Archive for April, 2008

Plumb Beach, Brooklyn cleanup 




by Erik Baard


Yet despite this powerful, primordial drive, we turn away from life at our feet when with some labor, it could be replenished. Why?


Majora Carter has made the Herculean task of turning a truck-choked section of NYC into a greener, healthier place for families her daily job and mission. She founded and directs Sustainable South Bronx, which started a local green roof movement, trains residents for “green collar” jobs, created a waterfront park, and is swinging resources behind a greenway. She became a MacArthur Fellow in 2005 for her pioneering achievements.


As a South Bronx native, Carter knows how completely people can be severed from their landscape.


“They don’t see it as an environment, period. That’s why they go to Jones Beach,” said Carter.


But aren’t we always aware, at some level, that we are in nature? A bird flying overhead, a sprout shooting up through a crack in the pavement, and periods of rain and sun remind us. Our streets aren’t the sterile clean rooms of a microengineering lab. Biodecathection recognizes that we suffer from something more nuanced than depravation. Subconsciously we are lowered into a grinding state of constant mourning. And we worsen our lot in the long run by submitting to the immediate impulse to turn away from the source of that grief.


I don’t want to overstate the power of biodecathection in relation to biophilia. The latter is such a fundamental part of our makeup that it can’t be countervailed. There is no equal and opposite force. Even executives of the worst polluting companies enjoy lunch in the park, or vacations to idyllic spots. In that sense, maybe biophilia’s place in our psyche is akin to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of the Creator: while there are destructive urges, creation is more potent. Dualism is an illusion. I believe that biodecathection is merely the greatest of the lesser forces arrayed against biophilia (and a small outgrowth of it).


Another drain is biophillic misdirection. Parents, educators, and environmentalists often lament that kids today prefer to stay indoors immersed in videogames, television, and other multimedia. The industry of animation derives its name from anima, Latin for “living” and the older Sanskrit aniti, “he breathes.” Let’s recall that the first definition of biophilia given by Wilson was the “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (my italics). In short, modern entertainment companies are parasites profitably siphoning energy from biophilia’s wiring.


David Orr proposed a phenomenon of biophobia, an aversion to environments outside human control. While the urge to have dominion over Earth certainly could grow out of specific phobias exaggerated well beyond their reasonable origins – snakes and spiders can deliver venomous bites, extremely open or closed spaces leave us vulnerable – I have a hard time buying that our species has turned neurotic in such a wholesale fashion. And an aversion to contamination, a disgust response, is learned early. But those studies focused on specific objects that were easily replaced, not the ecosystems upon which we depend.


Another negative force is less abstract. There are people with a vested interest in keeping voters and neighborhoods disconnected from their environment. A conscious realization of environmental degradation, with the full emotional infusion that would entail, would undermine a momentarily profitable false faith in Nature’s endless bounty and regeneration. And people who are eco-emotionally depressed to the point of resignation, to sad slumber, are ideal neighbors for toxic industries. Awakening brings pain. Pain engenders anger. Anger demands change.


It starts with cathecting, a word that derives from the Greek kathexis, “to hold.” Carter recalls in the documentary “City of Water” that her community needed something to “smell, touch, taste” to believe in its power to resurrect Hunts Point, its environs, and the Bronx River. 


The American Littoral Society leads volunteer shoreline cleanups that have gathered up hundreds of tons of floatable trash from the shorelines of New York State alone (pictured above is a recent cleanup of Plumb Beach, Brooklyn by volunteers in partnership with ALS, the NYC DEP, and National Parks Service). Grassroots neighborhood groups link up with Partnerships for Parks to replenish and plant. The New York Restoration Project’s staff and neighborhood volunteers have turned hypodermic needle-strewn lots into gardens and revivified parks once thought to be hopeless cases.


I don’t know how much the visceral experience of biophilia can transfer to a global consciousness. I don’t believe biophilia encompasses systems so large that they become abstract; evolution would have no basis for selecting for that attribute. But perhaps some of the epiphanies of the environmental movement are nudging us in that direction – the iconic Apollo 17 photo, the Gaia hypothesis’ pop personification of the global ecosystem (even if that’s not what James Lovelock intended).


What I do know is this: Each neighborhood is an ecosystem and we need to cathect. We something we can champion, something we can heal. Something we can hold and that will persuade us that it’s worth the risk of feeling again. We need Bernie Ente’s green heron as much as it needs us.

