Monday, May 11, 2020

The presents we get for being a bit less productive

By Marjorie Smith, Associate Principal

I have been shocked at the natural world’s immediate gifts to us for being just a bit less productive and busy in the last few months. 

For starters, there are the four monarch butterfly chrysalises dangling from my front porch. While my neighbor has been growing milkweed for years, we have never seen the larvae or chrysalises. Why this year? Did the milkweed put out a bit more nutrition with the cleaner air and a bit more care from its now underemployed tender? Was the larvae’s journey across our driveway, from milkweed to porch, more successful because we now rarely use the car? Have chrysalises been forming on our porch for years and we were too busy to notice?

And then there are the song sparrows outside my desk window, alighting from the hibiscus. They are so loud that colleagues on conference calls also enjoy their song. Did they always create such a beautiful cacophony? Are they thriving with less noise and air pollution? Or is the change only me — do I tune-in now that there is less distraction?

And how about the red valerian absolutely blanketing the Albany Bulb. I don’t remember ever seeing so much green and wildflowers at this park that my sweetie loves for its playful impromptu artwork — before, I always lobbied instead for trails in the hills with “more nature.” 

And we hominids have also been contributing to the joy: sidewalk chalk art, murals on boarded-up store fronts, and the paper maché basketball players at Grove Park’s closed hoops. No commission, no buyers, and no sellers for this art. The unauthorized installation at the Berkeley park was a gift to the community from an artist who wanted to invigorate the space with a surrogate for the all-day movement that recently filled our urban landscape.

Of course, such gifts are not a new phenomenon, nor is the appreciation of being quiet and still. I am suddenly paying attention, but the wonders that I’ve just noticed have long been stewarded with care and attention. My neighbor has been tending that milkweed, in a narrow trough of soil, for years. Save the Bay ensured that the Bay edge, where the Albany Bulb sits, was not completely filled and developed in the sixties and seventies. During the nineties and aughts, unremunerated artists transformed the Bulb’s concrete construction debris with their whimsical creations.

While we talk a lot about going back to “normal”, I do not want to go back to blinding productivity. I find it easy to question the best way to go about building a world that makes more space for natural processes and our own appreciation of them. Was red valerian, a non-native, the right thing to plant at the Bulb? When you are reclaiming a garbage pile, does this matter? Was it right to evict the informal artist residents from the Bulb to increase public park access? Yet, despite all of the doubts, I am certain that we must apply ourselves to the big goal of making more space for nature, art, and whimsy and we must take the time to see and listen to these phenomena. And, this means that we may simply be less productive.

Monday, May 4, 2020

View from the rear [home office] window

by Amanda Knowles, AIA, LEEP AP

For the first few weeks of shelter-in-place, my work station was haphazard – the kitchen counter during breakfast, the dining room table when my husband was taking a call in the kitchen, the living room floor next to my daughter’s puzzle-in-progress. When it became clear that things were not going back to “normal” anytime soon, we started looking at our back porch through new eyes. The back porch had long been used as a depository for muddy shoes, folded strollers, boxes that needed to be broken down for the recycling. But now, we noticed, it had so much more potential! A desk on the back porch would have a view to the giant oak and buckeye trees, the small daylit creek in our neighbors’ yard, and filtered daylight. And so, over a weekend, two small desks were set up looking out to the lovely view we had only just discovered from our own back porch.

Sitting at our new desks, the view past our laptop screens captured our attention – swooping birds of many varieties made their appearance throughout the day. Some were easily identifiable (your standard crow, Steller’s and Scrub Jays, a hovering hummingbird). But other birds required us novice bird watchers to break out our bird books: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and Birds of Berkeley by Oliver James.

Both books are now featured in our back porch office, and we’re getting better and better at spotting and naming birds as they fly by our window. Alas, our cell phone cameras do not do these birds justice, so the images below are captured from Oliver James’ beautiful book.

Black Phoebe (top left); California Towhee (top right)
Oak Titmouse (bottom left); Bushtit (bottom right)

Black Phoebe: The most frequent visitor to our backyard, these tiny birds perch on our back fence, until suddenly they swoop up into the air and dive bomb down on some unsuspecting bug mid-flight, before returning to their perch for more quiet introspection.

California Towhee: Another common bird in the yard, and much bolder than the Phoebe, these Towhees don’t bother to fly away when we open the window, or our dog wanders outside, or the sewer construction starts up on the street. We appreciate their dedication to putting on a show for us each day.

Oak Titmouse: Often hopping along our shed roof, and darting in and out of the oak tree just above, these little birds provide a noisy addition to the yard, making an appearance when most other activity has died down.

Bushtit: This little guy made his appearance not out our office window, but at our bedroom window, where we found him sitting in a smoke bush and pecking diligently at his own reflection in the window. Usually these birds travel in groups, so we suspect he was trying to convince his reflection to move on to the next shrub with the crowd. While we have not seen him again, his bold appearance seemed worthy of a mention. 

Cooper’s Hawk: A thrilling discovery for the whole family was when we discovered a hawk nesting in our neighbor’s redwood tree. We don’t see this hawk as often as we hear it’s “kee! kee!” call, which our 2-year-old daughter easily identifies.

Working from home has its challenges, but I will always appreciate this opportunity to sit still in the place I live, watching the birds fly by as the days shift around me.