Wednesday, July 15, 2015

City cousins, country cousins

We got another brief down pour this morning. For awhile rain came down in lots of big, heavy, noisy drops. As that was happening, I was skimming through Twitter, where I came across an urban gardening resource. American Rivers has published Urban Farms | A Green Infrastructure Tool for the Chesapeake Bay. I've written here about the negative water quality effects of much of rural agriculture, so the idea that urban farms can serve as green infrastructure hadn't occurred to me. It should have. In fact, I'm going to be doing lots more reading and thinking about this, because looked at from a water system perspective, many of the water quality problems attributable to both urban and rural storm water relate to a basic concept of moving water as quickly as possible away from where it falls. That's why cities have built storm water collection and disposal systems and farmers install drain tiles, to get water away from urban buildings and streets and rural soils.

rural storm clouds
rural storm clouds
Photo by J. Harrington

In urban areas we're realizing that rapid drainage from one place can cause quality or flooding problems in rivers, lakes and streams because of the quantity of water and pollutants and the speed at which they're transported. We're now retrofitting green infrastructure to slow the speed of urban runoff and to increase the amount of water that infiltrates the soil to replenish groundwater. (Think White Bear Lake.) That same basic process of rapidly moving water away is responsible for pollutant loadings, increased flows and bank erosion in many rural streams. To respond to those concerns, on some farms in Iowa, they're planting prairie strips that achieve multiple benefits, one of which is water quality. To push my comparison, I suppose prairie strips could be considered the farm equivalent of an urban rain garden or green roof. As encouraged as I am by these efforts, I'm even more optimistic because those who are leading this work are using systems thinking to connect the dots in developing multi-benefit solutions.

urban rain garden
urban rain garden
Photo by J. Harrington

Paul Hawkens, Amory and Hunter Lovins wrote a fantastically intelligent and useful book called Natural Capitalism. It stresses the fallacy of optimizing subsystems instead of whole system optimization. Subsystem optimization is what we do when our only concern is to move water "away" as rapidly as possible. That's going to become a more significant issue as we move into a future where we experience fewer but more intense precipitation events. It's good that we're starting to rethink both what we're doing and how we need to do it when it comes to water management. The urban agriculture approach and prairie strips begin to show us how we can improve water quality and achieve multiple other environmental benefits at the same time. As part of the work in Iowa, surveys found that "Two-thirds of Iowans indicated that they would support a shift to a holistic, targeted conservation approach that would minimize the negative impacts of agriculture while enhancing multiple benefits from agricultural landscapes..." It's looking to me more and more as though the real problems we're facing aren't so much technical as they are attitudinal, but that's a whole other holistic optimization effort we can think about some other time.

row crop: corn field
row crop: corn field
Photo by J. Harrington

The Abandoned Farm

By Mary Rose O'Reilley 

In the northwest corner of Dakota, I saw a room
someone had left, a plush sofa returning its button-
eyed stare to the glance she gave it over her shoulder,
the dog, too, turning. In the next room, the mattress,
with mattress stories one after another tumbling
out of each spring, the window she opened first thing,
its vista of mile after mile, and the windmill hauling
its load.
                        I saw that, and nothing alive—

green oil-figured linoleum laid on counters,
nails of bad craft, the ripped blackening edge
that scared her more than the bed and the sound
of the windmill winning its will from the aquifer
night after night, the whack of her blade on the block.
There are houses with too many knives sometimes she said,

but when June ferned its way in she'd relent, take on its
restraint, heave again on the stained sheets her burden
of child, herself a torn girl again, combing her hair
through fingers bruised by corn shocks, sweet juice
in the cuts of her life.

                                                       She began to think of the border
and mustangs without brand. At night they'd bend
over the bed and nuzzle. One ride was enough.
She had sufficient magic to cling to a mane and fare
over the windowsill. I see where the curtain fell
and nobody mended the tear, I see where bare feet
marked like fossils her pass in the rain.

When he uncovers fiddleheads by the spring,
why does he always think of that first sight
of her thigh in the peach-colored dress, of his hand's
searching moss with its red-gold stamens, the spring
in that arid landscape like something from Canaan
under his tongue? Even in old age he'd ponder the moment,
lying under the moon forgiving himself, her, the world
that bred their conundrum, washed in that rain.


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