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Green heron on the Newtown Creek by Bernard Ente

by Erik Baard

I often visit the Newtown Creek by kayak. When sentiment overtakes me and I talk to it, it’s without much expectation, much as with a dying elder who seems insensate.

Its breast rises and falls with the mechanically reliable tides, but that life support won’t return vibrancy to the body at its inland stretches. Those extremities are stilled. Sandy slopes where creatures once skittered and slithered have long-since been replaced by stained retaining walls. Nothing below is attuned to the the muffled sound of my voice, nothing darts from the turbulence of my paddle. The brightness of the sun and moon glints but doesn’t register. It’s an ecosystem in deep coma.

This was once a marshy expanse rich in herbs, grasses, blue fish, striped bass, waterfowl, turtles, and oysters. Small, family farms later flourished, harnessing tides to cleanly turn grain mills. Of the local apples, Thomas Jefferson boastfully wrote from Paris in the 1780s, “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown pippin.”

Starting in the 19th century, landfill truncated the meandering, sustaining tributaries, erasing all 1.5 miles of its tidal wetlands. Industries including leather tanning, paint production, and metal refining left toxic deposits on the creek bottom; six state superfund sites flank the creek whiles dozens more are contaminated. In the 1950s, Standard Oil (precursor to Exxon-Mobile) spilt at least 17 million gallons of its product underground in a plume that now encompasses 55 acres. Raw sewage and untreated stormwater gushes into the creek at a rate of 2.7 billion gallons per year.

This green heron stood in the backwaters of one of the Newtown Creek’s branches, gingerly perched atop the protruding wood edge of a collapsed pier. The first thing I saw in Bernie Ente’s marvelous photo was the brilliant conversation of colors. But that superficial stimulation yields quickly to sad awareness of the water’s oily sheen and the sulfurous black muck smeared across the balloons’ faces. Certainly sympathy is drawn into those alert yellow eyes. But there’s a broader malaise in a scene like this, a sense of a place where life itself seems irrevocably aggrieved.

Now imagine living next to it. After a time, would you turn away? Would you leave your neighborhood to seek “nature” elsewhere, even if as a tourist?

That shrinking away from one’s own ecosystem is what might be called biodecathection. Decathecting begins the grieving process; we withdraw in anticipation of loss. It’s emotionally self-protective. In the case of a long degradation destined to snuff out a beloved ecosystem, I believe it grows outward from a collection of personal experiences into a cultural meme. It spawns neglect. We abandon corners of our city where riotous wilderness has been hushed to a thready pulse. A corner where the heron surveys the damage.

I came to the idea of biodecathection amidst something of a crisis of faith in one of the most important underpinnings of my volunteer work and hobbies: biophilia, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson’s insight that humanity is born with a hunger for the very presence of life. Possessing that word let me harness the passion by which I was possessed.

One person who seems quite well-qualified to give biodecathection a sniff test is Stephen Kellert, co-editor, with Wilson, of The Biophilia Hypothesis and author of Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. His recent book, Building for Life, guides readers toward design that integrates biophillic wisdom. I asked point blank if there was merit to this idea.

“I suspect there is. There’s no question in my mind anyway that when environmental systems are degraded there’s a great emotional impact. There’s a kind of grief and one way of dealing is to shut it out, to deny it,” said Kellert, who is the Tweedy/Ordway Professor of Social Ecology of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Co-Director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology. “If you have a sort of diagnosis, if you know what the problem is, you might find a remedial approach.”

The “cure” for biodecathection is to take the emotional risk of full engagement in the renaissance of an ecosystem. Muddy hands, grit under the fingernails, sunburned calves, aching shoulders, stiff backs, bug bites. Hours spent in dreaming up solutions to the problem with partners, arguing them out, and passionately advocating for them.

As Kellert said, “Getting people involved in restoration is a powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual event. It can be an incredible act of atonement that’s intensely gratifying.”

It’s also a social event, given the enormity of the challenge. Indeed, ours communities heal with our ecologies. They are one.

