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Posts Tagged ‘forest’

Raccoon in northern Manhattan by Omari Washington/NYRP

New York Restoration Project is at the forefront of bringing sustainable gardens and straight up wildlife back into the inner city. Its cleanups, reforesting, weeding, seining, and other programs draw volunteers and participants from all walks of life. After all, all hands are needed!

Apparently this masked intruder felt that a pair of eerily human-like hands was needed at the NYRP’s Nature Center on Sherman Creek. It slipped between a gate and a window, perhaps seeking shelter until nightfall. NYRP Education Manager Omari Washington was thrilled to photograph a raccoon so close up and in such good lighting, as this species is usually nocturnal. “I was surprised to see him or her crawl down the window in the middle of the day, given all of the activity around our office,” he said.

Washington’s excitement was tempered by broadly held concerns. “I was a little concerned about the health risk but I’m always excited to see more nature in our neighborhoods!,” he said. Raccoons, like other species, can carry rabies. Even when healthy, however, raccoons are considered vermin by many for their habit of opening our garbage cans to messily rummage.

But what could we expect from a dexterous, clever omnivore? Indeed, raccoons are literally wired to be engineers of sorts. Raccoons devote more of their brains to processing input from sensitive hands than any other creature. Therefore raccoon explore the world and learn about objects by feeling their way around and rolling things through their hands. In the course of feeling up a  latch, for example, they learn how it works — and they remember it! On North America, the raccoon occupied the trickster role in ancient mythology that we associated with monkeys in Asia and the fox in Europe. Raccoons have demonstrated such easily observable non-primate intelligence that some prominent scientists have strongly objected to their relative underrepresentation in comparative studies.

Raccoons evolved to primarily reside in forests, and Inwood Hill forest (the last natural one in Manhattan) is near Sherman Creek. A bit further south, raccoons thrive in Central Park, to the delight of tourists, though naturalists rightly fret over pilfered bird and turtle eggs. John James Audubon himself observed this.
We stripped away tree cover for centuries, however, so the adaptable raccoon has taken up residence in cities and in coastal areas. They’re easy to spot in spring because after a winter of sleeping, they need to eat. They drop up to half of their weight over the winter because they don’t truly hibernate; raccoon body temperatures remain constant during that long sleep, unlike their hibernating bear cousins. (Though some speculated relationships with weasels and foxes, the proof is in the DNA.)

Though the NYRP’s visitor was apparently alone, raccoons aren’t typically solitary creatures, as once was widely supposed. When not raised with their own kind, they can readily bond with other species, like humans and dogs.

In many areas of North America it’s illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet. Pet raccoons that are legal are bred for sale, which regardless of species is a moral crime when so many pets are killed at shelters when they aren’t adopted, and many more cats, rabbits, and dogs die abandoned to our streets.  When I found my own cat, Lewie, outside the Lewis H. Latimer Historic House six years ago, he was near death from what looked like a raccoon mauling (missing front paw, damaged back paw, emaciated and dehydrated because he could no longer fend for himself). The Humane Society of New York tested him, patched him, and now we’re buddies. But in fairness to the supposed raccoon, I’d bet Lewie started the brawl!

Lewie the bruiser with his stump. The work of a raccoon?

But there’s hope, courtesy of PhotoShop, in this image that’s gone viral.

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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

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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