Organic living: the Gist challenge

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday October 15, 2005

One of the most compelling comments of election season so far came from Carrboro Alderman Jacquelyn Gist at the Sierra Club candidates forum. "Grass makes you stupid" Gist said in reference to Carrboro's many acres of lawn. "Grass is one of the biggest problems facing our community."

Knowing Gist, I did not take her words to be a New Urbanist rebuke of suburban living. They seemed more an indictment of the manner in which modern society relates to nature, and how an alien landscape -- in this case, the lawn -- interferes with our ability to understand the ecosystem that is our home.

I'd been thinking along similar lines this summer, each time I stepped out my front door and walked over to the nearby forest by Bolin Creek. Along the sidewalks and street it was awfully hot, the pavement throwing the sun's heat back at me. But as soon as I stepped under the canopy of trees, it felt 10 degrees cooler. Clearly, the way we live, the way we build, the way we develop -- none is well attuned to our natural environs.

It is not too difficult to imagine a human way of life that is intrinsically moored in nature, whose economic activity respects and enhances nature rather than being something nature must be protected from. Unfortunately, our actually existing society does present a threat to nature, exactly the same threat it poses to our own health and to our communities.

The same forces that rend asunder the forests of both the Piedmont and the Amazon are responsible for the ruined towns of the Great Plains and the Rust Belt and for many of the health problems afflicting the contemporary world. Just last week, the World Bank issued a report on environmental impacts on health:

"For almost all forms of cancer, the risk of contracting this disease can be reduced if physical environments are safe for human habitation and food items are safe for consumption. ... In 2000 more than 150,000 premature deaths were attributed to various climate change impacts, according to the World Health Organization. ... Some 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.6 billion lack access to safe sanitation."

The report also concluded that economic growth is stalled by environmental impacts such as these.

For all the brouhaha about sustainability, we have yet to learn the fundamental lesson articulated by Aldo Leopold over 50 years ago in his Sand County Almanac: "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

There are a few writers who have conveyed a sense of how to find such community in the Piedmont. Dave Cook's Piedmont Almanac is an outstanding example. Here is his rumination on the summer katydids:

"Theirs is a rhythm, a pulsing language, implicative of what lightning bugs do in the visual realm, and syncopative like a call-and-response. It is a high celebration of the life force as they feel it. It is all their own, so non-human, and yet I always feel the connection of myself to the bigness of life, to how strange and how good it can be."

But we need not wax poetic to understand the importance of the ecological community. Already, many of us seek out organic food, not because it is trendy or confers a certain status, but because we understand its importance to our health. It is not a great leap to conclude that an organic way of life in all its dimensions would be healthful as well.

In our local political campaigns, we have not heard many echoes of the ecological ethic of Leopold or Cook. The closest we've come was Will Raymond's suggestion that UNC view the Carolina North development itself as the first research project for the new campus.

And, really, what could be more forward thinking than to take the opportunity to imagine a new campus based on Leopold's land ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Although we might expect the university to have the resources and perhaps the expertise to serve as environmental trailblazer, that does not let the rest of us of the hook. Just as hundreds gathered to develop a "2020 Vision for Downtown Carrboro," so may we come together to develop a long-term commitment to a more organic way of life.

One way to start would be to take up Gist's challenge and seriously contemplate the impact of the lawn on the biotic community to which we belong.



One thing we should do is unearth Booker Creek where it's been forced underground around University Mall. It would prevent a lot of the flooding that periodically occurs there and allow the creek to regain a little of its natural quality.

Nice column, Dan. You would be proud of the way my yard looks, but I'm afraid I'd loose points for not pulling the microstegium before it went to seed this year. I believe that microstegium is one of the biggest problems facing our community.

Mark, are you serious?

Is Mark Marcoplos serious about what? Unearthing Booker Creek?

I'm sure he is (although I think he mistakenly referred to University Mall when he meant Eastgate Shopping Center). The old AMOCO station (soon to be Starbucks?) sits directly on top of the creek and so does the Eastgate parking lot and the center of the strip mall part of the development. Last time I looked, you could see where the creek was by looking for the swath of concrete running through the otherwise asphalt parking lot. The creek is inside that concrete vault.

I can't imagine why this was ever approved, but it was. In the 1990's I tried to ensure that Eastgate would not get carte blanche to rebuild this arrangment when (not if) it is destroyed by flood. The Town Council voted me down and gave Eastgate an absolute right to rebuild this environmemtal disaster. Very foolish.

