If you are a reader of this blog, and if you haven’t done so already, you must drop everything and get your hands on a copy of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s CROW PLANET: ESSENTIAL WISDOM FROM THE URBAN WILDERNESS.

Nowhere else have I heard someone articulate so clearly and eloquently a vision of urban naturalism.  I am going to be reviewing this for The Englewood Review of Books this week, so you won’t get a full review here and now, BUT I will cross-post my review this weekend.

For now, however, here’s just a taste:

In the modern urban setting, the naturalist’s way suggests an antidote to the overinfluence of specialization upon our everyday lives.  Today we leave our health to doctors, our food to agribusiness, and our knowledge of the biological realm to information received from scientists.  Such specialization, writes author Michael Pollan, “obscures lines of connection — and responsibility.”  The foundational knowledge unearthed by modern naturalists is simultaneously freeing, consoling and revolutionary (47-48).

My friend and frequent collaborator Brent Aldrich sent me this photo and story this evening.  Thanks, Brent!

The reason that squash seed packages recommend planting different varieties of squash 1/2 mile apart is because they “will cross-pollinate.” Of course, most of us [in urban places] don’t have the rolling acres of land where this is possible, so I never consider that as even a possibility. This year, a pumpkin plant has grown out of the compost pile (which tends to happen most every year), but with the summer squash I planted in the yard, they have created this mutant vegetable. Still don’t know what to call it: a Yellow Summer Pump-Squash? A Squash-kin?… The form of a pumpkin, but the texture of a crookneck squash; I can’t wait to see what it’s like inside.

Once again, I’m finding that I don’t post here as much as I’d like.  Lots of relevant stuff going on, but I never seem to find the time to sit down and write about it.

Seems like we are now making the typical Central Indiana leap from Winter to Summer.  We had snow flurries on Wednesday, and now yesterday and today temperatures are in the 80’s.   The apparent lack of spring is one of the few things that I don’t particularly like about the weather here.

The steady rains that we’ve had for the past few weeks, coupled with the warmer turn in the weather, have been really good for our plants.  Tomatoes, peppers and sunflowers are starting to peek out of the ground in their starter pots, lettuce and spinach has been coming up nicely in the garden.  On Friday night we had our regular dinner with our friends and neighbors and we brought a huge salad of lettuce and spinach — this was stuff that survived the winter under plastic and then really took off once we pulled the plastic off in March.  Man, that salad was tasty!  Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…

Last week, we discovered that the huge catalpa tree in the yard of the house just north of us (which is currently vacant and owned by the community development corp. that I work for) is completely hollow inside.

So hollow that one adult and several children can fit inside it!  So our kids and a lot of their neighborhood friends have been enjoying climbing in and out of the tree.   To get into the tree you have to climb up to the large, northward facing branch.  Here are our kids sitting in the hole that goes down into the tree:

From this hole, you lower yourself down into the hollow cavity.  An adult or older kid has to help the smaller children get in and out.   There is a little hole on the south side of the tree, and it is just big enough to put your face up to or stick a hand out of, either of which makes for a surreal sight!

The inside of the tree has the size and feel of a cave shaft — except, of course, being surrounding by rotting wood instead of stone.  Unfortunately, I am too big to get in and out of the tree, but our friend Brent Aldrich is able to get in (though its a tight fit around his shoulders), and we handed him a camera and he was able to take the following pictures.  The girl in the second picture is our friend and neighbor Harmony who is really good at getting into the tree and helping other kids to get in and out.

This tree has been an exciting find for our kids and for many others, and we will enjoy it while we can.  Being so hollow, this tree does pose a threat to the house whose yard it is in, and also to a number of power and phone lines (including ours), so it will have to come down eventually.

I have posted a bunch more photos of kids exploring this tree to my facebook page, but using this link anybody should be able to view them.

Life got all topsy-turvy with Noah’s cancer diagnosis, and I’m still not used to my new schedule, but at least with the warmer weather, I’m starting to feel more motivated to be outside.

