The birds were chirping and the trees stood tall as Miriam Avins went walking in a patch of urban woods.
Located between a CVS Pharmacy and the Govans-Boundary Parish United Methodist Church on southbound York Road, the woods didn't look like much: dotted with poison ivy, invasive English ivy, trash and a campsite near a concrete pipe, where a man, possibly homeless, appears to lay his head at night.
But Avins, founder and executive director of Baltimore Green Space, said the patch of woods, once a vacant lot, looks a lot better than it did in 2012, when her nonprofit organization, then best known for promoting community gardening, also began taking an interest in reclaiming and preserving urban wooded areas around the city.
In Govans, "It was just all ivy," Avins said. "There was all kinds of trash."
And no birds.
Area residents, students and others, including volunteers from Baltimore Green Space, the York Road Partnership and Loyola University Maryland's York Road Initiative, have since cleared pathways and pulled up much of the ivy that covered the trees. They gave the woods a name, Govans Urban Forest, and refer to it by its acronym, GUF. Friends School students made a wooden roadside sign on posts planted on the embankment above the sidewalk. It announces the patch, about three-quarters of an acre, as "a protected urban forest."
The woods are cleaner and clearer now. Trees have been tagged for identification and small orange flags are planted in the soil alongside three dozen seedlings of oak, cherry and other new trees. Invasive young Norway maples have been cut down.
"Look at that baby," Avins said, admiring a small, but fast-growing white oak.
Robins are back, along with finches and starlings.
"There's definitely more birds here than there were at the beginning," Avins said.
Govans Urban Forest is part of Baltimore Green Space's three-year-old Forest Stewardship Network, which teaches neighborhoods how to care for urban forest patches.
"Our goal was to have folks at a meeting with experts who were knowledgeable about tree care and forest care," said Katie Lautar, program manager for Baltimore Green Space.
Two other forest patches, Wilson Woods and Springfield Woods, are located nearby, in the Wilson Park-Pen Lucy area.
Much of the bamboo and poison ivy that once throttled Wilson Woods is gone.
"The poison ivy used to be as tall as me," said Baltimore Green Space's program manager, Katie Lautar, who stands five feet tall.
The more than two-acre Springfield Woods is the largest and most idyllic in the area, with a spring running through it and its own sign and paths, as well as a meadow-like clearing where flowers have been planted and a half-used bag of mulch sits.
"So, do you feel like you're in the city now?" Lautar asked. Buildings were barely visible as she crossed a few wooden boards that served as a bridge over the spring in the middle of Springfield Woods. "You really feel like you're in a park."
The York Road Partnership's Public Spaces and Greening Group is heavily involved in preserving the Govans Urban Forest, as part of the committee's ongoing efforts to beautify the York Road corridor. The group's chairwoman, Helene Perry, said work on the forest started in fall 2012, when members of the Loyola rugby team came to the York Road Initiative looking for a community service project to do. The Initiative and the Partnership soon put them to work helping to clear the woods of everything from trash to mattresses and tree limbs.
"Then you could suddenly see the possibilities of the open space," Perry said. "Even one little green spot is a help" along the aging corridor.
Two grants of roughly $1,000 each from the Parks and People Foundation have helped fund the forest patch project. Improving the patch has given the community a lift, especially seniors who live in nearby high-rises and students from area schools such as Friends and Loyola. As recently as Friday, several students from the Woodbourne Center, a city-run residential treatment program for youths with behavioral mental health problems, were scheduled to pull invasive weeds and vines at Govans Urban Forest.
"I think GUF is educational," Maggie Porter, a legislative assistant to city Councilman Bill Henry, said at a meeting of the York Road Partnership committee Friday.
"It's an opportunity (for children) to contact nature. There's not a lot of opportunity (for that) in the city," said Ian Yesilonis, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist, who serves as a technical consultant to Baltimore Green Space under the auspices of the USDA.
Committee member Curt Schwartz said he thinks working in the woods is more "emotionally satisfying" for students than cleaning up along York Road.
The 10,000-square-foot green space is spawning community creativity, with ideas ranging from a mushroom garden (already installed) to a dedicated space for an outdoor classroom.
"Knowing that we have that forest there invites people to come up and give us ideas for how to use it," Perry said. "We have taken something that was considered a detriment to the community and turned it into something that people enjoy."
Improving the health of the woods is also seen as an environmental boost to the area.
Yesilonis said he first got involved when he was invited by the Forest Stewardship Network to talk to community leaders in 2012 about the benefits of preserving forest patches, including that urban woods can help cool the city, reduce stormwater runoff and provide a natural habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Yesilonis, who is based at the Community College of Baltimore County, in Catonsville, said he has stayed involved since then because he admires the passion of people in the community for the patch of green.
Yesilonis said his role is "to give these community members, who wanted to become stewards of the patches, a little more knowledge about what their patch was like. I find their passion very rewarding — and I see progress," he said. "It's easy to hop on that train."
Perry's committee takes the Govans Urban Forest seriously and had a lively discussion on everything from the need for more sustainable plants to what to do about the man living in the woods, who one committee member called "our unofficial resident" and another called "our guardian angel."
The committee decided to leave him be, but talked of putting a trash can near his site.
For Baltimore Green Space, of Waverly, preserving patches like Govans Urban Forest is a happy tangent from its original mission of facilitating community gardening and helping communities secure land for gardening.
"It's recently become a whole other side of what we do," Avins said. "People started coming up to us and saying, 'How do we take care of this?' We were finding that a lot of these places had major problems with invasive vines."
Baltimore Green Space's website now has a whole section on forest patches, and the group, which Avins co-founded in 2007 with a grant from the Open Society Institute, offers forest stewardship workshops on topics such as Tree ID and Villainous Vines. The group also leads bird walks.
"I never knew there was an urban forest," said longtime Lake Walker resident Kathy Brohawn, who is now an active volunteer with the York Road Partnership. "I didn't even take notice of it. Everybody is very surprised when they find it."