Tag Archives: Scott Smith

[OPINION] A Trip Through The Westport Heartland

Alert “06880” reader/curious explorer/noted journalist Scott Smith writes:

Westport 06880 has many blessings. But we don’t have a charming, white-washed covered bridge built in 1880. We also lack a soaring water tower with our name splashed across the top. And a Dollar General store.

These are the chief landmarks of Westport 47283, a small farming community surrounded by miles of corn and soybean fields in south-central Indiana.

The Westport, Indiana covered bridge.

I passed through that Westport recently on my way back from a road trip out West. Eager to leave behind endless Zoom meetings, I settled on a route that would take me to the most COVID-free part of the country – chiefly, Badlands National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

A close encounter with Devil’s Tower across the border in Wyoming and a sublime drive back through the Sand Hills of my native Nebraska were among many other roadside attractions along the way.

Welcome to Westport, Indiana.

I did not spot another Connecticut license plate the whole 10 days. So here are 3 observations for state residents from what’s known as flyover country to some, and the heartland to others.

First, this large part of America truly is a landscape of vast scale and industrial agricultural enterprise. I passed a thousand miles of cropland — mostly corn and soybeans — planted in tight rows extending  as far as the eye could see (or pivot irrigation could reach).

Lush green pastures were dotted with countless supersized rolls of hay destined to fatten up cows for beef. This is the breadbasket of the world, and we should all be proud of that. I know our farmers are.

Yet though the fruits of their labors are so evident, I saw hardly any people working the fields. One 30-foot-wide, GPS-guided combine can cover a lot of ground.

Town Hall in Westport, Indiana.

Using interstates to connect with state roads and scenic byways, I was struck by the vast, beige buildings of corrugated steel roofs and aluminum siding, as large in scope as the mega farming and just as strangely absent of people.

Often they’re depots for Walmart or other distribution conglomerates, with scores of truck bays. The manufacturing facilities stand out with their networks of pipes and conveyors taking in resources and exhaust vents belching things out. Who knows what goes on inside these gargantuan structures, save for a small sign out front that typically sports an acronym followed by “Industries.”

It’s big business to be sure, but not a lot of local jobs, at least of the kinds that kept this swath of America thriving for generations. I passed dozens of small towns with Dollar General at one end of town, and a convenience store (usually with a name like Whoa ‘n’ Go or Pause ‘n’ Pump) selling gas, beer and junk food at the other.

In between, invariably, was a Main Street or “Historic Downtown District” composed of brick buildings boarded up long ago, or given over to a social agency or someone trying to make a go of a curio shop.

A boarded up building in Westport, Indiana.

With ornate facades, and scrolled dates and names of their founders across the sturdy lintels, these landmarks are ghostly echoes of the tin sheds and warehouses on the outskirts of town that long ago replaced them.

Westport 47283 (population 1,379) seems to be doing better than many small Midwestern towns. Though many of the big old buildings are shuttered, they’ve still got a Dairy Queen.

The Dollar General — and Dairy Queen.

The next “woe is Westport” lament I hear about our own town’s retail fortunes, I’ll be thinking of the identical rack of brightly hued ladies and children’s summer fashions I kept noticing stationed outside the front door of the dozens of Dollar General stores I passed driving through these hamlets. If cheap had a smell, I would’ve had to roll the windows up.

This is MAGA Country, to be sure. I drove by Trump stores in four states, including a large, Trump-bespoked RV set up in the parking lot of the Wounded Knee Museum (commemorating a massacre of Lakota Indians by the U.S. Cavalry; think about that). I don’t recall seeing one Biden lawn sign in 4,700 miles, though I was pleased to see a plurality of Black Lives Matters signs on the tidy block in Omaha where my grandparents lived from the 1920s to 1970.

A Trump banner, near the Westport, Indiana water tower. (Photos/Scott Smith)

Point is, the voters in Westport, Indiana, and in all the rural towns beyond, while not large in number anymore, hold more electoral sway than us here in 06880 or in blue states. While I can’t fathom why they’ve put their faith in the poseur populist that is our current President, seeing what they’ve lost and what remains, I can imagine why the fellow in Westport 47283 with the big Trump flag on his front porch would take a flyer on the promise to make his America great again.

