Registered: December 2015
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I remember the olden days back when I was a little girl, when the golden rays barely penetrated the thick patchwork quilt of vibrant leaves, a viridescent spectrum from emerald to lime, illuminated by the summer sun. Even in the winter, the majestic trees created a shadowy presence next to the gurgling stream, evoking images of the ancient forest warriors from Lord of the Rings. Zigzagging through the trunks, hiding behind the ferns, dashing down to the water to check for frogs…this was my childhood paradise, shared with other neighborhood kids, before it was all demolished. To be clear, the workers had good intentions. City employees had spent months, perhaps years, drawing up stream restoration plans, promising lower erosion rates and better pollution filtration. Yet to perform the final restoration, they had to deforest the floodplain and turn it into a wetland to “promote biodiversity.” With the eye of a child, I questioned why necessarily they needed to destroy my trees, but their chainsaws cut away the deep forest and filled it in with water, cattails, mud, and a long stormwater drainage pipe ending in a pool of standing water -- perfect for more breeding mosquitoes.
My friends and I managed to adapt, and so did nature, at least in the beginning. The workers had left two huge sugar maples on a slight hill surrounded by the marsh. We named the tiny island “Cattail Island” and proclaimed it private territory for us environmental protectors, building a shed for ourselves. Stomping through the mud, we’d sweep the reeds for pieces of trash and monitor the frogs as they laid eggs in the newly created pool. We’d collect the cattail fluff in a large ceremony and scatter it across the banks of the island. As the years went on, however, it seemed that the neighborhood, and the city, stopped caring. The pool slowly started to fill with sludge from sewers from the crumbling and broken pipes, and a carpet of porcelain berry crept quickly across the cattails, smothering the plants. As friends moved away or moved indoors, I, too, started to lose focus on the stream.
A few years later, in 2013, I was given a pair of binoculars from my grandpa, and I quickly caught the birding bug. Within a few days, I found my way down to my old childhood haunts of Cattail Island and the stream, commonly known as Stony Run. The tiny ribbon of water cuts straight through Baltimore City, acting as a highway for environmental pollutants down into the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. As I quickly learned, what began in my neck of the woods made its way into the oceans and could affect anyone across the globe. I was shocked by what had happened to the stream. There were no more butterflies, and hardly any frogs or birds left. The marsh had run amuck, the island was covered in clouds of vines… even the friendly rattle of the kingfisher that I remembered from so long ago was gone. What astounded me was that hardly anyone around me seemed to care. The footpath that ran along a ridge next to Stony Run was frequented heavily by joggers, bikers, even cross-country skiers, but by themselves, they didn’t care whether the stream was filled with sewage or if it was a thriving ecosystem. Sporadic plantings and trash pickups had been done in the area during the past years, and their efforts were certainly appreciated, but no solid resource existed for neighbors to regularly clean the stream, so I did the logical step and planned my first volunteer cleanup in 2013.
Fast forward to 2015, the year when the North Stony Run Green Team really took flight. I founded the Green Team this past January, and since then, we’ve grown to include over 40 members by email, but more importantly, my neighborhood, Wyndhurst, has begun to care again, and so have those outside of the area. The Green Team is a volunteer group under the nonprofit organization called Friends of Stony Run, and it consists of active environmentalists committed to restoring the north portion of Stony Run, captained by myself. For my Apprentice Ecologist Project, I wanted to go beyond organizing a cleanup or two, so I established the Green Team as a way to promote a sense of community in my area of Baltimore City. Stony Run has always been the gem and pride of my neighborhood, yet in recent years, the stream has become degraded and experienced severe pollution problems. Without my work, I would expect the stream to be swallowed by invasives entirely, with few trees able to survive. The region was in dire need of restoration, and through my work this year, that process has been started but surely not finished.
