Certified (Front)yard Habitat, St. Johns

fuchsia sidewalk roses, St. Johns

Although I recently celebrated the garden at my current workplace, an elementary school newly pursuing Backyard Habitat certification, for the last year I've actually been teaching in a stuffy windowless room. Having our own, quieter space has been welcome; having no windows, not so much, especially when I used to be able to look out actual windows at the courtyard garden, windows often open for fresh air. When the school psychologist across the hall has her door open and when our door is open—meaning, if the timing is right—I can just barely peer out one of her tall windows, which at least is something. But that means that getting out of the room at lunchtime (our only break) is even more imperative. So lately I've been trying to eat minimally and then head out into the neighborhood on dry days, even if only for 15 minutes. On one of these walks last week, I noticed that a house down the street from the school was a Silver-level Certified Backyard Habitat—only the bulk of its flora seemed mainly to be found in the south-facing front yard and east-facing side yard, not the backyard. ("Backyard" just sounds catchier than "yard.")

in the front yard: Certified Backyard Habitat sign, St. Johns neighborhood

The next day, I lugged my camera to work and snapped a few quick photos from the sidewalk. I didn't see the home gardeners themselves but found a few bumblebees and honeybees hard at work on a purple flowering bush of some kind, collecting pollen. It's nice to know the bees are not all dead yet. Massive American bee colony die offs in the past year—along with steady increases in autoimmune disorders in humans related to pesticide use and exposure to other nasty chemicals—should sound equally massive alarms that the modern pesticide-heavy agriculture system is sick and that a return to the ancient practices of organic agriculture is the only possible healthy future for bees or humans. (Let us take lessons from Cuba in this, as well as glean tips for an effective yet inexpensive national heath care system).

working bumblebee

white clematis in side yard, St. Johns

Imagine spring without asparagus, strawberries, or cherries. Consider summer without avocados, olives, peaches, nectarines, berries, plums, apricots, or melons. Picture autumn without grapes, pears, figs, almonds, walnuts, or pumpkins. Reflect on winter without potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, apples, citrus, or squash. Fathom a world without cotton. Is this the diminished bee-less world we want? I think not.

working honeybee, St. Johns

Metro offers a "Grow Smart, Grow Safe" resource guide to alternative pest control. To save the bees and ourselves, we must start using such alternative gardening methods rather than reaching for the first bottle of poison at hand. And more of us should also be marching against the likes of Monsanto.

red sidewalk roses, St. Johns

For more Certified Backyard Habitats, check out the sample galleries available on the organization's web site. Though the certification program isn't available yet down here in Clackamas County, I do come across certified yards in my Portland wanderings, especially during the upcoming neighborhood garage sale season, so this will probably become a regular blog feature as I come across and photograph more Certified Habitat yards. Thank you, Certified Backyard Habitat participants, for taking these extra steps to support the birds and bees and other wild things among us.


Certified (School)yard Habitat in progress

seedlings in egg crates, school courtyard garden, St. Johns

The North Portland elementary school I work at announced this week (by staff e-mail and a new sign propped out front) that they are seeking official Backyard Habitat certification—quiet but welcome local news. Backyard Habitats, for those who don't know, is a program founded by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust that officially recognizes the efforts of urban homeowners to encourage native wildlife and native plant populations via ecologically friendly land stewardship methods. Backyard Habitat yard signs can be found during walks in any east-side Portland neighborhood, people proving a commitment to environmental preservation in the most local of places, the home. But now it's clear that such commitment can expand from the home to the public school.

Backyard Habitat Certification in Progress sign at elementary school, St. Johns

The school's informal garden leadership changed hands this year, with a paraprofessional stepping in as head gardener (which only means she's the one doing most of the work) after the departure of the classroom teacher who'd been managing the gardens for years. Maybe no one had thought of the idea before (I certainly hadn't), but Backyard Habitat certification seems a wonderful addition to the school culture as yet another way to instill and reinforce earth-saving values and practices into young urban children, many of whom at this particular school are so poor their families live in crowded subsidized apartment buildings, kids whose playground is most often the beautiful but spooky (and occasionally dangerous) Pier Park, among whose tall, forbidding pine-and-cedar forest the TV show Grimm is often filmed.

