Brenda Charpentier's Forest Journal: Where nature isn't natural

By BRENDA CHARPENTIER September 08. 2017 6:57PM
A stream in fall in a forest in Grafton is worlds apart from the "natural" settings people have to settle for in many major cities. (Jerry Monkman/EcoPhotography)

All you have to do to appreciate what we have in New Hampshire is to leave and come back.

You don't have to go far - a trip to Boston usually does it for me. After a day in the cement jungle I can't wait to head back north. Not until I'm well past the "Bienvenue - Welcome" sign on I-93 and seeing trees on both sides of the highway again (and maybe a few wild turkeys) do I start to feel the "fight or flight" tension ease.

I feel the same relief returning from family visits to Cleveland, Ohio. I've dreaded them for 29 years of marriage to my husband, who escaped soon after high school, even though my mother-in-law, who still lives there, is the kindest and most supportive mom-in-law one could imagine. The funny thing is, she lives in an upscale suburb of stately homes near what residents proudly consider to be a "beautiful nature preserve." Online "local guides" to the area call it "a perfect place for reflection and enjoying Mother Nature,"so you'd think visits there wouldn't be so bad.

But the "preserve" - and people's perception of it - are horrifying.

It's basically a park system developed around a brook and a few small ponds. Dirt paths and boardwalks wind through the wetlands and woods, and a popular nature center sits at the middle of it all. Sounds great, right? I jog or walk the trails every time I visit, and we held a memorial service for my brother-in-law at the nature center in honor of his peaceful spirit. So, yes, it definitely is an asset, and better than more asphalt. But no way is it, as another "local guide" in a Google review calls it, "beautiful nature at its finest."

Look a little closer and you will see that it's really nature making its last gasp. It's sick, and many of its fans don't even know it. The water in the brook barely flows and looks like some ungodly mixture of sludge and an oil slick. Sediment builds up in the ponds until they're only two feet deep and must be dredged. The fish that people enjoy watching from a footbridge are huge, invasive koi, probably originating from people's aquariums. These overgrown goldfish have a black fungus growing on them that covers their eyes, blinding them so they bump into each other.

Herons stalk for prey in the marsh, but you have to wonder how much eating the frogs that live in such slime will shorten their lifespans. Once I came across a big buck lying in the grass next to the boardwalk. It didn't even bother to get up when I passed by, its instincts dulled by its weird suburban life and a steady diet of wealthy nearby homeowners' coiffured landscape plantings.

So what makes this place so sick? Runoff.

The brook and ponds that the park system surrounds are situated lower than the mostly paved land covered by the city. So when it rains, all the runoff from the city's streets, parking lots, roofs and fertilized lawns flows into it. So does raw sewage, some of the time.

It seems Orwellian, but local planners have coined a term for what this creates. Rather than calling the system a watershed, they call it a "sewershed." I wish I was reading this in a dystopian novel, not on a real website.

Here is a strangely calm explanation from the same website:

"In our urban and suburban landscapes of the Doan Brook watershed, stormwater flow is mixed with a network of sewers, pipes and drains. This infrastructure under our feet connects directly to our local streams, rivers and lakes. This collection of interconnected natural and man-made waterways is called a sewershed."

And check out the oxymoron here: "In the City of Cleveland, storm and sanitary sewers are combined." Sanitary sewers?

Now read what another reviewer, Ana from sister city Pittsburgh, Pa., writes about the area:

"I came to know the place strolling around the charming Shaker Heights neighborhood. The Center is an example of excellent use of an otherwise useless area. Water sprouts from the soil to form lakes and little streams. Abandoned, it would look like a useless marsh. It became my peaceful meditation refuge during the fall days I spent in Cleveland."

The hurricane victims of Harvey and Irma would have a much different sense of how "useless" an undeveloped marsh would be, given that healthy wetlands are the very places that soak up extra rainfall if not paved over or filled in.

We need to do a better job of educating people about the natural world. When what passes for "nature" is really a degraded mess in need of drastic restoration, we all have a problem because these unknowledgeable people can vote. Will they vote to support conservation if they misunderstand so much that they think it's natural for a deer "to walk right up to me" at this "WONDERFUL scenic area!!!," as other reviewers write?

Many Americans don't understand the value of clean water, clean air and healthy forests, and we tend to collectively change what we think of as "normal." Even here in New Hampshire - where so many birds once filled the sky that it looked dark and so many fish swam in the rivers people could practically walk across on their backs - our new normal isn't so grand, but we do still have natural treasures to protect.

I wish all the people who rave about the natural area near my mom-in-law's house could spend some time in New Hampshire. Here, they could truly see "beautiful nature at its finest" on conservation land all over the state. I wish the reviewer who wrote that "the traffic noise isn't too bad" while walking the trails in Cleveland's suburban natural area could hear one of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard: the gurgle of a pristine stream flowing over the rocks on a New Hampshire hillside protected forever on land conserved before it's too late.

It's always so good to get back to New Hampshire.

Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

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