Sunday, March 21, 2010

Place entry #6, week of 3/15-3/21

Wednesday, March 17
5:30 p.m.

The Duck and I

I sit on the east bank of the pond, the soft ground is spongy beneath me, still damp from recently melted snow. The sun shines. A gentle breeze blows. The air is balmy, carrying the scent of new grass. I am now surrounded by green! Green for the Irish and green for new life and growth. A young, dark skinned dark haired girl carrying a baby and looking after two small boys strolls by on the other side. The pond is re-born. Free, flowing, liquified - reflecting the green from its grassy banks, reflecting patches of pastel blue from the sky, reflecting the trunk of the long, slender pine directly opposite me.

The orange fish are gathered at the north end, their heads pointed toward each other. Now gentle ripples flow from  one end to the other from the pump. Water is alive. Fluid. Reflecting. Rippling. One fish just surfaced. Then another, emitting a concentrated concentric circles that lasts only seconds.

The pond's shape has expanded and changed again. No longer a lollipop,  it is now oval at the north end, uneven on the west end. It's difficult to compare it to another shape because it doesn't look like anything else, except perhaps a very skinny, compressed state of Wisconsin.

Buds are just beginning to form on the small shrubs next to me. They are beautiful tiny cones of green half in, half out of the brown shell. They look within mere hours of bursting forth as tiny leaves.

A duck (Mallard?) appears from nowhere just to my right. It has just plopped into the water from one of the small stone outcroppings. Its head is emerald green,  its feet orange and feathers white and brown.  (I hope I don't scare it away.) It paddles around the pond, sporadically plunging its head into the water near the eastern shore - about three yards away from me, as if doing the butterfly stroke. Is it eating or bathing?  Its downy white bottom wiggles. Its bill is yellow. 

I look up from my page and duck has emerged from the water, waddled up the bank, fully bathed, its feathers gleaming in the sun, and proceeds to groom. A mourning dove coohs. A robin descends from the tree behind me and gives me a glance. It hops to the very edge of the pond and washes its gray feathers. I am now suddenly aware of several other chirping birds.

The fish are now in a tighter cluster crammed against the north edge. Duck continues to stand, drying off, gives me a curt nod, then  monitors walkers on the pathway behind me. It is motionless. It doesn't seem bothered at all by the commotion on the patio of Lindsay Hall. Duck returns its gaze to me and we commune as I sit on my own haunches. Perhaps the ducks are used to people. Perhaps waiting for me to toss a few bread crumbs its way.

Sadly, I had to adjourn the meeting before Duck did.  The sun just dipped behind a row of buildings, casting a shadow across the water, erasing all reflections. It is five minutes past six and other duties call.

Blog prompt #6, journal entry for 3/15-3/21

Transformation that stretches beyond borders

When I had reoccurring dreams about a city of bridges, my mind was focused on San Francisco, not Pittsburgh. When I fantasized about having a garage for my car, and never again scraping an ice-coated windshield, my mind was focused on on either California or Florida, not Pittsburgh. When I entertained notions of freelancing or at least improving my writing, my mind was not on Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh chose me.

I grew up with traffic roaring down the hill on which our house perched. We were 10 minutes from the international airport and the Army National Guard, so the jet engines seemed like drums in concert with the birdsong from the woods bordering the backyard. Yet it was not living in the city.

Iowa is highly regarded for its warmth and hospitality, strong family values and simplicity. The entire state has two highways, one running north and south and the other running east and west, making it very easy to navigate from one end to the other. But none of those appealing characteristics would be conducive to the molding and shaping necessary for me. I'm a very complicated case.

There are no highways in Manhattan, Kansas. Downtown main street is empty and dark after 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The buildings are no more than four stories high. The primary environmental concern is the ongoing effort to preserve and maintain the prairie, part of the Flint Hills, but I never felt any connection to it. What I did feel was the desire to expose myself to something different, something beyond the borders of Kansas.

Pittsburgh chose me.

Moving to Pittsburgh has been like Alice tumbling down the hole into Wonderland - an alternate reality. I expected to adore public readings, live for the theater, symphony and thrive in the company of other aspiring writers. None of that happened. Instead, I had to endure moments of why didn't I just stay in Kansas and to accept that I am novice in the midst of so many other better, more prolific writers.

Maneuvering and losing my way around the three freeways enveloping Kansas City was the only exercise that came close to preparing me for navigating through the labyrinth of Pittsburgh's freeways. At night, the city is alive with light. The bridges shimmer over the black waters. The foothills sparkle. When I look out the plane window at night, during the final descent, the sea of lights rolls on infinitely.

Even after seven months, I still find myself somewhat hypnotized when gazing up at the towering buildings downtown while claustrophobia threatens to disarm me. Sound waves bounce off pillars of steel and glass. Brakes screech. Sirens scream. Buses roar. My heart pounds. This is what you signed up for the determined part of me reminds myself. Where would you rather be the dreamer part of me asks myself.

I am an ant within this landscape -- almost invisible and displaced, yet Pittsburgh has been guiding me along a path of self-discovery. I've always thought of myself as a city girl, which is one reason why I expected for find happiness here rather than a Midwestern small town. I'm learning, however, that the most significant transformation in me is rooted in an exchange between the natural and spiritual worlds, not from dodging traffic, not from sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, and not squinting through the blur of neon lights.

Pittsburgh chose me.

