By Amber Veverka

Jim Matthews walks through the damp woods, and as he does, he pays no attention to the branches dripping with last night’s rain, the mucky path or the scolding of jays overhead. Those things don’t matter to Matthews. Not when he’s trying to explain the sex life of ferns.

“This is the sterile leaf and this is the fertile leaf,” he tells a visitor. “This is about to release its spores and they’re going all over the place. They’ll form gametophytes. The sperm swim in the water that’s in the soil to reach the eggs. They mature at different times so the plant doesn’t self-fertilize.”

Matthews’ impromptu biology lecture may be lost on his fellow hiker, but there’s no missing Matthews’ intense focus, his dedication to discovery. Matthews, a retired UNC Charlotte biology professor, is a botanist whose mission is to collect and catalog the plants of the 15-county region of the North Carolina Piedmont—preserving a record of what we have, before it’s lost.

The work is taking on new importance—and urgency—as the region explodes in growth. If current trends continue, by 2030, 97 percent of Mecklenburg County’s land will be developed, up from 71 percent today, according to research by the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

And so, at age 80, Matthews keeps climbing ridges and descending ravines, gathering plants in places that are on their way to becoming parking lots. Read the rest of the story here.Jim Matthews, botanist, treks the woods at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve with herbarium curator Catherine Luckenbaugh.

DSC01520Folks who live along Irwin Creek and its tributaries used to swim, fish, even hold baptisms in the waters. The city once used it for drinking water. But runoff from streets, pollution from aging sewer pipes and heavy metals from an industrial past today make the creek one of the city’s most troubled. Yet, hope remains for a better future.

By Amber Veverka

One of its first tendrils begins in Ernest and Misty Eich’s backyard in northeast Mecklenburg County, a trickle you can jump across.

There, the creek curls like a question mark through a ravine’s mossy banks, beneath towering tulip poplars.

Ernest, 39, and Misty, 37, often follow the stream with their dogs, Magnum and Abigail, as the waterway leaves the shelter of their six acres to join other tributaries in Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve.1  There, the Eichs watch the stream, whose headwaters they steward, officially become Irwin Creek.

From Ribbonwalk, Irwin gathers strength and pours itself alongside Interstate 77 south, concealed from commuters’ view by curtains of kudzu, secret within steep banks. The stream reaches the heart of Charlotte and embraces its west side, moving south until it finally links with Sugar Creek near Billy Graham Parkway.

Misty and Ernest Eich, who live at Irwin Creek's small headwaters. Photo: Amber Veverka
Misty and Ernest Eich, who live at Irwin Creek’s small headwaters. Photo: Amber Veverka

Irwin’s waters once slaked the thirst of a growing city. Its springs nourished an African-American neighborhood as it took root. Its pools cradled fish, coached swimmers, baptized believers.

But nurturing a city came at a cost.

As it flows from a nature preserve to an interstate, embracing uptown and the west side, Irwin carries in its current a city’s missteps – pollution from aging sewage pipes, heavy metals from an industrial past, runoff from acres of asphalt.

Despite all this, those who know the stream well say Irwin still holds beauty and promise. It embodies all the ills of an urban waterway, say its advocates. But Irwin Creek is no lost cause.

Read the rest of Irwin Creek’s story and watch videos, read oral histories and find out about the creeks in your Charlotte backyard at Keeping Watch on Water.

The kindergarteners that day were wide-eyed.

“What is nature?” I asked the kids seated around me. They peppered the air with their answers. But the one I can’t forget was from the little girl in ponytails who said, solemnly, “Nature is something you should never, ever touch.”

If I ever needed confirmation that we – and our children – are alienated from the natural world, that little girl’s response supplied it.

School is back in session, and families like mine are again swept along in a rush of drop-offs, bus rides and after-school activities. If we aren’t intentional, the school year tide can pull all of us into an indoor life. It’s dark in the morning. Kids are loaded down with homework at night. In between, they’re in classrooms and we’re in offices.

We’re born loving creation, recognizing instinctively that we belong in the grass, under the trees, within earshot of birdsong. But the entire arc of our culture – particularly the culture of an overscheduled, urban center such as Charlotte – veers away from these first loves. We get jobs. We get busy. We live our days in cubicles and cars.

I urge all of us to make this school year one in which we and our children spend more time in nature. It’s not always easy. But it’s possible.

Read more of this Op-ed here.


By Amber Veverka

I lumber like a spacewalker in my bulky white suit, lagging behind my teacher. Noticeably behind. She’s striding with casual confidence over to the white boxes beneath the oaks in her T-shirt and jeans, the veil over her head not even tied shut.

I, on the other hand, am sealed in, top to toe, yet anxiously fingering the zipper on the veil for the ninth time to be sure it’s shut. I edge nearer the hive, where about 40,000 stinging insects raise a dim hum. Jennifer Tsuruda, my instructor, puffs smoke over the hive entrance. The air around us is peppered with bees, sisters returning from fields of goldenrod to deliver their goods.

Tsuruda, 35, is Clemson University Cooperative Extension’s apiculture specialist for South Carolina, and we’re here at the hillside of hives where she does her bee research. Just now, she is explaining that the smoke interferes with the bees’ ability to communicate chemically, to warn one another of our approach.

This is all fascinatingly scientific, but I’m finding it hard to focus because it’s taking all my concentration not to wildly swat at the bees landing all over my suit. Slowly, Tsuruda lifts the hive cover and sends smoke inside, and the bees’ hum crescendoes.

Don’t wave your arms, I tell myself. Don’t run.

Read the rest of the story at S.C. Living Magazine.

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