Scarcity & Suburban Nature

MARJORIE PERRY NATURE PRESERVE
Greenwood Village, Colorado
February 3, 2019

On Sunday, I made a short, early morning trip to Marjorie Perry Nature Preserve in Greenwood Village, Colorado. The preserve consists of a few ponds, limited grass and weeds, and a marsh. All of these are horse-shoed by the High Line Canal Trail, which winds across the preserve’s perimeter. Along the canal, cottonwoods and buckthorn mainly.  Multi-million dollar homes behind the riparian growth.

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On the preserve’s southeast edge, along the High Line Canal, one cottonwood stands alone, reaching above all the others. It’s enormous, but dying, as many of the cottonwoods along the canal now are. Built near the end of the 19th century, the canal brought water to 20,000 acres of metro Denver and Aurora. Thirsty Plains Cottonwoods, too, drank at its edges. Many of the original, or nearly original, massive trees are now reaching the end of their natural lives.

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That end has probably been hastened by Denver Water’s decision to keep the canal dry. One finds water running in it only a few days each year. This is a wise decision. Today, the canal has a single customer (Fairmont Cemetery, I believe), and it’s less a waterway than it is an artifact of a water-starved region at the start of its expansion.

Because Denver Water manages the canal, it manages the canal’s trees. The cottonwoods pose a unique problem. They are a staple of the canal. Many are cavity-ridden, providing dens and nesting spots for raccoons, flickers, chickadees, nuthatches, starlings, owls, and kestrels. They offer something like a canopy above the canal and trail, shading us human animals in July and August. But, as they die, they pose an obvious safety risk. Their enormous trunks support enormous limbs, which lean, precariously, over busy pathways. Denver’s winter winds and the Front Range’s wet, spring snows takes these limbs down with ease. And so Denver Water must identify and eventually remove trees that pose safety risks to trail users.

The enormous cottonwood, on the southeastern edge of the preserve, appears to have been marked for removal. (I may be mistaken. Perhaps it’s just scheduled for an aggresive pruning.) A small, orange dot, facing the trail, now adorns its trunk. Noticing this, my heart hurt, and I carried loss with me through the preserve.

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The tree is among the deadest looking at the preserve. Even in spring and summer, its bare branches are obvious. They hang over the trail and the canal. Because of the prominence of this tree, they’re visible from the far side of the preserve.

So, too, are the birds that frequently perch on the tree. Perhaps because it stands taller than the rest, many of the preserve’s residents congregate on this tree to get their proverbial “birds eye view” of the landscape: corvids, mainly crows and magpies, starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, House Finches, robins, flickers, and Downy Woodpeckers. Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks hunt from those same perches.

I found my only local Red-headed Woodpecker in that tree. A Red-naped Sapsucker, too. That the tree draws woodpeckers suggests its wood is well-stocked with insects. But it is not, as far as I can tell, open with cavities; I’ve yet to notice flickers, kestrels, or screech owls nesting in it.

So the tree attracts the preserve’s birds, offering preferred perches and food too. As a birder, this partially explains my sense of loss. The tree is a focal point of my birding experience, and its days are numbered.

But what else? Reflecting on the sadness that escorted me away from the tree, I found more.

Aesthetically, the preserve will be permanently altered by the removal of the tree. The entire preserve seems to flow toward it. It anchors one’s sense of place, a punctuation mark at the end of the low, cattail-lined marsh. I’m reminded of how my father removed the largest tree in our backyard, a forked behemoth that marked where cultivated yard gave way to new growth forest. The view was never the same. The forest appeared withdrawn, even wounded without its sentinel.

But there’s something deeper still. I walked out of the preserve realizing that my loss reflected my sense of scarcity in suburban nature. Nothing soon will replace that tree. I don’t mean this literally. The birds drawn to it, common enough as they are, may find replacements — though certainly not one so singular — valuable for perches and prey. Variety and population numbers at the preserve may not be effected. (Then again, they may be and perhaps my sense that nothing will soon replace this tree is, indeed, literally so.) And to Denver Water’s credit and thanks to the work of the High Line Canal Conservancy, there is a strategic plan for replacing cottonwoods.

