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PEACE BY THE DECIBEL

Aerial shot of Jackson Heights featured by Transhistoria: Stillspotting ( ) NYC

The Guggenheim Museum commissioned me to write an essay for the Transhistoria: Stillspotting exhibit.  Actors read my essay for visitors over the course of a month last spring.  This notice remains among my greatest honors as a writer.

The Guggenheim wanted me to focus on Jackson Heights,and the challenge of finding stillness and peace in such a loud, busy, diverse immigrant hub.  I began by researching the neurology of music, trance states, and how through these pathways music and peace might be linked. Instead I came upon a beautiful facet of humanity, and remain grateful to the Vecchia family for inviting me in.

I hope you enjoy this essay.

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PEACE BY THE DECIBEL

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by Erik Baard

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1. The Roar of Peace.


When we listen for sound waves to ride to inner peace, our ears aren’t attuned to the city. We don’t expect peace to have a New York accent. Peace is idyllic escapism. It’s questingly anti-urban.

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I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.



William Butler Yeats, though a vigorous young man when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Inisfree” more than a century ago, longed to step off the “pavements grey” of New York’s “sister city,” London. Peace is a hope and a soft memory for Yeats, and he shares it through a lulling rhythm.

Back then, much of Queens would have manifested the poet’s soothing fancy. Not today.

I grew up under the whine of jet airplanes approaching LaGuardia Airport, and the rumble of others more distantly ascending. My vision was terrible and my glasses were always streaked. Blurry silver glints swung groundward in methodical, wide arcs. Wings vanished in foreshortening as planes banked. That illusion of bare fuselages looked like the Atlas and Titan rockets I saw on television and which were a highlight of kindergarten trips to the nearby New York Hall of Science. Just as NASA’s lunar program was wrapping up, I was blissfully misunderstanding my sky to be filled with countless space missions, launching and landing one neighborhood over.

I was innocent of missiles. I knew nothing of the Cold War undertones of the Space Race. The thunderous, shuddering metal rockets were humanity’s vow to strike a path into cosmic wonderment. I dreamed to one day blaze it deeper.

Peace was loud. It was the exhilaration of throwing energy at adventure and exploration. Children so young can’t rightly be said to hold delusions. Instead, their walls of knowledge have many gaps through which imagination floods. But one fact of childhood remains with me: peace needn’t mean the stilling of energies.

2. Heart of Noise.

January 22, 2012. An early afternoon thaw is starting to loose the noises of Jackson Heights from the muffling blanket of snow that fell the day before. Outside the Apna Cash and Carry on 37th Avenue, the usual cacophony burgeons. Car horns blare the long, sustained, atonal, and frustrated wails of small, tense men. The roll doors of trucks crash closed. Arguments in Bangla flash. Along Roosevelt Avenue, the elevated 7 train obliterates conversations in clattering swells.

Noise and heat are often the castings of purposeful effort. An incandescent bulb glows with utility but burns with wasted energy. The archipelago we call home was once filled with wetlands, meadows, and forests that covetously held sunlight — indeed, treetops climbed higher in competition for that energy. New York City today is a “heat island” that absorbs light into barren hardscapes of concrete, stone, and asphalt, only to re-radiate it unused in longer, warming infrared wavelengths. With industrialization, the energy of labor has been radically condensed. Muscle action and tropism that slowly and quietly shaped ancient landscapes were overwhelmed by combustion engines. Our machines do the work of generations in a year or a season, but with this energy they are also groaningly and concussively profligate.

Imagine a topographical map of North America showing noise level readings as mountains, valleys, and plains. The Boston-Washington corridor would be a towering mountain range, scaling to an apex in New York City. Noise is measured in logarithmic decibels, with distance as important as source. A subway train ringing in at 95 dB is 10 times louder than an 85 dB jackhammer, and 100 times louder than a car idling at your corner with its sound system whump-whumping at 75 dB. Traffic typically registers between 60 and 87 dB. In a city’s tight quarters, many sounds, like car horns and garbage trucks, assault us at over 100 decibels. Anything above 85dB has the potential to cause permanent hearing loss. The atmospheric soundscape of the deep forest is as quiet as a lover’s whisper — both have been recorded at 20 dB.

Jackson Heights is blessed with canopied streets, courtyards and garden areas, but could benefit from trees nearer to its major thoroughfares. According to the US Forest Service, “a belt of trees 98 feet wide and 49 feet tall can reduce highway noise by 6 to 10 decibels.” We need that shielding. Random and continuous noise breeds stress. The World Health Organization estimates that 210,000 people die each year from noise stress induced heart disease. More suffer from the effects of frequent deep sleep disruption. The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that nearly half of the U.S. population is exposed to dangerous noise levels.