Another Dam Story

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith is an astute observer of the many wonders of Westport. Today he writes about the dams that “block the migration of fish and otherwise stymie the natural ecology of the 57,264-acre Saugatuck River Watershed — a rich network of 242 miles of waterways that discharge into the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound.”

The topic came to mind after reading a New York Times story, “It’s Fish vs. Dams, and the Dams Are Winning.” The article noted efforts underway in Connecticut to eliminate obsolete dams from rivers that connect with Long Island Sound,

“Connecticut has about 4,000 dams,” said Stephen Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, “and the vast majority are obsolete.” The state owns about 100 dams and is reviewing the list to determine which should be removed. Gephard’s team has also identified 20 to 30 privately owned dams it would like to remove to allow fish passage.

That made me wonder if one of those dams under consideration of removal is the one on the Saugatuck that forms Lees Pond. It’s owned by the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

Enjoying the Saugatuck River, at Camp Mahackeno back in the day.

Lees Pond was long an integral part of Camp Mahackeno’s summer activities: swimming, rope swings, canoeing, even a floating pontoon.

In recent years, due to a confluence of factors – insurance, safety, the mythical fear of campers coming home covered by leeches – activities on the pond have greatly diminished.

Judging from the map of current renovations to the property, it doesn’t appear that Lees Pond factors much in that plan.

I wonder if Y leaders’ views of the pond have evolved over the years, and if as stewards of this vital stretch of the Saugatuck, they’d be interested in exploring options to unblock this key local natural resource (whose name literally means “river flowing out”).

I emailed Gephard, writing as a longtime resident of Westport who would like to see our local river rehabilitated as habitat for migratory fish. Of all our town’s jewels, especially natural ones, the Saugatuck seems the most underappreciated.

The river was once renowned for legendary runs of sea lamprey, alewife, blueback herring and American shad. In 1828 the Saugatuck Journal described as “the river of little fishes” because of the many smelt. Over time though, it’s been used and abused.

The Saugatuck River — shown here behind the Willows medical complex, near the Lees Pond dam — has been “used and abused,” says Scott Smith. (Photo/Danny Cohen)

Gephard’s response was impressively detailed, describing the status of dams on the Saugatuck from the head of the tide, just north of downtown, to the natural barrier at Devil’s Den.

He called the Saugatuck “a challenge….Dam 1 (at the head of tide) is the Wood Dam, owned by Aquarion. There is a steep-pass fishway, and we believe it is passing river herring.

“Dam 2 is Lees Pond. Removing this would be challenging. It is owned by the YMCA. Traditionally the Y has used the pond for recreational opportunities, though that may no longer be the case. Twice in the last 20 years, the Y has spent large amounts of money to repair the dam. Additional repairs may be needed. It is expensive to maintain such a tall dam in a heavily developed area.

One view of the Lees Pond dam …

“We own a fishway at the dam—or more accurately—in the dam.  In fact, it is the oldest fishway in Connecticut.  Back in the 1960s, the owner of the pond and dam drained the pond, created a large opening in the middle of the dam and began to mine gravel from the pond bed — without any permits.

“The state and town went after him. He divested himself of the dam, and the YMCA ended up as the owner. But the state got the right to build a fishway in the hole in the dam to close the dam, restore the pond and provide fish passage.

“The fishway is accessed by us via a catwalk through private property, and is not accessible to the public. As originally designed and built circa 1963, the fishway never worked and fell into disrepair.

“In the 1990s, I inherited the care of the facility. I used a grant to gut it and install a newer style fishway (steep-pass). It is still a little steeper than we would prefer (we had to use the space provided in 1963), but we feel it works for river herring and probably sea lamprey.

… and another.

“Dam 3 is Dorr’s Mill Pond at Glendenning. There are 2 fishways there, one at the spillway and one on a stream branch that weaves through Bridgewater’s office complex.

