Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Conflicted Harvest


It’s a hell of a thing when we live in a world where we have to erect fences to keep the vegetables safe from....I'm not sure who.This was among my initial thoughts as I pulled up to the urban garden that had been built on the site that used to be occupied by the Robert Taylor Homes. I toured the site along with my grad school classmates, and I’d been looking forward to the visit as I’ve also occasionally taught a lot of the concepts of urban gardening to my students.  The reasons that many (myself included, from time to time) have advocated for urban farming – gardening, really – are numerous. You have possibly heard of many of them. They’ll include:

  • City people (especially the little kids) don’t know where their food comes from, and this is wrong.…
  • There’s going to be something like 9 billion people on Earth by 2050, and we’ll need more food to feed them.  Urban gardens will help feed them..
  • Many people have crappy diets, and they eat a lot of junk food. The concerns are that this will lead these folks to serious health problems in their future. “Urban” gardens will also help to mitigate this issue. (I’m left wondering what sort of gardens will develop in rural areas – where the diets are often equally crappy, yet land for growing veggies is all over the place)….
  • We need to develop local food networks in order reduce the need and costs associated with shipping food all over the place – and to facilitate the previous points. I guess there is some logic to this, as cities are certainly where all the people are….
  • Urban gardens – as a practice – will foster a new generation of urban farm businesses that will grow food that people want. They will also provide jobs to people in areas where employment options are often very thin….
  • Because there are these things called food deserts in the poorer parts of our cities. (Again, I’m left wondering what sort of food options will develop in rural areas – where grocery stores are often spread out across vast distances too. At least there is lots of vacant land if someone wants to build one)….
  • Oh, and, many of these above listed goals must be sustainable over the long haul….
  • Lastly, and most importantly, (in my mind anyway) is that urban gardens have the potential to get food into the hands of low income people that could really use it….
I’d arrived with a hopeful and positive outlook on what I was going to see and learn, but when I drove away my thoughts were far more mixed. 


The gardens we toured are managed by the Chicago Botanic Gardens, as part of their Windy City Harvest program.  This particular site – it should be pointed out – is not open to just anyone who walks in.  The raised bed gardens are tended by those who have completed their training program first. Afterwards, these graduates are then allocated space to grow crops for a two year period.  Many use this facility as a sort of business incubator, providing food and floral crops for farmers markets and the like. I pray that I’m wrong, but my sense was that the people tending the beds that day were from everywhere but the adjacent neighborhoods.

This property was once the site of the Robert Taylor Homes, and is now, according to our hosts, leased for 100 years by a developer. These gardens were safe for anther few years, but the issue of property ownership is one of the uncomfortable realities of many community gardens. They'll often exist only as long as there is a benevolent land owner that lets them scratch around the soil until they can sort out what to do with the site.  

The way these gardens were constructed was a model of impermanence. All the planting beds were raised, built over the existing grade – the remnants of demolished housing towers. The hoop houses, the requisite compost bins, and tool shed could all be dismantled, hauled off, or bulldozed in a day by a competent contractor. The garden operation will be sustainable until someone wants build a shopping center,or townhouses, and then that will be that. One can only hope the development will have a grocery store where people can buy some food.


On of the admirable goals of this operation was the plan to deliver crops to those in the city who get assistance to buy food.  Residents could obtain vouchers to exchange for produce sold at local farmers markets. We were told that, unfortunately, this program was under-utilized for what sounded like a number of bureaucratic structural reasons. Also, it seemed that simply getting to a farmers market isn’t as easy as one might hope.  Inspired, I asked why people couldn’t simply exchange vouchers for produce directly from that facility.  I later realized that much of what was grown there was said to be delivered and sold at farmers markets in tonier locales such as Hyde Park, Rogers Park, and so on.

During the course of our visit there was an implication that there was tension between the gardens and the neighbors. Hard to imagine why there would be resentment when a bunch of high minded outsiders come into town and get to garden in lovely plots (built for them for free) all of it protected by a substantial chain link fence. During the tour, I picked up that one of the garden businesses was named “garden anarchy” – or such like. Yeah! Stick it to the man! How easy it is to proclaim anarchism (over craft beer, I’m betting) when the whole shebang is subsidized by the largesse of a developer and wealthy donors.  Heaven forbid that a real anarchist should take a pair of bolt cutters to that fence.  