King Mithridates VI of Pontus sought to protect himself from assassins’ poisons by ingesting toxins bit by bit. His efforts are said to have been so successful that he foiled his own suicide attempt. Are we now subconsciously trying to practice auditory Mithridatism by dropping this poisonous cacophony into our ears day by day? I often wonder what a Homo Urbanis would look like, a hominid evolved for city living. I imagine a sculpture of Homo Urbanis standing in Grand Central Station to remind commuters of the gulf between human design and urban planning. Such a being would be built for a sedentary life, with a vascular system that runs no risk of thrombosis and an endocrine system that doesn’t crave fats and sugars. Its nostrils would be densely bristled to catch diesel particulates, its eyes would filter damaging screen glare. And of course, it would have ear flaps.

But let’s return to that topography. Where humanity clusters, there will be music. Few can ascend the peaks of New York City’s music scene. Jackson Heights is defined by immigrants from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Ireland, China, and Thailand. Diving into our streets, we swim through Bollywood dance music, bhangra, Indo-techno, samba, tango, corrido, vallenato, salsa, alvasos, sanjuanitos, pasacalles, tonadas, yaravies. Elevating carnatic sangeet from India, bitter bachatas from Latin America. Romantic pleadings from everywhere humanity has trodden, and trodden over hearts.

Hispanic thrash metal bands have regular gigs at D’Antigua Lounge on Northern Boulevard at 84th Street. Do their head banging fans know that well over half a century ago inventor Les Paul did pioneering work on the electric guitar and multi-track recording a few blocks away? That he nearly died from electrocution, guitar in hand, in the basement studio of his apartment building? After some research I was delighted to locate his apartment complex, just off Roosevelt Avenue: Electra Court, naturally.

3. Another Humanity.

Homo Urbanis is wholly imagined, but walking among us are those who might teach us to usher in Homo Pacificus, a peaceful humanity. It seems that the same brain circuits that produce and appreciate music might sketch the outlines of a better mode of being. I’m counting on a nine year-old girl named Samantha to guide me.

Samantha’s standing at the corner of 37th Avenue and 74th Street with her father, Dr. Anthony Vecchia, who practices emergency medicine and resides in Queens. They’ve kindly agreed to share a walk through Jackson Heights so that we might experience this neighborhood through Samantha’s ears and gentle nature. One of 7,500 of us, like Samantha, is born with Williams Syndrome. Like the better known Down’s Syndrome, this condition arises from a chromosomal transcription error. “Williams people” are often happier among themselves because they are wired to be hyper-social (they approach strangers as we would dear old friends), empathetic, musicophillic, and guileless to degrees we would find incomprehensible. Without exception, they are kind and open. It took an accident to reveal the better angels of our genes.

But a Williams person’s I.Q. is lower, typically about 65. Despite this, they retain a wonderfully vivid ability to tell stories and make music, sometimes even at a high professional level. Too often they are victimized and financially exploited because they are utterly trusting and poor at math.

Musicality gyres in toward people like Les Paul, starting from a cosmic outer rim of sterile mathematics. Nature is full of cycles and orderly patterns. But there is no “Music of the Spheres.” Newtown’s Laws rigidly dictate the movement of planets, stars, and comets. That lockstep progression is a metronome at best. Life makes music. NASA astrobiologist, and my buddy, David Grinspoon, says, “Life isn’t something that happens on a planet, it’s something that happens to a planet.” David also happens to be a rhythm guitarist with House Band of the Universe and has a website called “Funky Science.”

Life responds to the metronome, aligning with the rhythms of rotations and revolutions and tides. With heartbeats, breaths, and bioluminescent pulses, life begins to generate its own rhythms. Life is an eddy within entropy, and perhaps an emergent order that will become all encompassing. The raw universe wants to scatter and fray, but here we are assembling life from seeds, literally molecule by molecule. My murdered friend, “fringe science” advocate Eugene Mallove, wrote movingly of the “quickening universe.”

But we still haven’t arrived at music. An article of faith of mine is that living worlds become musical as they become intelligent. We adore patterns within patterns, and playful, unexpected riffs on those patterns — the punchline, the beat drop, the giraffe’s neck. Patterns and play — order with room for innovation and contradiction — for me, that’s as good a definition of peace as any.

In our time, we’ve seen music as an instrument of peace. John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously devoted their talents and fame to humanizing the perceived enemy, and Live Aid eased starvation in Africa, where rock and roll’s taproot draws most deeply. Music brings us together, sometimes intimately: Charles Darwin theorized that music began in courtship displays. More recent neuroscience research ties music to language, which jibes with Williams peoples’ love of storytelling. But with language comes shibboleths. As much as music and language connect us, they distinguish us. Teens famously cluster and clique around music genres and favorite bands. Pity the dweeb who Tweets the wrong song. Jingoistic tunes accompany wars, just and unjust, to build cohesion against an enemy. Catchy rhythms bypass our reasoning centers and deliver our loyalties. I think we’re better able to modulate our responses to other arts. Our bodies wholly surrender to music.

“We listen to music with our muscles,” Nietzche wrote. A more mercenary take comes from Napolean: “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.”

