Friday, April 29, 2011

The Weedy Outsider

Early next week, I'll travel by train to Middletown, CT, where I'll visit with a college friend and speak about the wonders of weedy lawns at the Jonah Center for Earth and Art. I'm halfway packed for it already, and really psyched to go, in part because of the train ride (rarely all that convenient from here) and visiting with my good friend (who I've known longer than my spouse), but also because I'm reaching a new career milestone there: the outside expert.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have experts in most any area of environmental study - not many marine biologists, perhaps (besides Rachel Carson, who left our city before fully developing her expertise in that field) - but solar energy specialists, wind energy pioneers, urban forestry experts, scientists of Marcellus Shale, founders of the field of environmental oncology, the original citizen's air quality group, dozens of environmental engineers and consultants, a topnotch university sustainability coordinator, and lots of darned good environmental educators. But we have a running common complaint: when someone wants a speaker for a big event, they usually invite the Outside Expert.

At her worst, the Outside Expert assumes that she has been brought in because no locals know half as much as she about the topic of interest. S/he takes the podium, and tells us how the brilliant, faraway people of California or New York solved the same problem (which we also have our own solutions for), and that with inspiration from her/him, we can finally rise out of ignorance and learn to solve our own problems just like they do in her/his perfect city. (Meanwhile, local experts sit seething, imagining what they could have accomplished with half the money it took to fly, pay carbon credits, and compensate the know-it-all on the podium.) The Outside Expert is standard fare among invited speakers, and I suppose the only justice is when the local expert gets to become the Outside Expert for some other city.

The folks at Jonah Center are no strangers to environmental lawn care. My friend, who has done work on prairie restoration, knows far more about ecology than I do, and is certainly capable of saying all of what I'm going to say. Further, others in her community definitely know the benefits of a biodiverse lawn - Kim O'Rourke, especially, who has helped lead Project Green Lawn, has already written about how tolerating weeds is an important step in creating healthy pesticide-free lawns.

So it is an open question whether anyone in the audience next Tuesday will learn anything they haven't heard before: I'll certainly give them my best shot. In any case, I get a lovely train ride and a good visit with a friend, I get to show off a display of Sheila Rodgers' beautiful weed photos, and I'll hopefully reduce the overstock book population of my office by a bit. I get to be the Outside Expert for the first time, kindof a fun milestone for someone a few weeks into age 40.

Maybe, if I play my cards right, I'll also gain some really awesome new friends and colleagues in the process. And then, when I need to invite an Outside Expert to Pittsburgh someday, I'll know exactly who to call from Middletown.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Weedy wheat overtakes suburban lawn

Last fall, Brian and I did some re-landscaping of the backyard, leveling a bit of space behind the house so we might be able, one day, to put out a table and eat dinner with the chickens for company. The process involved a truckload of topsoil, moved via wheelbarrow, then topped with grass, clover, and wildflower seed mix...and covered with straw.

Straw, in the classic sense, is grass stems, the part left over after the seed has been harvested. If it has seed in it, that's a bit of a shame, because that seed isn't needed for the function of straw. Straw is horse bedding, to be used and pooped on and mucked out. But for whatever reason, the straw we used had a fair number of heads still on it, with live seeds.

I watched the wheat seeds germinate, beneath the straw covering we so lovingly provided. I watered them, hoping to just get some ground cover before winter hit. Since we did the landscaping fairly late in the summer, we probably even followed the wheat planting guidelines, which is to plant the crop after the passing of the Hessian fly free date, meaning that our wheat crop shouldn't have any infestations of a fairly brutal insect pest. The wheat - and the lawn grass and clover - grew well, and through this winter we seem to have lost very little of all that soil we brought in. We definitely succeeded in establishing this new bit of lawn.

But the wheat is an odd sort of problem. It's winter wheat, now ready to grow like - well, a weed - to set seed and harden up, oh, about midsummer. And though I have my vegetable garden nearby, this spot wasn't intended to be food, it was intended to be lawn - just more exercise for me and my reel mower. Instead, I have this food crop, growing not only in the back of the house, but near the boundary between us and the next door neighbors (not the nice ones, either), and at the end of the driveway. I've mowed it twice so far, reluctantly, feeling vaguely that it must be some sort of sin to mow a food crop when plenty of hungry people don't have enough to grow wheat on purpose, much less enough land to try to grow decorative grasses for leisure.

This week it is rainy. Perhaps it will keep raining (climate change models do predict increased rain for this area), and perhaps I won't be able to get out and mow again, to do my suburban duty on time. Perhaps I'll be forced to watch the wheat grow until it is too tall for us to tackle, and we'll get a citation from the zoning board for our overgrown lawn.

I would be forced, then, to testify in court one of two absurd positions: 1) the wheat, one of the staple crops of world agriculture, is a weed, and I was negligent in allowing it to exceed the legal 8" height for lawn weeds, or 2) the wheat is not a weed, and I had the audacity to grow a grain crop in my front lawn. Either way, the legal implications of prosecuting me are fascinating; the story could be front page world news of the weird, either way, about the craziness of the U.S. and our insane culture of lawns and food.

It's rather fun thinking about it while I watch the spring rains outside.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Crazy Weed Lady Walks the Neighborhood...

Weather lately is a bit crazy, and I have never been a fan of mud (my definition of bad weed: a plant which leaves me with mud). Today it is warm and lovely, interspersed with thunderstorms and wind. I donned raincoat, and headed out for a walk.

First stop: the Community Center, to adjust my kids' days to match their friends'. While there, I talked to two friends who work there; one offered me a book she'd just finished, which I left at the desk so I could pick it up on my way back.

Next: Down the road for my walk. En route, I took a couple of side streets, looking for spring beauties for Sheila to photograph (that's her wild garlic, above). Passed an abandoned gray Abercrombie sweater on the roadside, and left it while I walked, but picked it up on the way back. Picking up litter, or stealing? Does it matter how many times it had been run over? Looped through a couple of favorite neighborhood streets, turned around, and walked back. Picked up the sweater en route (if you know the owner, I'm glad to return it, washed gently...). Stopped back by the community center, now feeling a bit odd, carrying sweater, book, and watching the clouds threatening.

But one more important stop called, one I'd been meaning to make for at least a couple of years: the bulb garden, which we planted for Emily's birthday back in 2005. Some of the bulbs are thriving, others not, but more importantly, I needed some wild garlic.

This weekend, our friends S & R had us over for dinner, and served leek and potato soup. It was amazing. I was inspired. So this afternoon, I gathered handfuls of wild garlic at the community center. I didn't get the roots - whether I was saving some wild garlic for the next person, or failing to complete a job of weeding, well, you be the judge. Feeling raindrops (it is now thundering, 30 minutes later, while I type), I scurried back around the pool fence to home.

I've never made this soup before. I've got out Laurel's Kitchen to the page with potato-cheese soup, but have already started diverging from it, using milk, vegetable broth, and parsnips, in addition to potatoes. The handfuls of wild garlic are draining in the sink while I type. Hopefully it will end up tasting good.

I do like thinking of myself as the neighborhood eccentric, the chicken lady who writes weed books. Today, I was a bit more so, heading out for a walk (that, eccentric enough by local standards, even in dry weather), and returning with a roadworn sweater, a book about hedgehogs, and a large handful of weeds for dinner. The only thing I was missing was Birkenstocks.