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May 2nd, 2011

Tenacity

Sprouting in crevasses in asphalt parking lots. Dangling from freeway overpasses. Thriving in poisoned brownfields. Plants are much, much tougher than we give them credit for. I saw proof positive last week when I visited the newest attraction in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley: The ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem.

As I approached the site, I craned my head skyward in awe at the antique Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces that form the backdrop for the ArtsQuest Center, snapping pictures along the way:

Bethlehem Steel Corporation blast furnaces

Bethlehem Steel Corporation blast furnaces

Bethlehem Steel Corporation blast furnaces

Bethlehem Steel Corporation blast furnaces

It was then that I noticed something odd: About three-quarters of the way up several of the rusting metal furnaces were sizable trees, receiving their nutrients from who knows where. They look tiny in my photos, but that’s because I was shooting from below, and the furnaces are more than 100 feet (about 8 stories)  tall. I’m guessing the handrails on the catwalks shown here are about 3 feet tall, and the trees look to be at least twice that height; probably 8 to 10 feet:

BlastFurnaces2

BlastFurnaces3

The trees were probably “planted” by birds that carried the seeds aloft in their crops, or by the wind. The question is, what keeps them alive? Is there enough bird guano up there to fertilize them? Have other animals, such as rats, helped in the effort? It would be interesting to get up there for a closer look. Maybe when the furnaces are repainted, as is the plan, the workers can take some photos for us.

The area surrounding the once-loud and hot furnaces will soon resound with a multitude of musical performances as the former brownfield at the Bethlehem Steel site is transformed into a cultural destination for the community and tourists. It will be a model for other communities looking to redevelop similar brownfields.

In the meantime, my hat is off to Mother Nature for showing us that she will revegetate almost any human-built environment, if given half a chance.

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March 21st, 2011

Measuring the Seasons

nancy-80x80It’s officially spring, which means something special for me: I’m another quarter-year older. I was born on the winter solstice, so I measure my age by counting solstices and equinoxes. I find it strangely comforting to use these ancient milestones to mark the passage of time, since it connects me to each generation back to the savanna-wanderers and cave-dwellers, who surely wondered at the transit of  constellations across the hemisphere of the sky. Who among them was the first to name and anthropomorphize the stars? Who noticed the connection between the stars and the blooming of certain flowers and the fertility cycles of certain animals? We’ll never know, but we nevertheless profit from their wisdom.

Are we any less thrilled when we glimpse the first winter aconite through a blanket of snow than our ancestors were a millennium ago? I doubt it. Artist Muriel Dawson (1897-1974) captured the same feeling in her painting about 90 years ago:

Aconite

And artist Sybil Barham illustrated the excitement of the first flush of spring with the help of words from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about a century ago:

crocuses

In a world that sometimes seems to travel faster than the speed of light, I sometimes need to pause and remind myself that nature measures time in geologic ages, not in nanoseconds. And each of us has her time and season.

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