Posts Tagged ‘Staten Island’

Survivor. Photo by Barry Masterson of Kayak Staten Island.

Sharp-eyed Nature Calendar reader Christopher Johnson spotted this seal casually sunning its shark bite wound on rocks near Swinburne Island, in a gallery published at SILive.com (Staten Island Advance, photo by Barry Masterson, co-founder of Kayak Staten Island).

The question is whether this bite occurred in local waters or if the seal is healing up from an attack out east. Breathe a little easy, for now, says Paul Sieswerda, a shark expert and seal watching guide (and fellow Frisian). Paul has kindly written about sharks for Nature Calendar before, and was profiled in The New Yorker for his seal trips. I got to know him when I broke the story of seals returning to New York Harbor a decade earlier in the New York Times. That discovery was made by fellow kayakers (I joined for the confirming trip), who have now gotten familiar with porpoises.

It seems inevitable that larger sharks will return to our waters as the estuary grows cleaner and more bountiful. Prospects for that are good, if unnerving, with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative fostering the process. Last summer a NYC beach was closed in the Rockaways after a thresher shark sighting, but sadly the specimen was found dead the next day. A series of attacks in New Jersey became the stuff of legend nearly a century ago. Several sources report large sharks being caught off of lower Manhattan before the 20th century, perhaps attracted by rotting meat scraps tossed into the Hudson River. It also seems the Narrows were then, as now, a hot spot for finding larger creatures. A fun exploration of this topic by Tom Vanderbilt was published in the New York Times a few years ago, bearing this gripping image from the New York Historical Society.

Chaos in the Narrows (circa 1880). Collection of the New York Historical Society.

If you see a shark, please report it to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative. If you see a marine mammal or turtle, even in good health, please report it to the Riverhead Foundation. If you have the urge to get out there among the big fish, please volunteer at a community boathouse on the NYC Water Trail.


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Showy Lady's-slipper, Staten Island's blessing?

Orchids excite greater ardor than an other family of flower. That they have maintained an alluring mystique is itself a mystery. After all, they’re every bit as much a traded commodity as the roses at the corner deli. Just check the shelves and you’ll discover the presence of an orchid in the ingredients lists: vanilla. Even obsessive scientific study, including a book devoted to orchids by Charles Darwin, hasn’t exhausted our eagerness to learn more. I believe it’s the astonishing diversity of this family that keeps us captivated. Though it’s the second most common type of flower, the orchid has filled so many peculiar niches (just about everywhere but atop glaciers) that individual varieties feel precious.

In the subculture of orchid enthusiasts, our city is best known for the annual Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Gardens, underway now. But we’re also blessed with a rare, wild orchid called Showy Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae). This indigenous North American beauty blooms in the Evergreen Park Preserve on Staten Island in early spring, before the tree canopy shades it out,  according to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Senior Ecologist Ellen Pehek and Chief Naturalist Michael Feller of NYC Parks also tell me that the Eurasian helleborine orchid has made itself at home in Queens. It thrives in wooded areas, so check Forest Park and Cunningham Park.

(Note: NYC Wildflower Week, a group dedicated to the restoration of indigenous species, disputes the official claim that Showy Lady’s Slipper grows in Evergreen Park Preserve, arguing that the most common Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is the correct identification. Furthermore, the group asserts in contradiction to the official Parks text that, “Our native orchids don’t start to bloom til mid-spring at the earliest.”)

All of these green spaces make for great bicycle destinations (mass transit is also a very reasonable option — no need for a car), and there’s plenty to do in the surrounding areas when you’re done orchid photographing (PLEASE DON’T PICK ANY) and hiking through the woods.

Once bitten by the orchid bug, you might want to expand your local eco-tourism to include New York State parks and other preserves north and east of the city. Here’s a handy guide to the Orchids of New York published in Conservationist, a magazine put out by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. Most of the species listed are indigenous.

If you want to preserve the Showy Lady-slipper and other ecologically vital wildflowers, please participate in NYC Wildflower Week, May 6-15. You might even want to volunteer with this terrific organization or a local park group throughout the year.

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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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Blue Heron Park. Photo by NYCDPR


Happy Solstice! Summer is here, and life is booming. Make sure you head down to Jamaica Bay to see cacti, horseshoe crabs, and diamondback terrapin turtles! Or get lost in a world of wildflowers and butterflies in Pelham Bay Park. As for the loveliness above…never again will you speak ill of Staten Island without feeling a bit foolish.


