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Pikes/Pines | Cal Anderson Park in winter

Our concepts of space and what fills it are heavily reliant on where we live and our relationship to the place. For some of us, seven or so acres of urban parkland may sound like a lot of space. Surely there are many wild things one can find in such an expanse. Yet, standing at one end of Cal Anderson Park, I could easily see the trees that lined the far end of the park. My personal challenge, to see what “nature” I could draw up in this intensely urban park, was daunting.

Urban parks aren’t typically known for their biodiversity. They often contain big expanses of grass lawns, neatly tended, and often sprayed to control unwelcome species. Enjoyable for people, less for more than a handful of species we try to select. Cal Anderson has a good amount of that space, not to mention a lot of fake turf, all of which I was staring out across.

As a pesticide free park, I wondered if there might be a different story in the lawns before me. A good amount of the park sits over the Lincoln Reservoir and as a result, Seattle Parks has an agreement with Seattle Public Utilities to not spray there to help keep water clean. (If only this was true in ALL Seattle parks). Less pesticides might equate to more species. Why not take a look?

We all have biases that narrow our perceptions of the world, and I definitely had to push myself to think of squatting down to examine grass. To most of us, it’s just grass. I am not an expert at identifying herbaceous plants, but pretty much anyone could see this grass wasn’t just one species of plant. Here were dandelions, clover, plantain, and what I took to be speedwell, a small blue flowered plant. None of these are native species, but stepping into the park anticipating native “weeds” was going to be a letdown. These plants, if they manage to flower before they are mowed down, might just be a tiny bit of pollinator habitat, attracting tiny skipper butterflies and bumblebees come spring.

Not seeing any birds or other animals moving about the grassy interior of the park, I was drawn to the edges. This is often where there is more life. These transition zones, even between street trees and an expanse of short grass will always have a greater diversity of species.

Along the edges I could see multiple species of trees, almost none native, but which might attract various birds and were certainly homes to squirrels. I imagined a day not so gross (it was currently snowing), which is often what one does when you visit a site over and over again. I intend to do this throughout the next year to document seasonal changes.

A holly tree, undoubtedly English Holly (Ilex aquifolium), in the northwest corner of the park had fruit on it, a sign that it was a female plant. These trees are dioecious, meaning individual plants have either male or female parts. Fruiting female trees are worth noting if you enjoy flocks of American Robins (Turdus americanus), because they love the hard red berries (and are also the reason holly trees show up all over Seattle with or without our help). A cluster of birches planted on the east side of the park, in line with E. Howell street, were a place to look for finches, chickadees, and sparrows as they provide winter forage in the form of tiny seeds. The Red Maples (Acer rubrum) that line a good portion of the park are also just starting to bloom. Though their flowers aren’t terribly showy, I still enjoy them in a mostly dreary time of year. Early blooming trees often attract flying insects that push the boundaries of the seasons. Birds like Yellow-rumped Warblers, one of the few warbler species that winter here show up to eat them.

As I started moving south through the park, I took careful note of all the landscaping, alive or otherwise, that we often just pass off as part of the scenery: the conifers that might house raccoons, the strawberry trees planted near the playground a source of fruit and nectar, even the tall lamp posts that provide a promontory for gulls, crows, and hawks. This looking for animals is always a game of finding food and shelter in anticipation of their presence. However, I wasn’t expecting to find a dead tree anywhere in the park, both an important shelter and a source of food.

A dead spruce, let alone any dead tree still standing in the middle of the park, was a total surprise. Google Maps street view tells me the tree was partially alive but ailing a few years ago. Today it is sloughing off big sections of bark and had perfectly circular, pencil width holes, where beetles had exited the tree. Dead and dying trees are integral to biodiversity. This tree was far too small for a woodpecker or even a chickadee nest cavity, yet it might provide shelter for invertebrates that larger animals eat. We are not very tolerant of dead trees (this one is hardly a real hazard), or even dead wood in live trees in such intensely populated places. They are simply not worth the risk if they could fall on someone or damage property. And yet, there is so much more life when decay is allowed to take its course. Was this tree a small nod to a changing attitude about snags or a triage in the unenviable, endless workload of Parks Department arborists?

Sitting and watching the most bird activity in proximity to the park, bird feeders at an apartment building on Nagle, I realized I was curious about what else future visits might reveal. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to increase habitat and connectivity between green spaces in our city, emphasize native plants where possible, and have places where human dominance is less obvious. And yet, I don’t want all the humans that move about Cal Anderson Park to have a feeling that the city isn’t a place for nature, or worse yet, that people aren’t a part of nature. Parks like Cal Anderson are entirely fabricated to meet people’s desires, planted with trees brought from around the world, and manicured into tidy bundles of green. And yet, we need these places desperately and I’m thankful that with a little spare attention amid the hum of a rapidly growing city, I can find some nature to observe.

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1 year ago

I walk that park daily and found this article delightful and informative. Thank you!