For Christmas last year, my parents gave my son and me a pair of kayaks. This summer I have been going out several times a week, mostly on the Lafayette River which is just a couple of blocks from the house. The Layfayette is a slow moving tidal river with numerous branches and arms and is more of an extension of the bay, different than an inland river merely bent on reaching the sea. In one place or another, I have lived within sight of this river for the past 20 years, and sad to say, I have never actually been on it until this year. The kayak has enabled me to see a very familiar part of my world from an entirely different perspective, as only a view from the water can.
Friday, August 5th:
Our friend David was in town for a visit. He now lives in Amsterdam, but grew up on the Lafayette, and it has been a very long time since he was on the river of his youth. So I thought he would enjoy seeing his old house and neighborhood from the vantage of the water, so we took to the kayaks. He had a great time and remarked at how much cleaner it was and how healthy the marshes seemed to be. I too have been surprised at all the life I have seen in, on and around the river, despite being completely surrounded by the city. Osprey, several species of herons and egrets, numerous ducks and geese all call the river home. I am not sure what they are, but whenever I have gone the fish are constantly jumping. It is easy to see why people also like to live on its shores; in most places it is quite beautiful. However, things are not always as they appear.
Saturday, August 6th:
I went out on the river by myself for an extended trip and explored some of its coves and creeks. On this day's trip I noticed a gardener tending a well-manicured lawn that ran right down to the river's edge, just lawn then river, no buffer. He was apparently applying some fertilizer, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of that was going to stay in the lawn and how much would end up in the river. Nearing my own neighborhood I noticed something else. In patches the water lost its normal khaki green color and took on a reddish brown tint. Gone also was its typical smell, a little salty, slightly funky, but an aroma I like. In its place was the odor of seafood going bad, and this combined with the color change lead me to think that red tide was back again.
Monday, August 8th:
The Virginian Pilot, our local newspaper, runs a story about patches of red tide in the Lafayette and Elizabeth Rivers. Red tides are the result of algae blooms, and according to the Pilot are a modern phenomenon in this area. Several conditions need to be present for the blooms to occur - warm water, some fresh water influx and excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen. We certainly have had the warm temperatures, and August has been rainier than normal. The nitrogen comes from several sources including the atmosphere, street pollution, dog and geese feces, leaks from an aged sewer system, washed-in leaves and grass. However, the number one source of nitrogen is from fertilizer applied to lawns and gardens. Being a plant, the algae responds to nitrogen, and when it grows especially thick it can clog the gills of fish. When it dies oxygen is depleted from the water creating dead zones where life struggles. Another thing the pilot mentioned was that the Lafayette appears to be the incubator for red tide and spreads it to other local rivers. Immediately after reading the article, I wrote a letter to the editor.
Friday, August 12th:
After thinking the paper was not going to publish my letter, it shows up in this morning's edition. They titled it Red Tide, Green Lawns, which I borrowed for this post. In it I mentioned my observations of the river and the man I saw fertilizing his lawn. I played my horticulturist card and urged people to reduce the amount of turf in their yards and replace it with native trees, shrubs and perennials. I also urged them to switch from resource intensive and maintenance-heavy fescue to St. Augustine or Bermuda, and to only apply fertilizer at the right time of year (slow-release organic at that).
Because of the letter I get a call that afternoon from someone at the Elizabeth River Project praising my letter and inviting me on a group kayak trip the next day. The trip was open to the public, and I was planning to go anyway, but I was flattered just the same. The Elizabeth River Project is a local organization that is trying to change the Elizabeth (and its tributary the Lafayette) from being one of the most toxic rivers on the east coast, to one you wouldn't mind swimming in or eating the fish from. They have a program for local businesses, schools and homeowners that encourages practices that will lead to a healthier river and the bay beyond. The program is called River Star, and I sign up that afternoon.
Saturday, August 13th:
There is a great turnout for the kayak tour, perhaps 50-60 people, and the city of Norfolk provides kayaks for those that don't have their own. Our armada paddles out of Haven Creek where Joe Rieger, staff biologist for Elizabeth River Now, speaks about my neighborhood's under-construction living shoreline and the nature of red tide, plus he takes us to the site of the river's next oyster refuge. While we were out on the river, I was also asked to speak impromptu about fertilizer, lawns and the river. Again I was flattered. Back on shore, I met with some of the staff of Elizabeth River Now and agreed to possibly helping them, schedule permitting.
Monday, August 15th:
I get another call, this time from the executive director of Wetlands Watch, another local environmental advocacy group. He also praised my letter and wanted to know if I would be interested in helping them in some way. Already stretched thin, I declined. By this time my head was swelling.
Now here comes the juicy part. That afternoon I receive a large packet in the mail from the Executive Director of the Virginia Turfgrass Council. Keep in mind my letter only appeared in the paper on Friday, so this packet was put together quickly. In it were two university studies, which I did read, one promoting the benefits of turfgrass and the other detailing its role in nutrient management. However, the best part was a letter he sent with it. In it he states that as a horticulturist and as the Executive Director of the Virginia Turfgrass council he frequently encounters an "anti-turfgrass bias" among other horticulturist, and that my letter contained a phrase showing such a bias. Well I stepped in a pile of something on that lawn, didn't I?
For the record, I want to state that I do not have an anti-turfgrass bias, per se. But I do have a bias against:
- growing a plant that many people have been induced to treat chemically through the regular application of excessive amounts of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide, especially when there are alternatives better acclimated to the local environment
- maintaining plants with millions of small engines that pollute at a geometrically higher proportion than automobiles do, especially when there may be other, lower-impact methods
- turning our yards into water-hungry monocultures, leave that for the farmers, or grow drought tolerant turf
- and from a design perspective, having vast expanses of green sameness, especially when there are so very many other much more interesting plants that can offer color, texture, food, wildlife benefits and opportunities to introduce nature to our children
But you know that.