holyoutlaw: (me meh)

Here is another requested topic: What one thing do I wish everyone knew about urban restoration and why?

I wish everyone knew that it’s so multi-faceted!

That’s both a dodge to avoid having to pick out one of the many things, and also the truth.

The first thought many people might have when they hear the term “urban restoration” is exactly what I do: work in forested parks and nature areas to remove invasives and plant natives. This is the most basic meaning of restoration, as in the Latin origin of “to give back something lost or taken away.”

But I tend to give terms broad definitions, to the point of making said terms too general in some people’s viewpoints.

So here are some other things we’re doing that I think fall under the umbrella term “urban restoration.”

Group Shot
We’re restoring communities based on shared work. Despite the lie of “the rugged individual”, there’s a good tradition of shared work in the US. Barn raisings are a good example. The social glue of the work far outweighs the cost of the few hours of labor. And barn raisings were a great deal of fun: People would come from miles around, the women would be cooking all day, the men working on the barn, the kids either helping or running all over the place. People caught up with neighbors they might not have seen since the last barn raising, and it all ended with a banquet and GoH speeches. I don’t think it’s stretching the point to say that park restoration is a 21st C. version of that. It’s certainly a bigger task than any one person, or even a small group, can do. The social aspect, in fact, is something that brings people back to restoration projects. I think it’s at least as important as the physical work.

We’re restoring contact with local nature. The attitude that the built and the natural environments are different, even antagonistic, is getting a lot of deserved critique. This leads people to say “I love being in nature!” while standing on a carefully-groomed ADA accessible trail (as I have done) and “the city is so artificial!” while missing all the wildlife around them. By working in a local park, we learn that nature really does intrude (*koff*) in places we don’t expect it to. As we restore contact with local nature, we establish a home ground and deepen our sense of place. From that home ground, we see how our choices and actions ripple out into the world. In the case of North Beach Park, there’s a stream that goes to Puget Sound. If we improve the hydrology and nutrient cycling of North Beach Park, the water reaching Puget Sound will be that much cleaner.

Contact with local nature doesn’t have to happen in a park, it depends on awareness more than anything else. Lyanda Lynn Haupt has just published a great book about developing awareness of local nature called The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. Being aware of the wild life around us increases our awareness of the web of ecologies that we are part of. Awareness of that web follows us home from the park.

Portage Bay Big Band dancers
We’re restoring the idea that a city is a place worth living in. Because we had a frontier, USians never gave cities much credence. And since the end of WWII, the US has actively disinvested in its cities in the guise of “dream home in the suburbs.” The ecological activism of the 1970s accentuated the idea of the city as fallen and Nature as Edenic, and a chasm between the two.

But urban restoration allows us to see that cities provide a lot of good, as well. They provide efficiencies of scale and density that make many services cheaper and more efficient. The city itself can be restored. Designing cities for automobiles makes them sewers for cars; designing them for pedestrians makes all forms of travel – bus, bike, walking, cars – work better.

When we talk about a park providing ecological services such as stormwater retention and filtration, we start to ask how that can be brought out of the park and into the surrounding city. That’s where rain gardens come in, building urban canopy, and more.

I suddenly feel like saying all this just allows me to show off a bit. The one thing that I would like people to realize about urban restoration is that it’s great fun and enlivening.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

I’ve been kind of a dilettante most of my life. Never had a career, just had jobs that funded various hobbies. Several times I’ve been excited enough by a New Thing to think this, this is what I want to do with my life.

But there’s an important common thread, whether it was mail art, zines, celebration arts (ie, Fremont Solstice Parade and other events the Fremont Arts Council sponsors), physical theater, photography, and now forest stewardship/restoration.

All of these activities had a low threshold for entering. You can do a zine with just a pen and paper. Glue stick, scissors, and typewriter are helpful but not necessary. And they had a high ceiling for ambitions. For instance, SubPop started out as a zine in the 80s, then they did a couple cassettes of NW bands, then they did a couple singles…

So it is with forest stewardship: The threshold for entering is to show up and pull ivy (or other weed). That can lead you into any number of areas: Urban restoration, urban forestry, target forest types and plant communities, community outreach, traditional ecological knowledge.

