HOTHOUSE Episode 006: Conservation and Identity with Park Ranger LaJuan Tucker  

Recorded April 23, 2018

Episode released June 6, 2018 

Copyright Leah Churner 2018


[intro with excerpts]

LaJuan: When you look at just how we identify with our natural landscape, how we protect against change, has a lot to do with what we fear, but also how we view ourselves and our future.


LaJuan: Is food access more important than preserving a landscape? Those are complicated questions. I can't say I have the answers to them, but I'm really interested in how we have the conversation and who's invited to the table.  

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: This is Hothouse, a podcast about design, ecology, and the way we garden now. I’m Leah Churner, a landscape designer in Austin, Texas, and my guest today is LaJuan Tucker. 

[cut to excerpts]

LaJuan: My name is LaJuan Tucker.  I'm a park ranger and a program coordinator for the city of Austin, which basically means that I do a little bit of everything every day. Every day looks different which is what I love about working in the outdoors. I advocate for wildlife, specifically in public spaces, but also I advocate for teaching natural resources to communities and absorbing what communities know about natural resources for the city. 

My passion really is working with young people to make sure that they have access to the outdoors, and particularly young people of color. To learn what inspires them but also how we can make jobs more accessible. That's a little bit about what I do.

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department launched the park ranger program in 2010. LaJuan and the other rangers wear uniforms and badges but they are not armed and they are not cops; they are trained in CPR and their role is to increase safety on the trails and educate the public about stewardship of our parklands. And we do have a lot of park. Depending on how you count, Austin has between 20 thousand and 27 thousand acres of parkland, with a wide range of diverse habitats and ecosystems. 

[cut to excerpts]

LaJuan: We’re in an urban environment for the most part, but it's an urban environment that will go from very urban, to very remote, where you may not see someone on the trail if you go the right time of day So, I love that about my job because you have to have a lot of skill to be able to talk to people, speak to people who are going through stuff in their life and still relate nature to it, but also be able to hustle out on their own out in the middle of nowhere.

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: On this episode, we’ll hear all about a day in the life of a park ranger and Austin’s wildlife conservation initiatives, from restoring monarch habitats to creating no-mow zones in riparian areas. 

We’ll also zoom out and look at conservation more broadly: What is the connection between conservation and identity? That’s a question that requires us to grapple with the history of place. Not just natural history, but social history as well.  

[cut to excerpts]

LaJuan: I think the same things that may spark nostalgia and the glory days of the past aren't so glorious for some of us. Some of us don't think that the way things used to be were that great, and were in fact painful. Doesn't mean there weren't good things. Doesn't mean there aren't things now that we can tease out of the past, that we can use in the present. But I think ignoring that is a form of exclusion.

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: LaJuan says the landscape itself is a tremendously powerful platform for talking about issues of race and class. And this plays out both in terms of our history and our present.  

There’s a document I found from the Trust For Public Land that gives all kinds of statistics about city parks throughout the country. So for Austin, and these numbers are from 2016, if you factor in the size of the population and the acreage of parkland, that works out to about 1,300 square feet of park per Austin resident. Compare that to Los Angeles, that’s about 400 square feet of parkland per person, and New York City, 200 square feet per person. So that’s really cool, right? Every single Austinite gets to enjoy all this space, BUT, a lot of that parkland is concentrated in affluent parts of town. Just 48% of Austin’s residents have walkable access to a public park — they define that within a half-mile from where you live without having to cross freeway or hop a fence or a body of water or whatever. Compare that to 55% access in famously pedestrian-unfriendly Los Angeles, and 97% walkable access in New York. 

So we have a lot of parkland, but it’s not equally distributed, and it’s not equally accessible. Our parks, like our city as a whole, remain fairly segregated.  What can we do about that? Well, one thing to do is get involved in local politics. That’s something we are going to discuss on the next episode of Hothouse.  

I met LaJuan last year when we both took a Permaculture Design Course through the Austin Permaculture Guild. I’ll give ya’ll a refresher definition of what we’re talking about— Permaculture is an approach to design that borrows the logic of natural ecosystems. Another term for it would be regenerative design or regenerative agriculture. The goal is to minimize inputs of non-renewable resources and maximize the outputs of functionality. And beauty. 

Ok, here’s LaJuan. We started talking about her background. She grew up in Philadelphia, studied history and psychology in college, and eventually she came down Texas way. 

[cut to interview]

LaJuan: I've been in Austin since 2012. Before then, I was in Dallas, and kind of been all over this country, working in the outdoors, working in different fields. I love Austin because it's a city within a park. We do a lot of advocating for keeping Austin green as we grow. But with that, I think there's a lot of historic ... I know there's a lot of historic racism that plays out today, and it's not all history, right? How we zone, what parks go where, what amenities goes where, has a lot to do with race and class. 

LaJuan: One of the things that attracted me to permaculture is that it’s a system that's not new. It's a system that I think a lot of people around the globe have been using and have been living in coexistence with the environment and not against it, like Western society, like we do. I think in Austin, that plays out because we're going through critical questions right now as we grow, and a lot of those critical questions play out in the landscape of parks. How do we take care of our parks? How do we adequately make sure they're funded? How do we make sure that everybody has access to parks equally? How do we make sure that kids of color aren't moving away because they don't have access to these spaces and they don't feel like they see themselves in the outdoors or let's not make assumptions that they don't. Let's make programs that are accessible to people, in their language, and with whatever they identify with. 

LaJuan: I think permaculture represents that for me. Working for the city of Austin, I work with professionals who are also having that conversation so I'm grateful for that. 

Leah: What kind of work with youth do you do? Is that part of your job working as a park ranger?

LaJuan: Yes. I'll back up a little bit. When I first moved to Texas, or when I first moved to Austin, I worked for Texas Conservation Corps. I was a crew leader for the Service Learning Academy, so SLA crew leader. That was basically a crash course into conservation work. It was very hard labor, but it was the best worst job ever, that's the way I can describe it. It was full time service, so it was an AmeriCorps position. But I had access to young professionals who were anywhere between 16 and then they're 21, 22. Some of them, traditional school systems didn't work for them. Some of them were just extremely intelligent but they had family life that was real. They had to take care of their families, they were the ones providing for their parents or their siblings. I can definitely identify with them. 

LaJuan: They were getting back to school, and I think the AmeriCorps system with Texas Conservation Corps worked for them because they could work, earn a stipend, go to school, and learn job skills. It's an integrated system. 

