Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Weeping for Kenya

Today, I weep not only for Kenya, but all of humanity.  A senseless attack has left 147 – maybe more – young adults dead, and the innocence of countless others shattered.  I interact with college age students every day, and sometimes even wonder if a school shooting could happen on our campus.  But who could envision the magnitude of the barbaric act carried out today at Garissa University.  As I watched my students in lab this afternoon, I wanted to weep for them.  They innocently carried out the experiment, oblivious to the fact that some of their peers half-way around the world are no longer able to fret about tests or grades.  Sadly, my students will soon leave campus to enter a world where hatred and intolerance lead people to slaughter bright young people, students who might just have been the ones to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.  But my students will get to graduate and celebrate with their families.  In Kenya, families will be burying their children.

My fascination with the continent of Africa began at an early age.  This made no sense for a relatively sheltered blonde Finnish kid from a region where the population was 99+% white and few people left their home county, much less dreamed of going to another continent.  But when I was in second grade, I declared to my mother that I was going to join the Peace Corps, go to Africa, and find a cure for cancer.  I didn’t join the Peace Corps; I did cancer research for awhile, but didn’t find a cure.  But I have had the good fortunate to travel to Africa three times.  My brother is really the lucky one. He lived in Ghana for a full year, toured much of Western Africa, and even got married in Timbuktu. 

I don’t know what triggered my early interest in Africa, but I think it might have been cheetahs. And I can still hum the music of Born Free. But the allure for me has become the stories of the continent and the people.  Oh to have the experiences of Elspeth Huxley as told in The Flame Trees of Thika, which is quite a different portrayal of life on the continent than that of Karen von Blixen-Finecke in Out of Africa. Many girls my age daydreamed about following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall.  But I am equally captivated by the tragic stories.  Oh how I cried watching Hotel Rwanda, Out of Africa, and Blood Diamond.  Or while reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness – about the truth and reconciliation trials – and Lisa Shannon’s A Thousand Sisters – about the atrocities women suffer in the Congo.  I have seen the quarry at Robben Island, and stood at the door of cell #4, prison B, peered down the Rift Valley, and explored the Great Pyramids.  Those are experiences that connect you to all of humanity in ways that are difficult to put into words.  Perhaps that is why I feel such loss, even though I did not know today’s victims.

I have friends from Kenya:  Ray Ray who is studying at the School of Forestry at Yale, Samwel, a Maasai I met through the U.N. climate meetings, and dear Christine – one of my students when I was a new faculty member.  I still remember her arriving in northeastern PA with no prior experience with cold and snow.  We have remained close for two decades.  Today, I weep with them, for them, for their homeland.

In one of my classes, I have students read Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. The author, Christian Parenti, argues that we are witnessing the first of the climate wars.  He overlays the impacts of climate change in regions that have a long history of conflict and the result is banditry, violence, and state failure.  The book begins with the question of “Who killed Ekaru Loruman?”  Ekaru was a pastoralist from northwestern Kenya brutally murdered as he tried to defend his few head of cattle.  Samwel has told me that cattle are not only a measure of wealth, but also of how much of a man one is. 
When you think of all the conflicts we have - whether those conflicts are local, whether they are regional or global - these conflicts are often over the management, the distribution of resources. If these resources are very valuable, if these resources are scarce, if these resources are degraded, there is going to be competition. Wangari Maathai
Does any of this explain the violence of the day?  Can there be any explanation?

I dislike the overuse of the term “hero”, but one woman from Kenya is a hero and inspiration to me – Wangari Maathai.  If you don’t know the story of this Nobel Peace Prize winner, you should.  I had the good fortune to get to know her a little in 2009; but cancer took her too soon after.  So many of her words seem relevant at this moment: 

I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.

