Earth Day 2020
April 22, 2020
Some people we know are old enough to remember the first Earth Day in 1970. Some people we know even marched, rallied, and participated in teach-ins, along with millions of others all over the country, on that first Earth Day.
Richard Nixon was president. The unpopular Vietnam War was galvanizing social unrest. But so was concern for the environment, prompted by the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, documenting the harmful effects of chemicals in the environment, specifically DDT. Increasing awareness of dangerous pollution in our air, land, and water, among Republicans and Democrats, young and old, rich and poor, prompted passage of such landmark legislation as the National Environmental Policy Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Fuel Economy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and much more.
Here is a good history and timeline of these events.
Though environmental critics have claimed that some of this legislation has been used to permit the very activities the laws were designed to prohibit, and some have gone so far to say that Earth Day should be abolished, much of the legislation, rules, and regulations are now being weakened. (See here and here and here.)
What irony that in just a few months of a pandemic, the air and skies are cleaner and clearer than they have been in a very long time.
No Rallies Today
In these extraordinary and disturbing times, the streets are almost empty. Today there are no rallies or marches on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. There are digital commemorations. And you might want to spend some stay-home time reading about what the City of Houston is doing, including its Climate Action Plan and Resilient Houston Strategy.
The in-person Earth Day events that would have taken place in Houston have been cancelled. Save Buffalo Bayou, along with numerous other environmental organizations, normally took part in these events.
First-Hand Report on Improvements to the Federal Dams on Buffalo Bayou
Editor’s note: Barker and Addicks dams are for flood-control only. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the floodgates are closed to hold back stormwater flowing into Buffalo Bayou only when there is a major rain downstream. (See also here.)
By Cynthia Neely of Residents Against Flooding, Houston, Texas, April 17, 2020
A few weeks ago, I organized a meeting and tour with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to see what has been done to improve Barker and Addicks dams since Hurricane Harvey. There were eight of us, representing various HOAs and organizations. We weren’t there to criticize or talk about the past, but rather to learn first-hand about what upgrades have been made.
The tour and interview were recorded on video. [Coming up soon.]
Richard Long, the Army Corps’ Natural Resource Management Specialist, spent a great deal of time showing us maps and information on his office computer. He answered some very tough questions. Many of us had flooded when the flood gates were opened after Hurricane Harvey.
The Solace of Spring: Tending Our Garden
Wild and Edible Landscapes for Us and Our Companion World
Plus Resources and Tips on Dealing with Homeowner Associations
April 13, 2020
In the midst of our current problem, people in Houston and all over the world are finding solace in tending a garden, if they are fortunate enough to have access or space for one. It could be a vegetable garden or a wildflower garden, though it seems that, as happens during crises, our thoughts turn to growing our own food.
This is a logical response. Not only does gardening benefit mental and physical health. It’s also wiser and more practical not to rely on long-distance supply chains that can be disrupted during floods or pandemics. Or wars.
Local nurseries and seed providers, considered essential businesses during our local shut down, have reported a surge in interest.
Lawns Really Bad. Alternatives So Much Better
But the growing movement towards edible landscapes, as well as edible forests on public land (see also “food forest” Dallas and Austin), is not just for human food. It’s about feeding the insects and birds and the entire ecosystem without which we cannot survive. Scientists, concerned about an insect apocalypse, are urging landowners to get rid of their lawns.
The state of Minnesota is actually paying homeowners to replace lawns with wildflowers, clover, and native grasses. It’s called rewilding. Interesting historical fact: clover was the preferred lawn cover in the US up through the 1940s.
During this devastating pandemic, we might also want to consider the importance of urban biodiversity on our health. That means everything from soil microbes to plants and animals.
Also Reducing Flooding, Pollution, and Temperature
It so happens that turning our lawns and vacant lots into planted gardens and prairies also helps protect us against flooding. Anything that helps slow and absorb rainwater from the time it hits the roof and the ground is going to reduce the peak flow in our streams and streets.
Planting vegetable, native plant and wildflower gardens also reduces carbon emissions, helping to protect us against climate change. Maintaining our thirsty American lawn is hugely polluting to our land, air, and water. Lawns are the number one irrigated agricultural “crop” in the US.
More green space, and less concrete, helps cool the city, reducing the heat island effect, which attracts disastrous weather.
Gardens Everywhere: Roofs, Parks, Vacant Lots, and Prairies
The City of Houston is encouraging gardens of all sorts, and even edible forests. (p. 86)
The City’s Resiliency Plan, released in February 2020, promotes community gardens, green roofs (which include rooftop gardens), urban farms, and prairie restoration, as well as denser development—building the city up rather than out, replacing the urban sprawl that is destroying so much of our native prairie, wetlands, woodlands, and the few remaining riparian areas needed to help protect us from flooding. The Resiliency Plan, citing the Gulf-Houston Regional Conservation Plan, also has a goal of preserving as green space 24 percent of the land in the eight-county region by 2040. (p. 153)
In support of this project, the City’s goals are to conserve city parks as nature preserves, “discourage development in sensitive upstream areas” (west Houston, among other places), and restore native prairie, wetlands, and woodlands. (p. 153) This includes, apparently, planting pocket prairies in neighborhoods. (p.128)
Natural Area Permits, Homeowner Associations
The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, already has ongoing projects to restore prairies and riparian areas in city parks along our streams like Sims and White Oak bayous. (Note also that the City in theory has been encouraging urban farming for some time. See also here.)
