Archive for April, 2011

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Even as tensions continue to simmer over adding Mayor Ed Koch’s name to the Queensboro Bridge, a friend who’s founding the North Brooklyn Boat Club wrote to me regarding a name change for the East River that flows beneath it.

I explored this topic, and made a proposal, in 2009 for the Gotham Gazette in an essay titled, “A New Name for Our Premier Waterway.”

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Rain barrel from NYC DEP.

Holler down my rain barrel
Slide down my cellar door
And we’ll be jolly friends
Forever evermore.

Be a “jolly friend” to our estuary and reduce combined sewage overflows with a free rain barrel from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in the coming weeks at one of these locations:

Saturday, April 30, 2011
9:00 am – 2:00 pm
Cunningham Park
196th Place & Union Turnpike

The Bronx
Saturday, May 7, 2011
9:00 am – 2:00 pm
Pelham Bay Park
Middletown Road  Parking Lot
Off Stadium Avenue

Staten Island
Saturday, May 7, 2011
9:00 am – 2:00 pm
College of Staten Island
2800 Victory Boulevard

Rain barrels are an ancient technology, long predating the grim old nursery song from which a gentler passage is excerpted above.

Mother Nature Network published this excellent guide to rain barrels for those living outside NYC and the DEP has its own FAQ sheet.

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Robotic herring gull by Festo.

Today is John James Audubon‘s 226th birthday. His exquisite images of North American wildlife are his homage to nature, especially birds. One aspect of birds’ beauty is their adornment, displaying colors rivaled in the animal world only by butterflies. Feathers far exceed fur in specialization in length and shape for display and survival. One of my most moving bird encounters was with a Glossy Ibis in the Bronx River.

But even the least showy birds, like the herring gull, entrance us with another for of beauty — flight. Even though we’ve crossed the globe with airplanes (and are paying the global climate disruption price for it) we still stare upward with awe and envy at birds sailing atop sea breezes. As a scientist and engineer, Leonardo Da Vinci was as in love with birds as Audubon.

Today at Germany’s Festo engineering firm, much of Da Vinci’s dream of mechanical bird flight has been realized, as reported by National Public Radio. This remote-controlled herring gull replica is a major achievement in the booming field of biomimicry, cribbing design tips from nature, with wings that torque and twist in several locations in a coordinated — graceful — way. Herring gulls over the Baltic seashore didn’t look askance at the robot among them.

See for yourself here:

The next step is to meld this machine with artificial intelligence for what might be called an “Audubonaton.” William Butler Yeats might would certainly lament that an immortal bird made of carbon fiber and plastic foam lacks the romance of one fashioned from “hammered gold and gold enameling,” but such is life post-Byzantium.

Perhaps the most appropriate technological response to the crises facing natural habitats is to use lessons from evolution to build a more sustainable society. The Biomimicry Institute seeks to contribute to solutions along that avenue through its AskNature program. But each acre of forest cut down, and each aquatic species overfished or acidified out of existence, and each wetland or meadow paved over for development, is a lesson lost. Conservation is key. Please support conservation efforts as a volunteer or donor. You can start close to home with a birthday present to NYC Audubon and help save the Four Sparrows Marsh!

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Harvested beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

When explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Harbor in 1524, he remarked on the multitude of this sweet fruit thriving in sand. In 1609, Henry Hudson was similarly delighted. This vision of our estuary is long lost, but not irrecoverable despite massive urbanization.

Imagine waterfronts swaying with white flowers that grow into delicious plums the size of fat cherries. We can do it inexpensively in a way that’s a fun learning experience for youth!

Beach plum flower. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

These indigenous fruits are better known in luxury summer communities like the Hamptons, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Nantucket. They’re difficult to grow in yields demanded commercially, but but there’s nothing stopping us from making them a signature of New York Harbor again, from waterfronts to nearby community gardens and schools. The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Friends of Gateway are leading parallel efforts to replant beach plums in key sites like Soundview Park, Floyd Bennett Field, and Plumb Beach. Regarding the last location, many already mistakenly call it “Plum Beach,” so we have a happy instance of reality catching up to a misnomer!

A community effort could share the fun of beach plums on a much greater scale. As some readers know, I founded the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration to plant hundreds of apple saplings throughout the five boroughs, with a special focus on our local heirloom variety. That project is now maturing (two new orchards this season, on Governors Island and in Red Hook!), thanks to the support of New York Restoration Project, Green Apple Cleaners, Slow Food NYC, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, and a host of other allies and volunteers. Looking to the future, I spoke with Cornell University plant ecologist Dr. Thomas Whitlow, who is the leading expert on beach plums in New York, about how we might contribute to the return of beach plums.

