Atiya Wells often drove her children nearly 30 minutes from their Northeast Baltimore home to go hiking at places like Cromwell Valley Park or Oregon Ridge Park.
One day in 2017, Wells was frustrated by the long car ride ahead.
“I was putting them in their car seats and they were fighting each other and I was just irritated and I was like ‘You know what, we need a place that’s in walkable distance,’” Wells said. She asked herself “Why do I need to drive 25 minutes to just be able to enjoy nature with my family?”
Wells, who was training to become a naturalist, searched Google Maps to see if there were any nearby green spaces, and spotted the Barbara and Parkwood Park about a mile away from her home.
When she visited the spot, she found 7 acres of overgrown woods – and the potential for a place that could benefit not only her family, but an entire community.
Planting the seed
In 2019, Wells received permission from Baltimore City to use the park land, as well as authorization from the owner of an adjacent 2.5-acre parcel. She also led efforts to raise $180,000 to purchase and renovate a long-vacant house next to the property.
Over the past few years, Wells and her team have been creating Baltimore Living In Sustainable Simplicity — or BLISS Meadows — and transforming the combined 10 acres into a space for environmental education, food justice, and nature enjoyment.
As a pediatric nurse, Wells wanted to create a space where her children and all local community members could enjoy the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of being outdoors.
Wells said her 8-year-old daughter loves interacting with the animals, while her 4-year-old son enjoys “wandering around and exploring the woods, collecting treasures.”
BLISS Meadows is currently in the second phase of its land-reclamation project, creating a trail system through a 7-acre forest; cultivating the land on the 2.5 acre lot; and working on a full gut-renovation to turn the 1,800-square-foot house into a LEED-certified building.
BLISS is also working with the nonprofit Nature Sacred to build a “Sacred Place,” where people can come to reflect on themselves and on nature.
Nature Sacred has helped establish more than 100 Sacred Places in the United States, including 24 in Baltimore City and 33 in Baltimore County, said Angela Walseng, a spokesperson for the group.
The organization offers design services and connects Sacred Place project leaders with other local organizations and resources.
In its 25th year, the nonprofit is aiming to assist with the creation of 100 more Sacred Places in the next five years, said Nature Sacred CEO Alden Stoner.
By and for the community
Stoner said Sacred Places are made by and for the communities where they are located, which makes the projects more viable in the long run.
“People take care of that which they helped create,” she said. “In order for sustainability, people need to be involved in the very beginning. Then they take ownership of it and they continue to build on that.”
Anyone can visit BLISS, Wells said, but it was important for the space to be designed for the specific needs and desires of the Frankford community.
“If everyone’s welcome, then nobody’s welcome, because you’re not really designing for your target market,” she said. “Our target market is the people who live in this neighborhood. By inviting them to be a part of that collaborative design process, we’re making this place for you.”
Through community canvassing, BLISS and Nature Sacred collected ideas for what neighbors would like to see included.
One element that came from that canvassing process, Wells said, is the mother’s garden and ancestral altar, where visitors will be able to pay respects to loved ones who have passed away.
BLISS also consulted students and teachers to help design educational spaces. Wells said the resounding sentiment from children was that they were “tired of these outdoor classrooms that just look like indoor classrooms.”
They did not want desks or a board. Instead, they wanted to sit on stumps, logs and boulders, and to learn about nature through exploration and play.
BLISS Meadows provides Frankford neighbors a space to “commune with nature in whatever way they see fit,” Wells said, whether that means hiking through the woods, sitting around the pond, viewing an art installation, picking produce, or catching Pokemon at BLISS Meadows’ Pokemon Gym.
“We’re not trying to force nature connection onto people,” she said. “It’s kind of just ‘come as you are, be as you are.’”
The sacred place
Every Sacred Place features four common components: a portal, a pathway, a destination and a surround, said landscape architect Vernon Hustead, who serves as a design advisor for Nature Sacred, including for the Sacred Place project at BLISS Meadows.
At BLISS, Hustead said the portal will be a moon gate, a circular opening that will help distinguish the Sacred Place from the rest of BLISS Meadows.