Do you want to see people in Jackson Heights who can roll between cultures, bypassing these prejudices of affiliation? Check the prams: as Oliver Sachs recounts in his book, “Musicophilia,” auditory cognition researchers Erin Hannon and Sandra Trehub found that “infants at six months can readily detect all rhythmic variations, but by twelve months their range has narrowed, albeit sharpened. They can now more easily detect the types of rhythms to which they have been previously exposed; they have internalized a set of rhythms for their culture. Adults find it harder to perceive ‘foreign’ rhythmic distinction.” I recalled their discovery when I read that a 2010 study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, indicated that Williams children might be the first category of humanity to not display racial bias.

4. Crossings and Castles.

Samantha is pulling her father’s hand, leading him around the corner to 73rd Street. South Asian music is shaking the air over widening snow puddles in a 22 note diatonic scale with polyrhtyms and syncopation. We grab a drink at Haat Bazar Restaurant. Samantha’s striking up conversations across the counter and in each booth she passes. Bangladeshi patrons and workers warmly receive this petite girl who has a broad smile and angular blue eyes that constitute the “elfin” features of a Williams person.

I listen to Samantha talk with her dad, Tony.

“What happened when we played music last night?,” he asks.

“We had to dance. We had to dance together, right?,” she replies.

That’s key: “we had to dance together.” Oliver Sachs describes the workings of a brain’s fear, novelty, and rhythm centers when rewired by Williams Syndrome. “This very extensive brain activation…seemed to go with their almost helpless attraction to music and their sometimes overwhelming emotional reaction to it.”

I ask Samantha what makes her happy. “Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga,” she says, while Tony reminds her of Adele. “What makes you happy besides music?,” I ask. With some more coaxing, she replies, “Smile, fishes,” but then seems to lose herself in another thought, or maybe the idea of happiness. “Wow, so lovely,” she says, and lingers in an internal gaze for a moment.

The winter has been a sad struggle for me, but I think I’m covering it up well.

“Are you okay?,” Samantha asks. She peppers me with that question a few more times during the afternoon. Does she uniquely cut past my facade to notice, or uniquely care enough to ask? Empathy is the outward gift of Williams Syndrome.

As we ready ourselves to leave for our walk, I regret that we’re a few months early for a quirky detour; on 35th Road near 71st Street, there’s a mockingbird that I imagine Samantha would love to meet. I’ve never seen him, but we play a game of call and response when I hear him in trees near that corner. Mockingbirds in New York City are often forced into nocturnal lifestyles because daytime noise drowns out their songs, which are used to attract mates. But the truncated one-block pass of 35th Road is ignored by drivers during morning rush hour. It indulges this many-songed vestige of nature.

Over on 37th Avenue, Bangla dance music pulses and pops from loudspeakers rigged over sidewalks. A street hawker of CDs is repeating, with commercial compulsion, ‘Three dollar, four for ten dollars.” Samantha takes a palm reading calling card from a quieter street vendor and points it at the CD man as if it was a remote control. She says clearly, but with no hostility, “Turn it off.” Baffled, he pauses to assess this little girl. “Thank you,” she replies, and we’re walking again.

We duck down into Punjabi and Bollywood basement music stores on 74th Street. Videos enthrall. I expect Samantha to bounce to the joyous tunes that swallow entire movie set villages in an India of garish colors and suspended disbelief. But Samantha stands nearly still and looks clearly vexed. The young man behind the counter, perhaps sensing something’s amiss, lowers the speaker system’s volume. The whispery audio of the shop’s ceiling-mounted flat screen TV monitor can now be heard. Samantha dances and is happy again. It suddenly hits me that she was disturbed to see a cast of hundreds dancing out of sync with the music — with the removal of overlaying music, Samantha’s universe is realligned. A few minutes later, further down 37th Avenue, she bounds down into New Singapore Emporium, where the proprietor is clearly brightened by this cheery dancer. I buy her the CD, “52 Nonstop Remix.”

A block or two east on 37th Avenue, Tony and I pop quarters into a storefront mechanical ride. Again, a rhythm into which Samantha invests her heart. Afterward, she starts talking enthusiastically of a “castle with horses.” I look up the avenue and slowly connect the dots. The mechanical ride is Samantha’s horse and the great brick edifice of PS 69 is her castle. She’s weaving narratives on the fly.

There’s a weekend event underway at the school and Samantha leads us inside. Pine trees line the short walkway — that small vault of green is the stillest, quietest place we’ll encounter on our walk. My memory slips back to a haiku I wrote decades ago, about the commonality of seemingly disparate experiences:

Far inland, a wind
Spins fine snow off ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray!

But Samantha is quickly bored by this vision of peace. “This is not a castle,” she clarifies.

A few minutes later, Samantha’s bopping to a cumbia out of Yambao, a second-floor Latin music store under the 7 train, around the corner from Electra Court. This is our last stop. I’m startled at how much motor control and sense of possibility her dancing displays. She’s happier than me, the oaken observer. She is fully herself and in harmony with her surroundings.

