The Philosophical Traveler: "Green Golf, Sustainable Golf"

I recently came upon a great article called "Green Golf, Sustainable Golf" from the perspective of an avid travel writer, golfer and nature lover. Bob Fisher writes a blog called "The Philosophical Traveller - Taking the long way home" where he records the "insights and subsequent enlightenment that you get when you look at life through a different lens".

I have never really accepted the implied criticism in the statement that so and so “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Something about that comment has always bothered me. But after a recent early morning golf game at Markham Green golf course, it dawned on me that it isn’t really a question of not seeing the forest for trees – being oblivious to the essential message because of a deluge of details – it is instead a question of being the kind of mindful person who sees the forest and the trees.

Sustainable Golf

As concerns over such daunting issues as climate change, air pollution, and excessive urban growth come more to the forefront, travelers are also becoming more environmentally conscious in terms of how and where they travel.

More and more consumers of travel are also implementing green tourism practices as part of their own personal travel ethos. These “transferrable skills are quite naturally applied to travel — a significant part of our lives and lifestyles.

Golf and the travel and tourism market

According to recent statistics from the Travel Industry Association “one in eight U.S. travelers (12%) played golf while on a trip of 100 miles or more, one-way, away from home in the past year. This translates into 17.3 million U.S. adults…. Golfing travelers averaged 2.6 trips (mean) over the past year, with 10 percent golfing on six or more trips. Nearly one-half of golfing travelers did so on only one trip in the past year (46%). One-third went on either two or three golfing trips in the past year (34%). Sixteen percent of travelers who played golf said that golf was the most important reason for taking the trip. Over one-half of golfing travelers (55%) said that on their most recent golf trip, golfing was not a primary or secondary reason, but rather just an activity on the trip.

And according to The (U.S.) Travel Institute, the percentage of golfers who travel in order to golf are the following: over 50 years old, 43%; under 50 years old, 28%. Moreover, the Institute points out that in the United States golfers spend in access of $26 billion a year on golf travel.

This is not a market that is going to go away.

However, when traveling more and more (discerning) golfers are also looking for environmentally friendly golf courses that do not conflict with their sustainable tourism attitudes.

For many years, golf courses have been criticized by environmentalists as a wasteful and destructive use of land. However to be fair, the golf industry has come a long way in terms of recognizing the issues and devising innovative strategies to deal with them.

Some conservationists still claim that environmentally-friendly golf courses are an oxymoron because such lands are not part of the natural landscape. Golf course owners who practice “green golf” methods, counter than golf courses are actually appropriate buffer zones between urban environments and true wilderness areas. They say that when urban areas abut wilderness areas, the effect of human activity penetrates much farther into the wilderness areas than first thought.

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses

This education and certification program is designed to encourage and help golf courses maintain and protect natural areas and wildlife habitats within their overall footprint. This involves implementing new strategies that emphasize key environmental management practices.

For more information on the program, click here.

Markham Green Golf Club: a role model for sustainability

A Rouge primer

Markham Green golf course is a stunning and challenging nine-hole golf course located in the heart of Rouge Valley country. If you are also relatively new to the Rouge Valley itself — or perhaps like me, you’ve not been fully cognizant of the beauty, diversity, and vulnerability of the Rouge — you might want to consider the following.

The Rouge Valley is an enormous watershed that will become the largest park ever created within an urban area in North America (over 12,000 acres). It is home to a myriad of indigenous and transplanted fauna and flora that provide ample proof of the “Wild in the City!” rallying cry of Rouge Alliance members. As such, it is an oasis of tranquillity in the cacophony of urban sprawl, and a living symbol of community and environmental activism. The subsequent governmental legislation that resulted from this activism affirmed the principles and practices of good land use and resource management. The Rouge is also an immense system of natural “corridors” stretching from the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario.