LaJuan: From there, I moved on with the city as a park ranger over the Wildlife Austin program, and through that, I'm grateful that I work in a flexible system where we have a cadet program that's based in Akins High School. They have a Green Tech Academy, and our students amaze us every day. We get to work with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then we hire them on in the summers. It was something that was driven by Sarah Hensley and Kimberly McNeeley. Our leadership recognizes that there is a gap in management, there's a race gap, there's a class gap, of access for communities of colors to be able to work in Parks and Rec, or with work in outdoor fields in general. 

LaJuan: I learn from my students every day, they keep me hip — I think, or hope — but they teach me the lessons that I think that I learned through the corps. Just that the struggle is real. But they give me hope that they're coming up with answers too as they develop and mature. I get to have access to young people through my job. It's not my direct job, but I get to say, "This is what I'm doing, I think it's worthwhile, it fits our initiatives," and they let me.

Leah: These cadets are, they're high school students, right?

LaJuan: Yeah, they're high school students, they're juniors and seniors, they're right at the precipice of life. What am I doing with my life? Man, stuff's about to get real. We train them on anything from kayaking, rock climbing, fly fishing, fly tying, anything that is based on the skills set of our park ranger unit, we make sure they have access to it. But not just us, because want them to be employed as cadets, but that's the base minimum, right? We want these to be leaders that are making policy decisions, that are making decisions about how do we use our natural resources, how do we quantify it, do we want to quantify it, how do you measure the value of the environment?  

Yeah. See I've been with the city for almost three years, I'm going into my fourth year. I've worked with the cadet program the whole time. I introduced a lot service learning into their curriculum because I feel like it had value for the students that I connected to through the corps. It's one thing to teach a lesson about recycling. It's one thing to teach a lesson about erosion. It's another thing to build a trail or to observe on a kayak erosion and deposition, right? To have a visceral connection to these lessons and how they impact not just in abstraction, how they impact what we think about, but how it impacts your water fed and your water quality and connect those dots. 

I'm a dot connector, I can't learn something just in abstraction. I think the cadet program and the service learning projects that we're able to do, whether it's invasive species removal. It's not all just book knowledge, it's also experience. Yeah. 

Leah: So you're like kayaking around and showing them the effects of, you know, pollution and erosion and ... 

LaJuan: Yeah. We try to team them up with Austin Youth River Watch. They're a huge leader in youth education here. They go the high school, they pick high school students up, and they test hard core, and provide for Texas' TCEQ [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality], water quality data. Valuable data that we just don't have access to otherwise. We've partnered up with them before. Every lesson, or every day out with a park ranger is a lesson. If we can connect it to the bigger whole, that's what we try to do. It could be birdwatching, that's another thing that we do. We went out to Decker Lake, we have access to some of the preserves out there that are managed specifically for wildlife and monarch butterflies.

LaJuan: We've gone out there with them and talked to them about birds, waterfowl. It's not just you're looking at nature as this blob of things that you see, but you're connecting to the life that is nature. 

Leah: You're kind of a bird nerd, I think. 

LaJuan: I don't know. It's hard to say. I love birds. I love learning about birds, and when I first started, I didn't know a woodpecker from a hummingbird. But I work with a lot of professionals who love teaching, and love observing, and luckily, this position values that. I've learned, over time, to read the manuals—

Leah: —I’m sorry, I apologize for calling you a bird nerd. I just, you know, you just have the binoculars ready in the car, and every time I've ever been around you and there’s a bird, you open your binoculars and you're like, "It's a bapity bah!" To me, I mean I don't know the circles of [birding]…there's probably a spectrum of bird nerds. 

LaJuan: Yeah, yeah.

Leah: I understand it's probably ... there's some real intense birders out there, but ...

LaJuan: Yeah, I'm kind of young in the game. 

Leah: You're young in the game but I mean it's pretty impressive—

LaJuan: —It’s funny, a friend of mine who was a former park ranger got married recently at the wild flower center. I brought binoculars too, because it was at the Wildflower Center, so I'm, "Oh, that's ... whatever." She's like, "Yeah, I kind of knew you were bringing those." 

Leah: They're taking pictures and you're in the background like looking up in your binoculars?

LaJuan: Yeah, it's pretty sad.

Leah: But yeah, you don't want to miss it, just because it's a wedding. 

LaJuan: Yeah. She was a former ranger so she got it. She's like, "Oh yeah, what did you see?"

Leah: Okay, so let's see. I guess I'll just ask that question now: tools for wildlife watching.

LaJuan: Yeah, tools for wildlife watching. I'm going to start probably in the low tech. Tools for wildlife watching, the first one I would say is just curiosity and the tools of observation. Not just what is it but what is it doing, where is it, what does it look like, why is it doing what it's doing, and relating to what it is in the moment. I think that's the first observation skill that people forget. It's like, you're not always going to have a field manual with you, you're not always going to have an expert, but if I can just be present in the moment, then maybe I can identify it later. 

LaJuan: I'll say a journal would probably be another one, even if it's a little pocket- size journal, because you can scribble down those observations. Next will probably be binoculars, for sure, that's my go to, obviously.

Leah: Do you have a favorite type of binoculars or brand or something?

LaJuan: I don't know. I am a fan of access, so I say the best binoculars that you can buy that don't break the bank. Yeah. After that, pocket guides. Pocket guides are the way to go. There's plenty of free ones online, so I use those a lot. Then iNaturalist, we have a lot of challenges and bio blitzes that we do. That's a great one if you're into tech and you have a phone or a tablet or something. If you don't know what it is, don't use it as an excuse not to capture it, right? I don't mean physically capture it but say, "Oh, what is that plant? I don't know, but I know somebody does." Take a picture of it, and they give guidelines on how to take a picture of it on the app. Most things I don't know, I find out very quickly through that app. 

Leah: Are there any other apps that you ... like plant identification or bird identification apps?

LaJuan: Yes. Birds of Texas, the Audubon [Bird Guide], iBirds, I use ... gosh, just depends on what it is. iNaturalist is the good kind of general one because normally, it will connect you to a project so if you have herpetologists who are looking at it, and they're saying, "Oh, that's a new rare species," or, "Oh, that's really just a rat snake." That's the one I go to, but as you get into more specific, whether it's birds or herps, then you can kind of specialize from there. 

Leah: Cool. 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: So don't go out and capture actual birds.

LaJuan: Do not harass wildlife. That's right. Take a picture, right. Leave only footprints. 

Leah: Okay. 

LaJuan: Yeah, leave no trace. 

Leah: What is a day in the life of a park ranger? I bet a lot of people are curious about this. 

