Category Archives: Natural World

Pachyderms and the Eastern Cape: South Africa (Day 1)

A baby elephant scratching its eyes with its trunk.

“Oh my god, it’s just like India!”

As much as I wanted to resist the usual comparisons, it was hard not to chime in.  The simplistic airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the slightly humid, warm, salty night air, and the dusty roads certainly felt similar for those of us who have been to India.  Then again, there were people exclaiming that it reminded them of Mexico, Bangladesh or other less-developed-than-the-U.S.-fill-in-the-blank countries, so I suppose there’s not much going for the specifics of those comparisons.

This year, the Terrascope Mission 2017 group has arrived in South Africa for our spring break travels.  As I’ve mentioned before, Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT, which focuses on self-directed learning and complex, global, interdisciplinary issues.  When I was a freshman, Mission 2015 took a look at solving the world’s biodiversity crisis and traveled to Costa Rica.  As a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) last year with Mission 2016, the trip to the American Southwest tried to understand the physical context of mineral resource management and extraction.  This year, again as a UTF, I’m accompanying the 2017’s to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to study water management and security, and even think about solutions to South Africa’s water and development problems.

In conjunction with Prof. Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), we have 7 days of jam-packed tours, sessions, discussions, with some time to explore.  Our first stop in Port Elizabeth has taken us to a beautiful lodge that sits, quite literally, by the ocean and on the first day we began our introduction to the area’s water context through the landscape, people, and most memorably, animals.

We all knew before even coming on the trip that we would be seeing elephants at the Addo Elephant National Park.  Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley showed us around through the park and told us that the park began in 1931 with only 11 elephants and no adult bulls.  All of the elephants in that area had either been poached for ivory or shot for “misbehaving.”  It was, as he said, a recipe for inbreeding and genetic drift.

The elephants’ problems were far from over once the park was established, though.  There were no fences when the park began so elephants couldn’t be contained, and skirmishes with the neighboring farmers resulted in more deaths.  Elephant populations also need massive quantities of water–100 liters per elephant per day– and vast areas of vegetation which require their own source of water.  From above the water hole where the elephants congregated, we could see a gradient of elephant impact to the vegetation, with only weak brushes Over time, the various measures implemented have created a population now of about 450 elephants in the park.

We saw elephants twice on our drive through the park, both times within 10-35 feet of the bus– there were the babies scampering after the warthogs, the waddling young adults rolling in mud, and the adults herding the group majestically forward.  It was hard to believe that these creatures who look like they are always smiling could be vicious, but they were wild animals, and we were not allowed to get off the bus.  Tortoises, warthogs, vervet monkeys and kudu (animals that look a bit like gazelles but with curled horns) were also animals I got to check off on the list from our park map, though unfortunately, no lions or rhinos.

The waterhole ecosystem– elephants, birds, and of course, warthogs!
Vervet monkeys
Vervet monkeys

We followed the road through the park past the Golden Dunes, tracking the mouth of the river until it reached the sea.  Claps of thunder and lightning suddenly filled the sky, and we were caught in a beautiful rainstorm.  As you can probably imagine, the bus ride home, full of dripping, sandy people, smelled anything but great.

Red-green grasses and the Golden Dunes in the distance.
Red-green grasses and the Golden Dunes in the distance.

The context of what we had received so far was what any tourist could probably do if they were to come to South Africa.  What we then got was an inspiring talk by a man who has grown up in the Eastern Cape and who is “colored,” a term used here to mean a person of a mixed race who can speak Afrikaans.  The talk truly framed most of the historical, complicated and contradictory questions that governed this area’s history—the pre- and post- apartheid eras, the disappearance of the indigenous population, and the broad lens with which we need to consider our approach to complex problems like the ones we were looking at this week.

The day ended with a traditional barbecue called braai (or lasagna for the vegetarians like me) with buttery potatoes to die for.  And a dessert that elicits universal excitement: ice cream!

