It feels like we blinked, and the month of May had passed! With the pace of growth speeding towards the zenith of the year, there is a lot going on in the park; just as we start to get acquainted with something in bloom, it begins to fade, and something else begins to demand our attention. It is a continual lesson in patience, perseverance, and acceptance.
At our first session of the month, the lupines were still in very much in bloom — too many to count! — and the spirea was coming on quickly. The land outside the swales was drying, turning golden with grasses going to seed. We saw the last of those lovely, unidentified lily- or orchid-like plants, and the blue flowers were soon to go as well. The hedge mustard is flourishing with seed and growing taller and lankier, and some of the exotic clovers are beginning to bloom. We also saw some die-back on some of the clover and buckhorn plantain, with leaves wilting and partly turning brown, as if they had been cooked, but we couldn’t recognize it.
We’ve found that heading straight to our sit-spots at the start of the session is the best way to get the most out of our time together at the park. The students found it really, really difficult to stay by themselves at their sit spots at the beginning of the year; now that they’re used to it and there’s a lot more to look at, it’s easier. When we come around to check in with them, everyone immediately has an observation about what’s new.
After ten or fifteen minutes, we reconvened at the shipping containers to review the concepts of data collection and the harvesting protocol — asking the plant/land for permission to gather — and talked about how asking permission and showing gratitude are a positive approach to receiving from nature, and generally not how our culture operates.
Then we broke into groups: most of us worked some more on our net bags and tension trays, while Melodie took the Stewardship Circle groups one by one to reflect on how those spaces have changed since we mapped them in February.
The bases of the net bags use the same technique that Tracy Williams taught us in January – twining – and though there is still some grumbling, and they still struggle to apply their attention to the tasks at hand, many of the students seem secretly pleased that, through practice, it’s easier this time around. Some students gathered fresh willow for use in making their trays, and stripping the bark off the branches provided beautiful, bright green ties for the intersections in the net bags.
There’s been a coyote around — Sharon found some scat a few weeks ago, and there’s a suspicious hollow under some willow at the west end of the swales that’s too small to have been made by a human camper. On Wednesday May 11, before our second session of the month with the students, Rebecca snapped a picture of this fellow waiting in the parking lot next door (in what will become the new St.Paul’s site) for us to leave the park so he/she could come through.
Coyote scat (and, recently, horse ‘cookies’) have been the most exotic examples we’ve come across; but frankly, the issue of faeces comes up a lot in the stewardship of an urban park, and the patterns of who and where are an important part of the larger picture of community dynamics, different people and organisms living together. Dog waste is typical everywhere, of course; but in this neighbourhood, we also have homeless people who find that the park is a semi-private place for answering the call of nature. The on-site washrooms are locked after dark; but the park board agreed with our health concerns and brought in a porto-pottie that has been an asset. A campaign of creative small signage placed throughout the swales — “Please don’t poop on our desks! This area is used by students in a nature study project” — has been quite effective. One dog owner admitted discreetly to one of our colleagues that he was once the worst offender for letting his dog poop in the swales, and now he realizes how important it is to pick it up. Not to say that we don’t still have to arrive early and do a clean-up sweep of the park for all variety of things before the students show up, but it’s better.
We began this session by visiting our sit-spots again, and the kids stayed there for 15 minutes. There was a group of crows and maybe a raven or two united in dive-bombing an enemy that was hiding in the thick upper branches of a fir tree across the street; but the enemy never revealed itself and the corvids eventually dispersed after about forty minutes. We noticed the lupines looked like they were more than half way through their bloom cycle; buckhorn plantains were dying back, as were the irises and clover, too. There’s been more trampling and running through the swales, and some of the kids have a real sense of dismay and outrage about this — at the same time, they can see the humour in their identifying with an image of an irate old lady gardener shouting at the kids to say out of the garden.
When we reconvened at the shipping containers, the students got back into the groups they were in in April when they collected a variety of different grasses and other plants for ‘testing’. We opened those (pre-soaked) bundles now and did the test that shows whether something is a viable option for making rope or weaving: we wrapped it around our fingers three times, and if it didn’t crack, and was strong enough to hold our fingers together when we tried to open them, then we pronounced it a suitable option.
The kids had lots of opinions about which plants they liked for making rope: Buckhorn plantain was reviled by some and favoured by others; there was a small mustard that had developed a pink stem as it went to seed that was very nice; some grass stems were brittle and fraying, but one group found they could get around that by making BIG rope; sedges were shunned when fresh but acceptable when dried and re-soaked, etc.
Two plants at Trillium North Park that emerged as champion rope-making materials are also common elsewhere: a grass species that might be Common Velvet Grass (Holcus lanais), Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) or Quackgrass (Agropyron repens); and a member of the mint family known as Purple Archangel or Purple Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum). According to Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of the Northwest Coast, each of the grass species that might candidates for matching our grass on site are introduced from Europe. We look forward to seeing how it blooms so that we can positively identify it, because its soft, velvety leaves (not the stems) dried to a pale gold and were easy on the hands. The Lamium purpureum is a plant that flowers earlier in the spring, so by the time we figured out how wonderful it is for making rope, the patches of it had all died back and were difficult to find amid the successively taller layers of greenery! Its common name, “dead-nettle,” is a reference to its being a relative of Urtica, minus the sting. Pojar & Mackinnon’s book says,”Words similar to ‘nettle’ appear in many languages and all derive from the Indo-European verb ne meaning ‘to spin or sew,’ reflecting the widespread use of the nettle (Urtica) as a source of thread.” Our experience making rope with this plant confirms it is an excellent fibre!
Something that’s not so funny is that a guerrilla gardener has cleared one of the stewardship circles down to the bare earth, ripping up all the yarrow, lupine and other plants that had been there and chucking them in a pile nearby. We noticed that the circle had been cleared one morning and thought it might have been our Weed Vigilante from April varying his modus operandi. But when Kevin came over one morning and asked Sharon if he could borrow a watering can, we realized that we have met yet another character at the park.
Sharon very diplomatically explained to Kevin that the stewardship circle was actually part of a school project and that the plants that were there are all beneficial for pollinators and useful for creative projects. She told him it’s better to check in with other park users first, and she hoped he would join in during one of the official stewardship work parties. We’re not sure if any of this sunk in (his potatoes are flourishing), but we now have an excellent teaching example of the difference between ‘guerilla gardening’ and ‘stewardship’ — in this case, the latter being something that takes place within a context of community relationships. We’re leaving this conversation with the kids until we have more time in June, and hope that the particular group that the circle belonged to can take it all in stride.
School events and other field trips caused us to miss the next two Thursdays with the students at the park. The lupines continued to the end of the arc of their bloom cycle, the spirea blooms proliferated, St.John’s Wort started blooming early, and the oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) in the dye garden ripened. A hummingbird became a regular visitor to the red blossoms of the dye garden, even though they’re low to the ground. In late May we also got a tremendous rainstorm (which happened to coincide with the class’s overnight camping trip in Stanley Park), which rallied some of the plants and brought us several stunning new blooms — visit the June page to see.