67 environmental minutes

Want to spend your 67 minutes for Mandela Day doing something that is more environmentally minded? Here are some ideas:

  • Pick up litter. No need to go anywhere special – start right outside your own house.
  • Calculate your carbon footprint and then buy a tree (or two) from either Greenpop or Food & Trees for Africa while you plan how you’re going to reduce your footprint.
  • Install a low-flow shower head if your shower doesn’t yet have one. It’ll save you both water AND money.
  • If you don’t already have a separate bin for your recyclables, now is the time to get one and find a spot in your kitchen for it.
  • Go through your bathroom cupboard and get rid of anything that has microbeads in it, and then promise to not buy any more. 
  • Do an audit in your kitchen to see how many single-use plastic items you use – sandwich bags, clingfilm, straws etc. Figure out how you can swop them out for something better.
  • Plant a herb or vegetable as the start of a journey in growing your own food.
  • Buy yourself a reusable coffee cup and/or water bottle to use instead of takeaway cups or plastic bottles.
  • If you aren’t using energy-saving light bulbs then you definitely need to use this time to change them. This is a must.
  • Go for a walk around your neighbourhood and appreciate the world around you instead of heading to the shops and buying ‘things’. 

What am I going to do I hear you ask?
Well, we did spend 2 hours in the river this past Sunday and brought out 4.5 black bags of trash… and we’ll probably do it again this Sunday, so I will consider that my 67 (plus a bit) minutes.

Do you have any other ideas? Are you doing anything environmentally focused? Let me know.

The solastalgia is strong with me right now

The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Eco-system Services) released a new report this week that apparently warns that “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.” *

Solastalgia (/ˌsɒləˈstældʒə/) is a neologism that describes a form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change. Wikipedia

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t read it. 

I haven’t even read any articles relating to it.  

Yes, I’ve seen headlines and I’ve seen lots of alarmist tweets. 

I’ve also seen many environmentalists online bemoaning the fact that, on the day the report was released, the UK Royals had a baby and that made more news headlines than this report did even though the report is arguably far more important to people’s lives than a newborn child.

Those same environmentalists would probably put me in the same category as the rest of the disinterested and myopic average population, and on first appearances, I wouldn’t blame them.

Truth is that I’m too overwhelmed by it all. I already know that we’re wrecking the world and everything in it. I feel that I will descend into even greater depths of depression about it all if I really get into the facts that this report highlights. I don’t need the detail to confirm what I know – not right now anyway.

I’m sure I’ll get over this currently highly solastalgic phase and read the report plus news articles in due time. 

Just right now, for my sanity, I need to protect my brain. 

*Quote from: Smart Water Magazine article

Invasive trees and PSHB

There’s a connection between the two that could work in our favour.

This country has a massive problem with invasive trees in our rivers and catchment areas that take over the area, overpowering the natural ecosystem, blocking water flow and guzzling water like an alcoholic during happy hour. We have a dedicated environmental team – “Working for Water” – that deal with it continuously. From what I’ve read, they work in mostly rural areas. Within Joburg, City Parks has a team dedicated to dealing with invasive plants. After meeting with them, I discovered that they are woefully underfunded, and largely rely on WfW to assist when they need to clear a specific area. 

We have another tree problem too: PSHB (Polyphagous Shothole Borer). This little bug is starting to cause a fair amount of havoc with trees around the country – some areas worse than others. While there is evidence of attack on indigenous trees, it seems to prefer exotics, particularly those that many cities and towns have lining their streets. This is causing potential headaches for local municipalities, some of which are proactively dealing with it, others who are dismissing it as a non-problem, probably because they don’t have the ability, capacity or budget to deal with it (my unsubstantiated opinion).

How are the two problems linked, you ask?

As with any invasive species, once it’s here, there’s no getting rid of it entirely. It becomes an exercise in control and management. The scientists at FABI who are monitoring and researching PSHB recommend that infested reproductive host trees are cut down and disposed of correctly to help slow the spread. Interestingly, a few of the exotic reproductive host trees that have been identified so far happen to be listed invasive plant species. Specifically: Honey Locust (Cat. 1b), Black Wattle (Cat. 2), Australian Blackwood (Cat. 2). Castor bean (Cat. 2) and Box Elder (Cat. 3).

Just looking at my* little area of river, 4 of these 5 are present and well established. I’ve recently found a Box Elder riddled with PSHB on the river right outside our complex fence line.

City Parks only barely maintains a handful of our rivers in Joburg, and their Invasives teams is not capable of doing anything. They’re highly unlikely to get into the river to clear out infested trees. But WfW is going strong. I see an opportunity that would kill two birds with one stone here… Imagine if municipality would team up with government? Imagine if WfW would dedicate a task-force team to tackling these specific 5 trees in urban areas that have been identified by City Parks or other organisations as PSHB hotspots?

It’s a win-win: spread of PSHB reduced, local rivers cleared of some invasive trees.

I am clearly biased, but I think this is a brilliant idea. If you know people who know people who might also think this is a good idea and could make it happen, do please let me know.

