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Back to nature: Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has diverse programming down to a science

West Creek Conservancy volunteer event

Cleveland Seed Bank 2017 Seed Swap event

Cleveland Seed Bank 2017 Seed Swap event

Mile marker signs along the shipping channel of the Cuyahoga

West Creek Conservancy volunteer event

West Creek Conservancy volunteer event

West Creek Conservancy volunteer event

When asked to think about the term “arts and culture,” most people will picture an exhibit celebrating the life and work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), a Beethoven concerto performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, or a matinee showing of “Love Never Dies” at the State Theatre in Playhouse Square.

But what about Family Astronomy Night at the Lake Erie Science and Nature Center, the annual Groundhog Fun Day at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, or a Mason Bee Workshop at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes?

Just like the Cleveland Orchestra, CMA, and Playhouse Square, these organizations—seemingly based on science more than art—are also partnered with or funded by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC).

In fact, Chapter 3381 of the Ohio Revised Code’s definition of arts and culture includes the natural sciences. It is that definition upon which CAC bases its entire mission. “In short, for CAC, nature and science is arts and culture,” says CAC deputy director Jill Paulsen. “Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has always believed that nature and science are an important part of our community’s culture.”

Nearly a dozen nature and science organizations receive support from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, and they provide an integral foundation for exploring the county’s rich variety of resources—from the Great Lakes Science Center on Lake Erie’s coast to suburban nature centers, downtown community gardens, and grassroots nonprofits. Other CAC-funded organizations include Doan Brook Watershed Partnership, Friends of Euclid Creek, Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Seed Bank, and West Creek Conservancy.

“While some people prefer to attend concerts or gallery openings, we know residents also have transformative experiences connecting with the natural world, exploring the sciences, or coming together with neighbors in a green space in their neighborhood,” explains Paulsen of these organizations’ offerings.

While science and nature lovers around Northeast Ohio may be familiar with organizations like the Great Lakes Science Center or the Botanical Garden, here are three CAC partner groups working toward a cause and having fun doing it.

Cleveland Seed Bank

For the past eight years, Chris Kennedy and his wife, Marilyn McHugh, have spent time in India and East Africa, focused on sustainability and making an impact through the Hummingbird Project, an organization they founded to create healthy soil for growing healthy food and capturing renewable energy.

In their work, Kennedy and McHugh discovered the power of seeds—the source of food and sustainable living. “One of the partners we have over there is a leader in the seed-saving world,” explains Kennedy. “India lost its seed supply to industrial agriculture. Organic, local seeds grow better and there’s no source for local seeds in [parts] of India.”

Cleveland Seed Bank 2017 Seed Swap event

As a result of their work overseas, Kennedy and McHugh began looking at their own hometown and the need to preserve and cultivate Northeast Ohio’s seeds. In 2013, they started the Cleveland Seed Bank—an alliance of seed savers who collect, grow, and share seeds to preserve and grow the area’s natural food resource.

“Seeds are really the first link in our food supply,” Kennedy explains. “Everybody talks about local food, but they don’t talk about local seeds.”

Kennedy is attempting to spark the seed conversation with the Seed Bank, which has created seed libraries across the county and hosts seed swaps twice a year.

“We’ve cataloged a network of people saving seeds to replenish our seed supply,” he says. “Saving seeds connects people more to their own food system and provides access to healthy food.”

Today, the Cleveland Seed Bank has more than 200 members who have grown the online bank to almost 700 seeds for sharing. Seven seed libraries now exist in the region, including the five branches of the Cleveland Public Library. “Just like you check out a book, you can check out a seed,” says Kennedy, joking that you’re not expected to return the seed like a book.

The Cleveland Seed Bank also hosts winter and spring seed swaps, during which the public is invited to bring their seeds and find some new seeds that have been successful in the region’s soil and climate. The swap events, which take place thanks to a project support grant from CAC, are growing increasingly popular.

“We had 300 people come last year on a cold day in January,” boasts Kennedy. “There are no restrictions at the swap. You might see people bring Burpee seeds they have left over, but we also work with small-scale seed companies in our bioregion.”

Kennedy says they are slowly building a good catalog of seeds. “We request seed donations from companies we trust,” he explains. “Farmers are starting to save their seeds [for us], and we have seeds in the seed bank that are from the farms and gardens of our members.”

The next seed swap is on Saturday, January 27 from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church (2600 Church St. in Ohio City). Guests do not have to bring seeds to attend. There will be a food donation box, and guests are encouraged to also bring sourdough starters, cheese, and yogurt cultures, kefir grains, and kombucha scoby to share and swap. The event is free and open to the public.

West Creek Conservancy volunteer eventWest Creek Conservancy

A small but mighty group of people make up West Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that protects waterways and natural and open spaces from development—in turn creating trails, greenways, and clean creeks and streams.