There will be a pathway to and around one of the two ponds at BLISS Meadows. Gaps in the plantings around the pond will allow people to walk to the water’s edge and see the frogs and fish in the pond, Hustead said.
One of Nature Sacred’s signature benches will give visitors a spot to sit and enjoy their surroundings. Attached to the bench will be a waterproof journal, so visitors can document their thoughts.
Stoner said Nature Sacred has collected thousands of journal entries from across the country, from entries about marriage proposals to expressions of grief.
“The revelations that come in those words, those sacred words written by people, are really moving,” Stoner said, who added that there is often a dialogue between writers in some of the journals.
Living in tandem with nature
BLISS Meadows worked with the Baltimore Orchard Project, Tree Baltimore, Compost Cab, and Edible Eden to plant more than 50 fruit and nut trees, including apples, pears, persimmons, hazelnuts, Chinese chestnuts, blueberries and pokeberries, Wells said.
Jordan Bethea, who joined BLISS Meadows as the project’s farm manager in August 2020, said potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, kale and collards are growing in a farm and hoop house garden, as well as flowers to feed bees and other native pollinators. BLISS is also home to five goats, six bee colonies, and 13 chickens.
Wells said BLISS wanted to carve out areas for native plants and animals to live in harmony with their human neighbors. BLISS will teach people about animal husbandry, farming and urban ecology, and it will have a summer camp for children who live in the 21206 ZIP code.
“Once you introduce the human element, we really just wanted to ensure that we are building this space with the native wildlife in mind and just making sure that we save spaces for them,” Wells said. “We really are wanting to showcase how you can live in tandem with nature and not separate or not apart from it.”
Bethea said he has been following urban land-reclamation projects for a while and has seen “so much unutilized or underutilized land” in Baltimore City. He is excited to see BLISS Meadows putting this land to better use.
“It’s important to me to see that the land that we have access to just right down the street is used to the fullest ability,” he said.
Keeping the fire burning strong
Although still a work in progress, BLISS Meadows has quickly made a name for itself. The project drew the attention of musician and talk show host Kelly Clarkson, who interviewed Wells in March.
People have asked Wells whether she is planning to build green spaces in other parts of Baltimore, but she said she isn’t looking to create a BLISS franchise.
Instead, she hopes BLISS Meadows can be a “replicable and scalable model of how communities of color can come together and create the spaces that have all the elements that they desire.”
“If somebody from another neighborhood wants to build a BLISS, I’m more than happy to show them how we went about it,” she said. “But our goal is not to have a BLISS everywhere.”
Wells said a lot of park spaces in predominantly Black neighborhoods are ball fields. When people visit BLISS Meadows for the first time, where they encounter wooded areas and lush meadows, they are often surprised to find out they are still in Baltimore, she said.
“When you’re in here now in the spring and summer, if you look around you kind of feel like you have gone someplace else,” she said. “Everybody’s always like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re still in the city?’ And I’m like ‘Yes, you are. You’re still in the city.’”
Within the various community-led projects where Nature Sacred has helped establish Sacred Places, the organization has identified a network of “Firesouls,” whom Stoner described as “the heartbeat of Sacred Places.”
“They’re volunteer community leaders who have the fire in their soul and the recognition to be the spark for their community on creating a sacred place,” Stoner said.
Approximately 70-80% of Firesouls are frontline workers, such as health care workers and homeless services providers, Stoner said. She added that many Sacred Places have served as places for food distribution and COVID-19 vaccinations sites during the pandemic.
“These are central hubs for essential services frequently,” Stoner said.
Wells, whom Nature Sacred has identified as one of those “Firesouls,” said she loves the term because it encompasses who she is.
But she added that while she ignited the fire for BLISS Meadows, it takes a whole community to tend the flames.
“There has to be people who also are putting in sticks and adding tinder,” Wells said. “If I get tired, if I get burned out, who else is going to come and tend the fire as well? When you create that community, which I feel like we’ve done here, there is more than one fire-tender and they can just keep it burning forever.”