This may be a somewhat rambling post, but I wanted to jot down a few ideas so I have them to refer to later. Figured I might as well share them with you all, too. Bear with me, or feel free to skip. I promise I’ll get back to virtual reality education and Israeli social impact investing straight away. Please note, these are personal reflections and are in no way meant to represent the thinking or position of the John Bartram Association.
A few days ago I went down to the Wissahickon to put my feet in the water and wash away the fog that had come over me while pulling together my post on blockchain education. Standing on the pebble beach I noticed freshwater clams. The shells were open, ligaments intact. The delicate valves held together like zebra-striped butterfly wings, and as I gathered the pairs one by one and placed them on a stone at the water’s edge, I reflected on balance and connection.
tiny hinges upon which life hangs
balance is key
precious nodes hold the center
in this out-of-balance, disordered world
can we channel that strength?
strange thought and yet…
when we’re still enough to listen
nature can be a thought-provoking teacher
I’m grateful to be able seek balance and restore myself on forty acres of sacred land in the heart of Philadelphia. My work, for the past sixteen years, was mostly behind a desk, though I walked the land and soaked up its energy and often took photos documenting seasonal life. The only upside of Covid has been that it gave me the chance to connect more directly with this magical place. For the past few months I’ve had the luxury of spending a day a week unplugged from screens and plugged instead into the real. I use my body and go to bed at the end of the day a good kind of tired with a refreshed mind and open heart.
The hours I spend pouring over LinkedIn profiles and mapping relationships trying to tell this grim story are offset by the precious hours I’m able to have my hands in the soil connected to the web of reciprocal relationships found there. In those hours it’s me and the microbes and fungi and towering trees with their dappled shade. No devices, just a direct connection to nature’s electro-chemical network, not the 5G-shadow version hanging off power lines beyond the garden’s northern boundary.
Our garden is caressed by the Schuylkill, which is a tidal river. That’s important. Water flows towards the city, then to the Delaware, but sometimes it is still like a pond. In that stillness rests the balance point – the hinge – the liminal both/and neither/nor.
to hold space is revolutionary
to think slowly and
imagine beyond limits
man-made time erased
a gift freely given
to those who embrace uncertainty
vibrations clear cobwebs to
see more clearly and
feel more deeply
a land that attracts seekers
who follow their hearts and
willingly risk entanglement with the cosmos
many watch and wait as
the Davos reset takes hold
the war machine, telecom giants, and IoT pitchmen
yet farmers, fishermen, educators, and creators
with open hearts can
clear the paths
when earth energy is centered
The land, cared for by the Lenape people for centuries before colonization, has been maintained as a public botanic garden for the past hundred and thirty years. Numerous times over its history the garden faced threats of destruction. Each time, forces of good intervened, holding the line and beating back the darkness. It is welcoming. It holds joy, fellowship, healing, and wholeness for seekers. It makes space to be otherwise, just as John Bartram was – a man who knew his own mind, knew the land, and didn’t hesitate to be contrary even if it meant being cast out of certain human social circles and into the gentle fraternity of plants.
Our garden sits in an unexpected place. The expanse of Philadelphia’s skyline, including Comcast’s two towers, unfolds just beyond our meadow. When you’re here, the bustle of the city seems a world away, and yet the University of Pennsylvania’s R&D accelerator is just a mile upriver. There, at the end of a fancy new bike trail in a renovated building on the former DuPont campus, GRASP Lab researchers refine hive mind drones for the Army.
On the bank opposite sits the now-shuttered Philadelphia Energy Solutions. A chemical and hydrocarbon explosion there threatened to destroy a good chunk of the city a little over a year ago. Thank goodness the fire was stopped in time! Philadelphia has a long and toxic relationship with the oil industry. We were home to some of the nation’s first refineries starting in the 1860s. Port and rail connections made us a natural for crude processing.
Most of these operations took place on the lower Schuylkill River, because the upper reaches had been protected by the implementation of an expansive park system meant preserve the watershed around the city’s drinking water inlet. That left the lower reaches, the part where Bartram’s Garden is located, a target for the most noxious industries imaginable. Our green, watery haven is all the more significant juxtaposed against the wreckage of post-industrialism. Our surroundings are defined by trash transfer enterprises and scrap yards in addition to oil tanks. Southwest Philadelphia, a predominately Black community, has high rates of asthma and chronic illness. Residents have been living under conditions of environmental racism for decades.
