River Rail Colby Issue
River Rail

Abandoned Spaces

A taxonomical walk through liminal spaces with eco-scientist Justin Becknell.

Each morning, I wake up early and walk with my dog from downtown to the river in the postindustrial New England town where I live. I walk a few blocks on sidewalks past buildings and parking lots to reach the river’s edge, where not that long ago a woolen mill and a foundry looked across the river to a paper mill. The riverfront has since been abandoned as a place of industry; some stretches have been turned into public parks or parking lots, while other spaces have simply been abandoned. I travel through these built spaces to landscaped spaces, and farther to abandoned spaces. Walking these transitions every day challenges me to reconcile my different ways of thinking about space.

To get from my front door to the river, I begin on new concrete sidewalks, clean and unstained. I cross the soft blacktop road surface marked with faded striping, stained by lubricants and coolants leaked from passing cars. The sidewalk across the street is old, stained, and cracked. There are plants growing out from its larger cracks. I can see Virginia pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum), ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), and tufted lovegrass (Eragrostis pectinacea, I think—I’m not great with grass species). At a sunken curb cut, sand has mixed with decomposing leaves to form sufficient soil for a tiny forest of red maple (Acer rubrum) sprouts to grow. Along a chain-link fence guarding an empty parking lot, vines of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) shoot up. Trapped in the vines are a candy-bar wrapper (Twix) and a flattened fast-food drink cup (Burger King).

When I cross the last street and enter the riverside park, I step into trimmed grass wet with dew. I pass shrubs and small trees growing out of mulch arranged in perfect ovals. The plants, chosen carefully by landscape architects, are native to this area, calling back to a baseline plant community that no longer exists. Red maple seedlings, white clover (Trifolium repens), and ragweed are present here, but held back by mowers and weeding hands. The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) evades them by growing flat leaves that the mower misses and by quickly moving from flower to seed between mowings. At the river’s edge, rising and ebbing waters leave driftwood and drift-trash. An entire tree’s root system is stranded on the rocks, cleaned of the soil and bark that once surrounded it. A bright yellow plastic bag is caught in the tentacle roots. A discarded water bottle lies next to a beer can on the gravel shoreline nearby. The park is small. The dog and I pass through it quickly, stopping occasionally to smell the leavings of others. We head to the north edge of the park, where an eroded dirt path into the woods along the river invites the curious.

* * *

We might think of the world as divided into wild spaces and managed spaces. A wild old-growth forest in a remote location, or a manicured square of grass between sidewalk and building. The wild space is assumed to be the domain of nonhuman life. We might visit the wild and behold its chaos, walk the safety of a trail and look into surrounding disorder. We value the randomness. The indiscriminate mix of plants provides welcome complexity. Scattered rocks and soil offer tiny stories of geomorphic change. We might delight in a pile of deer feces because it reminds us of the presence of large creatures hiding nearby. A half-decomposed carcass encountered on the ground is slightly unnerving, but it reminds us of the very real death and violence of the wild space. A fallen tree across the path offers an appealing obstacle—an adventure amid the gentle chaos.

Any perception of order devalues wildness. We would not make a straight trail when we could make a meandering one. Bridges, steps, and boardwalks are employed only when absolutely necessary. When they are made, it is usually from materials on site, made to look as rustic and at home as possible. Motor vehicles prohibited. Carry out what you bring in. Leave no trace of your presence, as it might ruin someone else’s fantasy that this space is free from human change.

In the managed space, our expectations and values flip. The monoculture of neatly clipped grass reassures us that professionals are on hand to keep growth in check. The neat circle of mulch around a tree hides unseemly connections between roots and soil. Branches are trimmed to maintain a clean trunk and a shapely crown. Leaves are raked to save us from evidence of decay. The clean walkway with right angles aids efficient movement without risk of getting dirty. Anything out of place devalues the space. A piece of trash or dog feces is evidence of human shortcomings. A cracked sidewalk sprouting weeds is a sign of our failing institutions.

Back on my walk, I leave the managed park and head down the trail into the woods. This area doesn’t fit nicely into either of these categories. It is certainly not managed. Once I pass the last bit of mowed grass, it’s messy and chaotic. I often forget about the poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) at the edge and rush to restrain my dog before she blunders through it. It doesn’t bother her, but I’ll pet her later and pay the price. Black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) line the path. Perhaps this species escaped cultivation around the time that the riverfront industry migrated away. Now it’s the dominant tree species. As I walk, it appears that there are more introduced species than native species. Rosa multiflora, Rhamnus cathartica, and Celastrus orbiculatus are the most common plants in the understory, and all are considered invasive here. There is garbage. Evidence of homeless camps. The noise from the road nearby drowns out the sounds of birds. Stone and concrete foundations, ruins of the industrial past, stick out of the vegetation in places. It’s a place where young people hide their drinking and smoking. It is an anarchic space—in its use and in the vegetation that grows there. It is a space that is marginal and abandoned.

