Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sending Seeds to the Moon

In Philadelphia's Washington Square Park there is a scraggly sycamore tree surrounded by a gate and plaque. The tree was grown from a seed carried to the moon and back. Every day people stop and read about the Moon Tree, they take photos, comment on space travel and move on.

Recently I watched a small group of children on a field trip stop at the tree. One little girl, hoisted herself up on the gate, leaned over and pressed her face to the trunk. After a moment, she stood back on the ground, looked at her friends and matter-of-factly said: "Well, It just doesn't smell like the moon."

That was several weeks ago, ever since she's had me wondering just what the moon smells like and I have to admit, after her group wandered off I stealthily walked over and gave the tree a little sniff.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Digging for Woolly Mammoths

Have you missed your calling? Are you really meant to be an archeologist like Indiana Jones*-- hanging over snake pits, gulping down monkey brains and outrunning large rocks? Instead you’re trapped inside the career of a teacher, mechanic, pilot, or administrative assistant? Don’t worry it’s not too late!

Hop on a plane and head over to Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota to follow your destiny! (I flew Midwest Airlines where the flight attendants still serve warm chocolate chip cookies for free- even in coach class. I ate 4 big, warm gooey cookies before 10 AM! )

At Mammoth Site amateur and professional paleontologists work side by side to unearth the greatest finding of Woolly and Columbian mammoths in North America. So far 55 mammoths have been discovered in one sinkhole. All of them are young adolescent males. Apparently male mammoths went out on their own in adolescence and these guys didn’t know enough not to go down to drink from a sinkhole that was too slippery and mucky to climb out. The fossils are around 26,000 years old and researchers are still not sure how many mammoths are left to discover. There may be as many as 100 mammoths and other animals layered under the already discovered animals.

The dig site is covered by a climate controlled building with walkways where visitors can watch volunteers at work digging fossils. It was amazing to see the fossils displayed in-situ just as they lay down in death thousands of years ago. You can see whole beasts stretched out as bones are painstakingly pulled from the rock and processed in an adjacent lab. On a guided tour I learned the nicknames for each mammoth and by the end of the visit I could easily pick out a mammoth tooth from a hip bone. In the museum we saw impressive re-constructions of huts built out of mammoth bones by early humans and learned about the other animals living and extinct found at the site.

The whole site depends on volunteers for excavation. Each dig season Elderhostel Groups, Earthwatch volunteers and Jr. Paleontologists work in this tiny out of the way town unearthing long buried fossils. If you’re on your way, be sure to sign up and be the first human to make the next mammoth discovery in Hot Springs.

I left the site with some photos and a fabulous yellow T-shirt that proclaims ‘Just Dig’ right on the front. I’m not ready to give up my career to follow in Indiana Jones’s* footsteps. It would be a life with a lot of travel, dirt covered toothbrushes and more patience than I can imagine. But I’d highly recommend a day at Mammoth Site where you can see fossils of ancient animals as they are first found lying in the ground until a volunteer patiently, slowly and repetitively scrapes away the dirt from bone.

*Disclaimer: The fictional character, Indiana Jones, was actually an archeologist, not a paleontologist. He did not discover any Woolly Mammoths in his films although he did get really dirty searching for old stuff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hunting for Headstones

Philadelphia has some wonderfully preserved graveyards. The graveyard at Christ Church or the city's first suburban cemetary, Laurel Hill, may be the best known. But many of Philadelphia's graveyards have not been carefully cared for. These graveyards have been moved, destroyed, neglected and abandoned as the city has grown and changed.

I was fascinated by the story of one of these lost cemeteries. A cemetery swept away by changing politics and a growing university. According to Philadelphia lore, in 1956 Temple University purchased the large, Monument Cemetery. They hoped to build a parking lot and playing fields on the site. In order to clear the land of human remains and tombstones 28,000 bodies had to be re-located. Most unclaimed bodies were quietly dumped into large mass graves in suburban cemeteries. The headstones and monuments were dumped into the Delaware River as support for the base of the Betsy Ross Bridge. The Betsy Ross Bridge was being constructed at the time and the headstones served as “riptrap” for the emerging bridge. Apparently at low tide you can still see the headstones submerged in the water at the base of the bridge and you can make out the names of those now resting in an unmarked suburban grave.*

Eeek!! I have chills just writing about this!

Riveted by the story, I decided to try to find a way to see this in person. So I cleared my Valentine’s Day calendar for an adventure to the shores of the Delaware River. I went online and used a handy tide calculator for the river and found out when the tide would be at its lowest. Then my accomplice and I got directions…and we were off.

