Why We Pull Weeds

Ongoing habitat restoration at Baldwin Hills with students and community volunteers

Ongoing habitat restoration at Baldwin Hills with students and community volunteers

By Eleanor Osgood & Alan Starbuck

We both volunteer to weed in our public lands as part of a habitat restoration team which is coordinated by Eleanor. But we come to this unusual habit, obsession almost, with different impetuses: for Eleanor, bird watching; for Alan, hiking. We’d like to share with you our answers to the often-asked questions “You pull weeds? Really? Why?” in the hope that it will inspire you to join us, whatever your impetus may be. Here are our stories:

Eleanor Osgood

I am passionate about wild birds. I identified myself with the birding community—which means I became “a birder” in 1988, the year I realized that I couldn’t identify a European Starling or name that little brown bird with the black bib hopping around my back yard.

I am also an almost native Angeleno (those first nine months in Chicago don’t really count, do they?), and have lived in Los Angeles most of my life. But for my first seven or eight birding years, most of my destinations were outside of Los Angeles County, many of them outside of the country. I assumed that most places “birdy” were somewhere else. But over the years I have learned I was wrong. Los Angeles County is birdy! Super birdy! We have about 560 species, 200 of which live here year-round! Historically, Los Angeles was even “birdier.” Check out the descriptions of California naturalists from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; they write about seeing flocks of birds numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Los Angeles County is special in many other ways. We have 10 climate zones. This number is pretty impressive for an urbanized space of our size! We also have plants and animals found nowhere else in the United States, and for that matter, in the world. We are what is called a “Global Hotspot,” one of 36 world-wide. With this title, we have the honor of being recognized as supporting a significantly high-level of biodiversity that is found nowhere else in the world (primarily plant life). But the flip side of that honor includes recognition of having among the highest number of species on the verge of extinction.

Over time I’ve developed appreciation for the uniqueness of Southern California’s natural spaces and the abundance of wildlife that these areas support. I’m determined to contribute to their protection because it leads directly to protecting the creatures that so deeply engage me.

These days, much of my birding is done while weeding (aka habitat restoration) in Kenneth Hahn State Park within the Baldwin Hills, which is comprised of large remnant patches of Coastal Sage Scrub Habitat—a rare and unique habitat. Multiple volunteers and organizations have been working at habitat restoration within the Baldwin Hills for over 20 years, including Los Angeles Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and Mujeres de la Tierra. As a Los Angeles Audubon Society member, I have weeded and birded there for about 10 years.

In addition to the satisfaction of being outdoors with the birds I love, I’ve discovered other rewards. I find the rhythm of scraping or digging or pulling to be both invigorating and relaxing. Throughout the few hours I am weeding, I hear the birds singing; I look up if I don’t recognize the song but otherwise, I’m focused on the ground and excited by the new things I see there. Perhaps most rewarding of all is experiencing the process of regeneration that occurs as I pull up the blanket of weeds and more sunlight reaches the soil year after year. I thrill at the sight of emerging native plants, new species that I see for the first time. I’m impressed by these new (and true) natives. The way they have persevered through the recent drought years, the resilience of their seeds just waiting in the ground for the sunlight and moisture that our weeding provides them. Knowing I’m helping make their resurgence possible is very, very satisfying.

Alan Starbuck

I always had a love of nature and wilderness. Growing up with family camping trips, I enjoyed the great outdoors and getting away from the city. To me, nature and wilderness were always beyond the city borders. And it was out there where the battle for the environment took place. A battle I figured was already lost in this urban landscape. But that was black and white thinking. Nature and wilderness don’t stop just because they hit the city limit.

My understanding of nature in the city began to change when I was living in Hollywood and got myself a dog. With my new companion, I got back into hiking. I lived less than a mile from Griffith Park and its chaparral-covered hillsides. Hiking up the park’s fire roads past the manicured grassy parks, the city quickly dropped away and a natural landscape emerged despite being surrounded by millions of people.

More hikes in the Verdugo Hills above Burbank and on the trails of the Angeles Forest made me realize that despite the huge metropolises dominating coastal Southern California, the original ecosystem still existed within and around the city.

That wilderness didn’t just stay in the parks. Living just off Hollywood Boulevard I would encounter skunks and raccoons living among the apartment complexes. One day I was walking near USC. A crash against a chain-linked fence caught my attention. Looking, I saw by the base of the fence a red-tailed hawk, a pigeon in its talons. The hawk stared me down with fierce yellow eyes, making it clear that here, by downtown Los Angeles, was wilderness.

Then I began gardening with native plants at the house my wife and I bought in the Baldwin Hills. From gardening with native plants I learned the names of the plants I encounter on my hikes. I also started recognizing what didn’t belong. Classes taken at Theodore Payne Foundation showed me the native plants I was growing were doing more than reducing my water usage and making my yard look more natural. I was actually expanding Southern California’s original ecosystem back into the city.

No longer close to Griffith Park or the Angeles Forest, I began hiking with my dog up in Kenneth Hahn Park. Here was another patch of nature within the city. But it was badly degraded. Between native patches of toyon, scrub oak, holly-leaf cherry, black sage, and California sagebrush were even larger patches of non-native grasses, wild mustard, tree tobacco, caster bean. My mind started wondering what the park would be like without these invasive plants and how Kenneth Hahn Park could be a nature preserve in a part of Los Angeles where little of the original habitat remains. I decided to see how I could get involved with habitat restoration.

I found several avenues for volunteering with habitat restoration in Los Angeles, but none for Kenneth Hahn Park. With Kenneth Hahn being my home park, it was here that I wanted to put my efforts. After multiple online searches, I was able to find Eleanor’s habitat restoration group.

While the term ‘habitat restoration’ sounds like we’re sowing wildflowers, planting trees and releasing happy bunnies into the wild, the real work is more mundane and less glamorous. We weed. A lot.

It can be hot and dirty, but nevertheless, I keep coming back. It is satisfying work. ‘Freeing’ the native plants bring me the most gratification. Literally being smothered by weeds, some of the native plants we come upon are mostly bare branches with a few leaves, barely alive. By clearing out the invasive plants, more resources - soil, water, sun - become available to the native. Branches covered by the weeds can now leaf out and blossom. The following year when working in the same area, the freed plants are healthier and more robust.

We also see seedlings of native plants that are able to take root because of the weeds we cleared out. In the end, that is why I keep weeding, to see a natural environment come back to life, to let a little wilderness to come back in the city.

When the weather cools, we will be back weeding 2 or more times a week. Our schedules are flexible. Perhaps our stories have inspired some of you to join us. We welcome you whether you are a birder, a hiker, a botanist, a backyard gardener or just a nature lover. Eleanor can be reached by email: gardenbird1@att.net.

Originally Published in the Western Tanager, Vol. 86 No. 1, Sep-Oct 2019