I have a lingering fear that I’ll walk away from forest stewardship the way I’ve walked away from so many other things in my life. But the only way to find out if that will happen or not is to fully commit to it wherever I am in the process.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

The forest is a place of many cycles. Some are much less than a year, such as the annual cycle of plants like Pacific Waterleaf (which grows in late February, and starts dying back in late July). A Western redcedar can be alive for more than a millennium, and spend just as much time as a nurse log before it returns to soil. An alder tree can spend 80 years on a stream bank and fall in a matter of seconds.

The short term scale for forest stewardship is on the order of 50 years. That’s how you should try to visualize the forest as you’re working in it now. This is longer than any plan I’ve made for my own life, and I think it’s longer than any plans people generally make.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

There is a lot of study on the benefits of the urban forest, and many of these studies have supported each other in their findings. Here are some of the benefits that have been found:

  • Trees help control stormwater runoff. They slow down the water before it his the ground. They also absorb and filter pollutants from the water.
  • They cool the city. Cities are heat islands, absorbing heat from the sun and reradiating it back. Trees shade the streets and sidewalks, which cools off the city.
  • They quiet the cities, as well, by absorbing sounds instead of bouncing them off.
  • They improve property values. In fact, it’s easy to tell the difference between wealthy and poor neighborhoods by the amount of tree canopy they have.

These are just a few of the benefits of urban trees and the urban forest. Alliance for Community Trees has put together a much more comprehensive resource list.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

Ivy is an introduced ornamental that has escaped the garden and is taking over the parks. Birds love its fruit, which leads to a seed rain falling down on us all.

Ivy can grow in very low light conditions (someone told me 1% sunlight) so you can’t shade it out. It happily chugs along until it encounters an obstruction, and then grows up the obstruction. Ivy can create monocultures that provide little or no food and habitat only for rats.

When the ivy encounters a tree, it will climb eagerly toward the sunlight. Ivy doesn’t kill trees outright, but the massive roots can weigh down a tree. If the ivy reaches the crown of the tree, it gets enough sunlight to flower and fruit, providing food for birds and a vigorous seed source. The ivy will keep growing , reaching out its thickening stems further and further. Soon enough, the ivy acts as a massive sail on the tree, and pulls the tree over long before it would naturally die.

One of ivy’s great competitive features is that it can easily reroot — if ivy is pinned down by a fallen tree, everywhere the ivy touches the ground underneath the tree roots, forming a massive network. Ivy can form a thick carpet. Its shallow, easily broken roots easily resprout when it’s pulled.

Here is a picture from Green Seattle Partnership illustrating the problem:

The Problem

An example of an ivy monoculture, from http://greenseattle.org/

Here is a chart showing what can happen if GSP and other organizations and volunteers weren’t working to remove ivy and other invasives:

What will happen if Seattle forests and parks do not have ivy removed.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

April 2011 was the Arab Spring, and there was an electricity and optimism to the world. It seemed that the vast crushing wall of systems could crumble and change with a speed we hadn’t imagined before.

I felt futile in the face of this. The electricity and optimism coursed through me, but what could I do? Pack up my camera and laptop and fly to Cairo and be some kind of gypsy photojournalistblogger? Probably not.

I felt like even if I couldn’t do anything as big as the changes I was reading about in the Middle East, I had to do something, and it could be just about anything, even it was futile and insignificant in the face of The Really Big Things.

So I started pulling ivy in a northwest Seattle park.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

There’s practically a sub-sub genre of books about children not getting enough time in the woods or nature. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and The Geography of Childhood come to mind immediately, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.

The Geography of Childhood is the one I’ve read. At first, I had a resistance to it, as it extolled the wonders of a childhood spent in the desert, poking under every rock and looking at every cactus blossom. My childhood was spent in Chicago, and my roaming involved taking the el downtown. But the common thread between these two experiences is the unsupervised free roaming. That’s what kids today lack, whether it’s in nature or not.

The importance of free roaming is not just that it helps shape the brain for independent experience and analysis, but that it establishes a home range, a place for children to experience as their own.

I think more important than whether this roaming have an approved percentage of “natural” is that it be close to home. If you bundle the kids into the car and take them to the mountains, you’re just reinforcing the idea that nature is there and good, the urban/suburban life is here and bad.

With this home range established, they can more easily connect their actions to their immediate surroundings. And from this home range, they can extend their actions, and the effects of those actions, to the larger world.

