Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, February 17, 2012

Novel research goes off the rails . . . sort of

Last fall I got in my car and headed north from Bethlehem, PA, where I live, en route (I thought) to some of the coal towns in Carbon County. But I stopped instead in Palmerton, and then at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. I’d heard about Palmerton years ago, from a neighbor who’d been hired as a librarian in the high school there. She described the landscape as strange and barren--land ruined by, she told me, the mining of zinc. Through the years I heard more about Palmerton, and also about landscape restoration efforts at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, from my colleague Diane Husic at Moravian College.
Actually it was the smelting of zinc (the ore itself came from New Jersey), on the banks of the Aquashicola Creek in Palmerton (named for the Stephen S. Palmer, the president of New Jersey Zinc), that led to the denuded landscape surrounding the town. In 1982 Palmerton was declared a Superfund site by the EPA; nearly a hundred years of zinc smelting had produced heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic--and these, in turn, had killed the vegetation on the Appalachian ridge above the town. 
I got interested in Palmerton because I was looking for a small town that I could use as a kind of model for the home town of the central character in the novel I’m working on. As it turned out, Palmerton didn’t exactly work (though the fictional version I’ve created will, I think). But as often happens when I’m digging around for ideas for a novel, I got caught up in a completely different historical situation.
What’s fascinating about the town of Palmerton--Superfund site, scenic town that was eventually surrounded by what’s been called a “lunar landscape”--is the boosterism that persists there, the unabated love of “Papa Zinc” on the part of many of the locals, and the sense, on these people’s part, that there’s nothing remotely strange or unusual about the landscape that surrounds them. From all accounts, New Jersey Zinc was, in many ways, a model American company--providing pensions, building schools, a hospital, social clubs for the plants’ Hungarian and Slovakian workers, etc. And cultivating remarkable loyalty on the part of the towns’ residents--while at the same time ruining the land they lived on.
Those complications intrigue me, and while I’m touching on them a bit in the novel, I think this is something I’ll want to write more about elsewhere. What’s particularly inviting about this story is one happy ending: the work of Dan Kunkle and others at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, whose reseeding efforts have begun the gradual process of bringing vegetation and wildlife back to the Lehigh Gap. 
The image below, along with others on the Lehigh Gap Nature Center’s Flickr site, capture the strange and hopeful landscape I’ve hiked through a couple times since that first visit last fall. I recommend a visit to the Lehigh Gap, for a sense of the possibilities that exist, even in our ravaged post-industrial landscapes--and for a powerful reminder of the stamina of the natural world.

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