*”my” river = I live on the bank of the Sandspruit in northern Johannesburg. I have affectionately claimed the bit of it that I have access to from my house as mine. Obviously it’s not really mine, but I love it and attempt to look after it as if it were.

That time I discovered another invasive plant

If it behaves like an invasive plant, it probably is one. (And I should look it up.)

There’s this flowering plant that pops up on the river bank in summer in front of my neighbour’s house which I haven’t really gotten around to identifying. I suspected it might be somewhat invasive but because I haven’t seen it all over and I’ve been too busy planting things I haven’t taken the time to find out what it is.

I noticed a few more of the plants when we went on our walk the other day, and I took a few pics and posted them online to get help with an ID.

Turns out they are called “four o-clock” (or Mirabilis jalapa) and are a NEMBA category 1b invasive.

I could kick myself for not looking them up sooner – I could have cut the ones near my neighbour back before they went to seed and started spreading. Oh well. More work for next summer I guess.

I already know it’s gonna be a mission to control them – they grow from tubers and the few I have tried to uproot already were a mission to get out the ground. Where I did a hack/bad job they grew back – and quickly.

I reckon my neighbour will be bleak if (when!) I start removing them too, as they probably think the plant is pretty.

I wonder what would be a good indigenous replacement? Any ideas?

Sandspruit strolling

A short stroll along the river brings me a sliver of hope.

We took a stroll along the Sandspruit on Sunday, heading upstream from 8th Avenue, Rivonia/Woodmead, along the areas that are looked after by the residents. Most parts are beautifully cared for, and established trees show evidence that people have been looking after the space for years.

Seeing that people take care of these spaces brings my soul hope. It reminds me that it’s not too crazy of me to think that we can – eventually – rehabilitate our urban river systems. It even gave me enough hope to not be too sad about the ever-present litter in the river – particularly in areas of the river bank that aren’t maintained. It’s a thankless and ongoing job to remove litter from the river, but it has such a positive impact. The people looking after this stretch of the river deserve a massive shout out.

Bugweed

My experiences with the ubiquitous Joburg pest-plant

Growing up my father was both an honorary Forester and part of a team from the Roodepoort Hiking Club involved with building new hiking trails. As kids we were often taken along for the inevitable bundu-bashing that’s involved in such endeavours.

On one such trip in the Uitsoek Sappi Forests in the Mpumalanga Lowveld we were taught about bugweed (it LOVES invading forestry plantations) and told that this was one plant we could happily hack away at and cut down whenever and wherever we saw it. I never forgot that lesson and consequently I can spot a bugweed seedling from 5 paces away.

Birds love its fruit, and it consequently it spreads like wildfire — it’s unfortunately everywhere in Joburg, including of course, “my” river. *

Luckily it’s fairly easy to remove or kill and if it’s in your garden or on your pavement, I encourage you to do so. Before I get into how to do that though, here’s some info to help you identify it:

Identifying bugweed

Bugweed is a large shrub or small tree that can grow up to 4m high. It has broad dull green leaves that are velvety above and white-felty beneath, which emit a strong and somewhat unpleasant smell when cut. Young stems are green and also sport the white-felty covering. It has small purple flowers that appear in clusters at the tips of stalks all year round, particularly if it has good access to water (I’ve noticed that the plants really struggle in our dry highveld winters, and rarely flower then). The flowers turn into tight bunches of berries which start off green and turn yellow when ripe, which birds like loeries, bulbuls and mousebirds simply love.

Young plants are often found growing underneath other trees or along fence lines and next to walls due to them sprouting from the droppings of birds that have been eating them.

Insects and native plants

Insects are adapted to and depend on native plants

Recently there has been some alarming news about the decline of insects across the world, and it’s something that should concern you if it doesn’t already. (If you haven’t yet heard much about it, just google “insect decline“, or if you’re feeling dramatic: “insect apocalypse” and “insect armageddon“.)

Biodiversity has always been important to me – in fact I’ve even posted here before about increases in insect and ‘wild’-life that has improved since I’ve been building a garden around our home. So naturally, this issue concerns me, and it’s been top of mind (along with everything else that seems to be going wrong with increasing frequency in our environment these days).

I found a really great thread on twitter this evening by a gentleman called Paraic O’Donnell where he talks about what we could do to help sustain instect life. (Read the full thread here). Many things there I wholeheartedly agree with, but one thing in particular stood out for me: his reasoning for the use of native plants.

“So, why do native species matter? Well, for one thing, they are adapted to this environment. They *want* to grow here, and will thrive with minimal intervention. They tend not to be invasive or disruptive to ecological balance.

More importantly, other organisms (like insects) have *adapted to them*, and have come to depend on them for food or shelter.”

I’m always on about only using indigenous (and these days even endemic indigenous) plants in our garden, but if I’m honest I’ve never stopped to articulate the reasons for choosing this route like how Paraic does. I’ve also never considered the importance of them to wildlife (insects included). Yes, I choose plants because they are more suitable to the local environment – hardier, drought-resistant – that local birds like and that attract butterflies, but strangely it never occured to me that these birds and butterflies (and other insects) might actually NEED these plants.

How nice to have a new lens to view my decisions with.

And to be reminded that my gardening efforts and choices continue to have value.