Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Vacant Lot (a.k.a. The Wonderful Urban Armpit)

Last weekend my son Kai and I had an hour to kill between a basketball game and band practice.  We weren’t really sure what to do with ourselves.  If we went home we’d have just enough time to turn around and leave again.  We’d already eaten lunch.  It was sunny outside, the air fresh after a couple days of rain…

“Hey, you want to go see a vernal pool?” I asked.

“A what?”

“It’s like a big puddle.”

He looked skeptical.

“There might be tiny shrimp in it.  And frogs,” I added.

“Sure.”  Kai loves frogs.

Large parts of our home town, San Diego, are built atop mesas.  And once upon a time those mesa tops were littered with countless seasonal wetlands called vernal pools.  Mud puddles really.  Super cool mud puddles… to those who stop and really look at them.

These pools form because rainwater perches atop a clay layer in the soil, unable to percolate.  And in years when we get enough rain, these pools come magically to life in the winter and spring—filled with plants you don’t find anywhere else, giving life to tiny fairy shrimp, hopping with frogs, providing habitat for birds.

Sadly, most of these pools, which once stretched across acres and acres of raw land that my great grandparents knew, have been plowed under, paved and converted to strip malls or corporate headquarters.  In fact the pool Kai and I went to see last weekend sits in the middle of a vacant lot adjacent to the office complex where I work, a weedy patch of land surrounded on all sides by offices, parking lots and industry.  But for those of us who’ve nurtured a childish curiosity (not to mention an unsuppressed habit of climbing fences and venturing where we’re not supposed to go) this vacant lot provides a glimpse into the complex web—the wet, green, crawling, rotting, flowering, reproducing, frenzy of biology that makes life—our lives—possible.

Kai and I parked at my office, pushed our way through a cluster of scratchy shrubs, climbed a rusty fence, dodged the stinging nettle and walked through the weeds, picking stickers out of our socks and watching for snakes.  Vernal pools don’t really look like much at first glance, some slightly stagnant water with weeds poking out, and when I announced our arrival Kai just kind of stood there and stared at first.  But then we crouched, scooted closer so that our shoes got muddy, and really looked.  And the more we looked, the more interesting this little patch of world became, the more curious and childish our minds grew, the more we smiled, the more discoveries we exclaimed out loud to each other—fairy shrimp, tadpoles, frogs, frog eggs… even two pairs of mallard ducks.

We spent thirty happy minutes exploring this mud puddle, this urban armpit of a vacant lot, fenced off from the rat race of a community we call home, a little patch of earth explored and known by very few.  And when we left, life felt even better than when we’d arrived (and we’d already been having a good day).  There was a spark in Kai’s eye, like he’d been let in on some sort of secret, like he now knew the funky handshake that would allow him to get past stupid fences and become a member of San Diego’s secret frog society.

I hope he always remembers that funky handshake.  I hope he never stops climbing fences and getting his shoes muddy.  I hope he never stops stopping, never stops looking, never stops wondering… never stops caring.

There are wonderful urban armpits in your community too.  I know it.  So please take your kids out there, climb the fences, sit in the mud, and watch the world happen.

To learn more about San Diego’s vernal pools check out the California Chaparral Institute’s website.