I start to more fully comprehend a connection between music, peace and, indeed, stillness. By moving so freely with things as passing as music and neighborhood ethnic identities, Samantha is in fact still. She is peaceful. Her gracefulness in matching motion to motion is the heart of Relativity. Surrendering to motion is the way to stillness.

Lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) in Sunnyside, Queens. Photo by Erik Baard.

Shoppers at the Sunnyside Greenmarket in Queens last weekend scooped up fresh regional produce yet sidestepped the prized Ganoderma lucidum mushroom growing at their feet.  This medicinal mushroom, more popularly known by Chinese and Japanese names, Lingzhi or Reishi respectively, is also indigenous to our region. You can find it at the base of common hardwoods filling our parks and lining our streets.

Identification of this fungus is easy — the upper fruiting body is often kidney shaped and is remarkable for looking glazed. Indeed, while Asian names reference divinity and immortality, the western scientific name derives from Greek and Latin roots for “shining bright skin. ” Apparently no one has studied the evolutionary advantage of the Ganoderma lucidum’s sheen.

This mushroom isn’t eaten because it’s bitter and tough, with a texture “like balsa wood or hard cardboard,” said Dr. Kathie T. Hodge, Associate Professor of Mycology and Director of the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium.  This mushroom comes into the kitchen is as a powder that some people mix with coffee, or use to wholly replace coffee. Whether powdered or extracted by boiling or alcohol, it’s consumed for believed health benefits.  Research into these potential benefits continues, but traditional uses include fighting tumors and viral infections, and generally boosting the immune system. The “red reishi” variety is considered more potent than the black.

Red reishi from below. Photo by “Wildman” Steve Brill (http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/).

Is your curiosity is piqued? Harvest. “It will die this fall, so if you want to hack it off, now is the time,” said Hodge. Under the section of the fruiting body that looks glazed is a duller white section riddled with tiny pores. These pores release spores, which are carried by the wind. Once that’s complete, this whole upper section rots off, often consumed by a green mold. “If you find it green, it’s too old. Don’t use it,” Hodge cautioned. This mushroom is also consumed by some rather specifically adapted beetles, both beautiful and bizarre. Their presence might quash some human appetites.

Megalodacne fungus eating beetles. Photo by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Bolitotherus cornutus fungus beetles. Photos by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Foraging mushrooms can be dangerous, especially from urban tree pits. It’s best to go with an experienced forager to a natural area or to take a class, such as those taught by Gary Lincoff, author of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and a New York Botanical Garden instructor. Or, Lincoff noted, it’s “sold in Chinatown.” Organic red reishi mushrooms are also sold at health food stores and online.

If you’re a determined forager finding only mushrooms that have gone green, don’t fret. They will grow back next year. Deep in the tree bark and roots is the mycelium — the complex base of the mushroom — ready to regrow a fruiting section next year. And check the maples, oaks, beech, sycamore, cherry, and birch trees in the vicinity. When spores land in a tree wound they take root and grow into new mycelia that then also fruit. The downside to Ganoderma lucidum  is that its feeding on lignan, a plant compound, weakens trees. Hodge cited research pointing to a 30-year life span for red oaks with this mushroom, but noted that the stresses of an urban environment might hasten a tree’s demise. The death blow is very likely to be a windstorm toppling the enfeebled tree. One interesting note is that many of the antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic benefits of Ganoderma lucidum are also attributed to lignans themselves.

The Red Bat of Woodside.

Red bat. Photo by Gil Lopez.

By Erik Baard

When New York City flies under the Gotham moniker, there’s a good chance Bat Man will show up in scenes of mayhem. But in this living city, residents usually have to work harder to spy bats, seeking them out in quiet corners or on professionally guided tours — sometimes with the help of modern technology.

That wasn’t the case for Woodside, Queens’  Gil Lopez, an edible landscape designer and urban farmer. Later in the evening after the great summer hail of August 15th, he emerged from his bedroom to find this red bat had flown into his apartment livingroom.

“He was cute. He had an adorable, fuzzy face and a little snub nose,” Lopez said. “When his wings weren’t spread out, he was no bigger than my fist. I could have held him in my palm.”

Red bat. Photo by Gil Lopez.

As it happens, Lopez waved his arms to steer the bat into the bathroom. The bat flew rapidly around his arm-waving host without making any contact, despite close quarters. Lopez was surprised by the bat’s “smooth, gliding flight” and that it was tracking him with its eyes. Contrary to popular mythology, bats have vision.

Lopez had thoughts of putting the red bat to work clearing mosquitos away from the urban farm he co-founded, but instead helped it out the bathroom window. Lopez’s five-minute encounter extraordinary; unlike the colonies of little brown bats that pack caves and other hollows in NYC, red bats live largely solitary lives among trees. Because there aren’t social, they’ve been spared the “white nose syndrome” afflicting other bats.

Red bats at rest. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

“I am surprised that one was found in a NY apartment,” said Lynn Robbins, a Missouri State University biologist who specializes in bats. But the hail storm may have played a role. “The only time people report them to me is after a storm, when their tree roost may not have provided them enough protection and they can show up anywhere, but in a man-made structure is not common.”

