Massive lava flows pushed around the lower John Day and Deschutes rivers over the course of several million years leaving them to find and carve new routes, often next to the very ‘plugs’ that filled their former canyons! Today, deep below the layers of hardened basalt that form the palisades and ramparts projecting out in tiers from the smooth full curves that rise above us, we look through 15 million years of accumulated history. The fine grained basalt shatters and fractures in line with their mineral structure under the forces of water, weather and gravity. Sagebrush and grasses dominate revealing an oddly ‘netted’ pattern across the sloping canyon hillsides, lit by the often harsh sunlight, illuminating some kind of subsurface movement of the thin soils that soften the slopes. The ‘net’ looks as if it had been draped across the land then stretched sideways catching and snagging on what lies beneath in a never the same, but consistent repeating pattern. It shows best when the angle of the sun comes across the pattern, not when it hits it head on or when clouds make it too diffuse. Coarse falls of shattered basalt spill down to the canyon’s bottom always seeking their angle of repose. The sagebrush steppe plant communities cover the surface and in their richness and vigor speak to the soils beneath. Along seeps and drainages cutting verticallly down the canyon’s face, spring lasts weeks longer, and species crowd in that you won’t see other than near the river. The surface botanical palette in this way reveals what lies beneath…if one knows what to look for. Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a great place to observe this. Continue reading
It’s the edges, the margins, that always contain the most diversity. Large expanses of unbroken landscape take a portion of their character from their scale, a vastness, that the uninterested can often view as monotonous. Seemingly endless expanses of ocean, desert, prairies even forests, can lull some into indifference, a kind of blindness, in which they lose interest and fail to see the intricacy and richness of that which surrounds them….By overlapping two different landscapes places can take on a complexity that neither has alone…and may even arouse many of those inured to the natural world surrounding them. Two different landscapes sharing a common edge can form ecotones, where each landscape contributes species in patterns not found across the vastness of each alone. Cut a river through an arid landscape and it becomes altogether different often with stark changes within a few feet. Such is the arid canyon landscape of the Deschutes River immediately north of Bend, OR.
We can do much better than we have been doing with our landscapes…we have to! It is incumbent upon each of us to grow our landscapes well, whatever they are, whatever they demand of us. Our inability or unwillingness to do this is symptomatic of a society today that doesn’t place priority and value on life, first! (If you are reading this, you probably aren’t part of this ‘we’.) The fact that we don’t have the time, resources or interest is indicative of how far out of balance our own lives are. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I don’t mean to shame or blame anyone here. Modern societies have long been out of step. We place a premium on our personal freedom, the idea that we have moved beyond nature, that technology will do for us whatever we need. Nature will keep ‘chugging’ on without us so that we can devote ourselves to our more personal goals…and so ‘nature’ has been left largely on its own as if what we do will have no significant or damaging effects…but that isn’t really the way it is. So, what do we do about that dead weedy lawn out front? Continue reading
[A reader asked me to do an edited down version of this article to make it more accessible for those less interested, but in need of its message. This is a stab at that.]
The suburban American lawn has been identified with the fall of nature by many. Today, a good and green American, certainly us Portlanders are included in this, rejects the perfect monoculture of the lawn. Nature:good; lawn:bad. Our lawns demand water that could be better used growing food and assuring healthy fish populations, our lawnmowers spew air pollutants damaging to us all, our fertilizers leach away and move off site contaminating ground water and stream flow while our pesticides used on them, more directly attack nature all around us, all of this for no justifiable benefit, only fulfilling some narrowly defined human desire for an outdated aesthetic. Detractors of the lawn argue against the waste of resources they require and they are difficult to justify if their purpose is restricted to providing a neat and ‘defensible’ perimeter for each house, the appetites of golfers and the youthful fantasies for power and dominance of sport, all increasing the consumption of land ‘stollen’ from nature to sate our hunger for it. But this view of the lawn does it a disservice. Continue reading
[The world is like a ball of string…pull on the loose end available to you, and you pull on the entire thing!]