“We’re an urban land conservation organization, connecting people to nature,” explains Peter Bode, the organization’s greater Lake Erie project coordinator.

In 1997, a 300-acre city-owned natural area in Parma, near the West Creek headwaters, was identified as land for a golf course and shopping center development. What is now known as West Creek Conservancy formed a grassroots effort to preserve the green space. Ultimately, the green space was protected, and the West Creek Preserve was established, which was then gifted to the Cleveland Metroparks.

Today, West Creek Conservancy has partnered with developers, city officials, and the public to work on more than a dozen projects—ranging from habitat restoration along Mill Creek at City of Cleveland-owned Highland Park Golf Course to the preservation and expansion of Brooklyn Heights Park.

“We’ve restored a 100-acre wetland parcel, made trails, [and] converted land back to greenspace,” says Bode. “We work with developers to make sure their [building is] ecological.”

While observing its 20th anniversary last year, West Creek Conservancy celebrated protecting nearly 300 parcels of land on more than 1,300 acres in 20 communities in four counties.

The Conservancy touts projects such as the restoration of the 1849 Henninger House (Parma’s oldest structure), and participation in the Irishtown Bend project, The West Creek Greenway, and portions of the Towpath Trail.

Last year, West Creek Conservancy applied for a 2018 CAC grant to implement its Urban Land Enhancement and Underserved Community Engagement Project Series throughout 2018.

The events will take place at four different sites around Cleveland, and include tree planting opportunities, cultural and educational interpretive signage, and educational programs. “It will have site-specific activities per what is needed,” says Bode. “We want to engage the people. “We are honored to be 2018 CAC cultural partners, and look forward to sharing the cultural and environmental benefits of public greenspace with the communities directly affected.”

The four sites include a rain garden workshop and interpretive signage installation on Parkhaven Drive in Parma; tree planting, land enhancement, and interpretive signage installation at 580 Columbus St. in Bedford; community engagement, tree planting, and interpretive signage installation at 11330 Kensington Road in Cleveland; and land enhancement, community engagement, and interpretive signage installation at 17572 Lakeshore Blvd. in Cleveland.

Looking ahead, Bode says they plan on applying for future CAC grants, especially with next year marking the 50th anniversary of the famous Cuyahoga River fire. “We’re working with our other funding partners to make this an extra special year,” he says. “And I think Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is going to be a key component.”

Mile marker signs along the shipping channel of the CuyahogaCuyahoga River Restoration

Founded 30 years ago under the name Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization to execute the Cuyahoga Remedial Action Plan (RAP) created by the Ohio EPA, nonprofit Cuyahoga River Restoration continues today to protect the environmental quality of the river, near shore Lake Erie, and its tributaries.

“We were known as the RAP because we were developing the RAP,” explains Jane Goodman, executive director. “We’re part of the whole Great Lakes cleanup and recovery, and the Cuyahoga is designated an American Heritage River as one of 14 major notable American rivers.”

Through the work of Cuyahoga River Restoration, a fish habitat along five miles of industrial shipping channel has been preserved through the Habitat for Hard Places program. “The fish have to make it from the lake to the natural river each spring, then back again in the fall,” says Goodman. “We’ve been putting little fish hotels along the channel and they’re doing well.”

The Cuyahoga is 100 miles long, and 22 miles of that goes through the Metroparks or the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, according to Goodman: “Akron gets its drinking water from it. Then it travels through Independence and Valley View, leading up to the ship channel in Cleveland.”

Goodman says the group is working on getting portions of the Cuyahoga designated as a water trail. “There’s kayaking, canoeing, standup paddleboarding on the river, even tubing in Kent,” she explains. “People use it as a recreation trail. If you use it as a trail, call it a trail. It’s really a beautiful, intricate river with many personalities.”

Cuyahoga River Restoration also oversees DePaveNEO, an effort to remove some of the region’s parking lots and other impervious surfaces and replace them with green space. “We’re removing pieces of parking lot and replacing them with little pieces of paradise,” says Goodman.

In 2017, Cuyahoga River Restoration received a CAC grant to recruit artists to design 12 mile-marker signs along the shipping channel on each side. Goodman says the signs are important for boaters in the channel, adding much-needed color. “It’s ugly down there, and there isn’t enough art that is visible,” Goodman says.

This year, with a 2018 CAC project grant, the artists will be invited to River Day for “The Cuyahoga: A River of Stories and Images” event, during which the group will collect artwork and memories for a book about the Cuyahoga.

The day includes an en plein air—painting outdoors—event. “Artists come out and create art of the river, preferably in the Flats or industrial parts,” she explains. “We want people’s recollections of the river—if they hung out in the old Flats, if they’ve gone fishing on it, what they remember of the polluted old days.”

Goodman says these memories have to be logged. “We have history, we have different entities that has had work done, like the Coast Guard or businesses close by,” she says. “There’s all this miscellaneous stuff that has never been pulled together in one place.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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