Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Night of the Living Dead

History was made on July 22, 2013 when His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born in England. Simultaneous with his mother Kate Middleton's labor pains, at the US Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington DC the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) bloomed. More commonly known as a corpse flower, this giant plant is native to Indonesia and only blooms once every few years. Its flower lasts 24-48 hours and smells like rotting or burning flesh.

Never one to let an opportunity for a pithy comment pass, I noted on my Historical Dilettante Facebook page that I hoped the Royal Baby smelled better and would live far longer. (I also stated that I thought both baby and bloom should be named George. The Cambridges took my advice. I don't think the Conservatory named its flower).

What the rest of the world can do, Pittsburgh can do better.  Okay, so we can't birth a royal baby, true. But behold, the titan arum of Pittsburgh has bloomed at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland!

What you are looking at is a 13 year old plant that is sprouting its virgin bloom (*insert deflowering joke here*).  The corpse flower doesn't have an annual blooming cycle. It is a patient plant, storing up energy in an underground tuber called a corm and waiting for just the right conditions to flower. And we're talking a lot of energy; this plant's corm weighs nearly 60 pounds. Outside of the tropics, botanic gardens are best suited to support flowering given the ability of such facilities to control temperature and humidity.

When the corpse flower blooms, it heats up to human body temperature and emits a fragrance redolent of rotting meat. The putrid smell is most potent at night into the early morning. In the wild, this combination of heat and smell attracts pollinators. Flesh flies, dung and carrion beetles will travel long distances to take a whack at pollinating the plant. The bloom lasts at most 24-48 hours and then wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, show's over.

An individual corpse flower could bloom as often as every few years, but longer waits are more typical. The unpredictable nature and short duration of the bloom are what make it so exciting.

Well, that, and the stench.

The Pittsburgh corpse flower was acquired in 2010 and is the first to ever bloom here. Phipps' horticulture curators have been on Corpse Flower Watch the last few weeks, tweeting and posting status updates as to the ETB (estimated time of bloom). I was personally hoping for something like the convenient color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System scale:
Blue: Nothing to see here, check back in 7 years
Yellow:  Corm engorging, privacy please
Orange:  Corm about to blow, take cover
Red: OMG, OMG, it's in bloom! Alert the dung beetles and flesh flies! Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife! 
But alas, I think the good folks at Phipps were too busy making punny signs to work up such a warning scale. That, and concocting (and maybe sampling) fancy mixed drinks in the bar for patrons to sip on whilst waiting on line to view the plant.

Because that line was long. Drinks were necessary.

Here's what happened. After days of monitoring the situation, late this afternoon the word went out over social media:  BLOOM!

So I piled kids and camera in the car around 9 PM on this night of a blue moon. We headed over to Phipps to catch a glimpse and a whiff, along with a thousand other people. Phipps Conservatory made plans to stay open until 2 AM for the bloom duration in order to allow maximum it had tons of commemorative t-shirts to sell.

Unlike its cousin in DC, Pittsburgh's corpse flower has a cool name: Romero. That's in honor of film director, screenwriter and editor George Romero, known for films about the inevitable zombie apocalypse. His 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the Pittsburgh area. So as a nifty tie-in, Phipps Conservatory planned to provide multiple showings of the Romero film in honor of the Romero flower.

I was relieved there were no zombies in the crowd. Then again, you never know with zombies. They very well might have been lurking. Gah.

We wondered if the gift shop might sell little bottles of Eau de Romero, but no such luck. Capturing the essence of corpse flower and packaging it is probably a job for the biological weapons industry.

Okay, so, right, I know what you want to know: did the corpse flower smell like rotting flesh? Uhm...maybe? The thing is, I have no basis for comparison. I can tell you that my kids believe the corpse flower smells like a month's supply of fresh dog poop, particularly if your dogs like to eat really stinky dog food and maybe even each other's poop. I'm sorry Blogger doesn't offer a scratch-n-sniff plug-in so you could make your own determination about this.

Since I try to keep this blog vaguely history-related, I could conclude with some well-crafted philosophical musings. Like, how historical events are as ephemeral as the short-lived bloom cycle of the corpse flower but their impact lasts longer than the bloom's putrid smell lingers in the nostrils. But I won't. That would be taking this stuff way too seriously.

So here's the take-home message: I dragged myself out in the middle of the night to smell a weird-looking plant that reeked of poop. That is all.

Thanks, Phipps, for making it happen.


