About Concrete Chaparral

(This post is a bit of a cheat.  I finally got around to doing my ‘About’ page and decided to make it into a post too.  Please forgive me…)

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Los Angeles from the Baldwin Hills.  The Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area located in the hills preserves remnants of the native vegetation of Los Angeles basin.

When I was young, I wanted to be a naturalist and study the wilderness. I was a kid of the Southern California suburbs at a time when strawberry farms were still found between housing developments. Many summers found me in Colorado where my parents owned a cabin on five acres of land. I explored every inch of it and became very attached to its natural state. When my uncle wanted to dig up a couple of pine saplings to replant in his yard, I protested. How dare we alter what nature has done!

Like many young environmentalists, things were black and white. Wilderness – good. Civilization – bad. Humankind and Nature were separate entities. But they aren’t.

As the years went by my career goals changed but I still had a love of nature. But my understanding of it changed.

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Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), a California native, blooming in a backyard meadow.

As a young adult I went with my Dad on a trip to Death Valley National Park.  While taking in the sights we came upon a spring not too far from Bad Water, the lowest point in North America. For hundreds of years, the Timbisha Shoshone, living in Death Valley, used this spring, along with many animals, for water. They regularly dug out debris from the spring to keep the water clear and flowing. After Death Valley became a National Monument (now a National Park), the Park Service forbid the Native Americans who lived in the valley to use the spring. Something happen. The spring, a valuable source of water, started to go away. With no one to regularly clean it and dig out debris it went from a water hole to a muddy patch and the animals that were depending upon the water were in dire straits. This vital resource for wildlife was not a pure creation of nature. Realizing that, the Park Service changed policy and the Native Americans began to use and maintain the spring again. (Go to Timbisha Shoshone for an article on the Timbisha’s relation with the mesquite tree and the Park service.)

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Little of California’s original grasslands remain.  What does has been heavily impacted by grasses brought over for livestock, replacing most of the native grasses.

The problem wasn’t about separation, but of balance. Like any living being, we have an affect on the environment that we live in, both good and bad. Most living beings have outside factors that mitigate their impact. Aspen tree bark is eaten by the elk. Elk are hunted by wolves. In areas where the wolves have been eliminated, the elk becomes destructive to the very forest their lives depend upon. Up in Rocky Mountain National Park, groves of aspen have to be fenced off so they aren’t eaten to death by the elk.

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Damage on an aspen tree from elk.  Without any natural predators to keep the elk population in check, groves of aspens can be killed off by them.

Over the course of a thousand years, humans have tipped the balance, overcoming one limitation after another – food scarcity, predation, disease. Natural disasters can still affect us and we’ve done a good job at killing each other off. But just as the elks at Rocky Mountain NP are destroying their home, so are we on a massive scale. Unlike the elk, we have, if willing, the awareness and knowledge to work on restoring this balance.

Concrete Chaparral is about relooking at our relationship with nature, especially in urban and suburban areas. In coastal region of Southern California, the primary habitat was coastal sage scrub. Only 15 percent of the coastal sage scrub habitat remains undeveloped as estimated by the World Wildlife Fund (see World Wildlife Foundation page for a detail description of this habitat and the issues facing it). Most of that is broken up in little patches here and there. We may never know how many species, both plants and animals, have already gone extinct from the development of the Southland.

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Los Angeles from Griffith Park.  At 4310 acres, Griffith Park protects a large area of coastal sage scrub.  The distance ridge on the left is Palos Verde, another area where patches of the native plants remain.

But there are vestiges of this habitat throughout the city and suburbs. Steep hillsides and rugged canyons where the ground is too unstable to build on. Large urban parks where beside their manicure grass fields, wildlife and native plants live on a rhythm set by nature. Even in the Baldwin Hill oil fields some native plants are found that existed here for thousands of years. This is the urban wilderness, often badly damaged by human activity, yet human activity can also start the process of restoration.

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Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) growing in front yard planter.  This California native is a favorite of hummingbirds… as one could guess from the name.

It doesn’t need to just be in large hilly parks. More and more people are starting to turn their own yards into places where nature can be restored. As interest in gardening with native plants grow, habitat for the wildlife increases. Even if you love your green lawn and rose bushes, a corner can be planted with fragrant sages and sagebrush or turn into a spring explosion of color with native wildflowers.

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A parking lot for one of the L.A. County parks is decorated with native plants.  Above, monkeyflower (Mimulus species) blooms.

And what about the banks of freeways, the green land around office buildings, the vacant lots where no one builds? Why do we cover them with plants from Europe, Asia and Africa when the state of California has over 6000 native plant species, native plants that do more than just look nice. These are the plants that provide the food and shelter for the wildlife that find fewer places to live and thrive. These plants are the very foundation of the ecosystem we’ve destroyed so much of.

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The Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles County were nearly destroyed, first by farmers, then by development.  Today, some of the remaining undeveloped areas are being restored to their natural state.

I hope to explore these pockets of nature in the city, this urban wilderness, to see what is still thriving and what challenges they face. At the same time I’ll share my own experience with growing native plants in my yard. While based in Los Angeles, I will also see what is being done in other cities to help restore that balance between man and nature.

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A green roof in Vancouver, British Columbia shows one way more greenery can be brought into urban areas.  Such roofs also make excellent insulation.

So as you travel through your town or stuck in freeway traffic, look around and imagine a different aesthetic, where our concrete jungle blends with the natural. Or, in smaller or more rural towns, how do you preserve the natural that still remains. How do you – we – live in balance with it so man and nature can flourish together again.

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A backyard meadow filled with native grasses, wildflowers and plants along with tomatoes growing in a planter.

All photographs by Alan Starbuck

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