Monday, November 28, 2016

Flight 93 National Menorial


Entrance to the Flight 93 National Memorial. Grey stone walkway is the flight path.
On our way back from Pittsburgh to our home in southeastern Pennsylvania earlier this month, Kali and I detoured to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, between Somerset and Bedford.

The memorial, which consists of a museum/visitor center situated directly on the path of the doomed flight, is embraced by a long, semicircular walk that leads to the site of the crash.  The walk eventually will be shaded by 40 groves of trees to commemorate each of the passengers and crew members killed on September 11, 2001.  To date, some of the groves have been planted, but the memorial is still a work in progress.

Nonetheless, visiting the site is extraordinarily moving and emotional.  There were lots of tears among everyone there--including Kali's and mine. 
View back toward the museum along the flight path
Crash site overlook at the end of the flight path walkway
The actual crash site is marked by a large sandstone boulder, which is barely visible in the image below, just short of the line of hemlocks.  The plane hit the ground at over 500 miles per hour, so the passengers' remains are in place and protected in the grassy field beyond the white gate.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Visit with JP (Pittsburgh is SO Hilly)


Kali and JP sharing home-made apple pie
Kali and I visited Pittsburgh two weeks ago so that I could deliver a talk about invasive plants to a garden club (see previous post).  Kali and I both earned doctoral degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (Kali: English; Scott: Biological Sciences) while we lived in Pittsburgh from 1976 until 1981, so we "know" the city and still have friends there.  On the way back home, we stopped to visit a friend from graduate school days  Jan-Paul (JP) was teaching English as an adjunct at Pitt when we lived in Pittsburgh and we became close friends.  JP has eclectic interests in classical music, literature, European languages, natural history (he's a much better naturalist than I), and especially gardening.  He even served as the gardener for Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer at their estate north of New York City for a few years.  Alas, JP was eccentric, peripatetic and couldn't settle down, so he never earned a really "good" living.  He loved Pittsburgh, and when it came time to retire he looked for a place he could afford there, finally buying a fixer-upper in the city's working-class Greenfield neighborhood for $120,000.
View of the back of the house
Of course, he immediately set about transforming the derelict yard into his own eclectic garden.
View toward the street of the garden between the house and garage
He spends much more time in the garden than in the house.

View from the back of the house through the late-October garden
The reason JP bought this house was for the expansive view from the back.  The house is perched 100 feet from the edge of a very steep slope tumbling down to the Monongahela River, affording wonderful views to the south.
Backyard garden looking southwest
The area immediately below JP's house was the site of the Homestead coke works when Pittsburgh was "Steel City."  His neighbor, who has lived next door her entire life, said that her mother couldn't hang laundry outside to dry or it would get dirtier than it was before it was washed when the coke works were operating.  Today, the coke works are gone and the area is being redeveloped for apartments and retail.

In the image below, a tributary valley is visible across the river at the left of the image.  The next valley upstream (just to the left but outside the range of the image) is the drainage of Hay's Run.  There have been a pair of Bald Eagles nesting in the Hay's Run valley for the last few years, and JP says he sees them cruising on the thermals occasionally.
View southward across the Monongahela River
Kali and I had forgotten how hilly Pittsburgh is.  If Pittsburgh were wealthier and had better housing stock, it would be celebrated as the San Francisco of the East.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden


A decade ago, a colleague invited me to collaborate on a project at the site of what was destined to become the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.  The site was within Settlers Cabin Park, one of Allegheny County's parks in the southwestern Pittsburgh suburbs near the airport.  The land had largely been strip mined for coal and then abandoned until it was purchased by the county for a future park.  Since mining ended, the scarred hillsides had naturally reforested, although the streams draining the area were still poisoned by acid mine drainage.  Our collaborative project was to evaluate the site for invasive, non-native plants, and to develop a management plan.  After we completed our report, I didn't hear anything else about the garden.

