The readers of the Arkansas Times are a curious lot, and have a lot of questions. So here’s Ask the Times, where we will, to the best of our ability, try to bring light to the darkness. (Question? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What’s up with Western Hills Park?
Now that the season is over, I can tell you a little secret, knowing that you will probably have forgotten it by this time next year: the best place to get blackberries in Little Rock is Western Hills Park. You just have to be willing to do the picking.
Western Hills Park lies in the Westwood neighborhood located south of Colonel Glenn between University and Interstate 430. When my wife and I moved into the neighborhood back in 2007, the Western Hills Country Club was pretty much defunct; the old clubhouse was still standing, but the golf course itself was starting to grow over with briars and brambles.
Something about watching a golf course revert to nature appealed to my inner eco-Marxist. Eventually, as the realization spread that, sure, this was private property, but no one was going to bother preventing trespassers from wandering where they would, we would walk over and explore a bit. And we were not alone. As the brush became thicker, small animals returned to the area, and with those small animals came predators like eagles and owls and hawks, which, in turn, drew the attention of birdwatchers, who were soon eagerly stalking the potholed paths with binoculars around their necks.
Perhaps the most obvious landmark, one visible from the road, is an old concrete silo that dates from the time when this whole area was dairyland. The city of Little Rock bought the nearly 130-acre site several years back, its purchase being part of the same tax deal that allowed the city to create Little Rock Technology Park. A little public-spirited sweetener in exchange for what many regarded as a corporate cash giveaway. So it goes. Although initial plans were quite expansive, with visions of soccer and baseball fields, not much, it seems, has been done. The old clubhouse was torn down following a pipe rupture, as was an old utility shed. A few plots of land near Western Hills Avenue have been turned over to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and the organization has raised okra, melons, turnips, greens, and more out there.
More recently, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocked Western Hills Lake, the largest of the artificial ponds on the property, and so there is some regular traffic of pole-bearing folk come to try their luck. Soon after the city first bought the land, there were occasional 5K races and the like out here, but I’ve not seen one of those in a while. Development of the park continues slowly. Last year, a pile of large chunks of sandstone showed up, and just a few weeks ago came another delivery. Something is apparently being planned; we’ll just have to wait and see.
For the moment, though, most of the land remains overgrown, save for a few spots where the city mows, and the asphalt paths once the exclusive reserve of golf carts, uneven walkways that have started to buckle with time and wear. The other two once ornamental ponds on the property are overgrown, and tree branches have fallen into them, not to be removed. Beavers are apparently responsible for some of this; although I’ve never seen one out there, I’ve many times passed by the same tree and seen its base slowly gnawed at, until all that’s left is a dull point sticking out of the ground, next to a fallen trunk. Animals I have seen, though, include rabbits, armadillos, raccoons, hawks, turtles, and snakes of various types, most of them harmless water snakes. Once, while walking my dog through the park, we were surprised by two small deer who suddenly jumped across our path, bursting from one path of brush and disappearing into another. The eastern edge of the park skirts Fourche Creek, and there one can see the occasional heron stalking something among the cypress knees. The land is pocked by countless little ruts, likely made by city vehicles going out to do some work, and so in the spring, once we have a good rain, these ruts become temporary ponds and thus home to whole schools of tadpoles.
And, as I mentioned, the place is covered in blackberry vines. Every path leading into the brushy area of the park has them. These are wild blackberries, complete with thorns, and sometimes you have to dig yourself deep into a mass of vines to get the good berries, the really plump ones. But if you go out there a lot, you’ll find that these berries, just like wine grapes, exhibit a certain terroir. The vines down this one path produce those full-bodied, sweeter blackberries, almost like the kind you might buy at the farmers’ market. On the other side of the park, the berries are a little more tart, a little seedier. The berries over here ripen first, but come mid-July, the only good ones left are down this way.
No, I’m not going to be more specific. If you want to learn the secrets of this park, you’ll just have to visit. And if you want those delicious (and free) blackberries, you’ll have to start showing up and scoping out the area sometime starting around next May. Will you remember? Or will I get the berries all to myself? We’ll see.