As we cleared the phragmites from the park, two red-tail hawks circled overhead. The pigeons fled. The chickadees laughed. Robins twittered in the trees. Blue jays and red-wing blackbirds screeched their own warnings. The hawks hunted for lunch while the pigeons tried to avoid being lunch.
I watched the birds for a while and then remembered that I was supposed to be pulling up the invasive phragmites. These tall and thin reeds like water or damp ground. They can grow up to five metres high, that is three times taller than a basketball player. Mature phragmites have a large feathery seed head, and these are lovely when they sway in the wind.
I volunteer as a land steward at Riverdale Park which is part of the larger Don Valley ravine. For the past two years, I have freely laboured in the park, planting native trees and shrubs, and pulling up invasive weeds and trees. I love it. There is something meditative about giving back to the land – while I am alive.
It is a tiny act in lessening the global environmental crisis. It is doing something, when it is so much easier to deny, or give in to despair at the enormity of the challenge. Restoring the park reminds me that I too am a part of nature. If the park is bad for nature, then ultimately it is also bad for humans.
The Reed that Became a Monster
On this drizzly but warm autumn morning about a dozen of us showed up to weed the phragmites. This phragmites specie is originally from Europe where it is a common reed. The phragmites are a problem because they crowd out native plants, and they mess up the water for native fish and amphibians. Phragmites are bad news for birds too. The reeds create a poor habitat for the birds to rest, feed and breed. We have our own native specie of phragmites but it cannot compete with the aggressive invader.
As they grow in dense clumps phragmites block pretty vistas. I first became aware of them in another park when a favourite pond suddenly disappeared. It was there for years and then it was gone. The pond became hidden by a solid wall of the enormous reeds. That pond is huge and it takes more than an hour to walk around its perimeter.
It is too late to prevent or eradicate the spread of phragmites. That battle was lost by about 1900. It was then that phragmites went from being a minor plant, pretty in the garden, to an aggressive invasive species. The expansion of the reed is linked to human activity. Namely, the more marshes were drained, rivers and streams channeled, damned or buried, or the coastline altered, the more the phragmites thrived. Today all we can do is to try and contain the spread of the reed.
The phragmites removal technique was quite simple: stick the spade in at a 45-degree angle near the root of the plant, stamp on the spade to add a bit of pressure, and then pull out the reed. The City’s staff told us to aim to get about two knuckle lengths of the root as well. We placed the reeds into thick garbage bags. Those with a feathery seed head were bagged immediately, so as not to spread the seeds.
We worked in just one area of the sun-facing slope in the park. It is cleared of phragmites the same way each spring and autumn. The other half of the slope was cleared by mowing it every spring. The mowed area was the control site. The City staff said that even though mowing removed some 90 per cent of the phragmites above ground, it is actually ineffective at controlling its spread. Within weeks, the phragmites simply rebounded from their extensive underground rhizome roots. The hand weeding was working. The reeds in the test area were shorter, had smaller seed heads and were already wilting. In contrast the ones on the control site were green and robust. The native shrubs planted in the weeded site were hanging on.
We weeded the phragmites from the perimeter of the area. The closer we got to the centre of the patch the muddier it became. I was puzzled as water runs downhill. It does not tend to settle on slopes. It turns out that a stream used to flow down the slope. It is now lost, as parts of it were diverted or buried to make way for the park and the nearby highway. The marshy ground was a reminder that the ghost of the stream was still present. The phragmites were its sentinels.
A Park for all People?
The drizzle stopped. The sun came out to play. And the children came out with the sun. One group was from a high school, and the other wore the uniform of a private school. Due to the coronavirus epidemic the children were spending as much time as possible outside. And this park was now their gym.
All the children were White. They ran up and down the grassy slopes, or played tag along the edge of the forest. Nature deficit disorder was an obscure academic term for these children. From their homes on the surrounding leafy streets, nature was on their doorsteps. Understanding ecology and biology, and identifying birds and trees was a breeze when nature is in arm’s reach.
I thought of the children on my side of the ravine in Regent Park. The majority are brown and Black. Quite a few are Indigenous. Their schools are bordered by busy streets and stunted trees. Their daily buzz came from cars and buses, not from birds and bees.
