A Mess of Mint

In an overgrown herb patch, a hitn of health, a family line and leaves of black history

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By Constance Garcia-Barrio

"Your mint’s running amok,” my neighbor, an avid gardener, said one sunny afternoon. “Let it go much longer, you’ll need a machete to hack it down.”

Despite the warning, I aimed to let the mint keep growing, though I didn’t say so. Mint has wound its way through generations of many of us black Americans. “In 1792, a man, aged 72, was cured of the stone by taking the expelled juice of red onions and horse mint…” Samuel Stearns wrote in his 1801 Materia Medica. “The discovery was made by a Negro in Virginia, who obtained his freedom thereby.” My elders don’t claim such stellar results, yet mint has long played a role in our health.

From my great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or just Maw, came herbal remedies from slavery time.  Born into bondage around 1851 near Partlow, Virginia, Maw lived until 1964, 113 years. For her and many other enslaved blacks, herbal medicine meant survival. She used mint for stomach complaints and to ease morning sickness—maybe on the advice of Aunt Alsie Ellis, the local midwife—during her pregnancies with the first generation of children born free.  

When my mother put down roots in Philadelphia in the late 1920s, she hid some of her heritage, afraid that being both black and Southern would shackle her to low-wage jobs.  She hired a speech therapist, worked with him for two years, and erased her Southern accent. On the other hand, Mom didn’t conceal her use of herbal remedies.  When anyone had a chancy stomach, she would cut a mint leaf into tiny pieces and add it to a teaspoon of sugar for the family member or guest. Mom also used mint—transplanted from Maw’s farm in Virginia—to add a cooling bite to her iced tea.

In time, I learned that mint could not only flavor tea or slow-roasted lamb, but my very life. Before Mom moved into assisted living, I took a few shoots of mint—flourishing years after she had transplanted them from Maw’s land—and planted them in the near-corner of my tiny front yard. Now, when I feel the need of Maw’s strength, I pinch off a leaf and eat it, a spiky green prayer.

Mint holds yet another dimension, I found. Some years ago, aching to include in my life rituals lost or frayed during slavery time, I became initiated as a priestess in the Yoruba religion, a sister tradition to Vodoun. My godmother, who led the ceremony, once explained that taking a mint bath can open one’s life to good energy.

And so, I said nothing to my worried neighbor. I let my mint grow till I had enough to cover the bottom of my old clawfoot tub. I turned on the hot water one night, and, after an amen or two, I climbed in. The mint’s sharp scent left me feeling cleaner in body and spirit.

I admit that my neighbor is right—at this point, I would probably have to rent a backhoe to dig out all that hardy mint. Pink daisies would prettify my little yard, but, given a choice, I would rather have that mess of unruly mint that reaches back to Maw.

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Constance Garcia-Barrio lives in Philadelphia and often writes on aspects of African-American history.

The Storm

Pondering Philadelphia’s resilience in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

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By Sam Boden

Every day, I walk the cement patchwork of the city’s streets and sidewalks, navigating the bumps and cracks of the well-worn roads that make up our neighborhoods. I have seen the ways water gathers in the streets after a heavy rain and, through working with the Philadelphia Water Department, witnessed firsthand how Philadelphia has been managing stormwater with green spaces. I’m proud to be part of the city’s work.

Watching the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in which America’s fourth-largest city was left underwater, closely followed by devastation in Florida from Hurricane Irma, I was struck by just how precarious our urban situation is—how quickly a storm becomes a flood, and a flood becomes a catastrophe.

I have always viewed cities as bastions of power and success; fortresses that are not vulnerable to the elements. Of course, there is always a threat from extreme weather—cities are not immune to wind and water—but I have always believed in the oft-touted “resilience” of these cities. I always assumed that they were prepared to weather the worst storms.

It was not until recently that I came to terms with the fragility of our urban ecosystems: We are as vulnerable in our wood and concrete and glass structures as any other creature is in their den. The photos of Houston’s famed sprawl returned overnight into an urban delta, entire island communities flattened, and the Southeast U.S. overwhelmed by storm surge should remind all of us that there is no real distinction between the “natural” and “built” environments—all are subject to the same forces, standing on the same earth. And the earth is changing.

As a young person, just starting my career, I am inheriting a new world—one defined by more droughts, storms and heat than my ancestors, and those changes have multiplied previous threats and upended our models and predictions. While debates rage in governments around the world about the costs of adaptation and mitigation, I am left wondering: How do we move forward in the face of such an alarming future?

It’s tempting to play the blame game, to accuse everyone else of ignorance about the causes of climate change. But we have all, through our consumption habits, played a role—we’ve collectively allowed for the devastation of cities like Houston and states like Florida.

