The name of the Marana Heritage River Park is misleading. It’s in Marana, yes, and it certainly celebrates the Town’s heritage. There’s even a river, albeit seasonally. But calling it a park conjures up entirely different images. A park has wide expanses of grass, ball fields, maybe a community pool. The Heritage River Park only has some of those. Yet somehow, it manages to capture everything a community would want in a park. Attractive landscaping. Cultural significance. Communal spirit. Indeed, by abandoning the typical trappings of the average park, this space transcends the limitations of a narrow name. Other features expand to fill the vacuum left behind by forsaken strictures. What’s left is something new, something unimagined, but somehow, something that’s exactly what we were looking for.
Drop by Heritage River Park on a quiet weekday morning, and you’re likely to meet Nate Jansky. Burly, calloused, and disarmingly friendly, Nate casts a watchful eye over everything that happens on these grounds. His tattooed arms have spent many hours tilling this soil. Ask him his vision for these acres, and he’ll describe a landscape replete with wheat fields, orchards, community gardens. Looking around, it’s clear this is the direction the park is going, but Nate’s aspirations are many years away. The park has space for five different fields; only one is currently active. Two orchards are bearing fruit, but there is room for many more trees. A community garden already thrives, but the waiting list for an open plot is dauntingly long. Where others see fallow fields and wide open space, though, Nate sees opportunity. He sees the park’s youth as perhaps its greatest asset. He sees one citrus grove as a beacon for many more. And he’s excited.
A little over a year ago, Heritage Park opened to the public. A boulevard lined with walnut trees bisects the space. To the left sprouts a cotton field, tinged with the white puffs that have played so vital a role in Marana’s history. To the right, gardens managed by both community members and the Town itself invite walkers to enjoy a contemplative stroll. An enclosure just off the parking lot pays homage to Marana’s history. On two sides, an irrigation ditch cuts a furrow that meanders near picnic tables, past a silo, and under a rustic footbridge. At one end, its water drains into a catchment that pumps it back to where it began. A small tower lifts the water high above the ground and pours it over a tank, home to two indigenous desert tortoises. Gradually, as the tank overflows, the water slips back into the irrigation canal, where it begins its cycle once again.
History buffs and art lovers will want to spend a few extra minutes in this part of the park. Amid the verdant vegetation, an iron sculpture pays tribute to the region’s past. A timeline chronicles the long arc of history that has happened here, from the Hohokam people living in the Tortolitas, to the railroad workers who helped build one of the nation’s first transnational arteries, to the farmers whose descendants still sow their fields every spring and harvest them every fall.
The clearest testament to Marana’s history, though, is not found in this section of the park. Across the walnut-flanked path, past a vintage barn, stands a fruit arbor, and at its center soars an impressive fig tree. Last year, Nate trimmed it to a shadow of its former self, its tendrils only reaching up to his barrel chest. Standing beneath its spreading limbs today, though, it towers over 25 feet into the air. The sculpture across the park outlines plenty of times when Marana’s residents have experienced similar pruning, but whether it takes a year or a decade, they’ve always come back taller and stronger than before.
On Saturday, October 10, the Town will host the Cotton Festival on these fertile grounds. This installment of the Town’s Signature Event series invokes the halcyon days when communities gathered to celebrate the harvest. With an old-fashioned steak fry (and also decidedly modern food trucks), a country band that invites dancing, and booths staffed by clubs from Marana High School, this is the kind of event that feels like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Marana is a community that uses the past to spur forward thinking plans, and no place better captures that spirit than the Heritage River Park. Young and protean, the space offers a wide range of potential utility. Day in and day out, gardeners gather there to trade tips on how best to coax the finest fruit from the dusty earth, families enjoy a quiet afternoon picnic, and couples even celebrate their wedding beneath a web of glittering lightbulbs. As the sun’s brutal summer heat relents into mild fall afternoons, consider a visit to the Heritage River Park, maybe even for the Cotton Festival. If you see Nate, ask him what he’s up to. Wander over to the fruit groves, and try a fig, or an apple, or a quince. Feel the history of this land and connect with your community roots. The Heritage River Park exists because of the value Marana places on its culture and history, and no place better embodies that idea than a dusty field near Gladden Farms. Go out, see it for yourself, and connect with Marana.