Ice Cream at the Braai

Sounds of Santa Cruz Island: The Intern Event

The big P&G Oxnard Intern event this year consisted of a full day’s outing at Prisoner’s Island, a section of the larger Santa Cruz Island followed by a dinner back on the mainland with all the interns, Corky and his wife Beth (the “parent” figures of us all), and a few of the interns’ managers.  But I’ll just let your ears experience the rest.  Here’s to a day defined by unforgettable sounds…

Boarding

…of the creaky wooden boards on the dock as 100 or so people lined up to board the boat, which rocked slightly side-to-side in the water.

Ocean Spray

…of the occasional spray of water off the side of the boat as it hopped along the waves, creating a rainbow on the water’s surface glistening in the sunlight.

…of the exclamations of those who were hungry and the slight moaning of those of us who had felt seasick once we reached our section of the island where we were completely alone.  But after Corky took out his magical, bottomless picnic baskets of food, all you could hear was quiet munching. 

…of the rattling of bushes next to us as we hiked up the slopes of the island, sparking conversations about snakes and other unpleasant creatures. 

Island flowers

Ocean View…of the distant rumbling of ocean waves the further we climbed, and the wind that picked up its pace, as did our breaths. 

…of the round, smooth rocks that made up the sandless beach hitting against each other under our feet every time after the waves came in and the water rushed back into the ocean.

Lone Island Walk

Wading on the Beach

…of Ryan’s girlish extremely masculine, high-pitched low guttural shriek roar when he and Boris made the decision to swim out into the freezing water, and he stepped on something (“a shark”) that supposedly shot up past his leg.

Island Fox…of the soft crackle of leaves underneath the feet of the small island fox, in comparison to the loud crunch of our own when we tried to follow it.

…of the pitter-patter of seagulls landing on the tarp roof above Andrea’s Seafood where we ate dinner.

Heading Back

…of the joyful bickering over ice cream at the end of the day by the harbor, when stories of our experiences with each other throughout the summer all came out in full form with unabashed laughter and all of our true colors shining brightly through.

…of the silent anticipation around the table as I sat with my hands hovered above my overturned cup, about to do the “Cups” routine (see this or this).

Island Views

…and of the quiet whispers of the water swishing underneath the docks as we walked back to our cars under the calmly pinkish evening sky.

***

Thank you, Corky and Beth, for arranging such a wonderful, unforgettable day for us!

New Family

A Love Affair with Green: American Southwest (Day 5-6)

Standing in the open pit of the Borax mine.
Standing in the open pit of the Borax mine.
The smoke clears after the scheduled blast in one of the pit's benches.
The smoke clears after the scheduled blast in one of the pit’s benches.

After adventures in Trona, we stayed in a hotel in Mojave and woke up to drive to Boron, California.  True to its name, Boron is home to the world’s largest Borax mine, which produces almost half of the world’s borates (referring to compounds consisting of boron and oxygen).  For the freshmen, many of whom spent an entire semester researching the process of mining minerals like these, it’s often easier to make demands and manipulate these processes when thinking about them in the abstract.  But when you put names and faces to these endeavors, it becomes a completely different story.  Mining to me has always represented a significant toll on the environment that is taking a nonrenewable resource and making it scarcer.  Not that I have a significant solution to the problem, but it’s not something I respect.  But at the mine, I met a recent graduate from my home state Missouri, who let us see a blast that was happening in one of the benches of the mine.  To find someone from Missouri in California, or pretty much anywhere outside of Missouri, is pretty rare.  (Also, if any of you are from Missouri, and especially St. Louis, you will appreciate the fact that the traditional conversation after you find out someone else is from Missouri happened: my follow-up question was, “What high school did you go to?” 🙂 )  Regardless, this guy had been an environmental engineer until he found out that the geological engineering department would sponsor a trip to Peru for him, at which he promptly switched, interned at a mine, realized he loved the intersection between geological engineering and mining, and minored in explosives engineering.  Listening to him speak with such passion for the mine forced a lot of us to think about our views more critically than before.

