Parks: The Human Wilderness

Parks and ponds are good by day;

I do not delight

In black acres of the night,

Nor my unseasoned step disturbs

The sleeps of trees or dreams of herbs.

                                                                                     –R. W. Emerson


Some goodly time has passed since the last challenge.  I wonder if this month’s subject isn’t a bit out of time, as we in the north are going to turn inward more than outward.  Nonetheless, I’ll charge on.


For this challenge, I’d like to turn your attention beyond your backyard—unless you’re lucky enough to have one of these adjoin your property.  I’m talking about your friendly neighborhood park.


Sure, it’s probably got a playground with the de rigeur equipment, perhaps a ball field (soccer or base), a disc golf course, or some kind of dog run.  It might be tree less or nearly so.  Full of trash?  Just a corner lot in the middle of the city?

Typical park landscape

Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan


That doesn’t matter.  You’re sure to find something of interest with some diligent exploration.


Parks, as far as I can tell, originated among the rich in Europe, specifically in England (though I bet some Chinese and Japanese emperors had some) as a place to ride horses and hunt game.  They were surrounded with thick hedges to keep the game in…and the commoners out.


Game animal or park visitor? Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan

Game animal or park visitor?
Lola Valley Park, Wayne County, Michigan


In the U.S., the claim for the first public park was the famed Boston Common, established in 1634 for the purposes of military training and a public place for grazing animals (You might want to check out Garret Hardin’s noted essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” as a loosely related aside).


Over time, the idea of parks became associated with leisure.  They were established as littles oases, specifically for urban dwellers, a break from the duties and distractions of mundanity.


Today, we’ve got tiny pocket parks owned and operated by cities and towns (urban, suburban, and rural) to county, state, and national parks.


What kind of park exists in your neighborhood?


Natural areas v. areas of human use

Natural areas v. areas of human use

You’ve probably explored the playground, but what is there beyond that?  What species of trees grow in and around the park?  Do flowers and native grasses grow naturally in some areas?  What birds and mammals frequent the area?


Here’s a perfect opportunity to get to know the flora and fauna of your neighborhood.

If your park is not much beyond a turf grassland, the species are probably limited.  If you’re interested you might be able to change that.  Talk to the your parks and recreation department about creating strips of native vegetation.


Does a stream or river flow through or next to your park?  What kind of vegetation grows there?  Most parks use the paradigm of mowing right up to the streambank.  That practice, however, lends itself to erosion, and, of course, limits biodiversity.  Talk to the managers about the best practices for streambank stabilization.


How can you protect your park?

How can you protect your park?

Take advantage of the large green space in your neighborhood.  Help your children to identify trees, birds, and insects that pass through or reside.  Learn to love your park and understand ways that can help increase it’s natural areas.


You don’t have to let nature take over the whole park, but balance can be created for human use as well as for the non-humans.


Explore, learn to care for your park, and work to restore some of the natural areas, if possible.  You’ll increase the beauty and the value of your neighborhood while doing the right thing.

Look for the extraordinary ordinary in your neighborhood park.

Look for the extraordinary ordinary in your neighborhood park.


My Two Backyards

“If I had a yard, I would play in it.”  –The Choir

The purpose of this blog has been to move readers to explore their backyards and neighborhoods, to get them to know the plants and animals that belong.  The hope is that once they know their fellow creatures, they will come to love them (yes, even the skunks) and work to protect them.  If you don’t know someone or something you can’t love them and if you don’t love someone or something, you probably won’t work to protect it.


Love alone will transform the world—not an abstract love for humanity nor love for the idea of the ecosphere, but a concretized particular love.


Know your neighbors—eve the ones who don’t seem so lovable.


Know your backyard, learn what belongs there.  Love what belongs there—to the best of your ability (yellow jackets don’t engender much love, do they?)


I happen to be fortunate enough to have two yards—one in a suburban area, another rural.


My suburban yard is in a suburb that bumps up next to Detroit and is part of the Rouge River watershed.  In fact, I’m only a minute walk or so from a riparian corridor and a floodplain.