“The DEEP and Nature Conservancy built both, and they appear to be effective.  Dam 4 is privately owned just upstream of Route 57. The owner did not allow us to build a fishway at the dam, but a natural channel bypasses the eastern side of the dam through someone else’s property. Many fish find it and circumvent the dam.

“Dam 5 is River Road Dam, immediately upstream of the River Road Bridge. It has a pool-and-weir fishway on private property, but it can be seen from the bridge.

“Dam 6 is the former Bradley Axe mill dam halfway up to Devil’s Glen and Trout Brook Valley. We had an agreement with the dam owner and spent considerable money designing a cool fishway for that dam. But the owner sold the house before it could be built, and the new owner did not want the fishway.

“The plans remain if the ownership ever changes. If fish get past that dam, they can reach Devil’s Glen, a natural chasm that historically stopped all fish.

Devil’s Glen, in Weston.

“Also, we worked with the Aspetuck Land Trust to have a fishway built on Trout Brook, on the Trout Brook Preserve.  It does not pass anadromous fish, but helps brook trout move around and reach spawning habitat.” (NOTE: This is the only fishway accessible to the public.)

“Furthermore, the Aspetuck River joins the Saugatuck River just upstream of Dorr’s Mill Dam and Route 57. The North Avenue Dam, the first on it, has a simple pool and weir fishway. on private property.

“The second one, the Newman Dam, has a pool-and-weir fishway. It too, is on private property.

“The third dam, the Frankel Dam, was removed by a joint work team of DEEP crew and The Nature Conservancy. That allows anadromous fish to ascend as far as the next dam, a bit upstream of Bayberry.

“After that, there is a dam almost every 300 feet. We would entertain dam removals, but there are so many dams that the cost/benefit is low. We have not made it a priority.

“Farther upstream, we have worked with Aquarion to install a new gate at the Aspetuck Reservoir Dam in Easton. It allows mature silver-phase American eels to pass downstream, avoiding the entrance to the Hemlock Reservoir, which is a dead end for migrating eels. They all die in the treatment plant. These are the females heading out to sea to spawn, so diverting them down the Aspetuck where there are only small dams and no intakes is important.

Aspetuck Reservoir Dam.

“We have done a lot in this watershed, all in partnership with the Nature Conservancy. Fishways are not as good as a dam removal. With a good fishway, you get fish passage of the targeted species. With a dam removal, you get passage of all species plus many other ecological benefits that were outlined in the article, including lower water temperatures, natural stream habitat, natural sediment transport, etc.

“But in Connecticut, many dams are valued, often as aesthetic features in people’s backyards. We cannot force them to remove their dams. All of the work described above was voluntary (except for the Wood Dam, where the fishway was a condition of a permit that Aquarion needed from the DEEP to repair the dam).

“Our first choice is always dam removal. If owners don’t go for that, we fall back on fishways. Often, that works (we get grants and the fishways don’t cost dam owners anything) and sometimes it doesn’t (like in the case of dam 4).

“We do the best we can. When we first began on the Saugatuck, sea-run brown trout were a main targeted species, along with alewife and blueback herring. Since then we have added sea lamprey and American eel (separate passes). Sadly, the reports of sea-run brown trout are on the decline, likely a victim of climate change and the warming of Long Island Sound, and the Saugatuck River no longer hosts a significant run of brown trout.”

Failure To Launch

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith loves many things about Westport. Kayaking is near the top of his list.

However, all is not ducky on the water. Read on…

Why is there a 3-year wait for a permit to store a kayak for the summer near a launch ramp in Westport?

That question came to mind when I stopped by the Parks & Rec office at Longshore to renew my annual handpass and beach sticker. They’re the tickets to many summer pleasures, and a big reason why Westport is such a great place to live.

I love getting out onto, and into, the water along our beaches, tidal creeks and river banks. For years I kept a small motor boat at Longshore.

Then I downshifted to a kayak, schlepping the big yellow sit-on atop my SUV to various ramps around town: Compo Beach, Longshore, the state launch on the Saugatuck under the I-95 bridge, and the Mill Pond, where I took the scenic route past the oyster shack, through the tunnel under the Sherwood Island Connector, and along the tidal creek to Burying Hill Beach.

