Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Don't Fear The Reaper

The summer has finally arrived in Portland.

Now generally this is a Good Thing. For all that we made our bones being cold and rainy, we Stumptowners like the warm sun as much as anyone. We like trading our raingear for shorts and T-shirts, and our boots for flip-flops and topsiders. And especially this year, with the winter SO wet and lingering so long.

The only downside is that the grass then begins to grow.
And in the fertile valley at the end of the Oregon Trail, the bastard doesn't just grow. It metastasizes like a frigging green melanoma; a verdenoma that goes utterly bugnuts when the sun arrives to warm the rich soil and all that rain-soaked vegetation.

And this is what has happened to the little "Rain Garden" at my kids' elementary school. By last Saturday the grass was, in some places, two feet high.

Now that in itself is kind of sad.

First, take a look at the linked page to see what the big deal about this "Rain Garden" is. When we first moved here the courtyard between the wings of the school was this fugly asphalt rectangle; awash in the winter, baking in the early autumn and late spring, and just butt-ugly all year round.
The school district took about $100,000 and ripped out the asphalt and made the thing over into a garden designed to work in Portland's cool-wet-winter-hot-dry-summer climate.
The idea was that rather than a typical lawn (which, around here, would be dead grass and dandelions by August) the thing would contain "...trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers selected for their tolerance to dry and moist soil conditions."
Here's a picture of what it looked like when it was finished.
And here is was Saturday afternoon:
The first couple of years a group of parents who were involved in the construction continued to look after the Garden; weeding, watering in the summer (since despite what the brochure says the "hand pump" was never installed and the cistern was used as a compost bin, so the watering required City water), raking leaves in the fall.

But after their kids moved on to middle and high school that group fell away. Last Saturday there were four adults there to try and attack the mess; Mojo, and myself, and two other moms.

And it IS a mess.

Three years without attention and rough field grass have overtaken the native plants almost everywhere. Weeds - especially our hated Himalayan blackberry - have grown up in the planters. The mound at the west end - what I call "Hamburger Hill" - is covered in knee-high grass that makes walking or sitting on it a chore.

Because of the uninhabitable condition the teachers have stopped using the Garden completely. Mojo did a quick survey two weeks ago; not a single teacher was interested or willing to use the Garden in its existing condition.

For all practical purposes, over one hundred thousand dollars and hundreds, probably thousands, of parent, teacher, and donated contractor work-hours are, at present, utterly wasted.

My bride, lovely woman that she is, has taken an interest in this patch of weeds. She, and two of Missy's kindergarten pals moms, hauled me and the kiddos over on Saturday and began to hack away at the rampaging sea of grass with hand tools and a tiny residential trimmer.

I could have sat down and cried.

First, because there are something like 500 kids at Astor Elementary school. Assuming that half of them have two involved parents the potential labor pool runs to about 750 adults. And yet here were four people giving their time to try and rescue this expensive, wasted space. We were not just the 1 Percent; we were the 0.53 Percent. Of the some 750 parents with children at that school no more than four - and two of those parents of the same kids - could find time on a weekend to pitch in to gift that school some of their time and labor.

And, second, because much as I admired the gals' intentions, I couldn't believe their methods. Faced with a weedy Hannibal running wild they were trying to beat him by picking off one Carthaginian at a time with a boot knife.

Well. Sod THAT for a game of soldiers. The Army didn't teach me tactics and logistics for me to pull grass one clump at a time.

I told them flat-out that I had no intention of squatting on my hams like Luke the Gook pulling one clump of grass at a time.

And than I drove up to Columbia Boulevard and rented a big-ass gas-powered weed whacker, returned that afternoon and waded into the grass with my wailing scythe and reaped the damn stuff like Alaric.
So now Hamburger Hill is mown as level as a fairway, and the remainder of the Garden is flat as a putting green.
Until the next time.

Because there is still nobody at Astor in charge of the place. There is nobody to coordinate, implore, cajole, and direct volunteers, like me, to continue to maintain the place. There is nobody to coax teachers into using it, or children to visit it.

So while it has been reaped, there is still nothing in place to sow the future of this once-lovely little Garden. Instead it lies fallow, slowly deteriorating under the warm early summer sun.

And I put it to you that the story of the Reaper in the Rain Garden is one of America, circa 2012, writ small.

Begun with great publicity, on grant money and borrowed labor, and then thrown away through a combination of inattention, mismanagement, carelessness, and indifference. What might be a pretty little place for learning gone to waste for the lack of people who care enough to get off their dead asses and do some work for the common good, and "leadership" that would rather preen and posture than get down and do the hard work of getting those dumb bastards to understand that if we don't hang together we will surely, at the pleasure of our corporate masters, hang separately.

And while today our work on the Garden has reclaimed it, for the moment...
...the patient grass grows tall again as you read this. And we are still without a plan.


Lisa said...

"we were the 0.53 Percent"

There is a chilling truth and indictment of the 99%. As you say, it might have been a place for learning, but most people don't run schools like Krishnamurti's Brockwood Park. Experiential learning is pretty much passe.

I tried to conduct an English class on the green one perfect day and was met by so much whining and caviling. I won, of course, but then the few people walking past on the sidewalk watched us like we were some circus sideshow.

Alas, it was a failed effort, and air conditioning won out.

FDChief said...

And the thing is, Lisa, that our little elementary school is "greener" than most; several teachers expressed interest in taking the kiddos outside when the weather was nice but just couldn't use the space in the condition it was in.

Not sure what's going on, but it seems either like we're a nation of bystanders or that perhaps the notion that 60% of the work gets done by 5% of the people is true.

This little project really wouldn't take much time or energy if there were, say, 10 people involved. But there aren't...

And I went over to the school to see if there was a way the District could provide a gas- or hand-powered mower, only to be told that 1) the only place accessible after hours or on weekends was the crummy little wooden storage shed at the east end of the school, and they 2) the grounds crew wouldn't store anything valuable in it because of repeated break-ins...


Ael said...

The issue is, as you have stated, there is no owner, nor even a dedicated user. You need people who will be sufficiently motivated to organize a response, when one is needed.

Since it is dominated by the school, I suggest that you get it integrated into the school culture somehow. Get some scheduled use out of it (eg. A specific plant/ecology class, or a theatrical/arts production, anything really that mandates use of the space.) This creates users who will bitch to the administration when things need fixing. Maybe take a section of the area and get the kinder types to plant different style flowers/peas there. Every week, troop em out to see what has changed in "their" garden.

Once you have some dedicated users, the casual users will come (as people get used to going there). If you don't have any users, you might as well have left it in asphalt.

Lisa said...

Ael is probably correct: Sans dedicated users, our commitment to beauty for beauty's sake is rather thin.

So many good efforts lie fallow after the initial push, indicting our "activist" efforts as mostly "feel-good" stuff. You and yours, Chief, are the rare birds who work for the good of all; if only more held to even an enlightened self-interest.

I think Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" has it right when he explains the Prince's unfailing devotion to tending to a rather unremarkable little flower. When she asks why it is so, since there are surely more vivacious flowers, the Prince remarks, "It is because you are mine."

When we commit and take ownership, we then have a stake in something's wellness.