Swiss chard in garden bed, school courtyard

diatomaceous earth info, school garden bed, St. Johns

alyssum seedlings (non-native, naturalized plant), school courtyard

In addition to wide fields of manicured grass for soccer and recess play, the school offers a front north-facing yard filled with big rhododendrons and huge old trees, as well as a set of raised garden beds out by the sunnier back playground, with produce like tomatoes and sunflowers rotated each year. But the central piece to the school's Backyard Certification candidacy must be its enclosed "secret" garden, a protected courtyard bordered on one end by a large coniferous tree sprouted essentially from the heart of the school, its branches spreading out above the roof. This courtyard on warm days becomes my favorite lunch spot for its relative seclusion and access to nature.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, native wildflower), school garden, St. Johns

seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucous, a native coastal plant), school courtyard

This not-so-secret garden offers seaside daisy, calla lilies, a strawberry bed, and an herb bed with chives, lavender, and Italian parsley. There's a big rosemary bush and also a berry bush growing along one courtyard wall, not of blackberries or raspberries, so probably a native berry like thimbleberry or salmonberry, though I'm still not sure even after three years because the bushes fruit in mid-summer when I'm not there. The garden is perhaps most lush in early September when everyone comes back to school and before the chill of fall hits, with annual flowers blooming in the beds amid the vegetables and students picking cherry tomatoes during class visits. 

rabbit planter with pansies (non-native annual), school courtyard garden, St. Johns

Backyard Habitat program certification criteria in three levels—silver, gold, and platinum—include invasive weed removal, support of native plants, pesticide reduction, stormwater management, wildlife stewardship, and at the highest level, teaching and volunteering to spread this knowledge in the community. After scanning the list of wildlife stewardship choices, for example, I've realized how simple it would be to put out a wide, shallow dish in my own front yard for a birdbath, refreshing the water daily. And since my cat has always been an indoor-only cat, I've already met the basic Silver level certification for wildlife stewardship (cats being notorious predators of birds and small mammals). So adding a bird bath would put me at Gold level right there in that one category. For many home gardeners, reaching Silver level certification would be easy as first grade. All it would take to get started would be a one-time $35 application fee to schedule a site assessment consultation. 

herb bed, school courtyard garden, St. Johns

But even if a homeowner (or renter like myself) isn't able or willing to commit to the full strictures of the Backyard Habitats program, developing an ability to recognize native plants (versus more widely known introduced species) and supporting these natives' existence in one's yard is an excellent way to grow a thought seed about human impact on natural landscapes that may later turn into a philosophical revolution of what a backyard or front yard means. This is a challenge for myself this year as I return to "yardedness": learning more of the many native plants of my adopted Portland metro area and the wider Willamette Valley. For starters, the Oregon Metro site offers a free native plants booklet, the City of Portland offers a poster of Willamette Valley native plants, and local nurseries like Portland Nursery offer both information and native plants for sale. Certain library and other nonprofit organizations like Milwaukie's Friends of the Ledding Library also hold annual native plant sales, usually in spring, as digging up native species from natural areas is a no-no.

What's in your garden this year? Are you Backyard Habitat Certified or would you ever like to be?


the tale of the ironing board

Rowenta iron on cover-free Brabantia ironing board

I'd had a pile of ironing waiting for me since even before the move last November. And since wool sweaters, cotton leggings, and blue jeans never need ironing (in my world), while linen shirts, jackets, and dresses usually do, I'd easily been able to postpone ironing for six months. But since the weather here in Portland has slowly crept all spring up into the 60s and 70s, it's time to pull out the linen summer clothes. The problem was my ironing board.

The last several times I'd used my Brabantia ironing board (and it's not a cheap one, mind you), I kept having to vacuum up little pieces of pale orange foam that had drifted down to the floor from the underside of the pad. Then as I was prepping to move, I discovered the ironing-board pad was even worse off than I thought, the viscose foam having essentially disintegrated and become stuck to the metal frame. While the pad had outlasted its warranty life, who knew the foam would turn into fake orange snow? So I ripped off the water-stained cotton pad and threw it away, knowing I'd need to buy a new cover (but which, where, and for how much?) and meanwhile figure out how to clean the foam residue off the ironing board. There it sat for six months.

One sometimes-convenience about living in a suburban duplex versus a downtown apartment is access to a yard. So one warm May Saturday I decided to try washing the thing, carrying the ironing board outside with a bowl of hot, soapy water. Fortunately, the old foam particles came off easily in water, with a little scrubbing and then rinsing with the garden hose. What would have had to be done in the shower with much wrangling turned out to be quite simple out there in the driveway. Soon, the whole board, top to bottom, was cleaner than it had been since its manufacture. The sun dried the metal out for me, and then I had a clean ironing table again.

