Category Archives: Sustainable Landscapes

Toward a Redefinition of Work

Several different Panicum, Miscanthus and Pennisetum cultivars were planted in large sweeps across more than an acre of bank above the Willamette River here. For several years, late each winter, we gathered in mass for the ‘Harvest’ cutting them down and removing the debris as we were unable to get permits to burn them. Maintenance on this site was always labor intensive given the manner in which it was planted, large sweeps of clumping grasses with nothing in between as per the design. Over time irrigation was discontinued and a more xeric, complex of other plants were added, changing how the work is done.  Anyone working in the plant world knows how undervalued the work is and the compensation those doing it receive.  No one doing the work is getting rich.  Those who do it are either sustained in part by their passion for plants, their desire to work outside and/or at least some degree of desperation…and Portland is becoming an even more expensive place to live as are all West Coast cities.

In this time of political chaos and environmental threats it is difficult to keep my mind only on plants….Nothing in the living world is easily separable from the whole, its context. The following is reflective of my interest in people. My first degree was in sociology.

Work is what we do with our lives. It is what we ‘spend’ our lives doing, whether we are paid or compensated well or not, whether it is a joy or drudgery. Through our ‘work’ we give our lives purpose and meaning, or we don’t. When we speak of it, it is as an expression of our lives…one’s ‘life’ work.

Work is a reflection of our place in our community and society, our role. It is through ‘work’ that the needs of the community are met. What compensation we receive is in proportion to how our community and society values us as individuals as well as the work that we do. When work is not this, when our work itself is demeaned, so are we who do it. When this happens to us we search for other ways to find value in our own lives…or for distraction. When we receive only monetary remuneration for our work, when even we ourselves, fail to recognize the value of the work that we do, when it isn’t ‘fulfilling’, we have a huge hole to fill in our lives.

It is difficult, but doable, to retain one’s dignity in one’s work when those around us recognize neither the value of our work nor our lives. Sadly, we have fallen into the trap set by the larger economy and owners for us, measuring value by the dollars that they are willing to pay. We are raising a generation who sees little value in the necessity of manual work, of hand labor…even the construction trades, historically valued and well compensated, is attracting fewer of our young people. We are learning not to seek satisfaction in paid work, that pay should be enough and that fulfillment, satisfaction, should be found in our shrinking free time, in recreational pursuits, which are defined very narrowly and separately from work.

Work today is, by and large, not creative. It has been reduced to a narrow Protestant, even Calvinistic definition, as a kind of servitude, even a punishment, something we must do to attain our reward and salvation. We have demeaned not only work, but our own value as human beings in the process. Because we spend so much of our lives doing it, work should be creative, fulfilling and satisfying, in multiple ways. We should pursue it because it is satisfying allowing us to contribute to our communities and the support of our families. We are not interchangeable cogs.
There is nothing ‘fair’ about the vast range of pay, the chasm, between those who ‘labor’ and create the product or service and those who own it and decide who gets what. We are all taught that life is not fair, though we have a base understanding that it should be. We have learned that those in positions of power will take what they can and that we will be left with what remains…and, many of us, were our positions switched, would do the same…and very few of us see how simple and just the solution is. We have been taught that money and wealth is adequate compensation for unfulfilling work and we play and recreate very hard to make up for what we’ve given up. We do not live our lives as we do because we must, we do it out of choice, informed or not. Right or wrong.
How we value work reflects how we value our own lives and those of others, how we structure jobs, our relationship with work, our relationships with one another. We need to redefine our idea of work, set it in proper relationship with our lives, make it mean more than a paycheck. All work, if worth doing, should afford those who do it adequate and just compensation so that they can live healthy and secure lives. Work should be important in and of itself. Work should add value to our own lives while it does the same for the world around us…instead of a disconnected opportunity to take for ourselves. It should emphasize and build the relationships between us instead of set us against one another as it does in today’s world in which we literally consume the Earth while diminishing the lives of others at the same time. Ultimately, the result of our work must make the world a better place, because to set the standard lower is to compromise our lives and the Earth. Our work, in this sense, is our ‘contribution’ to the planet and as is true in all things, our impacts are both individual and accumulative. We build or destroy through our combined efforts. This is something we must understand if the human ‘experiment’ is to continue.

