Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Trees Matter

A tribute to Arbor Day 

from Milwaukee River Greenway

The following is reprinted from Norb Blei's Poetry Dispatch and the New York Times:

Alice D’Alessio, Jim Robbins

………the Forest
Find the path where rain drips from beechlings
brightening their greenest green
trembling the twisted ties
of yellow moccasin flowers.
Pay homage to cedars,
robed in lace, their spongy
carpet a velvet dusk, breathe their incense;
lay hands on ironwood and linden,
each with its secrets. Come with me
I will show you the way. Here in this temple
we study the Druid fathers
learn to grow old proudly,
chant the psalm of the hemlock.
We will hold white limestone in our hands,
recite the only prayers we know.
Alice D’Alessio


Jim Robbins*
Helena, Mont.
TREES are on the front lines of our changing climate. And when the oldest trees in the world suddenly start dying, it’s time to pay attention.
North America’s ancient alpine bristle-cone forests are falling victim to a vora¬cious beetle and an Asian fungus. In Texas, a prolonged drought killed more than five million urban shade trees last year and an additional half-billion trees in parks and forests. In the Amazon, two severe droughts have killed billions more.
The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.
We have underestimated the importance of trees. They are not merely pleasant sources of shade but a potentially major answer to some of our most pressing environmental problems. We take them for granted, but they are a near miracle. In a bit of natural alchemy called photosynthesis, for example, trees turn one of the seemingly most insubstantial things of all — sunlight — into food for insects, wildlife and people, and use it to create shade, beauty and wood for fuel, furniture and homes.
For all of that, the unbroken forest that once covered much of the continent is now shot through with holes.
Humans have cut down the biggest and best trees and left the runts behind, What does that mean for the genetic fit¬ness of our forests? No one knows for sure, for trees and forests are poorly understood on almost all levels. “It’s embarrassing how little we know,” one eminent redwood researcher told me.
What we do know, however, suggests that what trees do is essential though often not obvious. Decades ago, Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a marine chemist at Hokkaido University in Japan, discovered that when tree leaves decompose, they leach acids into the ocean that help fertilize plankton. When plankton thrive, so does the rest of the food chain. In a campaign called Forests Are Lovers of the Sea, fishermen have replanted forests along coasts and rivers to bring back fish and oyster stocks. And they have returned.
Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytore-mediation. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.
In Japan, researchers have long studied what they call “forest bathing.” A walk in the woods, they say, reduces the level of stress chemicals in the body and increases natural killer cells in the immune system, which fight tumors and viruses. Studies in inner cities show that anxiety, depression and even crime are lower in a landscaped environment.
Trees also release vast clouds of beneficial chemicals. On a large scale, some of these aerosols appear to help regulate the climate; others are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. We need to learn much more about the role these chemicals play in nature. One of these substances, taxane, from the Pacific yew tree, has become a powerful treatment for breast and other cancers. Aspirin’s active ingredient comes from willows.
Trees are greatly underutilized as an eco-technology. “Working trees” could absorb some of the excess phosphorus and nitrogen that run off farm fields and help heal the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In Africa, millions of acres of parched land have been reclaimed through strategic tree growth.
Trees are also the planet’s heat shield. They keep the concrete and asphalt of cities and suburbs 10 or more degrees cooler and protect our skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays. The Texas Department of Forestry has estimated that the die-off of shade trees will cost Texans hundreds of millions of dollars more for air-conditioning. Trees, of course, sequester carbon, a greenhouse gas that makes the planet warmer. A study by the Carnegie Institution for Science also found that water vapor from forests lowers ambient temperatures.
A big question is, which trees should we be planting? Ten years ago, I met a shade tree farmer named David Milarch, a co-founder of the Champion Tree Project who has been cloning some of the world’s oldest and largest trees to protect their genetics, from California redwoods to the oaks of Ireland. “These are the supertrees, and they have stood the test of time,” he says.
Science doesn’t know if these genes will be important on a warmer planet, but an old proverb seems apt, “When Is the best time to plant a tree?” The answer: “Twenty years ago. The second-best time? Today.”

*Jim Robbins is the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Planted Trees.” [Source: New York Times, April 12, 2012
................the Trees
You came and planted trees!
Braving April drizzle, you cradled
your twigs, searched out
the colored stakes, dug holes
and firmed the mud around the microscopic roots.
Now three days past, I roam
the lumpy stream bed, where nettle
and angelica invade in ragged clumps,
admiring my young shoots-
thin embryos of trees, like miniatures
for a Lilliputian world, where thumb-sized people
plow their rug-sized fields.
These are my countdown years.
As tree cells grow--
patiently sending nutrients
up and down their sticky veins—
and mine deplete,
how can I say what joy they'll bring,
these simple sticks? Already a bug-sized leaf
unfolds its crenulated edge. Those that survive
to turn their juices into syrup,
or flaunt fall's banners
become the friends who placed them here.
Alice D’Alessio
[from: A BLESSING OF TREES, Cross+Roads Press #21, 2004, o.p.]

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day Reflections on Milwaukee's Urban Wilderness

Adapted from a talk at the annual Earth Day celebration sponsored by the Great Waters Group of the Sierra Club.

When I decided in 1999 to name my book Urban Wilderness, I had never heard the term. I thought I’d found a new, wonderfully paradoxical metaphor for the powerful experiences I’d had in Milwaukee. I found out later that someone else had a book so named back in the 1980’s about New York City’s parks, but the term certainly was not in common usage. Today, it’s a different story. Google alerts me whenever someone in cyberspace uses the term and it happens a couple times a week. I think it is an indication of how far we’ve come since 1999.

Fallen giant - Riverside Park
Definitions of “urban wilderness” generally emphasize two things: First, the ability of a natural area to sustain a level of biodiversity that is not typical of urban parks; and second, the aesthetic of wildness, which is to say an appearance of not being managed (almost universally an illusion). The idea of “urban wilderness,” with all its contradictions, challenges, and aspirations, seems part of the spirit of the times. I consider it a hopeful measure of how we see ourselves in the world. To embrace the idea of urban wilderness is to welcome nature into our lives wherever we live, especially in cities or in suburbs.

This may not seem like a radical notion. After all, the Sierra Club has been caring for the earth for over a hundred years. But during most of that time “nature” meant pristine parklands, usually far away and in need of protection from ourselves. Truly more radical, “urban wilderness” expresses the idea that we can enjoy valuable experiences with nature without leaving the city. Olmsted conceived something like it, to be sure, but the casual way the term is used today seems a recent shift in public awareness.

County Grounds Park
As our cities grow ever larger (which they must because high-density living is the only sensible way to avoid sprawl), we will need more opportunities to spend time in relatively wild nature – not just parks – within our urban communities. We must be vigilant constantly about what little parkland and open spaces we have left. Although this requires leadership, it is too important to be left solely to traditional “environmental advocates.” Open green spaces are simultaneously the most important places to save for public use as parklands and the easiest to exploit for economic development. In contrast to the usual scenarios in which “environmentalists” are pitted against “developers,” we cannot afford to see this as a conflict between “good and evil.” We need economic development. We also need to preserve green space. The questions are where and how.

I believe “urban wilderness” is a hopeful idea. But it is also a challenging one. Its central paradox is that urban natural areas are not natural. Their existence depends on deliberate decision-making, planning, and – yes – management. Wherever there is open space there will be pressure to take advantage of it. Conflicts often arise out of genuine needs that seem to be in opposition.

Underwood Creek Parkway
I don’t have to look far from home for examples. We Energies and the American Transmission Company want to run power lines through Milwaukee County’s Underwood Creek Parkway. That has never happened before; thus, it would set a tragic precedent. The plan is broadly and justifiably opposed. But the problem is complex. We all bear responsibility for the need to have power lines because of our energy-intensive lifestyles. We also need unsullied parks and parkways. Any alternative route must acceptable to We Energies – and all stakeholders – as well as the outraged public. But an alternative must be found.

Another example is the Milwaukee County Grounds, where most of the land once considered for economic development has been preserved as open green space. But after more than ten years of public pressure to “preserve the County Grounds,” and after many compromises were reached, one of the most beautiful sections of this remarkable landscape remains unprotected and zoned for economic development.

Economic Development?
Ronald McDonald House provides an indisputably good service. They need to expand. The Milwaukee County Regional Medical Complex, which serves the health needs of thousands of people from all over the region and beyond, continues to grow. There is no evil here. These and other stakeholders -- everyone in the community -- must agree that saving such a beautiful natural place as the County Grounds is in their own interest, which it is.

Managing an “urban wilderness” involves balancing myriad competing interests that rarely can be conveniently dismissed as a struggle for good versus evil. To paraphrase Ken Leinbach, director of the Urban Ecology Center, “this game of preserving, managing, and restoring very public green space in our fair city is not a game for the faint-hearted. Trying to accommodate one user often alienates another.” Avoiding the polarization that is so commonplace today is hard work – but essential if we are to maximize the potential of our urban green spaces.

It makes good economic sense to preserve green space in cities where, to be physically and psychologically healthy, people need access to nature. The evidence for this is well documented. All across the nation, civic and business leaders, and the general public, are beginning to promote healthy, sustainable urban environments that include natural areas. As Peter Harnik, author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, wrote, “Cities are vying with one another for ‘best park system’ and the ‘livability crown.’” I’ve long thought Milwaukee could be a contender. Instead, parks budgets continue to dwindle and shortsighted land-use policies prevail.

We must always keep the big picture in mind. Many ingredients make up resilient, sustainable, and livable cities, including a vibrant economy. One of the most important ingredients is excellent parks and natural areas. We residents of Milwaukee County have been endowed with one of the nation’s best park systems. Instead of continuing to nibble away at our greatest asset, it’s time we recognize and promote their vitality. Let’s embrace nature and confront the challenges with the hope embodied in the idea of urban wilderness.

Milwaukee River Greenway

Annual Earth Day river clean up draws thousands

It was a glorious spring day, which always helps. Over 4,000 people came out to participate in the annual river clean up sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the complete story but I got around to a few sites before I settled in at Krueger Park, along Underwood Creek, where I mostly pulled garlic mustard and baby buckthorns. Here are some images.

Large contingents fanned out along both sides of the Milwaukee River near North Avenue.

Volunteers working among the sandbar willows next to the rushing narrows just north of Caesar's Pool.

A plastic bag flutters like a defiant banner in the upper branches of a tree while volunteers collect an enormous volume of trash below.

It took a lot of heft to remove this old, rusted tailgate from a remote part of Krueger Park in Brookfield.

Furniture was the item of the day in Underwood Parkway, near 115th St.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Buffalo Bayou, Houston Texas. Part 2.

This is the final installment of a trilogy from Houston's urban wilderness. To read them from the beginning, click here.

On my last day there, after nearly a week in windowless conference rooms, I finally had a chance to continue my adventures in Houston’s urban wilderness. The rain was long gone. It was Sunday, gloriously sunny and warm. Bursting with cabin fever, I was more than ready to head upstream to explore Buffalo Bayou further.

My adventure began with mixed messages. I descended through one of the canoe-shaped arches down a long stairway into the deeply sunken river corridor. Artist John Runnels, creator of the gateway structures, likens Buffalo Bayou to Houston’s “birth canal.” Runnels calls his 20-ft. stainless steel sculptures “Dream Boats” and they each bear a unique river-inspired poetic phrase, such as “Water is the most beautiful mirror of voices…sing the stream.”

I did hear voices. Whether they were echoing off the water or under the Sabine Street Bridge I couldn’t tell.

Swamped trail turns back hikers
A narrow strip of worn asphalt led me a mere couple hundred yards before it was swallowed up in silt. The sandy trail devolved into mud and then a small backwater of the river itself lapped over it. A fat fish leaped with a resounding splash, as if for emphasis. Wilderness seemed to be reestablishing a beachhead in the genteel park. Although it turned me back, I considered it a welcome omen.

I crossed over the bridge.

The north river trail was a 10-ft. wide white swath of concrete so new there still were construction fences next to it and patches of dirt awaiting fresh sod alongside. Skateboarders converged on the adjacent Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark. A steady stream of cyclists of all ages sped past me as I strolled down the gently sloping ramp towards the river.

The bike trail was as active as it had been vacant during my previous excursion. Clearly the riverside park is in high demand for the recreational opportunities it offers and park developers were eagerly, and extensively, providing infrastructure appropriate to meet it. I began to discern a pattern.

The park guide explains, “Buffalo Bayou slowly winds its way through the center of the fourth largest city in the United States. Over the past 170 years of Houston's development and continued growth, the natural habitats of Buffalo Bayou have been impacted by human development, invasive species introduction, and pollution.”

I am struck by the passive, understated phrase, “…have been impacted by human development….”

I sauntered along the concrete, flanked on both sides by lawns, searching for natural habitats.

In the trees overhead, great bunches of mistletoe hang ominously, like macabre ornaments. A.k.a. “witches broom,” the parasitic species was long considered a destructive pest. Now it is recognized as beneficial to biodiversity. Its purportedly amorous effect upon those who stand under it has an uncertain origin in early mystical Christianity. How often our image of the maleficent gets superimposed on the pious!
Painted turtles
On a wooden bridge that crosses a tiny tributary, I leaned over the rail and looked down to see two Texas-sized painted turtles warily staring back up at me. They were secure enough. I was an anomaly. No one else paused to look.

Purple winecups in the grass

Referring to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s Restoration Plan I am cheered. Programs “to rebuild native habitats” are in place that include, “erosion control, reforestation, habitat improvement, and species diversification.” The chicken or egg conundrum is how best to build popular appreciation for nature: Which comes first, attracting people to the outdoors or reestablishing healthy, sustainable habitats?

Once upon a time we all lived in nature. Nature – landscape, atmosphere, water, plants, animals – is the original and still necessary infrastructure for life on earth. Now that most of us live in cities, we must reintroduce ourselves to nature. If our parks are completely tame, reduced to a flash of green that we speed past on high-tech bicycles in our Lycra outfits, how will we come to value turtles that lurk under bridges? Or snakes in the tall grass? Surely there must be snakes! Surely there must be places for tall grass.

I had to walk a while before I could shake off the city and pay attention to birdsong instead of the sound of traffic. Eventually, the lawns shrank back a bit from the river. There were more copses and bushier banks, if not much tall grass. Some lacy pepperweed, clumps of primroses, lantana, and tiny pink oxalis blossoms began to appear. Ripe mulberries stained the lawn under overhanging branches. A whiff redolent of lilac and other less recognizable aromas wafted now and then from bushes and trees.

Since all of Texas is exotic to me I don’t know how much of what I was seeing was native or exotic except the invasive chinaberry trees. Fortunately, they are identified in the restoration plan.

Wild onion in bloom
Crossing to the south bank, I find an appealingly boggy draw between the now roadside bike trail and a large dog park. Down in the muck a single, curiously shaped plant bore a single tiny white blossom. As I bent down to photograph it I made the novice’s mistake, immortalized in St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince, of thinking it rare and therefore special.

“I thought that I was rich,” laments the little prince when he comes to the rose garden, “with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose.”

A short while later, back on the north side, the bike path veered off up a hill to parallel Memorial Drive. I stayed near the river and, in a corner spared by the lawn mower, was rewarded with an abundance of the same flowers, which I have since learned was wild onion. Contrary to the little prince, I felt richer knowing that there were multitudes of wildflowers where before the solitary one seemed so tenuous and fragile.

I didn’t notice the signs as I approached the Waugh Drive overpass but as soon as I was underneath I stopped short, mesmerized by a mysterious clicking or pinging. The sound was constant, almost mechanical, but with an arrhythmic, organic regularity. Echoing between bridge deck and ground, it seemed to emanate from the very air. Mystified, I asked a passerby what was making the sound. “Bats,” he said succinctly as he strode purposefully past.

Waugh Bridge Bat Colony
Of course! The slightly pungent odor that I had barely noticed grew suddenly powerful. I looked down. The ground was covered in tiny granules of dark guano. I looked up. I couldn’t see a single bat, but it was clear enough where they were hiding. Tightly spaced concrete bridge support beams stretching the width of the roadway were separated by very narrow crevices. The bridge designers had inadvertently created an ideal bat sanctuary!

I did see the signs on my way out. The first said, “CAUTION: You May Wish to Stand Back During Bat Flight, to Avoid Droppings.” The second was in larger, bolder type. “CAUTION: Never Handle Grounded Bats.” Below those were the same two messages in Spanish.

This is where, marvelously, urban meets wilderness. Untamable, bats, like wolves, embody the wild. Often feared, bats usually have an attraction rating well below mistletoe and even snakes. But, far from being considered a nuisance, the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony, as it is known here in Buffalo Bayou, has become a popular local attraction. The nightly emergence of up to 300,000 bats is rightly considered a spectacle worthy of attention.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership website highlights the paradoxical relationship we have with these wild creatures: “For an amazing, from the water, view of the bats' emergence, reserve your spot on our Bat Colony Pontoon Boat Tours!” How wonderful is that? I wished I had another day in Houston so that I could experience it myself.

Twin pedestrian/bike bridge and skyline
If only more wildlife could survive under bridges in the shadows of skyscrapers!

Under yet another bridge I find a young mother with a beached kayak. Her daughter wandered aimlessly nearby. She told me that they had floated five miles downstream with the intention of paddling back upstream to return to their car. Then she pointed to her husband up next to Memorial Drive calling a taxi with his cell phone. The current had been too strong.

I enjoyed a sunny afternoon on Buffalo Bayou along with hundreds of other people and five turtles. As I again neared the tall skyscrapers downtown I did see a small black snake slither quickly through the not so tall grass. My journey ended as it had begun, up the steep stairs next to the Sabine Bridge and through Runnel’s dream boat. As I reached the top my emotions were not unlike those I’d felt coming out of the underground my first day in Houston. (See previous post.)

This time, however, it was nature I’d left behind: the long, serpentine green park and the river slithering between its steep banks, inexorably carving its way through the city. The Buffalo Bayou Park system is tame for an urban wilderness. I prefer wilder places where more of the earth’s original infrastructure remains – mulberry trees and mistletoe, turtles, wildflowers, yes, but also woodlands, wetlands, and uncut prairie grass; and less concrete or lawn. Nevertheless, it was a refreshing respite from the grid.

Is it too much to hope that Houston’s “birth canal” can provide a rebirth of nature in our fourth largest city? Intentions are good. But we’ve been riding a swift current towards a future ever more determined by urban, manufactured infrastructures and technologies. How will we know when we’ve gone so far that we can’t paddle back upstream?

Mulberries reach out to the grid
The voice of the fox from The Little Prince whispers in my ear, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Click here to go back to “Buffalo Bayou, Part 1.”

Click here to go to “Waking to a New World,” the first installment from this Houston trilogy.

In closing I should repeat the disclaimer in my first installment: These stories are personal reflections inspired by my limited experience. I have not explored Houston – or even all of Buffalo Bayou – sufficiently to evaluate the overall environment. There are other parks and natural areas in the metro region. I hope to get back to explore more of them one day. For information about the park, go to Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Buffalo Bayou, Houston Texas. Part 1.

I was in Houston for a conference; I didn’t choose the hotel. Therefore it came as a pleasant surprise to find it situated a mere block away from Buffalo Bayou, the city’s primary waterway. Houston was founded on its banks in 1836. According to a park guide, it also is one of the few regional rivers left that has not been lined in concrete. I had to go see.

The block between the river and the glass towers of downtown is occupied by Sam Houston Park. The park is a leafy enclave that contains historic wooden buildings and wide lawn landscaped to slope down to a picturesque pond. It is inhabited by a flock of unfamiliar-looking geese with extravagant coloration. Cypresses at the water’s edge have extended a series of their distinctive “knees” along the bank of the pond like a palisade.

My first view of Buffalo Bayou was inauspicious. The river is decked with a freeway. Concrete columns outnumber trees. In places the steeply sloped lawn is in fact replaced by even more steeply sloped concrete.

I walked eastward, downstream, heading deeper and deeper into the concrete jungle. I spent a leisurely and largely solitary afternoon strolling and shooting pictures. Although the sound of traffic on the Gulf Freeway overhead was as constant as the muddy river flowing below, the biking/jogging path that cuts through the concrete was mostly empty. Now and then a jogger flashed by. I saw a man walking two large dogs, a pair of equestrian cops plodding slowly along.

A lone kayaker in a homemade wooden craft briefly danced around the concrete columns rising from the swiftly flowing river. Then, like flotsam, he swept on downriver.

The park’s infrastructure is impressive, if your taste in parks runs to red brick buttresses, grand staircases, faux-Classical balustrades, and ivy-encrusted walls. Entrances into the park/river corridor are graced with sculptural gateways emblazoned with river-inspired poetry. Little expense, it seemed, had been spared once the already constricted bayou was deemed an amenity.

(As in so many cities, this epiphany was relatively recent. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a coalition of civic, environmental and business interests, was formed in 1984, not long after the social/environmental transformations during the decade that followed the first Earth Day in 1970.)

I don’t know how long ago the current “improvements” were completed, but erosion has taken its toll even where the hardscape is most intensive. Rivers, like adolescents, always find ways to defy our efforts to constrain them. My downstream foray ended when I came to a place where the concrete path disappeared under the muddy silt of recent flooding.

After brooding all afternoon the sky finally decided on a hard, straight downpour. I sat on a park bench in the shelter of the elevated freeway and watched the rain fall in sheets. It felt like sitting under an immense plantation house porch overlooking the river and its skyline backdrop.

I mused on the word “bayou,” which brings to my mind dark recesses in a thickly forested swamp and stagnant water. It was impossible to reconcile this image with the scene before my eyes.

Upstream, according to the park guide, the riparian corridor widens and there is more green on the map. I would need another day to explore.

Click here to read Buffalo Bayou, Part 2.

To read my first post from Houston, about the underground tunnel system, go to “Waking to a New World.”