Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural! Birds, Geology, Wildlife & More' Category

Jun 01 2013

Make a B-Line for Wildlife:
A Modest Proposal for Rewilding American Roads

Life in the slow lane has many pleasures. You can smell the flowers, for one thing. Roadsides, vacant lots, and brownfields will soon be a riot of color. Even the medians of divided highways now play host to vibrant floral communities. And as more and more forests, fields, and wetlands are lost to development, these often-overlooked pocket wildernesses are increasingly important.

Where harried motorists see only a green blur, cyclists and walkers can focus on the details. Not that everything we see is pleasant to look at, of course. From late spring to early fall, highway maintenance crews and utility companies wage constant war on roadside “weeds,” shredding roadside trash and scything wildflowers with equal zeal. The result? The eggs and hatchlings of ground-nesting birds are destroyed. Small mammals lose their homes. And countless insects are starved of food. For days after the mowers go through, the road surface is carpeted with dead bees and maimed butterflies.

Why should we care about a few dead bugs? Well, with some 35 percent of our food crops dependent on insect pollinators, and with the health of wild bee populations already precarious, you could say our own fate is linked inextricably to that of the butterflies and bees. And some perceptive folks are already working to right the balance. A UK organization going by the name of Buglife is working to establish a network of flower-rich “B-lines” throughout England.

Such B-lines would help ensure the survival of bees and other insect pollinators, and these, in turn, could help English farmers grow more food, and do it more efficiently. That sounds like a win-win scenario to me. Want to know more? Then just click through to Buglife’s website.

It’s too bad we don’t have something similar on this side of the Pond, isn’t it? But we could. And it wouldn’t be hard. We could make a start by asking state highway departments and private utility companies to let the “weeds” grow undisturbed wherever and whenever they don’t create a hazard. Then we could all smell the flowers.

Further Reading

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May 04 2013

Root and Branch: An Appreciation of Trees

Portrait in Black and White

I was still in grade school when the urge to draw became all but irresistible. In part, art class offered a welcome refuge from the demands of arithmetic and grammar, but there was a social dimension, too. I wasn’t the only would‑be artist in the class, and we all gathered at one table to swap tips and critique one another’s work. Each of us had a favorite subject, and my friend Kate’s was trees. Trees in winter, to be exact. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and under her patient tutelage I was soon capturing images of the trees around me, always working, as she did, from the ground up and from the trunk out.

My lessons continued when I spent weekends at her parents’ house. The dirt road that ran past the old clapboard farmhouse was framed on both sides by sugar maples, and Kate and I sat on her front porch, doing our best to reproduce what we saw before us. I learned about a lot more than the best ways to smear graphite on paper during those weekends. In fact, they were my introduction to the life of (and in) trees… Read more…

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This article was originally published on December 6, 2012.

Feb 09 2013

Brick—The Roadway Less Traveled By (But It Could Make All the Difference)

Cyclists paved the way for cars. Literally. Long before the masses embraced internal combustion and took to the highways and byways on four wheels, cyclists were lobbying for paved roads. If you often ride on gravel or dirt you’ll know why. When you’re going somewhere on your bike—as opposed to simply killing time on singletrack between airings of the X Games—you soon learn to value a smooth, hard, stable surface. But the freedom of the paved road isn’t free. Asphalt and concrete slab surfaces are, for all practical purposes, impermeable. And when heavy rain falls on a well-engineered, impervious roadway (or shopping mall parking lot), the water does what comes naturally: It runs off immediately, swelling local streams to flood stage and overwhelming urban sewer systems.

From the narrow perspective of a highway engineer, this is a very good thing. You don’t want your roads turning into rivers, after all. But environmental geologists look at things differently. If you prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground, you impoverish local aquifers. And when you then hustle that water into the nearest river or stream as fast as possible, you increase the damage done by shoreline erosion, as well as raising the probability of catastrophic flooding farther downstream. In the past—and all too often, even today—highway engineers have seen this as somebody else’s problem. Their job was to keep the roads open to travel. Preventing floods and shoreline erosion wasn’t part of their job description.

But things are changing. Extreme weather is becoming commonplace everywhere. Torrential rains now follow hard on the heels of prolonged droughts, and impervious paved surfaces make both extremes worse. As we pave more and more of the earth’s surface, less and less water is returned to the underground reservoirs that feed our wells and reservoirs, leaving us more vulnerable to drought. And as we build more and more paved roads, we direct ever larger amounts of runoff into neighboring streams and rivers. This increases the likelihood of destructive urban flooding. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Of course, even highway engineers like to see water coming out when they turn the tap. (Some of them own shoreline property, too.) So they’ve started to consider alternatives to impervious asphalt and concrete slab paving, and this has led them to take a second look at one of mankind’s oldest building materials: the common brick.

Needless to say, some folks are more receptive to new ideas than others. While I don’t see much pressure for constructive innovation in my own backyard—”We like it the way it is” has been the local motto for as long as I can remember—that’s certainly not true everywhere. Marcos Netto, TNO‘s Southern Hemisphere Correspondent, lives in southern Brazil, and when I first saw his son’s photo of Paralympian João Correa and his “guardian angels” …

Team Itati-Stem-Rotary by Joao Arthur Netto

I couldn’t help but notice that the pavement under João’s wheels looked like brick. And Marcos—he’s the tall “angel” in the center of the picture—quickly confirmed that my eyes hadn’t deceived me. Here’s what he had to say:

Those are cement bricks. They are manufactured using conventional cement and are available in various shapes. The most common ones are either rectangles, hexagons, or an almost S-like shape, achieved with the use of one rectangle and two squares.

The bricks are all laid by hand by companies which specialize in it. The price is based on the square meter, and it's as much as 30 percent cheaper than asphalt. After laying, and assuming no heavy traffic rolls over the bricks, the paved area will remain in place for decades. If the area has fertile soil below the bricks, grass might grow between them, making it a lot more interesting to look at.

Bricks are used mostly for parking lots and areas where there is no heavyweight vehicle traffic, but for a long time I've seen them on some streets where they've suffered no significant damage. The only real problem is when there's a need for underground work to repair some gas, phone, or sewage lines. The bricks must be removed before excavation, and even with careful work they will never be replaced the same way, which is visible on the street or parking lot.

There is another version of brick paving for high-impact traffic areas. This involves intensive preparation of the base where the bricks will be laid, making the underlying ground weight-resistant.

You are right about the advantages regarding water on brick paving. Bricks make evaporation and ground absorption faster, thus making it less expensive to install drains in the area.


Now here are some more examples of brick paving:

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving

Marcos Netto Examples of Brick Paving


OK. What’s not to like? Brick paving combines beauty with utility and economy, which makes it a very attractive option for parking lots, town squares, and low-traffic residential streets. Of course, it won’t offer cyclists as smooth a ride as new asphalt, but I’d be more than happy with the trade-off if it meant that the water kept flowing from my tap and fewer homes (and businesses) were lost to floods. What about you?

Marcos Netto on the Tiles

Further Reading

  • Brick,” a Wikipedia primer on this ancient building material, plus …
  • Block Paving,” another Wikipedia article, short but informative, and finally, …
  • Permeable Paving,” Wikipedia‘s take on the big picture. It seems that brick isn’t the only option.


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