Yet the progress we’ve made this year alone is stunning. The stream is heavily forested with a wide variety of healthy mature and young trees, from redbuds and sycamores to red maples and birch. We have mulched the footpath running along the stream many times to prevent erosion and water collection. Our most major battle has been against the invasive plants that threaten the entire stream biosphere. When the porcelain berry started to spread across the landscape, that was the final straw. Not only does porcelain berry produce unsightly clouds of dense green vines, it prevents sunlight from reaching the soil, choking out all other vegetation. Invasive plants are confusing environmental hazards for me, as they are so well-adapted to regions in which they didn’t even evolve! My first priority for our team, and for my project, was to free Stony Run from the invasives. I knew that it would be a huge undertaking, but this year alone, we have removed what I estimate to be over 1,000 pounds of invasive vines, including English ivy, porcelain berry, multiflora rose, and mile-a-minute, as well as over 500 pounds of invasive trees, like Norway maple and tree-of-heaven. To replace trees we uprooted, we’ve planted about 10 native trees this year to fill in the canopy gaps. Through regional cleanups like Project Clean Stream and the Better Waterways Fall Cleanup, organized through Blue Water Baltimore, the city clean water nonprofit, we have removed about 200 pounds of trash, although our stream does not suffer from the litter issue as much as the invasives.
Through my stewardship of Stony Run this year, I’ve also developed a feel for urban streams and their restoration. Although the city’s streams provide only a sliver of habitat, the ecosystem is so crucial to migratory birds, resident amphibians, pollinators, and so many other groups of organisms that it is up to all of our neighborhoods to protect their local parks. Although I started in 2013 believing that few others cared, I discovered that most of my neighbors enjoy helping out when volunteer events are planned -- there just needs to be a planner for every project, like myself with Stony Run. With these events come a higher sense of respect for the park and for the neighborhood. Some neighbors bring food for others, who grow native trees to plant around the stream. As I started my work this year, I began to build up a network of community members who would continue to assist with stream restoration. After being elected to the board of Friends of Stony Run as their first youth representative, I then spread my neighborhood’s message of volunteer stewardship as a model for other neighborhoods around Stony Run to use to engage their neighbors in restoring their portions of Stony Run.
With more volunteers come more ambitious dreams for the year. By 2017, I’d like to have rid my neighborhood’s portion of Stony Run of all invasives, including the failed marsh that the city installed so many years ago. My main goal for this coming year is to attack and restore the marsh, removing the invasive phragmites and porcelain berry and planting the area with native grasses like switchgrass that can filter pollutants from the neighborhood runoff. I’d also like to work with the city to clean up and divert or remove the drainage pipe that has functionally become a dumping zone for leaking sewage that can then flow directly into the stream. This past year, our group performed a few limited cleanups with the neighborhood schools, like Gilman School and Roland Park Country School, but this year I’d like to involve at least five schools in intensive restoration days. With funds from the Baltimore Bird Club, of which I am a member, I also plan to install bird habitat boxes for nesting.
Our work this year has been so crucial, from the invasives removed to the native canopy restored. I’ve learned from my Apprentice Ecologist Initiative project to never give up on a dream to restore an ecosystem believed to be lost, yet every day at school, I see this happening. I am a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a city public high school. Many of my fellow students don’t realize the environmental impact that each action has, and through my project, I’ve started to encourage kids to restore their neighborhood streams. I’ve even brought out some of our Environment Club members to my area of the Stony Run to see how a little bit of volunteer work can bring about a changing force for the better. When I walk through my neighborhood, I receive compliments from people I’ve met and people I’ve never seen before -- on my work with uniting the community through stream restoration. Beyond the recognition, I’ve been given a sense of hope for our world’s capability for positive environmental action, something that I didn’t possess before 2015. I am a young birder, a high school student, an apprentice ecologist interested in preserving our urban waterways. As populations continue to shift toward cities, it is absolutely crucial that communities bond together to protect urban streams from development. Otherwise there will be no home for birds, bees, butterflies…even the tiny salamanders I’ve found underneath the rocks. As I’ve taught the younger kids and the older adults in my North Stony Run Green Team, every organism is a stitch in the tapestry of the city, and if we start to lose one thread, the entire cloth begins to unravel. My project has also inspired me to become an environmental activist, ecologist, or politician in my future years because, as I’ve learned over this past year, the Earth needs a protector as it cannot speak out for itself. Although such protection takes time and often goes unrecognized, it is essential that we continue to perform such good deeds if we want a future ecosystem from which all of us can benefit.
