Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.
The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.
Reviewed by Nola Garrett
Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.
While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.
Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.
I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.
So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.
I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:
Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.
He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.
This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:
We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.
We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.
Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends
…. Was it much worse than any place
we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.
“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins
Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.
and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:
Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald
fact cast in bronze….
These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.
Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.
This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.
Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980′s and 90′s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
By Eva-Maria Simms
Hardin, in The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) has argued that free, common spaces will inevitably be ruined by the selfish greed of the members of the commons. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons” (p. 1244) Garbage is a step towards the ruin of our common spaces and a marker of the ethical failure of community members to pay their fair share and take only what the communal spaces can bear. It is a direct sign of the “tragedy of the commons”. However, Hardin’s argument about the inevitable destruction of commonly held places (like state parks and shared grazing land) through capitalist greed already assumes that the traditional social commons, which regulates the use of shared spaces on the local level, has been destroyed. But not all traditional commons’ have undergone Hardin’s tragedy, and I agree with Cox (1985) that the ruin of common spaces lies in the bioethical failure of communities to understand and manage the commons. Communities that understand, manage, and care for their common spaces have been able to protect the integrity of their natural places. One example of a commons that has survived since the 17th century comes from the Siegerland, the German region where I was born and raised.
The Siegerland is a hilly, forested, barren landscape in central Germany where tough, stubborn people have eked out their living growing rye and buckwheat, potatoes and root vegetables on small, steep fields. 2500 years ago the Celts built their iron smelters close to water sources and began the tradition of making charcoal by building Kohlenmeiler, which were wood piles that were carefully stacked and covered with clay and allowed to slow-burn for months in order to produce a very hot burning coal. The Celts left the Siegerland after all the beech woods were cut down. It took the forest 800 years to recover. The need for charcoal for metalworking and the use of tree bark in the tanning industry led over the centuries to deforestation of many places in Europe, and the Siegerland was no exception.
In the heavily forested Siegerland the villages began to regulate the use of their common woods when, once again, their forests were threatened by the greed of individual land owners in the 17th century. The Hauberg was created when they incorporated all the surrounding forest land into the village bounds, compensated the land-owners with shares in the commonly held land’s productivity, and founded village societies that were responsible for regulating and managing the use of the forest. Village families used their Hauberg in an 18-year cycle, reaping different benefits from the trees and the land every year in rotation: growing rye in clear cut sections, harvesting firewood in older growth, feeding pigs on oak mast, selling mature wood and bark to the iron, charcoal, and tanning industries. The shares were passed down through the generations. The most important principle they followed was to take only so much out of nature as grows back, so that future generations would not be endangered. They called this Nachhaltigkeit, which means something like “to endure over a longer time”, which we today call sustainability.
The Haubergsgesellschaft, the village organization that oversaw the use of the village forest, avoided the tragedy of the commons for almost 400 years. It teaches us that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. Implied in its success is also a lesson for urban nature stewardship: the tragedy of the commons lies not in the inevitable destruction of the commons, but in the inability of many communities to understand that they have a commons they are responsible for. As long as our urban nature spaces remain invisible to the adjacent communities they are also not appreciated and claimed as part of the neighborhood commons. No matter how many state laws and city ordinances regulate the use of urban forests, they will be ruined unless the local community reclaims them, makes them newly visible, and includes them within the imagined boundary of their neighborhood landscape.
Cox, S. J. B. (1985). No Tragedy of the Commons. Environmental Ethics, 7(1), 49-61.
Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.
by Eva-Maria Simms
In our work of reclaiming the green spaces of Emerald View Park, over the past 6 years, over a thousand volunteers have removed more than 80 tons of garbage from the 275 acres of our urban forest. I have seen rusted cars, refrigerators, and bedsprings. Rubber tires, plastic toys, plastic bags, glass bottles, ceramic tiles, vinyl or aluminum siding, roofing shingles, lead pipes and various other forms of contractor debris littered the landscape. Eighty tons are 173,369.81 pounds of garbage.
On the ground, in the woods, most garbage is immediately identifiable. It consists of stuff which is human made, does not decay in the cycle of a few years, poses potential dangers to wild-life, and is plain ugly. Nature usually deals with it over many decades by rusting it out or covering it with leaf mold and dirt until it sinks into the ground. Most of us who love to walk in the woods are offended when the harmony of a natural landscape is disturbed by a ruined refrigerator with the doors hanging open. What is so disturbing about garbage? Why does it offend our aesthetic sensibility so that more than a thousand volunteers have felt the desire to come into the woods and haul the stuff up to the neighborhood parking lots, where it is collected by the city’s garbage trucks?
I remember my first encounter with massive garbage in the woods a few years ago. We were riding our horses through the Pennsylvania Game Lands in Indiana County. It was a beautiful fall day. Riding a familiar horse intensifies the sense of insertion into the natural landscape because through the close bodily contact with the animal our human senses are sharpened by the horses’ reactions to what is around us. We rounded a bend in the road, and my horse shied violently, almost unseating me. Littered across the road were white bags full of garbage. I knew that people in this area had to pay to have their garbage picked up, and someone could not or would not pay and dumped the stuff here in the woods. We had a hard time guiding our horses carefully through the stink and disturbance to continue on our way. I remember so clearly feeling offended: this stuff did not belong here, and someone had violated our common public space for his or her own profit.
My horse’s reaction was also revealing: the white, smelly bags indicated that something disturbed the habitual order of the landscape and posed a potential danger. It upset my horse because he could not fit it into a known category. In his experience the landscape pattern was interrupted by the scent and bright color of the debris. This alteration of the perceived world put his senses on high alert and his muscles prepared for a flight response. Only calming language, calming body contact, and coaxing encouragement could lead him dancing in a wide berth around the garbage bags and not succumb to fear and flight.
One of the primal responses we have to garbage is that it is disturbing. Something is in the landscape that does not fit: the white garbage bag did not come from here and does not fit itself seamlessly into the scenery. A newly fallen tree trunk is also a disturbance to the creatures who habitually use a landscape, but it soon begins to decay and merge into the greenery and the ground. It returns from where it came. The same is true for animal carcasses in the woods: they upset my horse initially, but after a few weeks they were absorbed by the surroundings and we passed these places without notice. Not so with the garbage bags. They did not return to where they came from. They stayed around as a constant reminder that people interrupt the landscape and litter it with things that are human made.
From a systems/Gestalt perspective garbage is an element that cannot be absorbed by the whole form. It does not fade (or fades very slowly) into the background and interrupts the balance of the whole. A more extreme, but very illustrative example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some estimates covers an area in the Pacific Ocean that is “twice the size of the continental United States” and consists of a floating gyre of mostly plastics from the world’s rivers and beaches. These plastics break down into smaller particles and enter the food chain. One third of the Laysan Albatross chicks of the Midway Atoll between Japan and Hawaii die because their parents feed them plastic which floats over from the Pacific trash vortex. Albatrosses and turtles have no perceptual category for distinguishing plastic debris from other food sources – with devastating consequences for their species.
