Posts Tagged ‘newtown creek’

Green heron on the Newtown Creek by Bernard Ente.

Bernie and I became friends six years ago when my work starting the LIC Community Boathouse brought me into the Newtown Creek Alliance. His urban nature photos brought us closer and often inspired Nature Calendar (the photo above helped to inspire this more challenging entry). He also reveled in our working waterfront heritage. He was a crusty Queens guy with a deep sentimentality in the best way, and he had a fine eye. He was kind and intelligent. His natural (or was it hard won?) skepticism never stopped him from supporting the most idealistic endeavors and over-the-horizon dreams. How else could he love a Superfund Site, the creek, as evidenced by this gallery?
Many times I threatened/promised to spend a day canoeing the creek with him. He brushed the offer away with a laugh, saying that canoes were for the young — he wasn’t too old to canoe by any means. I’m very saddened that won’t happen. If you’re reading this and worry you’re too old to get out on the water this way, please get in touch with your local community boathouse and learn how happily wrong you are.
Joyful adventures in nature to you, in the company of friends.

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Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.


May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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When Transportation Alternative’s absolutely wonderful Tour de Queens (enjoy the Street Films video above) rolled into Maspeth on Sunday under the blaze of a record-setting June heat wave, we were subjected to a brutal lesson in urban planning and natural history.


The Newtown Creek is infamous for being home to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and to heavy metals and other industrial pollutants. Increasingly, lay greens are becoming aware of the combined sewer overflows that plague the waterway with pathogens after rainstorms. What’s less known is that, apart from airport landing strips, you won’t find hotter a hotter place in New York City than the banks of the Newtown Creek. The area’s sewage and swelter share the same origin: a concrete and asphalt “hardscape” instead of a landscape. In the absence of trees, grass, and other plants, water rolls off the impermeable surfaces and floods the sewage system while sunlight beats down on unshaded streets that reradiate heat.


NASA used Landsat to map our “urban heat island,” where temperatures are over seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter than surrounding region. Maspeth was of particular interest to the NASA researchers because it was both particularly afflicted and a prime candidate for mitigation, with low, flat-topped, strong buildings that could bear the weight of green roofs.


 NASA thermal image of New York City.


The natural history element I alluded to above is of greater concern to bikers than NASA: Oh, the hills! Maspeth sits on the western end of the Harbor Hill Moraine (as you can see in the U.S. Geological Survey map below) that was plowed up by glaciers over 10,000 years ago.



USGS Harbor Hill Moraine.


The image below is Helen Ho’s photograph of the Queens Museum’s celebrated New York City panaroma model, with pink tape showing our route over the hills and through the mini-torrid zone. 



Tour de Queens route in the panorama. Photo by Helen Ho.


I wrote for the Village Voice about the Urban Heat Island phenomenon (including diet, lifestyle, and city planning tips to survive it) and various animal heat adaptations last year. One part that didn’t get published is the fascinating possibility that migrating birds are leaving New York City plumper than they arrived because they needn’t burn as many calories to stay warm at night. I spent a morning in the woods of Bronx Park observing Chad Seewagen, a Wildlife Conservation Society ornithologist, investigating this hunch. My friends Robin Lloyd and David Berreby later wrote up items about Chad and his work for Live Science and the New Yorker, respectively.




These days, however, most species are working hard to shed heat. Humans are particularly lucky in that we sweat copiously, a gift from our tropical heritage that remains with people of all ancestries. Bear in mind, however, that parents can undo in their own kids’ resilience by raising them with air conditioning; sweat glands that aren’t activated in infancy remain dormant for life. Dogs are among the species that have wet noses, long tongues, and very wrinkled nasal passages to allow for heat exchanges with the air.


My favorite evolutionary solution is the carotid rete, a fine web where arteries dump heat into veins and the upper respiratory system so that blood rising to the brain is significantly cooler than the rest of the body. Gazelles have an extraordinarily well-developed carotid rete, but humans are much less impressive in that regard. It’s usually brain temperature that dictates when an animal must stop or pass out, so you can imagine how useful such a tool is for hunters and especially fleeing prey.


And so I might have been the only volunteer marshal ready to scream, “A carotid rete! My kingdom for a carotid rete!”

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Great Egret by Bernie Ente

by Erik Baard

A skeptic might say that a naturalist hoping for the Great Egret to visit the Newtown Creek is a bit like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the skeptic would be wrong.

This morning, Bernie Ente snapped this quick shot of one above the English Kill (one of the most polluted sections of the creek) with a cheap point-and-shoot camera. I thought after bumming you all out with my biodecathection essay for the past couple of days, you deserved this marvelous moment.

The beautiful Great Egret is internationally known as the Audubon Society’s symbol. The society was formed over a century ago when a fashion for feathered hats wiped out 95% of the Great Egret population. Citizens were sparked into action, and they formed one of our nation’s earliest conservation movements and made history when national wildlife protection laws were passed. Today the threat to this species is less visible and dramatic, but equally real: our wetlands are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and at times thoughtless development. Without healthy marsh grasses, this species of bird will just as surely die off as if hunters set their sites on them.

I’ve most often seen egrets on Mill Rock Island just south of Hell Gate, and they’ve been reported at North Brother and South Brother islands, and the islands of the Arthur Kill. You can recognize them easily by their yellow bills, black legs, and white feathers. In flight they flex their necks into an S shape, and their wingspan is impressive at well over four feet (more than a meter).
Though a mate to the bird in the photo was on a nearby muddy bank, often a great egret will be spotted as the sole representative of its species among many other birds, all congregating. This is normal, and perhaps understandable for a creature that starts life with a battle to the death with siblings in the nest! As adults, Great Egrets hunt alone, stalking small amphibians and fish, snakes, and crustaceans in the shallows of coves and inlets like Anable Basin, Bushwick Inlet, Fresh Kills, and the Newtown Creek. Mill Rock is in the center of the East River, but has a delightful little cove notched into its northern side.

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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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