We were led around the open pit for a while and shown a variety of minerals similar to the ones that they might mine for.  Afterwards, like every day, we spread out the lunch table in the parking lot, took out the bread, sliced cheese, purple cabbage, peanut butter, jam, four different types of mustard, horseradish sauce, a variety of packaged meats (no idea what they were, I’m vegetarian), bags of fruit, and different combinations of chips and cookies.  Simple and satisfying.  With full stomachs, we began our drive to Temecula, and the last I heard before drifting off into an afternoon nap, leaning my head against the window that looked out into the grayish-brown sandy desert, was that we might be stopping at the San Andreas fault.

I think it must have been about an hour later when I began to wake up to other’s voices in the van.  I had fallen asleep to music in my ears, and I sat up, took the headphones out of my ears, and rubbed my eyes, when suddenly, I froze.  I took my hands off my eyes, and yelled at an ungodly decibel level: “OH MY GOD, IT’S SO GREEN!”

Cliffs at the San Andreas Fault

And it was.  Everywhere all around me were not the harsh, gray-brown mountains that I had exclusively seen for the past 5 days, but green all over the mountains and grass on the side of the highway.  Trees, actual brown bark with branches and green leaves, had never looked more beautiful.  My van-mates were amused and told me that this had happened about thirty minutes ago, and I wondered how there hadn’t been an absolute uproar over this that should have woken me up when we entered this lush world of life.

I truly am a creature of my environment, and my enthusiasm level at this point spiked through the roof.  When we stopped at the San Andreas fault, I just stood on rocks and stared around me, still in slight disbelief at how beautiful green grass can look against a blue sky.  And how a flower could be so yellow.

Yellow Flowers in San Andreas

Entrance to the "town" of Temecula.
Entrance to the “town” of Temecula.

We stayed the night in Temecula, right outside the extremely fake, contrived “Old West” tourist town (which nonetheless provided for an excellent morning walk and breakfast hashbrowns), and in the morning drove up to Pala, the location of the Oceanview Gem Mine, high in the mountains.  I was staring out the window, thinking about how I had no idea what a gem mine looked like, when suddenly the perfect scene from a classic English novel appeared to my left.  It was the definition of green, rolling hills bathed in a sparkling mist looking back at me.  The occasional abandoned wooden house structure, far in the distance, with just an endless sea of green– it was so beautiful that my stomach actually ached.

Ready to sift through detritus from the mine to find precious stones and minerals.
Ready to sift through detritus from the mine to find precious stones and minerals.

At the top of the mountain in the gem mine, the workers would take us into the underground mine and show us where they would blast through the rock and find huge pockets of quartz.  They would let each of us learn how to sift through the material from the pegmatite in the mine to find a variety of precious stones and gems.  But after five or six buckets of rock and clay and enough pink and black tourmalines, crystal-clear spodumenes, and sparkling purple lepidolites to fill my shelves back home, I realized there was no way I could continue this knowing the scenery that was literally right behind my back.

So while others continued to head back to the pile in the center, I washed my muddy hands and grabbed my camera.  A light mist had settled on the land below me, creating a lush beauty that seemed to be brimming with life.  Near my feet were orange and yellow blooms that stood bright against the perfectly ordered rows of orange trees, far in the distance.  Peeking through the branches of trees, I found a house which I imagined to belong to a family with a girl and boy.  I stood, crouched, and leaned taking pictures for so long that soon one of the workers walked up behind me and said, “What are you taking pictures of?  Anything and everything?”  I took that as a compliment.

Hills and Flowers

Oceanview Roses

The Last of the DesertGreen, Green EverywhereI realized that day that the desert is certainly beautiful– it’s strong, tough, and as I have said before, holds a sort of untouchable beauty.  Yet it’s just that–distant and otherworldly.  And I discovered that as much as I appreciate the desert’s unique beauty, I have a love affair with green.  I need the earthiness of life, the palette of colors, the desire to breathe deeply and savor the moisture in the air.  There’s a certain tenderness, a vulnerability woven through a landscape of green hills and fruit trees that the strong, beautifully harsh desert will never have.

I respect and admire the desert.  But I cherish the green.  Like a love of my life, it steals its way into my heart and becomes home.

Silence in the Trona Pinnacles: American Southwest (Day 4)

Desert Mornings- Ridgecrest

Mornings in the desert belong to a different world altogether.  We had stayed the night before in Ridgecrest, a military town, and as we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, to my left was a beautiful orange-pink sunrise above the mountains far in the horizon.  It was a gorgeous way to start a day that as far as I knew, would not be full of naturally beautiful sites like the previous day in Death Valley.

