Nature’s Way

 

In the patch of ground behind our city rowhouse, my wife Carole Bernstein C’81 has created a garden. My job is to periodically cut back the encroaching ivy (no small task, actually), lug bags of soil and mulch from the front of the house to the back, and otherwise sit and admire. Most of the yard is shady at least part of the day, and so we have a lot of impatiens—New Guinea, double, and the regular kind—but also marigolds, a portulaca, a flowering weed-bush we don’t know the name of, parsley, basil, and some carrots that started as an experiment in my daughter’s first-grade class.

A trustworthy-looking website tells me that impatiens are native to an area stretching from Tanzania to Mozambique, the marigolds originated in South America (Argentina and New Mexico), and the portulaca is from Brazil; the parsley is Italian; and the shade is provided by a Royal Paulonia, or Empress Tree, native to China, that has grown up wild in the narrow alleyway that separates our walled-in yard from the neighbors’ and will probably cave our roof in some day. In the meantime, it has wide leaves and lavender flowers that are beautiful but a pain to clean up.

I got curious about where our plants came from after reading this issue’s cover story by associate editor Susan Frith, “The Global Garden,” about the plant specimens that Penn’s Morris Arboretum has collected from around the world. Susan traces the adventures of early 20th-century collectors, who confronted “civil war, louse-ridden beds, and cholera” among other obstacles, as well as the more recent foreign forays of Paul Meyer, currently the Arboretum’s director, that have played a role in amassing the “13,000 plants of 2,500 varieties from 29 countries” that delight and inform school groups and scholars alike at the Chestnut Hill oasis.

While earlier generations of collectors focused on finding species new to the West, today’s plant hunting is more aimed at replenishing the genetic stock of known plants to make them more diverse and hardier. “There is safety in diversity; there is danger in monoculture,” Meyer told Susan.

This issue’s “Expert Opinion” also takes up the theme of biodiversity. Michael Rosenzweig G’66, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, writes about a way to help avert the devastating loss of species now under waywithout “giving up civilization, creature comforts, or profits.”

Rosenzweig proposes what he calls reconciliation ecology (also known as win-win ecology), which involves changing the way we modify the environment so as to strike a better balance between preservation and land use, as the best way to protect the greatest variety of species “and bring joy and beauty into our everyday lives.”

The meaning of “beauty” and our fear of and fascination with what deviates from the norm is central to the work of artist James Mundie CGS’97, profiled by senior editor Samuel Hughes in “Freak Love.” In a project he calls Prodigies: Anomalous Humans, Mundie has created a series of intricately detailed portraits and a companion website paying tribute to his twin obsessions with the by-gone world of the carnival sideshow and art-historical references. While some observers—like the Penn art-history professor Sam consulted—find his work exploitive, Mundie insists, “My portraits honor these people as individuals and performers.”

Finally, this issue also features our annual photo album of Alumni Weekend festivities and our coverage of Commencement—an event notable both for the main speaker, rock-star and activist Bono, and for being the final Commencement ceremony to be presided over by Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04—who, in addition to her honorary degree, also received a standing ovation.

—John Prendergast C’80


2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

July|August Contents
Gazette Home
Previous issue's column