On Ecology, Politics and Climate Change: the Links that Tear us Asunder

Warning!!! This is a rant! It’s political, economic, ecological and, most definitely, covers all of the connections between with climate change, these things and our future as a species.  I hope you choose to read it, but be forewarned!!

I woke up yesterday at 4:30am, unable to go back to sleep, so I got up and began writing this.  The state of the world, the absolute idiocy, meanness and short sightedness of politics today, the undeniable enormity of climate change and its inevitable impacts for every organism on the planet, drives me from paralyzing frustration, to near rage, to profound sadness and despair.  Most days all I can do is seek escape and I do this through gardening, reading eclectically, trying to follow some kind of routine, going for walks, a swim or a hike, sharing time with friends or delving into research on plants and the everyday miracles within them and their wondrously choreographed lives here on this planet….I spent my entire morning writing and rewriting this (and returned to it the following day, now today).  It is me ‘sharing’.  Yes, it’s a rant, it’s a bit of analysis, it’s a window into the world as I see it and it contains a hope I have…that I have to cling to most days, for this world and all that lives upon it, because what we have done, what we continue to do, is so profoundly destructive and disheartening to me. Continue reading

A Course Correction: The Wild and the Human, On Repairing the Relationship Between Politics, Economics and the Environment

“We are the odd ones, with bright eyes, that see the wonder of a bountiful world.  We don’t look through rose colored glasses…we’ve only removed the veil that breaks and blinds….Now, to cut the strings that tie us to the lie. ”  Lance Wright, Jan. 2019

Echinops ritro in front of a Miscanthus gracillimus several years ago at Holladay Park. A series of perennial beds were created with help from a notable local designer. For a variety of reasons related to budget, staffing and vandalism, the beds declined.  Beauty, that necessary elixir, truly abounds, but we must be cognizant of the forms in which we accept it and be committed to what it requires to flourish.

Gardeners are my people…well, actually, so are botanists, horticulturists, entomologists, ecologists, the weekend outdoor adventurers who in regular moments of awe, pause to take in the daily wonder of the world…anyone, really, who works with or has become enamored with the living natural world (and I’m going to include geologists too, at least those not taking their livelihood from resource extraction).  I have a theory, that as our modern world becomes increasingly urbanized, and transformed by our use to that which supports urban living, more of us are becoming consciously aware of what we are losing, of the natural world that has been sacrificed, developed, along the way…and in ways, large and small, many, but still far too few of us, are choosing to make our lives reflect this understanding. We question the ‘stuff’ we have crowded our lives with, that ‘stuff’ we’ve spent our lives to procure while following the dream we’ve all been sold on.  Many of us garden on whatever we have available to us whether it’s a quarter acre, a Juliet balcony or a kitchen counter space.  We plant gardens for food or to support pollinators, to have something green and growing in our homes, we grow small succulents for their simple beauty, flowers for the vase or plants that provide cover and fruit for songbirds, there are many reasons…and we do this for the pleasure that it gives us, for the satisfaction that we are doing something to heal an increasingly ‘broken’ world.  Yet the world continues to spiral down into more ugly chaos, in spite of our increasing awareness…it is not enough.  I find myself drawn even more into the wonder and beauty of a single plant, the ‘miracle’ of life and the amazing complexity, the inter-relatedness of living communities…because, in spite of how our society views this planet and the countless organisms it routinely dismisses as secondary, and unnecessary or of little commercial value…life is in fact the center of meaning and value. Continue reading