I cherish the stories of people who recognize the threats from climate change and realize that the onus is on them—and all of us—to fight back and prepare well. I have faith in the power of voices raised together to change course, and I find hope in the engagement of others in my generation.

Supporting the use of green infrastructure for managing stormwater, attending local planning meetings, encouraging decision makers to act responsibly and changing our own behavior are some of the ways that we can effect change. Watching the recent hurricanes unfold was a wake up call for me, and I desperately hope it was for others. Our days of sleepwalking through our current reality should be over. The ability to safely traverse our city’s streets depends on it.

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Sam Boden is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Philadelphia Water Department, working on its green infrastructure initiative, Green City, Clean Waters.

Foot Soldier

by Mary Van Ogtrop

Illustration by Julia Tran

 Want to enjoy your commute? Try walking.

 At 7 a.m., my clock radio powers on to the sound of WXPN. “It’s a cold morning in Philadelphia,” the announcer says, a little mournfully, “with a low of 23.”

My eyes flashed open and I hopped up. Over 20 degrees: better get walking.

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The Trash Not Taken

Illustration by NARRATOR

Wissahickon's litter problem prompts man to collect it for a year, turning it into a powerful art project

Since moving to Philadelphia from my small Central Pennsylvania hometown in 2000, the single biggest gripe I’ve had with the city is its litter problem. Many anti-litter programs have come and gone—and even exist today—and still, it persists. It was one of the main reasons I moved to considerably cleaner Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 2009.

Before I did, I took one last hike in the Wissahickon, the most scenic 1,800 acres in the Fairmount Park system. I was appalled and disheartened by the graffiti and the litter I saw trailside, in the woods, even around (but not in) the trash cans near trailheads that lead out into the park.

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Homestead Acts

Illustration by Kirsten Harper

When I got serious about growing our own food four years ago, I had no idea how much it would affect how my wife and I lived and managed our lives and our home. We had already made a conscious decision to shop, cook, and eat as locally and seasonally as possible. So, it made sense that one of the ways to accomplish this would be growing at least some of our own food, and to work on becoming urban homesteaders.

The principles of urban homesteading, a term coined in 2001 by California urban farmer Jules Dervaes, are fairly straightforward, although they represent considerable challenges. The first principle is to grow your own food on your own city lot, with many urban homesteaders setting a goal to produce about 50 percent of what is eaten, frozen and canned.

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Better Days

Illustration by Mike Jackson

On Dec. 31, I resolved to build the next year around sustainability. A lot of people talk about it, but I was finding that few people actually lived it — myself included. I wanted to set an example and share what I learned with those around me. So, I embarked on 365 days of putting each area of my life under a microscope.

It was a lesson in going without, and learning to love a slower, simpler way of life. To begin, I researched and swapped household products for more sustainable, less toxic options. I signed up for Bennett Compost to keep food waste out of the landfill, continued my Greensgrow CSA, started volunteering at Greensgrow, switched from PECO to Green Mountain Energy, and cut myself off from buying any new clothing, a tough feat for a woman who works in the fashion industry.

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Dust to Dust

A local project commemorates the loss
of a beloved home in Mantua

Illustration by Kathleen White

If you’re like me and you live in Philadelphia, chances are you did not build your own home. So, what you call “your” kitchen or “your” bedroom was actually someone else’s kitchen and bedroom before you moved in. Imagine flipping through a complete stranger’s photo album filled with cherished pictures of Thanksgiving dinners and shoveling out the car in front of the house, but the house they’re in front of is now yours. And the Thanksgiving dinner was going on in what is now “your” dining room. 

I think about this a lot: the recycling of our homes and the gradual accumulation of personal histories they have silently sheltered over generations. This simple premise is the basis of a project I’ve been involved in called Funeral for a Home

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A Man for All Seasons

Illustration by Laura Weiszer

A cyclist's commitment to all-weather commuting

Last October I got serious about biking. I know it was October because that’s when I ordered a pair of waterproof pants from Amazon. I had already been biking mostly everywhere for just over half a decade, but I had made a conscious decision to only bike, regardless of the weather. So I already had slightly leaky rain boots and a rain jacket, and the only missing component to biking through a downpour was rain pants. Before buying those pants, it was far too easy for a rainy day to force me onto the trolley, but since then I really had no excuse but to bike to work.

My partner Nikki and I shared a car, using it maybe once a week, but when we moved to West Philadelphia, I wanted to prove to myself that I could eliminate even those occasional weekly trips. With the exception of occasional family visits to western Pennsylvania, I wanted to be car-free.

