Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Reflections from recent trips across Southeastern Pennsylvania:

Communities are increasingly forced to deal with the long-term impacts of industrialization, where the veneer of economic prosperity ultimately gives away to reveal damaged communities and impaired ecological processes. We visited two sites that are deploying strategies to deal with such post-industrial conditions. One location was Palmerton, Pennsylvania; a Superfund town nestled in the bucolic backdrop of the Kitatinny Mountains. The other was Philadelphia’s Mill Creek, which is currently encapsulated within enormous sewer pipes underneath the city. The sustainable practices at Palmerton and Mill Creek provide some insight on how to design strategies that restore the ecological functions of highly impaired environments.

Palmerton Superfund Site

In 1898, Palmerton was founded as a factory town, nestled between two ridgelines, to conduct zinc smeltering during the height of industrialization in the United States. After decades of constant smeltering, the forest ecosystem collapsed, affecting an expanse of nearly 2,000 acres. Due to deposition of zinc, lead and cadmium from the furnaces, microorganisms in the soil substrate were killed off, and an integral component of the forest lifecycle ended. Without decomposers, nutrients in the soil were eliminated, leading a domino effect that decimated the forest. To date, it is the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River.

On site, I was struck by the eerie landscape of windswept, bleached trees amongst barren grounds of dry dirt. Abandoned, rusted factory facitilies stood like sentinels to remind residents and visitors of a foregone era. Amazingly, some plant and wildlife species are returning to the environment; numerous sprouts of sassafras and sourgum were seen emerging from gnarled trunks.

Due to the immensity of the contaminated area, removing the toxic substrate was out of the question. We learned about two strategies to rebuild the soil nutrients, with the goal of creating a capping layer of substrate above the contaminated soils. The first attempt to “green” the decimated slopes entailed terracing the mountain to establish over 60 miles of roadways. These costly roads provided access for trucks to spray “ecoloam” along the slopes. Ecoloam was an engineered growing medium composed of sludge and schlag material from city waste. From afar, this method successfully “greened” the mountainside. However, some critics of this method blame the pervasive amount of invasive species on the applied slopes, due to the unpredictability of the seed composition of the ecoloam mixture. Additionally, trees could not establish beyond the depth of the ecoloam because the roots would hit the contaminated substrate beneath.

The land now belongs to telecommunications monolith known as Viacom, as a side acquisition through various transactions. To its credit, Viacom is funding the implementation of the second strategy, which relies on the hardiness of warm season native grass species to restore and stabilize the mountain slopes. Based on a serpentine barren-type ecology, this strategy aims to mimic the type of succession that had occurred in the site’s geological glaciation context. To establish the grasses, a growing medium composed of limestone, commercial fertilizer, grass seeds and compost was sprayed from the air, or hand-dropped along the slopes. This method appears to be less disruptive of the mountain slope because roads are not necessary, and the warm season grasses seem to be growing quite successfully.

In addition to the warm-season grasses, the predominant plant species we observed included the gray birch, sassafras, poplar, aspen and chestnut oak trees. Furthermore, some rare plant species were thriving quite well in these extreme conditions, such as wild bleeding heart and sandwort. Despite the calculated efforts to establish native plants, invasive species continue to pose a threat to the restoration efforts. As such, the staff work hard to eradicate the butterfly bush and ailanthus tree that they find along the slopes.

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Today was certainly a highlight of the weekend for me! At 9:00am, we arrived at the Columbia HQ to take park of a large faith-based mobilization hosted by Obama’s campaign. As an organizer, I remember how important, yet challenging and nuanced, organizing the churches can be. And as a buddhist practicioner, there was only so much I felt like I could accomplish, outside of building relationships with congregations that were open to inter-faith alliances. Obama’s “Call to Chapel” was exciting to me because 1) my partner is Christian and has helped me better understand the Christian faith, and 2) the mobilization was about simply meeting people where they were, rather than aggressive campaigning.

At the headquarters, I was happy to see a large crowd gathering and a charter bus pulling into the parking lot. Outside of some logistical delays, everyone that showed up was assigned a church to attend. My partner and I chose to go to Antioch A.M.E Church in Eastover which was located about 40 minutes outside of Columbia. During the drive, I saw how this part of South Carolina was truly rural, without much infrastructure between population centers.


I had no idea what to expect when we arrived at Antioch A.M.E. This was the kind of church that had a grave next to the building, with an address named after itself. How well would they receive us? Would they let us read Senator Obama’s letter? Did I look okay? All went well — Reverend Benton and his congregation welcomed us with open arms, and this Sunday happened to be dedicated to the youth members of the church, so we were lucky to have one of the children read Obama’s letter.

As an observer, I think that the “Call to Chapel” action was successful. Over the weekend, I had overheard many people who had qualms about taking part in this action, or who thought it was not for them. But I don’t think one needs to be Christian to take part in something like this. What better way to earn trust and build bridges than to go to the place that is the foundation of so many people?

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(Please excuse the shakiness of the video I took off my digital camera video function. I was really excited!)