Perhaps a lesser known fact is that the City also has a Natural Area Ordinance which provides permits to property owners who wish to turn their land into a native prairie or native plant garden, wildlife habitat, vegetable garden, or rain garden. The permit, however, does not override deed restrictions or homeowner association rules.
Which brings us to a common complaint: how to deal with homeowner associations that enforce conformity and environmentally unsound regulations about yards and lawns?
Here are some tips about dealing with homeowner associations when rewilding or recreating your yard:
Homeowners Associations and Wildlife Gardens
Making Messy Look Good (Hint: mow the edges)
How to Pass Weed Inspection—A Real Life Story and Guide
Golf Courses and Butterflies
As an aside, note that the Audubon Society has a program, Monarchs in the Rough, to encourage golf courses to plant wildflowers to sustain monarch butterflies. So far in the region there are only four golf clubs participating: The Club at Falcon Point in Katy, Lakeside Country Club in west Houston, Kingwood Country Club in Kingwood, and Bay Oaks Country Club in southeast Houston.
And here are some further resources, tips, and guides:
Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability, University of Houston, Downtown
Community Garden Program, City of Houston
Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar for Houston
Healthy Lawns, Healthy Waters Program, Texas A&M
Jump Starting Your Victory Garden
Native Plant Society, Houston Chapter
Urban Garden Program, City of Houston
Urban Harvest’s Gardening Advice
Native Plant and Seed Sources:
Houston Audubon Natives Nursery Spring Open House, May 2, 2020
Houston Chapter, Native Prairies Association
Natural Area Permit, City of Houston
Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance
Rewilding Your Yard
Nine Natives for Simple Gardens
Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy
Making Your Garden a Carbon Sink
The Audubon Society Guide on How to Make Your Yard Bird Friendly
Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife
Roof Gardens and Green Roofs
Starting a Rooftop Container Garden
Year Round Gardening for Metro Houston
Supermoon Rising Tonight
April 7, 2020
Updated April 8, 2020, with a photo of the Pink Supermoon
Tonight is the full moon, the first full moon of spring. A supermoon. It’s also the closest the moon will be to the earth for the entire year. So that might be another reason to feel crazed.
But by the time you read this, that precise moment, known as the perigee, already happened from our perspective in Houston. The perigee occurred at 1:08 post meridiem (this afternoon). The moon was 221,771 miles away. But you wouldn’t have been able to see that anyway, because the moon was below the horizon. Duh. Also it was cloudy, and it may still be cloudy tonight when the actual fleeting moment of fullness occurs at 9:35 pm.
Look to the east-southeast (109 degrees on your compass). The moon will still be fairly low on the horizon.
Update April 8: And here’s what Philip Pavlich captured with a cell phone and a spotting scope.
A Pink Supermoon But Not Actually Pink
A supermoon occurs when the moon is full at the same time that it’s closest to the earth.
In case you forgot how this works, we have a full moon every month, sometimes two, which is why we have months. The moon makes a full revolution around the earth every 29.53 days, traveling at a speed of 2,286 miles per hour.
But the moon’s path is elliptical, so once a month it’s farthest away (apogee) and once a month it’s closest (perigee).
The April supermoon is traditionally called the Pink Moon because it comes with the spring blooming of moss phlox or moss pink, a wildflower native to eastern North America, though not to Texas. We do have several other species of phlox in Harris and surrounding counties, says Katy Emde, native plant expert and member of the Save Buffalo Bayou advisory board.
April’s supermoon has also been called the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and the Fish Moon.
We do have sprouting grass, eggs, and fish, so there’s that.
Calendars and Disputes About Elections
It seems that public officials have always had disputes about how to measure days, months, and years. Our current calendar, the Gregorian calendar, was adopted by a decree of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, replacing the old Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who ordered a new calendar to replace the Roman Calendar, because the priests or pontiffs responsible for adding or subtracting days to make the calendar fit with the seasons were “open to bribery in order to prolong the term of elected officials or hasten elections.”
So maybe there’s nothing new under the sun.
Good News: Boy Scouts Help Nature, Plant Willows on Buffalo Bayou
A Wonder Tree Containing One of the World’s Most Essential Medicines
April 2, 2020
A couple of months ago, as part of his Eagle Scout project, Troop 55 Life Scout James Sy organized fellow Boy Scouts to plant over 100 black willow stakes on a bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.
Working with Memorial Park Conservancy Forestry Supervisor Danny Walton, James and his volunteers harvested over 150 willow saplings from another part of the park and pounded them by hand into a sandy embankment. As part of his project, James studied willows, learning willow growth, harvesting techniques, site location and how to place the stakes.
Nature’s Engineering, Vital Services, Vital Medicine
Willows grow naturally on Buffalo Bayou, planted there in good time for good reason (bank stabilization, among other things). This is part of nature’s ancient engineering and landscaping program. Willows, like many plants, contain a growth hormone, Gibberellic acid, which is also produced commercially to stimulate plant root growth. So willows grow well without any help—except perhaps for the beavers who come along to prune the branches, creating denser growth. Yes, we have beaver providing that essential service on Buffalo Bayou.
In addition, willows (salix) contain salicin, which produces salicylic acid, known to us as aspirin, considered one of the world’s essential medicines. Here is more info on the benefits of willows from Foraging Texas.
A Photo Update
James’ Eagle Scout advisor was Save Buffalo Bayou board member Janice Walden, who is also a paddling program leader for Troop 55 and a co-founder of Friends of Don Greene and the Don Greene Nature Park. Recently she went out to check on the progress of the young willows. “All the willows have taken root and are doing well,” she reported.