LaJuan: Yeah. I think it's different based on where you work. I think you're working with the National Park Service, it's going to be a little different. Here in Austin, we're in an urban environment for the most part, but it's an urban environment that will go from very urban like Palm Park or Waller Creek, to very remote, like Turkey Creek, Emma Long, where you may not see someone on the trail if you go the right time of day. 

LaJuan: So, I love that about my job  about my job because you have to have a lot of skill to be able to talk to people, speak to people who are going through stuff in their life and still relate nature to it, but also be able to hustle out on their own out in the middle of nowhere. 

  A day of a life of a park ranger, I'll say primarily, we are making sure the parks are safe. That includes just letting people know the basics of going out on the Greenbelt. Make sure you have closed-toe shoes, make sure you have water. Things can turn very ... as you're enamored with the beauty around you, you can go pretty far and forget, like, "My blood sugar is low," or "Oh, I don't have enough water," planning ahead and preparing would be the first thing I'd say, and then ... so we make sure people are doing that. 

Leah: This is reminding of times that I've gotten lost in the Greenbelt. Like really lost!

LaJuan: Yes, and you're like, "Wow, this is getting terrifying." Yeah, people don't realize—

Leah: —The sun is going down and I’m lost!

LaJuan: Yeah. Then I would say after that, everybody I work with, all the park rangers love to interact with people. They all have their special ... specialness about them, right? They love snakes, I have a buddy named David Papke who loves snakes. He loves anything related to the reptile kingdom, he's just very enamored with it. He has so much knowledge about it, so if there's a snake question and we don't know it, we talk to David or Rowan [Prothro]. 

LaJuan: Me, I'm a little bit more of a generalist. I like to connect people to what they don't notice that's of value in the park. I love talking to people about gardening for wildlife because I feel like it's very accessible to people. But that can take us down to water quality or anything, so the next thing I think park rangers do often is you got to love to talk to people. That usually brings you into an activity, whether slacklining or disc golf or rock climbing or just plain hiking, and then you meet people who also love the places that you're in, and you get an opportunity to exchange some connection there. 

Leah: What is slacklining?

LaJuan: Slacklining is when you put a specific type of line across two trees, and it's like tightrope walking, but it's not high. Imagine like tightrope walking from like a foot off the ground. 

Leah: Okay. 

LaJuan: Yeah, yeah. With tree protection, with tree protection. 

Leah: Okay, yeah, don't forget those trees! 

LaJuan: Yeah. Austin's very sensitive about its trees. 

Leah: Where do you work usually? You're kind of all over all the parks or do you have a certain part of town that you usually work in, or how does that work?

LaJuan: Both. Right now, the park rangers are very mobile, it's a very new unit. We haven't even been in existence for 10 years yet, so we're still very new. That being said, we primarily are in Zilker Park, we have a Park Ranger Station that's the former Caretaker Cottage so it's a great legacy there. It's right next to “Barking Springs” — that’s what people call it, the spillway below Barton Springs Pool. Right next to the playground, there's a little cottage that you probably have never noticed before, probably last year. It's made up of stone through all of Texas, so it's very viscerally historically important. Caretakers over the years of parks and recreation was growing its legs have lived there, and literally taking care of the park and the people. 

I think we are growing and we will be all over the place, but our offices are not primarily where you'll find us. We are all over the city. We go to east to Turner Roberts, to south to old San Antonio [Road], just kind of wherever programs and life takes us, that's where we usually end up. We talk to people about encroachments, so anything that happens, we are responding to. 

Leah: You mentioned that it’s a new department. What's unique about this department you work for?

LaJuan: Well, what's unique about us is that we are not law enforcement. That both has pros and cons, right? We are the face you see and that you hope to see before law enforcement. The primary tools that we're going to use are common sense. We're going to tell you about what you're doing, why it's against the rules, and the consequences that come with it. 

LaJuan: But that's not why people come to the parks. People don't come to the parks to be lectured, and sometimes they just unwittingly break rules. Like there's no glass, and there's no smoking, and there's no dogs off leash in certain areas. Even though people are enjoying themselves, it's our job as professionals to talk to you about what the rules are but why they exist too, and what else you can do, whether your dog off leash is here, but there is a dog off leash area over there that you can go to. We're really the eyes, ears, and smiles of the park, I think. 

Leah: What is the reason ... like sometimes people ... some people don't know why their dog should be on a leash. What would you say to people who are aren't even aware of why they should put the dog on a leash?

LaJuan: Great question. 

Leah: I don't have a dog, so ...

LaJuan: I have a dog, I love my dog, so I can identify with people ...

Leah: You know [dog owners] want it to be off-leash, but, but what's the reason that there are rules about this?

LaJuan: So, a couple of things. One is that Austin is a dog city. One of the most dog-friendly cities that I know of. That being said, we're also a city that has an active wildlife population that exists. In certain areas like preserves, there are no dogs allowed because they're preserved for wildlife, for specific management purposes. You're more likely to encounter coyotes, you're more likely to encounter rabbits or deer, and even though my dog may be well-behaved, someone else's dog may not be. You're kind of going against the principle and some of the deed restrictions of why the place is established in the first place. 

LaJuan: So that's preserves, but it doesn't have to be a preserve to have coyotes. We have a very active coyote population. Sometimes they're denning, sometimes they're mating, and so it's possible that if your dog is off leash, particularly in areas where you can't see them, they go around the trail or they go to water and you're just kind of not paying attention and looking around, it's quite easy to go to a coyote den and they're just doing what they do naturally, which we would all do, is protect their young. It's very easy to not be aware that coyote is around, they're very intelligent, they're extremely hard to see. The “wily coyote,” that stereotype is for a reason, because they're urban adaptors. They adapt very well.

LaJuan: So that's one reason. The other reason is just sheer volume of dogs that we have in the city. If you think about my dog off leash, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but if everybody does that ... and then, you know, we don't always catch when our dog goes to the bathroom so imagine everybody doing that. That compounds over time, that's a huge, huge degradation to the natural resource that we're coming to enjoy. There are dog off leash parks though. Turkey Creek is a great one. Some people say, "I want my dog to have access to just walk around nature, just like I do." Turkey Creek is a great place for that. 

Leah: That's probably my favorite trail.

LaJuan: It's beautiful, yeah. Yeah. That's where I take my dog too.

Leah: I love that trail because there is no bikes on it. 

LaJuan: Yeah, that's right, and your dog, yeah, it's not in danger, you're not in danger, yeah.

Leah: Yeah. What's your favorite trail?

LaJuan: Oh. I think my answer would have to be "It depends." 

Leah: You can name a few. 

LaJuan: Turkey Creek probably. It has a special place in my heart. 