This week, we’ve started to get the backyard gardens ready for the growing season.  (Maybe I’ll post in the near future on the connections between urban naturalism and urban agriculture.)   I made a new rain barrel for our backyard; our old one had frozen over the winter and cracked open (chalk up a lesson learned!).  We had a good rain that filled the rain barrel.  I pruned our two apple trees for the first time, after getting advice from a couple of books on this subject.  Time will tell how good my pruning job was.  Jeni cleaned out out the dead plants in the square foot garden.  I pulled off the plastic covering our side garden bed, and lo and behold, was astonished to find a large spinach plant and several lettuce plants that had survived the harsh winter.  Tonight, I gave the apple trees and spinach/lettuce plants a good watering (emptying the rain barrel) and then got the barrel seated on a better footing.

There was a workday last Saturday in the community garden and a ton of stuff was done there to kick off the growing season!  It’s so exciting to be coming out of winter and to dream of all the tasty produce that will — hopefully — be grown.

I’m also starting to think about how we can attract more birds.  Here’s a useful article that I’ve been mulling over (h/t: TLDB ).

Tomorrow, I hope to post the story and pix of our new and exciting adventures with the tree in yard of the house next door to us…  Stay tuned…

Re-encountered this poem this week and thought that it was fitting for this time of year…

A Prayer in Spring
Robert Frost

OH, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

Sorry for the lack of posts recently.  We just found out that our youngest son Noah (3 years old) has cancer.  We’ve had a bunch of testing done and are awaiting a specific diagnosis.

It has been warmer and sunnier here in Indianapolis this week, and this weather reminded me of this poem:

FIRST SIGHT OF SPRING.
John Clare.
1793-1864.

The hazel-blooms, in threads of crimson hue,
Peep through the swelling buds, foretelling Spring,
Ere yet a white-thorn leaf appears in view,
Or March finds throstles pleased enough to sing.
To the old touchwood tree woodpeckers cling
A moment, and their harsh-toned notes renew ;
In happier mood, the stockdove claps his wing;
The squirrel sputters up the powdered oak,
With tail cocked o’er his head, and ears erect,
Startled to hear the woodman’s understroke;
And with the courage which his fears collect,
He hisses fierce half malice, and half glee —
Leaping from branch to branch about the tree,
In winter’s foliage, moss and lichens, drest.

A recent article from The Boston Globe emphasizes at least one reason why naturalism — both in the sense of seeking out nature and the sense of finding ways to help nature flourish, as I blogged about yesterday — is important in the city.

Some quotes:

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Natural settings, in contrast, don’t require the same amount of cognitive effort. This idea is known as attention restoration theory, or ART, and it was first developed by Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. While it’s long been known that human attention is a scarce resource — focusing in the morning makes it harder to focus in the afternoon — Kaplan hypothesized that immersion in nature might have a restorative effect.

Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices, philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “adopt the pace of nature,” while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the maelstrom of urban life.

Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse. This is due in part to the “savannah hypothesis,” which argues that people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and playing fields.

However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

“We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,” Fuller says. “But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.”

I’m thankful, I guess, that our neighborhood has a fair amount of trees and wildlife.  I was on a tour of the old IPS School #3 building this morning and we went up onto the third floor (one of the higher spots in our neighborhood) and looked out over our neighboorhood.  What I saw from that vantage point was mostly the tops of trees and for that I was thankful — especially since I had just read this article from the Boston Globe yesterday.  I would argue that even in the densest of urban areas, there is still natural life to be found — trees, birds, plants — but it is definitely sparser and as this article maintains, there are so many other demands for our attention that nature tends to get drowned out.

Today my friend and urban naturalism co-conspirator, Brent, and I got our shelves and grow lights together for getting the early seeds started for our community’s gardening adventures of the spring and summer.  We still have to buy bulbs for the light fixtures, but everything else is ready to go.  The next step is to test some of the seeds that we saved from last summer to make sure they will germinate.  This past year was the first time that we had saved seeds from tomatoes, peppers and melons, so I am eager to see how successful our seedsaving effort was.