* * *

I have developed a professional interest over the last decade in abandoned spaces. Land abandonment in forested regions has been a major focus of my research. I have studied what happens when agricultural land is abandoned and forest regrows. I’ve asked questions like: What happens to the plant species composition? Which trees are the first to arrive? Which trees come later, slowly replacing their pioneering predecessors while benefiting from how they have modified the environment? I have also studied how matter and energy move through these second-growth forests and how that changes with their recovery. I am interested in how quickly carbon accumulates and the fate of the energy it holds within its chemical bonds. I think about how we might mitigate climate change by growing back forests that take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Much of my research has taken place in so-called “secondary forest.” This is the kind of forest that grows back after the “primary forest” has been cleared for some reason. Perhaps it’s converted to pasture for a decade, then abandoned when it’s no longer profitable. The term “secondary forest” has long been used, even in ecological science, as a diminutive, and it suggests that these forests are less valuable, less interesting, less worthwhile as a focus of scientific inquiry. Past researchers searched for the unexplored “virgin forest” where new species, untouched by human hands, could be found. Secondary forests had fewer species of plants and animals, most or all of them well known. They had exotic invaders growing on soils eroded and degraded by human activities. Secondary forests were a byproduct of human activities like a tailing pond or a dump site. As the conservation movement set aside land, intact forest was targeted, leaving secondary forest to be cleared or logged again.

I recall my first impressions of a secondary forest in Central America. I had to climb through a broken, barbed-wire fence to get into an abandoned pasture, snagging and tearing my shirt along the way. Abandoned just seven years prior, it no longer resembled a pasture, but it was not yet a forest. Patches of grass used to feed cattle remained. But much of the space was now occupied by thorn-covered young trees connected by dense networks of wiry vines. The trees were not tall enough to provide shade from the searing sun. Many of the plant species that survived were those that remained after years of grazing, species whose thorns or sandpapery leaves made them difficult for cows to eat. I remember thinking, Why are we here? What possible ecological value is contained in this place?

My thinking evolved as I got to know the landscape and saw how the forest changed as it returned. Over a few years, I watched the dense and thorny stage transition into a closed canopy with an open understory. This coincided with rapid increase in wood volume and organic matter on the ground, signaling the carbon taken from the atmosphere as the forest grew. I even grew to appreciate the thorny early stages after abandonment. Those ephemeral habitats host a unique collection of plants and animals that specialize in abandoned lands. They grow quickly, reproduce, and move on to other newly disturbed sites.

Recent decades have seen a revision of thinking on abandoned lands in the field of ecology. Work by people like Robin Chazdon at the University of Connecticut has highlighted the ecological significance of secondary forests. But perhaps more important is the fact that old-growth forests are becoming increasingly rare. As deforestation continues at high rates, the majority of the world’s forests are now secondary, and that fraction continues to grow. With their area increasing, researchers have begun to demonstrate new ways to find value in these young forests. For example, soon after becoming established, secondary forests have a growth spurt lasting several decades that is key to solving climate change. That growth spurt sequesters carbon at rates an order of magnitude faster than mature forests. Regrowing forest is now considered an important method humans can use to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While they do contain the mark of human activities, regrowing forests provides much of the same habitat and ecosystem services of primary forest. In the case of carbon, they can do more than primary forest. As they get older, if left to grow old, their diversity and complexity increases and the scars of the human past fade (though some aspects of old-growth forests may take centuries to return).

* * *

In focusing my scientific work on devalued forests growing on abandoned land, I planted the seeds that have led me to question our disdain for certain spaces. But perhaps those ideas originated much earlier in my life. One of my oldest memories is of exploring the woods behind my house as a child. It was just a tiny patch of trees between a hayfield and a cornfield, but in that patch I found a treasure mound of rusted farm garbage from another age. I pulled from the soil an old pail with its bottom rusted away. I remember some kind of corroded large spring. Necks of broken milk bottles. Cans small and large, bent and rusted. I collected as many of these items as I could, freeing them from the soil and roots. I carried them through the woods to my camp, a little clearing in the center of four pine trees with needles covering the ground. I had dragged in a log to provide seating, made a fire ring but never made a fire, and built that kind of lean-to kids make in the woods by propping branches against each other.

