Parks chief lets wildflowers, weeds, have their way


Halfway through the day, the itch becomes unbearable. Calvin P. Buikema can't stand it any longer and pulls up his shirtsleeve to scratch the prickly rash above his wrist.

The relief is so great that soon he's scratching his other arm, also covered with poison ivy blisters from clearing an overgrown park trail with his bare hands.

It's not at all unusual for Baltimore's superintendent of parks to do the dirty work himself. He's paid $65,000 a year, yet he routinely arrives at the office disheveled, his khaki pants stained from trimming weeds or inspecting a debris-filled, inner-city park.

He's a tree person working in a city with a population of 730,000 that's better known for its brick rowhouses and white marble steps than its forests.

A big man with a shaggy lumberjack beard, Mr. Buikema spends his days driving around Baltimore in a rusty Ford LTD, directing parks crews to take care of vandalism, litter and rotting trees in 6,500 acres of woods, fields and streams. He's not reluctant to pitch in.

Above all, the 54-year-old bureau chief is a disciple of a new back-to-nature movement in parks management. For the past 11 years, he has gradually been reshaping the way the city cares for its sprawling network of parks and community playgrounds.

His philosophy is pretty simple -- let the grass and wildflowers grow again. The new approach not only saves the cost of seeding and mowing, but also prevents dirty storm water from spilling into the streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. And it creates a natural nursery and wildlife refuge.

"See these baby oak trees growing up?" Mr. Buikema says, leaning out the window of his Ford on a back road in Druid Hill Park.

"We've let this part of the park go. I felt [the park] was big enough for active recreation -- your pool, baseball diamond, tennis courts and all -- and we can still have some nature."

On cool summer evenings, he walks his St. Bernard through the knee-high grasses across the street from the Department of Recreation and Parks headquarters. He's spotted bats, hawks and rabbits. Farther back, deer roam.

The idea of letting weeds sprout instead of keeping manicured lawns on some 2,000 acres of parkland would have been considered downright outlandish a decade ago.

Easy convert

But in recent years, increasing environmental awareness and government downsizing have led some cities and states to leave some tracts of land untouched.

Mr. Buikema was an easy convert to the new approach, says Shawn Dalton, project coordinator for Baltimore's Urban Resources Initiative, run in conjunction with the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"Calvin is like us -- he just wants to get out there," Ms. Dalton says.

A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Mr. Buikema had never seen streets of rowhouses, let alone a one-block urban park, until he moved here.

He's the grandson of a Dutch immigrant and the son of an auto worker. As a teen-ager, he learned the difference between a pine and a fir while working for his neighbor's tree company. By the time he went to Michigan State University, he knew his calling was forestry.

After graduation, he signed up with the Peace Corps to work in South America teaching villages to preserve rain forests. But at the end of six months training in Seattle, he was told that he hadn't made the cut.

"It was heartbreaking at the time," Mr. Buikema recalls.

He recovered while managing a golf course in La Jolla, Calif. In 1969, he took a civil service exam and was hired as Baltimore's forester.

The job suited him. He spent the next decade saving diseased and dying trees, planting seedlings and taking long walking tours of neighborhoods with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. He married for the second time and raised three

children -- Eric, Greg and Brett. His wife, Sarah, is a researcher with the National Dairy Board.

In 1982, he was promoted to his present position, one of the top three in the department. But even though his life is now filled with memos and meetings, Mr. Buikema still manages to spend most of his time outdoors, where he's comfortable.

His down-to-earth style plays well with elected officials and environmental activists. Employees call him a "big bear" and talk about "The World According to Cal."

"We'll hear a noise and look out the window -- and there he is with a weed whacker," says Lisa Hite, a parks planner who is involved in conservation at Herring Run Park. "He just gets out there, looking wild and raggedy, and gets the stuff done."

Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham lives next to Memorial Stadium. When he was awakened one night by ghostly voices drifting from the ballpark, he didn't hesitate to beep Mr. Buikema.

"It was 1:30 in the morning, and I was asleep," Mr. Buikema remembers over lunch. "So I called the stadium manager, and he drives down and can't find anything. Then he goes around back, and there are a couple of guys with CB speakers on their trucks just yakking away."

The men left, and Mr. Cunningham and his neighbors went back to sleep. Now Mr. Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat, calls Mr. Buikema "the best bureaucrat in the city of Baltimore."

The biggest complaint voiced about Mr. Buikema is that he's hampered by bureaucracy.

"I just wish he were a little more willing to stick his neck out," says Anneke Davis, an environmental advocate with the Baltimore Environmental Center. "The trouble is so many things in the city have political connections. There were cases where he was told to do things that were not in the best interest of the park system or the citizens."

Mr. Buikema admits that life at the bureau is trying at times -- especially during spring when the grass can't be mowed because of wet weather. Someone is always calling to complain.

This May, the grass grew too high, and he received an order to mow daffodils that had barely finished blooming. Nature lovers like Ms. Davis were appalled.

Sad part

The occasional bureaucratic foul-up can be irritating. But what really gets him down is the destruction of 29 tiny parks tucked behind the brick rowhouses in Harlem Park, a threadbare community in West Baltimore awaiting rejuvenation.

Even though he says he's hardened with the job, Mr. Buikema still becomes saddened at finding the tiny parks littered with broken glass, garbage and old mattresses.

Maintenance crews have been thinned too much to keep up with the vandalism and litter. The grass is dead, the playground equipment broken. Drug dealers hang out more than children in the parks built after riots in 1968.

"It's a tragedy," Mr. Buikema sighs, looking at a rusting swing set smeared with graffiti. "What are you to do? I don't have the answer."

Later that afternoon, still troubled, he walks across the street from his office to inspect a pair of cypress trees he planted on Druid Park Lake Drive. He lingers for a while, seeking solace in

their shade.

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