Blooming in the concrete

There’s a flowerpot with lobelia and snapdragons on the porch above our driveway, and some seeds apparently drifted down and took root in a narrow crack in the concrete.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

I love seeing this whenever I get out of the car. It makes me think about how life insists upon itself even in the most daunting circumstances. It’s one tiny flower in a mass of concrete, but it has no idea that it is just one lonely flower and it is blossoming as cheerfully as if it were among its bushy relatives upstairs in the big, deep, fertilized pot.

Sam and I had a similar experience during our family visit to New York last week, when we took a stroll along the (newish) High Line Park. If you’re not familiar with it, the High Line used to be an elevated freight line that served the meatpacking plants and warehouses of the West Side; companies would unload goods directly from the elevated trains into the third floors of their buildings. It was an active freight line during my childhood, but I was completely unaware of it.

The High Line shut down in 1980 and spent years in disuse, gradually becoming overgrown with weeds. Residents in surrounding Chelsea lobbied to make it a park, and in 2008 it opened. Today it is a narrow 20-block strip of elevated oasis running from Gansevoort Street up to 30th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.

And it’s utterly amazing!

Me at High Line Park - a "meadow" section

The architectural design incorporates the old train tracks into garden beds, with a winding path running alongside through a series of different-feeling public spaces — here there are benches, there’s a brooklike fountain with kids wading in it, and a little further on is a mini-amphitheatre made up of rough wooden bleachers where people are sunning and eating lunch. There are huge reclaimed-wood chairs that look like a giant’s version of a beach chaise. You’re up in the air, strolling between buildings and in some places strolling through buildings.

Water / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And the landscaping — mostly native plants and grasses — is also fabulous. It was nice when I was there a year or so ago, but it had grown in since then, and this time it was lush. Waist-high in places. I felt like I was walking along overgrown, abandoned train tracks in the countryside — kind of a Stand By Me type of feeling.

I was thinking several weeks ago about different national approaches to gardens — how the French garden is regimented, symmetrical, loudly declaring that it was designed by humans with all our rational intellect. And the English garden is equally orchestrated but pretends not to be, trying instead to give the impression of a spontaneous, natural eruption of color. I had wondered what might be considered an “American” garden. It seems like American gardeners often end up leaning toward the English style — certainly English landscapes were a big influence on Central Park and Golden Gate Park — but have we any distinct national style of our own?

So at the High Line, it occurred to me that collections of native plants might eventually become identified as the American garden. The American garden might mean landscaping with desert plants in Arizona, drought-tolerant coastal plants here in the Bay Area, or those New York wild grasses along the High Line. I have no idea about this, so please correct me if I’m off base; everything I know about landscape architecture could fit onto one petal of the lobelia in my driveway.

Sam at High Line / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But back to the High Line… it amazes because it is such an unlikely oasis in the middle of the city — an outsize lobelia in the concrete. It’s such a creative re-imagining of an old industrial relic that would otherwise have been torn down as blight. And it’s public — no admissions fee, no waiting list, no corporate sponsor that has demanded it be called Oracle High Line Park. That is increasingly rare these days.

It makes me a think of a book I read a couple of years ago, The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. It’s a long, thoroughly-researched meditation on what would happen to the Earth if suddenly all us humans vanished. Weisman looks at everything from subways to nuclear plants, cockroaches to copper wire — what would decay, transform, remain.

(Nugget: House cats, as hunters, would survive. Dogs, without owners to open the kibble, would not do so well. And cockroaches — which we tend to think would outlast even nuclear holocaust — would die out in northern cities without people to run the heating systems keeping buildings warm over the winter.)

I’m sure some people would find it depressing to think about the world going on without humans. But when I read it, I found it strangely reassuring: No matter how much we screw things up, grasses and trees and animals will go on and even thrive. The horrifically lifeless world pictured in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is not the probable outcome.

No matter what happens to me, to us, the lobelia will still put out blooms in the driveway.

High Line Park / Photo by Ilana DeBare


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2 Responses to “Blooming in the concrete”

  1. Janice Dean Says:

    What you point out about the earth’s ecosystem going on despite the impact of human beings is something that is always at the back of my head during debates about conservation. I agree that biodiversity is important, and I agree that human beings should interact with the earth and its resources differently. That being said, I can’t shake the feeling that it is deeply arrogant for conservationists to think that we can understand ecosystems well enough to think that we should take action to “save” them. Personally, I think we should try to preserve what is still wild and enjoy those wild lands responsibly (e.g., “pack out what you pack in,” or “leave only footprints, take only pictures”), but, really, life on earth is going to continue despite humans. Can we really say that all current ecosystems should be preserved, exactly as they are, for eternity? That is completely contrary to how the earth has functioned for millions of years. Thanks for the post, Ilana. I am going to add Weisman’s book to my “to read” list. Oh, and High Line Park looks gorgeous! I wonder what it is like in other seasons.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Janice. Climate change adds to the challenge of trying to preserve ecosystems. My husband Sam deals with this at the California Coastal Conservancy, where part of their mission is preserving and restoring coastline to its natural state. But they wrestle with: Should they be restoring it to what would be “natural” right now, or “natural” in 30 years at some different combination of temperature and rainfall?

      And, for pictures of High Line Park in different seasons, there is a whole gallery of photos taken by visitors on the High Line web site —

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