As an adolescent in a postindustrial midwestern city, I explored the ruins of mills and the once occupied, now wooded banks of the river. I befriended other young people who made an art of spray-painting walls. They showed me the hole in the fence to get into the old mill complex, how to get out onto the dam at night, and the entrance to the tunnels under the city. I can remember climbing to the top of a six-story warehouse that had been half-burned years earlier. We had to crawl up a pipe through a hole in the concrete floor to get to the second floor. Then we leaped and scrambled up the remnants of a rotted stairway and climbed through a ventilation hood to get onto the roof. There, a tree had taken root in a low spot where water collected and the crumbling concrete had formed a kind of soil. Its roots grew through the cracks to hold on, much like a tree growing on a cliff edge in the wilderness.

This exploratory experience scratched the same itch that drove me to the woods or mountains on backpacking trips. The view of the city from the top of a crumbling mill building is as rich in my memory as any mountaintop panorama. But urban exploring is different and perhaps more thrilling because the abandoned corners of the city tell us something about who and what we are. The spaces we’ve abandoned and left to crumble furnish clues to parts of our history we don’t often acknowledge. Or the parts of our collective consciousness that I wish weren’t there: our systems that build up huge structures that we then walk away from and let fall. The side of humanity that creates piles of waste at scales that rival (or dwarf) our biggest monuments.

* * *

A few days ago I again got up early and took the dog on this now-familiar walk. She doesn’t seem burdened by the judgments and values that disrupt my thinking. She doesn’t judge the nonnative or weedy plants beside the road. A piece of garbage is as enticing to her as an odd-smelling plant or feces. We made our way down to the park and into the abandoned riparian wood to the north. I remembered to keep her out of the poison ivy. The path was wet from overnight rain and there were fresh vehicle ruts in the mud where water had pooled, turning the dog’s white paws brown. Up the path a hundred meters or so, we came upon a dump pile. Someone had filled a truck with junk, driven down to the river, and unloaded it in the middle of the path through the woods: a soiled mattress, seven worn tires, rain-soaked cardboard boxes broken open and spilling crumpled papers, bits of plastic packaging, ragged old clothes. On top of the pile sat a doorless beige refrigerator, rusted and moldy. I imagine this refrigerator once lived in a kitchen, but at some point was replaced and relegated to the garage or basement, where it held surplus beer and soda. Eventually, after breaking down, it was put out back for a few years where it degraded further. Someone removed the door so kids wouldn’t get trapped inside. Then, in an ambitious effort, someone carried it and other trash to the truck. But lack of energy or money meant it was left here rather than at the municipal dump. It’s someone else’s problem now.

The dump pile saddened and angered me. I stood there looking at the garbage, imagining the person who did this. I painted a picture of them in my mind and judged them. I imagined what I would do if I caught them in the act. Call the cops? Try to convince them to pack it back up and take it to the dump? Maybe even show some sympathy and help clean it up or offer up a little money to pay the dump? At least some of my anger should be directed at systems that charge for waste disposal and locate dumps in places not accessible to all.

A few imaginary arguments later, I looked down at the dog, who couldn’t have been more enraptured by what we’d found. I’m not sure she had ever encountered anything so amazing in her life. What stories the smells of this pile must tell. It took considerable effort to compel her to leave the garbage behind. The trail was blocked, so we headed back down the muddy path toward town, the dog looking back and inhaling fondly.

The lesson here still evades me. Is it that I should look at this fresh trash pile with as much interest as the younger me looked at the antique farm trash in the woods behind my house? Perhaps, just like the abandoned space, the dump pile is an artifact of human existence that can tell its own story about who we are. A society where it is much easier to acquire objects than dispose of them. A culture that tends to reward dumping more than cleaning up. Maybe my inner moral voice is just saying, Go back and clean it up if you don’t like it.

The lesson might be that I should be working to hasten the paradigm shift that will make future would-be dumpers value this riverside abandoned industrial land as much as they might value a designed and manicured park. Promoting abandoned land as public space. Noticing the plants growing in the sidewalk cracks. Taking more walks in abandoned spaces.


Justin Becknell

Justin Becknell is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His ecological research focuses on forests and climate change in the tropical forests of Central and South America and the temperate forests of the northeast.


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