What I mean is this: this tree, which must go eventually and perhaps soon, is a visible reminder that we retain so little. We have these precarious pockets of the wild, holding on, sometimes barely, in the places we deem worth or worthless enough, as the case may be, to preserve.

I try to encounter suburban nature with wonder and awe, the better to overcome the nagging feeling that it’s all so thin, the better to deny the deep pessimism that most of us carry about the future of this earth, and the better, too, to pass on to others.

But this tree, marked for removal, cuts through that. It says, though I try to deny it: there will be other losses, probably more losses than gains, perhaps losses only.

A mile or so away from this tree, undeveloped fields are finally cul-de-sacked into new development. South of it, the recreation office plans to convert pure wildness — rabbitbrush, yucca, wildflowers, and untamable weeds — into an athletic complex. East of it, storage unit after storage unit replaces farmland at the edge of town.

Everywhere, insect populations plummet. Bird populations follow. Even the common birds, the ones well-suited to us, struggle to hang on.

Eventually, nature may refuse us its potions and cures. Stepping in, we may no longer feel as if we’re passing a threshold into a wild that arrests us, sooths us, heals what the “civilized” spaces inflict. Perhaps all that first step will do is make us pensive. Perhaps it should.

* * * * * *

This week, I opened a book I ought to have opened long ago: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In 2008, this book made me a birder. More accurately, a half-over Wisconsin Public Radio program that kept me company as I road-tripped through the state introduced me to Leopold and what his book could tell us about climate change. The story discussed, among many other things, bird migrations and how earlier springs might cost birds that migrate based on eternal signs — sunlight, for instance — their chance for prime nesting spots, as birds that travel by temperature arrive sooner and sooner. It wasn’t the worry, but migration itself that hooked me — I could observe a bird that someone as far south as I was north might also have observed!

It took me four years to grab some binoculars and find those birds. It took me longer still to borrow a copy of A Sand County Almanac and indulge in Leopold’s prose.

Wouldn’t you know it, the book begins with Leopold removing a stately tree, an eighty-year old “good oak.” Dating to the Civil War, the tree had suffered a lightning strike. Leopold leveled it to feed his home’s fire. “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm,” he begins.

One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first, one should plant a garden. To avoid the second, he should lay a good split of oak to the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.

Leopold recounts the cutting of the tree. His telling is pure poetry. As he works through the oak’s rings, Leopold moves through the decades. “Now the saw bites into the 1920s….” Each verse begins similarly and ends, heartily, “Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for a breath.”

Leopold doesn’t lament the downing of the tree. Its demise was natural enough; its breathren numerous enough. But later in the book, he tells of the mowing of a patch of Compass Plants, then difficult to find in the Wisconsin prairies.

It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

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Compass Plant (Siliphium laciniatum). (C) flickr user Peter Gorman.

* * * * *

Leaving the preserve, I stopped at the trunk of a removed cottonwood. I inspected the trunk to see if I could count rings, but it was too far gone — rotten, through and through. But its edges had sprouted! New life!

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I don’t expect this cottonwood to rise, phoenix-like, from the canal. There’s still the dry canal banks and, perhaps, the blades that Denver Water wields to protect the trail. And there’s still the trends doing their trending things — record warm years, species disappearing, land digested by developers and heavy equipment.

But it brought me a smile anyway. I lingered with its twisted, new trunks, unimpressive as they are. I was not quite awed — the growth is still too thin, too easily cut, too easy to pictured stacked in a small pile near this hollowed stump.

Even so, I admired the stubborness of this thing and, especially, its indifference to our better plans.

That stubborness, for now, is enough. A thing worth emulating, too, even as one cannot deny there will be other losses, probably more losses than gains, perhaps losses only.

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