Death and Life in the Garden: Learning in the Garden Classroom

As gardeners our hands are ‘bloodied’ with the chlorophyll of plants…while it may not stain us as ‘murderers’, we are never the less complicit in their deaths…as much as we are necessary for their lives.  Without us, as a group, these garden plants would never would have been propagated and, if not for our ‘selfish’ acts in the garden, choosing, designing and displaying them, many would be passing into obscurity, most of us knowing nothing of them or of their loss, their passages into decline and extinction, even more quiet, unnoticed, as too many already do today.  While we may acquire and attempt to grow them with the ‘best’ of intention, eventually, they will all die, ill fit or not, suddenly or after many years in our gardens, as a result of our ignorance, impatience, simple curiosity, our desire for something ‘different’, or even in spite of our best informed efforts.  Death comes to all things and our gardens are no exception.  Our gardens art artificial after all, creations of our making and they do not comprise a viable population that will out live us, reproducing in place, making the adjustments that they must over time to survive.  To do this would take an unprecedented amount of effort and coordination on our part and that of our neighbors.  The setting of our gardens are unique to us and their purposes are much narrowed and more intentional than are the places their progenitors come from, the ‘gardens’ of their origination.  For many of these plants our relationship with them might best be thought of as student to teacher as nature sacrifices itself in an attempt to teach us of what is being lost, ever since we stepped out of the loop that once put us in daily direct contact with nature and came to embrace this modern world and its expectations of consumption, ‘ease’ and never ceasing growth…so it is not ‘murder’, it is life, an attempt to return and reclaim.  There is purpose to be found in our gardens, well beyond surface amusement and distraction in what is too often becoming an ever uglier world, or for some of us our need to impress in a game of one-upmanship.  Nature demands more of us, that we accept our role as student and become careful observers, willing acolytes…maybe even crusaders….Too much? no, I don’t think so. Continue reading

Fabiana imbricata: the Andean Un-Tomato, a Non-Heath That Looks a lot Like its Cousin Cestrum

800px-Fabiana_imbricata_HRM2

Fabiana imbricata has an appearance much like the upright and shrubby Erica arborea…maybe mixed with an upright form of Rosemary…providing a remarkable texture in the garden.

In gardening and botany one of the first things we learn is that not everything looks as we might expect that it should!  Fabiana imbricata, is a member of the Tomato Family, the Solanaceae, yet, if you don’t look too close, it looks like it might belong to the Ericaceae.  At one time I was planning to take advantage of this similarity as I was attempting evoke a South African feel in part of my garden substituting this for one of the many tender South African heaths as the correct Erica species are either too tender, of borderline hardiness for my conditions or are simply difficult to come by.  It was sharing an area in the garden with Restio capensis, Eucomis spp., Melianthus spp. and others to give an impression of South Africa, not a strict species for species duplication of a community.  I didn’t quite pull it off….I’ve done much the same thing when substituting tropical looking temperate plants for the real thing when evoking a tropical feel.  It’s a matter of manipulation…a sleight of the garden hand.

Its Chilean Home and Garden Merit

Fabiana imbricata is not from South Africa, though it shares Gondwanan roots, and is endemic in Chile, occurring very frequently throughout much of its Andean range.  It is in fact identified as a ‘keystone’ species strongly effecting the composition of its local plant communities.  It can be found growing from well into the dry region of Coquimbo in the north, just south of the huge Atacama Desert, south into the wet Aysen region with its many islands and inlets south of the Lake District or Zona Sur.  The vast area stretches along much of Chile’s length which can be driven, on often tortuous mountain roads, for over 1,700 mi., stretching from the arid city La Serena to the small, rainforest town of Tortel, in the south, a distance almost 500 miles further than the drive from Vancouver, BC to Los Angeles, CA….There are not that many plant species in the world that span a similar latitudinal range with its accompanying climate differences.  As you look for this plant moving from north to south through Chile, the soils and its particular niches change along with the temperature and rainfall.  You are more likely to find this growing exposed in rocky scree in wetter regions to the south, while it tends to be more commonly found on sites more protected from the sun’s intensity and into better soils as you move into the arid and hotter north, more protected from the sun’s tropical intensity.  No surprise there, but overall this is an adaptable plant succeeding in cool rainforest to arid, desert like, conditions.  As would be expected across the more arid portion of its range fire is an important factor in maintaining the plant communities balance, riding it of other competing woody plants  and even aiding it in germination, when followed by ample winter/spring rainfall, though this is obviously not essential for its continuing survival in rainforest areas where fire is much less frequent.   This is a very adaptable species and as we live near the Pacific Coast in the northern hemisphere, which mirrors much of the range of conditions, we should be able to have success with it, if we pay attention to its cold limits.  Those away from the Pacific Coast, especially those with ‘continental’ climates or strong influences from them, will have to pay closer attention. Continue reading