Leah: You get all different types of ecosystems when you go to Turkey Creek. That's what I like about it. 

LaJuan: Yeah. It's true, and I think that even though it's a dog off leash area, people respect that it's a wild space too, so I think it's a good example of the community policing itself to an extent. That's my favorite. Fishing I think would have to be around Decker Lake. Austin has so many awesome parks, so swimming I take my niece to Barton Springs Pool. Oh man, I'll have to name some more as it comes to me, some favorite places. Yeah. I'll think about that one. 


Leah: Yeah, and you mentioned that you studied history and psychology in school. 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: I wanted to ask you about that, because I studied history as well. You mentioned that you're really interested in human history and natural history, and I was like, oh, me too. I wanted to ask you about that. First of all what is it that really appeals to you about natural history? 

LaJuan: Oh, I guess its complexity I think. I'm trying not to be too philosophical here… 

Leah: You can be philosophical. 

LaJuan: Okay, all right. So I think natural history is often thought of as separate from human history. For us because it's our gaze that we're looking at natural history, I don't think that [separation] is ever really possible from our perspective. So I think natural history helps us to understand, or helps me to understand why people do what they do, why they plant what they plant, why they eradicate what they eradicate. I think a lot of the decisions that we make about how we manage the landscape says a lot about our identity as people, and what we think. In time, right? So you'll see that the ideas of landscaping have evolved in Austin even, right? So it used to be very tight-knit, manicured yards. It was how you defined yourself as a landscaper. 

But now through the work of citizens — I'll be honest. the city wasn't the impetus behind this, right?— through the work of citizens, through partners like the National Wildlife Federation, the idea of gardening for wildlife came on the tongue and on the minds of everybody. 

Like, “Wait a minute, the way I treat just a lawn is important to the bigger whole?" I think that that's an example of how natural history, human history and psychology all mix together. Because just as simple as planting a plant, caring for another life, and deciding on the intention of what it represents and why you're doing it. It may not seem like it, like, “Oh, we're growing food, we're planting this plant, it's beautiful,” but you're doing it with intention. Even if the intention's not conscious to you. So I think that for me, when you look at just how we identify with our natural landscape, how we protect against change, has a lot to do with what we fear, but also how we view ourselves and our future. Yeah. 

Leah: So when you say “protect against change,” that's an interesting way of framing conservation. 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: As someone with a conservation background, where do you find the limits are on how much we need to conserve and how much we need to accept change? 

LaJuan: My answer to that would be it depends. 

Leah: It depends!  

LaJuan: It depends on the intention of the person who's managing the land. For the city, it depends on the common good. Because we're going to make decisions about how we manage public land for the best good of the people. So I think that, you know, if you think about the psychology of Austinites, whether you're an implant or whether you're an Austinite of several generations, that's going to change. 

Depending on your age, depending on your view, right? Is food access more important than preserving a landscape? Those are complicated questions. I can't say I have the answers to them, but I'm really interested in how we have the conversation and who's invited to the table. So this is a conversation luckily that I have with my colleagues, and it generates from within us. “Well, am I doing the right thing by saying this is the right land use type, versus that is the right land use type?” I think that Austin is very good about listening to the people. 

  My hope is that the park rangers are a conduit for those voices. Because I represent public land that belongs to everybody. So how we manage that is not just my decision. It's my decision as a citizen, but it's not my right to say it as the sole proprietor of this land. That's what private land is for, right? But it is our job to manage it for the best good. What that best good looks like 20 years ago is not going to be the same today. That's my “depends” answer for you. 

Leah: That's a good answer because you're thinking about conservation and you're thinking about the future really, as well as the present, but then you're also keeping in mind that the priorities of people in the future would change. You know? 

LaJuan: Yeah. Yeah, I think the Festival Beach Food Garden is a good example of that, right? We all talked about what a public edible forest garden would look like. That was a swath of land before that wasn't an edible forest. So it took a lot of motion from the permaculture community, from community members around the parkland, from internal stakeholders and external stakeholders, to really say, “This is something we want to pilot.” It has its challenges like everything else, but it's a good example of a “new initiative” that really is an old concept. Food on public land that people have access to. As revolutionary as it seems, I think that's it's also a good example of trying to weave through the complexities of how you manage land, and how you conserve land, how it's cared for.  

Leah: The Festival Beach Food Forest is a good example of the way that the butting heads of the permaculture people, and maybe the native plant people, or the conservation people can kind of happen sometimes. The native plant people are like, well don't bring in all these exotic plants, and the permaculture people are like, well these plants are providing food for people, feeding people. 

LaJuan: Yeah, it's complicated. It’s about identity too, right? Like when you think about Central Texas plants, and what existed here, the term “native plants” [refers to plants that] existed here prior to European settlement. Well, I don't think every plant that we call “native” can fit that mark hard and fast. I don't know if having that definition is as useful as to what we're trying to preserve. Really we're trying to preserve an idealistic image of what we think central Texas is. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I think we also have to recognize what that idealistic image also has some complexity for other people, right, that may not have been included in an idealistic landscape. Does that trump food? I don't know. I think those are questions that I hear argued well on both sides. I'm fortunate to work with professionals who are really, deeply, not just professionally interested in these questions, but personally have a stake in how they're answered. Because those will infect the minds of the cadets we're trying to push into the seats of leadership in a few years. 

Leah: Yeah. You mentioned on another podcast, that park leaders podcast that I was talking about, I'm going to quote you. 

LaJuan: Uh oh.

Leah: I’m going to play a clip from this podcast, The Park Leaders Show with Jody Mayberry. This is from episode 63 in 2015, and I will link to it in the show notes.  

[cut to excerpt from The Park Leaders Show]

LaJuan:  “I had one student in particular, he was an African-American gentleman, and he actually provided a large challenge to me, to challenge myself, as to why this work is relevant for people of color … He was like, ‘We don’t work in the outdoors. That’s not what we do.’ And ironically, he turned out to be one of my best students. But it was really, kind of getting out the stereotypes that black people don’t like the outdoors, African Americans aren’t engaged in the wilderness, that’s just simply not true. It may be less so, it may be less visible. But I think also, for African Americans in particular, there’s a certain history of working in fields, there’s a certain history of being in the wilderness that creates a lot of trauma, that creates a lot of historical knowledge that we have inherited from our parents. That holds a lot of value but also holds a lot of harm… For my students in particular, the question was, ‘Why is it relevant?’ but also, ‘How do I negotiate the past, and my experience with the wilderness or with natural spaces, with the context of enslavement, with  the context of immigration, and the kind of hot-button issues of race that are going on now?’” 

