Cover Story: Salamanders in the City

It's your ecology, so go fix it

Mar 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Francis Ganance (left) and George Hardebeck have observed salamanders in unexpected urban settings, such as this field in College Hill.

When George Hardebeck thinks about his community, he doesn't include only the humans living nearby. For him, community involves all creatures, even a plant or a salamander in a stream.

Part of living in a community is getting to know your neighbors, and Hardebeck knows his. While working as a naturalist at LaBoiteaux Woods in College Hill, for example, he discovered a spring salamander, a type not previously observed on that side of the Mill Creek.

"We have kind of an oasis here which is shrinking for these species," Hardebeck says. "Out of the 22 different species of salamanders in the state of Ohio, 17 are in Greater Cincinnati. Once you get outside of Greater Cincinnati, the majority of these species fall away."

To those who are not salamander fans, this loss might not seem so devastating. But Hardebeck looks concerned when asked why saving the salamander matters.

"We're not the only me's here," he says.

"These are species that deserve to exist because they were here first. Ecology is about community and relationships."

A man and his 'weeds'
Thinking of ecology as relationships — instead of as chemical interactions measured in parts per billion — enables ordinary people to contribute to the restoration of natural environments.

Spring Ecological Weekend is an effort by Hardebeck and others who are ecologically conscious to share that kind of understanding. In a series of programs March 22-24, participants will learn ways to turn their general concern about the environment into specific, personal actions.

"It's the whole notion of being community-based about our ecology," Hardebeck says. "It's basically to restore the health of our ecosystem."

We each have a role in protecting the environment around us,rather than leaving the responsibility to experts, according to Hardebeck. A report in Orion magazine helps demonstrate the growing awareness that ecology is for everyone.

"The main lepidopterist in the Northwest today is a truck driver; the primary experts on West Coast earthworms are mother and son," the story says.

The majority of the people involved in surveying and restoring species are average citizens who have decided to just do it, Hardebeck says. In Northside, some of the citizen-ecologists are schoolchildren.

Don Brannen, director of McKie Community Center, works with kids to educate them about native genotypes. A genotype is a group of organisms sharing a specific genetic constitution.

To the untrained eye, the area next to the community center might look like a field in need of a good mowing. But to Brannen, it's nature as it was meant to be.

The plants growing in the field, such as the prairie dropseed and passion flower, are rare in Ohio. When he explains that and people start to understand, Brannen feels he's made a step toward bringing the community together behind something important.

Brannen will lead a seminar next week at the annual gathering of the Ohio Society for Ecological Restoration. He hopes to see more people involved in ecological restoration in their own backyards.

"The whole conference is community-based so we can get people to act locally and think globally," he says. "What we want is to help restore the Mill Creek. We're trying to get people who wouldn't normally think about restoration to think about it."

Ecological restoration is repairing damage to an ecosystem, restoring it to a healthier state.

So far, most restoration is done at a professional level. Brannen wants people to understand the importance of restoring native genotypes and to teach them how to do it.

Three years ago he adopted a plot in the community garden next to McKie and planted species that are rare in Ohio, such as the royal catchfly.

Near his plot, two women work on their own garden, digging, pulling weeds and keeping strict control of the growth. They're from the old school, Brannen says. Until they saw his approach, many who grew vegetables and flowers in the community garden didn't know what native plants look like. But now they have grown to appreciate what Brannen is doing. A neighbor, for example, allows water from his roof to be used for irrigation.

"Those people are 'old school' but they would fight for this," he says. "It's not just a weed patch. No one's come here and told me to cut it, so that's passive support, I guess."

Behind him a bird is sunning next to a pool of collected water. Three years ago, before he started the project, the field was home to 18 plant species, few of them native to the area. Now the field has 98 plant species, about 75 percent of them native.

"When I'm gone, somebody will say, 'Hey, that's not a weed patch,' and there'll be a value to it," Brannen says.

Marrying the kingdoms
Brannen gives native plant seeds to people to grow in their yards.

"They're giving a home to a native genotype species," he says. "They're low maintenance, they're just as pretty, most of them bloom just as well as the traditional landscape plants and it helps preserve those plant species. It's the right plant for the right place and, not only that, they're preserving a piece of history because a lot of these plants haven't been seen since 1750 in the Mill Creek Valley."

Hardebeck believes the importance of preserving species native to the area is self-evident.

"How could it not be important?" he says. "Once any species or subspecies is gone, it's gone. You can't bring it back. What ecologists are saying is if there is any crisis that is likely to happen, it will be loss of species. It has to be dealt with region by region. They really don't stand a chance unless we do something about it."

A puddle collected by a dam in the field might appear inconsequential, but it holds meaning for Brannen.

"Every inch of altitude up from the water is a different zone for life and we try to get the right plant for the right place," he says. "If you have the plants, you'll have the animals. If you have the right plants and animals, you'll have clean water. We create little different habitats for different species. Different species have different needs."

When Brannen teaches children about genotypes, he tries to show their economic possibilities. The students make hiking sticks and paper from non-native plants. They also use plants to create lip balms and salves.

"It's not just a hobby or activity or a science project," he says. "It makes good sense economically. We're trying to create a catalog of products to sell within the community. Some of the underlying guidelines or goals is to help the teens of this community improve their work ethic and academic responsibility."

Involving a community is the key to ecological restoration, Brannen says.

"Some people would argue that a church or even a bar is a plus for the community," he says. "Well, what about native or natural areas? It's recreation. Recreation has roots with restoration. What we're trying to do is marry kingdoms. Every program I do — whether I'm teaching tennis, Ping-Pong, or native gardening — it all has to do with restoration."

