Noted photographer Rick Darke, lauds natural reclamation


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Rick Darke is famous as a photographer and author of books about natural landscapes and the plants that populate them. In his own garden in Landenberg, Pa., he practices what he preaches, bringing just enough order to highlight both the history of the site and the constant change that makes a natural landscape unpredictably fascinating.

If you go

Richard Darke lecture to benefit Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

Where: Pittsburgh Airport Marriott, 777 Aten Road, Coraopolis (15108).

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

Tickets: $20 ($15 for botanic garden members) are available at the door or in advance at 412-444-4464 or www.pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Mr. Darke will speak on creating layers and depth in a landscape and what gardeners can learn from botanic gardens. The program, which will include images of landscapes from around the world, will be held at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott and will benefit the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

Mr. Darke said he was impressed with plans for the botanic garden now underway on 460 acres in Robinson, Collier and North Fayette. Among the first sections to be completed are the Appalachian Woodlands, a pristine landscape featuring the flora that grew there before the land was strip-mined in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Mr. Darke has traveled the world seeking such places, documenting the transformation of an elevated rail line into New York City's High Line and the return of a German steel mill to a post-industrial woodland.

Western Pennsylvania's own post-industrial landscape, the 38 acres around the Carrie Blast Furnaces, has drawn Mr. Darke here again and again. He has taken thousands of digital pictures of what steelworkers, graffiti artists and other people have left behind and the ways nature is reclaiming the land.

On a recent visit to the mill site in Rankin and Swissvale, he pointed to a row of what appeared to be post holes left when a mill structure was torn down. In each one, a sycamore or other woody plant had taken root.

"This is biology in action. Plants will find opportunities if we just let them compete. We have convinced ourselves we are in control, but we didn't do this," he said.

Mr. Darke said Rivers of Steel, the nonprofit that owns the Carrie Furnaces, can learn from the mistakes of the National Museum of Industrial History, which is redeveloping an old Bethlehem Steel plant with help from the Smithsonian Institution and financial support from Sands Casino.

"They ripped everything out and planted ornamental grass and trees," he said.

He pointed to 20-foot-tall sycamore and cottonwood trees that had sprouted from wind-blown seeds behind the blast furnaces.

"It would cost $2,000 to plant a sycamore that size and it probably wouldn't survive. They have adapted to this site. The cost to maintain them is zero."

When a reporter asked Mr. Darke to identify a luxuriant green vine growing up the side of a mill building, he smiled.

"That is a very healthy specimen of poison ivy."

garden - lifestyle

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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