The lesson about garbage from my horse and from the albatross chicks is that industrial garbage interrupts the perceptual and digestive body-field of living beings because it cannot be integrated into the life and decay cycle of the natural world. It either just hangs around for a long time as a perceptual sore in the landscape (like the rusty refrigerator) or it decays in covert ways that poison the food chain (like the coolants that leach from the rusty refrigerator into the ground water).
Marks, Kathy (5 February 2008). “The World’s Rubbish Dump”. The Independent (London). Retrieved 4 May 2010.
By Eva-Maria Simms
A few years ago I walked with a group of older neighbors through the inner city neighborhood of the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The Hill was once a thriving African American quarter, but has fallen on hard times since a large section was razed during “Urban Renewal” in the late 50’s and destroyed during the riots after the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968. Today there are empty lots and dilapidated buildings and streets that once led downtown but end now at a large parking lot built for a sports arena. As we walked the sidewalks past the empty lots, the neighbors began to talk about what was once there. In their minds, they saw small tailor or cobbler shops, places where the bookies did their business, jazz clubs and restaurants, doctor’s offices and grocery stores, porches where everyone used to sit and watch street life unfold or listen to the “Inner Sanctum” radio show. The barbershops and the jitney station are still visible, but hanging on by a thread.
Like gaps between teeth, the empty lots have become commonplace, and usually the neighbors walk past them without notice. But on that day they began to speak about the city of memory which overlays the physical space like a double exposed negative. Together they tried to recreate descriptions about the houses and narratives about the people who once lived there, but after the excited creation of the remembered events there was always a moment of shock: the vivid virtual space of memory stood in such stark contrast to the rubble and weeds that were before us. Where did it all go? Solid structures built out of brick should not vanish like that. And when it goes, what does our memory have to hang on to?
The rift between reality and memory ordinarily creates a sense of nostalgia, particularly if the change in the landscape has not been sudden and radical. We fondly remember the places of our childhood and speak of them with attachment and wonder. But the Hill changed so quickly and thoroughly that it has left the inhabitants breathless. Deeper than nostalgia is the loss of faith in the solidity of places, in the reliability of the earth under our feet, which happens when the devastation is too great. Then the weave of memory has nothing to hold on to, and the heart creates memories that hang in tatters from certain places in the landscape.
By Eva-Maria Simms
My home in Pittsburgh lies now 3000 miles across the ocean. Siegen, the German city of my childhood, surrounds me, and I walk the places that are inscribed into my memories. I have always loved the trek up the steep hill into the upper city, even though it does not have much beauty: just a busy road flanked by houses and trees leading to the heart of the town. The easier way to go would be around the mountain, through the flatlands and the newer wide urban streets, but as a child I always felt it my duty to walk across the hill, no matter where I headed. Perhaps it was the anticipation that made this road so attractive: on top of the Siegberg are two castles, the market square, city hall, a small remnant of the old medieval city, and the shopping street. My hometown prides itself to have been built on seven hills, just like Rome, and the Siegberg is the central point around which the city grew. Siegen has been a city for almost 800 years, and before that there were Germanic and even earlier Celtic settlements which mined the rich ore and tried to eke out a living growing food on the steep slopes and the barren soil. There are dark forests everywhere, and even the edges of the city lace into pine or beech woods and are the foreground for the hazy blue stretch of hills in the distance. From the top of the castle fortification you can see villages, fields, and forests for miles around. The Siegberg was always my home, but I lived at its foot, in its shadow, in a three-story house with my parents, grandparents, and uncle and aunt. My grandfather had bought the house in 1936, and my father grew up there and still lives in the ground floor apartment with my mother. Our house, our street, our quarter was very urban, plain, and dark, and built over a drained swamp. In my childhood it was still called “Schlaemmchen”, which means “little muddy place”, and the springs from the Siegberg ran under it to the river Sieg a quarter mile away. To ascent to the top of the city was liberating: the light became brighter, the sounds lost their echo, the air was less heavy, and the houses receded and left room to see into the distance.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard said once that the house in which we spent our early years is not merely a place in the past. It is present in our gestures, inscribed into our bodies, inhabits our imagination, is part of our chiasmic heritage: “But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits”. The word “habit” does not quite satisfy Bachelard: “the word habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house” (Poetics of Space, p. 14). Yet it is not only the height of the steps leading up to the attic or the location of the light switch in the hallway that our body remembers. My body also has a passionate liaison with the streets it roamed almost everyday throughout my childhood. Sometimes, far away in America, I have an almost physical longing to feel that unremarkable sidewalk up the hill under my feet. The Siegberg is my organic habit, my unforgettable place. My inner refuge.
By Eva-Maria Simms
Kathryn and I went to look at the Greenleaf trailhead in order to figure out how the entrance to the trails on that side of the mountain should be designed. Kathryn had written and received a block grant from the city and had lined up volunteers to plant shrubs and trees, which would be donated by the Home Depot. The trailhead is behind a gravel parking lot which is separated from the woods by one of those ugly concrete jersey barriers that you find on highways – and by lots of weeds. The city has promised to remove the barrier and erect a wooden fence with a gateway for the trailhead.
Instead of taking my car to the meeting with Kathryn at the Greenleaf parking lot I thought it would be better to experience the trailhead from a walker’s perspective and get a sense how the trail is connected to the neighborhood and the existing network of trails. I walked past the fancy houses and restaurants of Grandview Ave., scowled at the dilapidated and weed covered backside of the Bayer sign, and took a deep breath as I reached the open view of the Ohio River valley at the top of the hill. The wooded trail begins behind the Point of View Statue and meanders along the steep West End hillside and comes out on Greenleaf Street a quarter mile above the parking lot. Our landscape is a unique mix of urban landscape features, such as streets, houses, fences, and telephone poles, and feral landscape features such as trees, slopes, rivers and animals. With each feature comes a particular soundscape: the roar of vehicle traffic is always in the background, even though it recedes as soon as you enter the forest trails; birdsong can be heard everywhere, but it is most intense in the stillness of the woods. Urban and feral themes alternate and move through each other and form a unique landscape melody.
I approached the Greenleaf parking lot and trailhead as future walkers and motorists will: all I saw down the street was an expanse of gravel and a telephone pole. No one would know that this is a trailhead and that cars are allowed to park in the lot. Is it private? Is it public? Are you allowed to park there? Are you allowed to walk in the woods behind the Jersey barriers, or is it private land? “Are you allowed?” is the surprising question I have encountered most often when I take people into our urban forest. For Kathryn and me this means that we have to pay attention to designing the thresholds into the wooded parkland and give clear indicators that people may enter the common spaces (more about the idea of the commons in a future blog) of the park.
