Applewood residents make strides to eliminate pesticides

By the members of HAL

Picture a white-haired senior citizen dashing outdoors, coffee cup in hand, trying to be dignified as she asks the person spraying her garden to STOP.

This was the beginning of the HAL (Healthy Applewood Land) group here at Applewood, an independent living community in the slope of the Holyoke Range in South Amherst.  It was also the beginning of our first project:  to stop the use of pesticides for the health of the soil, the birds, the humans, in fact for all living things here.

Nearly two years later, that project has been successful and for the first summer, the grounds here will not be treated with pesticides to kill broad-leaf plants.  Instead, the lawns are flourishing with dandelions, violets, and more.  A significant step.

Removing pesticides from the earth and air enables pollinators to flourish. As E.O. Wilson, the American biologist, has said, “If all of mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, then the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Broad-leaf lawn plants for pollinators (Photo credit Anne Cann)

What are pollinators and why are they essential? Pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and hummingbirds, are essential for the functioning of our terrestrial world. They convey pollen to the stigma of a flower, thus pollinating plants that are the basis of almost all food chains for most living things. Creatures, including us, eat the plants directly, or eat other creatures that eat the plants.

Pollinators are keystone species. Many other species depend on them. They maintain the integrity of the ecosystem.

Plants are not optional. Nearly every living thing depends on plants for life. With the help of pollination, plants turn sunlight, water, soil, and air into food.

How We Can Help Support Native Bees.

While the non-native honey bee is the most familiar pollinator, native bees are often adapted to the specific needs of local plants, making them very effective pollinators. We need to encourage native bee populations. Each of us can help support native bees in our own gardens and grounds by:

  1. Creating a diversity of plant blooms, mostly native, that provide pollen and nectar from early spring to late fall;
  2. Providing nest and egg laying sites by leaving open ground in our gardens for nests and leaving leaves, twigs and stems over the winter and beyond for homes for pollinators (note that native bees dwell mostly in ground tunnels, not hives, so allowing them to have ground cover is crucial);
  3. Avoiding the use of any pesticides;
  4. Providing a source of clean water;
  5. Sharing this important information with others who visit our gardens, so that visitors will carry the idea along and assist in supporting native bees and other pollinators in their own gardens.
Ground-dwelling native bee (Photo credit Anne Cann)

The HAL group has also introduced Applewood residents and its neighbors to the basic concept of why native plants are key to a healthy local environment. The plants and insect life of caterpillars that live off the plants have evolved together and in turn become food for the young nestlings of a large majority of our native bird populations.  By successfully lobbying to eliminate the use of pesticides on our extensive lawns, we have taken Step 1, and are now linking that progress to promoting the use of native plant species in our garden spaces, since native plants are the required primary food source in the food web. 

“Every person on earth depends entirely on the quality of earth’s ecosystem,” says- Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of entomology and environmental science and author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Other topics the HAL group has introduced at Applewood are healthy soils, the role of fungi, and nighttime light pollution.

HAL began in March last year when seven women gathered because of their alarm over the spreading of toxic pesticides on gardens and lawns outside their apartments. With a wealth of experience in environmental activism over lives ranging from 79 to 90 years, they adopted a strategy of resident education, leading to a survey on whether to continue landscaping practices designed to groom putting-green-style lawns.

At Applewood, many residents are environmental activists. They have joined together in various groups that meet regularly and have specific missions. The Climate Change group delves in to the multi-issues of this serious problem.  HAL, the Healthy Applewood Land group, focuses on pesticide elimination, healthy soil, pollinators, and native plants. The Sustainability committee deals mostly with recycling, while Gardens & Grounds is a hands-on group that works on landscaping.

All of these groups are active, with many residents belonging to more than one. There is a great deal of overlap and cross-communication, and our executive director, Lou Iannuccilli, has been supportive of efforts to protect and restore the natural environment on the Applewood grounds.

Coming to Applewood from as far away as Montana and Georgia, all seven members of HAL contributed to this article and are long- time environmental activists. Well- known in this area for their work are Anne Cann, who has served on the Hitchcock Center board and as a Friend of the Orchard Arboretum at Applewood, and Judi Pierce, who retired from Mass Audubon as a regional director and continues to volunteer at Nasami Farm nursery and Kestrel Land Trust. Other members of HAL are Fran Bancroft, Carol McNeary, Lenore Miller, Val Parsegian, and Mimi Sauer.

We need neighborhood policy; Why I like Orchard Valley

By Bob Rakoff

Enough already with the downtown! And stop moaning about open space!

It’s time for some serious talk about our residential neighborhoods.

Sometimes it seems that the only topics that town officials, the media (including this august blog!), and local opinion leaders care about are the commercial revival of downtown and the protection of ever-more farmland and open space. Last fall, when the Amherst Bulletin cut back on home delivery, I was struck by the fact that all of the new pick-up sites were downtown. No drop-offs at Atkins, no village centers, no campus centers.