The Rouge is more than “a good idea”; it is a complex concept that embodies wisdom, vision, science, prediction, pragmatism, enormous planning structures, and contemporary social values that are the underpinnings of the concept itself. A precious natural asset that has been recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as “a nationally important wildlife treasure,” the Rouge Valley System has also been an endangered natural milieu. But through the unflagging efforts of thousands of ordinary citizens who collectively were able to “think it through” and thus understand the full implications, ramifications, and rewards of preserving this watershed area, the concept has been actualized. But like all concepts with universal implications — like art, justice, and liberty — the Rouge is a concept that is constantly in progress. Emulating life cycles, the Rouge is a process, not an event.

Experiential Rouge

The overwhelming majority of Canadians live in urban centers, and the Greater Toronto Area is Canada’s largest. The simple math and the basic tenets of urban studies make it perfectly clear that in this area finding natural green spaces in which to decompress is becoming a greater and greater challenge; so much so that it becomes all too easy to miss the obvious even though prophets of all kinds warn us of what might still happen.

I am reminded of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

Think of the Rouge Valley as a large template for the non-parking lot. Along the Rouge there are many easy public access points to this reserve: Toogood Pond, Milne Park, Bruce’s Mill, to mention a few well-known local ones, but also non-park resources such as the Toronto Zoo, the Glen Rouge Campground, and the Markham Green golf course.

And this is where the concept of contiguity comes into play. Some problematic concerns about the realization of this environmental dream need to be considered. Can parks, zoos, and golf courses really be integrated or blended with natural spaces like the Rouge? Are urban areas and farmland really compatible with authentic natural environments? Are they not in fact contradictions? How do you achieve a healthy interplay of the natural world and that which is fabricated by humans? Are conservation areas fabrications themselves? Is it really possible to achieve the principles of integration, interconnectedness, and inter-relationships, or is this just a nice idea? Is the real challenge the juxtaposition of fundamentally different spheres – side by side, and yet separate and different? If so, where is the fine line between the two? Where is the demarcation point? How is it even possible?

Playing through the Rouge

You arrive at the first tee of Markham Green after a short preamble along an asphalted path through a hardwood forest that has been left in its natural state. Abundant, elegant ferns softly illuminated by the filtered sunlight proliferate among the trees.

As you tee up at the first hole, you just might notice on your left a pile of twigs, branches, logs and other detritus from a tree that has been removed in order to permit sunlight to fall on the tee box. This minor management has been necessary, as it is elsewhere on the course, because all plant life requires sufficient light suited to its specific biological purpose. This includes bent grass, that fine-textured turf that is commonly used on golf course tees, fairways, and greens. However, the pile of debris that I have passed a number of times and never really noticed is actually a “critter house.” Instead of being cleared up and carted away it has been left where it is as a mini-environment for insects, small animals, butterflies, and birds.

And those other large trees behind us that have been partially removed, leaving only tall trunks with flat tops, will soon support bird and bat houses. With West Nile Virus now in our midst, this is a good example of natural pest control given that they will attract purple martins and bats — both voracious mosquito-eaters. The diseased elm in the wooded area to the left of the fairway, about a hundred yards from the tee (where my ball too frequently ends up) has been cut down and left as it is because this too is part of the eons-old process of a truly natural habitat. It is also a magnet for woodpeckers. Playing Markham Green is also a collateral experience. Both the course and the river follow the same natural path; on this golf course you are constantly crossing the free-flowing Rouge. The Rouge is in fact the course; it defines it, shapes it, and requires that those who come to golf well alongside its banks do so with precision, control, and careful consideration — equivalent skills to those required in maintaining this course which emulates so successfully the topography created by the last ice age.

The challenge of the Rouge

But unlike other courses, water is not so much a hazard at Markham Green as a corollary element in the kind of golf that emphasizes a collaborative relationship as opposed to triumphal displays of prowess. And there is a lot of rough on the Markham Green course where a minimum of mowing takes place. Tall waving grasses, a profusion of insect and bird-attracting wildflowers, and diverse species of low bushes are a botanist’s dream as well as secondary habitats on the course. They can also be the hiding places of errant golf balls.