Kathryn and I looked at and talked about the threshold of the trailhead and how it lay in the landscape. I am a phenomenologist and I suggested that we explore our own sensory and emotional experience of the landscape as we looked at it, walked through it, and engaged with it, and tried to make conscious how it would unfold for other visitors. This would be the foundation for creating design elements that would respect the landscape, but also enhance its features for the hiker. Here is a brief overview of how we approached the trailhead and what we discovered:
1. We described the features we noticed: both the most apparent ones, like the concrete fence and the gravel lot; and the less apparent ones, like the end of the parking lot which opens into a protected, shady open space
2. We talked about what we saw as the salient features of the natural landscape behind the fence. There was a clearing behind the fence crossed by the trail which divided into a three way cross-road 30 feet ahead. The right hand trail lead into a semi-open meadow and the left gently up the hill and into the woods. Behind the trail-crossing a lovely clump of trees framed a view into a small valley. To our left the clearing was overgrown with weeds, to our right it stretched through some bushes and ended in a flat place under a set of midsized trees. Together we combined what we saw and pointed things out to each other.
3. We let ourselves be moved by the landscape. What did it want? What were the key natural features, and how could we enhance and intensify them? How could we create a trailhead that respected the lay of the land and was at the same time hospitable to people?
4. I found myself using my body and my hands often during our conversation. With my hand I pointed out and followed the line of the trail as it moved through the fence and divided at the crossroads. My hands followed through with this line by shaping the opening between the trees ahead and I had a strong sense that we should mark this intersection and make it a key feature of how we design this entrance. Traditionally places like this were marked by cairns or herms, and Kathryn suggested that we place large boulders in the clearing behind the fence, which would guide the trail but also provide a place to sit for people as they enter and exit the trails and maybe also for children to climb on and play.
5. We found ourselves generating more interesting ideas the more we looked and talked. To the left we imagined a picnic bench for the weary hikers or the families from the neighborhood – not too far away that it would be vandalized, but still secluded enough to give semi-privacy for a meal. Kathryn thought that she might be able to pay for the wood through the grant and built the picnic table with volunteers at the community volunteer day at the end of the month.
6. We thought about other places and their special features and remembered the lovely redbuds in Grandview Park, which bloom bright pink in early spring. How about a redbud or dogwood grove to the left of the boulders which would frame the trail as it leads up the hill? It would be spectacularly pink or white for a few weeks in April, and then let its magic fade into the background. How very Japanese!
We spent almost 2 hours interacting with the landscape. In the beginning I had worried that we would just stand there and count how many planting holes would be dug in order to spend the grant money. But our conversation and “design session” was a true phenomenological exercise because it allowed the landscape to come into focus through the process of intense and attentive observation and conversation about it. I left the gravel parking lot hopeful and inspired, and I think Kathryn walked away with some very creative ideas and do-able projects for the volunteers.
By Karen Zhang
These days I’ve frequently heard the phrase “new normal” particularly after the wildfires in Colorado neighborhood that swallowed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of trees, after the record-breaking drought in the Midwest that killed crops, and after the unusual weekend floods in Northeast China affected hundreds of local lives.
It’s inevitable that global warming is pressing us day by day. I’m not sure if human’s tolerance of heat gets weaker or the climate change gets faster. Facing all types of unpredictable natural disasters, humans become so vulnerable. It’s like watching the debris from Japan’s tsunami last year now landing the west coast of the U.S., local people are frustrated because it is estimated more ocean trash will arrive on the shore later this year. I doubt that governments will invest too much money on the massive cleanup since the noise of cutting government spending is so loud.
I used to think America is quite an ecologically-conscious country. But as in China, only some cities stand out to make an effort of protecting the environment. When customers have to pay for their plastic bags in my home city, Guangzhou, I’m shocked to know most supermarkets in America give out free plastic bags. Where are the paper grocery bags that I saw in the American movies? When Chinese housewives recycle their used water to water plants or flush toilets, I’m surprised to see Americans leaving their running hoses on the lawn and lights on in vacant rooms.
A recent trip to New York City reminds me how much trash the New Yorkers produce a day. In that city, you’ll never miss seeing gigantic plastic bags of trash lining both sides of the street as if they are suggesting the trash collecting companies are seriously understaffed. I’m not sure how the city disposes millions of tons of trash but I do know the city dwellers have too much to waste.
Even though America is a developed country, there’s still a long way for the country to become a global model of living economically and environmentally. When the abnormal natural phenomenon really does become the new normal, it’ll be too late to make a change.
by Eva-Maria Simms
Anyone who lives in a house or an apartment for a period of time knows how quickly human living spaces deteriorate if we neglect our things and fail to vacuum the carpet, do the dishes, pick up our dirty clothes of the floor. The lovely, orderly, well designed room turns into a dirty cave within weeks and things get lost in the clutter. Housework is the continuous battle of ordered human design against nature who wants to do something else with our spaces and things: grow mold, create crevices for bugs and rodents, festoon with spider webs, push roots through the foundations, level walls, return the bricks to the dust where they came from.
Housework demands a different kind of heroism than the conquering of places or the building of city structures. To love housework means to love not the glory of the new but the eternal return of the same. It means to attend to things already there by touching them and by returning them to where they want to be. It means to rinse the dishes from last night’s supper and load them into the dishwasher so that the celebration of eating can happen once again, tomorrow, around the table with its ensemble of plates and crystal and forks, knives, and spoons. It means to set yourself against the mold and keep the minuscule predators out of your territory, out of your body. It means to rest on the seventh day and look at the order of it all and find it good – and mess it up again just by living in it.
by Eva-Maria Simms
I have not been outside in four days. Thursday I started renovating my entry hall, and the detail mania took over: no sooner did I take out the curtains, they needed to be washed; the curtain rods needed cleaning, the casement needed to be painted, the windows needed to be windexed, the screens scrubbed of spider webs and bug cocoons. So much need! The space between window and screen had become a hotbed of dust and insect activity over the past few years – perhaps because the window is warmer in the winter and its cavity protects from rain and wind. I have no idea how all these bugs got behind the screen…. The window, the screen, the sill, the curtains: all wanted attention, all needed to be wiped and washed and touched. And this was just the little window corner of my entry hall. There was so much more to go. Thursday morning I opened Pandora’s Box, and I slaved for four 12 hour days to put everything back into it, just cleaner and more orderly.
We usually think of things as the backdrop of our lives, the silent participants who are at hand and make no demands. But that is not what things are. They are demanding presences, encroaching entities. “Things people our soul”, as the child psychologist Langeveld has said. Things demand care and attention. They want to be touched and placed. They have friends among other things, like the clique of picture frames on the side table or the dyad of chair and reading lamp in the corner. Yet despite their affinities, each thing also wants to have a space around it where it can remain separate and unique and demand our sole attention. It wants to step out of the background of other things just once a while, even though mostly it is content to be part of the larger, receding volumes around the specific outline of figural objects. Japanese aesthetics knows this: too many things, too many lines, and we cannot appreciate each one. Our attention can only hold a few appearances at once. Too many, and it skips around like a flea on the floor in search of a warm body.
