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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Winter ramblings on a soggy day (a.k.a a tale with many bends)

It is a rare moment when I don’t have an immediate deadline, and, on top of that, the house is quiet. Very quiet. One son is driving to Ohio; the other is in his room learning some programming language. Dave is out playing tunes. And, oh, is it dreary. Pouring rain with temperatures in the 30’s is not my favorite weather condition.

Earlier today, I was out grocery shopping to gather things for a New Year’s celebration at the neighbors. I decided to come home along a different route from my normal drive to and from work. The snow of early December is mostly gone, except for a few dirty piles where plows pushed it off the roads and into edges of parking lots. There is too much impervious surface in the Lehigh Valley. They paved paradise sang Joni. Here they paved over superb topsoil and historic farmland. I think of all the salt and grime that combines with this melting snow to run directly into the Monocacy Creek that meanders along the road. Especially on rainy days like this. Do the fish and macro invertebrates sense these spikes in saline concentrations? Or are they just trying to stay warm?

In spring, this creek receives the runoff from the few remaining farms just to the north. The Monocacy flows into Bethlehem, collecting storm water runoff and dust from cement companies along the way. In some places, the lime raises the pH of the water enough to make it appear turquoise in color. The creek passes through the historic district of the city and joins with the Lehigh River to flow past the skeleton of the Bethlehem Steel plant. Reportedly, the name "Monocacy" comes from the Shawnee name for the river, Monnockkesey, which translates to "river with many bends." 

The country’s first municipal pumping system – the Bethlehem Waterworks – was built along the Monocacy in the 1750’s. According to the National Park Service, the system served the growing city until 1832, but the area had supposedly become an automobile graveyard by the 1960’s. Who knew? This area, known as the Colonial Industrial Quarter, is fortunately now a National Historic Landmark; the stone pumphouse was restored in the 1970’s – long before I moved to the area. The original plans for the waterworks were preserved in the Moravian Archives, not the collection near the campus where I work, but rather in Germany. I wonder why they weren’t kept in Bethlehem.

This year, the dam was removed from the Monocacy in the historic district, with hopes of lessening the flooding that has plagued the area of late. Our students have documented the increase in frequency of the creek reaching flood stage over the past two decades, coinciding with increased sprawl and blacktop, and increased heavy rain events. (Put up a parking lot or at least another strip mall or distribution center.) Some, including one of my colleagues, hopes that this dam removal will help restore the shad fish run up the creek in spring.

Bethlehem Steel began as the Saucona Iron Works in 1857. Once the largest steel-producing plant in the U.S., it filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Some of the former industrial site is now a casino/resort/arts center. I don’t know what possessed someone to build such a complex on a designated Brownfield, but I presume they test the dust and the water for contaminants. Certainly, the little town of Bethlehem receives some nice tax benefits that they weren’t collecting on 1600 acres of vacant, polluted land. Render onto Caesar.

I have a friend who has dedicated her time and talents over the past several years to salvage the former estate of the first mayor of Bethlehem, who also happened to be an important executive at Bethlehem Steel. You can tell that the grounds and 1920’s mansion of Archibald Johnston’s place were once spectacular. His descendents left the 55 acre estate to Bethlehem Township in 2005, but the property has been sorely neglected. My friend has copies of the original garden plans. No native plants, but pretty nice, nonetheless. Her persistence just may save this piece of Bethlehem history.

For a region steeped in history (dating back to 1741) that possesses the 6th oldest college in the country and buildings where the Continental Congress once worked and that served as the hub for the launch of the Industrial Revolution in this country, you think that more of its residents would care about preservation and honoring the past.

In historic Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

As I drove home, I notice that some of the yards are greening up from the warming spell we have had. I pass fields of unclaimed pumpkins that have been through many freeze-thaw cycles by now. Squishy fields, squishy pulp and flesh. Soon to be frozen again, given the looming forecast. While I don’t miss the bitter cold, long winters of upper Michigan, I do miss the seemingly ever-fresh snow cover, the evergreens and birch bark, and glittering ice on the Big Lake. Here, the winter palette is rather drab – sullied browns and grays.

While out shopping, I rescued a fine specimen of a Red Aglaonema to brighten up my office for the winter. (I am not sure why they call it spring semester.) I dropped it off as I had to stop by campus to check on the greenhouse. New windows in our science building means I don’t have to worry about plants getting too cold as they sometimes used to, but they still need to be watered. The large rambling "Wandering Jew" (Tradescantia Pallida Purpurea) plant that is climbing up a palm was in bloom. (I have no idea why the plant has the common name that it does.) These tiny purple flowers didn't have any scent, but really stood out visually on this lackluster day. No other souls were around (duh, it is semester break), so I was able to enjoy these tiny treasures in wonderful solitude.

I am feeling a bit guilty. Part of my shopping run today included a stop at a box store (yes, the type that adds even more paved surfaces) to purchase some incandescent bulbs before they are no longer produced as of the end of the year. Ms. Sustainability/Ms. Climate Change activist must confess that while I appreciate the energy savings of CFLs, I do not like the fluorescent rays  that they emit.  They are not as bad as mercury-vapor lamps, which actually make me nauseous, but still, I am not fond of fluorescent lights. I have allowed Dave to install CFLs and LED’s throughout the old farmhouse, but have balked at putting them into the fixture over the sink in one of the bathrooms. My indulgence, I guess. So I “had” to stock up on 40 watters, enough for a few years, anyway, just for this room. Does the fact that I drive a Subaru with 209,000 miles make up for this in anyway?

Well, in rereading this, I smile, as this quiet writing time was supposed to result in a belated holiday greeting letter. Perhaps I was feeling a bit too melancholy for that. This will be the first New Year's Eve without Corey. Not that we ever do anything particularly exciting to mark the passing of one year or to welcome in the new one, but when he is not here, I deeply sense the void. I realized that about ½ hour after he went off to college in August. This has been a year of many “firsts” – some wonderful, some bringing the realization that Dave and I are entering a new phase, a new bend in our river of life. Guess I will have to write that piece a little later.

On a sunnier day before the snow melted
Home sweet home

No comments:

Post a Comment