Tired of looking at ugly, amorphous greenery masquerading as a park near my home, I decided that something had to be done about it. Years ago children used to play in Vienna’s Borge Street Park, but now the only people willing to fight their way through the jungle of brambles were hooligans – some of them potentially inebriated, judging by the caches of empty beer bottles there.
I contacted the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area (IMA) Program and asked if I could volunteer to clean up the park. I had some credentials, as I had majored in environmental conservation and management, and had recently completed Fairfax Master Naturalist training. But the reality was, aside from occasionally volunteering at Meadowlark Gardens, I knew little about native plants or gardening. And, although I didn’t admit this to anyone at the time, no one had ever trusted me with a sharp pair of clippers before. My boyfriend says he’s too fond of my fingers to let me anywhere near them.
Luckily, you don’t need an impressive resume to be a site leader. Erin Stockschlaeder, the volunteer coordinator for the IMA program, gives you a short training session, comes out to the site, identifies the invasive plants, lends you some tools, and finds volunteers to help you. All you need is the willingness to work, the time to lead four workdays during the course of a year, and – if your area has thorns – a slightly masochistic temperament.
The brambles at Borge Street Park – a mix of Himalayan blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle vines, oriental bittersweet and binding weed – were reminiscent of the thicket protecting Sleeping Beauty’s castle. After several weeks of chopping and clipping, I looked like I had been wrestling with a barbed-wire fence – and this despite wearing long pants, sleeves and leather gloves. The reward, though, was undeniable. Underneath that mass of invasive plants I discovered trees – Black walnut, sassafras, redbud – all a bit straggly and limp, but still very much alive. Even better, I unearthed a field of milkweed. I had never seen so many milkweed in one place. And what an aroma! I never knew milkweed flowers could be so fragrant.
The butterflies thought the same. For me, nothing could be more satisfying than to see a mother and her young daughter chasing swallowtails through the newly opened field, knowing that a few months ago the park had been filled with only the more adaptable denizens – the ubiquitous deer, squirrels, mice, sparrows, and blue jays. Other flowers, long held captive by the invasive plants, began to free themselves from the undergrowth. I stared down a deer eating the yellow flower of the evening primrose, and the Velcro-like seeds of the tick-trefoil glued themselves to my clothes.
Of course, I didn’t do this on my own. An unexpected benefit of this endeavor, other than the increased muscle tone in my arms, is that I met so many interesting people and made so many new friends. First came students seeking service hours or experience to add to their resumes. Some showed up once or twice; others came long after they no longer needed the hours. James, a good-looking, affable young man, came equipped with a machete. He told me he lived on raw meat, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk. Bianca was the daughter of diplomats, and she told me of her life in Honduras and of the trees that grew there.
Other volunteers included a gay-rights activist, theatre kids, and occasionally a youngster who was actually interested in the environmental field. I reconnected with an acquaintance from my son’s elementary school days. She’s a Cornell graduate who wrote a book on learning how to use tarot cards. And then there’s Al, an elderly gent, long retired, who used to work as a nuclear physicist. He’s become an avid supporter, helper, and cheerleader of my efforts. We’ve bonded, and I have spent several pleasant afternoons at his house, sipping tea and doing jigsaw puzzles.
The park has become my passion. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “Which one? The one I get paid for? Or the one I prefer?” I’m at the park every week, even in the snow. A neighbor says that whenever he strolls past the park on the way to the playground and I’m not there, his toddler demands to know where I am. My park project gives me the chance to be outside and teach about the environment, another of my passions. I explain to the students, volunteers, and curious passersby about the dangers of invasive plants and the need for biodiversity. I suggest that they read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that explains the correlation between native plants, native insects and other wildlife. I also mention The Ecology of Lyme by Richard Ostfeld, in which he relates his findings on biodiversity and Lyme disease. His work suggests that the more biodiversity an area has, the fewer cases of Lyme disease will occur. But mostly I hope that the park will look so pretty and so full of wildlife that other people will be inspired to adopt their own local park. Our parks need lots of help. Everybody’s help.
Learn more about invasive plants and the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive Management Area program here. Receive a free t-shirt by volunteering to help IMA Take Back the Forest during April and May, 2014.
Author Jennifer Pradas is the Invasive Management Area Site Leader at Borge Street Park in Vienna, Va.