My German grandmother used to say: “Jedes Ding hat seinen Ort, tu es hin und zwar sofort”, “Everything has its own place, put it there right away”. When I was young I disparaged this proverb since it seemed to express the excessive demand for orderliness of a Hausfrau. But having lived with things for a long time, I have to agree with my grandmother. Every thing has its place in the spatial web, and if it gets misplaced from there it will be in the way somewhere else: it will jar our perception, it will trip under our feet, it will be lost when we need it and sometimes forever. The central idea of Feng Shui is that things and their relationships with each other have a psychological reality which stresses or relaxes, clarifies or confuses, comforts or stresses us. The ancient Chinese knew that paying attention to the psychological, “energetic” order of things makes for a much better home life.
My entry hall is clean and painted antique red, white, and tricorn black. It looks as if it had wanted these Napoleonic colors all along (my house in Pittsburgh has the crazy idea that it wants to be French. No, not me. I am German…). I have found that after a really good design job I am not surprised and vowed about the effect a room has. Rather, I have a quiet sense of déjà vu: the house has dreamed to be this and I became its tool. We both knew this all along. I was only too self-important, too human, to recognize that things themselves have intentionality.
Looking at the walls, contemplating the space, planning color, repairing the stairs, cleaning all surfaces, painting the ceiling, giving my hands and my body to the obsessive call of things until I forget to eat and for three nights fall exhausted into my bed – all this went into the work. The best we can do as creative, artistic people is to return things to their proper relationship with each other and make their order visible. Beauty is not in the surface of paint, color, and texture, but in the relation that all things in a space have with each other. And once we have lent our bodies and minds to the order of things, it allows us to dwell in a living place that surrounds and embraces us, or, as the Lakota greeting says: “walk in balance and beauty.”
by Eva-Maria Simms
Hatchling loggerhead turtles dig themselves out of the sand on the beaches of Florida and hurl themselves into the Atlantic Ocean in search of the North Atlantic Gyre, a circular current, which takes them to the undersea meadows of the seaweed sargassum. There they hide and eat and grow until they are big enough to fend for themselves in the open sea and eventually migrate back to their hatching grounds. If they miss the gyre, they will in all likelihood die. How do the hatchlings know that the gyre means safety, and how do they find it? They have no mother turtle to take them along and show them where to go, have no experienced turtles to swim besides.
Like other migrating animals, the baby turtles have the ability to navigate by the electro-magnetic field of the earth. They can intuitively combine the magnetic information about latitude (magnetic fields get stronger at the poles), and longitude (the angle of the pull of the magnetic field lines that intersect the Earth changes) and figure out where they are, as scientists have discovered recently. However, imagining them computating positional information and calculating mathematical coordinates as if they were scientists or nautical engineers is probably not the way it works. Or saying simply “its instinct” is also not very helpful because that does not explain anything. Is there a better way to explain how the baby turtles find the sargassum fields hundreds of miles away in the middle of the Atlantic after they hatch alone in the dark on a Florida beach?
The hatchling turtle has a mother who has laid the eggs and who herself hatched many years ago and went on the same journey just as her mother had before. Our baby turtle is part of a long line of sea turtles that perfected surviving in this particular environment. Over thousands of generations, each single one knew what to do without any example or instruction from other members of its species. Knowledge, for these turtles, is not something learned, at least initially, but they are born with the basic capacity to find the gyre and the safety of the sargassum meadows. This knowledge, however, is not fixed like a map in the brain. It is not a mechanical instinct which responds automatically to a set of stimuli. Rather, it is an open ability to grasp the varying patterns of shifting magnetic fields, the force of currents, the temperature of the sea, the variations in light and darkness and adapt its swimming body to it. This openness to its particular sensory world is a hallmark of the turtle’s mind. The turtle mind is a genius in reading the variable semiotic patterns produced by the deep sea environment, make sense out of them, and adapt its behavior accordingly. Baby turtles are already perfectly equipped to respond sensitively to shifts within this environment as they traverse it. The Atlantic Ocean is their milieu, and it is a complicated world of currents that caress the skin, patterns of light that hit the eyes, predators who bar the way, food that beckons – movement of all and sundry that communicates itself directly through the undulating water against the hatchling’s body.
It is ultimately unimaginable to humans what the world is like for the small loggerheads, but even from brief attempts to feel our way into their sensory world we can guess that that watery world is very differentiated and subtle and that the hatchlings’ bodies have fully functioning sense organs that can respond to its demands. We cannot really grasp what it is like for the sea turtle to experience shifts in the angle of latitude because we humans have no way to perceive something like this. But turtles have sense organs which perceive magnetic fields. They can feel them, like we can feel warmth on our skin or see the colors of the rainbow. We have no comparable sense-organs to make sense of this kind of experience: it is beyond the realm of human perception, and the experiential range of our bodies does not encompass most of the sea turtle’s floating, watery lived world. Our empathy with it is limited, our understanding of it is laborious and rough. Every turtle, on the other hand, makes sense of the sophisticated patterns of currents and magnetic fields, and the species finds its way in the ocean world with ease.
The desire for the North Atlantic Gyre is inscribed into the loggerheads’ bodies and pulls them through the sand and into the open sea as soon as they break their eggshells: they are designed to find it. The fit between body and milieu is an intertwined structure, and the turtle has a basic a priori knowledge or sense about what actions are good and beneficial for survival. The turtle’s knowledge, I imagine, is not so much rational and logical, but intuitive and aesthetic. It swims towards what feels right and good. This aesthetic knowledge is not a function of individual experience and personal memory, but of the body itself and belongs to the basic equipment of all organisms. Organisms judge the shifting patterns of their particular worlds to be good or bad. Instinct (if we choose to retain this term) for the turtle is not a fixed pattern of behavior, but a functional, open ability to respond to structural changes in its milieu and judge their value. As the shifting magnetic fields move across the turtle’s magnetic sense organs, they structure the perceptual field in meaningful ways: here is the good direction, but there is the lack of pressure that needs to be avoided; this way feels right, but that way feels anxious. The turtle’s body knows when to push the flippers to the left and tilt the shell to maintain course toward the gyre, which, as it knows in its bones, is the ultimate good. It adjusts its senses continuously, keeping the telos, the goal of all desire, in mind. Guided by knowledge and desire, it can “read” the flux of magnetic patterns and currents as its swims along the earth surface and adapts its body to them. All its actions, from the beginning, are already constituted by the distant North Atlantic Gyre, which, once found, swirls it along in its wake and deposits it in a place of safety, nourishment, and rest.