The tidal creek at Burying Hill Beach. Scott Smith launched kayaks from here.

The past few seasons, following a car change and increasing age and laziness, I’ve been fortunate to keep my kayak for the summer at Longshore’s E.B. Strait Marina, courtesy of a neighbor’s slot, who liked taking his young daughter out on my old 2-seater.

It’s an easy put-in for a saunter up Gray’s Creek, a jaunt out to Cockenoe, or a venture around Longshore Sailing School to the Saugatuck River. For years I’ve harvested golf balls shanked from the practice range, free for the picking at slack tide.

Fun fact: There are nearly as many enthusiasts of paddle sports – kayaks, canoes, paddleboards – as golfers (around 25 million in the US, depending on which trade group does the counting). Tennis trails both pursuits by quite a bit.

There’s no lack of supply for Westport’s golfers or tennis players. That’s great, and I’m among them. But 3 years to wait for a spot to stash your kayak for the summer?

A kayaker at sunset, between Compo Beach and Owenoke. (Photo/Nico Eisenberger)

I’d like to know why the town has not figured out how to accommodate such an expressed demand for an increasingly popular, and very low impact, recreational pastime. Believe me, I’m still kicking myself for telling my neighbor I’d try to get the permit in my name this year.

I can see how adding parking spots for the train station lots, or boat slips at the marina piers, could come up against hard logistical limits. But how difficult would it be to add a few more wooden trestles to the existing lots at Compo Beach or Longshore?

Better yet, I suggest the town consider adding storage spaces and launch sites around town, for residents to use and help fund. I can think of several spots, including Compo Beach marina near the boat ramp and facilities, and Burying Hill Beach, which also has facilities and ample parking along New Creek (and which is chronically overlooked as a town asset).

Compo Beach has kayak racks near South Beach. Scott Smith would like more. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

A great new place to launch from would be the lower parking lot at Longshore, which occupies precious frontage on the Saugatuck River and is now mostly used to accommodate wedding-goers at the Inn. Pilings from an old pier remain along the shore; it wouldn’t take much to repurpose a part of the lot as a put-in for paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks, with some seasonal storage.

It may require coordination with the state, but as the striving crews of the Saugatuck Rowing Club and the enterprising folks at Downunder can attest, the river is prime territory for today’s waterborne pursuits (at least when the tide’s right).

The town should bolster access to the Saugatuck for recreational fun. I’m pleased to see that the small park on Riverside Avenue near the VFW has been spruced up, though parking remains an issue. That pocket park could, with the Town’s support, be another fun new spot from which to explore a pretty stretch of the river.

Scott Smith suggests the small park on Riverside Avenue as another kayak launch site.

Excuse the rant. But once you’ve enjoyed the views and sport of Westport from the water’s edge, you want more.

And I don’t see why taxpaying town residents should have to wait 3 years to have reasonable access to it.

I asked Westport’s Parks and Recreation Department for a comment. They replied:

As the kayak facility is a popular and relatively inexpensive activity, demand exceeds supply. Therefore, there’s a wait list. It ranges between 1 and 3 years, depending on activity and turnover rate. Last year, 57 kayak positions turned over.

Short of building more racks (which we did about 8 years ago), the trend will continue with a 1 to 3-year wait. We currently have 58 on the wait list for the 192 kayak positions at Compo and 30 at Longshore.

Parks and Recreation Commission chair Charlie Haberstroh added:

We are putting together a site plan for Longshore, and will look to add kayak spaces there. We can also see if there is a more efficient way to design and stack kayaks at Compo.

I believe that we understand the problem. Unfortunately there is not a solution for this summer. In a way it is a good problem: more demand than supply. We will get on it.

(Has Scott Smith’s story got you intrigued about kayaks? You can rent them at Longshore Sailing School, and Downunder on Riverside Avenue.)

Scott Smith Discovers Westport’s Hidden Gems

Scott Smith is an alert “06880” reader, a longtime Westporter and an ardent outdoorsman. He writes:

If you ask Westporters to comment on our community’s natural charms, chances are most would cite the dazzling string of beaches and coastal places: Compo Beach, Sherwood Mill Pond, Gray’s Creek and Burying Hill. If pressed, they might claims Sherwood Island too.

