“I just had a big battle. I’m still bristling,” says the wiry octogenarian as he walks along the shady path from his house to Stony Run Park minutes after a vociferous argument with a city mowing crew. The crew had gone full speed ahead, mowing down every wildflower in sight, until Michael Beer stopped them. “It has been a perpetual fight, to persuade the powers-that-be you don’t have to mow all the time— you can let it be a woodland,” Beer says. “But that is a delicate balance in a city. You can’t let it go completely.”
In the 20-some years this retired Johns Hopkins biophysics professor has tended Stony Run— the Jones Falls tributary that flows in the path of the old Ma & Pa Railroad, from just above the county line south through the Orchards, Roland Park, Guilford, Tuscany-Canterbury and Wyman Park— mowing has been a perennial issue. When Beer, his wife and three children moved into their house on the park 48 years ago, the greenway was mowed. As ancient trees died, Beer decided to replace them with seedling offspring: maples, tulip poplars, dogwoods. He also installed some showy plants like magnolia grandiflora and azaleas to draw attention to this urban countryside.
All this he did without any official mandate— he was just a citizen gardener who wanted to attract others to the park, as he’d been attracted to the forest when he hiked in the mountains with his children. Because they hiked more slowly than he, he often paused to study wildflowers. That stimulated his interest in cultivating a woodland back at home. He also began teaching ecology courses at Hopkins, in addition to his biophysics work, and by the time he was associate dean of arts and sciences, he even organized inter-
departmental seminars on ecology.
Beer’s efforts to develop a diverse woodland with adjacent paths and a cleaner stream were embraced by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the nearby Evergreen Community Association and its president, Jake Eldridge. The Chesapeake Bay Trust and surrounding communities helped fund tree, shrub and wildflower planting. “We had this goofy idea to establish plants native to Maryland and to create greater diversity than you would encounter in the wild,” says Beer. “It ended up being a woodland with mallards, bats, hawks, pileated woodpeckers.”
Meanwhile, downstream Sandy Sparks, executive director of Greater Homewood Community Corporation (an umbrella organization that includes Stony Run and North Baltimore), was also working on behalf of area parks. In 1997, Beer and Sparks teamed up to create the Jones Falls Watershed Association and to receive a $3,500 Parks & People Foundation grant. “I always say that Michael was on the outside, and I was on the inside,” says Sparks, current president of JFWA, now an independent non-profit with a yearly budget of $300,000.
A major boon to Stony Run came in 2005 when a $10 million city storm water, sewer and stream restoration project redesigned and repaired Stony Run and its banks to slow erosion and improve the quality of the water. “We should be pleased with our city that it was willing to spend big bucks [on this project],” says Beer. Now thousands of urban frog-catchers, hikers, joggers, bike riders and members of track teams spend countless hours enjoying the banks of a woodland stream.
In addition to Stony Run, JFWA and its three-person staff today oversees 58 square miles of watershed that extend from Stony Run along the Jones Falls River and its tributaries south to the harbor and north into Baltimore County. (Two-thirds of the Jones Falls watershed is, in fact, in Baltimore County.) JFWA also works with local schoolchildren to plant trees and create wetlands and rain gardens to help reduce polluted storm water runoff from parking lots, roads and rooftops. Students then carry a message home that simple activities like minimizing fertilizer use and planting native plants help the Jones Falls and the Chesapeake Bay.
Almost every September since 1998, JFWA has hosted a public celebration on the Jones Falls Expressway. Beer, who often leads canoeists downstream during the celebration, was one of the event’s first organizers. “We planned as many activities as possible to take people to the river,” he says.
This year’s celebration will be filled with biking, hiking and skateboarding, plant sales, food, music, frog races and a historical tour-— all to celebrate the watershed and the combined efforts of people like Beer, who stepped out his back door and took responsibility— one tree, one bush, one piece of trash at a time.
Rally for the River 2008 is Sunday, Sept. 21, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the closed northbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway. 410-366-3037 or jonesfalls.org