This situation was previously referenced at:

Yes, I think it should be seriously considered. How about 1% for environmental reclamation & restoration?

If you want to take out part of Eastgate Mall, how would you accommodate the lost revenues (sales tax, property tax, jobs, etc.)? Also, how do you balance the environmental protection of the creek and the loss of more undeveloped land to replace the lost revenues?

I'm not saying it's good to run a creek through a pipe, I wish that had never been done. But the science of the times (40 years ago?), said it would work. We now know differently. The consequences of undoing that decision would have significant negative impacts as well as positive benefits. I wasn't here in the 1990s when the Council voted, but I would be amazed if there was a solid attempt by the minority members to educate the public on the issues. In other words, I'm guessing this came down to an environmental vs economic development vote.

Seems to me this is our own local version of the international discussion on the "end of environmentalism" which can be summed up as "the environmetnal movement is not articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. It is promoting technical policy fixes instead of a big vision and a core set of values."

Maybe the issue isn't about unearthing Booker Creek but asking the bigger question: How do we protect the environment while still creating a local, sustainable economy?

A qucik off-the-cuff answer to the "end of environmentalism" notion is that corporate domination of the media and society in general has denied the public information on the many and varied successful local environmental initiatives that form the fabric of a "vison of the future". And the corporate captains of industry love this "end of environmentalism" debate.

> Yes, I think it should be seriously considered. How about 1% for
> environmental reclamation & restoration?

That's an interesting idea. What other areas of town do you think we could look at for restoring to their natural state? I mean, anywhere could be a potential candidate, but what targets could we look at? I suppose the criteria would be 1) ease of restoration 2) benefit provided by restoration and 3) likihood of a positive lasting impact. I can think of a few sites around town that might be at the top of my priority list, but I'm more interested in hearing from everyone else.


1% of what? Are there captains of industry in this area? As much as I love to pick on big media, I don't think you can put all the blame off on them. Poor communications/dissemination plans wouldn't be anymore effective in a more responsive media environment. As you well know, technical solutions often fail to connect/engage with citizens.

About the burying and possible daylighting of Bolin Creek
within Eastgate:

Yes, the technology when it was done was not forward
thinking, and by today's standards, the creek would
not be buried. However, way back then,
there was not so much upstream development on
either Booker or Bolin Creeks, so it was then a reasonable
thing to do, -- the stakes were lower. Today, with far
more upstream development in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,
we recognize the hazard; neither Eastgate nor Univ Mall
would be permitted today without major mitigation efforts.

But since the Eastgate flood circa 2000 and during the development
of the linear park between the old WCHL building and the bypass
near Elliot, wasn't there an engineering study done about
the potential daylighting and possible rerouting of Bolin Creek? What ever happened to that?

Two words you need to know on microstegium: corn gluten

Please say more. I don't know about corn gluten.

I suggest that it is not grass itself that is the problem, but grass' effect on people's behavior.

Mary--corn gluten is a "natural" germination inhibitor. Think organic "Preen." It helps in the war against microstegium...but you have to use it CONSTANTLY--and if the neighbors don't do so as well...
Part of the problem with micro is that the seeds travel large distances on water. (Which is why it's so rampant by streams.)

The GOOD news is that the seed doesn't stay viable as long as we used to think...only three years, as opposed to eight. The BAD news is--not everyone is as vigilant as they oght to be.

I fear Micro is here to stay...


James, I'd guess the "official" cost of CH leaf collection, by which you probably mean "on paper," is too low to believe. Hope it's revealed in tomorrow's column.

One of the challenges of not having an "open thread" is that it's sometimes tricky to find the right place to handle a slightly off-topic topic. So here I am in the "Organic Living" section of the Orange Politics Mall . . . raising the subject of leaves. I'm also shamelessly promoting my column in tomorrow's Chapel Hill News, which, I will most likely be entitled "Leaving Leaves." Here's a snippet:

Don't get me wrong. I like a tidy yard as much as anyone. But the idea of blowing leaves to the street, picking them up in high-powered vacuum trucks, schlepping them to the dump, grinding them into mulch, and then hauling them back into town for homeowners to spread on their gardens just boggles my mind. Like America's equally ineffective wars on terror and drugs, America's War on Leaves has far more costs than benefits. (I'll post the link as soon as it's available.)

