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Transforming a Coal Mining Site with Nature: "Mary's Garden" Reclamation

By Patricia Johanson




Patricia Johanson's eminent list of awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship; an Artist's Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts; the International Women's Year Award; and the Arts and Healing Network award for her career in environmental arts. Public collections include the Museum of Modern Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, N.Y.; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. - Photo courtesy of Scott Hess.
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"Mary's Garden" occupies a site that was continuously mined by the Delaware and Hudson Coal Company for almost 90 years. The land was subsequently mined by the Glen Alden and Raymond Collieries prior to being purchased in 1969 by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

"Mary's Garden" consists of sculptural configurations that form images of flowers associated with the Blessed Virgin--the "Madonna Lily" and the "Rose." The project is loosely structured around the joys and sorrows within the Immaculate Heart of Mary the Mother, and then extrapolated to the sufferings and steadfastness of the coal miners and their families.




The Lackawanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania can be seen through the trees of Mary's Wood. The wetland site where the Madonna lily will be created is the non- functioning creek. The whole watershed is now polluted by drainage from the mines. This project is trying to purify the stormwater, which can make a significant improvement on the water in the river and be aesthetic as well.


I just spoke about this project at the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs. As you might expect, the audience was mostly mining engineers, subsidence and acid mine drainage experts and land remediation professionals. When I finished speaking there was stunned silence--then many questions. I don't think many of these engineers had considered the idea of multiple functions, art, trails, wildlife and connections to the local community. Most of the projects I saw had compacted the land and put in a Wal-Mart.

Our site--the Marvine Colliery (Hudson Coal Company) was purchased by Glen Alden Corporation in 1961, and then the Raymond Colliery bought the land in 1964. It wasn't until 1969 that the Sisters acquired this tract (they kept adding to their holdings)--but, in places where there is mining, all you acquire is the surface of the property. Others continued to own the mining rights, and this set up all sorts of conflicts between the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the mining companies, who continued to mine under their buildings.




The water-purification system within the "Madonna Lily" and the small forested pool and creek at the center of "Mary's Rose" are constructed wetlands. They are being created as part of the art and environmental restoration project that will be used as outdoor classrooms for Marywood University. Paths over the pond water will create microhabitats for wildlife, and offer students opportunities for field study in phytoremediation, bioremediation, ecology and aquaculture.


The "Madonna Lily" occurs at the edge of a site that has recently been restored by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation using typical engineering methods. Volunteer trees and vegetation have been removed, the land has been compacted into stabile terraces--now used as platforms for athletic fields, oversized rip-rap channels conduct water off the land, and all traces of mining history have been erased, in stark contrast to the five-acre wooded ravine that still exists.

Lying beneath these massive man-made terraces, the "Madonna Lily" captures and stores stormwater from the upper campus, and provides access to a constructed wetland filled with plants that purify stormwater. The five-foot wide paths over water create microhabitats for wildlife, and offer students opportunities for field study in phytoremediation, bioremediation, ecology and aquaculture.

A similar project, "Fair Park Lagoon" in Dallas--a municipal flood basin built more than 25 years ago--continues to attract people and wildlife, and also serves as an educational resource while purifying water.




Crinoid forms will create five-foot-wide paths over the lily's water--and, on the symbolic level you have the pentagonal form in the center which is the anchor of the crinoid. In the Midwestern United States, fossilized segments of columnal crinoids are sometimes known as Indian beads. They have been used as rosary beads.


The image of the lily is created from a composite of elements relating to the formation of coal, acid mine drainage, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the history of the Sisters who founded Marywood University.

We know that coal originated in ancient swamps, and that contemporary swamp plants and limestone purify water. A filter feeder found in ancient swamps--a crinoid--serves as the center of the Madonna Lily, with its long waving arms providing paths through the wetland. The crinoid's "star-shaped" columnal can be interpreted as the Star of

Bethlehem--one of the joys within the Immaculate Heart of Mary--while from a water quality perspective, the gold can be seen as pyrite (iron disulfide)--one of the causes of acid mine drainage. The white color of the lily is both a symbol of purity, as well as the actuality, since calcium carbonate and limestone neutralize acid and purify water.




Crinoids are marine organisms that first appeared in the middle of the Cambrian period and that still survive up until the present day. The fossil record shows a world-wide distribution during the geological past. Crinoids were so abundant in the Paleozoic era that their remains form vast expanses of limestone. These great 'forests' of crinoids probably lived in fairly shallow water. Flower-shaped crinoids have blanketed the seas periodically for more than 440 million years.


As it proceeds toward the forest, the green stem of the lily becomes black and shiny, simulating the anthracite coal outcroppings found throughout the site.

The Marywood ravine offers an alternative to the engineered version of land reclamation. Here tall trees grow out of the tops of dump piles and the landscape is dotted with rusted pipes that served as ventilation for the seven levels of subterranean mines below.