END OF ESSAY
Post-project Interview with NWP:
What are your educational, career, or life goals?
At this point, I believe that I want to work in redesigning society to be more sustainable and in redefining the single-use mindset that guides humanity so often today. That is my broad goal in my career, although I am unsure how that would specifically manifest. As a high schooler, I want to continue to implement meaningful environmental action projects, like the one at my local stream, to better my community and convince urban Baltimore that sustainability IS possible in a city landscape. From high school, I'd like to major in environmental studies, biology, or environmental engineering. I could see myself embracing a number of environmentally-focused careers: a job in government and policy working to promote a sustainable model for governing cities and communities, an engineer developing sustainable systems and solutions to our wasteful approach to life, a teacher or professor inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards, or a biologist studying how humans are affecting our ecosystems and how we rely on ecosystems for valuable services. Ultimately I feel a moral obligation to preserve the beauty of our Earth, and I must find a career that not only pleases me but benefits the Earth and all of its inhabitants.
What are the benefits of your Apprentice Ecologist project and how has it enriched your life?
Working to build a community of stream stewards through the North Stony Run Green Team has taught me numerous things about how to approach environmental preservation. One, the problems that we face in our world -- climate change, mass extinction, etc. -- can seem so daunting, so I first naturally tried to make a huge deal out of my stream project. When that crashed, I realized that real environmental change starts on a small scale and naturally builds because of the inherent motivation. So I scaled it back to a cleanup here and an invasives removal there, and the opportunities for neighbors and students to work side by side continued to multiply. Instead of myself working myself ragged attempting to make my project gigantic, I found that by letting a group grow and evolve and remain flexible, more progress is ultimately made. I also learned that everyone, truly, is a volunteer at heart and that the interest for environmental action exists, and has always existed, in my community and in Baltimore City and around the world. All one needs to do is set a date and tell a few friends, and the event becomes a success, even if only a few vines are removed. It is the action of working together and the number of people educated and inspired, not necessarily the measurable outcome or the progress made, that defines the success of a particular project. That is how we will change our world for the better -- tiny steps and individual action, not the dramatic and desperate attempts that typically characterize us budding environmentalists.
Why do you feel it is important to be an active steward of the environment now and in the future?
This is truly a difficult question that I have struggled to answer for several months now because I wonder why most humans would not, and do not, want to preserve our environment. Since the large environmental issues that we face now, like climate change, do not seem to have negative effects until generations later, why should anyone care about preservation now? Ultimately environmental stewardship comes down to a personal motivation, which for me is the necessity to keep the natural beauty intact and to respect all the rest of Earth's organisms that give us so much in return. Trees convert carbon dioxide into usable oxygen, yet we cut them down. Saltmarshes filter pollutants out of our water, yet we are draining them. It is my belief that we must respect and preserve the natural resources that give us so much. Natural resources both give us the ability to survive, but more importantly, the ability to thrive. It has been proven that time in nature provides valuable psychological benefits. Nature is a part of each of us, so we must not damage nature, for in that destruction, we are damaging a piece of ourselves. My explanation as to why humans do not feel the need to change their habits -- for instance, to stop using disposable bags -- is that either they are unaware that their action has negative implications for wildlife, or primarily because they have never been given the chance to develop a strong bond with nature. We continue to devalue environmental education for our students, yet this is where sustainability begins -- in the classroom. Once someone gets to hold a frog or run through a stream or go fishing, one receives that obligation to preserve the environment. That is why I started my Apprentice Ecologist project -- both to preserve my urban stream ecosystem for the animals and for the children, because without an urban stream in a city, we are without nature, and that is when we continue to disregard and disrespect our natural resources.