It’ll be up to the pros to test the applicability of the biodecathection diagnosis. Many researchers have demonstrated the usefulness of the biophilia concept in the decades since its 1984 introduction in a book of that name. Tapping the human desire to affiliate with other species has made school curricula more compelling, cities more sustainable, parenting more interactive, and homes more comforting. Social psychologist Frances Kuo of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign reported that kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder performed better in tests of their concentration after just minimal exposure to greenery. Some children’s advocates have even gone so far as to repackage that label as Nature Deficit Disorder.

Anyone can immediately sense the stress that grows with passing hours in a barren setting, especially one where life once thrived. Lush locales induce the opposite effect. No wonder why resorts pull in billions of dollars to their retreats amidst green mountains and tropical islands.

Unbroken background stress, which can emanate from living in a despoiled environment, can overtime interrupt sleep patterns, exacerbate heart conditions, weaken the immune system, and cause otherwise cause illness. But episodic stress exists for a reason. It drives us to take necessary action. One obvious action to take when scraping by in a challenged ecosystem is to plod on to find a new one, lured by this psychological force of biophilia. Certainly humanity has migrated great distances to settle the planet, and quests for lands of plenty have shaped history. But is that all we’re about – acquiring, fouling the nest, and moving on? As disappointed as I am with our species, I’m not that uncharitable.

I propose that if our intelligence evolved from a need to keep track of complex social networks, then our minds are naturally predisposed to building webs, complex manifestations of order, like ecosystems. “Play” reinforces survival behaviors in all species; I would put art and gardening in that category. The roots of agriculture are here, but only to a point. Intensive monocultures covering thousands of acres don’t bring the same sense of wellbeing as diverse, if smaller, gardens.


Coming tomorrow in Part 2: Healthy skepticism from Majora Carter, and a discussion of what other forces are arrayed against biophilia.

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NYC Street Trees by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

Editor’s Note:

For Arbor Day, below is the story of New Yorker Natalie “Nasha” Schrape’s intertwined loves, romantic and arboreal, and her reflections on the centrality of trees in her life. Such personal accounts of active involvement in stewarding the fellow species of our city will be featured on the fully realized http://www.NatureCalendar.com website in our Nature Community section.


Nature Community is “where us and them blend.” No one embodies that principle more than Nasha. She also takes some amazing photos!


After enjoying Nasha’s essay, celebrate Arbor Day by making a commitment to NYC’s green future. The million trees we will plant in coming years as part of PlaNYC must be tended by caring neighbors. Become that kind of local hero by completing a Citizen Pruner certification class, as Nasha did, with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Trees New York. Or volunteer for the tree census. You can register here:


Citizen Pruner



Tree Census



Another wonderful program is street tree labeling by the NYC Tree Trust so that our sidewalks instantly become classrooms.





Miracle on 34th Street 


by Natalie Schrape     


So the real miracle on 34th Street is trees.


Good ole London Planes, Norway, Red, & Silver Maples, Callery Pears, Littleleaf Lindens, Ginkgo, Green Ash and Honey Locust compose the most common trees in New York City’s five boros. I first found this out by volunteering in the 2005 NYC Tree Census, whilst falling in love with my census partner.


We were brought together by our love of trees. My love for both has landed me a citizen prunership card. I have become a NYC tree advocate and looker-after.


I have learned that any tree in NYC is a miracle. It takes at least five years for a sapling to establish itself, and the majority does not survive. NYC trees must endure much. They must contend with extensive pavement that inhibits air and water movement into the soil, compacted solid soil, and limited soil volume due to underground utilities and pipes. They must withstand high wires, street signs, holiday and other decorative lights, or anything else that chokes them.  


Sometimes they outgrow their pits and begin to grow over the sidewalk, often cracking it. Trees must endure extreme heat or extreme cold. Recent droughts killed many of the saplings. Dog urine and salt for the roads in the winters are toxic to a tree.


Trees must survive cars and trucks opening doors on them and backing into them. They suffer their branches getting broken by carelessness, accident or sometimes blatant aggression or boredom. Often, home owners or merchants will dump dirty water full of bleach, ammonia or other cleaners into a trees pit.


Trees are our lungs. They clean and filter our air. They minimize the pollutants we breath in and provide us with oxygen. They are vital to our health and existence. Actually helping correlate the multiple branches on the tree to my lungs bronchiole helped me realize the importance of quitting smoking. Imagining that my lungs were as precious and delicate as all the many parts of the trees, made me finally realize how vulnerable and tender my lungs were. The trunk and branches are our bronchus. The leaves are our alveoli.