Corpse Flower Romero Blooms at Phipps 
Phipps Conservatory 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

This summer has been unusually cool, characterized by what my late father-in-law would have called "good sleeping weather." I just wish I was sleeping better! I spent a goodly chunk of my pre-parenting career working as a therapist and coordinator for research protocols in the fields of neurobiology, sleep, and affective disorders. I therefore know what I should and shouldn't do to assure a good night's sleep. But the baro-receptors in my bad knee have been acting up after a recent fall (both knees are bad, by the way, so take your pick as to which one I'm complaining about here) and some things are beyond the control of sleep hygiene.

And so I toss and turn. While the cool nights sure beat the usual Pittsburgh humidity, my knees and sleep cycle could do with a bit more typical summer warmth.

Counting sleep never helped me combat insomnia. Too bad, because goodness knows that our recent trip to Northumberland provided plenty of material. There were more sheep than people thereabouts.


Alas, no sheep thrills for me.

I've written before about how traditional meditative practices are a no-go for me, either. I respect the process, but for me spiritual awakening, peace and conscious awareness are found on other paths. A deliberate attempt to focus on something is more likely to send me online at 2 AM to research abandoned oil derricks. That's not necessarily a bad thing...except it's 2 AM and I'd rather be asleep.

Brilliant Cutoff Viaduct, Pennsylvania Railroad, Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh
So no sheep-counting. No meditating. What I find myself doing on those sleepless nights is contemplating ruins. It seems fitting to do so, given the shambles of my ruined Circadian cycle. But in truth, for as long as I can remember I have been haunted by a particular dreamscape. I find myself in the wee hours when I should be sleeping ruminating on images of man-made symmetry, contrast and, yes, even collapse. That too seems fitting, for even in my waking hours I am drawn to architectural skeletons, to caved-in roofs with weeds sprouting between the tiles, to boarded-up buildings, bridges and the bones of infrastructure against landscape.

Somewhere I read that time stands still in a building without people. That's a clever variation of the philosophical debate about falling trees being soundless if no one is around to hear them. But I like the idea of empty structures being waiting vortexes. What we see as a result of the vicissitudes of time and wear on a structure is in fact story-making made manifest. There is beauty in a ruin for the sheer visual stimulation of it, parts and whole. But that joy is compounded for me when I imagine what might have gone before: what the structure was like when time flowed with the lives that surged over its walkways, through its doors, behind its windows, between its walls, beneath its intact roof.

When I worked in sleep research, I inevitably was called upon to address patient or subject concerns about the meaning of their dreams. Now as a teen, my friends and I pored over a dream interpretation dictionary, but my patients got no such psuedo-Jungian parsing of their dreamscapes from me. I instead helped to define and interpret the emotional content of the dream without getting into why it specifically featured, say, a chipmunk eating a hot dog.

(Sometimes a chipmunk eating a hot dog is just a chipmunk eating a hot dog, after all. Far be it from me to laboriously deconstruct the magic of that image. Alas, no chipmunks eating hot dogs populate my personal dreamscape. Yet.).

The great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, Cairo Egypt
It's tempting to connect the disparate images of my dreamscape but I'm not sure what causes a particular scene to imprint on my brain. There are soothing, relaxing perspectives that I regularly gravitate toward, to be sure. But there's no identifiable connection between the images I see in my dreamscape slideshow, other than the (un)natural precision of engineering past and present. Bridges, overpasses, window frames and shadows, grillwork, ruined abbeys and castles, these are the types of images that flick through my mind in slide-show fashion as I wind myself down to sleep.

I imagine that the parade of images is the closest I can get to how my autistic nephew views the world, he who obsesses over photo albums and frames the world with his hands in a rectangular shape, freezing a moment to savor. These images of mine are not stagnant any more than my nephew's mental photographs are; they are imbued with impressions and accompanying sensory input.

These, then, are my illustrated bedtime stories.  The images are posted here in no particular order. I invite you to devise your own plots to go with them.

As for me, I still have miles to go before I sheep.
Dolbadarn Castle, Snowdonia Wales

Synagogue, Capernaum Israel

Off the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem Israel

Crusader-era ruins, Safed Israel

The Abbey of St Mary, York England

City walls, York England

Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh Scotland
Melrose Abbey, Melrose Scotland
Cabildo Upper Gallery, New Orleans Louisiana
Shop window, Williamsburg Virginia

Great Tower, Bridgnorth England
Cloister, Mont St-Michel France

Carnegie Library of Oakland, Pittsburgh PA