I do venture downtown for specific purposes, of course: to pick up a book at the Jones, to get my new glasses at Amherst Optical, to grab a slice at Antonio’s. I’ve even been around long enough to know where to park cheaply or for free.

The Orchard Valley neighborhood. Photo by Bob Rakoff

And yet most of us — especially in these plague years — spend more time in our residential neighborhoods than we do downtown. The town’s Master Plan pays obeisance to the importance of residential neighborhoods. Among the goals of the plan are preserving and enhancing the historical and cultural “character” of our neighborhoods, with special emphasis on supporting “cohesive” neighborhoods. Besides emphasizing the maintenance of neighborhood character, the plan also calls for encouraging the development of economically diverse neighborhoods along with village centers that are well connected to livable and diverse neighborhoods.

You don’t have to know much about zoning and land use to understand that these goals are both ambiguous and in conflict with each other. In most communities, “maintaining neighborhood character” is a euphemism for keeping out unwanted elements. These could be incompatible uses and structures like commercial buildings and operations, which are mostly banned in our residential zones. But in practice, unwanted elements also include unwanted people: renters, students, children, people who don’t look like existing residents, who work at different sorts of jobs or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. We shy away from defining neighborhood character because our definitions are not always pretty or politically acceptable. And we are reluctant to admit that by protecting neighborhood character, we are likely undermining the goal of creating diverse neighborhoods.

But Amherst does have neighborhoods that come close to the ideals of the Master Plan, neighborhoods that are diverse in terms of class, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, occupancy status (i.e. rent or own), and family status. Neighborhoods that are relatively affordable. I live in one of these neighborhoods, Orchard Valley, and I believe it is the best neighborhood in town.  I want to tell you a bit about my neighborhood and my neighbors, and then ask what the town is doing and should do to support this fine neighborhood and others like it.

Orchard Valley was built in the mid-1960s. It is typical of postwar suburban-style subdivisions, with its curving streets and cul-de-sacs, buried utilities, and a limited array of house types: 3 or 4 ranch-type houses, and a single, two-story colonial model. Houses are small by current standards, topping out at around 1,600 square feet. But the street view often hides the fact that long-term homeowners have improved and added on to their homes. Half-acre lots tend to blend together in joined back yards. Only a few streets have sidewalks; kids play in the streets. There are many street-side basketball hoops, but no public facilities except for the recently restored Markert’s Pond. The emerging village center at Pomeroy Lane is a healthy walk away along busy Route 116.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

From the beginning, the neighborhood has attracted a diverse group of owners. Both staff and faculty from the university and colleges, along with school teachers, nurses, small-business owners, tradespeople, writers, psychologists and other professionals who live side by side. On my little street alone (which my grandchildren affectionately call Tracy Semicircle) we have racially diverse neighbors from all walks of life and from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Israel, as well as native-born Americans of European, African, and Hispanic descent. Some households are multi-generational, and some families have occupied their houses continuously from the beginning of the development. Yet these relatively affordable houses do come on the market and sell quickly. In recent years, many new, young families have moved in, attracted by a lively neighborhood culture, the renewing presence of children (and babysitters!), a fine local school, and the fact that the neighborhood reflects the incredible diversity of the town.

The neighborhood has also attracted some absentee owners, who are able to price other buyers out of the market and pack many student renters into these relatively snug dwellings. We have not had the big problems of other parts of town, but this is a worrisome development that current town programs have not been able to address.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

What makes Orchard Valley a thriving, cohesive neighborhood is the sense of a shared life that many of us experience. Successive generations have created a common life defined by the activities of daily and seasonal life: child-rearing, biking, hoops, shared tools and projects. This is a neighborhood of all-season walkers, so we know the names and habits of the neighborhood dogs, cats and kids. People look out for each other. New households and families are quickly assimilated into neighborhood routines.

So, here’s a desirable neighborhood that comes close to meeting the goals of our Master Plan. What should the Town be doing to preserve and enhance the character of this neighborhood? Do we need new public facilities like a playground or more sidewalks? Do we need new Town services like sidewalk plowing in this walk-crazy neighborhood, or a town fund to purchase houses for resale to owner-occupants, keeping them out of the hands of absentee landlords? How about revival of the PVTA bus route that serviced the neighborhood and reduced our dependence on cars?

Pomeroy St./Rt. 116 intersection

The point here is that town decision-makers need to go beyond the rhetoric of “neighborhood character” to fashion programs that actually support and enhance neighborhoods like mine, neighborhoods that come close to the goals of cohesion and diversity of class and race. Does your neighborhood reflect those goals (looking at you, Amherst Woods)? What would help make it so? Let us know.