A few special events on Saturday are worthy of your attention and support. Sustainable South Bronx and the Bronx River Alliance are having outdoor benefits to support their revitalization of their shared community. The Gowanus Dredgers invite you to celebrate, care for, and canoe the canal. Staten Islanders are reasserting the second half of their borough’s name with a booming paddle culture. Kayak Staten Island opens its season of free paddling Saturday at noon (continuing until 5PM) as part of “Back to the Beach” day.

Just head to Midland Beach (Zone 5), all the way at the end (south-west terminus) of Father Capodanno Boulevard.

And of course, there’s the Clearwater Festival! To maximize your Clearwater fun, join with Time’s Up! for a rail and ride combo trip to the festival.


And below, as always, a listing of FREE events to get families, couples, singles, and bands of buddies outdoors in the big city!







Learn the basics of birding (Lesson One: Get up early) with the Urban Park Rangers in one of our lesser-known jewels, the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park (East 33rd Street and Ave. U). Call 718-421-2021 for more information.




Join Naturalist “Wildman” Steve Brill in an exploration of the wild food and ecology of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The Ecology Program lasts approximately 90 minutes, to be followed by Brunch at the Museum and a Queens Museum of Art Highlights tour.

Hundreds of herbs, greens and berries grace our parks in early summer, and the sunny meadows and byways of Flushing Meadows Corona Park overflow with wild plants in season. This free event, which includes a “Wildman” indoor presentation and tour, is part of a Queens Museum of Arts’ senior citizen event.

Some of the late spring herbs and greens we’ll be looking for include tasty violets, corn-flavored chickweed, mild, chewy common mallow; sow thistle, which tastes like lettuce; Asiatic dayflower, which tastes like string beans; and burdock, with a potato-artichoke flavored taproot, and artichoke-flavored flower stalk.

Early summer berries, such as mulberries and juneberries, may also be dropping fruit, ripe for the picking!

Register yourself or your loved one at the Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center (45-25 Kissena Boulevard in Flushing, NY) by calling 718-886-5777. Meet at the center.







Sebago Canoe Club offers public paddling on Saturday morning and Wednesday evening. The program is free, but you’ll need to pay a $10 insurance fee that is not kept by the club. While you’re there, be sure to check out there great new garden and native plantings! For more information about the Open Paddle program, which has limited seating, please visit their webpage.




The Urban Park Rangers are merciful: this Staten Island birding venture at Blue Heron Park Preserve starts an hour later. They will teach the basics of birding and take you on the trail to test your new skills. Hikes focus on different species of birds, so repeat trips are rewarded. If you’re not sufficiently motivated to haul out of bed in the morning, bear in mind that the gorgeous photo at top is of Blue Heron Park Preserve. You might consider volunteering to keep it thriving.

Come to Blue Heron Park (222 Poillon Avenue between Amboy Road and Hylan Boulevard) to get in on the action. Call 718-967-3542 for more information.




Learn how to build raised planting beds (siting, construction, and filling) so that you can have a more bountiful garden. At the same time, you’ll get to know the dynamic staff of the sponsors, New York Restoration Project and Just Foods, and the volunteers of your host, Madison Street Association Community Garden. Go to 974 Madison Street (J or Z to Broad Street station).





Volunteer to care for Brooklyn’s last forest. Yeah, stunning and sad to think it’s come to that, but the borough’s last forest is in Prospect Park. But you can help it thrive, make friends, and have fun along the way! The Weekend Woodlanders are quiet heroes and you can be one too. Meet at the Picnic House. Call 718-965-8960 for more information.




The Long Island City Community Boathouse is paddling from Anable Cove up to the South Bronx and down again to Hallets Cove in Astoria. See the group’s website (www.licboathouse.org) for more information.






Stroll into the Summer Solstice on Staten Island. Learn about plants, animals, and natural history at beautiful and historic Conference House Park. We will hold two nature walks: one from 10 a.m. through 12 p.m., and the second from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information and directions, please visit this page.
To RSVP for this rain-or-shine event, or for any questions, please call Cheri Brunault at 718-390-8021, or email at cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov.



Try out kayaking with 20-minute introductory paddles (running between 10AM and 5PM) on the Hudson River south of 72nd Street or at Pier 40, where West Houston Street hits the water, both Saturday and Sunday. Please dress for getting wet and know how to swim. Call the Downtown Boathouse for weather updates at 646-613-0740 and further information at 212-408-0219.



