Saturday, February 11, 2017

We All Need a Little Green

Path Through the Woods

In my mind, one of the most important gauges of the livability of a community is whether or not there are greenspaces within easy walking or biking distance. Greenspaces are open patches of undeveloped land within an urban area, with trees and/or grass and minimal structures, and are generally open to the public. Parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens and nature parks come to mind. It takes some vision to create and maintain greenspaces. They are often on land that could be developed into something that could make lots of money, like a subdivision or an apartment building or a strip mall or a parking garage. Imagine how valuable the land in Central Park could be, located right in the middle of Manhattan. But, luckily, there are people out there who have understood the importance of having communal space available for connecting with nature. They understand the need for people to breathe fresh air, to walk in the beauty of trees, flowers and bugs, the need for children to run and play outside, for people to exercise and walk their dogs, to ride bikes, to watch birds, and to take nature photographs. Countless studies tell us that being in nature is good for us. Spending time in nature calms our jangled nerves, lets us keep healthy through exercise, and even helps our children concentrate better in the classroom. Imagine New York City without all its city parks, small and large, where people can go to escape from small apartments and crowded streets and subways. Without them people would go nuts. It's the same in every city. In addition to everything else, trees and plants in greenspaces clean our air, and the natural areas themselves provide critical habitat for urban wildlife. It is really important to me that nature is accessible to other people in my community, too. And this is one reason that I am involved on the board of Sandy Creek Nature Center where I also volunteer as a trail guide.

Cedar Waxwing 

But this is not about Sandy Creek. I consider myself very lucky to live in a lovely, livable community with greenspaces all around. I live a short walk from another pretty great greenspace--Oconee Forest Park and Lake Herrick on the UGA campus. Oconee Forest Park is a 60 acre wooded area that is managed by the school of forestry. It serves as a teaching area for foresters, biologists, ecologists and other natural scientists, but is also open to the public as a recreation area with trails for walkers, bikers, dog owners and nature lovers. Located next to Lake Herrick, there are benches, picnic tables, docks, outdoor exercise equipment and even a ropes course for teambuilding, as well as a beautiful ADA compliant boardwalk. It's a great place to be in and observe nature. I have seen deer, squirrels, snakes, turtles and beaver. And it is full of birds! The forest and lake area are birding hotspots. On a recent walk I counted 26 species without trying very hard. A sunny, cleared utility easement under the power lines is a superb place to find butterflies and other insects in the summer and fall. There are even labels on some of the trees to help people like me learn about Piedmont dendrology. All in all it's a pretty great place.



Power Easement

Lake Herrick at the Bottom of the Hill

Lots of Recreation and Healthy Activities

Helping Me to Learn My Trees!

ADA Boardwalk Bridge Across the Lake

Forestry Students

Unfortunately, the park and lake suffer somewhat from misuse and neglect. There is a lot of litter from careless hikers or just blown in from the road. And like many other natural areas around town, sections of the woods are overgrown with exotic plants like English Ivy and Privet. The lake itself has been closed for swimming and boating since 2004 because of poor water quality due to factors such as storm runoff and bacteria from dog feces. The park is a very popular place to walk dogs, but it has been difficult to convince owners to clean up after their pets. (I think it would help to have more garbage cans and poop bag dispensers, but that may already be in the works.) Another problem is erosion caused by unofficial bike and running paths. Renegade paths may give a fun and fast ride down a steep hill, but it also gives a quick channel for storm runoff. Properly designed paths minimize erosion. But the University is acting to address the problems, with mitigation projects starting as soon as this spring, which is great news. It will be nice when the lake can be used for recreation again. I read that a small lake on the far side of the property that has become filled with silt from runoff may be developed as an improved wetland and I find this very exciting. I've had great experiences viewing nature in manmade wetlands around the country and have become a big fan.

Small Lake that Could Be Turned into a Wetland

Creek Runs Through the Forest to the Lake

Entrance to the Forest

Our family gets a lot of pleasure from using this resource. My husband likes to run through Oconee Forest Park, and we sometimes bring our dogs there. I love living close enough to just walk over to the park when I feel like birdwatching or taking photos. Some times, like weekends and evenings, the place is packed. But during the day it can be fairly quiet. I can easily spend hours there, wandering the meandering trails. Every visit I notice something new. This past time I found a big beaver lodge. Last visit, I heard and saw an unseasonably early White Eyed Vireo. Most times I see interesting fungi, plants or wildflowers. One day I hope I can roll a log or lift a rock and find a salamander. (I still haven't found one in the wild yet.) And as I get to know the park better, I get lost a lot less often. Or maybe I worry less about it. Being on campus, it is fairly well used and safe. And since it is in northern Georgia, I don't have to be afraid of being trapped on a trail by an alligator or a cottonmouth, as happened to me sometimes in Florida.

Beaver Lodge in the Water (Middle Right)

Eastern Phoebe

Texture on a Rotting Log

This unusual Deer Sculpture is the only deer I have actually seen here in the park, although I have seen tracks.

I guess the point here is to encourage everyone to seek out your own local greenspaces. Spend time outdoors and commune with the trees and the rocks and the bugs. Even in winter, go enjoy the snow and the muffled silences. Even in the sweltering heat of summer, go listen to the cicadas while you lie on the grass, watching the clouds roll by. Get out often enough to see the changing seasons. Learn those places as well as you know the plots of your favorite TV shows and you will not have wasted your time. Share them with children. We all need a little green.

Great Blue Heron Enjoys the Small Pond

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