But what about a new cover? I decided to tackle the pile of ironing with just an old towel laid out across the ironing board. And it worked fine. So why spend $30-plus on a new cover? I don't think I'll bother—because eventually, in a future tiny house, I most likely won't keep the ironing board for space reasons but instead use a (protected) counter or tabletop for ironing. Now that's simple.


urban naturalist

moss and lichen branch, Meldrum Bar Park nature trail

The best part of living down here on the southern outskirts of the Portland metro—outside of cheaper rent rooming with a friend—is walking access to the confluence of two rivers, the narrower Clackamas in its rocky bed dumping into the wider, deeper Willamette.* I usually go for a long walk along one or both rivers at least once a weekend and on weekday evenings when weather permits, a plan admittedly easier to embrace on warm, sunny days than cool, drizzly ones.

One evening a few weeks ago, my housemate and I walked across the McLoughlin highway into Meldrum Bar Park and down into the "nature preserve," which is far too small for a preserve but at least an attempt, along with the community garden, to balance out all the travel trailers, trucks, and motor boats, the baseball fields, the golf course, the dirt bike area (that looks like giant termite mounds), and the track for those whining remote-controlled cars, meaning boys and their toys. The best part of the natural area is a large pond tucked away from the engine noise of the river and overlooked by a scattering of homes perched above on one side, trees and the "preserve" on the other. We sat on a fallen log by the outlet and watched the first seasonal batch of goslings swimming away between their parents, and duck pairs that dive-bombed just over our heads as they braked to land in the pond. We heard frogs and bird calls from creatures we couldn't see, nestled in trees and bushes.

pond at Meldrum Bar Park

rotting log, Meldrum Bar Park

And then amid all the waterfowl I spotted the head of a mammal swimming towards the right-hand bank, making a V in the water. At first I figured it must be a nutria, a non-native species introduced to Oregon and Washington from South America in the 1930s-50s. But when we finally glimpsed the tail up out of the bank, it was broad and flat rather than rat-like, and the animal itself was quite large, meaning a native beaver (Castor canadensis). We watched the beaver, who completely ignored us, even though we were talking and pointing, swim back to the other side of the pond, dig around in the yellow flag iris lining the pond, and then heard it gnawing on something, maybe the iris, which, though lovely, is yet another invasive species imported from the Old World for gardens but now suffocating Northwest wetlands. That was only the second time in my life I've seen a beaver in the wild, the first time down in the southern Cascades near my hometown. So it was an especially good evening, the sun dropping behind us and the pale moon hovering above the trees.

invasive yellow flag iris, Meldrum Bar Park

The weekend prior was one of those rare, teasing previews of summer, with temperatures near 80 degrees, so I allowed myself to take a picnic blanket to public grassy spots and lie in the sun reading, three days in a row. My roommate and I even had an impromptu picnic one evening on the south bluff overlooking Clackamette Cove.

Clackamette Cove (March 2015)

Another evening, while walking home from Oregon City along the river, I spotted eight fat sea lions, two of which were floating in a circle on their backs with their flippers up, the others napping on a raft near the shore; a large rat on the embankment; and a poor dead mole also on its back but along the path by the Rivershore Motel, likely unearthed by a dog. Government officials claim the sea lions must be regularly "managed"—trapped, branded, culled, and transferred or "euthanized" according to some list, all Nazi-like—to protect endangered salmon and steelhead on their way up and over giant concrete damns to spawn in quiet mountain streams, ignoring the obvious truth that the sea lions wouldn't be coming so far upriver if their marine food sources were still plentiful.

The elephant seal in the room, so to speak, is commercial overfishing and ocean acidification caused by humans, the sea lions' rival and the more voracious predator of not just salmon but all tasty fish and crustaceans. As a side note, one can't walk along the Clackamas or Willamette riverbanks in spring without tripping over a fisherman (and yes, they're almost always men) standing up to his thighs in the chilly river or sitting in a lawn chair on the beach drinking beer, his line taut. Meanwhile, reports continue of massive starfish die-offs along the West coast caused by the ever-puzzling starfish wasting syndrome that turns those pretty, rock-hard purple and orange sea stars into goo. But as those who a) read global news and b) trust in the scientific method should know, the desertification of the oceans is well underway.

two sea lions, Oregon City (February 2015)

branded sea lions, Willamette River (February 2015)

When (or if) I am old, I will remember what was. On warm days, I can't think of a better way to end a workday than poking around down by the river. The feeling reminds me of childhood, heading outside after school or on summer break for a neighborhood adventure, roaming and exploring—think Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Trixie Belden, or even the Goonies—with a freedom kids no longer seem to have or maybe even want, glued as they are now to their game pads. This spring, we found a Corona bottle in the riverbank bushes with plants growing inside, a semi-natural terrarium. And along the same stretch of high bank we spotted the decomposed carcass of a mammal we couldn't identify, not wanting to poke around among its remains, the skull resting atop a matted cushion of brown and blonde fur, part of a small spine visible.