I was super excited to jot down the names of these forgotten individuals and was ready to go traipsing through some muck for the view. Unfortunately our exciting adventure was thwarted by lots of barbed wire, no trespassing postings and signs of a transient community. I didn’t realize just how far we’d have to trek through the underbrush and how much fence climbing we’d have to do between the beginning of the bridge supports and actually reaching the water. We didn’t feel up to climbing fences and so we left the tombstones undiscovered and opted for a drive over the Bridge to a favorite Jersey diner. I guess we'll have to go by boat to see the stones. Does anyone have a spare kayak and the burning curiosity to confirm this legend?

Our trip was not completely in vain. We did have the opportunity to drive through the massive Tioga Fruit Terminal where I collected some great new fun facts. Tioga Fruit Terminal is an impressive port where a huge percentage of Chilean fruit comes into the US. Apparently the Delaware River ports are responsible for importing and processing 65% of all the cocoa beans used in the US and lots of the nuts, fruits and cut flowers.**

Let me know if you’re up for finding some submerged headstones. If you’ve got a life vest we’ll go boating down the Delaware where we’ll dodge ships dropping off bananas.

**This story and more fascinating Philadelphia cemetery stories can be found in Thomas H. Keels book “Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries” published by Arcadia Publishing in 2003.

Today’s Trivia: Why use the words graveyard and cemetery in the same title? According to a graveyard is on the grounds of a religious institution while a cemetery is just for burying people and not associated with a particular religion.

**More info on the Tioga Fruit Terminal can be found at or

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seaweed in San Diego

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say California Beaches? Maybe you’d say…surfers, sharks, sun tan lotion, sea lions…probably not seaweed.

There’s a place on Ocean Beach in San Diego, CA where the ocean pounds against weathered flat slippery rock. A friend and I walked along the rocks at night where the ocean’s crashing waves stood out starkly against the dark water, and dark rock. This eerie setting was it…this is where we found the largest seaweed/alien being I’ve seen.

On first glance this giant serpentine weed looked like a long discarded rubber garden hose. I was, convinced by my friend, an east coast ex-pat turned west coast beach bum, that it was in fact seaweed. I had to see more.

I’ve never seen stylish seaweed like this off the Jersey Shore, the Delaware beaches or even the Florida coast. It was more than 20 feet long, all stretched out. I picked up the seaweed and dragged it over the beach and rock to a walkway with a light. As I dragged the weed with me, bored skaters stepped on the end of the plant dragging behind me- catcalling- Nice Seaweed! My friend laughed the whole way, teasing me that this just might be an alien and when I got to the light I’d see its creepy eyes. Ick!

Coming into the light we could examine this weed. What a beautiful plant! Turns out that the alien-like seaweed we found is actually Elk Kelp. A kind of kelp native to the peninsula off of the southern coast of CA. The Elk kelp has a big air bladder at the top of the stem to hold the plant off of the bottom of the ocean. In case you’re wondering, yes, I stomped on the bladder, opening it up to find a hollow space filled with dripping with plant goo (a technical term.) Splitting off from the bladder are two long “antlers” which capture sunlight in the deep ocean waters. Elk kelp is found in large underwater forests indigenous to the coast of Southern California. The plants can be up to 100 feet long with their antlers stretching out 20-60 feet.

After our alien encounter with the giant seaweed I spent the rest of the evening walking, talking and re-connecting with my old friend. He showed me as many beach towns as we could cover in a few hours. We saw a seaside amusement park with a rickety looking wooden roller coaster, a concrete boardwalk and a serve yourself frozen yogurt shop but the most unique discovery for me- what set the west apart from the east- was the elk kelp washed up on the rocks and the locals who thought that was what everybody’s seaweed looked like.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thirsty Cacti

Many say that the deserts of the American Southwest are some of the most beautiful places on earth. I would argue that the summer desert is a terrifying and intimidating place- made all the more eerie by the small squares of irrigated grass and dehydrated cacti found slapped in the middle of the arid valleys. That said, there is no other place like the desert and so my visit to the fault-lined resort of Palm Springs is worth writing about!

One of the first things that I learned after flying over the irrigated golf courses of Palm Springs was that the town of Palm Springs doesn’t actually have any indigenous Palm trees. It is strangely named after springs which nurture stands of indigenous palm trees miles away in the Indian Canyons. To witness the visual starkness of a natural oasis sans golf courses take the drive out to the canyons and hike through a forest of Palm Trees in Palm Canyon. This is a truly special ecosystem because most other palms in the United States are not indigenous. This is California at its most extreme and is worth a trek out in the blistering desert heat. Don’t forget to bring lots of water!

