May 2013 marked my third year in High School Urban EcoStewards or Eco as most participants call it. I’ve really enjoyed working out in Frick Park to plant trees, flowers, shrubs, dig up invasive species and just sit in nature and write in a journal. I started Eco back in my ninth grade year when my afterschool program, the YMCA Westinghouse Lighthouse Project, introduced the program to a few of us.

Growing up, kids are exposed to nature. But Eco was a way to be exposed to nature while helping it thrive. By all means, Eco didn’t introduce me to planting and learning about nature. I actually had a summer job working for the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which is similar to Eco but at more parks. SCA took a group of about seven-to-ten teenagers (fifteen and older) and took them to different parks around Pittsburgh to fix up the parks, work on stone staircases, plant trees, flowers, shrubs and remove invasive species. I guess that’s why I immediately jumped at being a part of Eco.

Tracey cutting grapevine in Frick Park

The first day we had Eco, we took a walk around the area in which we were to be working. It was not really that far from the entrance but it was still somewhat far. When it rained, the trail would get muddy and we’d have to struggle not to lose our shoes in the mud, but our work site was beautiful. It was an open field with three giant full grown trees in it. One of the trees was a cherry tree and another was in the oak family. The field also had a big, almost jungle gym look to it because of all the grapevines that wrapped themselves around the shrubs and some of the smaller trees. Over the course of that year, we planted about six baby trees and cut down a lot of grapevines.

The most memorable part about the field was our art project. Instead of throwing away the grapevines, we made a “fence” out of the grapevines to plant inside of.  The purpose of the “fence” was to create something that would protect the plants we would later plant from any animal that would try to eat them. It took a lot of time sketching ideas, but when we finally came up with one, we loved it. Once we finished constructing it, we planted about four to six baby shrubs and a couple flowers inside the “fence.”

The next year, we worked half of the year at the site but soon moved to a new site as there was nothing more we could add to the old site. We basically filled up every available space. The new site though, was much closer to the entrance and was behind a nursery maintained by the park. Sometimes, I miss the old site but the new one had more trees for us to identify and it did offer a good view of the street below and beyond.

At the new site, the first thing we did was write in a journal. When we wrote in our journals, we were to find a spot and write down all of the observations we could come up with. That included animals, trees, sounds, feelings and anything else we could come up with. I think a couple of us even wrote little poems or raps from our spots. The new site was peaceful and bigger than the old one.

After we finished journaling, we jumped right into planting. We planted shrubs and trees, but I’ve long since forgotten the names. Each time we came to the site, we would plant a little, journal a little, and try to identify what type of trees, shrubs and flowers were at our site.

This year, after one and a half years at the new site, we planted trees and flowers. For every tree planted, we were to plant two flowers, one on either side of the tree but not too close. After we planted the trees and the flowers, we went and dug up a few invasive trees and plants. I forget their names but we got to use shovels, loppers, and an axe. It was a new experience for me to use an axe and watch someone up close use one. I felt thrilled. At the end of this third year, we talked about working in Eco as a future career.

I wholeheartedly enjoy working in Eco and I can’t wait until next year. I’m curious and anxious at the same time about whether we will have a new site and to see how the old sites turned out. I’m glad I participated in Eco and if I could do it again, I would and I will. Eco in some ways has become a part of my life. Because of Eco, I appreciate nature a little bit more than I did before.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy takes care of the city’s four major parks (Frick, Schenley, Riverview, Highland) and a number of smaller parklets. Read more from their blog and learn about the organization on their website.