Life’s a Beach (Grass)

A Day with the Greenbelt Native Plant Center

For years I’d been curious about the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC). I don’t remember where I’d first heard about it, but it was there on the New York City Parks Department website, tantalizingly close yet never open to the public. Its inaccessibility only piqued my curiosity.

And then one day last year, as Spring was approaching and I browsed the Parks’ website for nature walks, there it was: a volunteer event at the GNPC! “Processing beach grass” is what the description said. Processing? Of course I pounced on it, even if I wasn’t quite sure what the task was. It wasn’t the first time I traded a bit of elbow grease (as my Grandfather called it) for access, and I doubt it will be the last.

Processing beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata, one of several species known as “beach grass”) turned out to mean stripping the dry, brown leaves from clumps of grass to leave the fresh green stems and roots ready for planting at various beaches in the City. It was fairly easy work; we could even sit down. Best of all, after we’d stripped grass for a couple of hours one of the GNPC staff offered to take us for a tour of the facility.

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The Day Before

On the evening of September 10, 2001, I attended a talk by former Senator George Mitchell at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. He spoke mostly about his book Making Peace, an account of his role in the negotiations that led to Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in 1998. 

Mitchell’s talk is available online. Fortunately C-SPAN’s Book TV recorded it. It’s long, but worth listening to, and the actual speech ends around the 44 minute mark; you can skip the Q&A.

I had been to Ireland with a friend in 1999 and thought it a beautiful country. We went off-season (in October) and were free to mosey around the country without crowds of tourists. One of our first visits was to Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. It was a weekday morning (and, anyway, not our faith) so we were just there to admire the architecture. We happened to arrive just as the boys’ choir was finishing practice and the Minister led everyone assembled–the choir, tourists, and a few locals who seemed to know that this would take place–in a prayer for peace. Being vaguely aware of the previous year’s peace accord, it seemed particularly meaningful.

We were somewhat alarmed, on a later walk through Dublin, to see posters about an upcoming election from the Sinn Féin party. That’s the legitimate political party of the Irish Republican Army, who before the peace agreement had been responsible for some of “The Troubles.” But they’d gone legit and their political candidates were, to all appearances, following the law. Still, it was a little jarring in our otherwise relaxing vacation.

So as I listened to George Mitchell speak, I thought about Ireland. And I thought about the United States, where political violence was extremely rare and usually confined to isolated incidents. Yes, we have our problems, our own injustices–but people didn’t worry about bombings in our marketplaces or other public areas. Military personnel carrying rifles don’t patrol our streets.

I felt proud, perhaps comforted. Looking back, very soon after, I would describe that feeling as “smug.” 

Because the next morning, as I was showering and preparing to start the day, everything changed.

 

I’m Not Going to Space

I grew up with the space program, literally.

According to my Mom’s account, she put me down for a nap so she could watch Alan Shepard make America’s first spaceflight. By the time John Glenn made the first full orbit in a NASA spacecraft, she had mastered the art of being a space fan and a Mom: She held my baby brother in her lap and gave him a bottle, while I nestled at her side on the couch with my sippy cup. At least that’s the way she told it, and I have no reason to doubt her. 

I probably saw just about every NASA flight after that, until I started school. By the time I was five I had learned to watch the liftoffs and splashdowns and ignore the “boring” stuff in-between. And I did get to see at least one liftoff at school. When I was in third grade our teacher decided that we should watch a rocket lift off. A TV cart was wheeled into our classroom (that’s how we did it back then) and we watched as the big rocket lit up and lifted off the launch pad. There were a few gasps as the first stage fell away–that’s how I knew which of my classmates had not seen a liftoff before. How was this possible?

Apollo 14 Command Module splashes down in the South Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: NASA.

Later that day a boy in my class confided to me that he had never seen a rocket lift off before. 

“Really?” I asked, incredulous. “They’re on all the time!” Well, they were in my house.

So from an early age I wanted to go to space. I didn’t have a plan for it, like becoming a pilot or a scientist, and it took a while before I realized it wasn’t merely a coincidence that all the the astronauts were men. I just thought it would really cool to go to space. 

In college I became friends with, and in our senior year roomed with, a young woman whose father was a technical instructor for a small airline. We were both fans of NASA, the Space Shuttle program was beginning, and she had access to her Dad’s copies of Aviation Week. We devoured those old magazines and any newspaper articles we could find. We decorated a table-top Christmas tree in our room with a tiny model Space Shuttle as a star and the perforated edging from green bar paper–supplied by a friend majoring in Computer Science–as garland.