Okay, so maybe it’s me who has the problem.  And, okay, maybe all of our goals (see Part I) aren’t exactly being met – but isn’t that still better than doing nothing?  How can I complain about a garden rising from the ashes of a failed housing project? Aren't the people working there trying to make a difference?  Am I a little jealous that I’m not a self-proclaimed garden anarchist? 

I recall once reading about how urban gardens facilitate gentrification. When I’ve mentioned this to colleagues I’ve gotten either hostile or muddled responses.  However, when I see stories like this – this connection may not be all that imaginary. I can understand why local residents might view the sight of hipsters tending beds of kale as a harbinger of hard times ahead. 

Taking all of these things together, I’m just not sure what the purpose of these urban gardens is. I don’t think they are the most effective long term solution to the very real problems of food and hunger in the world.  Perhaps they are best at getting people out, in the sun, and talking to one another. During our tour, everyone seemed happy to be there. The summer vegetables were fat and gleaming. Freshly harvested carrots, too stunted for sale, were washed and shared among the visitors. A Red-tailed hawk, swooped and perched for his audience on a nearby power pole. On such a lovely day, inside the fence, the optimism was real, and the gardens were lovely.       

Thursday, September 03, 2015

On Naming Trees...

A couple of weeks back we all journeyed out to northern California, where among other things we took in the mighty Pacific and mighty trees - specifically the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Such sights drastically confounded my normal sense of scale, and after a little while on the trail I simply abandoned the idea of trying to photograph these trees - and zeroed in on the scenery that was a little closer:

Forest floor, coast redwood grove.

Thanks to a kind tip from the folks at the hardware store in Mendocino, we hit the road to hike among old growth trees that were in the same general size range as the Hyperion tree - recently tweeted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library:

It's difficult not to get swept up in the wonder of which tree (was, until 2010) considered the tallest tree on Earth.  However, these individual trees are not marked - and really, after about a mile or so in we lost count of the trees that may have been the local champ, as the trees seemed to just get bigger and bigger.

* * *

Upon returning home I began teaching a plant identification class.  I suppose I look forward to this more than my new students - some of whom are wading for the first time into the world of plant names.  I recognize the challenge of this, and so over the past couple weeks we have started with the basics.  I believe that everyone has some intuitive knowledge of naming plants, a knowledge that begins at childhood and accumulates in almost a subconscious way.  I think that we often underestimate this lifelong understanding - but having access to these personal memories of the plants of our past is a great foundation for any future explorations in botanic nomenclature.

* * *

The Alexander Cockburn Tree, with celebrants. Image Credit CounterPunch.

Scientists have verified that this enormous Blue gum tree (Eucalyptus globulus) - near Cockburn's final resting place - has world-record circumference and will be known henceforth as the Alexander Cockburn Tree!  It's gratifying to know that to many, this particular (Very Big) tree will now occupy a place in their hearts and memories that goes well beyond a scientific name in a textbook or a random tree in a meadow. 

"This is where we walked, this is where we swam..."   
- Cuyahoga, R.E.M.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A cautionary tail....

This tweet posted by DePaul professor Liam Heneghan stirred up some old memories: 

When I was a little kid, maybe 5-7 years old, I received a copy of the book The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin as a gift. The book was also accompanied by a little toy plastic squirrel, that was covered with fake fuzz to make it seem more realistic. I've read a lot of books, and forgotten many of them. However, Liam's tweet reminded me of how unsettling the owl character was to me in that story. 

It must be so, because after a half a century I can still recall (paraphrasing the character Quint in Jaws) the "cold dead eyes" of Old Brown. This owl had the all-black eyes that many species possess, and I think Beatrix Potter did well to cast and illustrate the malevolent target of Nutkin's teasing. Ultimately, the teasing goes too far, and Old Brown has had quite enough. He pins Nutkin on his back, threatening to open him up the way a fisherman would gut a bluegill.  Old Brown gazes at Nutkin with a sad, almost benevolent gaze:  
This is going to hurt me more than it is you....