In the specific case of North Beach Park, cleaning the park will help clean the water running through it, which will lead to an incrementally cleaner Puget Sound. From that connection, they can make larger connections.

Without this connection, however, ecological education is a bombardment of futility. Being presented with doom’n'gloom scenarios involving remote (to us) parts of the world doesn’t help build a sense that we can do something.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

I was a little bit into this work before encountering the phrase “urban forest.” I find it amusing, there’s a bit of self-contradiction to it to me. You don’t expect the word “forest” to follow “urban.”

But the forest remains — thin, neglected, and patchy as it may be. To my mind, abandoning the city altogether for a supposedly ideal forest helps neither the city nor the supposed ideal. And I think it’s important to realize that not only is the urban forest still here, but the needs for it remain as well: air cooling and cleaning, water filtering and slowing, carbon sequestration, habitat.

There’s no chance anymore to let “nature take its course.” We have to take an active hand in the management of the planet, and I think a good place to start is our neighborhood urban forest.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

“Developing community” is one of those things you hear as a benefit of volunteering. And it’s been my experience that bringing people with a mutual interest together can lead to community and friendships that reach beyond the original interest (in my experience, this has been most true in sf fandom, but I’ve seen many other examples of it).

But there are many instances of restoration work going beyond just the people of mutual interest and bringing together people that were previously antagonistic. For instance, the Yainix Ranch on the Klamath River brought together ranchers and Native Americans, groups that had previously been in conflict over restoration efforts. Elan Shapiro, in his contribution to Ecopsychology, talks about the Mattole River project, which brought together shareholder groups with widely varying agendas. I think this is an important aspect of restoration work.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

Maybe it comes from having grown up during the relatively apocalyptic 1960s, with the Viet Nam war, numerous assassinations, riots every summer, and our first cultural awareness of the limits to growth and ecological decay. Or maybe it comes from having read The Population Bomb at an impressionable 11 years old.

But for whatever reason, I’ve always had little or no sense of the future. I’ve never been good at multi-year plans, like saving to own a home or for retirement.

So it was that at 54, when I planted my first tree as part of a master forester class, that I first had a genuine sense of the future, that I had done something that would definitely leave the world a little better off than I found it. (Well, to be honest, the tree I planted has most likely been eaten by mountain beavers, but work with me here.)

This action helped me understand the truth behind the saying that we don’t inherit the world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. This isn’t just a clever turn of phrase, but I think demonstrates the very real nature of succession and life on the planet.

In the act of planting that tree, I felt like I had paid on the loan of the planet from the future.

Note: I’m going to be asking myself “why restoration?” periodically, and trying to come up with different answers, as I prepare for the senior symposium for Antioch U.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

I went for a walk in North Beach Park last Sunday. The park looked like a mess, there have been alder trees falling down, bindweed coming up in places it hasn’t before, knotweed and some other things coming back after supposed eradication. Volunteers can’t work on the slopes (except for survival rings) or in the stream, so we’re kind of hemmed in. I felt pretty discouraged until I saw this.

Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) berries
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) berries

This was planted last fall. Seeing the berries on the new planting made me feel a little better. So did this.

Successful ivy ring
Successful ivy ring

Look at how bushy that is! That means the ivy was getting enough sunlight to probably sets fruit every season. This survival ring will have several benefits: Cut down on the Ivy seed rain, if infinitesimally so. The snag, now clear of ivy, will provide habitat and food for woodpeckers; when they move on, smaller birds will take over. Without the ivy, the snag will stand longer, and when it falls, it will be a nurse log.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

(Note: This is also the “About” page, but I thought I’d post it here as well.)

I used to cling tightly to a chimeric vision of nature as something pure and somehow prehuman and to the idea that anything human-made removed a place from its natural status. But I have come to understand nature differently. Surely there is a continuum from a pure, undefiled wilderness to a trammeled concrete industrial area. But there is no place, we now know, as the relentlessly global impacts of climate change become increasingly understood, that humans have left untouched; and there is not place that the wild does not, in some small way, proclaim itself.
— Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness

This book — and the above quote as much as any other passage — changed my life. I’ve long thought the city was better than most people think it. I was never one to feel I had to get away, that the city was bad. We can’t all abandon the city for a mountainside slice of nature; if the world is going to be healed, it’s going to start here, in the city.