We didn’t have a TV in our dorm room, so we begged the Dean of Students to let us use a classroom early in the morning to watch John Young and Robert Crippen lift off in Columbia. (We spread the word, but only three people joined us.)

Best of all, NASA recruited its first women astronauts. They were, of course, pilots and scientists. My roommate and I, majoring in Fashion Design and English, respectively, did not have terribly good prospects of going to space. But we were still fascinated and if anyone had offered the opportunity to go we would have jumped at it.

The Space Shuttle program proved both good and bad for amateur fans of NASA. On the positive side, regular launches to space resumed and the International Space Station gave humans a permanent outpost in Earth orbit. Women and people of color became astronauts, and the Payload Specialist role gave non-pilots an opportunity to fly on the Shuttle. On the negative side, space flight began to feel routine. Not every liftoff and landing was broadcast on TV, as the early flights had been. Some people began to question the value of space flight. And then the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

The famous “Earthrise” photo taken by astronauts aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Photo credit: NASA.

I spent a lot of time, it seemed, defending the human, financial and environmental costs of space flight. Exploration is risky; it always has been. Astronauts know the risks and willingly–even eagerly–go anyway. The financial cost is high, but the rewards have been great. I pointed out some of the benefits in technology and other fields, and when NASA published back issues [link is a large PDF] of Spinoff on their website I directed critics there. I reminded my environmentalist friends that global warming, long an obscure observation known only to a few scientists, had been championed by Dr. James Hansen of NASA and backed up by atmospheric data collected by–you guessed it–NASA. Satellites had revealed much of our own planet to us in ways not possible from the ground and have made weather forecasting much more accurate. The lives saved by satellite-assisted cyclone predictions probably justifies space exploration all by itself.

Some were persuaded, others not. I remained interested in space flight and I still would have welcomed any opportunity to fly myself.

The Space Shuttle program ended. How many NASA programs have I watched? Mercury (too young to know what I was watching), Gemini (learning), Apollo (definitely interested), and the Space Shuttle. And while the International Space Station still orbits, it’s the unmanned exploration that has been most interesting in recent years. But, still, it would be nice to go to space.

And then three billionaires built their own spacecraft to go to space–just barely to the edge of what we consider “outer space,” essentially recreating that first American manned flight by Alan Shepard. And I realized that I don’t want to go to space all that much.

Don’t get me wrong; I would still go if I were invited and had a reason to be there. But my arguments for risking the human, financial and (especially) environmental costs of a space flight went *poof* when the first billionaire and his guests took a joy ride above Earth’s atmosphere. 

What had they accomplished? Did they do research? Did they invent new technology? If they did, I haven’t read about it.

I realized in an instant that when I said I wanted to go to space I really meant that I wished I had a reason to go to space. I wish I had something to contribute. When I volunteered with the American Red Cross after the September 11 attacks, I knew I had something to contribute. I also knew that I had no business being at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, and would have been a danger to myself and others if I’d been there. I was much more useful doing data entry in an office in Brooklyn even if, as someone once told me to my face, I was “just a bureaucrat.” I like to think I was a bit more than that, but data entry and administration were the skills I came with. I didn’t belong at Ground Zero, just like I don’t belong in space.

If I ever go to space I want to be more than a tourist. And if I don’t have a genuine reason to be there, I’ll pass.

Ghost Bikes and the Value of Human Life

One year ago today I attended the dedication of a ghost bike honoring Alex Cordero, a seventeen-year-old who was killed when his bicycle was struck by a tow truck. I had seen ghost bikes before, and even helped maintain a couple by clearing weeds and touching up the paint, but this was the first time I’d attended a dedication. Alex was the sixteenth cyclist killed in New York City last year; ultimately there would be twenty-nine deaths. [Note that the link indicates 28. Even transportation-safety minded journalists had a difficult time keeping up. There’s a note at the end of the article that it was updated to show twenty-nine deaths.]

2019-09-05 Ghost Bike Dedication - Alex Cordero SAM_2980
I didn’t realize it when we assembled for the dedication but I was standing near Alex’s aunt (the woman in the grey t-shirt holding a bouquet). Photo © 2019 Karen E. Lund

I was drifting off to sleep the night before, thinking of the day’s news and of my plans for the dedication of the ghost bike to honor Alex. Half asleep, my mind attempted to find a connection between the previous weekend’s gun violence (nine people had been killed in Dayton and twenty-three in El Paso) and Alex’s death while riding his bicycle.

Eventually it fitted together. Not with an answer, but with a question: When did we decide to give more rights to steel than to human flesh? Was it a conscious decision? (Probably not.) Who decided? Continue reading