Canoe the Lullwater (How peaceful can a water body sound? Oh right, there’s the “Pacific Ocean.” Never mind) in Prospect Park. Sign-up at the Audubon Center begins at 1030AM to hit the water at 11AM, 1230PM, or 2PM. First-come, first-served.



Celebrate the sun, enrich the Earth. That’s the Queens Botanical Garden way! Learn about decomposers, recycling, and the composting process. Kids are welcome, and can even make a compostable and recyclable summer craft! The garden is an easy ride on the 7 train to Main Street, Flushing. Stroll down to 43-50 Main Street. Registration is encouraged. To register, call 718-539-5296 or email compost@queensbotanical.org.



Don’t you love it when the government asks that you bring your kids to the woods with the instruction “Please bring two clear 2-liter bottles,” with no explanation? Well, in this case the woods are lovely Van Cortlandt Park, and this website provides a rather innocent and fun explanation for the whole venture.

Enter the park at West 246th Street and Broadway. For more information about this educational event, call 718-548-0912. No reservations required.

And if you fall in love with this green space with quiet fresh water fishing, nature walks, and active recreation, consider volunteering to better it for the next generation, and even next summer! 


The Central Park Conservancy Garden is a 70-year old treasure. Each Saturday from April 5 through October 25, a garden staff person will stroll with you as he or she explains its history, plantings, and design. Meet at the Vanderbilt Gate, where Fifth Avenue meets 105th Street.





Come join Rocking the Boat for public rowing of its gorgeous, hand-crafted Whitehall boats on the thriving Bronx River! Meet at the Congressman Jose E. Serrano Riverside Campus for Arts and the Environment in Hunts Point. For directions, click here.





Come down to the DUMBO Summer Celebration for Kids and teach your youngster to ride, thanks to Bike New York and Recycle-a-Bicycle. The class is free, but you must register. For details, please visit the Bike New York website.



Paddle and care for one of New York City’s future Bruges, but greener. Hey, ambition never hurt! The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club welcomes you to their 2nd Street launch for a day of estuary discovery and stewardship. Visit the group’s website for more details.



Discover some of the city’s most beautiful wildflowers, some of them rare. Go to the Inwood Hill Park Nature Center. Enter park at West 218th Street and Indian Road. Call 212-304-2365 for more information.




Forage with Wildman Steve Brill in the richness of the start of summer in Prospect Park! Here’s his enticing invitation:

“Because Prospect Park includes so many varied habitats, it’s loaded with shoots and greens in early summer, and many of these are edible and medicinal. And the berries, wild and cultivated, are spectacular.

We’ll begin a lush juneberry bush, growing near the park’s Grand Army Plaza entrance. One the the tastiest fruits in the world, it’s astounding that these berries, which taste like a combination of blueberries, apples, and almonds, have never been cultivated.

Nearby, we’ll find corn-flavored chickweed, in season all year. Then we’ll proceed southeast to a vast stand of celery-flavored goutweed, stopping for lamb’s-quarters leaves at the edge of the path.

Further on we’ll find vast stands of burdock, a despised “weed” with a delicious edible and medicinal root.

Near the picnic house, we’ll harvest sweet, flavorful mulberries in quantity by shaking the branches over a dropcloth. Related to figs, you can use these berries in any fruit recipe.

Afterward we’ll look at the nearby domestic plum tree to see if it’s bearing it’s luscious fruit this year. Then we’ll check out the top of a ridge to hunt for spicy poor man’s pepper, hedge mustard and field pennycress, all members of the mustard family.

If we’re lucky and it’s rained beforehand, we find a gigantic gourmet chicken mushroom and there could be savory wine-cap stropharia mushrooms sprouting from wood chips anywhere.”

Steve asks for a donation of $15, but no one is turned away by this generous and wild soul. Call 914-835-2153 right away to reserve a spot.





“Amble through the Ramble” of Central Park and trade in glare and grit for 38-acres of streams and woods, the street grid for a maze of pathways. Meet at Belvedere Castle (enter at 79th Street on either side and walk to the park’s longitudinal center) and wear comfortable shoes.




Nature is a few steps and eye openers away with Prospect Park’s Discover Tours (seen at the top of the page) on Saturdays and Sundays. In June the focus is on the plants and animals that thrive in the parks’ waterways – streams, waterfalls, and Brooklyn’s only lake. Meet at the Audubon Center.