Others would tout the Saugatuck River, from the fly fishing shallows along Ford Road to the impoundment of Lees Pond, and the tidal stretch through town leading to the mouth at Longshore and Cedar Point. Cockenoe Island gets a shout-out, too, especially from those with the nautical means to visit it.

Fishing off Ford Road (Photo/Richard Wiese)

But plenty of other places across Westport beguile with bucolic beauty. Many of these underappreciated open spaces are in the midst of a welcome renaissance, sparked by renovation efforts from those who love and tend them.

I’m talking about the town parks, preserves, land trusts and wildlife sanctuaries that constitute our remaining inland open spaces. Over the past year or two, I’ve visited quite a few. I always come away thinking how fortunate we are to be able to trod upon them.

“06880” has covered these developments over time, noting singular efforts and improvements. But if you step back and tally them all up, it’s quite an impressive list, covering virtually every part of town.

Over in Old Hill there’s the Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum. I toured it a couple of seasons ago with its caretakers, including Lou Mall and tree warden Bruce Lindsay. They’re spearheading its transformation from an untended patch of blow-downs and invasive vines to a fetching enhancement to the adjacent Earthplace facility.

Dead creepers line a Wadswworth Arboretum trail.

Coleytown has the Newman Poses Preserve, which affords a wonderful walk through meadows along the Saugatuck stream and through upland woods. Having the memory of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and their family as you traipse along is a nice bonus. Their neighbors — and the Aspetuck Land Trust — get credit for giving us that open space.

Right near downtown there’s the blossoming of long-neglected Baron’s South, another town-led reclamation project with even brighter prospects in store as a nature-driven arts campus.

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

And just down Compo, off Greenacre Road, is the hidden gem of the Haskins Preserve, my longtime favorite place for a weekend stroll.

Haskins Preserve’s dogwoods and daffodils — a lovely combination.

I have “06680” to thank for cluing me in to my newest place to take a hike: the Smith Richardson Preserve in Greens Farms. I’ve long known about the 2 parcels north of I-95. The Christmas tree farm off Sasco Creek Road is where I chop down a tree every year. I consider it in part my annual donation to the Connecticut Audubon Society, which manages the farm and the open space across the road.

But I had no idea of the separate property just across 95, a 36-acre parcel stretching from Sasco Creek all the way to the playing fields behind Greens Farms Academy off Beachside Avenue.

I walked it the other day, taking advantage of frozen ground to course through fields that are in the midst of being cleared of smothering vines and other invasive species.

It’s an impressive project, even if the space is hard by the highway and Metro-North rails. Hemmed in by neighboring houses big and small, and what looks to be a refuse depot managed by the railroad or state, the area has the look of a pocket-size Central Park in the making, with Olmstedian trails that wind through woods, and alongside meadows and ponds. I can’t wait to see how the property develops, with its ambitious new plantings and clearings, and whether the caretaking crews can keep the tick-haven invasives at bay.

Smith Richardson Preserve (Photo/Scott Smith)

These public/private corners of our community are all discovered places, at least for me. When I visit them, either with my dog or solo, I’m often the only one around. I like the solitude, and question why I’d even want to spread the word about them. Parking is often a pinch, and I’m not even sure about the proper access to the new Smith Richardson preserve behind GFA’s sprawling athletic fields.

But these largely hidden local natural spaces deserve recognition, and our support for the groups that manage them — the town, Aspetuck Land Trust, and the Connecticut Audubon Society — whether by check or volunteer hand.

Separately and together, they all make Westport a wonderful place to live and to explore.

If A Tree Falls In Baron’s South, Does It Make A Sound?

It’s tough to take down trees here on public land without an uproar.

Westporters howled 3 years ago, when 15 tulip poplars and Norway maples lining the Longshore entrance road were slated for removal. There was a similar brouhaha when a number of Main Street trees were sacrificed for light poles.

But very quietly earlier this month, several dozen trees — not far from the center of downtown — were cut down. We’ve heard hardly a peep.

