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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.

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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.

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Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

by Erik Baard

Australia is learning that it’s traded one form of “cute overload” for another, and there might be lessons for New York City.

 

As reported in this article, Australia attacked its cat overpopulation problem in the interest of preserving its indigenous bird species. The trouble is, without the feline predators around, a rabbit population explosion ensued, stripping away ground foliage needed for safe bird nesting.

 

The conflict between cat lovers and conservationists, which is often an inner one, spans the globe. In NYC it’s found focus on Jamaica Bay and the JFK Airport. Emotional pleas and conservation science studies have crashed upon walls of bureaucracy in recent years as airport officials cleared out a stray cat population. One ironic twist is that some airport managers have claimed that the cats are attracting birds, with their food and feces, and posing a hazard to planes. While bird strikes are very real, environmental concerns on Jamaica Bay center on ground nesting birds.

 

Cats are the flashpoint where empathy and responsibility crash in on themselves.

 

We feel for the cats, cast off in a breach of our social contract with them as a companion species. Activists might have a point in calling the feral ones, though born outside of human housing, “homeless.” That’s certainly true for abandoned pets. But we also grasp the suffering that attends habitat loss and losing young, as birds and other small species struggle to hold on under assault from feline predators.

 

Our sense of responsibility is weighty because we’ve both marginalized local species to a fringe of habitat and introduced an effective predator.

 

The greatest point of consensus is that cats should be adopted only responsibly (for life, and neutered), and that they should be kept indoors. But in cases where colonies already exist, sterilization and reintroduction seems is the most humane and effective means of dealing with the cat population. Infertile cats will still hold territory, preventing a rapid repopulation of the area by breeding cats from adjacent neighborhoods. With rats, another species that’s forever the subject of population control schemes, denying food helps disperse a population and keep them busy seeking sustenance instead of breeding. When social animals have a central food source, they gather and find mates, and have the surplus energy to breed and bear young.

 

Just ask the rabbits down under!

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by Erik Baard

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

 

Far inland, a wind

lifts fine snow from ancient pines.

Shimmers like sea spray.

 

 

I wrote that haiku twenty years ago intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only today, while poking around data piles about pines in this tanenbaum time of year, did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.

 

Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.

 

As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. One might say the Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.

 

You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

 

The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn

                                                                                        

Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commoditization. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.

 

Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles,and  nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somwhat fire resistant.

 

Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.

 

Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:

 

 

 

Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.

 

 

Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. A crew of volunteers from the LIC Community Boathouse was happy to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.

 

For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.

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by Erik Baard

If a seal falls ill in the Gowanus Canal, a turtle catches an autumnal chill in Montauk, and a dolphin gets marsh bound in the Great South Bay, there’s a good chance they’ll end up as roommates at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

As New York State’s only authorized marine mammal and sea turtle rescue group, the Riverhead Foundation is called upon to perform rescues and verify unusual sightings throughout the southern New York salty shorelines — the Long Island Sound, Atlantic Ocean, New York Bight and New York Harbor. The small, overstretched staff is like an aquatic A-Team housed within the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, a well-run regional attraction where sting rays poke up to kiss you right upon entering the door. Really. Well, okay, and be fed.

 

raykiss

(This photo and those following, unless otherwise specified, were taken by trip participant Sofia Theologitis.)

Our Nature Calendar group of five was ushered into the back rooms where the Riverhead Foundation does its work of assessing, monitoring, and healing animals held in cylindrical tanks for eventual release into the ocean or transfer to another aquarium. The most frequent guests are seals and turtles (we saw about ten of them, representing a mix of species that including harbor seals and a loggerhead turtle that had arrived an hour before us), though dolphins and porpoises are regulars too.

(I learned about the foundation eight years ago when I was with a pod of fellow winter kayakers who confirmed Harry Spitz’s sighting of the first community of seals in New York Harbor in 120 years, and wrote about it for the New York Times.) 

You’ll know that turtles are in residence if upon stepping off the decontamination shoe pad you’re hit with a wave of warm, moist air. Some “cold stunned” turtles appear dead because they’ve been immobilized by temperature drops, before they could migrate to warmer waters.