Yin and Yang, fire and water. Balance yourself (well, uh, literally, since you’ll be in a kayak) by participating in the LIC Community Boathouse’s paddling portion of the Socrates Sculpture Park Summer Solstice Celebration! (Now say that five times fast…) See the group’s website (www.licboathouse.org) for more information.





Join Peter Tagatac, an Amateur Astronomers Association member, as he explores the heavens. Visit neighbors like Saturn and its moons, or our own moon – look for the mountainous fringe to stand in stark relief to the blackness of space. You can usually find him at the northern end of the Great Lawn, hence his blog, Top of the Lawn





Walk beautiful Inwood Hill Park with Mike Feller, Chief Naturalist for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Learn about your local flora and fauna, and how you can help restore and protect their habitats. Dress for a hike from hats to shoes, and feel free to bring a field guide and notepad if you like. Enter the park at 218 Street and Indian Road. Meet on the little bridge on the eastern end of the salt marsh.


WALKING (With yer pooch!), QUEENS, 9AM

You, your dog, Urban Park Rangers, and the woods of Forest Park. What could be better? Even if you don’t have a dog, come along and play. Come to the K-9 Korral Dog Run (Park Lane South & 85 Street) and join the pack!




March to the marsh! Get to know the plants and wildlife of a fragile-yet-vital ecosystem, right near home! You’ll learn about how the Marine Park refuge can be protected, and why that’s important to our species as well as the diversity of life on site. Meet at the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Maine Park (East 33rd Street and Avenue U). For directions and more information, call 718-421-2021.



They’re stunningly ancient (the dinosaurs came and went in a wink for this species), they have coppery blue blood, they save human lives, and they’re gentle. Go love the horseshoe crabs at Orchard Beach! Meet at the Orchard Beach Nature Center. Call 718-885-3466 for information.

Also, it’s worth the effort to learn how you can protect this species. Yahoos are devastating local populations by using them for bait, which threatens not only this important neighbor, but also the migrating birds who feed on their eggs.




Try out kayaking with 20-minute introductory paddles (running between 10AM and 5PM) on the Hudson River south of 72nd Street and on Pier 40 (west end of Houston Street). Please dress for getting wet and know how to swim. Call the Downtown Boathouse for weather updates at 646-613-0740 and further information at 212-408-0219.



Learn the basics of canoeing with the Urban Park Rangers in Willowbrook Park. Meet at the comfort station off of Elton Place, where Victory Boulevard meets Forest Road, east of Rockland Avenue.



“Come, let’s explore the ravine…” It sounds like scene-setting dialogue from a cheesy horror tale, but in this case you’ll be rewarded with “a guided tour of old-growth woodlands, streams, rustic shelters, and local wildlife” in Prospect Park. Meet at the Audubon Center.



Stroll with the Central Park Conservancy for a cross-park promenade and rediscover a place both familiar and novel. Do you know where to find a hidden bench that tells time? Or a sculpture that celebrates fresh water? Well, neither do I, and I’m a native. Get in the know by meeting inside the park at Fifth Ave. and East 72nd Street, in front of the Samuel Morse statue.



Have the famed heather gardens, and more, of Fort Tryon revealed to you by expert horticulturalists. The panoramic views of the Hudson River and Palisades are marvelous. There’s a nifty preview video here. Go to the Heather Garden entrance at Margaret Corbin Circle in Fort Tryon Park, where Cabrini Boulevard and Fort Washington Avenue meet.



Take a little time to “discover the secret places where art and nature meet in Central Park.” You’ll scale to commanding heights of Belvedere Castle (your meeting point, accessible by both west and east 79th Streets), tranquil Shakespeare Garden, and life-filled Turtle Pond. For more information about this “Heart of the Park” walk, call 718-628-2345




Try out kayaking with 20-minute introductory paddles (running between 1PM and 5PM) arranged by the LIC Community Boathouse on the East River where Vernon Boulevard meets 31st Avenue in Astoria. You’ll see Socrates Sculpture Park’s beach at Hallets Cove and a wooden staircase on a wall. Please dress for getting wet and know how to swim.



Explore the resurgent natural areas of Highland Park and the Ridgewood Reservoir through this walking tour. Voice your concern about plans to raze forested areas for artificial turf ball fields. Once you learn of the beauty of this place, turn that passion into action by linking with local preservationists and naturalists.

