnics along the falls. The caretaker's house and barn, along the old road that leads to Jastrow Trail, are long gone. The ball field where Levin would pause in his hiking has been reclaimed by woods, and a hill where he used to pick violets for his mother is overrun by scrub trees.

Still, Levin finds solace in the park. He watches newcomers discover the first leg of the four-mile Gwynns Falls Trail, which will eventually extend 14 miles to the Inner Harbor. He yells out to the bike cops who routinely zip by. Around a bend he stands before a flank of massive trees, one of his favorite stretches in Gwynns Falls, a place that remains a faithful constant in his life.

"It's my home base," Levin says. "I compare everything to it--everywhere I go, some wonderful bit of scenery or something."

How do other places fare? he is asked.

"It doesn't compare."

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