By Eva-Maria Simms
When I was a young woman, I traveled with friends across the Southwest from Texas to California. My boyfriend at the time had dumped me the day before we left, and I struggled with heart-break and grief for the two days and nights it took us to drive through West Texas and New Mexico. After driving through the night, we pitched our tents near Lake Cochiti and Brian and Rob went to sleep. My grief made me too restless and I hoped that walking would calm down the torrent of loss that threatened to continually break through my defenses. I knew it would take time to heal, and maybe this was not the best time to take this trip, especially since my now ex-lover was supposed to be here! I tried to think things through, but my thoughts went every which way. All I wanted was to be away from my sympathetic friends and be alone with my misery.
I followed a narrow road that came down from the lake and snaked along the hillside. The merciless sunlight of a New Mexico August morning lay over the valley below, intensified by the radiating heat from the black tarmac under me. I walked along the guard rail, already hot, tired and depressed. A pickup truck drove up behind me, slowed, and passed by so close I could have stretched out my hand and touch it. A man leaned out the window and yelled something at me. My heart almost stopped. I averted my eyes and looked straight ahead. Could I jump the guard rail, if needed? The truck sped up, spewed out a cloud of diesel fumes, and vanished around a bend in the road. Should I return to our camp? It would take me ten minutes to trek back up the road. I heard the growing rumble of engines behind me. Two motorcycles roared past with considerable speed, almost blowing the straw hat off my head. I froze when I saw them turn around at the bend and come back my way. There was nothing for it: I climbed over the guardrail and slid down the slope, my sandals dislodging dust and pebbles and my long skirt brushing against tufts of dry grass and getting tangled in small spiny bushes.
At the bottom of the hill an empty dirt road led between low rolling hills and brush into the distance. A small sign pointed along the road: Pueblo Cochiti. With a still wildly beating heart, I passed the marker. No one was following me. I took a deep breath and slowed down my steps. Everything quieted suddenly. The sound of cicadas oscillated in the warm bright air, which was heavy with the scent of dry grass and dusty earth. The only other sound was the crunching of my footsteps on the gravel road. Silence lay almost palpably over the landscape. No cars, no motorcycles, no signs of the twentieth century anywhere. Blessed solitude.
The heat of midday spread itself drowsy and peaceful over the landscape. It left me alone to do some walking and thinking. With every step, memories welled up and threatened to drown me. No one was here to see me, so I cried. I sobbed. I yelled at the bushes that lined the road. They were strange looking: waist high, mound shaped, lined up a few feet apart, moving past me like ocean waves, one after the other. I told them how tattered I felt and how the future was hanging around me in shreds, and that I still did not know how to deal with the constant need to cry. I feared the time of grief ahead — I knew what it looked like — and the descent into that obsessive darkness which would drain all warmth and light out of the coming months. I told them about my rage. I walked past these motherly, grounded shapes, and step by step I could feel the cloud of grief and anger rise off my shoulders. The solid, friendly bushes seemed to absorb the pain and let it flow into their leaves, branches, and roots. They were willing to carry my grief! At the end of the row of bushes, where a cattle bridge interrupted the road, I stopped and looked back. Surprised I noticed that I felt lighter: my heart was almost easy. I turned my face to see, for the first time that day, clearly what lay ahead.
Since that morning a quarter century ago there have been some other times when I had to traverse the landscape of grief, but I never recovered as quickly as there, in the desert of New Mexico. Those motherly plants did their earth magic and healed something in me. They gave me back my hope and vitality. Their round shape, their constant rhythm, their stillness were elements of a holding environment which was soothing, nourishing, and without demand. I have wondered since then about the healing power of things and places. There are shapes in the natural world that speak to the shapes of the human soul. I needed grounding, comfort, rhythm, and containment. The soul-shapes along the road gave them to me.
By Eva-Maria Simms
The bluff on which my neighborhood sits is surrounded and carved up by water: the great streams of Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, Saw Mill Run, and a multitude of creeks and runoffs. For eons they ate away at the rock. Water created passages through the wilderness, and when people settled here they used the watersheds as template for the course of roads. Like an island we find ourselves separated from the rest of the city – but so do many of the other hilly neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. We are a city of islands connected by beautiful spans of bridges which cross water everywhere.
A landscape has its own dreaminess as it lies under the sun and the stars. Ours is a ‘romantic landscape” as the architect Christian Norberg-Schulz calls it, because its hills, folds, watersheds and dense green forests gives it a sense of interiority and intimacy. In a romantic landscape an air of mystery pervades everything. There are very few places from which you can see the whole expanse of the land. Mostly, vistas open up and then withdraw. You climb the hill, but the land behind the next hill cannot be seen. Straight roads do not work, because the terrain resists the formal line. In the woods you see only so far, and as soon as you get to the next curve on the deer trail, a new landscape opens up before you – and conceals itself behind the bend or the thicket or the clump of trees a few paces away. It is a landscape of absence and shadow, but also of brilliant displays of lighted clearings and briefly illuminated hilltops as the clouds race by in the morning sunlight.
A landscape speaks to the soul. Its spirit of place, its genius loci, consists of the ineffable web of geology, flora and fauna, weather, water, light and shadow, earth and sky — and also of the uses human beings have made of these elements over time. The voice of Pittsburgh’s genius loci has as its base note the strong figures of the rivers and the smaller trills of their tributaries, which have carved and shaped this landscape with the force of water. It resonates in the protected bowls of valleys, it rises up to the hilltops and the promise of distant hazy vistas, and then returns into itself to get tangled in roots and hollowed out coal beds underground. Neither sparse and essential as the desert, nor lush and exuberant as the tropics, neither serene and clear as the classical landscape of Greece, nor rugged and majestic as the Rocky Mountains or the Alps — it never gives its all to you, but it offers what you need.
I saw Pittsburgh for the first time in 1987. The taxi picked me up from the airport and we were funneled through the trough between hills for a few miles and finally into the darkness of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. And suddenly, at the end of the tunnel, the river valleys and the bridges and the city lights exploded into my view and poured themselves out into an open landscape. It was breathtaking.
Our genius loci has a strange sense of humor: it is a magician who with a sleigh of hand reveals something by concealing something else. It lulls you into sensory underload and boredom, and then jolts you awake by giving you an unexpected, delightful gift. It fragments itself into a diversity of micro-places with their own distinct moods and histories, but the sides of the bowl, which hold the rivers’ confluence, embrace and center it all and keep the one and the many in balance. It is a generous place to live.
By Eva-Maria Simms
As soon as a path has been built, the natural landscape changes. The path creates the kind of forest that is accessible and friendly to humans. Someone prepared this landscape by choosing the easiest passage and by clearing and widening the walkable surfaces. No tangled roots or fallen trees impede our progress. The runnels and mudflats can be crossed via stones or smoothed out logs and our feet stay clean and dry. The forest has been tamed and is impressive and sweet to our senses: the web of leaves above, the blue ridges in the distance, the scent of mushrooms nearby, the rustle of a towhee in the leaf mold. Nature along the path conforms itself to our bodies perceptual abilities and mobile needs and reinforces a romantic vision of what nature ought to be: ordered, predictable, confined in its niches, grand, sublime, beautiful and almost safe. The peaceable kingdom.
