by Charles McGuigan PHOTOS by Rebecca D’Angelo
There’s hope in a plain of asphalt and concrete, beauty in a nature that so abhors a vacuum it enables a tree to sprout in a thimbleful of topsoil. On this mysterious planet we call Earth, life will find a way to live anywhere, even in places that seem downright inhospitable.
Consider the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park—cauldrons of boiling water and roiling acids where you might dispose of a corpse to commit the perfect crime. Guess what? Microbes, with rainbow hues, thrive there, painting the mouths of these springs in garish, cartoon colors.
And way up aloft from Mother Earth, hovering at altitudes of more than eleven miles, hundreds of different species of bacteria, fungi and viruses flourish in the ether, among them human pathogens, including those responsible for Legionnaire’s disease and staph infections.
Death Valley has the dubious distinction of being the hottest place on Earth. A little over a hundred years ago there, at a place aptly named Furnace Creek Ranch, a thermometer recorded the temperature at 134 degrees Fahrenheit, a world record that’s never been broken. Water there is scarcer than honest politicians, and what’s more, like the chambers that house those elected representatives, Death Valley is the lowest point in the United States. Not a very inviting environment for any animal, and yet, there are several species of pupfish that dwell here. They’re survivors from lakes that dried up a hundred centuries ago.
And in an area much lower than Death Valley, buried a mile and a half beneath the crushing pressures of salt water off the coast of the Galapagos Islands, there is abundant life utterly dependent on the superheated and mineral-rich water spewing from deep sea vents in a world of perpetual night. These vents host a wide variety of organisms—giant tube worms, shrimp with eyes on their backs, ghostly fish, and even certain species of rays and sharks.
Terrestrial life seems as if it can live anywhere.
At the Westbrook Avenue entrance to the old mall site, four willow oaks grow from an island ringed in cast-cement curb and gutter. Beneath the oak trees there is a large section of broken and depressed asphalt where water sits for weeks, even during the driest of summer spells, a sort of pond that various forms of urban wildlife use as a watering hole, or, in the case of a red-tailed hawk, who seems to live in one of the oak trees, a convenient bird bath.
Shortly after Dewberry Capital purchased the site, they tore down the old mall, and erected a fence along its entire perimeter. Not long ago, one of the sliding gates to this enclosure was unlocked, allowing easy access. Back in July I rode my bike through that gate and began a brief exploration of the unique ecosystem that is rising from the remnants of a mall. Because this section has been closed off to any traffic—automobile or pedestrian—for more than twenty years, nature has begun working its wonders, unhindered.
The entire footprint is made of concrete. One vast area, presumably the remains of the flooring from a department store, is a perfect checkerboard pattern, each square inscribed by grout lines, though the tiles are long gone. Another section still retains small blue ceramic tiles, the sort used in bathrooms in the 1960s.
But all the concrete has one thing in common: There is a brittle layer on its surface, like a thin crust on a pastry, and as I ride, there is a satisfying sound—a crunch and a pop—and in my wake I can see the narrow path written in the concrete by the tires of my bike.
Out of every crack and tiny crevice in the concrete, grasses and wildflowers grow in great abundance, highlighting every fissure with a living green ink. Among the flowers are fleabane and Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and chicory. Trumpet vines and Virginia creeper emerge from some of the cracks and form large carpet-like mats which hide any evidence of the constructs of man.
There are also the trees, some of them are still saplings, but many others are very large. There are sweetgums and Virginia cedars, along with hackberries, hornbeams and assorted maples, and one small black willow. By far, sycamores predominate this emerging urban forest, and several of them already top out at thirty feet. There are also two notable invasive species—a very large mimosa, and a very stout ailanthus, or tree of paradise, what is called a “s—house tree” up in South Philly.
One of the most remarkable places in this evolving ecosystem is near the northwestern corner of the concrete footprint, next to what was once a loading dock. Here an underground spring has apparently broken through the concrete, creating a wetland where a variety of reeds and rushes grow in great profusion, and in among them there are frogs, and dragonflies alight on the leaves, or dip to touch the small pools of filmy water.
Throughout the world, archaeologists are discovering massive cities that were long ago swallowed whole by jungles. These were impressive communities in their day. And though they have been hidden for centuries deep beneath dense forest canopies whether in Cambodia, near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, or clear on the other side of the world in Guatemala, where ancient Mayan cities were recently discovered that might have been home to as many as ten million people, scientists, armed with LiDAR technology, which uses pulsed laser light, have again exposed them to human scrutiny.
It was as if, one day, everyone from these ancient metropolises suddenly vanished. Some cataclysm occurred, an epidemic, perhaps. And with human beings gone, nature swiftly reclaimed the land.
Years ago, scientists predicted what would happen if everyone inhabiting New York City suddenly vacated the Big Apple. Change would be rapid. Within the first decade, sidewalks and streets would begin to crack, and weeds and trees would take root. Hawks and falcons would flourish, and feral cats and wild dogs would prowl the streets and alleys. Two of the most pervasive vermin found in urban environments everywhere would soon go extinct. Deprived of the garbage supplied by humans, rats would suffer mass starvation; and without the warmth of buildings to protect them from winter temperatures, cockroaches would become a thing of the past. By the by, wolves and bears would return to Central Park, and within fifty years, skyscrapers would begin to collapse. In another fifty years, a deciduous forest of oaks and maples would cover the boroughs, and wildlife would return in full force.
A few months ago, Westminster-Canterbury Retirement Community purchased a little over ten acres of the Azalea Mall site where they plan to build what they call “independent-living residences”, more than a hundred of them. But the area to be developed will not infringe on the urban forest of Azalea Mall.
I find great solace in this, and would love to see the city of Richmond and Henrico County purchase the property and allow it to further mature as an urban forest, something that will remain a green space for generations to come. But unlike other municipal parks, this one would be a constant reminder to us all that we are here at the pleasure of the planet, and if we insist on destroying the environment, one day we will all perish, but nature will simply shrug off our self-imposed extinction and reclaim all that we erroneously thought we possessed.