Trees are big upside-down lungs of the world. What a miracle.


I took trees for granted once. I assumed it was easy for them. I mean, they are all over the place, right? It’s gotta be a synch for them to grow anywhere. I liked them. Now I have a relationship with them. 


I imagine they are happy when it rains. I imagine they are thirsty when it is 95 degrees. I imagine they choke when Fido pees on their roots. Now I ask myself what is the species on that tree? How old is it?  Does the tree look healthy? Are there dead branches?  Is it infested with a bore? What does the tree pit look like? Is the soil compressed? [Note: A little-known effect of traffic congestion is that vibrations from vehicles cause soil to settle and compact, damaging trees and other plants.]


I have a strong old Norway Maple outside my bedroom window. It is a haven for a community of cardinals, blue jays, turtle doves, starlings, sparrows and squirrels. They in turn produce a soothing symphony of bird songs all summer long. Yet the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation will no longer plant this tree as it is now considered invasive and a host for the Asian Long Horn Beetle which is destroying many trees.  


The Ginkgo Tree can be traced back to when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, over 200 million years ago. Sometimes it is called a living fossil. Only a few of them survived the Ice Age. Thanks to a tiny group of Buddhist monks in China they now flourish worldwide again. Its leaf looks much like a green fan.


The London Plane is a hearty hybrid of the American and Oriental Sycamore tree. It is extremely popular in NYC parks and near housing projects. They were the darling of Robert Moses. The bark of these trees is distinct because it appears to be peeling and flaking in shades of brown, gray and green. (See London Plane trees in the streetscape photo above by NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.)


The Callery Pear is the second most common tree in NYC. In the spring, it is more than likely the tree that is covered with those delicate white blossoms. It is a wonder and miracle unto itself.


There are many Linden Trees in NYC. I am partial to them also. As a little girl, visiting my grandmother in East Berlin, I was very aware of walking on the famous ‘Unter den Linden’. Which when translated meant, ‘Under the Linden Trees’ Street. They are sweet smelling trees. They remind me how close I really am to my birthplace and home, Berlin.


The Pin Oak leaf is regal and articulated. It is characterized by 5-7 bristle-tipped lobes separated by deep cavities. It is one of the easier leaves to identify. Of course, this tree comes with acorns. This became one of the special symbols of my love’s connection to me. When we where separated he thought of me when he picked up the cap and nut. I picked up a chestnut in Berlin and thought of him.


Because I have traveled and moved and adapted to many living situations, cultures and cities, I have also realized the universality of the tree. Trees makes all these places appear and feel similar. They lend me a sense of familiarity. They have symbolically become a home for me. They comfort me.


Sometimes when I forget to breathe………………….they breathe for me. 

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Northern Dusky salamander in leaf litter. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled that National Public Radio featured Nature Calendar’s quest for the Manhattan population of Northern Dusky salamanders (well camouflaged in leaf litter above) as part of its Earth Day coverage. Check out the online story produced by NPR’s hot new show The Bryant Park Project:



by Erik Baard

Amphibians serve as a bellwether for ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands, and the news is rarely good. The Global Amphibian Assessment of 2004 found that we may have lost 120 species since the 1980s. Another 32% of remaining species are threatened with extinction, and 43% are suffering population declines. That’s an environmental body blow when you consider that salamanders alone are the largest contributor to vertebrate biomass in many North American forests. Part of this crisis seems traceable to global causes like climate change and ozone depletion. More often the problems are tied to local pollutants and habitat fragmentation.

Yet we bring you a quietly happy story of survival in, of all places, Manhattan.

Back in 1944, a 21-year old German immigrant naturalist named Carl Gans noted the presence of dusky salamanders living on a muddy slope in northern Manhattan. They prefer areas with limestone and need copious water, but only if it’s very slow flowing and not laden with silt. Weed-choked streams and bogs are good habitats. Seepages, that is gradually inclining hillsides where water saturates a broad swath of soft earth, are also places where a dusky salamander seeker might find quarry under rotting logs, leaf litter, and some loose stones. This common species is often known as the “pit bull of salamanders” for its stocky body and large jaw. Like many salamanders, they lack lungs and so breathe through their moist, delicate and permeable skin when they outgrow their newborn gills.