All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.
If that last statement is true, how can we take the lives of others?  How can we harbor so much hatred and violence?  If Wangari was still with us, a woman whose life was transformed by the chance for a college education in the U.S., she too would be crying today.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A winter visit to the enchanted forest and magical greenhouses

On a whim yesterday, the first day of 2015, we decided to go to Longwood Gardens.  Spontaneity isn’t a typical characteristic of the Husic family, but after several days of catching up on movies and eating too much holiday bakery, getting out seemed like the thing to do on a day filled with brilliant blue skies and sunshine.  It had been over a decade since I had last visited this mecca for gardeners and horticulture enthusiasts.  And that trip was in midsummer – a scorching humid day in the 90’s.  I have always gone to admire the landscaping, the magnificent trees, and the wonderful tropical plants, especially the orchids.  But the history of this place also includes a real world Lorax, wood nymphs and perhaps a few garden fairies.

Liriodendron tulipifera - Tulip trees, often the tallest, straightest trees in the forests

The 1070+ acres that is now Longwood Gardens once belonged to William Penn (and Lenape Indians before that).  According to historical information that you find on the Longwood Gardens website and via Wikipedia, the land was purchased from Billy Penn in 1700 by a fellow Quaker, George Peirce, to serve as a working farm.  At the end of that century, twin brothers of the Peirce family began planting arboretum specimens to create Peirce’s Park.  This land has been open to the public since that time – a magnificent landscape within the charming Brandywine Valley that is filled with rich U.S. history, but also excessive urban sprawl.  Thus, the property is quite an oasis in the greater Philadelphia region.
By 1850, Peirce’s Park contained one of the finest collections of tree specimens in the country, many of which remain today.  What I didn’t know before yesterday is that Pierre S. du Pont purchased this property from the Peirce family in 1906 in order to save the trees from being cut and sold for lumber. The du Pont family is well known for its connection to the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (and sadly now, also the wretched story of one of the heirs being told in the currently playing film Foxcatcher).  But I had never realized this aspect of conservation in the Longwood Garden story.  I am grateful that this MIT-trained chemist (and former president of the du Pont Company and General Motors) was willing to speak for the trees.

Can you imagine the lost of this magnificent Sugar Maple?
Acer saccharum - This tree is so large, I didn't even recognize it as a maple!
I can’t even imagine how old this tree is; the lower limbs alone where the size of mature trees, but growing horizontally.  I don’t know how a trunk can support these.  And we can only wonder at all that this giant has witnessed through time. I know that my friend Julie Zickefoose would be smitten with this beauty of a specimen.

But alas, I diverge.  Follow me now through a bit of our visit yesterday.

One of the reasons gardeners like to visit a place like Longwood is to gather new ideas for their own gardens – real or imagined.  One example from yesterday is this new-to-me Golden-twig Dogwood.
Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' (the flav prefix means yellow)
Look at what this plant adds to a winter landscape:
These gardens at Longwood include tree houses and forest cathedrals.  I would love to have one of these for reading, bird watching, or simply escaping the busyness of life.

Can you imagine going to church in this sanctuary?
The view from this tree house is quite lovely, even in winter.
You aren’t truly alone in these tree houses, as they come with carved friends of the forest.  I wonder who thought to keep them warm with a scarf.
I wonder if you meet creatures like this if you go Into the Woods (a film I haven't yet seen)?
New since my last visit was the expansion of the gardens into the surrounding meadows filled with meandering paths and bridges.

As someone involved in native plant gardening and a restoration project that involves a grassland, these types of informal gardens that attract wildlife and serve all sorts of ecosystem functions are of great interest to me.  This meadow may look un-kept, but much thought and design and work went into this project.
I am thrilled with the conservation focus (perhaps in remembrance of why du Pont purchased this land in the first place) and important notes to the public on simple signage.

Julie Z.: if you read this, you must find out how to have your book featured and sold here.
Along the paths, there are areas to sit and reflect and perhaps paint.  I loved the corn-crib inspired sitting area dedicated to the birds.

Wouldn't you just love to have one of these at home?

There is another sitting area dedicated to pollinators.

Along one of the paths, you pass the old dairy farm:

...on the way to the restored Webb farmhouse.

One of my favorite things about Pennsylvania - old stone farmhouses!
Inside is an interesting gallery of information related to seasonal changes in nature, birds, and habitats.

We wound our way back along other meadow paths to the much more formal home of the du Pont family – with the dream conservatory connecting two parts of the home nicely decorated for the holidays. 
This amazing conservatory connects the original home to an addition.
I can only dream of having a greenhouse or sunroom like this!
There is something about old staircases and banisters that I love.
The lovely home is filled with historical information about not only the du Pont family, but also early botanists...

