Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Place in Pittsburgh

Our local NPR station, WDUQ has been running the following announcement on the air for some weeks now:
My Place in Pittsburgh
What's your favorite spot in the Pittsburgh region-- is there a bridge or a playground with special significance? Perhaps it's as grand as a beathtaking view or as simple as a specific park bench. Tell us where it is and why at You might become part of "My Place in Pittsburgh", a new on-air and website project debuting later this year.

I've been thinking about it since it first aired, and, though I determined my answer to the question some weeks ago, it was not until today that I responded.

Dear friends at DUQ:

My place in Pittsburgh is the restoration of the Nine Mile Run Watershed.

I am a native Pittsburgher, born at Magee Womens Hospital. The first place I went outside the walls of that hospital (so I have been told) was the playground at the corner of Forbes and S. Braddock. As a kid, I ran around in the valley, and collected fireflies in the field off of Kensington Street. Frick Park is as much home to me as the house in which I live. It is my place of solace and rejuvenation.

The restoration of the watershed ecosystem in lower Frick fills me with such profound love and joy, there are barely words for it. I am nearly embarrassed by my attempts to describe what this place means to me because it is too close to the bone--I fear my earnestness will be seen as trite sentimentality.

Like many from this region, I recognize that we've got a number of serious problems ranging from the economic to the environmental. With a dramatic loss of population in a mere generation, crumbling infrastructure, segregated neighborhoods, struggling schools, and a deflated economy--to envision yet another Pittsburgh renaissance seems to be a foolish flight of fancy. Yet still we rise--retooling what we have and encouraging new growth.

To walk in Lower Frick now and see the willows along the stream towering above your head, as you hear woodpeckers in the distance, watch hawks soaring above, and see butterflies dancing among the swaying Joe Pye Weed, you'd scarcely believe that the meadow you are admiring was once a sewage-covered playing field. As dragonflies buzz past, and frogs leap into the water, you may forget that, not long ago, this water was too polluted for anything to live in it. A small group of concerned citizens helped bring about a $7.7 million restoration project that turned a blighted, polluted space into a beautiful public space that supports both the wildlife that live there, and the spirits of the humans who visit. A small group of committed citizens continues to look after this crown jewel of the City park system, reaching out to the residents of neighboring communities to connect them to this beautiful space and teach them to become good citizens of the watershed. We needed big machines to move the boulders into place and create new banks for the streams, but now we need thousands of hands to pick up trash, recycle, install rain barrels; thousands of voices to talk to neighbors and friends and teach them how their small actions impact this big picture.

The restoration area is a metaphor for what is happening, and what can happen, for our City. Sure, we have problems. But if we roll up our sleeves, pool our efforts, and maybe call in some heavy equipment, the problems need not be insurmountable. We have problems, but Pittsburgh also has much inherent beauty and deep reserves of natural (including human) resources. If we so choose, through hard work and compassionate stewardship, we, like the watershed, can rise again. In the words of Wendell Berry--"this is no paradisal dream, its hardship is its possibility."


Park Place

For beautiful before and after pictures, go here under "Restoration Complete."

Do not take lightly small good deeds, believing that they can hardly help. For drops of water, one by one, in time can fill a giant pot. ~ Patrul Rinpoche

The restoration of Frick Park served many purposes, and was a very practical thing to do in many respects. On another level, however, it was a pure act of love.

Why does this little watershed matter? Why does it matter whether I kill the fly buzzing around my house and annoying me? Why does it matter if the Wildlife Center saves one small turtle, mangled by a careless person mowing the lawn?

There is a bigger answer to these questions, but the simple one is that we are all interconnected. As we wish to be safe and free from harm, let us give that to the world--it will indubitably come back to us. Maybe not in the form you expect or on your schedule, but it will come. Every kindness creates more kindness--in virtue of its being done, the world is more blessed. It is easy to be overcome by cynicism. It is easy to see all of the horrors of this world and be horrified, perhaps even to the point of turning your heart to stone.

Alternatively, we can allow each horrifying act we witness to tear our hearts open, making room to hold yet more of the world with compassion.

In the face of those who harm animals, in the face of the trauma of wars destroying countless lives, in the face of genocide, starvation, corruption, and abject poverty--we can close down, curl inward, etiolate, and die.

Or we can roll up our sleeves, and get to work moving the boulders and shoving the willow branches into the newly formed banks of the stream so that generations from now, children will never know that this place was not always paradise.

1 comment:

  1. Your piece is eerily similar to a photo essay I published on line last year here:

    We seem to have a lot of common thoughts!


Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.