The idea of a continuum between nature and the built environment resonated strongly with me; with those words, Haupt had articulated thoughts that had been forming below my consciousness. In a short period of time, I also found William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness, which briefly explained the evolution of the whole concept of wilderness and how it came to be seen as a thing so separate from our daily experience. Then I also found Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America by Jennifer Price, which also looked at the irony of thinking of a national park as “nature” with its ADA accessible trails and signage, or finding “nature” at the mall.

I first encountered Haupt’s writing in a class at Antioch University, “Birds in the Imagination and the Field.” I liked the essay we read well enough to get Crow Planet from the library — and soon enough to buy it. Every word about seeing nature in our day to day lives resonated with me.

I liked the Birds class so much that I signed up for another Environmental class — “Nature Awareness Skills.” One exercise we did was find a sit spot — an easily accessible but remote location. We were to go there several times a week, at different times of the day. I selected North Beach Park, a nature area a two miles north of my house.

North Beach Park was sadly neglected at that point. It had all the markers of the urban wetland: Tires, rusting machines, weeds, litter from partiers. I’d visited it several times before on photographic expeditions, and grew especially fond of it during the sit spot exercise.

Though surrounded by the city, it was densely wooded and isolated enough that within a couple hundred feet of the entrance, the noises of the city were replaced by the wind in the trees, the bird song, the sound of the stream.

After doing the sit spot exercise, I wanted to find out more about North Beach Park. I wrote to an email dug up from a three year old flyer. The email got forwarded around the parks department, more names accumulating on the CC list with every exchange. At first they thought I wanted them to come and clean up the park — obviously, from its state, a low priority task for an already overstretched parks department, with many larger and more popular parks to worry about. When I said something about wanting to do an Earth Day clean up in the park, they pounced.

The more I learned about North Beach Park in particular and urban forestry and stewardship in general, the more fascinated I became by the problem. What does it mean to become a steward for the urban forest? Who does this work? Why? What are the rewards for the work? How can you make a plan for fifty and more years — especially since I’d avoided, into my own 50s, making plans for more than two or three years into the future, if that.

These questions and others, and the experiences of working in the park, drove my education at Antioch. I hope to continue to explore these ideas here, using the tools of writing and photography; with reading books and essays on the subjects of restoration; and with the practical experience of getting my hands dirty and shoes muddy.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

By “restoration work” I mean working in a park or urban forest to remove invasive plants and restore native diversity. Restoration work can also include erosion control, adding trails, improving stream banks, and more.

One of the most directly positive things about restoration work, for me, is that you can see the results. When you put a survival ring on an ivy-infested tree, you can see the results. When you clear an area of blackberry, the difference is immediately noticeable. And you can see how the work changes over time. Ivy and blackberry shade out native seeds that are waiting for a chance to sprout — I’ve seen plenty of cleared places sprout with native plants with no further attention. And, yes, sometimes it’s bindweed that comes up under the ivy.

But there are other benefits. I joke about restoration work being “cheaper and better smelling than a gym.” But really… it is. It can be as physically demanding as you want it to be, it’s sustained over two or three hours, and it uses a wide variety of muscles. And since you’re usually working in a forest, you’re working in a highly oxygenated environment, so it has cardio benefits as well.

Restoration work also helps build a sense of place and connectedness. Removing ivy from a tree in a park changes how you look at ivy in someone’s yard or garden. The survival ring helps not only the tree, but the birds who will nest in it in five or ten years (if nothing else happens to the tree). Clearing the ground of an ivy monoculture will make good space for the shrubs and groundcover that will be planted later. And that will make more pretty flowers for human (and bumblebees) and more fruit for the birds. You also look at parks differently, the signs of restoration work are more visible.

There’s also a visceral satisfaction to putting a survival ring around a tree, and then seeing the ivy wither and die. If the ivy had crowned the tree, it would have gotten enough energy from the sunlight to set fruit, which birds would have eaten, and then spread the seeds. So you’re helping to slow the seed rain from ivy with all the trees you put a survival ring on.

Perhaps the most important aspect of restoration work that I like is that shared work is one of my favorite ways of socializing. It’s just easier for me to get to know people when sharing a task with them.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

First tree I’ve planted, in Carkeek Park. An Oregon Ash.

Oregon Ash

I wonder if the mountain beavers have eaten it yet?

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.


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