[cut to interview]

Leah: You mentioned the landscape as a platform for talking about history. 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: You mentioned, okay, so there's a lot of people that have this nostalgic image of, oh Texas, bluebonnets and, I don't know, horses or whatever. But not for everybody, you know? 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: So I wanted to talk about just how history, how the history of the land that you work on, how that influences the way you think about it. We can talk about Austin parks specifically, but also just, I don't know, I think it's important to bring up this concept that it's like, not everyone shares the same exact idyllic past. So when we talk about conservation, it does have a lot to do with identity. 

LaJuan: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of the things that is most fascinating to my job: how the landscape is read is going to be different for every viewer, right? So my job as an interpreter, and as a professional in the field, is to relate to you wherever you are. Whether that's idealistic, and whether it's a very well represented view of central Texas, or whether that's traumatic. Right? I think that that's what I find fascinating, I think that's why history and psychology for me worked, because it's active. It's how you relate to the person now. I think the same things that may spark nostalgia and the glory days of the past aren't so glorious for some of us. Some of us don't think that the way things used to be were that great, and were in fact painful. Doesn't mean there weren't good things. Doesn't mean there aren't things now that we can tease out of the past, that we can use in the present. But I think ignoring that is a form of exclusion. 

I hope, and I see this happening, I see professionals who are working in the field that realize that their voice isn't the only voice. I think that's the first step. It's easy when you have a uniform on, and when you look very official, to say my voice is the voice that counts. Well, that's not true, right? I'm one story, and I'm going to be a biased story whatever my story is, because it's mine. But my job also is to listen to the stories that exist, and to remember that they exist. So when I retell the story of Stephenson Preserve, it's located in Kincheonville, which is an old African American town, a freeman town. You hardly ever hear about, but Austin had a vibrant community of African Americans here after the Civil War that existed, thrived is probably a hard word, but did really well.  

Those places are preserved in park land. That's not something we hear about very often. There's some people at the Carver Library, Latoya [Devezin], one of them, who's doing very good work uncovering that history. But if we don't listen to those voices that come forward, we're actively trying to exclude people's voices. So my job I think, and the job of the people above me, is to make sure those stories are included. Not just because they're stories of the past, and they're nostalgic, but also because they should inform our decisions today. They should inform how we engage people in park land. Right? So I think history, when you think about it in the past, is something that's gone and doesn't exist today. But that's just not true. We know and we're trying to teach the next generation that what you did in the past is very present today. 

Leah: Yeah, it's written all over our land. 

LaJuan: Yeah, it's written how we used to pipe certain utilities to certain sections of town, it's written on how we wrote our city master plans, written on how we think about parks today. I think we have to be honest about that. I think not being honest about that is dangerous and will backfire. I do believe that we have the leadership in place who are intentionally being honest about it. 

Leah: Tell me some more about this, Kincheonville? 

LaJuan: Kincheonville, yeah. 

Leah: And the park that is located there is what? 

LaJuan: It's Stephenson Preserve, so there's two parks, one is Longview Park. I think right now it's a baseball diamond, a couple of baseball diamonds there. Then to the left of it is Stevenson Preserve. So right now it's being actively restored to previous ranch land, but right around that Kincheonville is actually a historic black town. So the stories that we need to engage and hear about aren't just the ranchers that lived there, but the family around it. 

I originally am from Philadelphia, coming from the north east and moving around, the idea that in the south there was a historic African American community and white ranch land where they exist at the same time is fascinating. What were the relationships like? What were the people like? Did they inter-marry? Did they hate each other? Did they love each other? How did that affect how they made commerce in that area? How did that affect how they ranched? Those are fascinating questions, right? To assume I know those questions I think is to not give enough respect to the stories of the past. 

Leah: Coming up this week is the public hearing about the renaming of Robert E Lee Road. 

LaJuan: Yeah.

Leah: It’s Thursday [April 26, 2016]. I have a letter from the city here. 

LaJuan: Uh oh. I’d like to say I’m representing myself in this capacity! 

Leah: Good, good, good. 

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: I’m going to break in here and give a little bit of context about what LaJuan and I about to talk about. One of the eastern boundaries of Zilker Park was, until recently, named Robert E. Lee Road. On this road is the back entrance to Barton Springs Pool, so it is a very well-traveled street. And last year after the white supremacist rally over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville led to the hate-crime murder of Heather Heyer, a large petition began circulating in Austin to rename streets named for Confederate figures, including Robert E Lee Road. Councilmember Ann Kitchen proposed a resolution to city council rename the street, the resolution passed with overwhelming community support at the city council meeting, and now it is Azie Morton Road. At the time we recorded this interview I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen, or if the name change was going to pass, and I was pretty anxious about it. I really wanted to see that change and I asked LaJuan if she was going to go to the hearing or not. 

[cut to interview]

LaJuan: I don't know. I care about this issue. I think what's most important will be the dialogue that ensues, because I think whatever the decision, however we come to decisions, what happens is the process that takes us there. I feel my own personal way about it. That being said, in Austin, we're not doing a great job of retaining residents, particularly African American residents, our culture is very antagonistic. I think we've been very upfront about it. But I don't know, these dialogs that happen, they're important, but I really want to know about food access. I want to know about affordable housing. I want to know about the solutions right now that affect people's standard of living so they can free up to have time to have these dialogs. To me that's the most important. 

LaJuan: This is important, I want to be clear about that, but you can't think about it, you don't have the space to think about a conversation like this if you're worried about whether or not you can afford your taxes, or whether or not you can find a job that will help you pay your mortgage, or whether or not you have to travel so far to find healthy, safe food. So those are the concerns I have. 

Leah: How do you feel about the name change itself? 

LaJuan: Well, I'm African American. I know history. I think it's painful. So I understand that people want to preserve history but I feel like Robert E Lee's history is very well preserved in our American canon. One street change is important, I don't think we're trying to redress history, but the Civil War was lost for the south. So the reality of it is, I get that I've heard dialogue about honoring soldiers, and honoring that past, but that was a past of a Civil War that was fought about black bodies, and keeping black bodies enslaved. Anybody who says it's about something different is doing some revisionism in order to make themselves feel better. To soothe America's cognitive dissonance. Civil war was about slavery, it was about control, it was about white supremacy. So I think that a name change could mean something about at least recognizing that that was what the war was about, and saying, "I recognize that this was painful." Maybe you yourself as a person 2018 didn't feel that pain, but I know it has lasting effect on your psychology, on your present conditions. I'm obviously-

Leah: So you're in favor? 

LaJuan: Oh absolutely. 

