Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

City of Rivers and Rivulets
Philadelphia has always been defined by the waters that surround it.

Nature Preservation
Nature preservation and nature destruction are different parts of an eternal process.

Nature Preservation

{Bear Cub}
Former Local Resident

Although Philadelphia is proud of its history and its historical buildings, it would be my observation that Philadelphia is not as intense about the preservation of Nature as some other parts of the country appear to be. Philadelphians like nature all right, but it tends toward azaleas a little, and only infrequently do you meet someone in our town who could fairly be sneered at as a tree-hugger. In fact, I believe I sense it being implied that non-Philadelphians are so impassioned about minnows and spotted owls because they have no old houses to be worked up about. But perhaps I only read that into their unguarded remarks.

It must be admitted that some efforts to preserve nature have had unintended consequences. In the Serengeti region of Africa, a grassland between Kenya and Tanzania, about two million animals migrate in great herds, following the equatorial rainfall. The zebra and gnu are the main herds, with lions and leopards lurking around the edge, and vultures in the trees and hyenas and baboons further out, waiting for something edible to stumble. Several dozen jeeps and land rovers carry the tourists around to see the fun. It's a Disneyworld for American tourists. It's a little disquieting to learn that the local government sends helicopters around to machine-gun the poachers, and thus it's a little disturbing to think that starving people are being shot for the benefit of the tourist trade, if not for the tourists personally. Perhaps it doesn't matter, because most of the locals will be dead from AIDS in ten years, but most of the tourists who hear these arguments rehearsed fall strangely silent.

{Eagle Nest}
Eagle Nest

And then, back in old Philadelphia again, a lady at an Athenaeum reception was telling her circle of friends about an eagle's nest that appeared on her country place, but don't tell anyone. The nest last year was as big as a Volkswagen, this year it's as big as a Subaru, but don't tell anybody about it. Well, why not? Her husband quickly intervened to relate that the laws protecting the bald eagle and its nests are so severe that people for several miles around such a nest are bound by terribly onerous restrictions and subject to strict penalties. So? Well, the people who have been annoyed by these unwelcome laws will sneak in and shoot the eagle, just to get rid of the whole nuisance. So, the laws intended to protect our symbolic national birds actually have the effect of provoking their slaughter.

It's my view that these stories with an unspoken moral reflect discomfort with having people in one region of the country promote laws which mainly affect people in some other part of the country. We don't want people in Oregon to introduce legislation regulating the restoration of Society Hill buildings. So, we are not quick to support legislation regulating the drilling for oil in that remote mosquito-infested swamp called the Arctic Wildlife Preserve, when we hear that the local Alaskans are cool to the idea. It begins to sound like R versus D, so let's dance away from the topic. If there's some way to let Alaskans decide what's good for Alaska, maybe it's better.

The Delaware valley had been settled by Europeans for sixty years before William Penn arrived. Roughly, fifteen years of the Dutch, followed by fifteen years of Swedes, fifteen years of Dutch again, fifteen years under the English Duke of York. There were over a thousand people living here who spoke Swedish. With a focus on what the environment was like and how the early settlers treated it, listen to a passage from The Making of Pennsylvania by Sidney George Fisher.

The woods at that time were quite free from the underbrush and afforded a short nutritious form of grass. It was easy to ride on horseback anywhere among the trees. But the second growth, which came after cutting or burning the primeval forest, brought on the underbrush and destroyed the woodland pasturage.

The Swedes never attempted to clear the land of trees. They took the country as they found it; occupied the meadows and open lands along the river, liked them, cut the grass, plowed and sowed, and made no attempt to penetrate the interior. But as soon as the Englishman came he attacked the forests with his ax, and that simple instrument with a rifle is the natural coat-of-arms in America for all of English blood. In nothing is the difference in nationality so distinctly shown. The Dutchman builds trading posts and lies in his ship offshore to collect the furs. The gentle Swede settles in the soft, rich meadowlands, and his cattle wax fat and his barns are full of hay. The Frenchman enters the forest, sympathizes with its inhabitants, and turns half savage to please them. All alike bow before the wilderness and accept it as a fact. But the Englishman destroys it. There is even something significant in the way his old charters gave the land straight across America from sea to sea. He grasped at the continent from the beginning, and but for him, the oak and the pine would have triumphed and the prairies still are in possession of the Indian and the buffalo.

Nevertheless, the Swede seems to have lived a very happy and prosperous life on his meadows and marshes. He was surrounded by an abundance of game and fish and the products of his own thrifty agriculture, of which we can now scarcely conceive. The old accounts of game and birds along Delaware read like fairy tales. The first settlers saw the meadows covered with huge flocks of white cranes which rose in clouds when a boat approached the shore. The finest varieties of fish could be almost taken with the hand. Ducks and wild geese covered the water, and outrageous stories were told of the number that could be killed at a single shot. The wild swans, now driven far to the south and soon likely to become extinct, were abundant, floating on the water like drifted snow. Onshore the Indians brought in fat bucks every day, which they sold for a few pipes of tobacco or a measure or two of powder. Turkeys, grouse, and varieties of songbirds which will never be seen again were in the fields and woods. Wild pigeons often filled the air like bees, and there was a famous roosting-place for them in the southern part of Philadelphia, which is said to have given the Indian name, Moyamensing, to that part of the city.

Originally published: Thursday, July 08, 1999; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019