Lopez lives across Queens Boulevard from the quiet and leafy New Calvary Cemetery, a pretty ideal red bat habitat. A keen observer might spot them in normal conditions hunting for bugs around street lights glowing amid the deciduous trees of the graveyard.

Red bats might soon be even harder to spot. Their coloring (females are grayer) camouflages them against predators among autumn leaves, and when temperatures drop near zero, they dig down into the leaf litter and enter the low metabolic state called torpor. When asked if decomposing leaves leaves produced heat to sustain the bats, Robbins replied that the leaves are “probably just insulation over that big thermos called earth.”

Red bat camouflaged in autumn. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

Red bat in leaf litter. Photo by Lynn Robbins.

Red bats “can migrate long distances to enhance their survival,” Robbins notes. But a mild winter might yield more red bats — they bear up to five young in a litter, as compared to the two typical for bats. “If there is good weather and and plenty of food, their numbers can grow much more rapidly than other species,” Robbins said.

The Esso Aruba, built in 1931, a water tanker as much as an oil tanker.

Just today I heard an interesting bit of Hudson River trivia from my “grandfather.” Some of you know that both sides of my family have been in tug and barge and marine contracting work on New York Harbor for about a century. But I’m blessed with a third grandfather, Jim — my childhood landlord who, along with his wife, essentially adopted my mom, brother, and me during hard times and now we’re there for him as he reaches his 90s.
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I biked over to Jim in Flushing, and he told me something from his days as a Merchant Marine, 2nd engineer aboard this kind of oil ship, in World War II. The convoys to which he belonged ran oil both from the Middle East to Europe and Aruba to Albany. Regarding the latter, he noted that when oil was delivered stateside, they pumped about half out in NYC before heading up the Hudson River to Albany, where the other half was pumped out. The ships then took on ballast water (a practice now carefully regulated to avoid introducing invasive species).
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When the ships arrived to desert island of Aruba, that Hudson River water was so precious that it was pumped out, spun through a centrifuge to remove any oil residue, and used sparingly as a precious commodity! Who knew that we once swapped Hudson River oil for water in unofficial international trade?
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It occurred to Jim then, as a young man in his 20s, that much of the world would one day treat water as covetously as oil. He moved to water rich NYC after the war, and later thought the growth of huge cities in areas that required water conservation was madness.
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Science Photo Library caption: Desalination plant. View of a mixed desalination and electricity generating plant. This is the second largest desalination plant in the world. Oil-fired turbines generate electricity using sea water which condenses and is desalinated in the process. The water is then passed over coral rocks to add minerals and pumped to the rest of the island which receives little rainfall. Photographed on the Dutch island of Aruba in the West Indies in 1999.

Today, Aruba has a massive desalination plant. The Hudson River has endured environmental assault but now Rockland County is edging closer to relying on it for life. NYC might also turn to it if times get desperate.
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Instead of obsessing over another fossil fuel, natural gas, that lies under our region’s earth, we should be grateful for the plentiful water above it. Protecting it means, at this time, choosing water over dangerously extracted fuel.

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

Our kayak camping on Governors Island for City of Water Day reminded me of earlier paddles I took to the island, for the LIC Community Boathouse, to plant apple trees (yes, I transported them by kayak), and to lead a volunteer team on behalf of Earth Day New York. The latter two trips were to support the Added Value Urban Farm annex on the island.

In July of 2011, while enjoying the shade of a locust tree adjacent to the farm, I found myself under an actual predator’s gaze. This fine Red-tailed Hawk was watchful, but at ease just a few feet above me. We’re blessed to live during a time of raptor resurgence in the Big Apple, but a close sighting is still exhilarating. I was unaware that Governors Island has a rich avian life, as evidenced by this census.

Given the name of the island, I dubbed this bird Lord Cornbury, as a small token and humorous nod to the much pilloried  colonial Governor Edward Hyde. I’ve recently had no choice but to learn to forgive undemocratic (and likely transient) leaders on the very local scale who are, as Hyde was described, of “slender abilities, loose principles, and violent temper.”

Red-tailed Hawk on Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

American Bittern. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The East River is NYC’s premier waterway and as founder of the LIC Community Boathouse and HarborLAB, I’ve made it my paddling home. At sunset, ferry boats filled with skyline gawkers will nearly flip to the west, and East River bridges set the scene for countless films. But for a kayaker, it’s the wilderness refuges of its islands and inlets that make this tidal strait endlessly fascinating.

Returning to Randalls Island from Governors Island in the Sunday morning calm after City of Water Day, Caroline Walker and I paddled through the outskirts of Hell Gate toward Mill Rock. I was admiring Great Black-backed Gulls at rest and Double-crested Cormorants perched on the island’s rip rap skirt while drying their wings when I spied something a bit different — a bird with the shape of a heron but markings similar to an American Woodcock. Caroline described it as “brindled,” which is pretty apt.