The duskies were probably a fun find for Gans, but he quickly moved on to adventures with sharks and exotic reptiles in a stellar, globetrotting career researching biomechanics and evolution. New York City had big ideas too. Over the next six tumultuous decades we built highways and iconic skyscrapers, birthed punk rock and hiphop, and rode waves of crime and condos with equal gusto.

Rough stuff for salamanders. Nearby pavement can accelerate water flow and sweep away salamanders, their young, and the small insects and worms they eat. Pesticides and herbicides cause mutations, behavioral aberrations, or outright kill them. Hydrocarbons and salts running off roads poison them. Clear cutting trees and shrubs denies them the protective shade they require. Urbanization finds a thousand ways to do them in. Even the gentler suburb of Westchester County saw its dusky salamanders nearly vanish in the latter twentieth century. The Manhattan area of the salamanders’ habitat became known for prostitution and illegal dumping, including many stripped cars (since cleared).

Despite the odds, Ellen Pehek, senior ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, led a little expedition alongside the Harlem River Drive to revisit the site. Astonishingly, the salamanders were still there.

“That was quite a find. I think people assumed they were gone, but they just hadn’t gone back to check on them,” Pehek said. “The lesson here is that we can protect them without giving up recreational activities. We can plan around these habitats to avoid certain places and all coexist. If they can live in Manhattan, we know we can coexist.”

Pehek was kind enough to share the location of this rare habitat with me – not that it was easy to find, even with directions. “Landmarks” included puddles and hillsides that looked alike to someone out for a casual stroll. To protect this special place, Pehek asked that I not reveal it here. But she encourages readers to visit the duskies in the Staten Island Greenbelt (check out the June 1 “Amphibian Adventures” program!), where they are plentiful.

I invited my old friend, Laura Conaway, and her wife, Sarah Goodyear (whose photos you’re enjoying – click to enlarge), on a salamander safari. Also joining were Laura and Sarah’s son, Nate, and Laura’s brother, Brian. Both Laura and Sarah are writers, and I got to know Laura when she edited a number of my Village Voice stories. She’s now a web editor with The Bryant Park Project at National Public Radio.

After a few wrong turns on my bike and direction checks by cell phone with the very-patient Pehek, we met up and walked the edge of a wood, never leaving the sounds of traffic and Latin music far behind. A small pack of sad-faced stray dogs slowly wound their way single-file up through hillside outcroppings in single file while Northern Flicker woodpeckers busy on fallen logs below. Baseballs were oddly placed in the crotches of locust, dogwood, and oak branches. Glass was ubiquitous. Some boulders were cracked and slivered; tell-tale bullet shell casings lay beneath them.

We turned over logs as we went. Millipedes here, pillbugs (aka rolly pollies) there, but no salamanders. I was starting to feel foolish. Laura continued to record, I continued to stall.

Finally, Brian exclaimed, “Found one!” From that point on, we found duskies and more common redback salamanders under every log in a small area. No wonder Pehek was so cautious about protecting the duskies’ coordinates: on the entire island of Manhattan, this species’ habitat can be measured in yards.

The salamanders were still when held, but quite fleet of foot on the ground. They have very muscular hind legs, which are a distinguishing characteristic second in prominence only to their muddy, dark gray-brown camouflage pigmentation. They are known to be excellent leapers. Subtler differences include a pale line from the eye to the corner of the mouth and an immobile jaw – they lift their heads to open their mouths.

The duskies felt cool in my palm (they don’t grow larger than five inches) for the few seconds I held them before I returning them to the wet ground, lest their skin dry.

Not so camouflaged now. Photo by Sarah Goodyear

“Most salamanders like the cold. You think of cold-blooded creatures liking warmth, but they can’t handle the heat. They sort of almost pass out from your skin warmth. They’re not something you want to handle for long,” Pehek cautioned. “They need to recover in moist leaf litter or a cold stream.”

In a few weeks they’ll begin courtship, an involved affair that includes head stroking, “butterfly” forelimb movements, and tail straddling. Then the grape-like egg clusters will develop in the mud during the height of summer. By the season’s end, yellow-spotted, gilled juveniles will be scurrying about. As they mature, the spots fade and the gills are subsumed. Salamanders don’t travel far in their several years of life, hugging the same muddy spring or stream bank.

