Way back in college days, across the dormitory hall from me lived a friend who woke up at the exact time of 6:30 AM every day. For weeks on end, or maybe it was months, it sure seemed like the later, he placed the stereo needle on the same record album, cranked up the volume to 11 and reminded us, – it was a time for a new day. Time, he would say, to embrace the Ch-ch-changes shouting along with David Bowie, as the riveting sound from his giant speakers reverberated across the third floor hall and beyond. I don’t know where this David Bowie Changes-loving hall mate is today, but whenever I hear that song or for that matter whenever I think about the nature of time, of change and the impermanence of life and things around us, my mind brings to light those very early morning jolts of awakening.
My mind was doing its remembering thing last weekend, when Connie and I traveled back in time celebrating our “time” together by visiting, several historic sites in Donora, Johnstown, Brownsville, Washington and Fayette Counties – all about 45 minutes or so south of Pittsburgh.
Oh, time has taken its toll. The weekend was a long lesson in impermanence, and the importance of engaging and embracing impermanence – ’cause we really don’t have a choice. Truly, if we want to live in the present moment and not in some fantasy of a projected future, the only time is now.
Donora is a town that goes back 100 or so years, created by the steel magnates and their friends. (The name Donora is a compromise based upon the Donner and Mellon families partnership). Overnight, it grew rapidly in the early 1900′s with the growth of steel industry turning Fayette coal and coke into building of America. This Mon river town also housed a zinc works based upon a rapidly aging European model that created a great deal of toxic pollution.
Dr. Devra Davis, (from Donora!), one of the world’s leading epidemiologists and researchers on environmentally linked illness, writes about her lifelong battle against environmental pollution tells this story and more in her powerful work, “When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.” Her’s is a powerful story and very much worth contemplating as the struggle for clean air is far from over.
A fateful day in October of 1948, near Halloween, an air inversion hovered over Donora and for several days the toxic fumes of the furnaces and the zinc works covered the community. It killed workers and residents, especially the elderly and infirmed – some 60 deaths directly connected to the inversion. Some died within days, others weeks, months and years later – more than 6,000 people became ill.
Known as the “Donora Smog“, it left a legacy of death, illness and economic disaster. The zinc plant closed down 7 years later eliminating 900 jobs (never seeking to update its smelting process to a “cleaner” one) and U. S. Steel shut its plant 10 year later with another 5,000 jobs disappearing. Nearly all vestiges of these industries are gone now – empty land remains.
The words of Bowie’s song most certainly come to mind:
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time
(About two weeks the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Allegheny County Health Department shared the good news that for the first time since 1999 when the Health Department starting monitoring our “fine particulate pollution” (think all kinds of respiratory ailments and illnesses) we have cleaner air! Okay, we can celebrate a bit, however, we still don’t meet the standards for sulfur dioxide or ozone, and much more needs to be done.)
And what about impact of Fracking on our environment? Oh, I digress.
Back to Donora, in the midst of its rapid growth the town’s “owners”, American Wire and Steel, engaged the famous inventor, Thomas A. Edison, to attempt to bring his new creation of “cement homes” to the community.
Eighty such “poured-in-place” units were built. Another seventy or so were planned, but not built because the cost of these homes proved too expensive for the town’s fathers who wished to build cheap worker housing. The historic district is worth a visit to see these prairie-style buildings with their vivid colors in a various stages of life and repair. Cement, too, doesn’t last forever.
Nearby, and perhaps the best/worst example of change and reality of impermanence is the town of Brownsville, PA.
Once thought to be THE town of prominence, Brownsville, is now a ghost town. This Mon Valley river friendly city was the route connecting the east coast to Wheeling, West Virginia for all those seeking passage to and settlement of the West in middle of the 19th century. You can check out this WQED study. “One Year in Brownsville”.
Signs pointing to its revitalization abound amid the boarded up storefronts and weed-filled vacant lots. A new small boat launch along the Mon River stands in stark contrast with the dozens of empty buildings in various state of decay. Directly under a bridge in downtown stands Fiddle’s, the local restaurant with a mix of locals and “tourists” (us), while
the menu tells the history of this once bustling steel town that time and everything else has passed by. The loss of the steel industry in 1970′s seems to have sealed Brownsville’s fate.
You may ask again, “so why such a trip?” A very valid question, so let me offer a few answers. Certainly a love of history; a great curiosity about these small western Pennsylvania towns one sees on a map but has never visited up close; a realization that there is both beauty and Divinity even, especially in those things that decay; a bearing witness to the thousands of now anonymous men and women who built those communities, worked in those mills and foundries and struggled to live with dignity; and finally, that impermanence and our own mortality are very real and need to be engaged and embraced.
Again Mr. Bowie teaches us what I like to call: “Boundless Torah” lessons that speak beyond the boundaries of faith or creed. Lessons offered with humility and grace for which I am very grateful.
Pretty soon you’re gonna get
a little older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time
Celebratory flowers next to a gifted hand-crafted wooden box – both, of course, subject to time – like the towns of the Mon Valley and both filled with Boundless Divinity.
With much gratitude,