As we drifted past, a handful of cormorants and gulls took off while most ignored us. The misfit bird, however, walked quickly and deliberately into the brush that grew down from a turf mound to the rip rap line. It seemed to almost instantly disappear among the twigs and leaves. I didn’t have a camera.

After some research yesterday, I realized how lucky Caroline and I were! We had spotted an American Bittern. This species has fantastic camouflage for its reedy habitat, and so is rarely seen. Sadly, its population is declining rapidly with diminishing wetlands (though I’m comforted that its conservation status remains “least concern“). Good places to seek them are Pelham Bay Park (join Wild Metro for a volunteer day) and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. But they can pop up well away from salty shores. Prospect Park Lake, in the heart of Brooklyn, may have drawn this other one.

For those not lucky enough to glimpse this stealthy heron, there’s still a chance to hear its odd call, the second part of which sounds to me like someone repeatedly unstopping a PVC pipe. Strange that a creature would evolve to be invisible only to concurrently acquire a voice that earns it nicknames like “Stake Driver, Thunder Pump and Mire Drum.”

The American Bittern I observed was silent, so I have something to look (or rather, listen) forward to!

Black-crowned night heron in Nolan Park, Governors Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

City of Water Day was another great success this year, thanks to Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance staff, volunteers, partners, and participants.

After some puttering around the island, eating delicious Vspot vegan empanadas,  and spending time with an amazing array of vendors, exhibitors, and fellow mariners, it was time to settle into camp.

We strolled past a rare American Elm tree and into Nolan Park. Girl Scouts of the USA interactive designer and artist Caroline Walker spotted this black crowned night heron in a tree. Noted nature illustrator Steve Sanford (Nature Conservancy, Field and Stream, Boys’ Life, Saltwater Fisherman) and I lingered with Caroline to observe this representative of the most widely distributed (five continents!) heron species.  It drifted down to lower branches to return the curiosity. After a few minutes, we mammals moved on.
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Then, the little thing proved truly brave and inquisitive. It followed us over a tree or two to our camp site, and then came down! Throughout the night it poked around the dirt to feed, strolling among our supine bodies. Sometimes it would swoop over us quite closely, yet not aggressively —  apparently gusts from its wing beats once woke Steve.
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I’ve never known this species to hunt on dry land, but perhaps it’s adapting to better exploit the safety of Governors Island’s canopy for nesting. After all, there are insects in the soil beneath the trees too. Still, I would love for any revamping of the island to include soft shorelines, restored wetland habitat, and other kindnesses to native creatures.
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At points a second heron arrived and departed, to spar or flirt. Only when thus engaged did our friend caw. I’m too ignorant to know what was transpiring, but it wasn’t likely nest aggression — the adults of this species actually feed each others’ young. I’ll ask my friend David Burg of Wild Metro (and adviser to HarborLAB) to clue me in, and update this entry with an epilogue.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the 1000 Islands-Seaway region of upstate New York.  Housed within this special region is a unique ecosystem full of hidden treasures, water adventures, and extraordinary wildlife.

Collectively, the Great Lakes boast the largest freshwater coastal dunes on Earth, and the lion’s share of New York’s barrier beach system lies within the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. The dunes shelter a special ecosystem but are fragile themselves.

This rare habitat off Lake Ontario is stewarded by the Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s home to a fantastic diversity of species. Trout, bass, salmon, pike and perch fill its creeks, ponds and streams. The air is alive with bitterns, terns, harriers, swallows and other birds. Woody areas and brush conceal foxes, rabbits and coyotes, while deer and turkeys hug the edges. More adventurous explorers will find mink, muskrat and beaver.

Paddling out to Lake Ontario on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The DEC advises that it’s best to see the preserve by paddling, so a small group of us launched from a soft edge along the inner reaches of South Sandy Creek. There was a small rock ledge to keep one’s butt out of mud. Just as I was getting into an excellent kayak kindly provided by Cornell’s Pedal & Paddle, a butterfly (perhaps a kind of metalmark) alighted on the stone’s edge. The good omen was worth a minute or two wait until our friend was off again on a nectar quest.

Butterfly at the launch rock of South Sandy Creek. A good omen. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Our group was led by the Oswego County Kayaking Club through Janet Clerkin, Oswego County Tourism and Public Information Coordinator. Janet’s husband, Kevin, joined us and the club was represented by Dick and Naneen Drosse. My travel buddy, Ed Hancox, is a fresh river guy from New Jersey and was delighted by the clarity and peacefulness of the Sandy Creek. As founder of the Long Island City Community Boathouse on NYC’s salty and turbulent East River, I relished the contrast between the two locales.

Our guides paddle in the shade of the dense foliage along South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

The tranquility of South Sandy Creek allows a paddler to reach what’s called “mindfulness” in Eastern traditions. There are moments when the smallest detail catches your eye, while you also sense a transcendent connection to the world through water.  Here I was, starting the day psyched to see the largest lake in my 43 years and discovering that among the most memorable sights were tiny things — a purple milkweed seedling blossoming from a huge dead tree and countless northern bluet damselflies that looked like Navajo jewelry.

