Willowbrook Reach Gets an Award

Nature Knows How to Repair Itself

Willowbrook Reach sign
Willowbrook Reach sign

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.

willowbrook reach

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.

willowbrook dragonfly


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.

Scary Meadows

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?




12 thoughts on “Willowbrook Reach Gets an Award

  1. Well-put. Although overall I am a big fan of Lake County Forest Preserve District, all of the trails are wide and wider, with increasingly enthusiastic mowing through the season. This winter I see that the stands of oaks I’ve always enjoyed have been thinned and CLEANED UP! I can’t stand to see all that bare earth and can’t understand what they are thinking. There is a new director~maybe that’s it. I’m with you. I need my wild green tangles filled with surprises.


  2. Nothing is so disheartening as human disconnect from nature. When it is manipulated and ‘sanitized’, is it really still nature? Like you, I prefer the tangled wilds. Great post!


    1. Thanks, Eliza. I do love a beautiful garden but I will always cherish wild spaces. As Aldo Leopold said: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”


  3. As others have said you’ve raised some complicated issues. Landscaping is typically driven by human proximity of some sort and you are right – it gets especially human centric when budgeted and organized by committee. Appearances become a priority and that often spells trouble for wild things.

    Here (hidden behind the fence) on our suburban lot we have several areas that are left to their own devices. These areas are untidy to the eye, but they host a lot of full time life and even more visitors. Once I gave up on the idea that any of the spaces here had to be garden tour ready (much less that every inch had to be!) it became much easier to relax and allow the land to show us how (and what) it wanted to grow. When it gets right down to it, I’d rather share my garden spaces with wildlife than any other visitors.


    1. That has been one of the unexpected bonuses of gardening on a budget for me. I simply had to leave some spaces wild. And those are the most beautiful and healthiest sections of our property. When I push my hand into the soil it is soft and fluffy. Every year it seems the birds and wind plant something new and exciting. I want to replicate that in my more ‘formal’ beds.


  4. Willowbrook Reach sounds like a great project. Similar projects in this area really struggle with removal of invasives – it can be a huge job. And then there are people who get upset about cutting down all that poor innocent buckthorn. Not to mention about efforts to control the deer. Nature may know how to repair itself, but people screw up the environment in ways the keep creating obstacles.


    1. Removing invasives has been the hardest job but in the last five years I have seen just how well natives can take hold. Observing that succession has been better than TV. I think I understand so much more about how these things work. I mean we all learn about them in science classes but seeing it is so much better. We don’t use herbicides. It is all done by hand and the process is slow but I can see how it is a stronger improvement than the instant-garden attempts elsewhere.


  5. Hi. It has been a while. Good to see your post. I liked it a lot. The wooded area behind us is not too different from the photo of the tangles. We go our our back door and follow a deer path about 200 ft to a city trail system. Each summer, I knock back a few tall weeds. In the fall, I put my leaves from the lawn down along the path to keep it from being muddy. As a result, the deer are using it often. (watch your step) Some neighbors use it as a shortcut to the trail. We enjoy seeing the inter-relationships of plants and animals along it as they change through the seasons.

    The word ‘xeric’ was one I had to look up. Thanks.

    In a northeast Iowa community, they have some weed control needed in a narrow and steep walled ravine. No one could walk there easily. No equipment was able to be used. They ended up renting some goats from a local person, along with a burro for coyote protection, to do the job.


    1. It is such a gift to have access to wild spaces. I took that for granted when I was growing up because there were laws that ensured public access to all waterways. Here in Austin almost all access to streams is forbidden because those areas are privately owned. Our creek is one of very few exceptions. Goats are really great for selective weed control and so non-toxic. hahaha

      Liked by 1 person

  6. So many great points in this post, I don’t know where to begin. Except–glad you’re back, I missed you. :) I’ve decided this need to “scape” is really a control issue. I’ve come to realize that most people are frightened of and don’t understand the natural processes of outdoor space. I’d like to believe that demonstration gardens could teach that it’s really okay to leave seed heads on plants and to not hedge shrubs, but I don’t see that very often. I’m continually boggled at the preference for the sterile look for “gardens” over what nature provides. For all the educational aspects to the Mueller development, to remove a tree in decline is truly an teachable moment wasted. I suppose there are liability issues (kid jumps on rotted wood, falls through, sues city….), but it’s beyond sad and frustrating that the paradigm for “beauty” is, as you said, ‘people centered’.


    1. I do feel a bit uncomfortable giving any criticism at all. Hearing about the field mouse complaints I started to realize just how big the learning gap is and that I need to show more patience. A lot of people these days have grown up in urban environments and these concepts are foreign. Maybe they heard about them in science classes but they haven’t lived the experience. Baby steps. The demonstration gardens are just the starting point: showing people that native plants can be ornamental. Have people got that message yet? I think so judging from all the Austin gardening blogs. I hope Mueller and the Lady Bird Wildflower Center can take the next step of showing that wildlife enhances a garden. I think people are ready.


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