Saturday, December 15, 2007

Everything is still alive

In Highland Park, many of the plots I am tending are no bigger than a tree well, or a crack in the cement. It is incredible how much trash can accumulate on these sidewalk plots even during the course of a day. Imagine what the streets might look like if many of the business owners weren't clearing this trash every single day. "I do this every day because I love Highland Park," the owner of the Party Goods store told me.

To weed the plots, I push aside old cups, bottles, packaging, dried doggie doo. Reaching deep into the soil to pull up filaree roots without breaking them, I fear the occasional shard of broken glass buried within.

At the same time, reaching into the soil is always a turning point. Is the soil moist and rich? Is it the kind that appears hard as concrete, but which is just sandy granules packed tight? The initial repulsion fades. Instead, I wonder about the soil's capacity for holding moisture, or nourishing plants. Has it nurtured plants in the recent past? Is there sign of recent chemical use?

I have heard inklings that parts of York Boulevard once were, and other parts were crossed by intermittent streams. I would guess that the wide range of soil types I encounter gives some clues about where water used to run.

These are speculations. But I do know that each plot of soil holds a trace of many events in the past. Where it came from (if moved from elsewhere), what got mixed with it, what water washed into it, things that grew in it. 

In the same cumulative way, everything about our everyday environment is mutable. It is something that has to be recreated every day by us in a thousand seemingly uneventful decisions. The choice between driving by and ignoring, OR deciding to slow down. The choice between thinking "it's just that way" OR thinking "It's that way because I allow it to be that way."

Today, I bumped into Jeffrey Chapman, who told me about different native plants which he had seen relatively recently, growing on untended lots in the vicinity of the sites I've been tending. Shooting stars (flowers), Nassella pulchra, White sage.... not your usual urban "weeds". I could not believe that native perennial grasses existed until recently on a hill in my own neighborhood. I knew that the original plant ecosystems were decimated early on by the grazing of livestock brought by Europeans. But evidently the contemporary urban environment, even with all the weedy annual grasses introduced by the Europeans, doesn't have to be seen as the polar opposite of a "natural" ecosystem/environment.

A seed of a shooting star flower might still find a patch of untended dirt in Highland Park a promising place to grow.

Thousands of little poppy sprouts are now coming up in Highland Park and South Pasadena. Each of these seedlings appears as four delicate hair-like leaves, so slender one can hardly see them, except where they have been seeded too densely. In places where twenty or fifty seeds rolled into the same depression and simultaneously germinated, the sprouts collectively have so much upward lifting power that they push weighty chunks of bark or clods of dirt to float off the ground!

Some of these sprouts have another gargantuan task: mustering energy to push their roots through dirt that is a hard as a rock.

Ironically, the biggest threat to the poppy sprouts is now gardeners. In their habit of neatening things up, they might tear out any unfamiliar plants.

I'm now making up a flyer to spread the word, that at least for the span of this project (through the spring), that poppies are desirable. They are not a "weed." They are among the things that would have grown here, before any of us arrived. And also to spread the word, incidentally, that everything is still alive.

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