The key is that those latest trees were on the Baron’s South property. That’s the 22-acre site between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue. We — well, the town — bought it in 1999. But we’ve never decided exactly how to use the land.

It’s magnificent: hilly, wild and filled with wildlife. It’s been minimally maintained, which suits some people fine. Others think it needs a bit more care.

Deep in the Baron's South property. This image was taken from Judy James' video.

Deep in the Baron’s South property. This image was taken from Judy James’ video.

Most Westporters have no idea it even exists. So the recent Parks & Recreation Department project — to clear overgrown brush, vines, tree branches and other debris, and (oh yeah) chop down a number of trees — hardly registered.

Of course, a few folks noticed.

Cut trees are hauled away from Baron's South.

Cut trees are hauled away from Baron’s South.

One “06880” reader emailed to say that when a friend “came upon such woodland carnage, he became so sick to his stomach he had to leave.” Both were appalled that such “clear-cutting” took place without any notice.

Others hailed the project.

Scott Smith wrote:

The property has fascinated me since moving to this part of town 20 years ago. I’ve hiked, biked and explored the place even before the town bought it.

These photos hardly capture the transformation of the overgrown and long neglected grounds, or the number of trees cleared from the landscape.

The new view at Baron's South, looking west. (Photo/Scott Smith)

The new view at Baron’s South, looking west…

The tree clearing has opened up views of the Baron’s old manor house from nearly every part of the park. I never realized the views it commanded from its hilltop setting. The new vistas from the high ground also reveal glimpses of downtown and the steeples of Assumption Church across the river, and Saugatuck Church on the other side of the Post Road.

The loss of so many (but certainly not all) shows how rugged and steep the site is; there are more than a few slopes and ravines that would make for double-diamond sled runs if the town would ever allow it, which they won’t.

... looking east ...

… looking east …

On the flat land closer to Imperial and near the Senior Center is a small nursery of trees and shrubs packed in deep beds of tree mulch. I suspect tree warden Bruce Lindsay has a well thought-out re-landscaping plan.

Can’t wait to see how this most hidden of the town-owned jewels shapes up this spring. It’s definitely going to be a huge change.

It already is. Whether that change is positive or negative is up for debate.

By the small group of people who even know it happened.

... and looking north. (Photos/Scott Smith)

… and looking north. (Photos/Scott Smith)

 

Longshore Seaplane: The Sequel

This morning’s post about Westport’s seaplane past brought an instant response from Scott Smith.

And a photo:

Last seaplane - Longshore - from John Kantor

Click on photo to enlarge.

The former chair of Longshore’s 50th anniversary as a town park got the image from John Kantor, longtime owner of Longshore Sailing School.

Scott writes:

John gave me this photo of a seaplane taxiing away from the sailing school dock. He described it as “the last seaplane” that took off from that area. Note the police vessel standing by.

Scott adds that Lucia White — a well-known artist, now in her 90s — told Scott that her brother was a seaplane pilot in the 1930s and ’40s. He once flew one of the Bedford family’s planes to Florida. When he was a few days late reporting back, Lucia’s mother raised a fit with Mrs. Bedford.

A Heap O’ Scott Smith

Westporters blog about many things: Work. Kids. “06880.”

Scott Smith blogs about his piles.

Okay, his compost pile. Still, it’s an interesting topic. It’s called “My Pile: A Year in the Life of a Backyard Compost Heap.” He covers fertilizer, leaves and lots of other, um, stuff. Like the compost pile itself, it’s a work in progress.

The other day, Scott sent this story along. He hopes it’s of interest to “06880” readers. Whether or not you compost, I think it will be:

Autumn is my favorite time of year to be a Westporter — especially when the weather gives us such a pleasant run of bright, shiny days to prepare for the dark, cold winter to come.

It’s harvest time. For a backyard gardener like me, that means dealing with our most abundant crop – leaves. Driving along our roads, I’m always gobsmacked to see so many tall brown paper bags stuffed full of leaves stacked along the way. What a lot of fuss!

An autumn sight: bags of leaves awaiting pickup.

An autumn sight: bags of leaves awaiting pickup.

