Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Passing the Weed Inspection

Several years ago, my landlady sent me a nasty-gram email from the city with a little smiley face attached to her note: our address had been cited by the Office of Neighborhood Services for a Weed Violation. It was noted by a city official that there were "weeds in excess of 12 inches" growing throughout the property. At that time, my landlady (now a resident of Los Angeles, California) alerted us that she had received weed violations in the past, and tried, in vain, to work with local officials to recognize that her "weeds" were beneficial to pollinators, wildlife, and so forth. She battled with them for several years, even secured an interview with the local NPR affiliate about her struggle. So, when the weed violations ended up in her post office box in California for the property that she owns in Missouri, she wasn't too concerned. Her note to us was "work on this ASAP. I know the yard isn't full of weeds!" But the threat of the city mowers brush-hogging all of the yard and sending her the bill for it wasn't very desirable either.

It must have been almost four years ago that the first Weed Violation came in during our tenure at our present residence. At that time, I had amassed a plant list for the yard of 125 vascular plant species, none of them planted, all having been volunteers from our regularly occurring prescribed fire events. We live on a flatwoods, a classic Missouri River Hills landscape with a massive old growth chinquapin oak and scattered walnuts and black oaks. The vegetation isn't of the highest quality, of course, having been mowed and grazed and treated like a lawn for many years. My house was built in 1906 and has had only two owners and lots of careless renters who parked their cars on the "lawn," damaging trees, but no real maintenance of the yard (or the knob and tube wiring, our appraiser has kindly told us for insurance purposes). So the Weed Inspector himself came to the house after we showed up at his office with a plant list, an insect list, a map of the trees, and a detailed plan of the regular ecosystem management we conduct on an annual basis.

At that time, the Weed Inspector went through the yard, truly impressed with the biodiversity, all the legumes and long-lived perennial wildflowers, and asked that we post a sign that lets passers by and other civic officials recognize that the area is not overgrown from benign neglect, but is being managed as "habitat." Quickly, we posted metal signs issued from the National Wildlife Federation proclaiming our property as a "Backyard Wildlife Habitat" project. Not weeds. We didn't hear from the Weed Inspector for years. Until early August. Same routine: the Office of Neighborhood Services sent a Weed Violation to my landlady in California. She forwards her scanned letter to us two weeks later, giving us five days to "clean up" the yard or show up for a hearing. We spend three days trimming by hand, pulling the grape vines from the fencerow, deadheading the Echinacea that I had planned to leave for the wintering chickadees, and we make an appointment with the Weed Inspector two days before the hearing before City Council.

Maybe the city officials know us? Maybe when I called a week in advance to make an appointment to "discuss the weed ordinance" they took the time to come by the property themselves? Regardless, I showed up at City Hall with my my notebook of plant and insect species, as well as a vasculum of plant specimens from the yard that might be considered "weeds" because they are "tall." Helianthus hirsutus, Silphium perfoliatum, Desmodiums, native Lespedezas, all native flora from the yard. The Weed Inspector came out to the lobby and didn't even show us to his office. "I went by your house. I saw your sign in the yard. I can tell you don't have weeds, you have native plants. It's your neighbors who are the problem....." Success without the litany of the benefits of "gardening for wildlife" and so forth. Two weeks later, the yard is still in tact, the city's brush-hogger mowed the abandoned lot next door, all covered in rank fescue and thistle. My Helianthus hirsutus is about to start blooming, the ageratum is in full bloom, the Desmodiums are in bloom, and for at least one more growing season, the yard is in tact.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Catch it while you can....

Last week, my kid sister visited Missouri for the first time since the early 1990s, her first trip to visit me- a transplant from New Orleans after Katrina -in my new homeland. It's been ten years since I relocated to Missouri so it was, as my mother would say, "high time" my kid sister came to visit from her fancy world of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her first introduction to Missouri was Blue Spring in the late 1980s, not the Kansas City-area Blue Springs, but the little Ozark spring somewhere on the Scenic Riverways, a deep water hole accessible by car on truly rustic and not well-maintained gravel road. The karst landscape and blue waters were entrancing to her. At that time, my kid sister lived in a fabulous 1983 Westphalia van while following the Grateful Dead, years before Jerry died and the whole Dead scene degraded to a...not very pleasant experience for anyone but grifters. She had an outpost cabin in northwestern Arkansas: fall colors without the cold weather, a patch of land to grow some food, no running water, barely any electricity and a wood stove for heat. She had a great place in the Arkansas Ozarks, but she had never really ventured into Missouri, barring a random trip where she ended up at Blue Spring.

Three days. She flew in for a three day stay in Missouri. How to cram everything I want to show my wonderful, very smart, and perspicacious kid sister into three days, making sure to show her the best the Ozarks has to offer in an effort to entice her to come for a longer stay, to explain to my family who wants me to move back home that Missouri has a lot to offer. So we went to the headwaters of the Current River. Trout dinner (not locally caught, since most of that tastes like antibiotics and cat food), fireflies and katydids on a streambank, and an 8 mile float complete with a lot of hummus, carrots, Fig Newtons and 2011 St. James Norton in steel canisters. My kid sister has a lot of experience kayaking on the Snake River, on the Henry's Fork, the Green, and so forth, so the little riffles and tricky rootwads were very relaxing to her. Damselflies! Louisiana waterthrush! Kingfishers shooting lazers as they fly down the river corridor!

We took a mid-week float on a vaguely popular stretch of river. There were many others on the river, some in the same boat we were in, folks wanting a wild experience to truly capture the upper Current, to see the wood ducks and herons, the wonderful drone of the morning cicadas. And then there were those with the loud radios playing horrible music coming from behind, the folks bringing their domestic disputes to the river, the scene that I try to avoid by floating on early weekdays. It was unavoidable. We were committed to our float.

I see the numbers of canoes and kayaks and inflatable rafts and other floatation devices, I see them issuing forth onto the river system and I wonder how wildlife manages with all of this recreational use of the river. How much of the party scene can persist before the people who are wanting to float the river for the scenic and solitary value become disengaged to the point that they don't want to return? So many stretches of Missouri rivers have been relegated to "party" status that they have been allowed to become degraded. The Gasconade, once a home to numerous rare mussel species, is now a jet-boat stream with so much sedimentation and streambank erosion, and no protection of the streambanks from cattle grazing, that the whole river is trashed ecologically. The Niangua River, once a focus area of biodiversity, has been seriously degraded in recent years with the explosion of float outfitters in the watershed with improper wastewater systems and land clearing.

I tried to show my kid sister what was good in the Ozarks. The areas I showed her are in good standing at present time but under pressure for more development, more "growth" in the American model. But people don't come to the Current River country for wifi access and fancy dining. If they do, they can just as well visit Shaw Nature Reserve or Branson. Leave the Current River Hills country to the people who respect the land and love the river for its smallmouth bass population, for the rugged hills and bad cellphone reception, for the wood ducks and cooters. I hate seeing development in the watershed that is driving pollution and nutrient loading into the streams. Do you give up? Is it all in the name of progress?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

August on an Ozark Stream

The morning cicadas drone beautifully on warm August mornings. In great hopes of normal flow patterns and clear, swift waters this week, I looked back at last August's float and recalled streambanks full of life, the pulse of late summer with katydids calling until sunrise.