Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Weed by any Other Name...

I got my very own book in the mail yesterday!

It isn't yet in the bookstores, but you can order directly from Beacon. Just in time to cancel your lawn service! Or to feel virtuous as you watch the spring's crop of weeds emerge in your garden and lawn. (Though I have to confess, I've already been pulling a few from my flower beds, while I've been sowing clover seed in other places.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

So near, and yet...

This weekend, Emily and I took a trip down to Lexington to visit my parents. Unfortunately, the occasion was Dad, in the hospital, with a new episode in a mysterious series of foot infections which have taken away our favorite activity together: walking.

He continues to get better at what I view as an impressively rapid pace for a 73 year old man. We had a good visit, with lots of hugs, lots of talking, and lots of just being together, knowing that sometimes just being together is the hugest gift we can ask for.

Sunday, Emily and I walked together to the hospital, through the U.K. Arboretum which my parents have supported from its first imaginings. It was a lovely walk past the fallen bur oak, along woodland trail, filled with invasive vines and honeysuckle but also with early spring wildflowers. I allowed Emily, who had earlier carried a vase of home-grown daffodils to Dad, to pick a spring beauty from a yard en route to take to him. In the background of this photo, you can see the building, the hulk of brick which is the hospital.

A few moments later, Dad, formerly president of the neighborhood association, who fought the expansion of this hospital tirelessly, who helped make them plant trees and prevented the loss of several houses, was helped by the physical therapists to walk out of his room, slowly, carefully, perhaps painfully, to the end of the hall. From the window, he peeked around the parking garage and saw the corner of the Arboretum. He knew where he was, then, even when he returned down the fluorescent-lit halls to his mechanical bed. He was *almost* at the Arboretum.

These are hard won battles, then and now, both fighting the hospital's cancerous growth into our neighborhood and fighting his own battle with his own feet, his own immune system. And somehow, despite the fact that neither battle was completely won, I admire him all the more, just for continuing anyway, for each step ahead down that hall, for each tree he could see from his hospital window, for each day we get with him. I'm sure at one time he would have foresworn ever setting foot in that hospital, and yet, in the battle, he made it a better place to be. I hope when I am old and infirm, I can say the same.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watching, like, a hawk

Today, while walking around the track at the girls' school, waiting for them to get out and walk home with me, I noticed a red tailed hawk, peering down from the football goalpost. It flew away before I could get a good photo myself, but I still felt graced, somehow, just being near this fierce bird. And hopeful - after all the insults we threw at this bird (guns and DDT primary among them), given the slightest chance, it came back.
Not everyone, or every animal, can take advantage of second chances. Today's National Geographic announced that the fungus which may be responsible for extinction of many frogs is becoming better understood, and offering a twinge of hope; but still, I will never see a live model of the golden toad from Monteverde, which my cousin Brigid has a photo of from the year of my birth.
My wish today is for people to soak up some of the fierceness, focus, and resiliency of this gorgeous bird, and put all of that energy into giving as many second chances as we can. That way, the hawk can stay focussed on catching the mice I scare out of the grass in the school's field.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Property boundaries

Having grown up with, and always lived in, a neighborhood with sidewalks, I could hardly imagine when I moved here what the consequences would be of living in a neighborhood without them. Even on our dead-end street, however, walking seems more hazardous than it should. This affects local culture more than I'd like it to: I can probably count the number of walkers from the girls' (700 student) elementary school with my hands and no more than one foot's worth of toes. We live closer to the elementary school than I did when growing up, and yet we rarely walk there either morning or afternoon.

On Monday afternoons, I pick the girls up straight from school (other days they go to their wonderful afterschool program), and they are walkers on those days. Walking actually brings them home sooner than the bus. But the crossing guard is a grouchy woman who seems not to want children to walk, and so we have taken to avoiding her. Rather than go along the roadside, Emily and Hazel walk through the school athletic fields and then cut through between two yards.

It is a nice little walk. But it breaks one of the cardinal rules of my own suburban childhood: don't go in other people's yards without invitation.