Portlanders, Oregonians, often promote ourselves as being ‘green’ leaders. Cleaning up the Willamette, the Bottle Bill, preserving our beaches as public property, state mandated land use planning, bicycling, recycling, mass transit…and it’s an apt description…to a point. Combine this with our relatively low population, our huge, diverse and beautiful natural landscape, our progressive ‘weirdness’, and we are firmly on the national map, the envy of many places and a beguiling destination for those who find themselves looking for the laid back, ‘cool’ place, to be. Our environmental righteousness is intoxicating and clouds our own vision of where we are and the work to be done. A steady stream of new arrivals brings with them their own visions of Portland, based more on their own desires and marketing efforts than the on the ground reality, skewed by tinted glasses of Portlandia’s popularity, our own boosterism and the ‘boom’, probably transitory, commitment that big money has showered upon us. Our little town is not what it once was, if it ever was. But this is the nature of any place, it is many things, often contradictory, when looked at by its many very different inhabitants with their unique history’s and perspectives. Continue reading
I hope that you will forgive me this departure into verse, prose, whatever this is…another thread in my life. I don’t think it is too far amiss, because, after all, horticulture is the ‘art’ and science of growing plants. Originally I began this as an idea for a children’s story, yes I did, the life of a particular Dandelion, but, probably due to my more recent reading on topics like photosynthesis, cellular metabolism and a biophysics response to the question of, ‘What is life?’…it has morphed…considerably. When you read this, keep in mind that my intention was to write from the perspective of the Dandelion, a concept pretty incomprehensible to a modern American.
The Taraxacum Cycle
Stories all begin with a single word, a seed, around which they grow, nurtured over time by the things we all share in common, family, history and experience. They contain ‘truth’, but are not themselves true, because they must be told in such a way that they lure the reader in and are ‘believable’. They are organic and grow within us and to the extent that they reflect our own ‘story’, that they meet our expectations, we stay with them and them with us, because there is no story if it is forgotten. So, the author must manipulate what he knows, he must ‘lie’, to bring you in and keep you, weave truth and lie into a whole. We take the stories you already know and introduce our own characters, set them in exotic though familiar settings, and, if a writer is good, introduce enough, but not too much, that is ‘new’, different from your cultural experience, your expectation, that you are affected by its unfolding, that you become a part of the story and look at your world in a different way, even if only a little bit. The word here is Taraxacum. Continue reading
[There is a recurring theme in several of my postings and that is the failure of various of our local agencies and departments to responsibly care for the landscapes that they are charged with, a responsibility that is secondary to their primary mission and priorities. The fact that this problem is so common is indicative of two things: first, that society views the ‘care’ of the wider landscape as a non-issue, that it is either somehow self-regulating, the mother nature thing, or, of such low importance that it need not be addressed, or some combination of these two, and, that our need for government accountability is so tightly defined and our mistrust of it, so deep, that our ‘exclusionary’ strategies utilized to accomplish this, eliminate the possibility that secondary responsibilities, i.e., those not directly serving the explicitly stated priorities, are excluded from any action or even discussion. Thus, an agency or department charged with specific transportation priorities will only respond to and act on issues of transportation efficiency and safety…not landscape concerns. My position is that this allows the uncontrolled spread of weeds and an overall decline of the health, beauty and vitality of the landscapes across the City within which we live, devaluing both the place that we live and the quality of lives we can enjoy.
The following is another example of one such landscape, in southeast Portland, this time a one block section of unimproved right-of-way, or roadway (UROW), a scenario that repeats regularly across this part of Portland, the difference being that the lack of vehicular traffic and the grade have allowed this property to grow in solid and has become impenetrable. Many other such properties are in use by vehicles with sections of them graveled and eroded, huge pot-holes turning them into obstacle courses, but largely free of heavy weed growth, or at least free of many of the larger more aggressive invasives that plague our area.
First, below, is a descriptive piece that I sent to Commissioner Novick’s office as well as Suzanne Kahn, PBOT Maintenance Group Manager. Next is the response I received from Cevero Gonzalez, Constituent Services Coordinator, with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and finally, my interpretation and response to that. Governments are very ‘conservative’ organizations and are risk averse, meaning they tend to do what they’ve always done avoiding creative solutions that put them outside their comfort zone. Very often this is exactly what is needed.]
