October in Pittsburgh

Dangerous ginkgo 2

At the Point State Park in Pittsburgh, where British soldiers at Fort Pitt once repulsed hordes of Indians and Frenchmen, a ginkgo tree is fiercely posted with warnings about its felonious fruit. Or rather, its naked seeds.

Ginkgo is a gymnosperm (as opposed to an angiosperm), meaning “naked seed”; its seeds are not protected by an ovary wall and hence, the berry-like structures produced by female ginkgo trees are technically not fruit. […]
Its outer layer (the sarcotesta) is light yellow-brown, soft, and fruit-like. It is plum-like and attractive, but the seedcoat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground. Beneath the sarcotesta is the hard sclerotesta and a papery endotesta and nucellus.

You have to admire a plant with that many testes.

Dangerous ginkgo 3

The Daughters of the American Revolution, who operate the adjacent Blockhouse — sole survivor from the days of the fort and the oldest building in all of Western Pennsylvania — want to make very sure we know just what kind of enemy we’re up against here. Even if they can’t remember how to spell its name.

Inside the bunkhouse, I was charmed by an authentic reproduction of a peace tomahawk. This was a deeply symbolic weapon with dual functions: opposite the sharp blade was a metal pipe bowl, from which one could smoke through the drilled-out handle. Apparently, the order of business was: 1) hack/dismember enemies; 2) following successful negotiation of a cease-fire, clean off blood, load up the bowl with primo weed and pass it around; 3) bury hatchet in the ground to symbolize repudiation of hacking/dismembering and commitment to peace treaty; 4) upon breaking of treaty by whites, disinter tomahawk and repeat.


October is a nice month to visit Pittsburgh — kind of like April in Paris, minus (as previously mentioned) the French. Tourists like to go up and down a very steep and absurdly short railroad line to nowhere, poetically referred to as the Inclined Plane, to gape at the slowly turning fall foliage. Locals just like to gape at the brightly colored funicular cars gliding silently up and down the tracks, a source of great, if somewhat inexplicable, local pride. Best of all, though, are the newspaper boxes, like autumn all year long.

newspaper boxes

I was unaware of the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The aforementioned Point State Park marks the occasion by turning the fountain pink. The shape of the fountain remains resolutely phallic, however. And there’s no signage to enlighten the perennially clueless, like myself. Where are the Daughters of the American Revolution when you need them?

Point Park fountain 1

The color is achieved not with Pepto Bismal, as it might appear, but with fifteen gallons of environmentally safe dye, according to a newspaper article from last year that I found on the web after I got home. As public art goes, this is didactic in the extreme — it’s no Christo installation. Still, many Pittsburghers seem to enjoy the aesthetic effect.

Erin Coen, 19, of the North Side, maybe liked it the most. She wore a pink Hello Kitty backpack, shoelaces interwoven with pink strands, and sported red hair. “I used to have pink hair,” Coen said. She took photos of the fountain, hoping something thrilling would happen. “I was hoping kids would go crazy and begin jumping in it,” Coen said.

Point Park fountain 2

The Point in question, by the way, is a little, pubic-shaped triangle of open space between the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, right where they merge to form the Ohio — hence its strategic importance back in the day when global superpowers battled for control of the beaver trade. Being, as I said, unaware of the significance of the color of the water, my best guess was that the dye was meant to symbolize the blood of Indians and Frenchmen and/or the vanquished foes of the Steelers, whose home stadium is right across the river. Some sort of Columbus Day commemoration, I figured. Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of wacky, but in Pittsburgh — as in Paris — almost anything seems possible. Dude, pass the tomahawk!

12 Replies to “October in Pittsburgh”

  1. 1. Del Val has several paths lined with Ginkgo trees. When they were planted, the arborist insured that they were all male trees. Guess what! Every fall the campus has a very unpleasant smell which I would describe as a cross between limburger and dog crap.

    2. I was in Harrisburg on Friday and noticed that all of the fountains were pink. Now I know why.

  2. 1. Arborists are such sexists, aren’t they? And millions of pollen-sensitive urban residents suffer as a result.

    2. Based on what I found out online, I believe it’s the very same gentleman at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources who’s to blame for the colors in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh fountains.

  3. The arborists here made a similar mistake. Smells to me something awful like the morning after outside a local bar… take your pick. I hope this doesn’t indicate our fountains will also be turning pink soon. We already have a small one that runs blue.

  4. I… think I was taken up that Incline when I was small… not absolutely sure, you understand. But I have this strange memory of being bored and terrified at the same time, and it looked like that.

  5. twitches – The whole area, including the big skyscrapers immediately beyond the Point, is referred to as the Golden Triangle. Make of that what you will!

    Actually, it only became valuable real estate since the 1950s, when the state got control over the flooding on the Allegheny by building an immense reservoir in northern Pennsylvania, which coincidentally eliminated the only Indian reservation in Pennsylvania (the Cornplanter Grant of the Seneca). That’s the real historical irony here, I guess — that 200 years later, we’d still be fighting Indians about this piece of land, in some sense.

    MB – Limburger, dog poop, and vomit! You guys should really consider editing that Wikipedia article; this is so much more vivid than “rancid butter.”

    This fountain-coloring thing is starting to sound like a real fad. I had no idea.

    Zhoen – There’s a similar Inclined Plane in Johnstown, PA, if that helps.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, my parents never went in for such things, so i was never subjected to scary rides, e.g. at amusement parks. To this day, in fact, I’ve never been to an amusement park. I mean, LIFE is an amusement park, by turns entertaining and terrifying — why pay?

  6. At the risk of disgusting you all, the ginkgo nut itself is delicious roasted with a little bit of salt. It’s used quite commonly in Japanese cooking and is among the more common ingredients in chawanmushi, a very light egg custard with savory tasties inside like small pieces of shitake, shrimp, chicken, or potato. The taste of the inner nut is…nutty.

  7. …And the rivers ran with blood… That image of the water all bloody like that was kind of shocking actually…

    I love gingko nuts in rice! If you add cooked soy beans or sweet beans or steamed chestnuts, the taste is special, too.

    But the smell…ugh. On my way to school when I was a kid there was this long street lined with gingkos, male and female, and every autumn the sidewalks would be strewn with the yellow nuts. There was no avoiding them. The smell always reminded me of hiking socks that hadn’t been washed in a week…

  8. butuki – I’m sure I must’ve eaten them; I ate everything that was put in front of me when I was in Japan, but I rarely knew what it was. But I’ve never eaten durian; no. I’m relying on descriptions by those who have, such as my older brother and Chris Clarke of Creek Running North. Both said they found it delicious.
    So now I am trying to imagine a smell that is part rancid butter, part dog shit, part limburger cheese, part vomit, and part week-old hiker’s socks. Fortunately, perhaps, I don’t have the world’s sharpest nose.

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