A lot of people think "Cleveland" and "nature" are mutually exclusive. But they're not—by a long shot. Everywhere you look, from cemeteries to tiny city lawns to abandoned industrial sites, nature asserts itself in Cleveland in ways both glorious and subtle. Clevelanders, like people everywhere, live on the land. We're just not as accustomed as others to seeing it. That's a miss, because understanding the land can help us connect more deeply to the world and each other.
We hope this series of blog posts help open your eyes to the wonders of our particular corner of Earth. We hope it helps you to see how, the next time you drive from University Circle to Buckeye Road or Cleveland Heights, you're traversing two of the nation's major geologic regions. We hope it helps you understand why it's so darn cloudy in November and December. We hope it helps you find places to pick apples in the Flats, and where you can spot a coyote in the city.
Oh yeah. Who are "we," anyway? We're Jill Collins and Justin Glanville. Jill is an urban naturalist and illustrator. Justin is a writer and urban planner. He loves exploring and thinking about cities, taking them apart like clocks to find out how they work.
Train tracks create unique habitat for species because the tracks are continuous corridors used by animals and plants to travel. Trains can carry and deposit seeds from other regions in new habitats. While this may lead to the spread of invasives, like the silvery-leafed autumn olive, you may also find some native species you might not otherwise see along the tracks. Plants uncommon to the area, like purple lovegrass, thrive along the tracks because of alternative seed dispersal and because sandy, semi-undisturbed passages are rare, especially in urban areas like Cleveland. If you haven’t seen purple lovegrass before, I believe you would like it. Few other plants have seed heads that resemble purple clouds.
Now might not be the best time to see the purple lovegrass; or migratory birds, like spring warblers, or the colorful snails’ shells that are scattered like old railway ties along the tracks, but a number of plants are currently in their prime. Grasses, like switch grass, stand out more now that flowers don’t push their more modest forms into obscurity.
Crabapple trees, too, are worth your attention. These trees have lost their leaves, but their red, orange, or yellow fruit are still attached. These fruits vary in size and taste, but their vibrant colors warm the stark winter landscape. Maybe someone you knew made crabapple jelly from crabapples like these. They stand, sometimes, in areas where you wouldn’t think to find crabapples—like behind the shopping plaza across the street from the West Side Market. Along the train tracks and down on Scranton Road, it is unclear whether they were planted, or whether they sprang up of their own volition, or from apple-eating animals.
Now, too, is a good time to look for animal prints along the train tracks. Tracks of deer, coyotes, and a few other animals can be seen in mud or snow. Many animals walk the area along the tracks on the west side that may have been the path of Walworth Run. Animals may be common here because of relatively abundant food resources, and also because of the water that pools on either side of the train tracks (a reminder of the culverted stream that runs below).
January is still a time to become familiar with nature in the city —and you can even do it comfortably, without freezing, from the heated cars of the Rapid Red Line train. In most seasons, a variety of hawks can be spotted as they circle the sky or as they wait for prey atop leafless trees. Red-tailed hawks are especially common. Wild dogs use the tracks as paths.
Although it is difficult to identify many plant species through the train windows, some plants with obvious forms, such as the staghorn sumac, can be recognized and appreciated, even in winter. Sumacs red, upside-down cone shaped fruits stand out amidst the greys of winter. Birds that remain through the winter, like cardinals and robins, and snow birds (juncos) can be seen feeding on seeds.
Be sure to stop back in other seasons for: The migrant birds can be seen as the trees and plants bud out in the spring. Groundhogs’ round bodies can be recognized as they feast on plants (they are out in all seasons, except winter).
Each train station offers a unique portrait. Some are home to invasives, like at the W. 25th Street station, where Japanese knotweed has taken over the western bank near the entrance. The knotweed is skeleton-like in winter and asparagus-like in spring. At the E. 55th Street station, sandy soil supports weedy plants. Some weeds are beautiful in their own right, like ‘butter and eggs’, also known as toadwort. A neglected yellow plum tree with delicious fruit grows just beyond the entrance to the E . 105th Street station. You will see daffodils in spring that still come up in several places along the no man’s land between stations; proof that these spots were once inhabited.
Illustrations and story by Jill Collins.