Pools of brine at Searles Valley Minerals
Pools of brine at Searles Valley Minerals
Snow? Nope-- salt in the mine.
Snow? Nope– salt in the mine.

This day was supposed to bring us to Searles Valley Minerals, a mining company that does solution mining.  Like the lithium mine from the second day in Clayton Valley, this mine isn’t the typical underground coal mine that usually comes to mind.  Brine (saltwater) deposits that originated from a lake that once existed are pumped from below ground, and they’re full of all sorts of dissolved minerals.  At the mine we were met by an elderly man named Jim, who began his presentation by saying he was a new man on the block.  He had only been at the company for about 50 years.  Jim instantly gained my respect and attention– I can’t even imagine doing the same thing for that long.  And when he said he was a chemical engineer by education, my head snapped up.  Sure enough, the process diagrams that made up most of the presentation were full of the heat exchangers, turbines, distillation columns, and recycle flow streams that I’ve been learning about for the past year.  Then to see these pieces of equipment that I normally draw as black boxes on a piece of paper was pretty grounding.  But even though Jim himself was a pretty charismatic guy, the talks were pretty dense, the drive out into the mine not particularly interesting, and the video about the history of the mine long and irrelevant.  And we weren’t allowed to take pictures through most of it.

So I was not in a particularly exciting mood when we left the mine to head to the Trona Pinnacles.  I’d never heard or seen them before, but my mind felt a bit numb, and I figured it would just be an interesting geological formation that we would visit for a few minutes.  but I immediately understood what we were looking at from several miles away.  As our entourage of sketchy white vans were bumped and bruised by the rocky roads, everyone in my car started exclaiming at the weird structures.  One of them looked like an old man hunched over in a cloak.  And then there was the couple hugging with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders.  I jumped out of the van into a cloudy, suffocating heat.

The Trona Pinnacles coming into view.
The Trona Pinnacles coming into view.
The huggers!
The huggers!

“Thirty minutes,” said our professor.  “Don’t get lost, don’t break anything, and don’t come home with your pockets full of rocks.  And don’t be stupid.”  Ah, the subtle sophistication of Terrascope philosophy.

Within a few minutes, something kind of clicked in my mind.  I wandered off a bit, stopping every once in a while when the angle on a particular structure caught my eye, or when a person’s figure starkly contrasted to the tan, sandy rocks behind them, trying to capture it all through a lens.

A few members of the Terrascope family.
A few members of the Terrascope family.

I reached the base of a particularly tall formation, and only hesitated for a moment, before beginning the climb up.  It was almost as steep as the volcano from a few days before, and a few times I wondered why I was so adamantly rock climbing.  But at the top, I found this small nook that was so enclosed from everything but from which I could still see everything.  It was so perfectly sized for me that I crawled inside.  The nook faced away from where everyone else had been exploring, and I couldn’t hear anyone or anything other than the occasional rock that tumbled down the slope of the structure.

Introspection-- TronaTrona Lizard BuddyThere’s something almost therapeutic about photography.  Perhaps it’s the satisfaction of capturing a moment as it was, still and perfect, a sense of proof of your presence in this moment, made explicit only by the fact that the picture itself exists.  Sitting there in that nook, those moments were everywhere around me, as I leaned back into the rock, content in solitude, surrounded in silence.

A view from the nook.
A view from the nook.

“Hike or Die”- Death Valley: American Southwest (Day 3)

“How could rocks and sand and silence make us so afraid and yet be so wonderful?”  –Edna Brush Perkins, The White Heart of Mojave, 1922

Even though I struggle every morning at MIT to wake up at 9 a.m. for class, I woke up without any trouble at exactly 6 a.m. on Sunday morning in the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.  We had arrived the previous night in a two-hour drive from Clayton Valley at the only hotel in Death Valley, which was set up as a resort with separate residence blocks.  Our rooms opened onto a patio with two rocking chairs that overlooked a lush, green courtyard (just as out-of-place in Death Valley as the palm trees) with one solitary tree in the middle.  The evening winds were gorgeously pleasant, and while we waited for dinner, I sat on one of the chairs with my legs crossed and just rocked back and forth.  One of my fellow sophomore UTFs, Ana, was quietly sitting on the lawn a few doors down.  It was one of the most peaceful ten minutes I have spent in a long time.

