New York, 11 January 2014

I’ve been reading about the political storm whirling around New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie and his possible role in the partial closure back in September of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge causing mammoth traffic jams, all as a mean-minded act of revenge against a mayor who chose not to back him.

George Washington Bridge traffic jam

As I read and watch the TV commentaries, I smugly remind myself of the fact that 25 years ago, when I lived in New York and for a period had to travel frequently to Trenton, I did NOT drive and so was never at the mercy of tyrannical politicians and their staff. I took the train (the golden haze of history makes me forget that the trains sometimes ran chaotically).

I would catch the train at Penn Station, as miserable then as it is now (although I read somewhere that they might tear it down and replace it with something nicer … hope springs eternal).

Penn Station

But at that time, there was an employee of the railways, announcer of departing trains, who would always end his litany of stops on these trains with a sonorously chanted “All abooo-aard!” He started high on the “All”, dropped to low note on “aboo”, and then rose to triumphant high finale on “aard”. It always put a smile on my lips and sent me off with the sun in my heart.

I needed it. After lurching through the tunnel under the Hudson River, we would emerge, blinking, in New Jersey on the other side. There then followed an urban and peri-urban bleakness. After passing through Hoboken and Secaucus, we crossed wastelands of what must have once been lovely marshes and wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic rivers, as this small remaining wetland near Secaucus attests

wetlands Secaucus

but were now a tangle of roads and studded with industrial estates

roads through the wetlands

pulaski skyway

many of them abandoned, evidence of the collapse of the manufacturing sector in the US.

old industrial site passaic river

I redid this journey recently, taking the train to Washington DC, and it hasn’t got much better.

Every time I sat in that train 25 years ago, watching the bleakness roll by, I silently lamented that way of thinking which saw wetlands as something useless. Here is what a journalist had to say when describing the Meadowlands in 1867:

“Swamp-lands are blurs upon the fair face of Nature; they are fever-breeding places; scourges of humanity; which, instead of yielding the fruits of the earth and adding wealth to the general community, only supply the neighboring places poisonous exhalations and torturing mosquitos. They are, for all practical purposes, worthless; and the imperative necessity for their reclamation is obvious to all, and is universally conceded.” [1]

So they had filled them in and turned them over to some useful economic activity. But now all I could see was that much of that useful economic activity had upped sticks and moved to China or somewhere else, leaving behind only a blighted landscape. And no doubt as I write, that useful economic activity is upping sticks again, moving to somewhere even cheaper, leaving another blighted landscape behind it.

What of those wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers? Perhaps sea level rise, coupled with more frequent and more severe storms, both caused by climate change, itself caused by the carbon emissions from all those useful economic activities, will wipe away all our intrusions and chase us off to higher ground. A revenge which will dwarf Governor Christie’s mean-spirited attempt at revenge – if indeed he was involved, of course. Of course …


1. The new system of reclaiming lands. (1867, November 16). Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, pp. 36–37.

Traffic jam on George Washington Bridge: [in
Penn Station: [in
Wetlands Secaucus: [in
Roads through the wetlands: [in
Pulaski Skyway: [in
Old industrial site Passaic River: [in


Beijing, 1 May 2013

These last few days we have been suffering from an unpleasant side-effect of Spring: airborne white fluff, which trees around here are shedding in huge quantities in their eagerness to mate and to seed. The fluff drifts down, floats along on the breeze, is whirled about by passing cars, eddies in big clumps around your feet, and – most disagreeably – gets into your eyes, nose and mouth. Yesterday morning, it was so thick that looking up into the sky it seemed to be snowing.

pollen 008

while a few days ago currents in the canal and wind interacted to create a thick layer of fluff along the far bank.

pollen on canal 002

This is the offending tree, photographed in a quiet side street

poplars-Beijing 011

a poplar, a member of the aptly-named cottonwoods, whose more mature specimens carry these very distinctive diamond shapes on their lower bark.

pollen 013

And this is where the fluff is from:

cotton on tree-1

I first became aware of this tree in Vienna, not so much because of white fluff flying around, of which there was a fair amount at this time of the year, but because of some really magnificent specimens growing in the gardens of the posher, greener parts of town. So posh and so exclusive that I have found no photos on the web.

But actually, where the tree really came into its own was down by the Danube, in the last vestiges of the river’s wetlands which land use planners and river engineers of the 19th Century had left alone.

poplars on the Danube-1

Not surprising, really. The tree loves a wet, marshy soil. Which explains why there are so many poplars around Milan and in the Po River plain generally, which is a pretty soggy place. And in Milan, the problem of flying white fluff was truly awful. These pictures are not from Milan but are from that part of the country and give a good sense of the horror of it.



It’s the poplar’s love of wet soil that makes me wonder what it’s doing here in Beijing. I mean, this city is semi-desertic; lack of water is a constant and growing problem. Yet, there are huge plantations of the tree around the city, part of the reforestation campaigns that the government is so fond of as a way of minimizing the dust storms to which this city is periodically subject. Wise policies no doubt, but surely they could have found a more suitable tree?


pix of sky, canal, and poplar tree: mine
Fluff on tree:
Poplars on the Danube: