Attack of the Freakish Foliage

As of next week or so, we’ll be celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of moving into our house, our neighbourhood, and this place we call home. Seventeen years is all at once a short blip and a really long time. It sometimes seems like we’ve both lived here forever and also just moved in.

In reality though, a lot has changed. Where I look out my back window and see houses, trees, grass, gardens, birds, and blue sky, on the day we moved in was a construction zone with heaps of clay clumped into piles amongst weeds, lonely streets paved through a blank field, and utility stakes poking from the ground.

We “built” our house, in that we went to a local building company, and from them bought a piece of land, a house plan and contracting services to turn lot and plans and heaps of supplies into a finished home. It took the better part of a year and was simultaneously exciting and frustrating.

Development companies exist largely to do exactly this type of work: turn a chunk of suburban landscape that used to be farms and fields into rows of neat little houses at the edge of the city, and they both do it very well and simultaneously take shortcuts that have long term impacts.

Last year I noticed one of those shortcuts while out on my walk with the dog: a tree planted by the developer had done something that no one had ever intended. It had started turning from a lovely ornamental cherry tree into a scraggly crab apple tree.

Pictured above is actually a single tree.

On the top is green foliage that is starting to spring blossom for a crop of fall apples.

On the bottom (or should I say middle?) is red-hued cherry, an ornamental tree with gorgeous colours year round, and a favourite of developers trying to add colour and splendour to a new neighbourhood.

On the very bottom is the culprit and cause of the mix-up: the fake cherry was actually a graft of cherry branches onto a much hardier crab apple trunk. This was all well and good and no one would ever have known any different. But then droughts and stress and age and seventeen (likely more) years have passed and the cherry bits have been overtaken by new growth from the trunk and now a freakish hybrid of a tree sits at the edge of a small park making passers-by wonder at what the heck is going on.

I’m in no way against tree grafting. I used to have a tree just like this on my front lawn, a cherry trunk grafted with a mismatched collection of less hardy cherry branches. It died after about four years because here on the Canadian prairies life is tough, especially for a mutant tree.

My point, if I actually have one, is that of the downside of taking shortcuts if you’re not going to be around for the long haul.

Shortcuts in life, gardening and most anything else can be time savers and budget buffers. Getting something the quick and easy way can be a nice perk of knowing what matters and what doesn’t.

When building a community, my developer took a shortcut and saved some time, money, and planted a tree that looked great … for a few years. Then they left, went off to build other, newer neighbourhoods, and the community was left with a plant that needed more care and attention than anyone could be bothered to give it. Left to its own, the faux cherry tree has done what nature let it do, in a long, methodical, slow process… revert back to the plant it was always intended to be: a crab apple tree.

Shortcut: zero. Nature for the win.

Had the developer spent a little more care and attention to put in plants that were local (and we have many beautiful trees that grow natively not a few hundred meters away in the river valley) right now there would be a park with something less frankenstein growing at the gate and more fitting for a pretty suburban neighbourhood. But the cherry looked great at the time, sold the idea of suburban paradise to people looking to build lots of new homes, and years and decades later has outlived its purpose.

It was a shortcut, and years later for the long haulers like me, a shortcut to the simple but important reminder that the people who built our community then are not the ones who live in it now and continue to build it today.

Stewards of the Trails

While volunteering as a course marshal at a local trail race yesterday, I stood in the same spot in the woods for nearly three and a half hours. Much of that time was spent clapping and cheering and directing racers away from a detour where the path had naturally washed out near the river bank. But a lot of the rest of that time was me incidentally and casually investigating the condition of the local trails.

The Inspiration

A few weeks ago I watched a mini-documentary video by Beau Miles called Run the Rock, wherein the filmmaker stepped out his front door in his running kit, loaded his wheelbarrow up with tools, and ran about ten klicks out to a remote trail to dig up a rock. The story is told much more thoroughly by Miles in the video but the short version is simply that after a friend tripped over an obstacle on their running path it only seemed right that someone go remove the obstacle.

He did just that.

The nine minute video runs the viewer through the story and motivation behind what turns out to be a kind of drive towards the moral stewardship of the spaces we share.

Miles ran the equivalent of a half marathon, out and back to where a small boulder was protruding from the path, and on the return trip he not only lugged the same boulder clear of the woods but did so knowing that he had done a bit of work to make the trail a safer place for himself, his friends and anyone who used it.

The Parallel

Standing in the woods for three and a half hours yesterday, minding a curve in the path where the intersection of five distinct trails (one of which had been part of the race course until it was washed out by rain last season) gave me a lot of opportunity to inspect the place thoroughly.

In roughly six square meters of trail intersection there was:

… an official survey brass marker the circumference of a tennis ball protruding nearly ten centimeters from the dirt in the middle of one of the paths

… the shards and remains of at least two broken bottles, crunched to bits the size resembling loose change scattered into the dust

… a pothole at the edge of, but still on, one of the paths large enough to place a car tire inside and clearly awkward enough to trip anyone who wasn’t paying attention as they strolled by

The park itself is a bit of reclaimed semi-industrial land that now lies fairly embedded in the southwest suburbs of the city. Remnants of strip mining that ended at least fifty years ago are shrouded like ancient ruins in young tree cover and meandering paths that sometimes lead past chunks of concrete footings. The area is now an off-leash dog park, boat launch, and recreation area snaked through with bike paths, hiking trails and open spaces (great for hosting trail races.)

It’s also well-used and only lightly serviced.

All of which means that if one stops to stare at one’s feet for any length of time it’s going to become obvious that the trail conditions in some of the highest traffic areas are lagging.

The Solution

The answer, if there actually is one, is probably something to do with personal responsibility.

To be fair to the overall condition of the park, the spot where I was stood for the better part of my morning was not only a convergence of many trails and a highly travelled part of the deep trails of the park, but a particularly nice lookout and vantage point high up on the banks of the river looking north. In other words, a lot of people go this way and stop here for a rest or a photo.

Yet, that seems all the more reason that such a spot should be made safer.

Dogs could cut their paws on the broken glass.

Anyone could stumble in the pothole.

A cyclist who hit the protruding survey marker could easily find themselves ass over tea kettle and tumbling down a steep riverbank.

If only someone could find, say, a Friday afternoon later this week when he had the day off work to wander out there with a pair of gloves, a trash bag and maybe even a shovel.

I may need to check the weather forecast to see if that someone is me.

No Mow, May…be

It was drizzling this morning as I stepped out to take the dog for her first stroll of the day, and for the first time in nearly six months I could tell that the lawn was starting to turn a familiar shade of green.

That’s not an exaggeration, either. As recently as this past weekend I spent the better part of my days out in the yard raking and cleaning and pruning and tidying and the dominant shade in my life was the colour brown.

But a little bit of TLC and a few days of light rain, and spring greenery arrives in force around here.

All this yard work got me thinking deeply once again about my small patch of grass.

I’ve never been a golf-green-perfect lawn guy. I keep it trim because grass can be low work and nice to walk upon in bare feet. It’s essentially backyard carpeting, and a bit of mowing and a bit of fertilizer and a bit of pulling some weeds makes for a pleasant outdoor space. Yet, having taken a lot of ecology and botany in university I look at the picture perfect lawns of my neighbours and rarely first see the intended suburban paradise, and usually instead ponder the effort we put into this single species of invited invasive plant we uniformly call grass. Biodiversity is rarely represented in suburban lawns, and many of my neighbours put countless amounts of time, energy and resources into perfect sod.

In fact, I was thinking about lawns so much that I was getting ready my rechargeable mower batteries thinking that the yard would be due for a trim as soon as mid-May.

Except.

Except, I’ve stumbled upon this online campaign twice now to support that aforementioned biodiversity and support neighbourhood ecological health by skipping the mowing bit for a month.

#NoMowMay suggests waiting until June before cutting the grass.

Skipping the mowing for a month is not exactly much of a hardship in Western Canada, I would caveat here. I may get to avoid mowing altogether simply by virtue of the weather. It could start snowing again before the week is out and the effort would be impossible. Or, on the other hand, the grass could be knee-height by the end of the week and I could be sending search parties into the backyard for the dog when she goes out to pee. This time of year is a botanical prognosticators nightmare.

The sentiment of #NoMowMay intrigues me tho.

I like the idea of thinking forward and holistically about the ecology of our spaces, rather than purely cosmetically.

I like the idea of putting insects and seasonal cycles and the complex system (even if it is a little artificial and of our own creation) of nutrients and water and growth and light ahead of a few minutes pleasure of being barefoot in the grass.

I like the idea that the lawn is actually more than backyard carpeting.

Sure, my little Canadian lawn just coming out of its winter hibernation might not be impressively overgrown by the end of May, but in its own way I think there is a lot to learn from letting nature do its own thing for a few weeks in the spring. It might be worth keeping the mower in the shed until June, despite what the neighbours might think.

Sustainable All

If you asked me for my political position on where the world should be going, I’d tell you. After all, it’s never great to write these things down, particularly on a public website where you are trying to foster a positive, happy vibe without some means to avoid the wrath of the countless people who disagree with you.

Instead, I’ll write about why I like cast iron so much.

What do you think the world will be like 25 years in the future?

We live in a disposable world, don’t we?

We’re arguing over single-use plastics — bags, straws, and wraps — as if the question is one of convenience trumping trash. In reality, it is a question of sustainability.

Everything we do shifts energy. Everything we do increases the general entropy of the universe. These are just laws of physics, not even opinion.

The opinion comes into play when we ask what the accumulated effects of billions of people shifting around energy and increasing universal entropy mean for this tiny ball of dirt and water and air upon which every one of us are bound past, present and future.

For as much as I love great cooking and hefty cookware, there is a often said but generally understated benefit to cast iron: it lasts forever.

The thing is that a lot of things last forever. That plastic straw you sipped your cola through for fifteen minutes will last in the ground as waste effectively forever. Well, okay, sure, ten thousand years is not actually forever, but it’s a heckuva long time on a human scale.

On the other hand that plastic straw is not usable forever. It’s usable for a few weeks under ideal circumstances, if you saved it and washed it and took care with it. But ninety-nine percent of the time a plastic straw lasts forever but is usable for fifteen minutes.

Cast iron pans last forever, but more importantly the are usable for a very long time. Generations in many cases. We can confidently say that any well-made cast iron pan is usable for good hundred or so years because we have examples of collector pans that date back easily as far back as cast iron pans were commonly manufactured. Yes, they take energy to cast and energy to mine iron from the ground and energy to move around the supply chain to get into your kitchen, but over the usable life of a pan — which can be very long — it even out, and likely even wins out.

On the other hand, there are much less sustainable ways to fry an egg.

In the next twenty-five years, say by the mid-40s, I really think we’re either going to need to have our collective mind firmly wrapped around the kinds of choices we make about disposable versus sustainable objects.

Do we drink from a straw or do we slurp from a cup? Do we love our non-stick Teflon™ or do we cook on cast iron? Do we keep the species alive for a few more hundred years, or do we turn the Earth into an unlivable wasteland?

I think that decision, however we manage to get there — by consensus, force, or inevitability — will dramatically shift what the world in twenty five years looks and feels like.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.