Tuesday, February 16, 2010

neighborhood nature?

I grew up in Shawnee Mission Kansas, the KS-side suburbs of Kansas City, MO. There were and still are some great parks, including the 1250-acre Shawnee Mission Park, much of which is in natural grasslands and woodlands. But aside from the parks, the dominant feature of the landscape was individual yards with rooftops and pavement as the next most common cover type. It was right in the sprawl and I saw it sprawl. Back then 103rd was pretty much the end of town, now it’s way past 150th. There are some things they are doing right in Shawnee Mission and Olathe, more about that later.

Thinking back to when I lived there…tucked in the back corners of the sprawl were little pockets of woods and I sought them out. These were typically along some kind of small intermittent stream where the topography would make it a little more expensive to build on. (I recently read that 1/3rd of such streams in cities across the country have been paved over, didn’t see a figure on how many had been channelized.)

These small pockets of trees weren’t big enough for one to ‘wander thru the woods,’ but did offer a nice spot to go that wasn’t quite as human-dominated as the rest of the neighborhood. In today’s jargon what I did there as a kid was to engage in ‘unstructured play.’ At the time I just thought I was playing over in the woods. Usually with friends, sometimes just myself. Thinking back, maybe I was trespassing on private property but it never seemed to be an issue. No fences, no Keep Out signs. Maybe it was a reserved public right-of-way? (A quick check on Google Earth shows that, as I suspected, the economics have made it worth developing those areas. They are paved over for the most part but a few small patches remain. Maybe they are too oddly shaped to develop or too close to other properties. I’d like to think they are kept intentionally but I don’t know.)

They are not formal parks. Most every town has those (again, more about that later). Scattered trees with mowed grass between is great. But is there still a place for pockets of denser trees that don’t get mowed between? Or is that too big of a security/liability issue? Are small neighborhood nature spots important enough to keep out of development? If so, how?

Or am I just sentimental? For the suburbanites, can nature be something close by or will it be something that you have to make a special trip to see?

(I have to add that now I do wander thru the woods, especially if no one remembered the compass or GPS receiver. I asked students a while back if they could tell that I was a kid who liked to scramble thru the woods. They knew that the right answer was ‘whaddaya mean was…’ The ‘kid’ description hasn’t been accurate for a long time and that’s fine by me, but I’d like the scramble-thru-the-woods part to stay accurate)


  1. I look for those small woodlots, too. One of about 80 acres is just a block or two away from the house. I often take the dog in there or ski/snowshoe through it.

    Commenting on your Everyplace Adventure entry the other day, I mentioned that diving ducks hadn't been using the canal in town this year due to the lack of ice cover in surrounding rivers and lakes. (My theory.) Yesterday on the walk home from work I heard the unmistakable whistling of goldeneye wings and saw a pair lift off the canal. This morning, I spotted a lone hen goldeneye feeding just upstream from main street. Maybe more to come.

    Today on the walk home for lunch a bald eagle was making lazy circles low over the downtown area, again, and yesterday I saw an eagle perched in a tree across the street from the high school. It used to be a rare day when you'd see an eagle. Now it's a rare day when you don't.

  2. This article Neighborhood Nature reminded me of a very important effort of mine I am proud of. In Houston, TX, a very concreted over city, there was this little county park I frequented. It had a five acre natural pond in the park. This is a very rare thing to see in Houston. In fact there are not too many natural bodies of water in the city besides the bayous. Anyway, the pond was totally neglected by the powers to be. In fact there was talk of filling it in and making it a baseball diamond. To the north of the pond and also within the boundaries of the park was a small wooded area.

    I made numerous calls requesting something be done to preserve the pond and the woods. I pestered the county so much that the county commissioner told me not to call him anymore. I made calls to other organizations such as the Audibon Society and the Lions Club of Houston who had a stake in the pond since they owned a piece of it. I suggested a nature trail in the woods with interpretive signs. To make a long story short. Four years later, I get an email from a friend in Houston telling me that the park has been given a complete makeover with the pond deepened and restocked with bass, bluegill and catfish. They put down a crushed granite trail through the woods and put up signs identifing trees and various fauna.

    My point is...it took one person to plant the seed. Of course the county commissioner who told me to get lost was there for the ribbon cutting and was given many pats on the back for a job well done. That is fine by me. I got what I wanted. The sad thing is that there were not too many others who participated in the beginning. What does it take? For me it was the place I wanted to be at the end of the day. I would do a little fly fishing and meet buddies and share the camaraderie. I guess that was what was guiding me. Now that I think of it, a similar thing happened here in the Sault with the Farmers' Market. A voice has to be heard.

    I did not mention that the pond was a stopping point for many of the migratory birds that make their way through Texas during the winter months.

  3. My only arguement concerning your sense of place has less to do with the place (or its proximity to other kinds of places, i.e. suburban areas near "wild" places) than it does with a persons sense itself. So to answer your question in this regard, "Or am I just sentimental?" I say no. You just have a strong sense of place regardless of the strength of the place that you are in. The sense of direction thing is another matter.