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One Step At a Time

What a sustainability leader learned walking
from Boston to San Diego

Considering a green career? You might research the field by hiking it. In 1978, I crossed the U.S. entirely on foot through forests and desert, along a maze of quiet dirt and gravel roads, by day and at night, in rain, hail and blasting sunshine. Measuring America with my body, I found it grander than any book, movie, statistic or voyage by car, train, plane or bicycle could reveal.

Illustration by James BoyleIntending to reinvent myself as an urban ecologist, I began walking from my home in Boston toward the Pacific Ocean via San Diego. After 199 days and 3,500 miles, I covered a distance greater than the diameter of the moon, or halfway to the center of the earth.

Where did it get me? To new places, exposed to people, animals and storms. To novel encounters daily. Through forests, fields, deserts, mountains and rivers. Having started with $20 and a slim backpack, I worked odd jobs to buy supplies: picked apples in a migrant camp, taught half a day of school, hauled lumber, mopped floors, joined a carnival and built a donkey shed. 

I discovered that the whole world is a bed, finding shelter in apple orchards, barns, pastures, sheds, log cabins, wagons, abandoned homes, haystacks, churches, greenhouses, trailers, picnic tables, porches, gazebos, parks, stables, grandstands, sand dunes and yards. And I rediscovered that people are generous. I appeared from the woods at their doors, shared meals, attended parties, reunions and ice cream socials, and learned much of enduring worth.

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Watered Down

A closed-loop system springs a leak

In 2010, my husband Ben and I had been bit by the small-farm bug. I had just swapped a career in managing concert venues and nightclubs to start working with farm and food businesses. He was a paramedic who had lived on a Kibbutz in Israel for four years milking cows, picking avocadoes and doing field work.

Illustration by Sarah FeroneWe had just moved into our first apartment in Philadelphia, but were sure that within five years we’d buy a farm and build something of our own. We grew sprouts, wheatgrass and greens under a small shop light. We hung upside-down tomato planters, with boxes of basil and cilantro underneath to catch the drainage. Our humble harvests had us wide-eyed, knowing that we were planting the seeds of our future. 

One day I came home from work, and Ben had surprised me by building our koi fish tank into an aquaponic herb planter. I was mesmerized watching the fish swimming through tunnels of dangling basil roots. Aquaponics is a soil-free cultivation that takes hydroponics to another level by creating an ecosystem that uses the fish waste for plant food. In hydroponics, the grower mixes nutrients into the water reservoir to feed the plants.

Wanting to experiment with both techniques, we traded in our dining room table for a 16-square-foot hydroponic system to grow greens. When our koi started to get too big for their tank, something clicked. Why not retrofit this hydro system to be fed by the fish and solve two problems at once? We were soon swept off our feet by aquaponics, watching every Murray Hallam video we could find on YouTube, and phrases like “closed-loop sustainable system” started peppering our dinner conversations. But soon our apartment was bursting at the seams with equipment, and tying to balance the flow of water for 10 hours a day wasn’t working. We kept springing leaks, which the bank below us did not appreciate. 

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The Family Stone

Illustration by James Heimer

A two-century-old stone mill
gets a second life generations later

My grandfather, Henry Fischer, was a master miller in Bavaria when he decided at age 20 to immigrate to the U.S. A classic American immigrant story of hard work and new beginnings, he eventually owned his own moving and storage company in Doylestown, but his passion for water mills remained. In 1947, he bought the run-down Castle Valley Mill property, spent a year restoring the house, and moved his family in. While he never got the mill running again, he continued to make repairs as time and money allowed, and collected mill stones and machinery— including an 1830 rolling screen, 1910 seed cleaner, 1888 disc aspirator and a 1880 Nordyke-Marmon stone mill—from all over Bucks County as mills were torn down or turned into restaurants and gift shops. My father, Robert Fischer, lived at Castle Valley from age 12 until he left for a career in the Air Force and aviation. Though it was his cherished childhood home, milling was not in his future. 

 

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Rebels With a Cause

Illustration by Chris Hall

Entrepreneurial middle schoolers evolve
into focused jerky makers

1998. Downingtown Middle School Cafeteria. Fifth period lunch. I had just finished my brown-bagged salami, mustard and Cooler Ranch Doritos sandwich, and scrounged through my backpack for the $5 bill my mom gave me each morning for drinks and snacks. I got the same thing everyday: strawberry kiwi lemonade ($1.49), a giant chocolate chip cookie ($1), and a Taco Bell soft taco ($1.50). Yes, our cafeteria actually served Taco Bell, an inconceivable travesty by current childhood nutrition standards, and heaven on earth to a 12-year-old. It was that golden era of flavor, when adulterated concerns like “health” and “natural ingredients” never got in the way of unalloyed indulgence.

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