But the trail has its limitations. It is only a few feet wide, and next to it the wilderness starts again. By its very nature the trail cannot tame the whole landscape and it “civilizes” only a small part of it. The nature we see is surrounded by the nature we do not see: the landscape that folds itself into the next ravine, the forest that does its own thing just beyond the horizon of our experiential field. Most of the woods are not traversed by trails. They are still virgin territory. In virgin territory, however, nature is impassable, convoluted, confusing, confounding, muddy, wet, prickly, full of obstacles and indifferent and dangerous to us — as I found out when I got lost in the woods. No trail leads into the wild – it leads only into a wilderness we can bear.
This does not mean that we should not build trails. Trails lead into an altered, humanly arranged, tamed nature, and if we can accept that, trails are wonderful. They allow us to get a glimpse of a world which is not completely ordered, conceptualized, and controlled by humans and they lead past things and beings not human-made. The tamed quality of the nature trail, however, is always dialectically related to the untamed quality of the virgin territory around it. Its sweetness is has faint undertones of bitterness and danger. Beyond the line of influence the trail exerts on the landscape virgin nature still stretches out in all directions. It is not confined to the line, as our path is. It is everywhere. The path is the figure, but the virgin territory is the ground. It is below our feet in the layers of fungi who live as one symbiotic organism throughout the whole forest’s roots; it is in the shale, coal, sandstone, and redbeds hundreds of feet under our city; it is in the wind that blows through the leaf canopy and stirs the flag a mile away; it is in the sunlight which shines on everything and in the shades where things hide from the light and heat; it pushes up the wing feathers of the peregrine as it palpates the invisible air currents above the river valley; it is in the breath I draw into my lungs, and in the sweet raspberry that I found in the brambles, swallowed and took into myself; it is in my blood and my bones because they, too are virgin territory, and one day they will give out and nature will kill me. Our paths can tame it only so far.
By Eva-Maria Simms
The paths that we walk or ride or drive have a history. They were made because someone found the easiest way to move human bodies through the landscape, and other bodies have followed and widened the path or built it into a road. A paper street, on the other hand, was designed in a completely conceptual way, on someone’s drafting table, “as if it still stood in the brain” (to use a phrase from Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy): nobody found it useful as a street, and it did not accommodate the true lay-out of the Western Pennsylvania landscape, which resists straight lines and geometric grids. A path has to fit into a landscape; but it also has to fit human anatomy, motility, and intentionality in order to be useful and maintained.
Understanding the path begins with understanding the human body and its Umwelt. Bodies, be they human or animal, have a particular relationship to their environment which is specific to their species. The biologist Jacob von Uexküll taught us that the same landscape has a different meaning to a human being than to a dog or a tick. He called this semiotic field the animal’s Umwelt. The dog lives in a complex scentscape which tells it who has been in this place and which way they went. Its grasp of scented layered events within one place is completely alien and only partly imaginable to humans. The dogscape has different locations of meaning in it that differ from the significant events the tick waits for, as it sits on its leave above the trail. The tick perceives only the chemical signature of warm skin passing under its bush so that it can drop down and feed. That is all the pleasure it needs, and birdsong, the color of wildflowers, the blue vista of mountains in the background do not exist: they have no meaning in the tick’s world, and the tick lacks organs of perception for them.
Human bodies perceive and use the landscape in species specific ways as well. Most of our perceptual organs, like eyes, nose, and mouth, are arranged at the front of our head and point in one direction. Our shoulders and pelvis emphasize this directionality and provide a framework for our arms and legs to be perfectly positioned to reach forward. Our senses attend to what’s ahead, and our limbs carry us towards it. Only our ears, on the sides and in stereo, are attuned to the sound that surrounds us. But walking we walk forward, seeing we look ahead.
The body determines the basic grammar of our spatial prepositions: before (ahead/in front) is the open perceptual field which calls and beckons our hands and feet; behind (back) is what we do not see, the perceptual field that is only vaguely attended and mysterious; above (up) is the sky with its shifting light-shows and weather patterns, and below (down, under) is the ground upon which we move. With our ears we can swivel around and change the perceptual field to the horizon which surrounds us, but as soon as we move we give up the round and commit ourselves to the ahead. We walk backwards only when we avoid something that threatens from in front. Our legs are not made to walk that way, and we can flee only by choosing a new forward direction away from the threat.
It is startling to realize that movement is mostly movement “a-head”, and that the space in front of the body has a different significance than the space behind the body. Ahead is a different semiotic space than behind. Ahead are the perceptions and projects we are looking for, the experiences not yet here but maybe already announcing themselves; behind is the space already traversed but left behind and only there as a memory — it is known but also soon forgotten because it falls out of the beam of attention. Ahead is the future: what is possible. Behind is the past: what is remembered. Future and past are intricately tied to the motility of the human body.
On a very fundamental level the path is an expression of the semiotic field of the body. Bodies, animal and human, are always situated and mobile. To be situated means that we are tied to a particular time and place; to be mobile means that when we move we move through a particular space at this time and not through others. The deer path snaking along the hillside is a testimony to the deer’s body-space: elegant, narrow, sinuous, surprising at times in its trajectory. It is also a trace of the animal’s history with this particular landscape. Once chosen, the deer path becomes an easy and favorite route through the landscape and it beckons the deer to follow it because it has been shaped by the deer’s gestures and conforms to the deer’s needs. It is not so very different from human built paths. Why move through the brush when the path is free of vegetation? Why find a new path when this one already leads to the water or the favorite berry patch? The history of deer-life is inscribed into the paths crossing the landscape. Deer paths are a trace of non-human beings and their history with and segmentation of the landscape.
The path, deer or human, shows the commitment that living beings have made to a landscape: here have we walked, here has been the best place for our bodies to move through this place, here have we traversed again and again. The path is an inscription of intentionality and history – deer or human – in the visible and tangible landscape which houses our bodies.
By Eva-Maria Simms
Since my harrowing experience in the “forest savage, rough and stern” a few weeks ago I have been wondering about the difference between built and natural landscape. Most of us humans take the paths and trails, the roads and highways for granted, and we usually do not think about them. But the landscape we experience today has been profoundly modified by the paths that bisect and order it. Without roads, our country would be a completely different thing: it would probably look like the old British maps of Africa where there were many white spots indicating “unexplored territory.” Our highways create a link from a “here” (where our bodies are) to a “there” (which is a potential destination for us) and in doing so differentiate the landscape into areas of familiarity and alienness. On a smaller scale this is also true of trails and hiking paths: they create a “there” which is human friendly and carved out of the wilderness. Before trails, roads, and highways all we had was topology, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that”, as Annie Dillard said about the Monongahela River valley in An American Childhood.