Pittsburgh has pushed me to seriously question myself as a writer. And if I'm honestly not a writer, then who or what am I? Pittsburgh has trimmed wordiness from my writing. Pittsburgh has pulled me from indifference to the natural world to thinking daily about it. Pittsburgh has stretched my patience and coping skills in an unfamiliar environment. Pittsburgh has re-potted me to grow with other seedlings. Pittsburgh has only just begun getting its hands dirty with me.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blog prompt #5 (week 3/1-3/7)

You use it several times a day and almost never give any thought to it. You use to brush your teeth, make coffee, or take pills. You just want to wash that apple, or those grapes, and start dinner. When you turn on the faucet, water magically pours from the spout, splashes against the sink basin and then obediently disappears down the drain. At your demand. Hot, warm or cold.

You're not thinking about the ugly, stinky, unnatural chemicals that have been extracted from and dissolved into your city river in the process of becoming "purified." You're not thinking about the complex network of underground city pipes through which your water is pumped just to pour  from your faucet. Are they old? Are they new? Are they corroded? As long as the water isn't putrid brown or has no unpleasant odor, you assume that any harmful bacteria or toxin has been effectively removed.

Pollution from acid mine drainage was contaminating Pittsburgh's drinking water during an earlier part of the 20th century. A lengthy report from The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology was published in 2003. In it, a study called "Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and its Region" outlined all the efforts taken to restore and maintain the Allegheny, the source of 95 percent of the city's drinking water.

If you type in "tap water" or "water pollution" and "Pittsburgh," as key words in Google, several Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles, dating from 2007 to now will spring up and start talking. Concern is seeping into public consciousness. Justified or not?

In one of those articles, an important sounding scientist has discovered that some fish from the Allegheny are not sexually differentiated. A closer investigation of the water revealed trace amounts of drugs, including estrogen and anti-depressants. Not to worry, a public official was quoted. Low doses of these drugs aren't harmful, at least not on a short term basis.  Further analysis revealed residue from cosmetics and cleaning products dumped down drains. The implication is that these contaminants, all of which individuals can control at their own sinks, could be what is harming the fish.

Are genderless fish reason enough to render concern over Pittsburgh tap water? Indeed. But even more troublesome is that these local authorities claim that the Environmental Protection Agency has not required any further testing or set guidelines. Until the federal government issues the authority to take action, local authorities seem content to sit on their thumbs and ignore the potential problem.

The taste is another reason for concern. At room temperature, tap water feels gritty in my mouth, has a slight chlorine odor and leaves an awful aftertaste. Bottled water a smoother texture, is odorless and tasteless.

Even if concerns over the tap water are valid, relying exclusively on bottled or distilled water isn't necessarily a short term or long term solution either because recycling the plastic becomes an issue.

It's difficult to know who to trust when environmental issues are at stake because no one wants to take the blame should anything be seriously wrong and politics and cash flow undermine and motivate almost every major decision. Unfortunately, this leaves the responsibility of researching the issues to individual citizens, which isn't fair because unclean drinking water affects everyone.

Place entry #5 (week of 3/1-3/7)

Tuesday, March 2
4:45 p.m.

Temperatures feel milder today than they have been in weeks. There seems to be less wind. I am seated in the same wooden lawn chair, facing west. Branches from the large Maple tree criss-cross an otherwise blank white sky.

The pond is shaped like an old-fashioned keyhole. I didn't realize that until now. Melted water flows at the rounded south end where the pump is pushing water forcefully enough to create concentric circles. Grey and brown leaves are visible again in the daylight. The long "handle" is still ice-encased.

Small bushes dot the south shore line. As I scribble, tiny drops of sleet begin to fall, blurring the ink from my blue pen. A gust of wind changes the angles of the three water spigots and thus the sound of splashing water. Sometimes it pounds on the rubber pump. Other times it gently pads.

The snow surrounding the pond is stiff, but when it gives way, my feet sink what feels like several inches into the deep. Snow matches sky. Bleak and colorless. Today, only one set of footprints marches back and forth from the chair to the basement entrance of Mellon Hall.

Chimes ring off to my right, from the chapel, marking the five o'clock hour. Chatham shuttle buses rumble back and forth along the drive by the north side. Birds and small animals are hiding. Fifth Avenue begins to hum as rush hour traffic begins. Nicely muted, however, this far inland. Just then, a crow startles me and flies away just as quickly. No human voices. Students haul backpacks and book bags, walking purposefully to and from the path above the pond level.

Sleet comes faster and harder now. Writing gradually becomes almost impossible
as my naked right hand goes numb.

Saturday, March 6
4 p.m.

It is absolutely beautiful with the sun out in its full armor. There's a slight breeze but the air is significantly warmer since my last visit. Sunlight glints off the water's surface and blinds me. I simply close my eyes and smile. When I open them, I see bright orange fish. They hover at the boundary between melting ice and water. I look up at the azure sky and delight in the "trio" of color from snow to sky to fish.

Small boulders and stones surrounding the east side now poke through the melting snow. The snow's texture remains crusty and stiff. Boots are still necessary to trudge near the shore. I suppose it would be absurd to expect this area to be shoveled and salted. Why would anyone care to stroll around or sit by a half frozen pond in late winter?

Ten fish -- maybe more -- reappear and swim toward the circle.

Beads of moisture from the overhanging Maple branches also drip into the pond. Sky reigns blue. Maple stand majestic. Some green shrubbery grows along the higher bank near the pump. I didn't notice it before today.

I breathe deeply through my nose, but detect no smells or tastes.

The fragile ice glistens and quivers in the sunlight, as if resisting the sun's warmth. It, too, must give way to rising temperatures. The edges of the ice look like lace, with random gaps and holes as the water underneath expands and stretches.

Life, movement and energy are slowly seeping their way into the pond.

The northern end remains frozen. Clumps of snow look randomly tossed onto the icy surface.

A large pine stands directly opposite me about 20 yards away and another pine is behind me and to my right, closer to the pond's edge. Lindsay Hall sits somberly to the right of the large pine.

Very few people walk about on campus this afternoon. The only sound is splashing water.