Words Over Lasagna
Recent Dinner Speakers

April/May 1995

By Daniel Van Riper

We've had some excellent presentations at our monthly lasagna dinners at First Presbyterian Church in Albany over the past five months. All were well attended. Here's a roundup:

November 94 - Dr. George Robinson of the SUNY Albany biology department talked about plant and animal surveys in NY State. "I am interested," he told the crowd, "in preserving biodiversity and keeping species from going extinct". The State has lost some 200 plants and 200 animals since the 1600's, he said, but today 5000 species are threatened with extinction. Many of these are confined to scattered and isolated preserve islands, which are often lousy habitats. He was very clear about the culprit for this situation. "I don't blame urban areas", he said, "Suburbanization is the problem."

According to Dr. Robinson, survey work in the Pine Bush has been haphazard, and he would like to see this work co-ordinated. Most notable among these independent surveys is Margaret Stewart's reptile and amphibian survey 15 years ago, which he would like to redo. Most alarming is the drop in pitch pine tree seedlings. There should be 70 or 80 seedlings per acre, but in walking surveys this past two autumns there were only about 20 per acre. Seedlings survive fire, putting up new shoots if their tops are burned off, so the occasional controlled burn is not the problem. The deer population explosion may be responsible, but the growing layer of dead leaves that has not been burned off in many areas is certainly a hindrance. Pitch pine seeds must land on the soil to survive, if they land on leaves they put out their roots on top of the leaves and die.

After his talk, there was a lively discussion of whether or not pitch pine cones need fire to open, a point which came up again at the March 95 dinner (see below).

December 94 90 people came for dinner, and at least 120 came for the presentation. Even though Rezsin made an extra pan of lasagna, food ran short. James Howard Kunstler of Saratoga, author of eight novels, has a strong local following. His latest book, The Geography of Nowhere, is no work of fiction. Subtitled "The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape", it is an informed, lively, and devastating indictment of our insane desire to wreck our countryside with suburbanization. In the book he describes the suburbs as "...a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has ceased to be a credible human habitat". Mr. Kunstler told the crowd, "People sense that there is something wrong with our landscape. They wince at the ugliness of strips like Central Avenue and Wolf Road in Albany. Our highways are clogged with cars, and we have filled our landscape with objects unworthy of our affection."

Mr. Kunstler feels that this ugliness is a symptom of a deeper problem. "Americans have a historic low regard for the public realm", he said. He defines civic life as the part of our life that takes place in the public realm. By not providing a place for civic life, we have ceased to be citizens and become mere consumers. "Have we not degraded our sense of who we are?", he asked.

He pointed out that the traditional public realm in America has been Main Street, either in small towns or cities. We have a strong idea that MainStreet is the real America, and thus on weekends we get in our cars and drive to places like Saratoga or little towns in Vermont just to confirm that notion. These are places where people congregate, and have easy access to goods, services and entertainment without depending on a car. As he put it, Main Street is a place where "people enjoy physical relationships with structures".

According to Mr. Kunstler, suburbs are a great place to raise children until they are about seven years old. After that they are living hells for the kids, marking time in front of televisions until they are old enough to drive. (Amen to that.) Effectively segregated from public life, they are unable to use their world, forced into "an infantile status of dependency". They rightly view their situation as a swindle.
What is to be done? "We created nowhere by a set of rules", he said. "We have to re-examine and change the rules. We have to plan for people, not for motorists". Maintaining the suburbs is an increasing drain on our economy, so there is a ready incentive for centralized planning. He suggests that the key may lie in local zoning laws, which currently have outlawed Main Street. "Let's create new rules that comply with American's notions of what's good". (The Geography of Nowhere is published by Simon and Schuster, available in paperback for $11.00)

January 95 - The return of the Harmonious Hogchokers! Brother and sister Peter and Laurie Siegel performed their mostly original and irreverent acoustic folk repertoire, which keeps getting bigger and sounding better. Although bass player Chris Aversen couldn't make it that evening, the Siegels kept the lasagna stuffed crowd jumping. Peter is getting absolutely hot on his guitar, and Laurie's voice was sweet and sensual, although we'd love to hear her crank up the volume a bit. We hate to miss a single word. Soon, we're going to be bragging about how we used to see these folks for free.

February 95 We all got to meet Willie Janeway, the new executive director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. Affable and charming, he comes to the Commission from the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the influential and well-regarded conservation group. He is clear about his new job as part of "a fight, an effort to preserve the Pine Bush for its own sake, and for the sake of the community". According to Mr. Janeway, the Commission has four goals; to protect the nature of the Pine Bush, to manage it, to protect and promote recreational resources, and to promote educational opportunities.

Towards this last goal, he revealed that the Commission is considering creating an interpretive center, and an interpretive area around it. "Why should we get excited about an interpretive education center?" he asked. "It gets more people excited about the Pine Bush". They are looking at the recently acquired Fusco Farm in the Northwest corner of the Pine Bush. Fixing this farm up the way he would like would be a pretty expensive operation, the first phase alone could cost half a million dollars. This expense certainly can't be justified at this time, when so much Pine Bush land still needs to be purchased for preserve.

This year the Commission is asking the State for $4 million for acquisition of land in the Pine Bush, and $200,000 to run the Commission. He reminded us that the Pine Bush is the number one priority for land acquisition from the Open Space Institute. "Four million dollars is not an unreasonable amount to ask for", he said. Toward this goal Mr. Janeway is actively lobbying local representatives Mr. McEneny and Hoblock. (Mr. McEneny is a friend of the Pine Bush, who has worked hard to make land acquisition official public policy. Hoblock, on the other hand, has repeatedly told the press that undeveloped Pine Bush is "useless land". He is one of the principals behind the land giveaway that has given us a Walmart in the Pine Bush.)

Of course, the Commission's new executive management plan has just been released, and although far from perfect, it is a massive improvement over earlier plans. (See the article starting on page one.)

March 95 Andy Beers, Director of Conservation Government Programs at the Nature Conservancy, talked about the Open Space Plan in DEC Region IV, which includes the Capital District. "None of the new people in State government know anything about the Pine Bush", he said, singling out DEC Commissioner Zagata, Bernadette Castro, and of course Hoblock. Fifty million dollars has been allotted for land acquisition in Region IV, but the "new people" are diverting twenty million of this money into the general fund to feed their instant deficit. The Pine Bush, although listed as the number one priority, is at risk according to Mr. Beers. It is one of ten places eligible for money, and there won't be enough to go around.
Controlled burns, necessary for the survival of the Pine Bush, will begin after April 10th. Mr. Beers related a personal observation about pitch pine cones opening during a fire. Walking through a burn area last year, about 30 minutes after the fire subsided, he could see and hear the cones popping open everywhere, scattering seeds in all directions. While fire may not be entirely necessary to open cones, it certainly is a great propagation method.


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