Meet at the Lower Highland Playground (Jamaica Avenue and Elton Street) and wear comfortable shoes. Bring water, sunblock, and snacks too. For directions and advocacy information, please visit this website.




Nature is a few steps and eye openers away with Prospect Park’s Discover Tours (seen at the top of the page) on Saturdays and Sundays. In June the focus is on the plants and animals that thrive in the parks’ waterways – streams, waterfalls, and Brooklyn’s only lake. Meet at the Audubon Center.



For some novice/parochial New Yorkers, eastern Queens is one of the final frontiers. Little do they realize that lovely, green Fort Totten Ranger Park is a launch pad for much more intrepid exploration! Hop aboard with the monthly Astronomy Club and start the adventure! All ages are welcome. Enter the park at the main fort entrance, north of the intersection of 212th Street and Cross Island Parkway. For more information, call 718-352-1769


TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2008





Learn how to infuse your sweets with garden-grown herbs. Grow them yourself (gear up at the on-site garden store), and bonus points for indigenous species! The good folks at Wave Hill have linked with a talented chef from Great Performances to blend green with sweet. Head up to 675 West 252nd Street, and call 718-549-3200 for more information.







Stroll with the Central Park Conservancy for a cross-park promenade and rediscover a place both familiar and novel. Do you know where to find a hidden bench that tells time? Or a sculpture that celebrates fresh water? Well, neither do I, and I’m a native. Get in the know by meeting inside the park at Fifth Ave. and East 72nd Street, in front of the Samuel Morse statue.



Sebago Canoe Club offers public paddling on Saturday morning and Wednesday evening. The program is free, but you’ll need to pay a $10 insurance fee that is not kept by the club. While you’re there, be sure to check out there great new garden and native plantings! For more information about the Open Paddle program, which has limited seating, please visit their webpage.




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Forgive us if we go a little oyster crazy ahead of the Tuesday, June 17 event at Pier 40 to celebrate this species with The River Project and NY-NJ Baykeeper.


Below is a fun and informative interview with acclaimed author Mark Kurlansky about his New York Harbor-centered book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York City’s history is revealed to be one of early dependence upon, and later despoilment of, this pivotal estuary species. Kurlansky takes New York City to task for fouling its own nest, but also mines enormous humor, wisdom, and human stories from the middens of history. You might be surprised by his insights into Native American use of oysters, and the important role the bivalve played in the history of women and African Americans.


We thank TCS Daily Editor-in-Chief Nick Schultz for making teleconference and transcript used for this interview possible.

 The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky


Erik Baard: You start off with the despoilment of New York Harbor, and it’s a pretty brave thing to do, to start off a book on a down note. But clearly New York is a lot more than a blight upon nature. A lot of wonderful things have come out of New York. How much of that trade off has been fair?
Mark Kurlansky: I think that we could have achieved everything that we did achieve without the spoiling. I think that it is one of the great tragic fallacies of development, that to build the city you have to destroy nature. You know if you build a city on a site that’s a natural wonder, like New York is, you could build it with nature in mind and have this wonderful place that was every bit as powerful and important.

Because after all, you know, it was nature that gave New York its importance, the extremely extensive and protected harbor. And there’s no reason that it had to be developed in the way it was. Just like when Peter Stuyvesant built the wall, that did not necessarily mean that everybody had to throw their trash over it.

Erik Baard: Right. The wall you’re talking about is by what later became known as the “Collect,” a beautiful pond north of the early Dutch Manhattan settlement.
Mark Kurlansky: Right, right.

Erik Baard: And they built it to keep the English out, who naturally arrived by sea.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, yeah I don’t know why they would arrive by land. I mean why would the world’s greatest naval power attack a sea going port from the land, and in fact they didn’t.

Erik Baard: And looking at that kind of short-sightedness and environmental issues, how responsive to crises are we today? For example New York Harbor is cleaning up, but it had to nearly die first. We lost one of the world’s greatest oyster beds. Green house gases are a greater current war. What have we learned?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, if you look at the history of the pollution and clean up of New York Harbor, when are we going to address global warming, after Cape Cod is underwater? You know, what’s it going to take? We tend to allow things to get to an incredible level of calamity before we deal with them.

Erik Baard: You mentioned in the book how New Yorkers don’t plan, but rather create situations then deal with them.

Mark Kurlansky: Right.

