Monday, April 11, 2011

Departing Seattle, planting trees in my wake

For Earth Day, I have a tradition of doing service for our planet. It's not the only day that I work for Earth, but I hold April 22nd in special esteem.

This year, I will be moving on Earth Day. I am off to start a new venture in Colorado, the details of which I will reveal in a future post.

Ross the restorer; photo by Lizzie Petrin

So I did my service early. This past Saturday, I returned to a place where I have put in quite a bit of work in the past several months—the West Duwamish Green Belt. With 182 acres on public land and another 300 on private, the green belt is the largest contiguous forest in Seattle. Seattle was nicknamed the Emerald City for its abundance of evergreen-dominated forests. But due to logging and invasive plants, many of the forests are now in a weakened state. Parts of the once-proud green belt have turned into thickets of Himalayan blackberry; the formerly-biodiverse habitat has become a monoculture. The Nature Consortium, a nonprofit based in West Seattle, works to restore the forest of West Duwamish to its emerald glory. (The NC also provides youth environmental education programs which integrate the arts, for more information consult their website.)

Restoration director Mark "Buphalo" Tomkiewicz provides instruction for the tasks ahead.

The Nature Consortium holds half-day work parties at the green belt three or more times per week. A work crew consists of one to three NC staff, and a number of volunteers ranging from three to one hundred or more. The NC staff give a short presentation on forest ecology, restoration techniques, and safety, and set the crew to work. Armed with shovels, dibbles, pruning shears, rakes, pitchforks, and weed wrenches, the crew—which sometimes includes yours truly—unearth and remove invasive plants including Himalayan blackberry, Scot's broom, and wood ivy. We plant natives, including Douglas fir, western red cedar, mock orange, service berry, and snowberry. We spread mulch to suppress the return of botanical invaders, and aid the natives. (And leave with the pleasant aroma of fresh wood chips on our sleeves). A Douglas fir can grow to be 300 feet tall and live for over 400 years, and reproduce to make many more trees. So our efforts today can yield high results in the future.

Volunteers take on the Himalayan blackberry.

The Nature Consortium and I have several goals in common, one of which is bringing ecology and the arts together. Hence, many of NC's work parties are also concerts. Musicians of many stripes, including singers, guitarists, and players of varied wind instruments, enter the forest. The restoration crew digs, cuts, and plants to live tunes.

Live music helps plants to grow and volunteers to dig.

We get the forest into better shape. In the process, we get ourselves into better shape. Forest restoration can work up a sweat, and is considerably more rewarding than running on a treadmill.

The restoration creates improved habitat for animals as well as plants. Often, we encounter these denizens of the green belt. Varied birds play their music to accompany that of the humans. At Saturday's work party, a cooper's hawk flew overhead. We met a red-legged frog. It's their breeding season, so this frog most likely had just finished a successful mating. The offspring will inherit a healthier habitat.

Buphalo shares the red-legged frog before releasing it.

Nature Consortium volunteers have planted over 7,000 native trees and shrubs this planting season, and will be back for more. At the end of Saturday's work party, I looked ahead of me into the acres of blackberry and trees covered in wood ivy, and the task of restoration seemed impossible. Then I looked behind me and saw the huge empty stretch of earth we had created, and mountain of blackberries we had uprooted in a single session (wherein the focus was blackberry removal.) And I concluded that the restoration task is doable, thanks to the sweat and energy from willing workers. It will keep the Nature Consortium busy for years to come, and educate countless volunteers on forest ecology and wisdom. The green belt will be a source of community pride and personal inspiration.

I look forward to seeing the ever-improving forest when I next visit Seattle. For now, I have a new adventure in Colorado.... !

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