Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Where the Woods Meet

Where Fall Creek’s woods meet Sapsucker Woods, Hanshaw Road curves between them. A small stream is culverted there under the road, carrying Sapsucker Woods runoff toward Fall Creek. Residents know to take it slow on Hanshaw Road through this wooded corridor to avoid hitting the deer and other wildlife who use the continuous woodland cover to traverse a gap between one county-designated Unique Natural Area (Sapsucker Woods) and another (Fall Creek). Those are probably not the place-names used by animals.

Big birds are often perched in the trees here, maybe for the view to be had at this wooded crest of the long slope up Hanshaw Road from Cayuga Heights, Ithaca and Cayuga Lake in its deep valley below. The wooded corridor at the Hanshaw Road crossing is narrow, just a couple hundred feet wide, but it spreads outward to the north and west into the wetland woods on both sides of Sapsucker Woods Road, surrounding the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Across Hanshaw Road southward, a five-minute walk through the arc of woods that widens between Hanshaw and Freese Roads brings a hiker to the steep crumbling bluffs high above Fall Creek, and onto the Cayuga Trail. Just beyond the woodland edge in old pastures is Cornell’s Dyce Laboratory for Honey Bee Studies.

To the east of this wooded corridor, Hanshaw Road curves around the edge of flat Cornell farm fields, bordered on their southern edge by Fall Creek and its woodland cover and on the north by Sapsucker Woods, old pasture lands, and wooded wetlands that extend along Hanshaw as it takes a sharp turn northward (and Lower Creek Road continues straight). Here again there is a narrow wooded meeting place, between the Hanshaw Road wetlands and Monkey Run woods. Again, Hanshaw Road parts them and a stream, culverted under the road, joins them. The stream travels on next to the hiking trail (beloved by dogs and their owners) that was once Monkey Run Road, downhill to Fall Creek.

West and south of the Sapsucker-Hanshaw woodland corridor, blue-hill vistas can be seen beyond patches of woodland as the open Cornell farmland drops away from both Hanshaw and Freese Roads toward the wooded Fall Creek valley below. Westward and downslope lies Ithaca, its suburban homes infringing upon the edges of Sapsucker Woods.

The northern extent of Sapsucker Woods and the Hanshaw wetlands are abruptly cut off by a strip of intense human development. The heavily-traveled, limited-access Route 13 highway is an ever-humming backdrop to this quiet area. The road severs Sapsucker, Hanshaw and the area’s birds and beasts from wetlands and woodlands to the north. On the north side of Route 13 from Sapsucker Woods is the Tompkins County Airport. Its need for landings, takeoffs, wide beds of flashing lights and extended runways makes it a noisy, light-polluting neighbor for the Hanshaw-Sapsucker area.

Invisible, destructive boundaries cut through the heart of this unified natural area. Sapsucker Woods Road is the border between the Town of Ithaca and Town of Dryden. The southeast border of the Village of Lansing runs east-west across the northern quarter of Sapsucker Woods Road, and contains the airport on the north side of Route 13. This division among three municipal interests has resulted in neglect and misuse on all sides of these arbitrary, highly unnatural straight lines and right angles. An understanding of the whole has been discarded.

From the micro-scale of backyard fences to the international interfaces between countries, borders and margins are places for sloppy land-use at best, and criminal behavior at worst. Farthest from the nearest seat of power and governance, borders are where unwanted land-uses are dumped. At the edges of things, planning and zoning wear thin and can become slipshod, and are more easily set aside for convenience.

Less powerful than residents nearer the center, the human residents of border areas often have the least say in how their land is used. They lose out when land managers and agents of governance are swayed by those with attorneys and a thumb on the scale as the laws are written and the regulations are enforced.

Within the Sapsucker Woods and Hanshaw Road wetlands and woodlands, the non-human residents have the least power and have lost out most of all. Over the past fifty years their land, water and air habitats and travel routes have shrunk and shriveled, severed by new residential roads, Route 13, and airport expansion, and gouged by the bulldozers and bullying of builders who have carved suburbia out of the woodlands and wetlands on the edges of, and driving toward the heart of, Sapsucker Woods.