Leah: Yeah, but like I guess I wanted to, you know ... I want to talk about the [name change] itself. The woman that they are hopefully going to rename it for, Azie Taylor Morton, she was the first and only African American treasurer. She worked toward equal opportunity in housing and education. She was also one of the people who really stood up, protested and did the swim ins to get Barton Springs [Pool] de-segregated. You know? 

LaJuan: Yeah. 

Leah: I know it's not like we do this one [name change] and then we're like, "Well, we're done."

LaJuan: We're done, right, yeah. 

Leah: Yeah, so I hear that, you know, but I also think, what a good opportunity to honor someone else. 

LaJuan: Yeah. I think that's a great point, and I think what people fail to realize in the making of these decisions is that in making these decisions you're making history. When history pins down this podcast, or when history pins down this meeting, or history pins down this decision, where are we gonna stand on that? Right? 

Leah: Yeah. I've been looking into the history of Austin's parks, trying to get ready for this hearing on Thursday. I was reading that it wasn't until I think it was 1963 that they de-segregated the parks in Austin. 

LaJuan: Yeah, so public land de-segregation is interesting because I think it speaks more to the social reality than schools. Schools are official systems, they get government funding. Not that parks don't, but. So it's a bit more forward thinking. But to actually sit next to somebody on a bench in the swimming bath water talks more about the psychology of why you feel the way you do, and what separation actually means. I think that it makes sense that it's later. It's not a proud history, but I think it's one we have to acknowledge. And acknowledge that that is in the mind and the psychology of people today. I don't know, I'm glad and very excited to be in a place where these conversations are happening. Maybe they're not happening fast enough, but I think Austin is obsessed, because we're going through so much growth, trying to claim it's history and say, "What are we? What were we? What are we gonna be?" So that conversation is happening, and there has to be voices. Luckily I'm happy to say that the voices aren't always black, or they aren't always Latino. There's voices that say, "This matters to me." Yeah. 

Leah: What's something that city council or, I don't know, that Austin would do that's not changing a street name, that you would be like, "Oh yeah, that I would like to see." 

LaJuan: That's tough, Leah. This is gonna be hard. 

I think, okay. I think we talk about diversity a lot. We acknowledge that we want a diverse community. We make mistakes, like I'm in meetings all the time where people misstep with language. But really language is important, I want to be clear about that, but really you can't have a conversation about having a diverse community without the people that you're talking about in the room. I think that we're moving in the right direction about being intentional, about having diverse voices in leadership. Not just council members, but management, and the running of the city. I think Austin is going through a cultural shift right now, and in that cultural shift I'm hoping we will stay true not just to our lip service, but to our actions, that that's what we want. How we get there to make sure that we are fair, I think is a serious conversation we need to have. We're doing it through the cadet program. That's a small, important program, but what does that look like for young professionals?

What does that look like for young professionals? Maybe you don't want to work in the outdoors, maybe you want to be the city manager one day. How do you create access and exposure to professionals from students who would not ever think that that was an actual job? Somebody did it for me, and so I'm hoping that we can create access for young people so they can start speaking the language, start thinking about higher education, start thinking about their futures in Austin. 

What does that look like as a program? As much as I think programs change things, I think it's a small group that demands to have people of color, people of different language, people of different faiths, at the table together. If there's an echo chamber, and you're sitting around a meeting, and everybody's saying the same thing, and everybody's nodding at the same things, even me, maybe you should get some different voices in the room too. Maybe discourse is where it's at, to me. Yeah. I don't know of a program. I can't point to it specifically, but I think the way we have the dialogue is the most important, and then the actions will come from there. 

That’s all I got for that! [All laugh.]  

[cut to voiceover]

Leah: After doing this interview, I went back and did a little research and decided I’m going to do a whole episode on the renaming of Robert E Lee Road and the story of how Barton Springs Pool was an important place in the history of Civil Rights Movement in Austin, because it’s a really fascinating story. So if anybody has any information about that, please get in touch with me. 

I also want to say that, after listening back to this, I kind of put LaJuan on the spot with asking her what she would like the City Council to do. And that kind of made me cringe because it’s not her job to educate me about what the City Council can do to help people of color. So in retrospect, I realized I should be asking myself that question. And I did a little research, and one thing that we can all do to is vote, and especially vote in November in favor of the Bond package, if you are an Austin resident. It contains $250 million for affordable housing. This is really important because Austin is in a housing crisis. Housing costs are rising faster than wages and there is a major shortage of affordable housing, and thanks to Trump putting Ben Carson in charge of Housing and Urban Development, it is likely that federal funding for community development will be slashed.  

And you know what else is in the bond? $149 million for parks! 

[cut to interview]

Leah: I'm going to tell a little story. At the beginning of our permaculture class, we had these little breakout groups. We were put into groups. It was the first day or something and we were supposed to sit around and talk about examples of permaculture that we had seen in action, in the world. We were in a little group, and it was you and me, and I think Krystle. I was like, "Oh, I've got a great example." I felt all cool, because I had an example ready to go. I was like, "Near where live, there's this riparian reparation zone where there was a little drainage ditch to the road, Robert E. Lee Road, and they stopped mowing it. Now, all these beautiful things grew up, and trees, and all these plants are growing in that thing, and now it's like a creek. When Hurricane Harvey came, all this water came down the hill. It used to flood in that area, because they used to mow it, and they stopped mowing it. It's like a meadow now…” I was just going on, and on, and on. LaJuan's gets this twinkle in her eye. I was like, "What?" She's like, "Oh, that was my program."

LaJuan: No! That's not what I said! That's not what I said.

Leah: You were like, "I was involved in that."

LaJuan: I was like, "It worked!"

Leah: Well, whatever. I mean, I was so impressed. I was like, "Holy crap. I can't believe the person I'm telling the example to is involved in making this thing happen." I thought that was really cool.

LaJuan: Well, I think what was interesting ... I remember that conversation and we were talking about leverage points. I had never thought of something as simple as “stop mowing” as a leverage point, but the point of leverage points is that they're simple or relatively easy to implement but make a huge impact. We're trying to make big programs and big policy changes important. Sometimes, there are just little switches that you can do. 

  That little switch took a couple years to get into motion because of that culture shift we talked about earlier. Parks are manicured. Parks are very well maintained. Our maintenance staff, God bless them, they work tirelessly to maintain to our standards. Remember, we're Austinites, so we have different standards and different ideas of beauty. Our wildflower meadow initiative took some changing, because if the right person calls up and, "Why isn't this mowed?", we have to decide, “Am I going to educate you right now, or am I going to respond to the other million things that we have to do?" The culture shifted towards, “I'm going to educate, because we have bigger initiatives going on. We're trying to protect water quality. We're trying to make sure that the monarch butterfly, on its central pathway that goes right through Austin, has a place to eat and a place to lay eggs on milkweed.” If you don't connect those dots, people just say, "Oh, the parks aren't doing their jobs." 

