Notes from the Field
Botanizing on Broadway
by Irena Barbara Nagler
From the September, 2017 issue
A pokeweed plant insists on my attention. It has rooted near the chain-link fence, pushing fingerlike stalks out toward the sidewalk. Its name is derived from a word for blood in a language common to the Powhatan group of Native Americans in eastern Virginia.
The pale-green, button-like flowers and purple-red berries arrayed along magenta racemes look like faintly sinister jewels. The plant's stems, too, are vivid red, accentuating the lunar green of the flowers.
The plant is called redweed, too, and red-ink plant, and inkberry. The berries feed birds and yield a red dye. They've been used to color wine, though every part of the plant is toxic and must be boiled for a long time before ingesting. The leaves and roots have been used as medicine for rheumatism, skin cancer, and other conditions.
Pokeweed is one of a myriad of plants colonizing a vacant lot that is a cauldron of everyday transformation on Broadway. I have been watching this field for years.
I walk along the fence, noting plants that I recognize and many more that I don't. Tree of heaven, with fronds of leaves resembling sumac, and fringes of seed pods, orange from above, yellow-green underneath. Thistles, locust, sumac. (Sound of Traver Creek nearby.) Milkweed, poplars, Queen Anne's lace. (Big trucks pulling up and parking.) Bindweed: little white morning glories leaping the fence and popping up through the grass like stars. (Padlock. Stuffed toy monkey with a beatific smile inserted in the fence.) Wildflower plantings: coneflower, black-eyed Susan. Sweeping views of a poplar grove merging into the darker, cloudlike masses of Cedar Bend hill. Mullein. Lots of medicinal plants. (Medical students in blue scrubs walking by focused inward or elsewhere.)
Until 1997, when the Kroger store on the lot closed, and for a few more years before the last small tenants relocated across Broadway, these seven acres were paved. When the buildings were demolished, weeds sprouted through cracks, revealing dry, seemingly barren earth scattered with little stones
and fragments of pavement: a raw and evocative landscape. The plants were of the sort that thrive in disturbed land: often deep-rooted, reaching down for nutrients and water and slowly bringing them to the surface, enriching the soil, attracting birds and insect pollinators and the gaze of creative and observant humans.
Killdeer moved in. Their families grew; their descendants continue to pierce the sky with their calls. The young ones strut along sidewalks and streets.
Eight years ago, the field reached its zenith of biodiversity. It was an explosion of color and vitality, rich with medicinal value for soil, humans, and other animals. Every day something new sprang up: scatters of flowers, fountains of green and purple and gold in shapes wilder than imagination. They transformed the soil into something life-supporting. It struck me as a rich potential ground for the study of how rapidly life regenerates and each part interacts with every other.
Remnants of human tenancy persist. Crumbling concrete, tarry conglomerates, telephone poles still active, looking like weird trees humming with new and remembered stories. A surreal row of trash cans invited percussion jams.
For years, promises were made about a development there named Broadway Village. Despite a $20 million equity investment from the state pension fund and the commitment of nearly $100 million in "brownfield" funds to be repaid from future taxes, it collapsed in the recession. One day in 2009, it seemed the field would be plowed up soon; machines were parked there. Imagining scenarios we might not like, my friends Alex Terzian and Jennifer Kovach and I joined to say farewell to it with a blessing. Alex played percussion (though not on the trash cans). Jennifer and I danced all over the vast area, indifferent to anyone who might be watching.
The next morning, I approached the workers entering the field. I asked a woman driving one of the machines what was intended. "The owner is going to clean it up and seed it with wildflowers," she said--a better scenario than what we'd feared.
The cleanup left more barren ground, little stony patches. The wildflowers began to appear, but the more wily old wild plants also returned and dominated, most of them non-native. Blond, cold-season grasses took over the acreage.
Now another development is being discussed. Like the last one, it calls for massive buildings that would overshadow the neighboring historic district. It would also be near Traver Creek, the Huron River, and Cedar Bend woods. A cleanup of a toxic plume spreading beneath the land from a former dry cleaning establishment is planned.
I invite county horticulturalist Kathy Squiers to join me in a walk along the fence. She tells me that the wildflower mix from 2009 must have included various cold-season grasses and a little rye, accounting for their ubiquity. She named for me the wildflowers: coreopsis, coneflowers, gaillardia. And wilder volunteers: sweet clover (white and yellow); horsetail, a dark brown variety of burdock. Wild lettuce: a natural painkiller with minuscule teeth on the undersides of its leaves. Knapweed, Chinese elm, yellow and white yarrow, mulberry trees, peppergrass, plantain, crown vetch, evening primrose, box elder, big bluestem, catmint. Outside the fence, by the stream, we find panic grass, Indian grass, Japanese knotweed, willow, silver maple. Some of the grasses from the wildflower mix have migrated here, preferring to be nearer the water.
Though it's controversial, there's evidence that many plants considered invasive are powerful in the remediation of disturbed land, clearing it of toxins and bringing nutrients to the surface. Given a few decades, and an available seed bank of native plants, these opportunists tend to disappear. The natives then return, whether planted on purpose or brought up from the deeps beneath former parking lots in a process of natural succession.
It's difficult to know, after years under pavement, whether or not they are waiting beneath this field. Kathy suggested a controlled burn could speed the revitalization of the site. Ecosystem restoration work is a fairly young science, tending more now toward preservation and perpetuation of places rich in native plants, less aggressive weeding, and appreciation of the nutritional value of the weeds once they are removed.
Like all plants, tree of heaven (an ailanthus) takes up carbon dioxide from the air; it's also been found to collect air pollutants, as well as heavy metals in soil and water. It tends to grow near the edges of this field, right by the street. It does so elsewhere in the neighborhood, too, springing up so close to the Broadway bridge that if its growth were translated to quick movement it would be a rough brushstroke on the concrete.
I suspect that the plant community knows what it's doing. Humans can participate creatively, or unwittingly do damage with their relative lack of experience.
While it's still with us, look at the field with an eye to its own vital existence, not circumscribed by visions of potential urban usage. Imagine the fence dissolving until it's gone. A sweeping view can bestow a revitalizing sense of peace. In early August myriad Queen Anne's lace flowers float everywhere, celestial on slender stalks. Pale-gold winter grasses highlight the greens. The grove of poplar trees is a slow-moving wave running to merge with the forest on the hills.
Medicine is there to be gathered. It could work slow nourishment, food for all the senses, different from the buzz of synthesized active ingredients. The interdependent economy of a healthy field is neither top-down hierarchy nor bottom-up rebellion, but synarchic, lateral, concentric, each part balancing and responding to every other. The deep intelligence of evolving life takes the basic forms of trees, fractal shapes, seamless linkage. We might do well to make decisions that enhance the weave of this fabric that knows no straight lines, only fountains, spirals and waves, layers of field upon field upon story.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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