Two weeks ago, I delivered a talk about invasive plants to a joint meeting of the Village Garden Club/Garden Club of Allegheny County.  In speaking with the garden clubs' members, I asked about the status of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden - who better to know about progress on "my" project?  Few of the people with whom I spoke knew much, and I don't think any of the garden club members had ever visited the garden.  So, after my talk, I dragged Kali and our friend/host/former employee Rhonda out to the garden to look it over.  What follows are images I made there.
The attractive Visitor Center, used mostly for revenue-generating functions (e.g., weddings, etc.)
The garden is just getting off the ground.  The concept is in place and trails have been blazed, but the garden is in its earliest stages of development.  Most of the land is still covered in young woodlands and meadows, with trails cut through to provide access.  And, invasive plants are ubiquitous!  
Friend Rhonda under a pergola
Birdhouse in the goldenrod meadow
Kali and Rhonda in the goldenrod meadow
I liked this image because it looked very impressionistic
Backlit goldenrod
Backlit tuliptree leaf
A "folly" in the forest
Woodland trail
The garden administrators have decided to install environmental artwork throughout the trail network as an added attraction.  Most of the work is not of the highest caliber, and some is downright unappealing and shoddy (in my opinion).  However, the evocative wooden installation below was stunning.  (Ignore the bizarre thatched "tiki houses" in the background.)
We visited the garden during late afternoon, which illuminated the tops of the trees perfectly to capture autumn's glory.
The most highly developed section of the facility is the Oriental Garden.  Its central focus is a huge lily pond surrounded by a paved walkway.

Kali (left) and Rhonda on a boardwalk near the lily pond
Rhonda (left) and Kali on steppingstones crossing the upper end of the lily pond

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The lily pond serves a dual purpose:  it is the aesthetic centerpiece of the Oriental Garden, and it is also an ingenious system to treat acid mine drainage in the stream that feeds the pond.  The garden received a significant environmental grant to create this treatment system.
At the end of our walk, we arrived at the eponymous "settlers' cabin," which has been lovingly and carefully restored.

We enjoyed a very pleasant late afternoon autumn stroll through the woods and fields, but the garden fells "raw" and has a long way to go before it becomes a real horticultural asset for the Pittsburgh area.  Maybe, by the next time that I'm invited to speak ten years hence, I can share more progress.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wissahickon Part 2: Forbidden Drive

Bell's Mill Road Bridge, viewed upstream
After Kali and I finished exploring Houston Meadows (previous post), which is located on a high, flat bluff above Wissahickon Creek, we descended the steep valley slope to the stream.  An old carriage road parallels the western bank of the creek for seven miles.  Because vehicles are prohibited from using the old road, it is called Forbidden Drive.  Forbidden Drive is one of the most heavily used recreational amenities in the city, with walkers, runners, equestrians, and bicyclists all mixed together in a generally congenial stew. 
Wissahickon Creek downstream of Bell's Mill Bridge
The land that is now Wissahickon Valley Park was a colonial industrial valley with mills and roads throughout.  The city bought the land in the late 19th century because Wissahickon Creek empties into the Schuylkill River just upstream of the city's drinking water intake, so the city wanted to try to preserve water quality in the Wissahickon and the receiving stream.  Nearly all vestiges of the industrial heritage are gone, but many of the stone ruins and the bridges that bore roads over the creek remain.
Blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius) and Wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) on the wooded streambank
Forested slope with denuded understory
White-tailed deer have been very abundant in the park.  As a result, nearly all of the forest understory is gone, and few sapling tress are growing to replace the old trees when they die.  For the last decade, the city has hired sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cull the herd.  The sharpshooters hunt at night over bait, and the venison is donated to local food banks.  Nevertheless, animal rights group protests are a constant thorn in the city's side over this issue.  The culling has significantly reduced the number of deer, and the forest has begun to recover in places.
Parasitic beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana) in a patch of sunlight
One of the reasons that the Wissahickon is so popular is because it is very scenic.  The creek has cut a deep gorge though very hard rock, so the valley slopes are steep with lots of scenic boulders and bedrock exposed.  Because of the steepness, only one old road crosses the valley directly (Bell's Mill Road, the picture at the head of this post), and few roads penetrate down to Forbidden Drive.  Rex Avenue (image below) is one of those roads that descends from the eastern side of the valley and terminates at Forbidden Drive.
Rex Avenue Bridge
Old park guardhouse along Forbidden Drive
Covered bridge, the only one in Philadelphia
Invasive Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata), left, and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Wissahickon Creek rapid
Forbidden Drive
Forbidden Drive is not one of Kali's favorite walks because it is dark and claustrophobic; she much prefers the sun and openness of Houston Meadows.  However, I like the views of the creek and the general sense of community among the users.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Wissahickon Part 1: Houston Meadows