Oregon City boat dock (February 2015)

High Rocks midden, Clackamas River (April 2015)

Sometimes we'll take plastic bags down to the river and collect garbage—thanks to humans, there's always trash underfoot, despite SOLVE's ongoing river cleanup efforts—broken fishing line, beer bottles, beer cans, bottle caps, fishing lures, black bags of dog poop, plastic straws, fast-food wrappers, even once the strewn pink fabric petals off a bouquet of fake flowers. We usually attract curious glances from passersby on these impromptu garbage days, people who think we're either homeless, poking around in trash, or drug addicts digging for cans. But mainly we just walk around the trails, often with cameras for documentation, to see differently in the intersection of human and machine.

Session bottlecap, Willamette River

tiny school of fish, Willamette River

Willamette goslings

One evening in April, the roommate and I watched a sea lion fishing for dinner under the McLoughlin Bridge. Mostly it stayed underwater, circling in a large loop and only coming up for quick breaths. I've seen more wild creatures down here in Clackamas County—hawks, beaver, sea lions, fish, geese, ducks, herons, crawfish, coyote**—than when I lived in the northern, more urban Multnomah County, which almost makes up for having been priced so far south. At least it feels new and different, and for a nomad at heart, that's the most one can ask for.

tiny dragonfly, Meldrum Bar Park

I returned to the Meldrum Bar pond one evening last weekend, around the same time as before, and sat for an hour on the same log but saw no beaver, only geese and goslings and ducks and ducklings, a red-winged blackbird chasing a crow off a hanging bird feeder on the bluff, and cottonwood fluff coating the pond and drifting against the edges of the trails like snow. Sitting with the wild birds and frogs and the sound of flowing water is holy church for an atheist like myself for whom there is nothing else, no heaven, no hell, no escape hatch—only this Earth in a universe whose depth and breadth and machinations none can fathom.

wild roses, Meldrum Bar Park

And so previewing the fate of the biosphere—our planetary home—as detailed in Elizabeth Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sixth Extinction this week during my bus reading has stoked a sad, cold rage fit for a crusade. But a crusade on whom? All of humanity are to blame, the people who throw their soda cups and beer cans and plastic on the ground in public parks, as well as those who support fracking, Arctic drilling, single-family homes, and the personal automobile.

boat trouble, Meldrum Bar Park boat launch

falling cottonwood fluff, Meldrum Bar Park

I don't care anymore on the macro level that we are killing off our own species by mucking up the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans, something like turning on the car engine while closing the garage door, a willful suicide—good riddance to the top mammalian predator so competent in rapidly shifting Earth's climate and therefore its eventual geology. But though life will go on, in some form or another, it angers me—and should anger any rational human—that we are taking so many other species out with us. Kolbert, in fact, says certain scientists predict the rise of giant rats after humans' demise, a logical conclusion since rats have historically followed humans everywhere, feeding on our discards. So that will be the world we leave behind, a world best suited for rats? Good-bye elephants, good-bye rhinos, good-bye sea lions, good-bye beavers, good-bye salmon, good-bye frogs, good-bye (many) birds. (Will the children of tomorrow even notice the animals are gone?) Hello, rats—like that fat one I saw on the embankment in Oregon City scuttling into the big pipe.

downy feathers, Willamette riverbank

*FYI, for Oregon transplants, the river and its lush valley are pronounced Wil-LA-met, accent on the second syllable, not Wil-la-METTE, because in the mid-1800s some idiots in local government decided to gentrify the spelling of the local native name, Wallamet. And, by the way, the state name is also pronounced OR-uh-gun, not Or-ee-gone—the accent on the first syllable, making the last two vowels schwa. It's the same reason we don't call Michigan "Mish-ee-gone." Just think of the word lemon or human or any other word than ends with the -on or -an suffixes. I grew up in southern Oregon and one of my ancestors was among the first hops growers in the Willamette Valley in the mid-1800s, so overhearing tourists on public transportation mispronounce Oregon and Willamette drives me nuts—although I do agree that local pronunciations for the Portland streets Glisan (glee-sun, though glisten is historically accurate), Couch (cooch), and Yeon (yee-ahn) are less than intuitive.

**Since this post was written, I've also seen a big blue heron hanging out on the old railway pilings at Clackamette Cove; an osprey diving into the Clackamas River; wild bunnies blocking walking trails and then bounding into the brush; two turkey vultures dominating a salmon carcass on the Willamette riverbank while seagulls and crows looked on; more upturned dead moles; and a whole family of nutria.

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