  I think that was a small leverage point that took a lot of people to shift their own thinking, but also to feel confident in the knowledge that we were doing the right thing. The scientists always get it, but then we have to translate it for the rest of us. I think that leverage point, it's exciting, because it wasn't my program. It's something I helped to write. It's something that I helped to advocate for, but it took a team of people making maps to show what delineates a no mow zone, what delineates a wildflower meadow, so that you can pull a map on your phone and say, "Hey, actually, this is intentionally done. This is why we're doing it. Let me educate you about the monarch butterfly. Let me educate you about pollinator decline." 

LaJuan: Most people, once they know why we're doing it, are like, "Whoa. That's actually pretty awesome. You mean you guys thought about that?" Yeah. That made me happy because somebody noticed. It made me happy because it's a small leverage point that actually saves the city money. That money, obviously, goes towards other under-funded things, but it's a small thing that makes a big difference, I think. 

Leah: It's beautiful. That thing is, now, I look at it, I took some pictures of it last week, and it's just gorgeous. Look at these pictures. Hold on, let me show you. [Shows pictures on phone.]

LaJuan: Yeah. Yep. 

Leah: A new mulched pathway. How did that come about? What was that area like before the no-mow implementation?

LaJuan: That's a good question. That area has a special place in my heart, because before that-

Leah: I'll just say what the area is. It's the corner of Robert E. Lee Road, soon to be Azie Taylor Morton Road—

LaJuan: That's right.

Leah: —and Barton Hills Drive. It's the little corner beneath the back parking lot of Barton Springs. 

LaJuan: That area, when I worked for the Conservation Corps, before I worked with the city, we would go to this area to remove nandina, which is a beautiful plant, but really invasive, takes over. It's planted because its leaves change color in the fall and the winter. It gives people the nostalgia of the northeast, I think. That's another thing about people's psychology around why they plant plants. That being said, it spreads by rhizomes in the soil and it chokes out other things. 

Leah: And by seeds.

LaJuan: And by seeds, yes. That's right. The birds will eat them and they will happily plant them other places. It's very hard to eradicate. A lot of my work before coming to the city was on that little space of land removing nandina. Coming full circle, our mowing crew seeded that area. We had some volunteer habitat stewards who donated plants in that area. Meredith Gauthier, my colleague, went out and we hand-watered some of them until it got established. Then, we let go of the wheel a little bit, which is scary for land managers, because we're like, "We've got to manage." Then, we realized what it turned into. 

LaJuan: I think, too, the culture started changing. The mayor [Steve Adler], along with National Wildlife Federation, came out with the Mayor's Monarch Pledge. That was something that was unheard of before, mayor saying that wildlife have a place in this city, and particularly, I'm going to care about a small butterfly that migrates. It's not just that this is a species that's important to the planet, but it's also something that's important to the psychology of Texas and the psychology of United States. It connects us to our neighbors north and south. It's a symbolic relationship that we have with our duties as humans to manage our environment. 

LaJuan: Mayor Adler was very much on board and came out as one of the first cities in Texas to take the Mayor's Monarch Pledge, basically saying, "We're going to incorporate milkweed and nectar sources into the landscape portfolio of the city.” That seems just like once sentence, but that gave us all of the impetus we needed to convince people who may not have been on board that this is something that's real. The mayor said it. We need to find funds for it. We need to partner. We need to be creative. We need to get along where we didn't get along before, because, you know what? Somebody's depending on us. I think that's what really brought it to most people's attention is a partnership with National Wildlife Federation, and just that one little line of changing the way we incorporate milkweed and nectar plants into the landscape portfolio. That little line switched that leverage point. 

Leah: At the same time, it's providing habitat for pollinators. It's helping with water infiltration and recharging the aquifer. It's helping control flooding and erosion. It's helping the ground absorb the water. It's helping the pollinators. It's saving money, because we don't have to spend money on mowing. It’s doing all this stuff. It's probably really helping the soil, because all of those weeds are coming up—

LaJuan: That's a pejorative term, weeds. 

Leah: —and changing the soil profile. It's great. You don't have to fertilize that. 

LaJuan: You outlined it perfectly. Something as simple as changing what seeds you plant there, and a little bit of management. We did have to remove the nandina, and that took some doing. Now, our maintenance staff, who have been tirelessly keeping these areas, we have over 22,000 acres of parkland, that's a lot for very few staff, they take pride in these areas. They partner with neighbors who are getting grant funding to try and help with incorporating more seeding. It's a big partnership initiative right now. 

Leah: Someone that has a big backyard or something, if you could convince them to not mow half of it or something, that would be cool. 

LaJuan: Yeah, we see people doing that. Through my program, the Wildlife Austin Program, I do a lot of outreach, talking to people about simple ways they can incorporate changes to the way they recreate or plants that they plant to invite wildlife to either your backyard or your parkland, because not everybody has a backyard. Not everybody has access to a balcony. A lot of my outreach is about that. 

LaJuan: I got a call from one gentleman who said, "I am restoring blackland prairie in my backyard." I said, "Wow! How's that going?” [Laughs.] It's awesome, because, one, he knows what blackland prairie is. The majority of the people who aren't in the environmental world may not. Two, we were on the phone about an hour talking about grasses. That's one thing. There's the grass, there's the vegetation, there's the plants, but then there's also his neighbors. That goes back to the psychology of how we run our community. He doesn't just have to cultivate like, "Yeah, it's not in my backyard and I get to do what I want to do," that's why I like public land, it's also how you interact with your neighbors to bring them on board or at least not make them enemies in the process of doing that. 

It's an interesting conversion for people who've gone from manicured to wildflower meadows, or partial meadows, and intentional nectar planting, or host plants. I see people do all amazing things. Then, you start seeing people looking over the fence. I see people incorporate edibles. There's a lot of different ways to do things that will invite wildlife. 

Now, we're talking to people about what wildlife don't you want in your backyard. You don't want coyotes jumping your fence to get Fido. Even though we want to help wildlife, they are pretty good at feeding themselves as long as we provide the right plants. We have to be careful with not leaving out food sources, securing trash cans. For the most part, what we see people doing, mostly through plants, is pretty positive. Yeah.