“They get washed ashore like any other debris,” said rescue program supervisor Julika Wocial, who trains the public in making proper sighting and stranding reports . “Don’t assume a turtle is dead unless it’s decomposed or missing a head.”

Other turtles can’t dive well because of trapped gas pockets in their shells. This makes it hard to feed, leaves them vulnerable to predators and boat injuries, and above-surface shells sections can degrade with prolonged air exposure (as with the patient below). A bubble can be drained, but evenly distributed gas is a challenge. Sometimes weights are added, or the turtle is found unfit for release.

Flipper injuries like the one photographed below were common (suspected shark bites) among turtles, as are propeller lacerations. Even double rear amputees can survive in the wild, explained Robert DiGiovanni Jr., director and senior biologist at the foundation.

floater

 gimp4

Whirl pools at the center of seal tanks mimic ocean currents and combat muscle atrophy.

Seal pox further weakened a few already struggling pinipeds. The viral disease, which isn’t transmittable to humans, runs its course with the severity and duration of our experience of chicken pox. Instead of many small pustules dotting the skin, however, seals get several larger, hard knobs near their faces and flippers.

Seal pox lesion.

Seal pox lesion.

Perhaps more surprising was how common eye injuries are among seals. Of course, those at the foundation were being rehabilitated and weren’t representative of the general population. It makes sense, however, that seals would often get bitten or poked around the eyes as they rooted around the seabed.

seal1

The staff takes special care to not bond with the animals, so that they retain natural behaviors and a healthy aversion to humans upon release. As social mammals with expressive faces, seals make this particularly difficult. Well, at least for me. The female seal I photographed below and I had some immediate chemistry. Ms. Wocial mildly reprimanded me for lingering and chatting with this pirate-eyed beauty.

ladylove

 

Staff and highly-trained volunteers work together in both rescues and releases, with the latter being sometimes nearly ceremonial. Sponsors who “adopt” seals and turtles come out, as do reporters and other friends of the foundation. Sometimes a dolphin must be gently ushered out of its tank by a wall of staff and volunteers wearing dry suits, with arms interlocked. Slight injuries, sometimes quite painful, are common among the humans.

Costs for rescue, rehabilitation, and release range from $6500 for a seal to $120,000 for a dolphin. Medical machines are always needed, Mr. DiGiovanni said, and often come through hospital donations. One recent acquisition greatly improving the Riverhead Foundation’s field work is a portable unit to test for blood gases, electrolytes, and glucose levels.

Released patients of the rescue hospital have paid back their human tenders with unprecendented revelations. Tracking devices on their backs have mapped migration patterns, not only north-to-south, but inshore and offshore, where deeper waters have steadier temperatures, according to Mr. DiGiovanni. The foundation doesn’t necessarily deliver animals to places near their rescue locations because they usually swim hundreds or thousands of miles within weeks or months of returning to the wild.

Our own path was more predictable. As people now contaminated by seal pox, we were slipped out the back door. Our hosts apologized for the necessity, and stopped short of making us wear leper bells.

GET INVOLVED

ADOPT” a rescued animal, make a cash or in-kind DONATION or become a MEMBER.

(One trip participant, Neena Dhamoon, is already raising funds from officemates, friends, and family!)

To volunteer, please email: volunteers@riverheadfoundation.org

(Different skill levels are needed, ranging from basic office help to *gentle* dolphin wrestling, after much training.)

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To all those sitting on the fence about heading out to Riverhead, Long Island on a Newtown Pippin and beach plum quest (see below), Nature Calendar throws down a challenge: Can you resist this?

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Our trip will now include a behind-the-scenes tour of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. You’ll learn about their work to protect and rescue the sea mammals (otters are coming back now!) and turtles of our local waters.  Oh, and by the way, the photo is clearly Photoshopped. No one put a Santa hat on the seal, so spare the marine biologists’ any angry letters!  🙂

I first got to know the Riverhead Foundation when I broke the story of a seal community establishing itself in New York Harbor. The staff biologists have been a generous source of good information even since.

Only one request: No attempts to balance fruits on the seals’ noses, okay?

If you’re interested in coming on this road or rail outing, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com ASAP. We don’t seem to be limited for space, but we need to coordinate travel logistics and such.

There is no fee for this outing. You need cover only your own travel and shopping.

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