We continued our phragmites purge – hunch over the spade, give it a shove, and pull up the reed. Repeat. And repeat. The garbage bags began to fill up. But we had cleared less than ten per cent of the area. By the end of the season we will have cleared more.
Riverdale Park has an outdoor gym and it was getting busy. As usual it was men using the exercise equipment. They were a typical Toronto multicultural crowd. Today it was mainly Blacks, Chinese and Whites. One man did chin ups on the overhead bar, another did step up squats on the low bench. A trio had bought their own dumbbells and were doing reps. Oftentimes the men preened for each other, flexing biceps and ripped stomachs.
I have seen few women using the gym, and those who do so normally stick to its edges. The men usually give them the look, the one insinuating that the women were invading their space. There is no sign on the gym saying it’s an area for men.
The hard-packed red clay running track was also getting busy. The track is always more egalitarian as roughly equal number of men and women use it. As usual the people on the track were multicultural. They came in all weights, shapes and ages. Some sprinted. Others jogged. Some just walked around.
I have used the track a few times. The plan was to run two or three times each week to get back into shape. I did it for a week, and then, well you know how it goes when life gets in the way of good intentions.
Who Gets to Care for Nature
My stewardship of the land is not without its complications. Today I was the only Black person in the crew. This I am used to. I have yet to see someone who looks like me volunteering in this way.
I volunteer in Riverdale Park simply because I can walk there in fifteen slow minutes. It was a friend who encouraged me to give it a shot. I was wary. I had seen many stewardship volunteers on my hikes and bike rides through the ravines. Most were White. My friend pointed out the demographic was no different from my outdoor recreation activities. Of course, this got me straight back into my PhD research.
How do you make environmentalism, including land stewardship programs, more welcoming for Black people?
The volunteer ecological management of the park is run by the Community Stewardship Program of the City of Toronto. The City’s website’s says that as “a volunteer you will: learn about native trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, invasive species, ecological monitoring and more; participate in additional training workshops; learn about sustainable trail design (Crothers Woods team); meet new people, gain new friendships and network within the community; gain experience, leadership and interpersonal skills’ acquire documented volunteer hours (if requested)”.
The City runs the community stewardship program in eight areas. One thing was obvious when I examined the areas on a map – they were mostly White and rich.
There are many ravines and wetlands in areas where Black and other people of colour live. They have no stewardship programs. The City has not engaged these groups in caring for nature. The failure reinforces that the environment is a White space, for White people, and where Black people are out of place.
It is a lie that Black and other people of colour are not interested in the environment.
For instance, I went to the climate crisis demonstrations earlier this year and they were filled with Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour. It seems to me that there is a disconnect between what is happening on the ground, the leadership, and the media images and messages of environmental organizations. Racism shapes who gets to talk about the environment and who gets to be ignored.
We finished uprooting phragmites for the day. I wandered over to the mini-forest on the other side of the park. I lingered by the rough log fence, playing my usual game of spotting which of the shrubs and trees that I had planted. The once knee-high plants were now taller than me. It feels good to see that my efforts to be kind to the Earth have been rewarded. Tree planting nurtures the soil. And it feeds my soul.
Then I followed the fence to inside the forest. Today I was not interested in walking up and around the many social trails in the woodlot. Most of them end in secluded areas, and are a cruising area for gay men. The men that I have seen in there are multicultural. I have yet to see lesbians cruising in the woods.
Instead I walked around the marshy area. There were no phragmites in there, but there were plenty of our native cattail reeds. For the past two summers I had joined the other volunteer land stewards in weeding the marsh. An underground creek is in the middle of the marsh. It too used to flow above ground and into the Don River.
A cottontail rabbit shot out of the marsh and stood straight in front of me. I knew if I reached for my camera the movement would scare the rabbit. I watched it until it bolted, startled by a dog and its human coming along the trail. Over to my right the autumn leaves turned to the sun. The sumac leaves were now burgundy, the maples a mottled gold, and the oaks a glowing yellow. Fallen leaves littered the trail. Nature had refreshed my spirits. It was time to go home. You can support the blog here.
© Jacqueline L. Scott