The work Brannen and others are doing is vital to the future of native species, according to Hardebeck.

"Otherwise these plants will go extinct or that will be so lost in the non-natives that you won't be able to tell which ones were natives," he says.

For Hardebeck, spirituality means more than putting on uncomfortable clothes and listening to a preacher talk about things that only affect human beings.

"Really, it's like everything that we are from and about," Hardebeck says. "We should be a part of it — versus apart from it."

He quotes Acts of the Apostles: "The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me? says the Lord, or what is to be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?"

Hardebeck says spirituality should include awareness of our natural surroundings. He believes humans have a moral imperative to protect the environment, something he rarely hears discussed in church.

Going native for mental health
What we think of as progress is not always an improvement, according to Bill Cahalan, an eco-psychologist. Television, for example, can take viewers around the world, but that doesn't always help us define our own sense of place.

"The media transports us all over the place and yet we don't know what's going on down the street or in the natural community around us," Cahalan says.

Most people have no idea where their water comes from when they turn on a faucet — or where the water goes after it's used, Cahalan says.

An eco-psychologist helps human beings integrate with other species. Human mental health can benefit from imitating the patterns by which nature renews itself, according to Cahalan.

"It involves slowing down and starting to pay attention to the natural world," he says. "Awareness is the first step. As you learn, you can begin to take one step here and one step there towards living in balance."

Cahalan, who has been gardening organically since the early 1980s, has let part of his lawn grow into a meadow. Native wildflowers grow in his front yard. He collects water from his roof to water his garden.

Cahalan says lifestyles and economies of industrialized countries are creating a worldwide ecological crisis.

"All the sources that we draw upon are declining," he says.

Many of these resources are potentially renewable, but are being used much faster than they can be replenished. The solution is more organic gardening, use of renewable energy and questioning the way we use resources, according to Cahalan.

The environment is vital to our mental well-being, Hardebeck says.

"If humanity has grown up in relationship to its environment as long as man has been around, then what are the chances that our relationship to our ecology is affecting our health?" he asks.

Older cultures, Hardebeck says, have a greater sense that people are connected to their environment.

"If you look at any culture, every hill has a story, every valley," he says. "We have not become as native as the natives themselves. We're more consumed with our sense of property. It's about taking action to be in a relationship. What we're talking about here is growing up as a culture. We think we can use up all these resources and they'll last forever — and eventually they don't. If we're not being personal to our ecology, then it's going to cause us stress."

Francis Ganance and his family chose their College Hill home because of its serene environment. His children only have to leave their back yard to enter LaBoiteaux Woods, and he can easily spend time with his kids exploring the natural environment surrounding Ludlow Run near his home.

Hikes in the woods also lead to discoveries of the past, such as old roadbeds.

"I guess the neatest thing about it was wondering what they had planned for it," Ganance says.

Walking through the woods, Ganance points to deer tracks in the mud. In the snow, evidence of deer is plentiful.

"It's amazing the amount of deer track that's out just in one morning," he says.

The woodland behind Ganance's house is covered with leaves. Hardebeck says woodland salamanders lay eggs under the humus layer covering the ground.

"If we lose our humus layer, then they're out of luck," he says. "Humus keeps humidity in the soil."

Hardebeck scratches the limb of a spicebush, a plant native to the area. Several types of butterfly and moth depend at least partially on spicebush. The spicebush swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on spicebush and the caterpillar depends on it for food.

The roots of a sycamore tree create a little waterfall in the woods and a pool beneath it.

"We can thank this tree for creating a home for the amphibians," Hardebeck says.

Ganance says his family has found about eight salamanders in their exploration of the woods.

Members of a species known as streamside salamanders used to live in the Rockford Woods section of Northside, but developers scraped away their habitat before anyone had a chance to save them, according to Hardebeck. His friend, a herpetological surveyor, would have rescued the salamanders, had he known.

"He would have moved those to another park, but there was no communication link because there was no concern," he says. "There was no concern because there was no awareness."

Have an ecological weekend
Increasing awareness is at the heart of Spring Ecological Weekend, a series of workshops and field trips teaching ways to participate in the ecological restoration movement:

· Eco Fair begins at 6 p.m. March 22 in the Great Hall at Old St. George, in Clifton Heights. The focus is recovering a sense of place and surveying for reptiles and amphibians and their needs.

The fee is $20, but discount coupons are available at Benchmark in Blue Ash and Corryville and Big Sky Breads in Clifton.

· The Ohio Society for Ecological Restoration holds its annual gathering March 23 at McKie Community Center. The program features a historical overview of the Mill Creek watershed, including a field trip; a seminar on community-based habitat restoration and native plant propagation; and a trip to Woodlawn to learn about ecological restoration.

The fee is $30. For further information or to register, contact Northside Green Space at [email protected].

· New Jerusalem Community, in Winton Place, hosts Native Dinner Theater, featuring the group Circles and Arrows, at 5 p.m. March 23. At 8 p.m. Jim O'Boyle, a ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, leads a wetlands walk, with carpooling from New Jerusalem to Spring Valley and Caesar's Creek wetlands. Participants should take flashlights.

The cost of the dinner theater and the walk is $20. For reservations, contact Anne Frick at [email protected].

· The ECO Summit, sponsored by Environmental Community Organization (ECO) is March 24 in the library at Old St. George. The program includes discussions on deep ecology, the Mill Creek Restoration Project, environmental injustice and the rights of other species. A field trip includes canoeing on the Mill Creek. Registration is at 9 a.m. The cost is $20.

Registration forms for Spring Ecological Weekend are available at