All those leaves – 2 tons per acre, I’ve heard – add up to a hefty load for our town (and our tax dollars). Westport’s Public Works Department doesn’t break down the costs of the annual pickup, but similar towns spend upwards of $370 per mile of road to collect leaves each fall.

Add to that the noisy efforts of squadrons of leaf-blowing crews that suck up and haul away the season’s leaves from many other local yards, and that’s an awful lot of green going to waste (or brown).

My neighbors and I have another, less costly and more sustainable way to dispatch our yearly bounty of leaves — and get something worthwhile in return. We rake, mulch and scooch most of the leaves that fall each season over to the compost pile I keep in the back corner of my yard.

My compost pile is a community in every sense: both in and of itself, and because of how it brings neighbors together. I still have the thank-you card the lady across the street sent after a buddy and I swept her leaves onto an old sheet and dragged them over to my pile.

Topping off a compost pile.

Topping off a compost pile.

My pile is awesome. Beyond generating nice neighborly feelings, the compost heap now takes in the bulk of leaves from nearly 3 acres of suburbia. That’s 4 homes that have largely gone “off the grid” of the town’s fall leaf cleanup.

Abiding by the old saw that a good compost heap is 80 percent dead brown organic material and 20 percent fresh green stuff, my goal each fall is to add a layer of something “green” to every load of leaves I put in my pile.

Easy pickings are grass clippings from the lawn, until they peter out with the waning autumn sun. Filtered coffee grounds from a local shop are loaded with nutrients and often free for the asking, as are bags of shredded paper brought home from the office. My pile also absorbs all the food scraps from my kitchen, and the family next door.

A certain amount of scavenging suits me and my pile. We live near the beach, where I bulk up with the greenest of green for my pile: seaweed.

Searching for seaweed on the shore.

Searching for seaweed on the shore.

I got the idea from a Westport Historical Society exhibit a while ago. “A Bunch of Farmers” detailed the area’s agricultural roots, beginning in the 1830s, which over generations developed richly with the maritime exportation of fish and produce to New York, Boston and beyond. By the Civil War, Westport was the leading onion supplier to the Union army. Onion farmers used nutrient-rich seaweed as fertilizer. There’s a certain symmetry to that, as my neighborhood was once an onion field.

Depending on the season, the weather and the wind, high tide usually leaves a long scraggly line of flotsam, most of it a musty salad of seaweed and raggedy reeds of salt marsh grass. Both are high in nutrients and the trace elements garden plants love.

Caught up in the tidal ebb and flow are dismembered crab legs and carapaces of baby horseshoe crabs. Shells of mussels, clams and oysters dot the mix, and in they go too. I love bringing this bit of the beach back home with me. The bucket smells like part wet swimsuit, part low tide, and all pure summer.

Scott Smith

Scott Smith

The more green I can contribute to my pile in the fall, the hotter it will cook through the winter months. With some turning with a pitchfork, the sooner the mass of leaves and compostable whatnot will boil down into a finished batch of loamy new compost. Last summer I spread 50 wheelbarrows full of fresh compost across my garden beds and lawn. My neighbors always know where they can go to fill up a flower pot or top-dress their tomato garden.

I know that in the greater scheme of things my backyard compost pile doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. But it’s a fun, low-tech hobby that provides me plenty of good ol’-fashioned outdoor exercise, costs next to nothing, and in a modest way allows me to act locally while musing about bigger issues like food waste, sustainability, carbon footprints and global warming.

I highly recommend it to anyone with the time and inclination. Lord knows there’s always plenty of leaves to go around!

Hey, DOT: Move Your Asphalt!

It’s been there so long — and we’re so intent on finding an illegal parking spot at Starbucks — that most Westporters seldom notice the asphalt mountain at the state Department of Transportation maintenance facility just behind Walgreen’s and the bank, across from the diner.

But alert “06880” reader Scott Smith spotted it 2 years ago. Yesterday morning, he looked again. The only thing that’s changed: It’s 2 years older. 