I forgot to mention yesterday that the reason I can come on this trip despite the fact that I’ve completed the freshman program is that I became a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) during the fall.  It’s basically an undergrad teaching assistant position, but true to the philosophy of the class we don’t really teach– we’re just there for guidance, questions, and as some like to say, the occasional kick-in-the-rear.

Sunrise and Pink Mountains Planes Across the Morning SkyAfter dinner it was too dark to explore, so a bunch of us decided instead that we would wake up early to see the sunrise, which according to Google, happens in Death Valley at 6:45 a.m.  Armed with cameras and the solemnity of the morning, we walked across the road from the premises into a large, open rocky plain surrounded by mountains.  Even at 6:45, the sun was still hidden behind the mountains, but at one point I turned around to see the tips of the mountains opposite of the rising sun bathed in a pinkish glow.  Over time that stripe of pink spread down though slowly a pinkish glow began to spread vertically on the mountains opposite of the rising sun.  Because the day ahead of us was packed with the sites around Death Valley, we couldn’t stay to watch the sun actually peek out from behind the mountains, but I almost feel that the moments before that where it lay hidden but still made its presence known were the calmest, happiest moments– when the air is filled with an expectation of the burst of light to come.

Sunrise in the Valley

The cracked dry earth on a Death Valley morning.
The cracked dry earth on a Death Valley morning.

I had 10 minutes until I had to be in the vans– exactly enough time to run to the gift shop general store and buy a shotglass for my travel collection. 🙂  The first one I picked up had an animal skull on it.  Each one seemed more dark and gruesome than the first– finally I came to one with a skeleton in hiking boots with cartoonish font: “Death Valley: Hike or Die.”  I shuddered involuntarily, and finally settled on a tamer, prettier dark blue one with silver-painted cacti and mountains.  Hike or Die.  This was right before the visitor’s center where a display told me that Death Valley was “a place of superlatives”: hottest, lowest, driest.

Walking down the canyon near Zabriskie's Point.
Walking down the canyon near Zabriskie’s Point.

As we drove we began to pass large geological formations called alluvial fans.  Eventually we stopped on the side of the road next to a deep canyon.  There our professor told us yet another classic story of the place that ended as all stories of hubris do.  It turns out that the alluvial fans span about a 400 square mile area, and when it rains up in the mountains, the water washes a lot of the rock debris down with it, flowing and draining in this vast space of land.  However, a fancy hotel was built in the path of the water flow, and the owners of the hotel didn’t like that all of this lovely material arrived in front of their doorstep whenever it rained.  So they contracted engineers to divert the path of the flow into a space which they created by blowing up rock to form a canyon, in the hopes that the water and rocks would just avoid the hotel altogether.  Which it did.  However, the space which they had created for the water was only about 40 square miles.  So water had ten times less space to drain in, and in one particularly horrible storm, the rocks and water mixture built up so high that it broke through the canyon and flooded over the parking lot in front of Zabriskie Point.  It came with so much force that it ripped off the bathroom and people were buried alive in their cars by the crashing rocks.  As one of my classmates said, Death Valley is a national park which means that technically, nothing can be taken out or changed in the valley.  But when it has to do with the business of fancy hotels, people are all for breaking out the dynamite.  Sometimes nature has its own way of settling the score.

Ubehebe CraterDeath Valley is the geologist’s dream-come-true.  Our next stop was the Ubehebe Crater, which is basically an explosion crater.  The crater formed several thousand years ago by rising magma which converted the groundwater to steam.  This built up an intense pressure underground until the rock exploded, forming a crater that is a half-mile across and 500 feet deep.

An attempt at defining scale-- see the white vans on the left?
An attempt at defining scale– see the white vans on the left?