Using plants in the constructed lily pond will oxygenate the stormwater. When the water runs downhill it passes through sedges and rushes, which trap the dense sediments, and assimilate the heavy metals. The limestone will interact with the acidic water and neutralize the pH. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) occurs when water comes in contact with pyrite (iron disulfide minerals) in coal, the overburden, or refuse of mining. This creates water that is high in acidity and dissolved metals. Each one of the plants in the sequence does a different thing with the water by taking out petroleum hydrocarbons leaching from the degraded soil. The bacteria and metals, which bind with soil, are taken up by the vegetation and its root systems.


Surface water does not flow on this site. Instead it drops down through caverns and voids into the "Mine Pool"--a huge underground lake that underlies the city of Scranton and much of Northeastern Pennsylvania. One goal of this project is to use this warmer underground water as a geothermal resource to help meet the university's energy needs.

Just recently, they've started doing the test boring for geothermal energy by using the mine pool. In addition to healing the land, Marywood will have access to free energy. Thus, the mine pool could ultimately have benefits.




The Rose is constructed from existing landforms and the heart shaped, lined pond at the bottom of the ravine. The water is being oxygenated and at the same time we're restoring the creek and taking it back to the Lackawanna River. The pond is suggestive of the water that collected in the days when the mine was working. It reminds those people who are still alive of skating on those ponds in winter and swimming in summer. In addition, local wildlife needs water--and we're adding two bodies of water for them while making this more of a living campus.

Another goal is to restore surface water as a life-giving source for plants, wildlife and the Lackawanna River.

"Mary's Rose" unfurls as a series of concentric circles, following the natural topography of a tree-sheltered ravine down to the bottom. Formerly, a small creek flowed here--a tributary of the Lackawanna River--prior to the disruption of the watershed by intensive mining activity. Today the path of the creek can still be seen, and the creek bed is often damp following rainstorms, as water disappears into the mine pool below.




The topography is what makes the Rose sculptural. The concentric rings of petals are going up are reminiscent of a flower opening. But the outer ring is the only one actually showing the geology of the valley. Hematite nodules are all over the place, as well as the geological history of the place. Each ring has different function. The lower levels are for seating and each ring of the Rose gets taller and taller until the top ring reveals the geology and buffers the noise as well.


At the center of the "Rose," a lined, heart-shaped pool invokes water-filled "strip pits," where generations of mining families skated and swam--as well as the "Immaculate Heart of Mary." The pond offers life-giving water to wildlife, as well as reflections of the surrounding forest. A small spillway oxygenates the water as it enters the pool, which is connected to the restored creek. The inner circle of "rose petals" serves as sculptural seating for students and visitors within this meditative and deeply historical place--formerly part of the Marvine Anthracite Colliery.

Moving up the slope, the middle circle of "rose petals" reveals the coal-mining geology of the Lackawanna Valley's Llewellyn Formation, with its layers of red shale, sandstone, conglomerate, limestone and anthracite coal. Typical synclinal formations, recumbent folds and overturned strata are both decorative and instructive, revealing the geological history of this place, while landscaping consists of plant pockets that nest within the fissures of the rock.




In Pennsylvania there was extensive mining, so you can't build because water rises up from mine pools and takes your house away. The soils have been compacted to prevent subsidence, leaving only flat unbuildable parcels, which taxpayers are paying to create. All the mine water goes into the municipal sewer systems, and there are a lot of negative environmental impacts. Infiltrating this water discharge into the Lackawanna water shed is not feasible.


The outermost circle of "petals," the "Crown of Thorns," is planted with brambles--roses and blackberries--and other local plants that were significant to mining families. They also provide food and thickets for wildlife, and help buffer the sound of traffic along Olyphant Avenue.

Hematite nodules within the "Rose"-- iron concretions that are found throughout the geological formation as well as in the ravine--rust and drip like blood, recalling sorrows within the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And the topography of the ravine, itself, creates the sense of looking down into the center of the flower.




The mine map is like a skyscraper floor plan. What appear to be streets are actually underground tunnels. This is just the floor plan of one level. There were seven levels in the mine on this site. The tunnels start between 30 and 60 feet below the surface. Each tunnel is about 10 feet high so the main shafts can be up to 1,500 feet deep. The black squares on the map are where the pillars of coal were left in place to hold the roof up. Mining companies would sell rights to the pillars as soon as they closed down a mine. Most of the mines are flooded now, since they are below the water table and are no longer being pumped out as they did when the mines were in use.


"Mary's Garden" reveals a landscape where the healing power of nature stands beside the monolithic goals of typical land reclamation. Within the ravine there is no longer any hint of the wasteland of culm banks, slag heaps, poisonous waste ponds, or the many fires and deaths that occurred on this site--or the fact that seven layers of subterranean passages and chambers lie beneath our feet.