Anyway, Nutkin survives this encounter and lives to see another day, less the better part of his tail. My exchange with Liam got me thinking about this book, and the message it sends to a young reader: Listen junior, don't jack around with authority too much, or there will be severe consequences.... Nutkin - now with only half a tail - is now clearly marked amongst his squirrel peers. But how? As a bad seed, battle scarred, or as merely unlucky? Don't you secretly wonder if he remained a smart ass?  

For the life of me, I cannot recall who gave me this gift when I was a boy. I think it may have been from one of our neighbors, but I can't be sure. In hindsight, it's tempting to wonder if I was being sent a message: Be a good boy David, or the man will cut you, and scar you!  And you have to admit, there is some truth in that message. Life, and nature has boundaries. Liam is currently working on a book about kid's books, and our folklore is full of examples of what can befall one when those boundaries are crossed - or if those silly kids wander too deep into the forest.

Be careful out there. Stay on the trail, and don't mess around with the owls!

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Phantom's field

Phantom Prairie, Cook County IL :: 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Milkweed, along the rails ...

Common milkweed. Cook County, IL :: 2015

The secret of the seal, under the trees...

One of the reasons that I love the work I do is that the natural world offers an unending capacity for surprise. Even in this corner of the world that is seemingly more pavement than greenery there are remarkable organisms - hanging on by a thread.  On a job site I recently came across a plant I had never seen in the field before: Golden Seal.

Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis)

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I have not seen this before, as it has apparently been over-harvested for it's purported value in folk medicine. This little stand of plants was growing quite happily on private land - where there is an owner that is committed to restoring this area and removing invasive species.

Locally, the Plants of Concern project has Golden Seal listed on it's roster of plants that are being monitored.  One of the keys to future preservation of such plants is secrecy. It's not far-fetched to imagine that if this plant were on public land it would be gone by now. As it is today, on private property, under the care of a concerned homeowner - these plants have a fighting chance.

It's worth noting also that these plants were seen in an area that had a fair number of invasive plants in their vicinity. At the first glance, it was a landscape that wouldn't normally appear to hold such surprises. As always, tread carefully and keep those eyes open!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Thanks, Mister Hess...

Over the course of the past month I have been monitoring birds in and around two roadside hedgerows in Cook County. I was doing this for my most recent master's course, but going out and counting birds in your neighborhood is a pursuit that I would recommend to anyone. These ideas seem to start out simply enough, but before you know it counting birds in old hedgerows may lead to some interesting places.

As I was tracking down articles about such topics, I came across an article from over 100 years ago that intrigued me. In 1910, Isaac Hess wrote an article that appeared in The Auk, titled "One Hundred Breeding Birds of an Illinois Ten-Mile Radius."  Hess was from the town of Philo,Illinois - in Champaign, County.  Hess was a merchant by trade, but a naturalist at heart. In this article, Hess summarized some 12 years worth of remarkable field observations taken within the confined radius of his homestead.

For my purposes, I was initially seeking out local references about birds and hedgerows - but ultimately, I was captivated by this glimpse of a landscape from a century ago. I loved reading Hess' writing - a style that was clear and uncomplicated. His local landmarks were groves of trees and local watercourses - geographical thinking that is virtually extinct in this Age of Mapquest. I have to wonder what, if anything, remains of these wooded parcels that he'd named.

And then, of course, are the birds. I hope you take some time to read his accounts, but here is one example that caught my eye:

27. Antrostomus vodiferus. WHIP-POOR-WILL.- Common summer resident. Arrives April 25 to May 1. Found only in the upland woods after their arrival from the south. Here they stay but a few days, leaving for the low damp woods for nesting. I have succeeded in finding but one set of eggs. This was a set of two taken May 16, 1901. A great deal has been written about this bird's night notes and the number of times they are repeated. At midnight on a moon-light night in May, 1905, I counted 175 repetitions of "whip-poor-will" before a pause was taken.  

No one writes (in scientific journals, certainly) about Whip-poor-wills calling in the moonlight any more. Hess wrote in a language of a different time that describes a bird that - one hundred years later - seems to be declining in numbers. Anyway, thanks, Mr. Hess, for committing to paper and ink years worth of field work that shows us modern folk what once was. If you were here today, you'd see that a great deal has changed.  Nevertheless, some of us are still out there poking around the field margins, following in those large footsteps of yours.