It was impossible by any means to capture the staggering size of the crater on camera, as much as I tried.  A few signs near the edge displayed horrifying images of stick figures rolling down the sharp, rocky sides of the crater, though despite that there was a trail leading down to the bottom of the crater.  Instead, we hiked around the entire crater, which was by no means an easy hike (the slogan from the morning started coming back to me).  But every few minutes I would look up with a slightly new viewpoint, and every time the new visual perspective held me speechless.

Other amazing sights:

Fossil Falls
Fossil Falls
Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon
Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point
Rep-ing MIT in the Little Hebe Crater.

 

Be sure to check out the freshmen blog of the trip!

If All the Raindrops Were Lemondrops and Gumdrops…

…oh what a rain that would be.”  Or so the song goes.  I actually beg to differ because that would be pretty painful, and it’s only really profitable if one falls right into your mouth.  (Question: How many of you actually know where that song is from?)

Okay first things first.  I love rain.  That’s probably an understatement, and I would have bolded it or something, except that if I “love” rain, then I LOVE thunderstorms (so obviously using the font modifiers on rain would make thunderstorms indescribable on the word scale).  Though I think my high school English teacher would put his head down in shame, knowing that I resorted to bolding and capitalizing my letters instead of “capitalizing” (see what I did there?) on my skills in diction.  I love rain, but I adore thunderstorms… relish thunderstorms…cherish, venerate, worship, idolize thunderstorms.  Oh thesaurus.com

Anyways, I’m not quite sure what it is about rain.  Now that I’m on the English train of thought, I immediately thought of the metaphor of a rebirth, like a baptism or something… but that’s not quite it.  It’s just refreshing.  The best kind of rain is on a hot summer day, when you can feel the sky wanting to burst open, and suddenly this cool, amazing, goodness somehow seems to wash away everything– every concern, every worry, every confusion.  I defy anyone with a personality to not want to spin and dance around.  And when it starts to absolutely pour, to the point where the drops are so hard they almost hurt, but not quite there yet– that’s when you want to just stand perfectly still with your face up to the sky, your eyes scrunched closed, and your arms spread out to catch every drop.

This is what happened yesterday.  When: 6:30pm.  Where: National University of Singapore (NUS) tennis courts.  What: Getting completely drenched in the middle of a tennis workout.  Now if this was high school and I was with my high school doubles partner/best friend, we would have just continued playing, priding ourselves over our inclination toward “danger,” as everyone else ran off the courts.  I mean, we even played through tornado sirens once (to be fair, we thought they were thunderstorm warnings 😀 ) This time I was with people who are definitely more adept at tennis than either of us, and refused to let me do this for my personal safety and the safety of my racket. (But I mean, it’s a thunderstorm, how can you possibly refuse?!)  So instead, I just stood there.  I spun.  I twirled.  I laughed.  (side note: Yahoo Answers to the question, “Have you ever played tennis in the rain?” says “Yes, but I stopped when I discovered that a smile makes a lousy umbrella!”  To which I say, who needs an umbrella when you have a smile?)

Now I could spend the next paragraph discussing the larger-than-life realizations I made in those twenty minutes while the rain poured down on me.  I could talk about how the rain was a turning-point in the development of my character (typical college-essay material).  And I could spend a not-insignificant amount of your brainpower trying to draw a variety of analogies, metaphors, allusions (where is that literary handbook…) relating the rain to a spiritual force that interacted with my soul or something.  I could.  But I think it’s simpler than all of that.  Sometimes it’s just standing outside in the rain.  It’s just having a childish carelessness about whether or not you’re going to get sick as long as you have some fun.  That’s what it is.  Fun.

A Garden in a City or a City in a Garden?

Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands

I have to say, there are a lot of things about Singapore that really impress me.  The excitement that the grandeur inspires wears off after the first week, but it’s beyond that when you start to really appreciate (or reject) this unique city-state.  Take MBS, for example, local acronym for Marina Bay Sands, an indescribable building. (side note: I love Singapore’s inclination for acronyms– reminds me of MIT where everything is either a number or an acronym.  For example, what’s the name of the program I’m in this summer? SMURFs: Singapore-MIT Undergraduate Research Fellowship 😀 ).  When you stand across the Singapore River, next to the Merlion and look out at MBS at night, there’s a huge, snazzy light show that comes from the ship on top of the buildings.  And the first time, it’s cool.  But the second time, and especially the time you actually go into MBS, you realize you can do without the show, without the facade.

