Wednesday, November 16, 2016

(Nothing But) Flowers

Talking Heads, Naked
Written by David Byrne • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
You got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
We got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
You've got it, you've got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
You've got it, you've got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
And I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
You've got it, you've got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
You got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
You got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
You've got it, you've got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

Listen on YouTube at

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Living Urban Matrix: Ivy on Brick Walls

“Look at the ivy on the cold clinging wall,
Look at the flowers and the green grass so tall;
It’s not a matter of when push comes to shove,
It’s just an hour on the wings of a dove.”

                        --Van Morrison

Photo: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is used by many birds and mammals for food and habitat. (Brzuszek, 2016)

Bricks are fired handfuls of soil that once nurtured generations of grasses, shrubs and wildflowers. Now they lie dormant in plumb level rows between thin sheets of cold building mortar. Do they dream of a day to once again nurture life for an emerging seed? Maybe the ivy, used here as a general term for ivy-like things, senses this time-honored plant + soil relationship and creeps across the brick in a lover’s touch. Bricks support ivy so that its leaves can reach the sky and in return ivy drapes the building in a lace skin, cooling it to the touch in the hot summer sun.

Living Urban Matrix Element: Ivy on brick walls

Habitat: on buildings everywhere

Ecological services: the cooling of structures (2014 research by C. Bolton, et al, found that ivy coverings averaged 1.4 degrees Celsius warming at night, with 1.7 degrees Celsius cooling in day—resulting in an 8% energy savings ((Building and Environment 80:32–35, October 2014)). Plants also absorb rain water that ameliorates stormwater flooding (Living Architecture: Green Roofs and Walls, 2011, CSIRO Publishing).

Biodiversity values: creates excellent habitat and nesting for wildlife throughout the year for “many species of birds, insects and small mammals” (

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Secondhand Life

“A row of daffodils and red tulips nestled against the walkway beneath my feet. Stray weeds peeked up through the cracks in the concrete, a reminder that that nature had the final say. No matter how much mankind bulldozed or built, all was vulnerable to Mother Nature's whims.”

― Pamela Crane, A Secondhand Life

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Ruined Cottage

“It was a plot
Of garden-ground, now wild, its matted weeds
Marked with the steps of those whom as they pass’d,
The goose-berry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants hanging from their leafless stems
In scanty strings, had tempted to o’erleap
The broken wall. Within that cheerless spot,
Where two tall hedgerows of thick willow boughs
Joined in a damp cold nook, I found a well
Half-choked with willow flowers and weeds.
I slaked my thirst and to the shady bench
Returned, and while I stood unbonneted
To catch the motion of the cooler air
The old Man said, “I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him or is changed, and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left.”

---Wordsworth, The Excursion, Book I ("The Ruined Cottage")

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Flora of the Now

Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, makes an excellent case for urban ecologies. In his article, Flora of the Future, in Places journal (April 2014, available at, Del Tredici emphasizes two ecological tenets: that environmental stability is an illusion, and that an unpredictable future belongs to the best adapted. Hence, the dynamics of urban plants. Peter also points out some fun “new infrastructural taxonomies” that include:
·         The chain link fence. “They provide plants — especially vines — with a convenient trellis to spread out on and a measure of protection from the predation of maintenance crews.”
·         Vacant lots. “Their soils typically have high pH levels, and they are usually colonized by a suite of plants that I like to refer to as a “cosmopolitan urban meadow.” 
·         The road median strip. “In short, the median strip is perfect for crabgrass.”
·         Stone and masonry walls. “From the plant’s perspective, these structures are good stand-ins for a limestone cliff, and many cliff species are well adapted to growing on city walls. “
·         Pavement cracks. “We tend to think of pavement cracks as stressful habitats, but in fact, as the water sheets off the pavement, it flows right into the crack, making it a rich site in terms of its ability to accumulate moisture and nutrients”
·         Specialized microclimates. “As an example, carpetweed (Mollugo verticillata), a summer annual from Central America, subsists only on air-conditioner drip.”
·        River corridors. “They serve as important pathways for the migration of both plants and animals into and out of the city.”

These are fun to think about, what are some other spaces unique to the urban fabric that create their own micro-ecologies—drainage swales, brick walls, flat roofs, parking lots, steps, utility rights-of-way, etc. How many species can we find?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What nature will be like?

“Because life is fueled by the energy captured from the sun by plants, it will be the plants that we use in our gardens that determine what nature will be like 10, 20, and 50 years from now.”
 -- Doug Tallamy

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Transitional Ecologies

On a recent trip to Shanghai, China, I was struck by the sheer number of urban redevelopment projects happening there. The economy is booming in China, and it seemed that as soon as a residential district aged about 50 years it was slated for demolition and “renewal.” From the stacked elevated highways, the sprawling metropolis displayed dozens of recently bulldozed neighborhoods. The city was a checkerboard of grey concrete high rises alternating with walled-off rubble piles. Growing over the concrete debris were trusty early successional plants -- sumacs, grasses, plantains, and smartweeds. As a matter of fact, the rubble piles were one of the few areas where I didn’t see managed park-like landscapes in the city; they were about the only places that wildscapes can exist. 

This led me to think about economics as a driver of early successional landscapes in cities. It’s relatively easy to take down old buildings, it’s much more expensive and time-consuming to put new ones up. So the land often sits there while the wheels of economics spin. As the land waits, seeds blow in from nearby sites or emerge from the soil bank below. Flowers open in the first season, moths and butterflies dive in, spiders follow suit. Suddenly a thriving ecosystem occurs where none, and I mean none, existed before. Of course this doesn’t last long before new construction begins. But in the meantime, a foothold for new life begins its march into new territories. An age-old, time-tested march.

There are plenty of plants that follow human disturbances. Eastern American native peoples named the European plantain (Plantago major) “white man’s footprint” because it only appeared where the Colonists settled. Humans are a busy sort, and because of this, they continually create the way for opportunistic plants, animals, and diseases to thrive. Whether we like it or not, they are our constant companions and work to heal our landscapes. Urban renewal creates transitional ecologies, which in my book, can create important early successional plant communities. Maybe one will hopscotch near you.