It took a long time for the American continent to be settled by Europeans west of the Appalachians because it was very difficult to cross the Allegheny mountain range with its deep undergrowth, folded, steep hills, and abundant creeks and wetlands. The only passages for wagons were along the rivers and through the gaps they had gouged into the mountains. Annie Dillard wrote:
In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. Pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountain’s lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest. The wilderness was uncanny, unknown.
Ravens and warblers, flickers and perhaps even the great ivory billed woodpeckers lived out their lives here. They nested and raised their young, fed on plants and insects and in turn were eaten by larger predators like hawks and owls. They were part of an ecosystem that had evolved, through ice ages, droughts, and temperate periods, in these hills and valleys for millennia. Few human beings had ever intruded.
In the river valleys grew American Sycamores with massive trunks that reached heights of up to 130 feet. Sycamores are a member of the planet’s oldest clan of trees, the Plantanacea, which have been around for over 100 million years. A French expedition to the forks of the Ohio from 1749 reported that 29 men could fit side by side into the hollow within one of these great giant trees. In 1770 on his journey down the Ohio River, George Washington recorded in his journal a sycamore measuring nearly 45 feet in circumference at 3 feet from the ground. It is almost unimaginable that trees like that dotted our landscape. How many centuries must it have taken for the seedling to grow undisturbed to such a size? How long for it all to be hollowed out from the inside?
The great confluence valley of our rivers and the landscape that flanks them was sparsely inhabited by the native peoples, who came here to hunt and bury their dead and who settled along the flat banks of the rivers. There are traces of Paleo-Indian presence carved into the bluffs along the rivers’ edge: caves, rock shelters, and burial mounds that are up to 20.000 years old. Later the banks of the Ohio were Iroquois hunting territory, and then Lenape, Seneca, and Shawnee built villages up and down the forks of the Ohio. The rivers were their highways. They had also found a walking passage through the Allegheny Mountains and their traders kept the trail open. French traders established trading posts along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers in the early 1700’s.
Today you can find stretches of a path up the steep cliff side to the top of Mt. Washington which is still called “The Indian Trail”. It is said that this was the path that young George Washington took when he climbed up the bluff to survey the landscape of the forks of the Ohio for the crown in 1753. Two years later Washington accompanied British General Braddock’s expedition of two regiments, which marched from Fort Cumberland across the Allegheny Mountains and into western Pennsylvania. Following a path Washington surveyed along an old Native American trail, over 3,000 men built a wagon road 12 feet wide which would become the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Braddock’s wagon road became later (1811) the first federally sponsored highway and was to be called “The National Road”. Braddock’s road was the funnel that allowed settlers to leave the eastern colonies, pass through the thicket of the Allegheny Mountains, and travel on to the Great Plains and West.
Where there is a path, people follow it and human history begins. Before the path there is only natural history and the eternal cycle of birth and death in the forest, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”
By Eva-Maria Simms
The new trail behind Olympia Park snakes through the wooded landscape in switchbacks, over suddenly erupting water runs, and along blackberry brambles and elderberry bushes which are seeing full sunlight for the first time ever. We take trails for granted, but I have walked the same landscape before and after the trail has been built, and I can tell you that it alters the mood of the place completely.
Last weekend I walked the new trail, which is still under construction, up to the point where the graded and benched surface ended. Ahead were only the small orange flags in the landscape which marked where the trail crew would continue their work. It had been a great walk so far: dappled sunlight, sweet birdsong, easy walking, blackberries that were reddish green and still unripe, but which would be ready in the coming weeks. I could see a few flags ahead, like the crumbs of Hansel and Gretel’s bread, and decided to follow them. I knew this landscape, and had been in this area before, so I was sure I could find my way. Somewhere close by must be the little cliff with the open area below which my students and I had cleared of trash and debris, and from there led a deer path to a fallen tree where I hid a geocache four years ago. How difficult could it be to find my way?
At first the trail meandered along the hillside, but soon I found myself in overgrown territory. I bushwhacked through knotweed that was taller than my head. My shirt got caught by thorny brambles and I had to stop frequently to untangle myself. I deliberated if I should turn around, but my feet carried me further and further. How far could it be? I was in the middle of an American city, after all. I pushed forward. The next flag was up the hill and behind arm-thick hanging vines. I pulled myself up by holding on to small trees and shoving the kudzu out of the way. The terrain was suddenly very steep and the valley to my right fell down into a ravine. Where was I? Somewhere in front of me was the ball field at Olympia Park, but how far away was it? My view ahead was blocked by a tangle of fallen trees, and the deer path seemed to snake alongside it. I suddenly realized that there were no more flags, neither ahead nor behind. When and where did I lose the flags?
Twenty yards in front of me lay the huge, silvery trunk of a fallen tree across my path. Wasn’t this the place where I had hidden the geocache when the giant dead tree stood as a sentinel in the landscape, and hid it again later after its fall? I tried to climb over the dead trunk, but it was more than four feet in diameter and on the slope, and I could not push myself up on its slippery wood. Pulling myself alongside it I slid over the roots and a very unfriendly poison ivy patch and down the other side. There was no geocache anywhere, and now I really had no idea where I was. Looking back over the trunk I could no longer tell where I had come from and was not sure I could find my way back to the trail. This was not a sweet, hiker friendly tamed landscape. The brambles and the poison ivy were doing their own thing, the robins were eying me suspiciously, and big trees came down without anybody witnessing their death. As a human I had no part in this. The thorns scratched my arms bloody without care; the poison ivy had probably left its insidious, toxic molecules on my naked skin for a later painful warning. I panicked slightly, but thought that going on would eventually get me back to civilization. Pushing forward I slipped in the mud and my foot sank into a runnel which suddenly seemed to spring up from the ground. My leg was covered in cold, dark brown slime up to the knee. Why didn’t I bring my cell phone? What if I wandered around the folds of this forest forever and could not find my way home? Who would come looking for me here? What if I got injured? How many hours before dark?
Then I remembered that all hillsides in Emerald View Park have a top with houses built right up to the edge. If I went up the hill, and not forward, I should find a street eventually. And sure enough: climbing up the slope and pushing myself through the thicket I glimpsed the neon yellow of a caution tape which the trail crew had strung around an abandoned foundation. Above it was the paper street I had crossed before. I was so surprised to come out in this location: space seems to have followed a different geometry in the trackless woods, and time bends itself around winding runnels and fallen trees when there is no clear path.
Dirty, scratched up, tired, and chastened I left the forest behind. I thought of the opening lines of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno:
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Indeed: what is the savage forest, and how is it changed by the straightforward path we build through it?