…including the Bartrams who also saved trees like the Franklinia.

If you don't know about the Bartram's, you should read up on their work.
I have never been to Bartram’s Gardens (about 30 miles east of Longwood), but am fascinated with the ways the father/son duo combined science, art, and horticulture.  I really must go sometime.

I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but a theme for this year’s holiday display at Longwood was birds; they show up in creative ways across the landscape and in the conservatories.  We saw a number of real species too, including White-crowned Sparrows and Carolina Chickadees which aren't commonly found on our farm. 
I like this holiday decoration!

Egg-laden wreath in the tree sanctuary
On a cold day and during the holidays, most people flock to the grand conservatory for the indoor gardens or floral sun parlors, the whimsical holiday displays, phenomenal plant specimens, and warmth.  I can’t imagine the cost of heating 20 indoor gardens within the 4.5 acres or 18,200 m2 of heated greenhouse space!

The crowds grew inside, but despite my tendency towards claustrophobia, it was worth it.
Fountains and poinsettias
Topiaries, giant palms, and Christmas trees!  
The last time I went to Longwood Gardens during the holidays was over two decades ago, but I still remember seeing more poinsettias than ever before – a breathtaking swash of red interspersed with deep tropical greens.  The look of the first main “room” this year was more subdued – a surreal winter scene, a study in white – filled with the heady scents of lilies and narcissus.
Here is where the enchantment comes in!

And of course, some birds

Paper whites
But the red poinsettias were there too....

…along with some that were the loveliest of shades of pink.  I only wish the pictures did these flowers justice.
Poinsettia with Kalanchoe

I didn’t take pictures of everything, nor can I share the entire experience, but will give some highlights below – beginning perhaps, with a most unexpected part of the conservatory:  the living walls in what is perhaps the most amazing restroom area anywhere!

The restroom corridor and living wall

A close-up of the wall
Behind the stainless doors
A water closet complete with skylight
and bird-themed holiday decorations
I love tropical plants.  One of my favorites is Heliconia (Bird of Paradise) – this one looking lovely against the burgundy colored foliage of another tropical beauty.

Bromeliads don’t typically come to mind when you say Christmas, but this one was decked out quite appropriately:

This one was not in Christmas hues, but incredibly striking nonetheless (again, the picture doesn't do the colors justice; they were almost neon).

One of my favorite garden rooms at Longwood is filled with orchids.  It was crowded yesterday, so I didn’t get too many pictures, but I dream of a room like this at home!  Not to mention the time and green thumb it would take to grow these plants like this.

Such a soft pleasant yellow
A wall of orchids!
More lovely shades of pink
A bearded wonder
A strange specimen
The birds were never far away:

Where did they get all those bird ornaments?

There was a peacock-themed formal dinner setting:
Doesn't your holiday table look like this?

If there are peacocks, then there must also be orchids

I love the color palette!
And decorative bird cages in hidden corners:
With poinsettias too!
Who would place penguins amongst cacti and succulents besides garden fairies?
There are even penguin ornaments on the tree - made from pine cones!
Was this a subliminal climate change message?  Or do the dancing nymphs, so favored by Pierre, return in the holiday season to do some decorating?  I have to wonder given the wreath made of spleenwort ferns (really?)...
Spleenwort and Kolanchoe wreath
... or one with succulents:
And there were many other whimsical garlands around the grounds.
Who has a tree house with such lovely holiday decorations?
Who else besides nymphs or fairies would create an entire Bonsai forest?

These are typically decades old
Or an incredible Bonsai Bald Cyprus?  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of this, but we saw  full size specimens outdoors – huge trees without their summer clothes, but with gnomes at their base.
Emerging from the various rooms was a final grand indoor display:

And then, it was time to head out to the light show in the outdoor gardens.  After this visual virtual tour of Longwood Gardens, if you don’t believe wood nymphs and garden fairies – living amongst the trees that Pierre du Pont saved – well then, I guess nothing can convince you.  Unless perhaps you visit this magical and enchanting place yourself.


 Happy 2015!