Monday, June 04, 2012

Natural History of Vacant Lots

One of my favorite books is this now out of print nature guide by Matthew Vessel and Herbert Wong.  It provides expert guidance in how to explore the flora and fauna of abandoned areas in California.  While many of the species differ from what we have here in Ohio, the book provides a useful orientation to the general task as well as a helpful metaphor for thinking about the disturbed place of the urban Midwest.

Disturbed places is how Vessel and Wong describe vacant lots.  At the very beginning they state, "A town or city is a disturbed natural area modified drastically by humans to accommodate their own needs." At the writing of the book they could fairly state, "Most of the natural organisms that once flourished on the urban site have been pushed out by people."  This is certainly not the case today, at least not in Akron, and long abandoned areas of the Great Lakes hugging rust belt.

The first time I laid eyes on the land that Pat and I would eventually own was about 10 years ago.  It formed part of the eastern edge of the Towpath trail that is a part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  Before that it had been one of the neighborhoods that Great Migration folk had settled upon arrival in the North.  I drove slowly down Hickory St. I carefully skirted a prickle of ground hogs (yes, this is the collective noun) lounging on the asphalt.  Deer roamed the places where houses had stood.  Chipmunks ran amok, twitching and scurrying from hole to hole.  Hawks circled. An impressive array of birds sang, hunted and raised their young.  This was before eminent domain took what little housing remained standing.

N. Maple St. Tree
Now the area is disturbed again as we, and others build houses in what the city hopes will be an urban "arts district" (which is code for "Let's try to attract rich gay men". What they got, at least on our street, is middle aged lesbians).  But the fact of the towpath and the federal national park renders our little part of Akron an ecotone.  Ecotone is "the area where two or more distinct habitats adjoin" according to Home Ground, a wonderful volume edited by Barry Lopez,  that is subtitled Language for an American Landscape.  Our little habitat will never be urban chic and somewhat sterile because the 50+ mile long towpath provides an uninterrupted corridor for the migration of birds, roaming coyotes, solitary and vicious fisher cats (actually weasels) on the hunt, not to mention deer, groundhogs, crows and ... I could go on and on.

And I will, in regular installments throughout the summer as I explore the micro-environment of my wooded hillside as well the other meanings of "natural history" and "disturbed places" for what we hope will become an urban sanctuary.

1 comment:

  1. Check out Peter Del Tredici's Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast which is more relevant to your part of the world. More info on my blog Marginal Nature and Urban Wastelands


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