Saving an `urban forest'

Preservation: A man who often retreats into the woods near Cold Spring Lane hopes that, with the city's help, others will do the same.

June 04, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The sun filtering through 100-year-old trees dapples moss-covered boulders, a stream gurgles, honeysuckle scents the air, woodland birds chant springtime chatter like backyard gossips, a veil of green hides Baltimore a couple of miles away, and Stan Edmister meditates on the "urban forest."

"I think it's amazing we have this natural wonder five minutes from downtown," says Edmister, a kind of Thoreau of the inner-city "wilderness." "Feel how quiet and restful it is here. Trees have a spirit that is very beneficial to man.

"Humans used to be more connected to the natural world, and the more disconnected they become, the more problems they have."

An artist, bridge decorator, playground designer, mushroom grower and walker in the woods, Edmister has been fighting that disconnection for years. He's tall and tan at 62, striding through the underbrush as agilely as his dogs Joab, a golden retriever, and Blacky, a low-down Baltimore street dog.

He stands in this streambed maybe 300 yards from the Jones Falls Expressway and about 200 yards south of Cold Spring Lane in the midst of an old, bosky woodland, rare in urban America and perhaps unique. Motorists and travelers on the light rail see Woodberry Woods as a flash of green when they ride by. He sees it as a natural retreat under siege.

"I love this forest," he says. He's a stalwart defender.

This land is called "unimproved" on old planning charts, which is a kind of license for developers to take their best shot. Loyola College wants a piece for athletic fields. The MTA wants parking for the Cold Spring light rail station. The new Northern District police station is being built on an old landfill.

Edmister was arrested a month ago taking photos of what he calls illegal dumping in the woods at the police station site. The city says he was trespassing. He mourns the loss of the trees he says the dumping has killed.

He has lived for a decade at the top of the hill that slopes sharply down to the brook, which is fed by the Cold Spring that gives the area its name. (There's another branch fed by Green Spring.) He offers an idea for protection of the woodland with every other step.

Last week, Edmister, as the representative of the Greenspring Trails Neighborhood Association, and Jan Danforth of Citizens for Woodberry applied for a $10,000 Celebration 2000 grant for an Urban Forest Initiative plan to build a Coldspring Wilderness Trail and Woodland Mushroom Garden.

The trail would wind a half-mile inside the forest along Cold Spring Lane from the planned Jones Falls Greenway Trail to Greenspring Avenue. Edmister envisions the path bordered with blackberry and raspberry bushes that would provide a natural buffer from the street and offer fresh berries for walkers to pick in season.

"I can inoculate wood chips along the trail with [mushroom] spawn," Edmister says. That's how you "plant" mushrooms. "So that people could walk along and there'd be fruiting oysters and shitake [mushrooms]. And they'd be able to pick those."

He thinks a mushroom garden would pay for itself and the wilderness trail through sales at the city's farmers' markets.

Edmister has decorated bridges from Howard Street to the Massachusetts Turnpike, including New York's Hell Gate railroad bridge, and has designed brilliantly playable playgrounds from 26th Street to Bryn Mawr School, where his slide and climber structure takes the form of a DNA molecule.

But he might be best known these days as the mushroom man who fries shitake and morels at the Waverly farmers' market and, until this year, at the downtown market.

He grows shitake mushrooms on oak logs stacked up in his back yard like a half-dozen Lincoln Log stockades. Oyster mushrooms grow from perforated plastic bags filled with straw. He forages for morels, chanterelles and maitake.

He and most of his neighbors along Gordon Road just got title to their homes. They had been held by the city for development that never developed. Once called Dogpatch because of all the dogs in the neighborhood, it's now officially Greenspring Trails.

"We feel it's irresponsible to live in a beautiful natural environment like this and not care for the forest," he says.

The neighbors recently persuaded the city housing department to modify plans to put 40 standard urban houses in the woods. The city has agreed to maybe half as many homes in "a new kind of development, green and environmentally friendly."

"We want desirable homes built," Edmister says. "We want capable taxpayers willing to care for their neighborhood environment."

Edmister lives in a big old frame house that was in an advanced state of decay -- "a horror story" -- when he moved in. He has remodeled extensively and is doing more now that he owns the house. From a second-floor deck, there is a view down into forest through a grove of 100-foot-tall, 100- and-150-year-old oaks, locust and tulip poplars, even some elms.

Hawks, woodpeckers, woodcock, rabbits, wood frogs, salamanders and raccoons find refuge here.

"We have a family of foxes back here," he says. "I kept them alive for about 10 years. I had a chicken and cow here for the longest while."

City life does intrude on the woodland. The streambed below and its banks are trashed with countless aluminum cans, polyester wrappers and foam cups, hundreds of tires, the odd rusted refrigerator and occasional shopping cart.

"I have a design for stopping the trash," Edmister says, "by tightening the spacing on the storm water grates on the streets. It will keep all this trash that's thrown out of cars from washing into the park and out of sight. It'll be kept on the street where it belongs.

"And the city can sweep it up with a street sweeper and haul it to the dump. It does not belong in our forest."

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