Paths through the ravine curl around and draw attention to remnants of the mining era, while honoring the work of nature that is reclaiming its own territory.

By evoking the mining history at this site, the joys and sorrows of intertwined lives, and overlapping patterns from carboniferous swamp to the present day, "Mary's Garden" underscores the fact that within an ecological community every element is essential to functional well being, and redemption is always at hand.




In the ravine, which originally had a creek, the history of total disruption is all still there. Heaps of rubble, peaks and valleys of tailings and culm with very tortured trees are growing on poor soil. Johanson would like to plant all oaks to reinstate the original growth. This is not just for the wild life, but because oaks transpire more water, which helps prevent stormwater from going down into the mine pools. The oaks will reduce the infiltration of stormwater through transpiration. One oak transpires 40 thousand gallons of water per year. It's important to select plants that will solve water problems.

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Plants That Work for a Living

Here are some of the plants being used for stormwater purification in the "Mary's Garden" reclamation. This is not all of them, but they are the ones listed on the drawing 'Madonna Lily'. Following the oxygenation and intake/sediment pond, there is:

Dense Filtering Vegetation:

  • Scirpus acutus (Hardstem Bulrush)
  • Scirpus acutus (Common Threesquare)




Scirpus acutus (Common Threesquare)




Juncus balticus (Baltic Rush)

Sedges and Rushes:

  • Juncus arcticus (Wiregrass)
  • Eleocharis palustris (Spikerush)
  • Juncus balticus (Baltic Rush)
  • Juncus torreyi (Torrey Rush)
  • Carex aquatilis (Water Sedge)
  • Carex stipata (Prickley Sedge)
  • Juncus balticus (Baltic Rush)

This one REMOVES HEAVY METALS:

  • Sparganium eurycarpum (Giant Burweed)




Sparganium eurycarpum (Giant Burweed)

Snails and microbes consume pathogenic bacteria such as fecal coliform, and the root excretions of many of these plants remove disease bacteria from water. Among the most effective plants in this category:

  • Alisma plantago-aquatica (Water Plantain)
  • Alisma trivale (Water Plantain)




Alisma plantago-aquatica (Water Plantain)

These plants have large roots, which increases the number of microbes that consume ammonia and break down chemicals and pesticides into simple compounds that can be absorbed by the plants:




Iris versicolor (Blue Flag)

  • Iris versicolor (Blue Flag)
  • Sagittaria latifolia (Arrowhead)
  • Pontederia cordata (Pickerelweed)

Thickets of plants that root in shallow water provide habitat for phytoplankton, which remove nutrients from water:

  • Cornus sericea (Red-Osier Dogwood)
  • Salix discolor (Pussy Willows)




Salix discolor (Pussy Willows)

Bird And Butterfly Garden:

  • Eupatorium dubium (Joe-pye Weed)
  • Asclepias incarnata (Marsh Milkweed)
  • Asclepias tuberosa (Milkweed)
  • Aster novae-angiea (New England Aster)
  • Aster laevis (Smooth Aster)
  • Aster oblingifolius (Aromatic Aster)




Eupatorium dubium (Joe-pye Weed)

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Marywood's History




This was across from the ravine (site of "Mary's Rose") in 1921. Even these photos don't convey the degree of devastation--or the power of nature to heal. These collieries all had "slush banks" where the poisonous water (resulting from coal breaking and coal washing) was poured into the Lackawanna River (seen in the background), killing everything. Photo by John Horgan, Jr, 1920. Marvine Colliery, Scranton, PA.
Courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum, Scranton, PA




"Culm banks" were mountains of waste rock (rubble) with a bit of good coal. Women and children would go out and pick through the rubble, looking for coal, but technically they were stealing colliery property, and occasionally there were cave-ins that would swallow them up and suffocate them. It is possible that the origin of Marywood's "ravine" landform was originally a culm dump. It is the same shape and you can clearly see trees growing out of the tops of huge "piles" that move upslope.




Safety supports were not being maintained and extensive "robbing" of the coal pillars which had been left as supports was going on, either by "bootleg" miners or by the coal companies themselves. It was during this period that the newly paved asphalt roads buckled and began to show deep "pot holes," a result of weakened underground support. A cave hole about 40-feet deep broke open beyond the cemetery of the college campus, revealing a mine fire that had been smoldering for some time. Fumes from the fire were invading the entire region. Mr. J. Rossa McCormick reported, "This fire had grown to such proportions that the citizens felt their lives were menaced by the fumes of the gasses given off."
Photo by John Horgan, Jr., c.1915. Courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum, Scranton,PA




This shows the miners after they've set off the charge of dynamite, now prying down the coal bearing rock with crowbars.
Photo by John Horgan, Jr., c.1916. Courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum, Scranton, PA

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October 19, 2017, 10:54 am PDT

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