Leah: I'm guessing a lot of people, who want to do gardening for wildlife, do plant a lot of butterfly plants, flowering things. Are there any things that you wish people would do more of in terms of wildlife gardening that would be pretty easy to do, something that needs to get more popular? You mentioned, in another interview, fall flowering perennials.

LaJuan: Yeah. Yeah. Right, that's great thanks. That's great. Planting host plants are important, milkweed. There's a lot of other host plants, passion flower—

Leah: —Can you explain what host plants are, because that would be useful to people.

LaJuan: Yeah, absolutely. Monarch butterflies and butterflies in general go through a metamorphosis. They start off as eggs, they go through several larva stages, they encase themselves in a chrysalis, they emerge beautifully, and they become adults, and then they lay eggs. What they lay their eggs on, it's called a host plant. They host the egg, and then they provide food for the larva after that. That's what a host plant it. It's the plant that's necessary for the reproduction. For the monarch butterfly, it's only milkweed [plants in the genus Asclepias]. That's why it's such a critical protection around that. Other butterflies have diversified to have different host plants, not just one. Planting more host plants. Thinking like, "Oh, I need a vine," whatever your landscape need is, thinking, "How can I have a vine, but also who could this feed in my yard and when is this going to bloom?" 

Most people's backyards, or front yards, or cultivated landscapes, look beautiful in the spring. Then, it gets hot and it starts to fade, and then the summer and the fall, and it just doesn't look quite as great anymore, so being intentional about finding nectar sources or flowers that bloom at multiple times during the year. It doesn't have to be a whole lot, but be intentional about planting with the seasons so that whatever you have there's always something of interest to invite wildlife in. Because once they're in, they're in. They know where you are. They're going to find you. They'll probably come back seasonally. Just be intentional about providing food year round. 

  The other thing I would say is the most important thing that people can do is, if you're doing it, talk to other people about doing it, because odds are they either never heard of it or they never thought about it. They might like plants, but they're like, "Oh yeah. That is easy," or, "I might already be doing it. Now, I can talk to other people about it." That would be the other thing I would say.


[cut to voiceover]

Leah: The metaphor of the butterfly is usually one of transformation, of personal growth. But that’s not the only fascinating thing about the butterfly. To me it is just as amazing and beautiful to think about the symbiosis between the host plant and the animal that evolved to depend on it, and how that intimate connection between the milkweed and the monarch is passed down through generations. Humans can experience this too — we can connect to people across generations through the love of plants, even after those people are gone.  I asked LaJuan what initially sparked her love of natural history, and she told me about her grandmother. 

[cut to interview]

LaJuan: I think what draws me to natural history is probably the combination of human history and natural history. Let me tell you why. I was raised by my grandmother. She grew up in Raleigh-Durum, North Carolina. She was the last child of 12 in a very poor sharecropping family. They gardened for food. This was not leisure gardening. She would tell me stories about her childhood. She was born in '31. She grew up during some of the hardest times, especially for poor black families in the south. 

LaJuan: She migrated north during the Great Migration with her brothers and sisters, and raised me, and won horticulture shows. A lot of the love that I started to have for the outdoors came from her, gardening with her, planting with her, smelling plants, and just communing with my grandmother, who's no longer with us. Communing with my grandmother about plants, and little stories that she would tell that she remembered from her childhood, or she remembered from her father, who's my great-grandfather. That's not that usual that you know who your great-great-grandfather is for my family. 

LaJuan: She suffered from dementia at the end of her life. I brought her to Texas to live with my wife and I. She fell ill pretty quickly. She couldn't remember things, and it was a pretty debilitating disease. She was wheelchair-bound, but she could remember plants. Even when it was a really bad day for her, she could remember where she planted things. "Oh, I remember you planting that last week," but she couldn't remember two days. I think plants have a certain way of invoking memory and invoking a certain part of our brain who holds on to who we are. That's probably my love of plants.

LaJuan: The second person, ironically, would probably be my father. He loves fly fishing. He's the person who introduced me to fly fishing. He grew up in Philadelphia, city guy. We moved around a lot with my mother. We could always fish, even if we disagreed about life. The outdoors, for me, have been a way to connect to a larger whole, but also to connect to people who're the closest to me, because we have this common need that we were both communing on. I think it's the connections that I get to the outdoors with people and with a sense of place that draw me. 

Leah: That makes a lot of sense. That's cool. I think we're done.

LaJuan: Yeah? Okay.

Leah: That was awesome. Yeah. Thank you so much, LaJuan.

LaJuan: Yeah. This was fun.

[cut to voiceover] 

Leah: And that’s it! Thanks for listening to Hothouse. 

Sign up for the newsletter! There will be an outtake of this episode in which LaJuan tells me a little more about milkweed. I know we all have questions about milkweed, right? Go to the website,, and sign up there.  You can also find past episodes, photo galleries and transcripts there. 

Next week on the show, I talk to activist and farmer, Ryan Rossshirt about Democratic Socialism and permaculture, and how these things might overlap. 





Leah: Do you think that pollinators prefer the native plants to hybrids, or do they not really care? I've always wondered about that. 

LaJuan: That's a great question for the Wildflower Center. When all the excitement about the monarch butterfly came about, everybody was trying to figure out which milkweed was best for which region, because you don't grow this type of milkweed here, and the same milkweed we have in the Midwest. They were very professional, and said, "We're going to do a study and see preference types of milkweed, and we can tell you the top three in this area." I rely on them heavily for questions like that, because I haven't done a study, I don't know, but they probably have, or will, if you ask them.

Leah: What kind of stuff are you guys seeding? Are you seeding tropical milkweed? Do you have a certain type that you have had success with?

LaJuan: Yeah, so we're not seeding tropical milkweed. Most of what we have is antelope horn, green milkweeds, zizotes, comet milkweed. I'm horrible at botanical names. That's my rub. 

Leah: It's all Asclepias

LaJuan: 01:08:50 Yes. It is.

Leah: 01:08:51 I don't know any of the-

LaJuan: 01:08:51 Tuberosa. Texana, Viridis, and there's another one. Those are the ones that we're seeding mostly in parkland. There's controversy about tropical milkweed suggesting that it blooms longer, because it's from the south, so it blooms longer. There's some evidence that suggests that it allows monarch butterflies to stay here longer than they normally would. What we say is, if you have tropical milkweed, it's going to be probably be pretty hard to get rid of at this point. Don't go ripping it out. If it's being used, let it go through its cycle. Then, October, just cut it back and make sure—

Leah: 01:09:38 Cut I back in October. 

LaJuan: 01:09:38 Yeah, cut it back, because that's when most of your milkweeds, here, are going to start to die back.