In a kind of natural diplomacy, Markham Green acts as a buffer of relatively light and passive recreation between the Rouge and nearby residential areas; not to mention being a David to the Goliath of the 407 that thunders by to the north. Like a park, the course preserves permeable surfaces; the kind of water-conserving terrain that quickly disappears when housing and commercial development overtakes non-urban space. In recognition of its achievements of minimal use of pesticides, of bio-engineering that uses natural methods and natural materials to maintain the course design, in 2002 Markham Green was awarded the Rouge River Keeper Award for outstanding Environmental Stewardship and Best Practices implementation. It is also an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certified course. The latter acknowledgment denotes a high level of competence in five key areas: integrated pest management, outreach and education, water conservation, water quality management, and wildlife habitat management. The success of the course is due in no small part to Don Crymble, Markham Green’s property manager. Don is in many ways a self-taught and self-motivated environmentalist and has been with Markham Green for 14 years.

A skilled and pragmatic person, he is an excellent resource person to have along during a round of golf. His knowledge of the environmental issues of the course is impressive, although when golfing with Don it can be a bit difficult concentrating on the game while absorbing the nature lessons he offers as you proceed throughout the course. Like all those who understand and appreciate the importance of good land use practices in the Rouge Valley, Don is deeply committed to protecting the integrity of this particular area of the Rouge. In his quiet manner he is very adept at raising awareness of the relationships of organisms to one another in these unique physical surroundings.

What you should look for at Markham Green

Note the core 10-acre hardwood lot that is continuous throughout the course as well as the seven-acre cedar corridor on the south perimeter. Both receive minimal maintenance and thus provide a natural habitat for those species of plants and animals that thrive in them. In many cases deciduous trees overhang the river providing important shade areas that are beneficial to the fish populations in the Rouge, especially the salmon and trout that make their way north from Lake Ontario.

Water of course is the central theme of Markham Green and what the Rouge is all about. As you play through the course note the buffer zones of non-mowed vegetation between the fairways and the river. Note especially the aerated storm water pond near the fourth hole and the clubhouse, which is also protected by a natural buffer zone.

The buffer zones receive minimal maintenance and are subjected to minimal human intervention in general. Leaving these areas undisturbed increases exponentially the diversity of species present. While looking for that ball that has ended up in the water, don’t overlook the turtles, frogs, and toads you may encounter; they are true indicators of the health of the terrain you are sharing. Turtles lay their eggs in sand and therefore sometimes in sand traps. In September when the eggs hatch, these areas are posted so that golfers can avoid them. (Perhaps as a general rule you could just avoid the bunkers.) And in the spring there is nothing more emblematic of the indigenous Ontario hardwood forest than the trillium's in the woods at Markham Green.

The property is home to many mammals including deer, fox, and beaver. Note the beaver lodge on the edge of the river on the fairway of the second hole. Near the yellow tee you will also see an oak and an ash that have been partially gnawed by a beaver and beside it another ash with a wire cage around the base protecting it from the beaver. Beavers usually chew softwood trees like poplars and willows. Markham Green is protecting the hardwood trees by actually planting or promoting in some other way the growth of softwood trees as food for beavers. The course is also home to many chipmunks who have been displaced by the more aggressive squirrel populations in nearby suburban areas.

Despite the desire to keep the environment as “natural” as possible, some extra human intervention is necessary here and there. Nature will take its own course, and sometimes this will be at odds with areas of the Rouge designed for the kind of human activity that is as non-invasive as possible. Needless to say, to intervene or not to intervene is the conundrum.

Using the Rouge Valley list of indigenous plant species, the staff of Markham Green has recently planted and is continuing to cultivate such species as alternate leafed and Red Osier dogwood, American elder, and river bank grape. When you are teeing up on the second hole, notice the abundance of mullein around the blue and white tees. Although not native to the area, the growth of this biannual (also know by a variety of names including Adams’ Flannel, Beggar’s Blanket, and Candlewick Plant) is encouraged at Markham Green as a food source for birds and is growing throughout the course. In its second year of growth the tall stalks are loaded with seed, a favourite of goldfinches especially.