Rouge River watershed

Rouge River watershed


At a quick glance, this floodplain doesn’t appear attractive.  It lacks boulders, conifers, and other features we associate with rivers (or at least the ones I imagine).  But beauty is there for those who take more than a few seconds to locate it.


I was just this week visiting a floodplain of the Kalamazoo River, and yep, all the floodplains I’ve encountered lack the sparkling beauty of other ecosystems.


The county has created some “grow zones” in the floodplain near my home.  Grow zones are areas where mowing is minimal and the native plants—usually deliberately planted—are allowed to grow unmolested.

Black-eyed Susan growing in Lola Valley Park

Black-eyed Susan growing in Lola Valley Park


The advantage of this corridor in an urban setting is the amount of biodiversity that resides or passes through.  Of late, some hawks have been calling.  Screech owls, great blue herons, turkey vultures, and Baltimore orioles can be heard or seen.  There are the regular songbirds too—chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, goldfinches, grackles, crows, blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals, robins, among others.


Toads, mice, bats, skunks, raccoons, opossums, moles, woodchucks, and even white-tailed deer wander through the neighborhood.  Some years back I spotted a coyote in the park.  This year I spotted a painted turtle (I think) a couple of times basking in the sun on a log in the middle of the river.


Most of this wildlife spills into my postage stamp of a yard at times.  Birds and bats congregate around my shagbark hickory.  The American beech tree in the back provides shade and beech nuts for squirrels, birds, and chipmunks.

I’ve been able to attract more insects, and thus more birds, to my yard by filling a section next to my driveway with butterfly weed, culver’s root, purple coneflower, rough blazing star, prairie smoke, June grass, and rattlesnake master—all native plants.


Not bad for a heavily urbanized area.


My other yard is a bit better: three-and-a half-acres of black oak barren.  For those not in the know, an oak barren is an old way of describing a prairie or savannah that is punctuated by the occasional oak tree.

Sunset in the Hollow Woods

Sunset in the Hollow Woods


Located one county to the west, this yard sits in the Huron River watershed.  Even though I-94 is about a mile-and-a-half south, one can’t hear much hissing from the highway.


In the spring I am serenaded by wood, chorus, and green frogs, followed a couple months later by the gray tree frog.


Hawks and sandhill cranes make themselves known by shrieks and bugles.  Songbirds abound.  Wild turkeys leave evidence of their presence with clawed feet in the sandier soils.  Occasionally, barred owls and great-horned ones make announcements.  There is a plethora of insects (including the ever-annoying mosquito), rabbits, mice, deer, raccoons, and other unseen mammalian visitors.


Turning up dirt, rocks, bags, and boards surprises the garter and milk snakes.

About one-third of the property is oak-hickory woods, including about 2/3 of a pond, while the rest is struggling grassland that I’m trying to restore to prairie.


The silence is restorative even if interrupted by buzzing, clicking, chirping, and humming.


If I had my druthers, I’d spend most of my time at my second yard.  For now, that isn’t to be.  So, I’m slowly replacing many of the exotic plants in my suburban yard with natives; I keep about half of the back yard unmowed during the summer to provide a more natural habitat, and I steward the park down the street by removing invasive plants.


This month’s essay is a bit nebulous to the challenge.  Why don’t you briefly (or prolifically) describe your yard in the comments section after you’ve taken some time to explore it all.  You might be surprised to find what you have dwelling alongside you.


To the wonder

IMG_1072I can’t make this month’s challenge any easier: Go outside and explore!
We’re on the cusp of a new season–the Autumnal Equinox occurs in the northern hemisphere on Sunday–it’s the perfect time to see the blurring of seasons.
Goldenrod is probably at peak blooming right now (honeybees have only a few weeks left to gather pollen and nectar), maples are hiking up their chlorophyllic pants, nuts are dropping making a mess of sidewalks, you get the idea.
My neighbor’s birch tree has about 20% of its foliage turned yellow. Apples are in season (finally!). I was surprised by mosquitoes today.
What does this fading summer and blossoming autumn look like in your neighborhood? Go out, look around, and report. Maybe I’ll even send a prize to the first person who reports something. Give me at least three sentences to be considered, however.