That doesn’t mean they’re equally easy to find year-round. “They like a somewhat steady temperature, so when it’s too cold they’ll burrow down and do their thing there” in the warm earth, Pehek said. “In the middle of summer, when it gets too dry, they’ll also go under ground.”

A good strategy to catch them in action, Pehek advised, is to go to their haunts after sunset with a headlamp or flashlight. “At night they’ll climb around flowering plants and shrubs looking for invertebrates to eat.”

But don’t interrupt their feeding for too long – it’s important work. “They eat the insects that break down the leaf litter, so salamanders are slowing that decay. There’s carbon sequestered in those leaves, so in a way you could say salamanders are slowing down global warming,” Pehek said.

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By Erik Baard


Recently I ran up the darkened stairs of the E train World Trade Center subway station. When the bright sun hit my squinting eyes at street level I thought, “Uh oh. It might rain on the EarthFair.”


The source of my concern was the southwestern sky, gently dappled with small white clouds in neat rows. Nothing could look more peaceable, but as a kayaker I’d absorbed the sailors’ lore of a “mackerel sky.” The festivities outside of Grand Central didn’t get rained out, but by Sunday it was touched-and-go during the cooler day and showers fell at night. Thanks to that bright Friday alert, however, I was prepared with waterproof bike pants and a jacket in my backpack.


A mackerel sky (as photographed above over the Upper West Side by Elizabeth Powers – click to enlarge) satisfies something inside me in a way that the Big Dipper does for casual stargazers. It’s a familiar touchstone that is unfailingly clear and bears a comfortably homey name.


“What you’re seeing is instability at an altitude of about 20,000-to-30,000 feet. It’s a disturbance that could, but not necessarily, lead to a cyclone. Or in other words, a storm,” said SUNY Stony Brook Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres meteorologist Brian Colle. “Those are cirrocumulus clouds that would look like little puffs to a pilot flying over them, but to us on the ground they look like scales.”


The less nautical Germans have traditionally called such views “sheep skies,” seeing rolls of wool where the British saw a King Mackerel, as photographed below for a Smithsonian field guide to bony fishes (click to enlarge). Sometimes the rows of cloud “scales” can be arranged in stunning arcs, with blue stripes separating them.




But how reliable is it as a forecasting tool? Common belief is that two critical factors are whether there’s much moisture at lower altitudes and if surface temperatures are unstable, as they often are in this region of ocean and land interaction, and urban heat islands. When they grow larger, it’s said that cooler weather is coming, perhaps with larger thunderstorms.


The rule of thumb I inherited from old salts since artist and outdoorsman Steve Sanford first taught me about mackerel skies is that rain is 70% likely within two days of a sighting. Colle puts that at “maybe a 50% chance of rain within 24 hours. Is that reliable? Not very, compared to the computers and instruments we have today.”



Colle, who researches North American coastal meteorology, compares the old saw about mackerel skies (“Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet, never long dry.”) to that of “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.” He credits 18th century mariners, crews from the height of the golden age of sail, with such observations, though this folk wisdom certainly has deeper roots in time. Consider, however, that the naked eye viewing range limited to about 10 miles and a sailor’s noggin lacks the processing power of parallel processing supercomputers.

“They were useful pattern recognitions before we had computers,” Colle said. “The good news is that we understand more of the physics of the problem. We have computers, instruments, and formulas that can predict weather a lot more accurately than looking at clouds. We don’t even need to look at clouds anymore.”


Yet some of us still look. And perhaps even need to.


I got interested in clouds is because of my work on the German writer Goethe, who wrote a series of poems inspired by Luke Howard’s cloud classifications,” explained Powers, an avid cloud photographer and Goethe scholar. She noted that in 1817, Goethe included this “sheep sky” verse in a piece praising Howard’s work.


And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:

Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!

Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,

The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;

Or gently waft to the realms of rest,

Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.


Whew! It takes a guy like Goethe to exalt the clouds themselves even higher!




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A very bright spot in the human component of the Nature Community of NYC is the CityBirder blog. A recent entry about our “shadow tail” friends is particularly fun. Let’s hope there’s a very happy ending. Enjoy!