We have three vacant lots that we will be planting this summer as community gardens and a number of people have gardens in their own yards.  The seeds that we will start indoors will eventually be transplanted to one of these gardens and some, I suspect, might be used in some “guerrilla gardening” projects around our neighborhood.  An essential part of urban naturalism — and one that perhaps distinguishes it from naturalism in other landscapes — is the intentional effort to find new ways to aid in the flourishing of natural life, flora and fauna, in one’s locale.   People complain about the lack of “nature” in urban settings, but what are they doing to help nature to flourish?  And furthermore, I think we have to have a vision of flourishing that goes beyond our own private properties.  (A number of my favorite writers have fleshed out this idea using the idea of “commonwealth,” especially Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.  My friend Joe did a great review of McKibben’s Deep Economy last year that gets to the heart of the notion of commonwealth.)  So, guerrilla gardening is one way we are just starting to explore as a means to assist in the flourishing of public and vacant spaces in our urban neighboorhood.  Brent did an excellent review last week of Richard Reynolds’ recent book, On Guerrilla Gardening: A handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.  It’s worth your time to look at that and I suspect that you will see much more here about our forays into guerrilla gardening as we roll into spring and summer.

All this snow that we’ve had recently — including several more inches this morning — and our kids’s desire to be out playing in it has given me an opportunity to think anew about the role of play in urban naturalism and in our lives in general.

What do I mean by “play”?  Play is creative, spontaneous and collaborative engagement with one’s surroundings.   Play is creative in that the imagination of the participants is only minimally constrained by mutual agreements and by the appropriate demands of propriety and safety.  People, objects and plotlines are freely imagined and sometimes creative substitutions are made (this stick becomes a sword, that bag becomes a hat).  Play is spontaneous in that the structure and/or “rules” are not detemrined beforehand.  Finally, play is collaborative in that if there are multiple people involved, it does not become a competitive event.  A game of pick-up soccer, which undoubtedly would be fun for many people, is not play by this definition.  (Additionally, I think many of the recreational activities of adults from shopping to video games to sports leagues are by this criteria not play).  The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a recent clinical report in which they conclude:

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

Despite the benefits of play, it has been my experience in mainstream American culture that as we mature into adulthood, we are socially formed to wean ourselves off of play.  Some social scientists have described play as a child’s work (E.g., Vivian Gussey Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play), and while I understand that the nature of play changes as become older and take on additional responsibilities, I think it is unfortunate that we tend to lose our ability to play.  Tom Hodgkinson, whose work I’ve discovered only recently, has had similar realizations about our inability to play, out of which he started “The Idler” magazine and now has written a couple of books on idleness ( most notably How To Be Idle, and most recently The Idle Parent — not yet available in the US.)  He said the following in an interview:

“Idleness for me is not a giving up on life but a spirited grabbing hold of it. I was idle when faced with wage slavery, i.e., doing boring work for somebody else at times of their choosing, in return for money. In that situation, I would become very lazy. But idleness really consists of doing stuff which is not really recognized as productive behaviour in our profit-driven economies. I might look as if I am lying in bed, but in fact I am turning ideas over. Often I get good ideas in the bath, when I am perfectly relaxed and my mind is flowing freely. And now that I am in control of my own work, I find that I am quite productive. Since retiring from the world five years ago, I have written three books, edited twelve more, written countless articles, run a small magazine from home, and had time left over to play a role in our local community, teaching ukulele at the local school, for instance, and to play with our children. In general I work from nine am till 1, and the rest of the day is for sleeping, outdoor work, walking, playing, cleaning, etc.”

So, we’ve had all this snow recently, and our kids — especially Miriam — have been so excited to go out and play in it and Jeni and I have gone out several times with them.  One evening, the kids and I played for a long time on the mounds of snow that had been plowed up in the church parking lot.   Some other kids had dug tunnels in the mounds earlier in the day and our kids loved that and I helped them dig a new tunnel.

On Sunday afternoon, all five of us spent awhile outside building a snowman, which the kids had never done before (The last couple of winters have been too warm for much snow.)  The kids all loved making the snowman and Miriam had the idea of using black olives for the eyes and mouth.   Playing together in the snow is fun for all of us, and the kids are learning to enjoy the wintry weather.