Damselflies are smaller and more delicate than their dragonfly cousins and can fold their wings in. Like dragonflies, damselflies can operate their two sets of wings separately, but are not nearly as strong fliers. They flit near the water surface and rest frequently. I spotted a yellow leaf and waited there for a landing, knowing it would the best color contrast for my photo subject.

A single milkweed flower growing from a massive tree that fell into South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
Purple milkweed just where it likes to be, between a small wood and a stream. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
The air just above the creek glinted with bluet damselflies, which frequently came to rest on vegetation. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

South Sandy Creek is banked by dense zones of cattails,  a native that’s nonetheless crowding out other important species, explained Gerry Smith, president of the North Country Bird Club. Human control of water levels for shipping and hydroelectricity disrupts natural fire cycles. Other species are no longer able to seed into burnt clearings, according to Smith and a number of regional ecologists. Since the hydro projects were completed 50 years ago, Smith said, cattail-eating muskrats are less populous, exacerbating the problem.

One of the greatest concerns Smith and the DEC hold regarding this habitat change is that overgrown cattails eliminate sedge meadows, which are black tern nesting areas. Black tern numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Rising over the cat grass in the photo below is a kind of hogweed called cow parsnip, which looks like tall Queen Anne’s lace. Despite the usefulness American Indians found in properly handled cow parsnip, one might almost wish that the cattails crowded it out. As our guides cautioned, touching this plant can severely injure skin (some people can be blinded by hogweed). Cow parsnip is the only indigenous North American hogweed, endangered in some regions while considered a nuisance in others. It contains a phototoxin, a poison activated by ultraviolent light and water — not perfect for a sunny paddling day. The DEC has issued warnings and seeks to eliminate invasive Central Asian hogweed, especially in areas where people are likely to come into contact with it.

Cats, cows and hogs along South Sandy Creek. That is, cattails and cow parsnip, a kind of hogweed. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

One friendly family did well to avoid hogweed and sun alike, in style.

A mellow family outing on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

It was oddly intriguing to be bounded by thickets of blistering hogweed, as if we were herded, corralled. Surely the creek wasn’t that eager for us to stay on the true path to a lake, as magnificent as it might be. What else? It was then that Clerkin, who doesn’t engage in much idle chatter, said, “Some believe that this place was ‘Eden’ for an Iroquois nation.”

When moments later we glided into an expanse of white lilies on Floodwood Pond, I could share that vision of Eden.

White lilies and purple loosetrife in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
Yellow lily in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The resemblance of the waterlily and lotus is superficial compared to their genetic distinction, but both inspire spiritual reflection. I can’t revere one without feeling resonance from the other.

Returning to this place, I will be reminded of the lotus, believed in ancient India to be the first creation and a divine womb. According to the vanished Iroquois nation of Attawandaron, Ji-gon-sa-seh (the Mother of Nations) was created between Sandy Creek and South Sandy Creek. The Attawandaron (“Neutral Nation” to the French and “Strange-speaking People” to the Hurons) were last recorded as a living people in 1671. Other Iroquois carried their oral traditions forward.

But we’re long out of Eden. That beautiful spray of purple loosestrife behind the white waterlily above is a threat to the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. Each one of these Eurasian invasive plants can produce a million hardy seeds. Indeed, some ecologists believe purple loosetrife seeds arrived in the ballast water of the very ships for which lake levels are now controlled. “Purple loosestrife degrades wetlands. It’s really something. It’s in the top 20 list of nasty invasive species in the state,” Smith said. Even muskrats avoid purple loostrife areas.

The entire stretch we’ve just shared wouldn’t exist if not for the region’s precious and finite resource — sand. Oceans produce sand constantly, but in the Great Lakes, “What you see is what you get,” explained Smith, left over from glaciers and floods eons ago. The Ontario Dune Coalition strives to preserve the dunes through management and plantings. Two vital plants for stabilizing dunes and kick-starting viable habitat are wormwood and beach grass, seen below.

Beach grass and wordwood (spiking up at center), the first two protective colonizers of dunes. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

“The sand is finite, but that’s not to say it doesn’t move around,” explained Smith. “Some sand will move on shore in the winter and fall during storms and with heavy waves.”

Sand also naturally converges through water movement into the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area and nearby Sandy Island Island Beach State Park, he said. For some species, that sand movement is critical. High water can sometimes collapse part of a dune. One the lee side of a dune, the wind can’t smooth and sculpt, so a sheer bluff remains. Here you’ll find nesting bank swallow nests, pictured below. “Bank swallows burrow in and live there from May through mid-June or July. They collapse in winter and the next year they redo it again,” Smith said.

Bank swallow burrows on the lee side of dunes collapsed by high water. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Just past the bank swallow summer timeshare there’s a great set of beaches and a swing rope hanging from a tree for horsing around. The water is crystalline.  Only a stripe of zebra mussel shells on the beach indicates that this pleasure has nefarious origins. We relaxed and swam in and out of the gateway between Lake Ontario and the inland ecosystem, marked by a small hook of sand.

