The Ecology of a Parking Lot

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Big Yellow Taxi, written by Joni Mitchell

“Big Yellow Taxi” is one of my favorite songs and highlights my concerns and beliefs about human impact on the planet, particularly when it comes to our efforts both direct and indirect at habitat destruction. I was educated at Unity College: America’s Environmental College where environmental stewardship and awareness is at the core of the curriculum. Couple that to my appreciation for the natural world, the creatures and flora that dwell within it, and an intolerance for a lack of environmental awareness and you have some idea of how my mind works.

For example, I have had the hardest time explaining to people why I’m so into birds. It’s literally impossible for me not to notice them. If a crow flies over the road, or a duck floats past on the water, or if a snippet of birdsong creeps through a wood, I’m on it like butter on potatoes. The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is how people who are really into sports can talk at length about foul balls, sticky wickets, and that there is such a thing called a “shuttlecock”.

Earlier this year, I was having a conversation with someone about how American football games work. Apparently, unlike rugby (a sport that I am only slightly more aware of how it works), the reason the game stops and starts is because there are two games being played at the same time: an offensive one and a defensive one. I took this in and felt insecure about how little I knew about the subject, deciding then and there to try to watch out for it the next time I happened to be distracted by the T.V. I imagine this is how people must feel when I’m ranting about how irruptions work or why calling a herring gull (Larus argentatus) , “a seagull” isn’t acceptable, but calling a black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) one is.

Part of the reason I started this blog/journal/internet-based ranting platform is that I wanted to share with my audience what they might be missing out on in the natural world and while the content is more bird-related since that’s where my interests tend to focus, I try to be diverse in my writing subjects and prompts. That’s why after an early shift on Thursday morning, I went for a walk across the vast parking lots near the big box store I work in to see what I could notice. The weather was cloudy as I walked along the edge of the parking lot of the box I work in and into the parking lot of the other boxes occupying their own spaces. The only surfaces you can walk on around here are the vast plots of tarmac set aside for parking spaces, cement sidewalks next to the stores, or the grassy verge dividing the plots of tarmac from the chain stores that sat on the landscape.

As I walked, I took in the sounds around me. Nature, as usual, was making her way around the landscape, albeit struggling to be heard or noticed above the groan of engines on the nearby turnpike. A song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hashed its scratchy song in a thicket between the McDonald’s and the highway, while a plain spoken blackbird offered a brief clicking call note before being drowned out by the thrum of an eighteen-wheeler. The gulls were able to combat the drone of the traffic with their piercing calls. Being so close to the ocean, herring gulls are the most common species you are likely to see. Their grey backs mirrored the skies above, while they searched for fried food from boxes matching the colors of their bills.

Designed to be a decorative background rather than the main event, it seems…

There was little plant life to speak of with only a few trees lining the verges that were spaced every four car lengths. They looked like they were flowering, but I was unsure if they were maples or an ornamental tree that the developers of the nearby mall had decided to put there in the early 2000’s. Like silent sentinels, they stood quietly on their small patchy ground and waited for the blue to return to the sky.

More cars zipped past me when it suddenly occurred to me that the only people who likely had tread the path I was currently following near the McDonald’s would fall into two categories: the local homeless population or people who simply didn’t have a car to get around and people like me who decided on a whim to walk to a store instead of just driving to it. Bill Bryson worriedly observed this phenomena in a 1999 article for the Independent. He said at one point despairingly, “…Americans not only don’t walk anywhere, they won’t walk anywhere, and woe to anyone who tries to make them…” He then goes on to describe several observations of his fellow townsfolk in Hanover, NH using the legs dangling from their hips infrequently, if at all, preferring the convenience offered by vehicular proximity.

At risk of judging my neighbors in my adopted country, I should note that I am by no means immune to the preference of driving close to where I want to shop. I will drive as close as I can to the nearest parking spot which I see as being tremendously convenient, while my fellow occupants have often described my preference for close parking as “frightening”, “brave”, and have branded me as a “risk-taker”. No, people who jump out of planes are risk-takers. I’m just lazy and very confident in my ability to locate and park in close spaces.

Parking lots are the places we temporarily occupy while we are trying to get to the coveted “indoors” where spaces are cultivated to look crisp, clean, and well-lit, where products line the walls and distract us in a different way. They distract us with the promise that if we buy some of their stuff, it will make us feel better. While this is certainly true with food and other supplies, it can come with a cost. As I walked back to my car to eat an early lunch, I noticed the small piles of refuse left by people either too negligent or too careless that their waste was making the place look less desirable. Chick-fil-a cups and McDonald’s wrappers sat idly in puddles, while empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts were sprinkled every couple of feet. I sighed and muttered,

“What a waste.”

I plodded the short walk back to the car, climbed in, and watched my fellow drivers skirt the vast territory of the parking lot while I wondered how to conclude this post.

The last of the cruddy snow melts in a mud puddle.

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