This article was originally published in the September 2018 Princeton Echo.
Marquand Park is a beautiful 19th-century jewel that’s around the corner from me. When I walk into the park with my dog, I am always greeted by a cheerful buzz of activity. Small children bake pies in the sandbox, bigger kids twirl in feverish circles on their tricycles. When it starts to drizzle, everyone quickly gathers their things and vanishes. As the park falls empty and silent, I tug up the collar of my raincoat and walk my dog through the greensward on Magnolia Hill.
The park is an arboretum with more than 150 different species of trees from all over the world. It reflects the need to subdue nature by categorizing it that dates to the time of the traveling scientists Humboldt and Darwin, when the world was under the spell of the wonderful diversity around us.
The pride of the park is the Hardy Cedar of Lebanon that smells delicious. The park is at its best with the arrival of the beautiful autumn colors. The Threadleaf Japanese Maple with its gnarly stump glows a bright red. Somewhere in the back is my favorite tree, the Dawn Redwood, a living fossil. It was thought to be extinct until a Princeton botanist discovered it in China in 1944 and replanted seedlings on campus and in town.
As the drizzle continues, I decide to go home. But my dog stops by an old tree stump near the exit. She stands on her hind legs and starts sniffing and barking. Something has caught her attention. A trapped squirrel perhaps? I look closer, and to my surprise, I see a small doorway in the stump. When I peer inside I see a little boy inside the hollow stump, absorbed in reading a book.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” he replies, blinking in the light.
With his green cap on, he seems like a fairy. An elf of seven years. Around him are books stacked on shelves.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“I saw this book place when I was playing here. So I climbed inside and began to read.”
He shows me the book he holds in his hand, “Charlotte’s Web.”
“It’s about a spider, Charlotte, and a pig, Wilbur. It is very beautiful but also sad. I want to know how it ends.” Suddenly he looks worried. “Where is everyone?” he asks.
“They all went home when it started to rain,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. With the book in hand, he jumps out of the tree, gives my dog a pat, and dashes away. My dog wonders whether he should chase the boy or keep sniffing the tree.
“Take a Book, Leave a Book” says a small sign above the door. Inside are leaflets with the details. The idea of the LittleFreeLibrary.org is to scatter exchanges around communities where you can bring books and take them, on the honor system. It originated in 2009 when Todd Bol, the son of a teacher from Wisconsin, made a miniature of the school library where his mother had taught for years and put it in his front yard. Everyone was allowed to take the books. It was a great success. There are already more than 40,000 mini-libraries around the world, including almost a thousand in my native Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the rain picks up. I want to climb into the cozy little library, nice and dry, surrounded by books to read quietly while the rain drizzles on the roof. It seems to me the height of happiness.
A library in a tree in a park that is itself a library of trees.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.