When I arrived at my hotel room I immediately opened my room’s curtains. I opened them to a view of one of the ugliest mountain ranges I can remember. I tried to call it beautiful- but all that I could think was- Gosh I wouldn’t want to be lost out there. Rising before me was a big wall of brown, forbidding, MEAN looking mountains. Looking down- to check out the area around the hotel I saw that the cacti were being watered. Wow- I didn’t think that you had to water cacti!

During my visit I had the opportunity to see the raggedy splendor of this resort town. Every Thursday night Palm Springs offers an open air market and street festival. Tourists wander around to different restaurants and kiosks to buy crafts and sample slushies and your standard street fair treats. I enjoyed lots of treats and watched some eccentric performances. Turns out that Lucille Ball loved Palm Springs and there is a fabulous statue in homage to the star. There are also some gold sidewalk stars along the roads with great directors, actors, and artists from this little town’s heyday as a celebrity haven.

The town was exotic, and fragile. The menacing mountains seemed to constantly emphasize that without the carefully timed sprinklers and far away Colorado river water the sweltering little town would vanish. On my way out of town I drank a big glass of complimentary lemon water and rolled into the open air airport. I marveled at the airport playground right by the runway and thought abut the former fame of this little town of green surrounded by brown. This time I was happy to be headed home.

Albuquerque High

If you’re a six year old, what’s the coolest thing about Albuquerque, New Mexico?
Is it the renowned American Rattlesnakes Museum or the deliciously greasy Lindy Diner along Route 66?
Nope! It’s East High, the school featured in Disney’s made-for-TV movie, High School Musical. A certain six year old hoped that my colleague and I would make finding the real school our personal mission while we attended a conference for work. We thought, “how hard can it be?” we’ll do our work and then snap a shot of the place where real Disney magic happened on our lunch break.

It wasn’t quite so simple, turns out that we were easily distracted and our mission ended up taking us on some adventurous detours through the city. We’d recommend:

-Eating all sorts of meat at the Brazilian restaurant Tucanos
-Window shopping for hand-made jewelry in Old Town
-Posing with a giant frog and other public statues
-Oogling over some offensive but well-endowed cowboy cactus souvenirs
-Buying brightly colored pottery
-Taking some photos of the amazing mountain views and the faux adobe architecture.

By the end of our trip the school was still nowhere to be found. The pangs of guilt hit us as we got in the cab to go back to the airport and realized that we would have to leave- our mission un-fulfilled and a six year old disappointed.

We drove toward the airport distracted by our upcoming flight when suddenly my colleague looked out the window and her mouth fell open- she barely had time to croak out- “THERE IT IS” before we turned the corner and it disappeared from view. As we were driving out of town we had passed the old Albuquerque High School. No photo- because we couldn’t rationally ask the cabbie to screech to a halt mid-intersection- but now we know it is there.

The school, built in 1914, is no longer home to students but it has recently been renovated into quirky loft apartments, original flooring and bleachers left intact! So on your next visit to Albuquerque—take a tour through the school’s lofts- watch the movie- and snap a photo for us!

Unexpected Experiences in Greensboro

When I walked into my hotel room I noticed that the full length mirrored closet doors had fallen in, the bathroom doorknob had been destroyed and the normally locked door to the next room was not only unlocked but it looked as though someone had tried to escape using their spare crow bar.

I was concerned that there had been some sort of horrible event in the room just moments before I arrived. I called the front desk to see about getting a room transfer or getting the room fixed. The weary desk clerk forlornly explained that the hotel was reeling from the recent visit of thousands of middle-schoolers. Ah Ha- now the damage made sense.

The desk clerk assured me that someone would be up to fix the door lock. The repair man arrived late in the evening and I was already pajama clad and anxious to climb into the big fluffy bed to read. To be honest I was a little nervous about inviting a strange man into my room and wasn’t particularly happy to have to deal with the results of so much youthful fun.

I opened the door to an older, friendly looking gentleman, invited him in and described the problem. He too thought a twelve year old’s escape plan had been enacted here and found that he’d have to completely re-build the lock.

Over the course of the next hour or so that it took to fix the lock on the door; the third shift repair man and I had a fantastic conversation. I learned about his Creole heritage, his first and second wife, his wonderful children and grandchildren and a little about his political views. He told me of his long and varied career- from janitor and educator, to hotel handyman. We chatted about the different places we’ve traveled, all the people he had met at the hotel and also about the intricacies of changing a lock. As he left he smiled, shook my hand and thanked me for the conversation--he said that it would be one of his highlights for the year.

I went through the rest of the conference- spending four days within the halls of the hotel and I’d have to agree. It was the most unexpected highlight of my trip-- connecting with someone so different from myself who was so interested in sharing his experiences and observations about all of those that travel through his workplace everyday.