But now, with PES shuttered, the Lower Schuylkill has become attractive for redevelopment. Our community is being eyed-up for advanced manufacturing – biotech, drones, and clones – an extension of the University City Sciences Center fueled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Displacement and gentrification are a real and present concern, especially since we’ve been working to build bridges to local residents for years. The one certain thing is uncertainty.
So today was a day on the land, and I was mulling things over. We are embarking on a ten-year plan. I anticipate the coming decade will be a tumultuous one, especially for a place that, I hope, will not willingly embrace the CRISPR, synthetic biology, virtual reality program. As we thought together as a staff about our values a few days before I’d brought up the idea of introspection and complexity. We spoke of relationships to land and uplifting our neighbors at Bartram Village, a public housing community. We talked about the need for healing and the potential for abundance and belonging – and how to tell the land’s many stories in an honest way. I had all of these ideas running through my mind as I listened to what the day held.
My task was to provide some tender loving care to four young Franklinia trees on Eastwick Hill. Like blueberries and azaleas they want a sandy, acidic well-drained soil. Small and multi-stemmed, the Franklinia flowers in late summer. The leaves turn early, and it’s not uncommon for red autumn foliage to be on display while the tree is still in bloom. The seed capsules take over a year to mature and are tricky to germinate. The trees are sought after at our plant sales, but folks need to be prepared to lose a few before having one take hold.
These trees need a bit “extra,” kind of like elders my colleague noted. They would get a tree version of the winter tuck in. Instead of an extra blanket, hot water bottle and kiss on the forehead before bed; they’d get their sod pushed back, a generous dose of composted pine bark soil amendment, finished with a deep layer of pine straw mulch and a solid watering. I added a good intention with a tiny pinch of tobacco blessing for each to top it all off.
When I talk about complexity – this plant embodies it. The tree was native to the Altamaha River Valley in Georgia. Populations were dwindling in the late 18th century, and the Bartrams collected seed, brought back, and propagated in Philadelphia in 1777. The species became extinct in the wild in 1803. Bartram named the plant after his friend Benjamin Franklin (follow Ras Ben’, “The Great Philadelphia Mystery,” for his take on Franklin and Prometheus opening the gates of Hell). That is the colonial history, but it grew along a heavily travelled trade route from Puerto Rico through the American South centuries ago. The stories of those ages are lost to time. My colleague shared their feeling that these were sacred plants of a people long gone, whose stories are lost except within the plant itself.
In caring for these plants we care for the sacred. It should be no surprise for a spiritual plant to struggle in an industrially toxic age. We take responsibility by learning its needs and supporting it in adapting to these lands. Nurturing webs of relationship is a spiritual practice, garden as temple – garden as sacred place – garden as a bulwark against assaults on our souls – garden as a place where repairs can be made.
And there are SO many things in need of repair – acknowledge the brokenness while leaving the door open that things can one day be made right. On this land, on this river, historic and present day wounds can be surfaced, examined with care, and hopefully pieced together in a way that builds towards justice. Among the harms we face at the garden are the legacies of six people enslaved by William Bartram when he undertook the establishment of a plantation in the East Florida Colony in 1766. His father John advanced him the money to participate in chattel slavery – six humans bought in Charleston, South Carolina. It is our charge to remember them. To remember they were loved and to honor them. Those are our responsibilities, too. Those ripples carry forward. As we look to the sacred for healing, the lives of Jack, Siby, Jacob, Sam, Flora, and Bacchus are forefront in our minds.
Perhaps, as in the Japanese idea wabi-sabi, some measure of beauty may emerge from the repair itself. That will happen only if the work comes from the heart space. That is the power of this place – to bring people together in an honest and authentic way. I believe that power derives from the spiritual capacity of this land. I believe those who would seek to suppress that power know, it too.
We added two new members to our garden community today – a pine and a baby Franklinia.
They were planted together so that when the pine tree matures its needle drop will support the soil its companion Franklinias need to thrive. There is also the thought there may be mutually beneficial mycorrhizal relationships among the roots of these trees. Reciprocity, right relationship, and mutual flourishing – these are vital goals.
There are many unknowns in the decade to come. Yet by making a commitment to take in new learnings, to care for the beings of your place, to be responsible to the history of your lands and the stories they hold, and to nurture the sacred we can contribute to the mending that must be done. We must make the repairs. This needs to happen. It is time.
This day was one of abundance and welcome, of new life and nurturing, of thinking and imagining, and keeping doors open.
I thank the creator for these gifts.
I pledge to use them in my quest to be a better relative.
One foot in front of the other.
I will strive to be another ligament holding the center.