But in the meantime, what do you guess it the actual "official" cost of the Town of Chapel Hill's annual leaf collection orgy? A free bushel of leaf mulch to the person who comes closest!

I asked the Town Manager to give me a guesstimate, which he forwarded to staff. What I got back seems to be a thorough assessment of the real cost (to the town) of our seasonal insanity. In fact, I was even surprised how big the number was.

It'll definitely be in the column!

So much for suspense!

And for those of you who don't like to click links . . . the number is $234,000. Ouch!

Thanks, Tom.

I tend to "leave" well enough alone myself. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

It is pretty amazing how much effort is made on getting up leaves in the fall. Mine just go wherever they want to, I am not a raker but a mulcher I guess.

Anyone know of a really good reason why we should bother raking up leaves? I cannot think of one.

The obvious reason (tho not a really good one) is to keep up appearances - the appearance of one's property and the appearance of anal retention.

Oops. I'm an Appearance Commissioner!

Actually there are a couple of good reasons. One is that leaves clog up storm drains. We just had to have DOT come out and clear one in my neighborhood. Along that same line, I've observed that when there are lots of leaves in the gutters people aren't as responsible about picking up their dog poop (another storm water issue). And finally, if you are a gardener, unmulched leaves are too big to work into the soil. I have a lawn mower just for mulching leaves that are then turned back into the soil or used for mulch in the summer.

Chapel Hill's Budget Advisory Board recommended eliminating leaf pickup or at least reducing the number of pick ups. Nothing changed as a result of that recommendation.

Just to be clear, I am an anal retentive compulsive leaf raker in the extreme. I clear my walkways and ground cover many times each fall. But . . . and this is a very big but . . . that's very different from raking them to the street and waiting for the town to pick them up in chauffeur driven sucking trucks.

And what do you do with them after you rake them up, James?

I pile them up in an area where there's no ground cover or grass . . . and mow them with a mulching mower. If they're really thick I have to do it several times.

For thin coverings, I just mow them in place on the grass.

With the ecological absurdity of The Great American Lawn well established, it shouldn't be too much to ask for homeowners to retain some 'natural areas' where leaves could be mulched or even just piled up.

A few people have already told me they really cannot cannot cannot do that. And some of them are probably right. For others it would take thinking in new ways about their property. That's the main goal of my column . . . but I probably didn't make that clear enough.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

For anyone who likes James' idea of piling up the leaves and then mulching them with a mulching mower there's an even cheaper alternative. I have no lawn (my front yard is mulched completely, using different mulches to give some contrast) so I have little need for a mower. But for about $50-60 you can buy at Lowes an electric vacuum/mulcher that will suck up the leaves, reduce them to 1/10th the volume, and deposit them in a bag to be emptied. I find that if you pile these mulched leaves up they break down quickly into a nice, rich material which is great for planting in the garden. Although it takes longer than blowing the leaves to the gutter it provides a great, cost-effective source of material for the spring gardens and it keeps the street gutters clear.

Whatever happened to piling them up and jumping in them.


Great column. All that money for soil deprivation. Not to mention pollution from the trucks.

I do like it when I find leaves and grass clippings bagged up at the side of the road so I can toss them in my truck and take them home to my compost pile.

Why rake? Well, if you want ANY grass (and it is nice to have a little) you must get the leaves up so it can do it's photosynthesis thing.

We rake--and then dump most of the rakings into our woods. Or onto the unbuildable lot next door--we call it "the Ravine." I will confess--I do have a pile inthe street right now-- DOWN stream from the storm sewer. If the town doesn't come get it by Tuesday it'll get raked onto a sheet and dumped into the ravine.

James--mulchers are on my "list of things to investigate." I think my "dump them in the ravine" plan is probably the most ECOLOGICALLY sound--no gas or electric needed...


I have one of the electric blower/vacuums that mulches and it's great for small jobs or picking up around my tender plants. But for big jobs and/or wet leaves, it is a total pain in the butt to use. Although I would prefer not to use the lawn mower, I don't have the luxury of a neighboring ravine and after a couple of years of piling them into the OWASA easement, I created my own little bog. If OWASA didn't bring big tractors in to mow that area every spring when the bog is very wet, I'd continue piling up out there, but the ruts from the tractor tires are too deep and become mosquito breeding grounds in the summer. "Ecosystem"--many parts that affect other parts making nothing simple.


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