A summer at URI: Like a Clockwork [Osage] Orange

“Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word . . . I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book which is written in that tongue.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, November 5, 1833

While many of my fellow colleagues moved away from New Haven immediately after graduation, I needed a bit of time to unwind and contemplate the last two remarkably grueling years volleying bombardment by new ideas, amazing people, creative projects to take on, and additional problems to solve, while peppered with the latest news on the rapidity and enormity of environmental and social change.

It turned out I had no time at all to do that – I leave that whimsical philosophizing to another blog entry! Instead, I accepted a summer internship as a Community Forester with the Urban Resources Initiative. URI, a nonprofit based at the Environment School, provides plants, tools, and technical advice to New Haven neighbors who wish to steward their public green spaces and reconnect their communities.

The social benefits of this program have been covered extensively HERE. Everything I heard about the program was true! I witnessed neighbors who may not have known each other well or may have nothing in common roll up their sleeves together to reach their goals. I’ve never worked on anything so tangibly beneficial. We planted 171 trees this summer and about a bazillion perennials, or so it seems, which are on display at our 49 sites across New Haven. All it took was a little planning, a little (well, a LOT of) running around by the seven interns, and presto!, committed neighbors brought shade, fresh air, flowers, and pleasant outdoor gathering places to their blocks, schools, and local parks.

Having studied energy and climate change related issues at F&ES, I had a lot to learn when it came to plants. I immediately learned my street tree species and their preferred habits. For instance, sugar maples don’t tolerate salt, so they should only be planted in parks, whereas pin oaks are accustomed to low soil oxygen levels and thus do well along curbs. I especially had a lot to learn about shrubs and perennials. Now I can spot a Russian Sage, catmint, or inkberry a mile away (ok, maybe 100 feet away).

Each week was a new lesson in flowers. Every week, one flower’s petals blanched, withered, and fell away. Meanwhile, something new and bright took center stage! There was no time to lament the loss of each species’s flower for another year, since they were so quickly replaced. It felt like I was walking around inside a clock, and could see all the gears spinning as the season progressed.

For the first time, I could deconstruct what used to look like a wall of “green” along the road into its individual bricks: knotweed, tree of heaven, Norway maple, bittersweet, purple loosestrife, knotweed, knotweed, more knotweed, burning bush, Phragmites. They’re everywhere! It felt like learning a new language; once you are familiar with the most common words, the new words stick out, and you can more easily translate them with books or by asking friends.

I never understood plants like I did this summer, because I spent most of my summers working in offices. When people used to say it was a wet or a dry year, I hadn’t really noticed. This summer, I felt the drought here in New Haven, since I was out there every day as the heat beat down from the sun and radiated up from the pavement, with a thin film of mulchy, composty sweat adhered to my skin at all times. I watched our plants struggling to survive their first summer, and I got it, because I was equally parched.

Now everywhere I go, from gas stations to parking lots to other cities, I can’t stop checking out street trees and judging landscape designs. Plants stare out at me from every direction! I see the mosaic Plantae as if through a hand lens, and can’t help stopping and pondering interesting specimens everywhere I go.

I’m currently looking for my dream job. I’ll know it when my future office overlooks a serviceberry tree, surrounded by butterfly bushes and blueberries, accented with phlox, bee balm, daylilies, and coral bells, with wafts of pine mulch entering my window . . .