There’s a short strip of ‘street’ a few blocks south of our home and garden at SE Schiller between SE 28th Ave and 27th. It appears to have never been paved. It’s not currently passable by vehicles of any type without engineering and improvements. It’s completely overgrown with several invasive plants and multiple weeds all of which have been left on their own for years providing a significant source of ‘infection’ for the neighboring properties. It is also a repository for trash. From maps this appears to be a City of Portland property. Continue reading
About a year ago I posted a series of three articles on Tri-Met’s landscapes along the new Orange Line. They were a critical assessment of their design with many photos and explanations for my criticisms. I had a brief correspondence with the project manager after the first two before he stopped responding. I had asked about the maintenance schedule that they had with the contractor who would be doing the work. I did not receive it. Part of the reason was mine, as new ideas came up for me, my interest wavered and I moved on. Still, I’ve never received anything. Now, a year later, I decided to reassess the first portion of the landscape that I wrote about, as it is a section I regularly walk and ride by bike to downtown or to just get out. I would encourage readers to see my previously posted reviews. Continue reading
(I’ve made earlier postings on this topic, but this piece actually predates those. I wrote this in 2013 while still working as a horticulturist for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation as a member of a Bureau committee that was working to define ‘sustainable landscapes’ so that we could begin to make our policies and practices more consistent with our ‘desire’ to create sustainable landscapes and protect the relatively intact ones that remain. This was a difficult process. We spent a lot of time discussing/arguing about what constitutes a sustainable landscape and ultimately the direction that Parks should be headed.
There was a large divide between those of us who saw ultimately, that the only truly sustainable landscape was one that recreated those native landscapes that preceded the massive changes that European Americans brought with them, so that our efforts should be on these, and those of us who, having spent much of our professional lives in the field doing maintenance in created/urban landscapes, arguing that these new landscapes played a necessary role in the modern world and that our designs and maintenance of them could be moved in a more ‘sustainable’ direction. These urban/functional landscapes, whether for active sports, community gardens or even many passive uses, provide places and venues for activities that native landscapes cannot.
The organizational structure of the Bureau has been built around three primary landscape ‘types’: ‘natural landscapes’ which tend to be larger and border more densely populated sectors of the City, ‘contrived landscapes’ that are dispersed throughout the City and serve the more traditional Park functions for sports and more casual social use and the ‘enterprise landscapes’ of Golf and PIR that serve very narrow functions and depend on those uses for much of the revenue that supports them. These are operated and maintained by discrete groups within the Bureau, have different cultures and priorities and view sustainability very differently. Because these are all in a highly urbanized area the degree of historical disturbance and the continuous pressures that a concentrated population apply to them, they can never by truly ‘sustainable’ in that they will always require our active stewardship to counterbalance these pressures. This is not to say that we give up on the idea of balanced/dynamic landscapes of appropriately chosen plant communities. We just need to remember that these are urban areas and be good stewards of the land. We can even move ‘high use’ landscapes in a more sustainable direction, both in their design and in their maintenance. It is incumbent upon us to do this to ultimately minimize the pressures put upon them and natural areas by weeds, invasives and human use.) Continue reading
The following is intended as a template for action or a beginning point for a discussion that is long overdue.
Landscapes are more complex than most people realize. They can go seriously awry in a very short time. Undisturbed native plant communities are relatively stable and are able to respond on their own, as they have for millions of years…if the disturbances they suffer are relatively small. Unfortunately these plant communities have been decimated in urban and most rural agricultural areas severely compromising their abilities to respond in a positive and effective manner. The addition of invasive species to the region puts even stable, undisturbed plant communities at risk. Because we are not all ecologists, or even gardeners, what can we realistically do to stop or reverse this process of landscape degradation? The decline of our landscapes is linked to a long history of practices that have ignored the value of both our native and contrived landscapes, a belief in a right to ‘dispose’ of the land in whatever way we so choose and our denial that this destruction matters. We have done this through our land management practices, our designs and the uses of the land itself even those that may seem unrelated, many that have become automatic in our society and are directly related to how we live, work and play today in the modern world. Our active threat is inherent in the way that we do business. Our attempts at correction are, too often, limited to only slight modifications that do not put any undue ‘pressure’ on our local economy, business or the privileges that we have come to see as ours. We are a society that has, in short, become disconnected from the realities of life at the local level and what is required to support it. We see a limitless nature that is there for our use. Whatever we may need, we believe that we may merely buy from elsewhere, an elsewhere that is limitless though undefined.
To turn this situation around, or to make significant improvements, requires that we examine what we are doing now, that may be working against the goals that support life and landscape,…and stop. We have to stop doing the things that are working to continuously disrupt the ‘healthy’ functioning of the landscape. If we don’t do that then all of our attempts at improvement, all of our tweaking of our system, will come to nothing. We cannot ‘save the patient’ with good thoughts while they bleed out. Continue reading