Our gateway, the creek system mouth. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)
Successfully rehabilitated Lake Ontario dunes on Sandy Island Beach State Park. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

Sandbars form in the calmer wave conditions of summer. For a paddler, this adds to the enjoyment of Lake Ontario. A calm channel carved by the creek outlet leads out into the lake, flanked by waves breaking over sandbars. One can opt to play at the deeper edges of the sandbars, or stay on the “blue carpet.”

Ed is thrilled to reach sight of the white crests of Lake Ontario sand bar waves. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

From here, the Great Lakes Seaway, St. Lawrence River and a water world to explore! But your romance or family time might benefit from the quietude of a few hours enjoying and honoring a forgotten Eden.

 

An early pass on our Black River tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The variety of water conditions in northern New York is a continual source of amazement to a visitor. For a water lover who isn’t ready to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but hungers for more of an adrenaline rush than lovely, languid creeks can deliver, there’s the whitewater of the Black River.

Between the drops and twists of this Class IV rapid there are mellower stretches where one can take in the exquisiteness of the Black River Valley. This rift is carved by a flow that on many spring days measures well over 60,000 gallons per second. High, layered walls of granite cocoon you away from the sounds of traffic and medium-sized city life. The canyon is clearly still evolving and deepening, with chunks of stone sometimes calving and falling into the river and tree roots more finely crumbling the rock face.

Pushed up and over rocks. Note the limestone slabs leading toward the deeper canyon. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Leaping out for a swim on a quiter stretch of the Black River. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

You’ll want to paddle with an expert guide (I was fortunate to raft with Alex Atchie, a veteran guide with Adirondack River Outfitters) who’s up to date on new hazards and opportunities for fun. And yes, those are often one in the same!

At one point Alex decided to play in a vortex. Paddlers were allowed to opt out and wait on a limestone ledge — many did.

We spent a few long minutes hurling ourselves from one side of the raft to another to keep from keeling over. At any given moment one of our crew or another was submerged or invisible through spray. At one point when our raft was barraged and seeing that I wasn’t freaked out, Alex decided to strike up a casual conversation with me. “Pretty stupid way to make a living, eh?,” he joked. Absolutely not! “It’s refreshing,” I replied, encompassing both the cool, clear water running over our shoulders and the lifestyle Alex embodied.

In a vortex – Alex, in white helmet, leans forward to chat. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Two front paddlers submerged. One’s girlfriend looks concerned. Author in black shirt toward rear. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Everyone came up with smiles. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Raft or bathtub? (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River, which runs 114 miles from the Adirondacks to Lake Ontario,  probably gets its name from concentrations of dark tannic acid deposited by trees — some oaks are especially rich in it. A bit of trivia for your imagination: If alligators lived as far north as the Black River, they’d be quite dark because their hides pick up the tannic acid.

The Black River nearly turns our raft into a taco shell. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

Apart from hawks a-wing, the biggest predators you’ll likely spot on the Black River are nautiloids. These gorgeous fossils dating to the Ordovician period bulge from limestone at several haul-out points. Unlike the gently spiraled chambered nautiloid of today’s Andaman Sea, many of these invertebrate ancestral hunters had shells shaped like javelin tips. Though the examples I saw on the Black River were measured in inches, one discovery in Arkansas measured eight feet long! You can see in these nautiloids development toward today’s squids, who are also propelled by water jets. An apex predator during an age of high levels of atmospheric CO2, nautiloids ruled warm seas that overflowed the continents as never before or since. That epoch seems to have ended in an Ice Age 443 million years ago.

Ordovician life in an illustration posted by the University of Wisconsin.
Similar nautiloids unearthed in Morocco and exhibited at the Museum Victoria in Australia. (Photo by Simon Hinkley for Museum Victoria)

For me, seeing these fossils was as thrilling as the whitewater that nearly tossed me into them a few times!

Of course gawking at fossils in a strong set of  rapids might be a reliable way of becoming one yourself. When it comes to the Black River, seasoned whitewater paddlers worry most about the Knife’s Edge where water can push overturned paddlers into hollows. Alex has an endearing habit of telling our group about worst case scenarios regarding each rapid after we’d zipped safely by. He did, however, give us repeated and explicit instructions on each approach and wasn’t shy about barking out navigational commands over the roar.

Alex has bonded himself to the Black River for 30 years and knows its ways. He’s also a font of the Black River’s natural and industrial history, and how they’ve intertwined. The river’s admirable present condition is in great part thanks to advocacy from paddlers and diligence from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which maintains a Black River website for salmon, bass, trout, pickerel and pike fishing enthusiasts.

A calmer and verdant end to an exciting tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River is a place of stories — whether your own fish tales and whitewater rafting boasts, local lore or the fossilized life its coursing reveals from deepest time. Looking ahead to next spring, make time to visit and let those stories live through you!

Getting to Watertown is easy, either by Amtrak to Syracuse or the Watertown International Airport.

For more information, CLICK HERE!