A couple of hours later, we left Florence and drove 1.5 hours south to Columbia, where the state headquarters were located. There was a very different vibe here — there were a lot more people and a lot of them were from out of town. I overheard a conversation about a Danish couple and someone from Peru, who travelled here to help out because they believed that Obama would be a better ambassador of the U.S. to the world. It’s true, I’m finding that Obama really draws in people from a broad cross section of the country. People from all walks of life are entering the doors to offer their time, energy, money, cars, sofas, cell phones, and smiles for the campaign.

We made ourselves useful and made more phone calls, crunched canvassing numbers, and then called it a night at 3am.

I’m very excited about going to church tomorrow morning — it’s part of a church mobilization called “Call to Chapel” where Obama supporters are invited to attend church with South Carolinians, truly meeting folks where they are. I’m particularly interested at how the intersection and expression of activism and spirituality. This event has great potential, and I’m excited about seeing how the Obama campaign pulls it off.

Obama logoToday was the first day of our great South Carolina Democratic Primary Elections adventure. Our first stop was at rainy Florence, South Carolina after a tasty meal at Waffle House (one of my favorite southern establishments). In Florence, we headed to the regional headquarters and stepped into a hub of activity and excitement. Most volunteers at this location were young African Americans, and I soon found out that many of them came from Howard University and Hampton. Folks were friendly, and everyone was eager to help out. I immediately received a list of phone numbers to call and happily agreed to use my own cell phone to make these calls.

For MLK Weekend, my partner and I took a road trip down to South Carolina to volunteer for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. It’s been a minute since I’ve thought about electoral politics and even the prospect of electoral organizing. To say the least, I had become a bit disillusioned with the process. But we had some prospects of doing some interesting work since one of our college friends is the deputy field director in South Carolina. The 8-hour drive seemed worth it to me and I’ve never been excited about a presidential candidate before.

For a long time, I didn’t put my hat in for any candidate. Then a friend handed me Obama’s book “Dreams from my Father” to read and I was instantly hooked. I realized I knew little of Obama at that point, and was pleasantly surprised to read that he worked as a community organizer in south Chicago.

I’m going to try my best to do some live blogging while I’m here at the Obama Headquarters in Columbia, SC. Keep checking for more updates.

Some links about Obama’s campaign that are of interest to me:

This semester, one component of our core requirements involves weekly ecology field trips around the Philadelphia region.  When we left the city to head to the Ringing Rocks County Park, I was anticipating our visit to be merely a casual observation of some rock formations. I didn’t expect that this trip would involve an extremely sensory and awe-inspiring experience.

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When I was in middle school, my parents purchased a time share condo on Hilton Head Island off the coast of South Carolina. While my parents have taken this trip each year, it’s been many years since our entire family has gone to Hilton Head. This summer was unique because my brothers and I coordinated our schedules to accompany our parents on their annual vacation spot.

As far as vacation spots go, Hilton Head remains pretty white. The last time I came here, about three years ago, I became pretty claustrophobic without seeing another Asian family or person of color, who wasn’t hired help, or doing lawn maintenance work. This year I learned about the Gullah community and their struggle for self-determination and preservation of culture, an integral piece of African American history that was (obviously) not taught in the Georgia public school I attended. Unfortunately I couldn’t garner any interest from my family to attend the Gullah tour with me, so I perused the internet for more information about the history of Gullah people. I was happy to find several websites citing local efforts of the Sea Island region to coordinate the documentation of Gullah history and ongoing traditions. In contrast to the pervasive multi-million dollar homes and golf courses I pass by, I found this reference to a United Nations speech quite refreshing (and sobering):

Hilton Head Island is the epitome of development run amok…[it]is a prime example of native islander displacement and erosion of Gullah culture…When people come to Hilton Head they golf, they play tennis. They don’t know the Gullah people exist. If the other islands end up like Hilton Head, no one would know the Gullah culture existed.

I can see how disappointing it is to lose this island to overdevelopment. During my stay, I was surprised to find myself in awe with the scenic beauty of the island. The landscape appears very simple — spanish moss draping over tree branches, wetlands hugging the island, dolphins swimming close to the shore. And while the beaches aren’t anything like the luxurious white-sand beaches of Miami, there is a peace and calm that comes from the water and land.

Here are some scenes I took from this year’s NYC Pride. It was a beautiful thing to see so many family taking over the streets!

Still staying in tune on the Michigan front:

This week the Detroit Free Press published a pretty good article about local activists in Michigan who are speaking out about global warming through workshops and presentations for community organizations, neighborhood block clubs and church groups. The individuals highlighted (including my friend and former employer) are part of a cadre of volunteers trained by Al Gore and The Climate Project and who are now raising awareness about climate change in their local communities. The Climate Project website is very interactive and includes a calendar of events for you to see what local activities are taking place in your state.

The presenters’ tasks are to be available to talk about climate change and make the technicalities behind global warming more accessible to non-scientists (i.e. regular folk). So if you want to do something tangible about combatting climate change, get in touch and tap into this resource to bring them out to your own community organization.

Top of the Rock

Last night I went to the Top of the Rock to see New York City’s skyline. The view was fantastic. It was raining, so I couldn’t get a good shot of the city, but here’s a photo from Gothamist.