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Editor’s note: Wild Eyed will be the “celebrity” spotter section of the fully realized Nature Calendar site, and will be featured in our blog ahead of that. We invite readers to share their encounters with the species that reside in this city with us. Sometimes we’ll post something as simple as a quick tip: “Check out the giant squid attacking the Staten Island Ferry!” Other entries will be fuller stories like the one below, by Tanya Elder, about a placid moment with a predator best known as the world’s fastest bird. After enjoying it, please check out her blog: At The End of the Boom.

While Tanya’s tale unfolds outside her former workplace at Riverside Church, the city’s 16 pairs of peregrine falcons have also been sighted, among other places, living in the Queensboro Bridge, MetLife Building (nesting in the company logo), 55 Water Street, Kosciuszko Bridge, and Brooklyn Bridge (as evidenced by this fantastic photo by Steve Nanz; click to enlarge).

The Falcon and the Smoker

by Tanya Elder


The Riverside Church is located on Riverside Drive between 122nd and 124th Streets on Manhattan’s West Side. The gothic structure looks ancient, but it was actually built in 1928 with a modern-day steel skeleton under a layer of poured concrete and stone hewed in the gothic style. Thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Church was built as a progressive place of worship, which has continued under influential pastors such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, and currently, James A. Forbes, Jr.


The Church reaches to a height of 394 feet, with the Tower rising from the main building to 24 floors.  I was lucky enough back in 1999-2000 to be involved in helping to shape the Church’s collection of archival materials, and my tiny office was located on the 9th floor, directly over the Nave or central worship space. The 9th floor is divided into two sections: an ornate area with a stage, four small offices at each corner, and two long balconies on the East and West sides of the building; the second section is connected to the front room by a passageway that leads to a cavernous attic that at one time housed Arts and Crafts classes, and is now used as a storage area for the Church’s archives.


My office was located on the West side of the building and was the size of a large walk-in closet. It housed a desk, a computer, a bookcase and two chairs. It had one tiny wrought-iron window and two doors: one led to the 9th floor, and the other to a 50 ft. long balcony that connected two of the small offices from the outside and held an amazing view of Manhattan.


I would often head out to the balcony to catch a view or, ahem, surreptitiously smoke a cigarette (I quit smoking this past December!). It was easier than going downstairs, and it was outside. The view was fantastic, though the pigeons resting on the balcony were squawky and annoying. Occasionally I would see one or two very large birds soaring through the sky, bigger than anything else flying around that was not a jet engine.


I can’t remember exactly which Tower floor Henry and Henrietta, the Peregrine falcons of the Riverside Church, reside, but I remember once heading to the floor on which they live in search of old documents possibly tucked away into long-forgotten crevices. I was startled coming out of the elevator as I heard the screech of birds and the shadow of wings behind a clouded-glass window. Up until then I hadn’t realized that the falcons actually lived in the Church; I simply hadn’t put two and two together at the time.


Later on that summer, I was in my teeny tiny office and I had to get out. It was a bit claustrophobic and overly hot, and I had this magical balcony so I grabbed a cigarette and a light and opened the creaky iron door and stepped out. It was unusually quiet. The pigeons that were always scurrying around trying to get out of my path weren’t there. In fact, there seemed to be no birds flying around at all.


I walked toward the far end of the balcony, past the second pillar that held the best view. I really didn’t look up as I was lighting my cigarette, and once it caught, I took a deep drag and stood straight up, looking out onto the city.


I let smoke out, and took a look to my right, and came face to face with one of the falcons, who was perched on a gargoyle about 10 ft. away from me. I didn’t know which falcon it was, but I did know that he or she was looking right at me. It was calm but as startled as I was to come face to face with another creature out there that was not food for it, or for me a small pigeon that I could kick around.


The falcon assessed the situation quickly. I was not food or an enemy and he/she was simply not interested. It turned away and continued to survey the horizon. I decided it would be best not to make any sudden moves, so I calmly continued to smoke my cigarette while my heart raced. I stood there for a while, thankful that the bird would let me be a part of this moment with it. I turned my head to where the falcon was looking, and stared out onto the New York City skyline with it for a few minutes. And then I very, very slowly and as quietly as possible, backed up toward the doorway and into my office. I didn’t want to push the fabulous moment I had just shared with this incredible bird. The sky was the falcon’s space, and truthfully, I was intruding on its home. I was just glad that I wasn’t a pigeon.


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