Nature Knows How to Repair Itself
Willowbrook Reach (our neighbourhood’s riparian restoration project) is a finalist for a Keep Austin Beautiful award. Congratulations to David Boston and Staryn Wagner for their patience in wrangling a whole lot of people and bureaucracies to let this little wild space stay that way.
The phrase ‘one of a kind’ gets tossed around a lot but the aspiration that guides WIllowbrook Reach is sadly unique in these parts. The idea is simple: nature knows how to repair itself. Simple idea. Tough sell.
The project doesn’t have a lot of funding or formal organization. When something needs to be done community members just get together and set work days. Most of the time that means clearing out trash that drifts downstream. The community occasionally organizes work bees to plant native forbs and trees received through grants and donations. One year we spread a mountain of donated mulch along the walking path. A big job that will hopefully get easier over time is removing/controlling invasive species. I think that as native plants take hold that job may well become redundant.
The most difficult job is probably advocacy — explaining why wildlife is worth protecting. That is the area where David and Staryn have been stars. I am grateful for their hard work and expertise.
The picture above was taken a few years ago. I thought about adding a photo showing something more classically beautiful and then decided to use this picture instead because it isn’t composed. Don’t get me wrong — I love gardens — they can be a form of art but sometimes I just want to take refuge in tangles of green. It is a different kind of aesthetic: one that honours self controlled chaos instead of human imposed order. When I walk through this area I experience details and connections — the parts instead of the whole. Sun dapples on skin. The scent of honeysuckle. A new bird call. The kind of thing you can’t get in a gardening magazine.
Does land need to be ‘scaped’ to be beautiful?
As the award language shows, even an organization like KAB sees beautification as a human driven enterprise of improving an area through landscaping, tree planting, artwork, architecture or other means.
People probably can’t help being human-centric but the Willowbrook Reach vision pushes against that impulse by trusting in natural processes rather than exerting control. In fact, much of the work done at WIllowbrook Reach is about removing the negative effects (pollution, invasive species) of human presence.
Just down the road is …
the nearby Mueller development. The Mueller development is a restoration project with a more human-centric philosophy. I enjoy it very much and so I feel a bit bad about criticising a project that took an abandoned airport and turned it into a space where people can live, work and play but I think the green spaces at Mueller do suffer a bit from too much management. Honestly, it seems the more we try to control things the uglier they get.
The demonstration gardens at Mueller at this moment are more of a cautionary tale than exemplar. The irrigation system failed and the landscape company involved decided it would need a complete re-do. To prepare for the job a lot of the shrubs were either razed to the ground or completely removed leaving big ugly gaps of nothing. They didn’t stop there. Shrubs and plants were thinned leaving the soil exposed and creatures without cover. Perhaps ugliest of all the grasses and shrubs got that characteristic big landscaping company ‘torture-ary’ treatment of arbitrary top and side slices. Yuk. Is it just me or are buzz cuts always wrong outside of Japanese gardens?
I was worried the area was sliding into landscaping hell but the plan is to install new plants this spring after the irrigation system is replaced.
In lieu of the irrigation failure I have to wonder if anyone involved considered building a demonstration garden that was truly native and xeric — one that could work around the need for irrigation? I hate to point this out but it seems like very few xeric gardens really are.
The demonstration gardens are gardens: constructed by and for humans. But even the Mueller prairie meadows got the hack and slash treatment this fall. I read recently that people feel that meadows are less ‘threatening’ if the sides of walking paths are mowed. The suggestion being that people have a startle distance — that plants and animals can feel too close. The landscaping company working for the Mueller development must have read the same memo. Even though the walking paths are already wide enough for foot traffic to pass in two directions the plants on both sides were mowed to ground level. So much for encouraging edge effects.
It is a management philosophy (compulsion?) that aims for tidiness maybe. Someone decided a tree snag that always seemed to attract the most interesting birds was a potential legal liability and so it was removed. Not just cut down but actually removed. As I watched the landscapers load the wood onto their trucks to take away I wondered if they might be open to leaving the wood on the ground to rot into the soil that gave it life. The mess left by death is an opportunity for life.
There are individuals on the Mueller landscaping committee who care and advocate for wildlife but they are working against some powerful forces. The committee receives a large budget and we all know budgets have a built in requirement to be spent. The Mueller development was a huge and slightly controversial project. In order to make it happen some ugly compromises were grandfathered into the deal. (cough-herbicide-cough) So it goes. I did hear that the committee is thinking about getting a goat to do selective grazing in the future. *fingers crossed*
Because the Mueller Greenway is a huge project it connects with a lot of people — some of whom simply do not value wild things and may even fear their presence. Apparently the landscaping committee received a bunch of complaints from people about the presence of field mice! How sad that even tiny benign creatures can provoke anxiety. I do not envy the committee’s difficulty of balancing the needs of wildlife with the hyper-urban fears of some residents.
I must be an outlier. I love surprises. Seeing a field mouse or armadillo or any of the other beings who grace that space fills me with joy. A world completely domesticated and dominated by people sounds like a nightmare to me. Yet I think that is the direction where we are headed. Less than 1% of the land in Travis County remains wild. Are we so greedy that we can’t even tolerate that tiny sliver?