In principle, we have permission. Once, early in our time here, I did knock on the door and ask the neighbors if it was OK, but I can't remember their names and I still feel like I need to be super-careful to preserve the privilege. I probably shouldn't feel guilty at all, because our own yard has the semi-official neighborhood trail leading to the pool from all streets uphill. Ours features a concrete paver pathway (pavers donated by our next door neighbor) with mulch I spread for our own benefit and to suggest a welcome to pedestrians. Occasionally we worry about security - our hammock and tire swing were cut down late in October, 2 years ago. But mostly, I'm really glad to encourage walking, and to be a friendly face to neighborhood teenagers who pass through in groups and greet me politely if I'm out in the yard.
These unofficial, common law pathways seem to follow one rule: they occur on the boundaries between properties. Property boundaries are interesting to me, because weeds of all sorts are often tolerated in them, because they seem to be our only neighborhood paths, and because, unfortunately, they seem to attract trash. If you look in the multiflora rose (officially illegal in our township) on the left-hand yard in the photo, you can see a sun-bleached cardboard beer case. The empty bottles are resting inside. This particular spot is actually a meeting of three property boundaries: two homeowners, plus the elementary school.
The weeds, of course, hardly bother me, though multiflora rose is the worst of them, both because it is invasive but also because its spiny shoots grow over trash and makes cleanup painful. Other weeds, though, are the plants children can play with, without bothering anyone's garden, the forts children can hide in and the trees which might one day become climbable. I'm also grateful that property boundaries offer rights-of-way, making walkable routes in a suburban landscape with no official sanction of foot traffic (even the crossing guard seems more a deterrent than a sanction).
But the trash is a problem I can't figure out how to fix. In a state with deplorably low landfill tipping fees, you would think proper trash disposal would be accessible to all. But a drunk teenager typically doesn't just bring home the bottles and expect praise from her parents for recycling, and the ubiquitous disposable packaging which carries our food hardly seems worth the chase when it blows away from our hands or the garbage can. Pennsylvania's wild spaces are thick with trash, far more than the Arboretum woodland near my childhood home in Lexington, Ky. and far more than any of the parks we frequented in upstate NY. Pennsylvania's wild spaces are filled with trash of a volume almost like I used to see off roadsides in 1970's and 1980's rural Kentucky, where signs which said "NO DUMPING" were almost always the backdrop to an unofficial garbage dump.
But at least we can walk there. And if I just remembered to carry rose-nipping clippers and a garbage bag with me more often, I could maybe make at least one or two of these paths look a bit better, like a place I'd want to go walking with my children.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Zoos for children

This weekend, I helped Emily get even with her sister, who last year had gone with me to Washington D.C. Both girls accompanied me on a trip, ostensibly to take a pair of students to Powershift, but also to visit a college friend and get a sampling of the city of museums and monuments. Our first stop was the National Zoo. Is it irony that our National Zoo's most exciting feature is a collection of animals from China? Or is it simply a reflection of what parents know, that everything our children love here in the U.S. comes with a "Made in China" label on it?
I've always had mixed feelings about zoos. As a horse lover from early childhood, I recognized the frenetic pacing behavior of zoo animals as a sign of boredom and small space - though the cheetah pacing next to the zebra pen at the National Zoo on Saturday may have had other motivations. And yet, I would have to spend weeks and countless pounds of carbon to see meerkats, zebras, Prezwalski's horse, lion tamarins, red and Giant pandas in their native environments. I don't like the concept of wild animals caged, but I still love seeing the animals.
In the last several years, zoos have done a much better job of linking animals to children in an empathetic way. At Chicago's Lincoln Park zoo, a log crosses the glass between apes and children, and primate cousins play, seemingly together, on the same tree. Here in Pittsburgh, tunnels under the meerkat exhibit allow children to crawl underground and pop up in the center of the meerkat community, to the seeming mutual entertainment of both species. At the National Zoo, bamboo-lined spaces and fences delimit the boundaries of children and pandas, for the safety and entertainment of both. (Also in D.C., the meerkats delighted Emily by appearing to try to climb up her jacket from the other side of their glass - as a National Geographic editor once noted, "You can't have too many meerkats.")
Such entangled mutual restrictions between animals and children go beyond zoos, though. What is the difference between wilderness and zoo? Is it the size of the field or the pavement on the sidewalk? The narrow path from our backyard to the community center is just as bare, just as compacted, as the dusty ground the cheetah paced just beyond the wary zebras. My daughters' home range in Pittsburgh, while large by the scale of D.C. children is still far less than the miles open to children of previous generations. My daughters' outdoor cage, much as I try to expand it with trips and hikes, is almost certainly still too small.