Scott writes:

I know that much of the old asphalt scraped off our roadways is recycled into new material to resurface roads. In fact, old asphalt is the most recycled material in the US. Maybe that’s the state’s plan for all this stuff – surely thousands of cubic yards of ground-up asphalt. If so, they’re taking their sweet time to use it.

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road...

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road…

So here’s my question for CT DOT, as well as our local and state elected officials: Is this the best use of such prime Westport real estate?

Seems to me this area could be better utilized for, say, parking school buses and getting them out of their current cramped lot downtown. Or maybe we could work out a deal to move our Parks & Rec maintenance facility from the center of Longshore to this area. (The vehicles and equipment at that rundown facility are used not at Longshore but other Parks & Rec properties around town.) With some screening, perhaps there’s enough room here for affordable housing, which is as much a state issue as a local one.

Our local tax dollars sent to Hartford far out-measure what Westporters get back in terms of state services. You’d think we would have a good case to make for a land swap or lease that would allow Westport to make better use of this property. And there doesn’t seem to be much of a NIMBY issue involved, as most any re-development of the site would be preferable to a mountain of asphalt sitting almost in the middle of town.

...and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

…and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

Scott Smith’s New Pet Interest

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith has spent this snowy winter feeding birds in his back yard. In between setting out seed, he shared these insights:

I’m currently in recovery from the news that my beloved mutt Miller will not be crowned Westport’s Top Dog 2015. He did not even have the chops to make it into the finals of this year’s competition, which concluded last Friday.

I’m not giving up on man’s best friend. But I’ve recently become infatuated with a new pet interest: All the birds that flock to my backyard feeder.

A typical winter scene.

A typical winter scene.

Especially since the snow has been on the ground this new year, my feeder attracts dozens of birds at a time throughout the day.

Most are little brown birds — sparrows and such — but there are many other kinds, including gentle doves, flicky finches, belligerent blue jays, the occasional red-headed woodpecker and more. Some feed only at the hanging tubular feeding station, while others peck through the snow-covered ground below for their meals.

After I purchased a new bag of bird feed advertised especially for cardinals at Pet Supplies Plus, I’ve been rewarded by frequent visits from 3 bright red males and 2 dusky females. Being from St. Louis — and a week away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training — this particularly excites me.

I asked the clerk how much bird feed the store sold a week. He calculated the bags by weight and said, “600 pounds, at least.” Figuring all the other local pet stores, and Super Stop & Shop, that must add up to a ton or more of seed each week for our community of wintering song birds and other feathered friends.

Dogs rule the roost and the news in Westport. Most attention to birds in these parts focuses on problems with geese, the singular beauty of swans or the wonder of ospreys nesting along our shoreline. It takes a long white winter to notice just how many other winged creatures also call Westport home, and enliven it throughout the year.

I don’t have the camera to nicely capture the birds in my backyard, but I imagine other alert readers and local birders have their own tales and photos to share.

Scott Smith's Miller is a “bird dog.” – He loves chasing away squirrels poaching seeds scattered across the snow.

Scott Smith’s Miller is a “bird dog.” He loves chasing away squirrels poaching seeds scattered across the snow.

 

Sand And Silt In The Saugatuck River

Last week, alert — and environmentally conscious — “06880” reader Scott Smith stood at Parker Harding Plaza and looked at the Saugatuck River.

It was low tide. Very low tide.

(Photo/Scott Smith)

(Photo/Scott Smith)

He was amazed at how much gravel and fill has been deposited on the upstream side of the bridge, and how shallow this section of the tidal river has become. He knows the muck continues all the way further downstream.

Scott says:

I wonder what would happen if, instead of the 2-3 inches of rain we got a couple of days earlier, we received the 13 inches that fell on Long Island. I’m no marine engineer, but it seems we’re at risk of some serious wash-outs, starting with our Post Road bridge and no doubt possibly affecting our waterway through Saugatuck, out to the Sound. The river today is nothing like it was when barges and other vessels docked all the way to downtown.

I’ve heard that Norwalk is undertaking a dredging project for its river and harbor. Is this something to add to our already lengthy list of Westport capital improvement projects?

What do you think? Is the state of our river dire enough to spend money on it? What would we gain? Are there unintended consequences — positive or negative?

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