But one of the first things I noticed about Singapore that has stuck with me through the past 5 weeks (how has it been 5 weeks since I got here?!) was how good Singapore is at promoting greenery throughout the city.  Yes, I know, it’s a tropical region, they probably get enough rain to fulfill all of America’s needs for precipitation and more, but it’s still impressive because they don’t have to do it.  But they do, and it makes the city all the more alive and natural.  Vines cover bridges and buildings are architecturally designed to incorporate garden hangings, trees, unique flowers, and plants.

One of the several balconies in my office building.
One of the several balconies in my office building.

I also must confess that I have a bit of a personal history with the idea of greenery in a city.  In fact, I almost spent all of last semester on a class project related to it.  I’m in a program (a “learning community”) at MIT called Terrascope, which would probably require an entirely different blog post all together to describe.  It’s kind of one of those things which once you start, if you get hooked, you can’t do without it, and yet you want to gripe about it at every waking moment (ask any of my friends for proof of the last part).  Anyways, for a quick synopsis, in the fall, we take a class that involves sixty or so freshmen creating a plan to solve some large complex problem (it was the biodiversity crisis for our year) with little to no professional/adult guidance, create a website for it, and put together a presentation for a panel of experts.  No biggie.  Just a couple of all-nighters, hair-pulling debates, and enough drama to create an entire season of soaps.  Second semester, we wise up a bit (not really) and focus on solving a specific design/engineering problem relating to the topic.  And OUR topic, for a long time, was going to be creating a model of the incorporation of greenery and growth into the Innovation District in Boston.  That is, of course, until we decided that it was impossible to complete in the time frame we had, and turned instead to creating a switching system for a pedal-powered monorail (come back later for explanations). 🙂

Supertrees!
Supertrees!

Either way, that’s my personal bias.  So when I went to Singapore’s latest attraction last Saturday, the Gardens by the Bay, I already had some expectations for a city that finds a way to incorporate these things in daily life.  Instead, I was transported to somewhere far, far away from the concrete jungle that is the Marina Bay area.  As soon as you enter, you meet the “supertrees,” which, I have to admit, although a bit unnerving at first, were a pretty interesting combination of city and nature.  After all, you don’t see artificial trees that use solar panels to capture the sun’s energy every day.

Waterfall in Cloud Forest
Waterfall in Cloud Forest

Without a doubt, though, my favorite attraction was the Cloud Forest.  Imagine the vegetation and greenery you would expect in a mountain high above the tops of clouds, but in a glass dome.  A crystal-clear waterfall cascades gently down, spreading a thin mist in the surrounding air.  Climb up to the first level to find yourself in the midst of flowers with colors you didn’t even know could exist and Pitcher Plants that catch and eat insects and other small animals.  Another level displays an entire exhibit dedicated to the energy-saving, sustainable features of the garden, its usage of biodigesters, and renewable energy.  Walk across a bridge with the mountain fog spreading around you, and only when you look up to the glass and see the Singapore Flyer or Marina Bay Sands Hotel outside do you remember that you’re currently inside the nature in one of the most modern cities of the world.  (And maybe after, if you’re like me, you kind of stand there, with a weird mix of awe and disgust, wondering at the amount of money it must have cost to create this).

 

A Drop on a Petal Pitcher Plants Sparkling in the Mist

Regardless, I think it’s worth it.  The importance of greenery in a city is highly underrated and if a small country like Singapore can afford to show the world how it’s done, then all the power to them.  But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that it’s more than just for show; it’s for the health and mentality of people.  You just have to look at the battle going on back home in Kendall Square near MIT for proof of that, where petition after petition is signed to prevent the public roof garden from being torn down.  And I don’t know about you, but on a bright spring day, with a gentle wind blowing green grass, sitting in that garden, I can’t help but smile.  Smiling for true beauty.