Erik Baard: Is that maybe more than just a New Yorker quirk? Maybe that’s just a human quality?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I don’t think it’s unique to New York at all. In fact I think it’s true of all American cities. And maybe a characteristic of human nature, though it’s often been commented that that was how American born policy’s been made.

Erik Baard: I mean it’s hard to look at China today, for an example of a very different culture, and see greater wisdom at work.

Mark Kurlansky: No, they’re doing the exact same thing. Unfortunately, as countries develop they do not look at our model and say, “Let’s do it better.” They say very arrogantly, “We have the right to do what you did.” It’s one of the big problems in world environmental issues, that developing countries say, you know, “you polluted to develop, now it’s our turn.”

Erik Baard: But even the Native Americans, as you point out in the book, were straining the oyster supplies, that even though the population was much lower than ours today, they were already straining the oyster supplies.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right, contrary to, you know the classic picture we have of the Native American living within his resources, you could look through those ancient piles of shells and see that the deeper you go the bigger the shells are. They were over-harvesting oysters.

Erik Baard: And also just tossing these shells into these middens. It took modern science in the 19th century to catch on that putting the shells back in the water restored lime to the water and provided anchorage for more oyster beds to grow.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, not only that, but since oysters grow by creating shell material out of the lime in the water, the higher the lime content of the water, the better the oyster grow.

Erik Baard: Right.

Mark Kurlansky: So dumping shells into oyster beds is a very beneficial thing.

Erik Baard: The Dutch and British settlers used that shell lime to construct stone homes. And I’m kind of curious about the many ways oysters were used. It’s a very versatile product, the meat, the shell being used for construction of buildings… How else were they used?

Mark Kurlansky: They were used in roads, you know, paving roads and in landfill. They were use to fertilize soil, to increase the lime content of the soil, which used to be called “sweetening the soil.” You could just plow oysters under. In fact, Europeans who visited were surprised to see that. The European way was always to grind it up and create this lime powder that you use as fertilizer, but New York farmers used to just take whole shells and put them in the earth.

Erik Baard: And this would lower the acidity?

Mark Kurlansky: Right. Okay.

Erik Baard: Now also, Pearl Street, you clarified some mythologies on that.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, for some reason there’s a lot of mythologies about Pearl Street. I was just on Pearl Street last Saturday, I was thinking about this. Pearl Street was the waterfront in Dutch times, in the original Manhattan. It continues now several blocks further because of landfill. And there’s lots of stories about why it was called Pearl Street. But the real reason seems to be that on the waters edge there, the Indians had left large piles of shells. 

Erik Baard: It wasn’t paved with the oyster shells?

Mark Kurlansky: No you often hear that but, one of the first things I noticed when I was researching this book was that the street got its name before it was paved.

Erik Baard: And there are no pearls associated with the oysters in New York Harbor?

Mark Kurlansky: Or anywhere else in the Eastern United States. The pearl oyster is not an oyster, it’s not the same family or genus. It’s an animal that’s closer to a mussel, and lives in the tropics. When it takes in material that it find indigestible, it coats it and this coating eventually turns into a pearl. When the true oyster runs into material like that, it just spits it out.

Erik Baard: Now that’s the other thing that’s kind of funny about oysters, that they were once a delicacy and at the same time a nearly worthless commodity. You even mentioned how Chaucer had invoked the image of the oyster as essentially not worth one’s salt. A very low-grade commodity.

Mark Kurlansky: Right. And Dickens said that poverty is always associated with oysters. And in fact, in most of New York City’s history poor people ate oysters. In fact some poor people ate nothing but oysters and bread. You know and they had something called the “Canal Street Plan” in the 19th century that was all you could eat for six cents. The price of oysters barely moved in New York City between the American Revolution and when the last bed was closed in 1927.

Erik Baard: They were apparently eccentric enough that sometimes they would trick people to dissuade them from over indulging on that deal, as I recall.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yeah, if, if you ate more than your six cents worth, you know, you just kept eating them and eating them they would find a special oyster for you and you wouldn’t eat any more for a few days.

Erik Baard: So they were deliberating giving you contaminated oysters at that point?

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, that was the safety catch in the all-you-can-eat program.

Erik Baard: So now looking at this, you mentioned how this associated with poverty. But even before European settlement, women were the gatherers of oysters. You had mentioned that it was woman’s work. And also that African Americans later on were very deeply involved with the trade, from gathering to operating oyster cellars.

Mark Kurlansky: Yeah and street stands also.

Erik Baard: Street stands.