On the Ithaca side of the line, builders are poised to eat further into Sapsucker Woods very soon, if the planning wizards can be convinced that no real harm will be done. On the Dryden side of the line, businesses were allowed into the wetlands along Hanshaw Road before residential zoning was put in place to slow their spread and impact on this wetland area that feeds Fall Creek. There should not be, but there are, big parking lots and warehouse-sized businesses set on elevated fill pads in the wetlands at Hanshaw Road’s intersection with Route 13.

At the moment (February-March 2009), Verizon is playing games with the governments and planning entities on both sides of the Ithaca-Dryden border, trying to get a (possibly non-complying) cell tower placed on the Dryden side of Sapsucker Woods Road in order to serve Ithaca residents. Verizon proposes to place this tower in that woodland along Hanshaw Road which serves as a corridor from the Fall Creek Unique Natural Area to the Sapsucker Woods Unique Natural Area. The landowner has informed neighbors that if the tower does not go in, he will sell the woodland to a developer.

This immediate situation has prompted me to write this essay, to illustrate how these woodlands, fields, and wetlands make up a unified (though under siege) natural area of semi-wild nodes and corridors between Sapsucker Woods and Fall Creek. I argue that these natural functions outweigh the value to the three adjoining municipalities of continuing to use this area for a dumping-ground of unwanted land uses and zoning waivers.

Our informal group, Friends of Hanshaw-Sapsucker, is made up of neighbors (in Ithaca and Dryden) who see a center here, not edges. We want to protect this wonderful natural area from further fragmentation and neglect. We support the work of the Save Sapsucker Woods group. We invite you to join us.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A locavore salad to kick out the midwinter jams

Call it “late winter” or “pre-spring,” these are difficult weeks with their apparently endlessly repeating pattern of snow, freeze, thaw, rain.

But the deeply cold nights bracketed by dark mornings and afternoons are already giving way to a softer light that lingers longer each day. The snowdrops have poked out of the brown oak leaves beneath the old lilac bush. No season lasts very long: our beautiful planet spins us relentlessly from one to the next, and around again.

While brooding on these verities, a person needs a salad. The soups, stews and other warming dishes of winter can cloy the body and mind, and a sharply sparkling crunchy bowl of fresh-tasting exclamation points helps us begin the climb up and out of midwinter torpor.

How to begin? After only a few months on a strongly-locavore diet, the pallid globes of plastic-wrapped iceberg lettuce trucked in from the distant California desert look a little comical; but their green freshness is a siren’s call.

Feigning deafness to that call (.ie., walking out of the hissing grocery store doors without the damn lettuce), I return home to do a fearless inventory of the refrigerator bins, heavy with locally organically grown root vegetables. With a little bit of work, a near-rainbow of sparkling crunchiness is quickly unleashed.

Cut off a big hunk of knobbly, root-encircled celeriac to release a whiff of fresh energy. Pare off its dull exterior, along with the grimy outer skin of two golden beets, and chop them into small chunks, either by hand or with a bit of mechanical help. Suddenly the kitchen is scented with bright outdoor memories, and the vivid gold of the beets tangle in a heap with the pale white morsels of celeriac.

Chop a chunk of green or red cabbage and a handful of carrots to a slaw texture, and pile them on. A turnip cut small adds bite, as does a white winter radish with its ruby core. Chop fine a garlic clove and chunk of ginger, and stir the whole thing up really well. You now have a wildly colorful, aromatic winter salad that will blast your brain free of its midwinter slump. I’d dress it with olive oil, a dab of sesame oil if you have it, a flavorful vinegar (not much), salt and freshly-ground pepper.

Serve the salad from a big bowl, and set out a few toppings for those who like to complicate matters: raisins or currants, sunflower seeds, walnut chunks, leftover peas or chickpeas, sprouts. My own favorite topping for this crunch-fest is almonds, roasted quickly in a pan and mashed into small chunks.

It’s time to wake up!