img src="../images/blogs/kirstine-and-nhl-player/kirstine-grab-headshot.png" What Inspired Our Staff Member Cory Brown in 2020

What Inspired Our Staff Member Cory Brown in 2020

December 9, 2020

It's been a tough year... Acknowledging the pain and challenges, we want to share some positivity. So we asked our staff the question: "What's something that inspired you in wildlife conservation this year?" Throughout December we plan to publish the responses. Below we share Cory Brown's response.

From Cory Brown: "2020 was a difficult year for me, most other humans on our planet, and the planet itself. My work in international conservation came to a slow stop. My entire family and I got covid-19 but luckily recovered while we watched the pandemic sweep across the US unchecked and taking a hundreds of thousands of American lives in the process. My kids became hermits, attending school virtually from home, I haven't seen my family in 18 months, I've been plagued with chronic headaches, anxiety, and depression, gained 15 pounds, and my washing machine broke. Meanwhile, deforestation rates in the Amazon have skyrocketed, Canada's last ice shelf collapsed into the sea, the hurricane season has been the most active on record, and in California more than 4 million acres have burned - double the previous record.

During all these various crises and heartbreaks the world over, I have spent hours toiling in the vacant lot next to my house in urban Washington, DC. I have picked up bags and bags of trash - plastics, beer cans, and water bottles filled with urine. I have ripped out, chopped down, and pulled off a living wall of invasive plants: porcelainberry, bush honeysuckle, muliflora roses, kudzu, English ivy, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, Norway maples, mulberries, Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese mugwort - and then mowed the cleared areas to prevent them from growing back.

Before photos of the littered lot next to Cory Brown's home.

Photos courtesy of Cory Brown

I've had my arms covered in poison ivy rashes, been bloodied by the thorns of honey locusts and briars and lost two toenails from wearing uncomfortable work boots. I've found little native trees underneath all the vines, smothered under the weight, and have carefully clipped away all the stranglers and watched as they have grown towards the sun and leafed out. I've planted native perennials and shrubs where once there was just a wall of weeds - echinacea, Joe-Pye weed, common milkweed, monarda, native honeysuckle, garden phlox, black-eyed Susans, American beautyberry, switchgrass, big bluestem grass, blue-eyed grass - and watched as they sprouted, covered the barren ground, and bloomed, and then marveled as all sorts of wildlife enjoyed their nectar and pollen and seeds. Monarchs, Eastern swallowtails, skippers, and tiger swallowtails - species I'd never observed in my urban neighborhood suddenly appeared.

The city of DC, our electric utility company, and Casey Trees provided native trees for me to plant on the lot, and my vision of reforesting this little corner took shape. Where there once was an expanse of grass and tenacious weeds now hosts nuttall oaks, white oaks, pin oaks, Kentucky yellowwoods, serviceberries, redbuds, tupelo blackgum, American beeches and hornbeams, Southern magnolia, sycamore, sugar and red maples, river birches, and Southern catalpas. I purchased and planted four pawpaw trees which have produced delicious native fruits.

Images of the lot near Cory Brown's home in transition to a functional landscape

Photos courtesy of Cory Brown

Through the DC Riversmart Program two native Bayscape gardens were planted on the lot, replacing even more non-native lawn with native perennials and shrubs and diverting the rain water from my home's downspout runoff from the sewer to the lot. Most recently I have put up bird feeders and a bird bath and have had native birds visit that I've never seen in the city before - white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, and white-throated sparrows. I've found Eastern worm snakes, Eastern red-backed salamanders, and De Kay's brown snakes while out digging. I've had Eastern chipmunks, Virginia opossums, and Eastern cottontail rabbits pass through, all of which are experiencing population declines in DC and considered Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the city.

Images of the vacant lot next to Cory Brown's house after her interventions.

Photos courtesy of Cory Brown

I am entertained daily by the antics of a Northern mockingbird who defends the bright purple berries of his beautyberry bush with amazing ferocity. The bald eagle and red-tailed hawks that regularly soar overhead remind me that my lot will also provide them with hunting opportunities. The enormous colony of chimney swifts that live in the unused chimneys in the historic apartment buildings in my neighborhood amaze me every sunset as they fly into a massive swirling formation and one by one dive into the chimney right as the sky goes dark.

This little patch of land isn't going to change the state of the world, but it is going to provide a habitat for wildlife that wasn't there before. It isn't going to solve the climate change problem or reverse endangered species declines, but it is going to offer a spot to rest and replenish for the migratory birds and butterflies that pass through on their migration down south. Where before there was a desert of invasive species and piles of trash there are now young native trees and flowers and shrubs that will grow and provide shelter and food and habitat for bugs and bees and butterflies and birds and bats and rabbits and snakes and salamanders.

More photos of the vacant lot transformed.

Photos courtesy of Cory Brown

My lot won't directly prevent the next ice shelf from collapsing into the Arctic Ocean, but it will provide shade that will cool its surrounding area, block the noise of street traffic, provide my neighbors with access to nature to observe and enjoy, and reduce storm water runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. During this terrible year, my little trashy vacant lot has been my connection to the natural world, a constant reminder that our planet (and its human inhabitants too) can recover and regenerate and flourish - as long as humans take responsibility, intervene to undo the damage, clean up the trash, redirect the water, forgo the chemicals, reforest and restore with native species, replace the resources we have removed, and work really hard…and ignore the poison ivy."