Bumblebee on goldenrod
Last Saturday (October 15) was an absolutely perfect early autumn day, with temperatures in the upper 60s, crystal clear blue skies, and very low humidity.  I packed Kali into the car and we drove over to the north-westernmost neighborhood in Philadelphia called Roxborough for a hike in the 1,800-acre Wissahickon Valley Park, Philadelphia's largest and best-known park.  Our goal that day, in addition to just getting some exercise, was to inspect Houston Meadows, a restoration project undertaken by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation as part of an ongoing series of natural lands restorations throughout the city's larger parks.
Trail through goldenrod and little bluestem
A few aspens; there are others growing nearby at the edge of the meadow
Native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
To my mind, the Houston Meadows project was not a straightforward "winner."  During the early part of the 20th century, the meadows had been an active farm before urbanization expanded outward to the very edges of the city limits.  When the farm was incorporated into the park, the land became fallow and quickly reverted to herbaceous old-field habitat - a "wildflower meadow" in common parlance.  This habitat was extraordinarily attractive to birds and butterflies that needed such habitat, and Houston Meadows became a birders paradise maintained by fires set periodically by neighborhood hoodlums.
Bluebird box on meadow slope
All was well until houses were built up to the very edge of the park, and then the field fires had to be suppressed.  This fire suppression allowed natural succession to kick in and trees and woody vegetation, formerly killed by the fires, began to creep into the meadows, changing the land first to a thicket and then to a young woodland.  The birds and lepidopterans could no longer find appropriate habitat and abandoned Houston "Meadows."
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), boneset (Eupatroium perfoliatum) and native grasses
With support from a philanthropic foundation, the city decided to try to restore the meadow habitat and attract the birds back.  So, they brought in heavy equipment to clear the trees in the young woodlands, and they seeded the land with early concessional meadow species and native grasses.    


The result has been mixed in my opinion.  First, I have to admit that I don't know if the "target" birds have returned to the meadows.  If they have, they've "voted with their wings" and given the restoration their approval.  But, if the birds haven't returned, the project cannot automatically be dubbed a failure because (1) they birds may not have "found" the meadows yet, (2) the habitat may not have developed enough to interest the birds, or (3) the restored field really might not be suitable habitat.

This section of the meadows almost looks "western," with a big rock and conifers
Where the herbaceous vegetation has gotten established, the meadows are lush, productive and beautiful.  But Parks and Recreation seems (to me, anyway) to have left too many trees in the midst of the fields.  Hawks and other raptors perch in these trees and prey on the meadow-nesting birds.


In addition, the meadows are small and fragmented.  Some meadow-nesting birds seem to need 160 acres of grassland habitat to breed successfully, and these fields are nowhere near that large.  Other species, especially species that like brushy habitat, may be the first ones to recolonize the site.  To my eye, the habitat looks perfect for birds that like scrubby, brushy habitat.
Deer exclosure fencing
Parks and Recreation also included a deer exclosure as part of the project, but it is in a wooded corner of the meadows.  I don't know the motivation for excluding deer from a meadow project, but perhaps they were trying to expand a section of woodland and not develop meadow here.