Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to avoid the Weed Inspector

Because I am scared of commitment, I will likely be a lifelong renter instead of a homeowner; I'm scared of being tied to one place, of foundation problems, leaking basements, financial investments that can enter into huge sums of money which I will never see working in the field of natural history. At heart, I'm peripatetic. I've never stayed with one outfit as long as I have these past however many years.

That being written, I've lived in the same canary yellow 700 sq. ft. bungalow with a 400 year old witness tree (a beautiful old gnarled chinquapin oak in the backyard) since December 07. I've never met my landlady, a resident of San Francisco who works for a nonprofit with good and noble goals. She doesn't really need the money she makes from our rent paying exercises, evidenced by the fact that it takes her a very long time (sometimes a month) to cash rent checks. Once recently, she wrote that she accidentally recycled the $600 rent checks and could we please send another? This, a month later.

Nevertheless, because she's the landowner of a downtown property, all pertinent notices of public hearings regarding land use, sewer developments, bond measures and issues with the property are sent directly to her in San Francisco. If she remembers, or thinks I might care, she may inadvertently shoot me an email at the last hour as a "heads up!" Such has been the case between December '07 and July '10 regarding the polite and quiet visits from the local county Weed Inspector.

One day in 2010, I received a panicked call on my cellphone alerting me that our lot, a small tract of upland flatwoods with a highly compromised front yard with lots of gravel and roofing debris, was slated to be mowed down by the city if we didn't "cut the weeds." I was in the field, of course, being mid-summer and all, and couldn't go home to hand trim the tall, rangy sedges and wildflowers that were only just starting to fill in the area where previous renters had likely parked their vans on cinder blocks and taken out engines leaking oil all over the place. Wanting to avoid a disaster by the city who may spray herbicide or bring a huge mower onto our very fragile and recovering sloping soils, Doug dutifully plugged in an electric weedeater that we found covered in cobwebs in the basement to manage the front yard. He didn't cut down the forbs, only the rangy sedges along the street, and then moved his operation to the backyard around the ever-burgeoning brushpile where small trees were growing through the logs and sticks. I didn't like how much he cut down, but knew that his actions were certainly more gentle than the city's mowers and blades and herbicide trucks.

I contacted my landlady that night to explain the notice, in the event that she was contacted following our attempt at managing the landscape. She replied that oh, yes, she received a notice from the weed inspector several weeks ago that our front yard grasses (we don't have grass in the front yard, only sedges and forbs) were higher than 10 inches and must be cut down. She never mentioned this notice before, and added that she herself engaged in pitched battles with the local weed inspector over the same issue. Her lot does not include turf, grass, lawn. Her lot is a recovering woodland lot with a rich assortment of blue eyed grass, wild geraniums, Tradescantia, penstemons, 27 species of woodland sedges, ferns. No fescue, no Bermuda Tifway 319, nothing that would even classify as turf or lawn. She added in her short email to me that began "Keep up the fight!" that she was once interviewed by the local NPR station regarding her ongoing fight with the weed inspector and efforts to engage with the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit group that promotes native landscaping.

Disaster averted that day, but one month later, we received the same notice. This time, the notice was posted on a wooden stake in the iris bed that labeled the property "blighted." Because of the weeds.

I wasn't in the field that week so I set an appointment to meet the local weed inspector (whose offices are in the neighborhood, of course). Located at the site of my walk-to farmer's market, I walked over there with my plant list from the yard. I asked the weed inspector and his assistant to please tell me which of the 128 species in my yard were "weeds," knowing that our yard is devoid of bush honeysuckle, Johnson grass, sericea, other known classified "weeds" in Missouri. Oh, he looked over my list of Desmodiums and sedges, native wildflowers that have persisted through 150 years of abuse from landowners with mowers and cows, and he couldn't answer my question. Instead, he diplomatically came to my house to talk on site so he could show me which plants were weeds.

When he pointed to my Carex amphibola and C. davisii along the curb, what with their "tall" seedheads, he called them weeds. Same with the Helianthus hirsutus. And the Penstemon pallidus that showed up in the flatwoods after the first fire, and the wild grapes (three species: Vitis cinerea, aestivalis, riparia). I launched into a gentle discussion regarding natural ecology, about impaired ecosystems, about asters which bloom in fall, about how I like to leave long stalks in the yard for wintering bees, about the natural ecology of my town and what a great treat it is to have a remarkably intact version of this landscape still around. (Obviously, if you're reading my journal, you don't need to hear about all of this...) The very reasonable weed inspector offered a gentle "harumph" to me, and told me that I needed a sign, something alerting passers by and other weed inspectors that my yard is "intentional," and not "neglected."

And so, that night, after my awesome patch of Aster drummondii (came up after the first fire) was saved from the scythe, I logged onto the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat website to receive certification that my downtown yard isn't just an overgrown lot. After answering a series of questions ("do you provide nesting sites? water for wildlife, brushpiles? native plants?") I plunked down $35 as a donation to NWF for a nice, slick, metal sign to post in the yard, per the weed inspector's request.

Tonight, while eating salad by the fire pit, I watched a gray squirrel gather clusters of leaves from the chinquapin oak and run down to the big gaping hole in the tree to begin nest building. The squirrel did this repeatedly until the sun went down. Common yellowthroats are hanging out in my dense thickets of slippery elms and redbuds, and the snakes have made their presence known in the compost heap by beating feet quickly as I turn the coffee grounds under.

There are efforts afoot to designate large swaths of my mixed income-mixed race neighborhood as "blighted" in order that developers may swoop in and scoop up desirable tracts of land for high density housing and other profitable development. It's an ugly world out there, I see it every day--the bush honeysuckle woods, the deer problem woods, the unmanaged woods, the overgrazed by domestic livestock prairies, urban encroachment on natural areas, the development pressure. After a long five days of the work week, it's truly comforting to come home to my miniscule tract of fire-mediated yard with the chattering house wrens, my awesome chinquapin oak, and all those sedges that are sorting themselves out through the years.


James C. Trager said...

I hate to be a pessimist, but this quote form your essay gives me great concern that your beautifully successful efforts at restoring the tiny patch of land on which you live may be in vain, in the long run. "There are efforts afoot to designate large swaths of my mixed income-mixed race neighborhood as "blighted" in order that developers may swoop in and scoop up desirable tracts of land for high density housing and other profitable development. It's an ugly world out there..." I so hope that I am wrong.

Allison Vaughn said...

I don't think biodiversity is sustainable in Missouri at all, unfortunately. Even our nice, high quality natural areas are threatened by development at their borders, deer overpopulation, political pressure with every new administration, the onslaught of exotics, the anti-fire sentiment in our urban areas--now even our rural places are becoming increasingly urbanized--look what's happened to the Niangua Basin in the past ten years. It's harder to implement natural processes on a landscape scale when you have smoke concerns and native landscapes are penned in by development. It's all island biogeography now, really, and it takes dedicated staff to maintain these places. It all depends on the person in the job, frankly. No one prioritizes protecting biodiversity as a primary driver, so in the long run, biodiversity loses. It's why I float, drink wine, stick to the nice places and keep doing what I can while I'm around before I suffer a major stroke at the utter disappointment I see all around. See you in a couple of weeks!

A.L. Gibson said...

Keep up the good fight, Allison! I'm jealous of your 'weedy' lawn in all its diversity and flora goodness. I wish I could say the same with mine but it's just a monoculture of kentucky blue. It's my dream to one day own land that I can do just that to. I'd prefer those 'weeds' over anything else every time.