Thanks to Friends of Gateway, I’ve delivered beach plum bushes and elderberry trees to Greenpoint, Red Hook, Astoria, Dumbo, Manhattan, and LIC. What Dr. Whitlow envisions is having students gather beach plums at the East End of Long Island, enjoy them (perhaps we could makes jams with a local canning instructor) and then germinate the seeds. In partnership with a native plant group, the seeds could be potted and grown for distribution to public spaces.

If you’d like to be part of this, please drop a note to erikbaard@gmail.com and we’ll get started!

Wild beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

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Jackrabbit at JFK Airport by Robert Horvath

Beavers might be honored by the city seal and mosaics at Astor Place, but bunnies know where the fun is. Coney Island derives its named from konijn, the Dutch word for rabbit. It’s fitting that this energetic and fertile creature (rabbits can get pregnant while already pregnant) would define the playground of our city. Today they, and other lagomorphs (they aren’t rodents) might serve as a model for our citywide recycling plan…or maybe not.

One thing is certain, however: the Easter Bunny belongs in New York City. Not only was the East Side once significantly German (Germany is the homeland of this myth), but nobody would question the self-identity of an egg-laying bunny dude named Peter around here.

Rabbits and other hares are indigenous to New York City, but the species seems to have evolved in Asia. The earliest fossil evidence for the emerging species, dating back 55 million years, was unearthed in Mongolia.

New York City’s section of Long Island’s southern edge is still hopping with rabbits and hares, especially on Jamaica Bay. At the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge you’ll spot eastern cottontails while JFK International Airport boasts a back-tailed jackrabbit population, which escaped from a cargo hold long ago.

Eastern cottontail.

Other rabbits of the more cuddly bunny kind, and therefore far less able to adapt to the wild, are irresponsibly and inhumanely abandoned in our parks and green spaces. Please consider adopting a rescued rabbit, or supporting or volunteering for the New York City chapter of the House Rabbit Society’s Rabbit Rescue and Rehab group. As herbivores, rabbits are a great eco-pet choice, giving you a far smaller carbon footprint as well as tons of love.

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When you see a Spring Azure butterfly, imagine a covetous Cleopatra.

The ancients cherished this brilliant hue of blue with a hint of green, so like the sky on a clear day.  The word azure comes to us by way of Lazheward, the Persian name for the region of Afghanistan where lapis lazuli has been mined for over 6,000 years.

The world’s first synthetic pigment may have been “Egyptian blue“, but artists from that African empire carved sacred scarabs and other symbols of royalty and eternal life from imported lapis lazuli. The stones are prominent among burial gifts. Cleopatra mesmerized Caesar and Anthony with eyes shadowed with powdered lapis lazuli.

Lapis lazuli.

What if Cleopatra, seeing this magical creature flashing the color of life and nobility in mid-air, had the vain and devious thought to capture and powder it for her adornment? Nature has an answer for such hubris! The scales of the butterfly’s wings would grind down to a translucent white glop. You see, the Spring Azure has not a bit of its namesake pigment.

The iridescent dazzle of the Spring Azure comes from nature’s nanotechnology. The Spring Azure boasts a “structural color,” meaning its wing scales have an elegant microscopic architecture that reflects very specific wavelengths of color. Textile manufacturers have already mimicked this trick to make fabrics that never fade or dull, while bankers are weighing how structural colors might make currency harder to counterfeit. And yes Cleopatra, “photonic cosmetics” is an emerging industry. The most exciting prospect, however, is a new information revolution that takes cues from nature to create transistors based on light rather than electricity.

The following video is a great introduction to this field of research:

While Spring Azures are easy to spot across a field, they’re pretty rare in the big city. Seek them in woodlands and open fields in our parks, or in gardens. Females often deposit their eggs on dogwood tree flower buds and lower to the ground in blueberry bushes and New Jersey tea. Males hang out near mud puddles and the mucky edges of stream banks and ditches. Both sexes feed on the nectar of rock cress, winter cress, dandelions, buckeyes, and violets.

If you’d like to boost your chances of spying a Spring Azure, please consider volunteering for the Butterfly Project NYC, donating to the organization, and going on field trips.

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