By Eva-Maria Simms
Most streets in my neighborhood end either at the cliff with its spectacular view of the Ohio River valley or, at the other end of the mountain, in the woods. They peter out into crumbling asphalt and are choked down by Japanese knotweed before losing themselves – as what is called a “paper street” hereabouts – into the wooded, now uninhabited hillsides and valleys. Paper streets exist only on maps. A long ago urban planner laid out the grid of city streets but forgot that the cliff was too steep, or the woods were too dense, or a creek cut up the landscape. Sometimes a lonely street sign points into the wilderness, or you find a telephone pole marking the intersection of two deer paths. Once there were houses and even farms further down the paper streets, and you can still find vaulted cellar entrances, mine shafts, decades old rusted appliances, and contractor debris which has been illegally dumped for more than a century. Sometimes, if you follow a deer track though the dense undergrowth, you come across the fins of a 1950’s Chevy sticking out of the loam — I was told that the kids in the 50’s used to steal cars, drag-race them along Grandview Avenue, and finally push them over the hillside to make them vanish in overgrown valleys and deep gulches. There are “bald spots” in the landscape where nothing grows, and we do not know if the small creek that snakes down to Saw Mill Run valley is a clean spring or polluted water run-off from an abandoned coal mine. There are few paths besides deer trails crossing this landscape. The woods have been left to themselves and nature has reclaimed the spaces which people abandoned when Pittsburgh’s luck ran out and the population dropped by 2/3rds. No one walks down the hills to the steel mills in the valleys; no one forages for blackberries or elderberries in the clearings or knows where the mushroom patches are; no children build play forts in the trees anymore.
At the end of some streets you find a dilapidated wooden fence which tells you that the “Duquesne Heights Greenway” begins here, and all you see is green wilderness. These fences are remnants of a 1970’s neighborhood initiative to protect the wooded slopes by declaring them a “greenway”, but there are no traces and no stories among my neighbors of the people who worked on this and no trails to show off their efforts. Behind the fence: wilderness. There are no signs that tell you that this is public land, that it belongs to all of us, that it is part of our neighborhood, that it is our commons, and that you are allowed to go there.
My children played baseball at Dilworth Field for many years, and I had no idea that there were actually hiking paths in the woods behind the baseball diamond. The trails were built in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the WPA had a hand in the construction of walls and stairs. I never realized that I was allowed to go into those woods, that there were paths through the forest, and that all of it even had a name: Mount Washington Park. Later I found out that Mount Washington Park has an interesting history: it was created in the wake of the social reformist Olmsted City Beautiful movement by a neighborhood initiative in 1908 — against some resistance from the City parks staff — as a park overlooking “the beautiful panorama of the Sawmill Valley”, as a the city councilman put it upon the dedication of the flagpole in 1923. In his 1870 essay, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote: “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets . . . We want the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy”. Urban green spaces were created as a psychological and moral balance to the alienating influences of capitalist cities. The beauty of nature was thought to heal the soul. But no one in the neighborhood today remembers this grand vision of social reform through beautiful nature spaces for the benefit of working people. By the middle of the 20th century, the neighbors withdrew from their shared front porches and spent their recreation time inside. Blue light began to flicker from every single living room in the evenings. Urban picnics and Sunday afternoon hikes became a thing of the past. Families became afraid of the woods.
As a native German, I have always been surprised that when Americans do hike or bike for fitness in their urban parks, they stay on the paved thoroughfares and few venture of the beaten track into the wilder parts. Nature is mysterious, dark, and confusing, and people fear the “bums, rapists, and murderers” who potentially hide behind the bushes or around the next bend, as the urban legend goes. The irrational fear of nature is so pervasive in our culture that I often have to convince even myself that, in my rambles through the woods, I am not very interesting to human predators, and that it is highly unlikely that one of them is waiting for me crouched close to the muddy ground or in the cold shadow behind the pines. I am trying to teach myself not to be afraid.
Nature at the end of my street and behind the ball field had become invisible by the end of the 20th century. The woods were slightly menacing because there were rumors about prostitution, drug dealing, and homeless encampments, and there was plenty of evidence of partying teenagers who left empty beer cans around burnt out campfires. No one wanted to live next to the woods, and the closer you got to the trees, the cheaper and run-down the houses became. Appalachia began at the end of our streets. The paper streets led into no-man’s land and became access roads to illegal dump sites for the unwanted debris of our civilization.
A decade ago I began exploring the woods. Eventually I discovered a new neighborhood initiative connected to our Community Development Organization who imagined all the parks and wooded slopes surrounding our mountain connected into one large “Emerald Link”. In 2005 the city officially granted it the protection of a regional park. Now we are working on establishing a trail system, managing invasive species, cleaning up dump sites, and changing the perception of urban wilderness at the end of our streets. Emerald View Park, with now over 260 acres of woods and meadows, is slowly becoming a reality.
by Frank Izaguirre
A lot happened to me this past year. I suffered from a distressing medical symptom, which meant I needed a colonoscopy. I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Part of my colon was removed and stapled back together.
But I’m excited because here in Pittsburgh May is coming. It’s the month when I go to Frick Park and bring my binoculars. There will be dozens of warblers in kaleidoscopic variety, their Spring plumage on full display, and each singing his own unique melody. But I’m at least equally excited to see many of my favorite Pittsburgh friends. All of them are older than me; my wonderful girlfriend and I will be the only ones under 40. One of the regulars frequently describes the group as too geriatric.
Another thing about the Frick Park group is that, because the park is in Squirrel Hill, many of my Frick birding friends are Jewish. Many have always lived in Squirrel Hill, unlike me – I’ve only been in Pittsburgh 3 years. One morning last May, after five solid hours of birding, one of them suggested we go to breakfast at Kazansky’s for the best latkes in town, and was completely crestfallen when another told him they’d closed down.
They tell good jokes. One has a thing for reciting dirty limericks. Another once flipped open his guidebook to the page with Wilson’s Warbler. “What bird is that?” he asked my girlfriend. She didn’t know. “It’s the Jewish Warbler,” he said smiling. One of Wilson’s Warbler’s diagnostic features is a round, black cap on its head.
I miss them, my geriatric Jewish friends. I’m not sick anymore. I want to see them. A few days ago I fantasized that as we all gather one morning in the parking lot at Frick, I’ll overhear one talk about how he has to go in for a colonoscopy, how nervous he is. “Don’t worry,” I’ll interrupt, secretly delighting in the hilarity of age reversal, “they’re not that bad.” They will all look at me with horror, because I am 26. And if I tell them I had cancer, then I’ll also tell them my joke: “The good thing about colonoscopies is they’re a two-for-one. The drugs get you pretty high.”
Then we will all bird until noon and go eat latkes because Smallman’s is still open. And I will pat my belly right near the spot where the scar from my surgery is and think to myself: birds, jokes, the month of May – there is no better way to heal.