Our Gardens as Teachers

 

Of all the things our gardens do for us, arguably the most important is their role as our teachers, even in winter when a temperate garden ‘rests’, its surface crust or top few feet, frozen, maybe sheltered beneath the cover of snow, or, as ours so often are, simply too cold for active plant growth, the soil wet, the rain too heavy to percolate fast enough down through its layers, without the active aid of either the direct heating of the sun or its effect on plants, through evapotranspiration, pumping water back into the air as the plants grow.  Gardens teach patience.  They encourage us to become more careful observers…to think and plan, to anticipate and prepare, to understand that there is more going on here than we can readily see…and they teach us about faith and trust in the natural world, that there is always more going on than we can see. Continue reading

Growing and Understanding Globe Mallows in the Urbanized Maritime NW: Sphaeralcea spp. and Cultivars

Every plant evolved in and lives in context.  They are dependent upon it for continuing support, not just for their survival, but for their well being as they grow, mature and attempt to reproduce.  It is not just competition out there.  Though we may order them from a catalog, grow them from carefully collected seed, receive them as gifts from a friend or purchase them from the shelves or rows at a garden center, they are individual plants, removed from their context…their futures’ will be short if we don’t make some attempt to recreate it.

Sphaeralcea ‘Childerly’, from the Dancing Oaks catalog, though it’s not currently listed.

Sphaeralcea are often called Globe Mallows and are another member of the large Mallow Family, the Malvaceae, some 244 genera with 4,225 known species.  I’ve written recently of Anisodontea another genus of the family.  Most of the 40-60 species of Sphaeralcea are North American natives of dry areas, growing from the Great Plains west and south into Mexico, with a few occurring in South America while a few others reaching into southern Canada.  They include annuals, perennials and shrubby species, I’m looking here at perennials, all of which have very long bloom times, often spanning the entire summer into fall.

Sphaeralcea (ambigua) ‘Childerley’

Sphaeralcea ambigua, one of the largest growing species of the genus, at up to 3′-5′, often found considerably smaller, is native to the US Southwest, SW Utah, Nevada to Arizona and southern California down to Sonora and northern Baja, Mexico.  They are found east of California’s Sierra Nevada and the several other smaller ranges of southern California, which shield them from moisture coming from the Pacific.  It is the most xeriphytic of the genus, meaning, the most tolerant of drought.  The USDA breaks the species into four separate subspecies, S.a. ssp. ambigua, the most commonly occurring form across the four states with the typical orangey flowers, S.a. ssp. monticola, the one occurring at higher elevations, beyond the Sonoran Desert and covering its Nevada range, S.a. ssp. rosacea which is limited to the San Diego area east to Maricopa county in Arizona, of the warmer Sonoran Desert, with a flower that is rosy-pink and S.a. ssp. rugosa which is limited to the Mojave Desert area with the more expected orange-red flowers.  Both S.a. ssp. ambigua and S.a. ssp. monticola grow on north of the Mogollon Rim, an east-west running escarpment,  the abrupt rise in elevation marking the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The other two subspecies grow below this and largely south and west of it. Continue reading