Not all species in this part of the Rouge, however, are indigenous nor particularly beneficial. Notice the Norway maples, an alien species that provide excessive shade thus reducing the ability for lower plant forms to flourish. The impressive and rugged sugar maples you see, however, provide the right kind of filtered light to encourage multiple plant forms to thrive. Although species like the Norway are not removed, Markham Green does carefully monitor the growth areas around these interlopers and measures are taken to assure that any hindrance to growth of other species is minimized. Another plant species that is posing concerns and being carefully monitored is the deceptive-sounding purple-stemmed angelica atropurpurea which occurs along moist stream banks.

Pest Control

Markham Green is also committed to an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program in which pesticides are used only as required, and the course’s fertilizer program is based on regular soil tests. Phosphorous which is often used by golf courses as a fertilizer is not “mobile” in the soil (it does not leach out of the soil) and can be a contaminant in surface water causing algae growth in water bodies. When phosphorous was required on some of the grass at Markham Green a couple of years ago, care was taken that it was not applied near any surface water. In addition, when the soil tests indicated that the phosphorous levels were adequate, applications were discontinued.

Moderate management

It is important to note, however, that in a management plan that emphasizes moderation in all things, reasonable co-existence, and a comprehensive approach, Markham Green incorporates fundamental environmental practices that are also time-consuming, labour-intensive, and costly. (Undesirable weeds such as ragweed are removed by hand.) However, part of the Rouge concept is the principle of long-term thinking for long-term gain. As we now know, a natural environment can be degraded and reduced very quickly as a result of short-term thinking. But it is long-term thinking that in the end is cost-effective. A diverse and healthy eco-system, like a well-managed golf course, does indeed enhance lifestyle — this is the essence of the beauty of playing golf at Markham Green — and the real, long-term value is in its sustainable development. This is a principle that also is inherent in socially responsible, long-term marketing strategies.

Environmental integrity is a fundamental principle of the Rouge Alliance and as every golf aficionado knows, integrity is also at the heart of the game. Golf also is about the interplay of natural forces. It has a long and diverse history and has been played in some of the wildest and most beautiful environments on this planet. Although less manicured and fabricated than some golf courses, Markham Green is a beautiful place to golf; it is a very successful blend of a walk through the Rouge Valley and a challenging round of golf. And because beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, to appreciate the true merits of Markham Green and the other areas of the Rouge where humans play, you need to be able to see the forest and the trees.

For more information, visit the following websites:
Markham Green Golf Club
The Rouge Park: Wild in the City
Toronto and Region: Conservation for The Living City
The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses

Why golf is a philosophical sport…
Golfing by the Book: A Philosophical, Anthropological, and Literary Look at the Game

A little about Bob Fisher:
I am a Canadian travel journalist, editor, retired educator, and a former marketing manager. Having served on the Board of Directors of the Travel Media Association of Canada. I am also currently a member of: the World Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers; The North American Association of Travel & Lifestyle Writers; The International Ecotourism Society; The Ethical Traveler Association; and The International Travel Writers Alliance. I am known for my conceptual, in-depth, content-rich multimedia narratives that explore the universal layers of meaning inherent in travel. My principal editorial and research assistant is my wife Dianne, an historian who specializes in social and art history, and who is also a retired educator. And ... I am also now “authorized and commissioned to serve as an Ambassador of Good Will” for the State of Arkansas, USA.

1 Comments so far

Thank you Scott for posting such a thoughtful blog! I enjoy many of these same pastimes: Golf, philosophy, nature and, of course, traveling. I really liked what you had to say about seeing the forest and the trees. viewing things holistically seems to make more sense in most cases. If I could add anything to this post, it would have to be about the fine dinning that is available throughout Markham. For me, food is just another way to see the forest and the trees, to take the time and enjoy every part of my day. The banquet hall in markham really captures this idea, as well as other places like Peters Fine Dining and the School of Fine Dining. What better way to compliment a beautiful day out in nature than to enjoy an immaculate dinner afterwords.