Mark Kurlansky: It’s very interesting history. In the early 19th Century native beds in New York City started to become exhausted, and they started replanting them with seeds from the Chesapeake Bay. Three black men from Maryland would come up to do this. And this was before the Civil War and Maryland was a slave state. And free blacks in Maryland had a lot of repressive laws, they weren’t allowed to own property, so they weren’t allowed to own their own oyster bed. They weren’t allowed to captain a ship.


They came to New York and they found that they had all these rights. So they stayed and they built oystering communities, one famous one on Staten Island. But they also ran oyster cellars and street stands.

Thomas Downing was one of these men from Maryland who ran a famous oyster cellars on Broad Street that all the leading politicians and businessmen went to. And everybody who was anybody in New York knew him, and he shipped oysters to Queen Victoria. It was kind of like the way New Yorkers away from New York will try to get lox from Zabars. It used to be Downing’s Oysters, Americans ex-pats would have American theme parties in Paris and they’d serve real Downing Oysters.

Erik Baard: He also kind of created the Starbucks of his time. He took what was a devalued commodity and he, by creating a refined atmosphere, had raised the value of it tremendously. Even more so, he took something that was associated with prostitution and all these other things, you know, that were marginalized and stigmatized, and even though he himself came from freed black slaves, he managed to create this center of power.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Cellars were sort of just disreputable places in the slums that were frequented by prostitutes, and they were marked by a red light, yes. But Downing’s was a very respectable place. He was a very interesting man involved with the Abolitionist movement and sent his kids to abolitionist schools and was thought to be involved with the Underground Railroad. He was among the first prominent Afro-American New Yorkers.

Erik Baard: And now who are the big oyster eaters and producers today?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, not, as far as producers go, not New York City because the water has never become clean enough to go back to producing oysters.

Erik Baard: Still, they can grow here again. Even if they’re not edible, that’s a step in the right direction.

Mark Kurlansky: That’s right. Because for a time they couldn’t even survive in the water. Thanks to the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the water is now cleaned up enough so that oysters can live. The environmentalists are replanting beds because oysters are very good for water. They suck in the water and take out algae and impurities and pump out clear water. So that when Henry Hudson first arrived in New York Harbor, the water must have been incredibly clear because of all those oysters.


But what they will do for you is to eat up PCBs and heavy metals. And of course you’ll eat them if you eat the oysters, so there’s still no oyster production in New York City, although they’re growing oysters. But New Yorkers are eating oysters, I think more than they ever have since the beds were closed in 1927. Oysters are once again becoming tremendously trendy. It seems every time I turn around there’s a new oyster restaurant.

Erik Baard: Well, where are they coming in from?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, it’s become a fashionable thing. I mean this is something that’s happened to food in general, which is a product of our global age. You know, when people eat something they want to sample it from all over the world. You know this has happened with salt. You know, it’s very trendy to get five kinds of salts from different places in the world and you know, oyster places nowadays try to offer you 20 different kinds of oysters from the East Coast and the West Coast and New Zealand and Chile. The more places, the better.

Erik Baard: You remark about how the North American East Coast oyster is pretty much a monoculture.

Mark Kurlansky: Right, from Louisiana to all of the Gulf and Florida and Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Newfoundland, they’re biologically identical oysters. But you know, if you plant them in one side of the cove and also the other side of the cove, you’ll get two oysters that not only taste completely different but look different and have different shells. The oysters are all like wine grapes: it’s all about where you grow them.

The temperature of the water, the salinity, and the types of nutrients, and the speed of the current, all these things change oysters. But New York City was an oyster center. There were more than half a dozen different types of New York City oysters: different bays and Staten Islanders, Rockaways and East River, and Saddle Rocks, and they were all quite different.

Erik Baard: You said that the region accounted for half of the world’s production at one point.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes. Hundreds of millions of oysters a year. It was known as the oyster center. If you were to say, “I’m going to New York,” chances are someone would say, “Enjoy the oysters.” You know, it’s what New York was known for.

Erik Baard: Of course, the Europeans and other cultures ate oysters before the New World was even a dream for Henry Hudson. So looking at that, then what species survive today and how are they being transplanted around the world? I remember you mentioned French oysters had been planted in Maine? Is that correct?

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes.

Erik Baard: And in Washington state, also.

Mark Kurlansky: There’s a lot of types of oysters, but the two leading genera are the Crassostrea and the Ostrea. The Ostrea is the more common in Europe, and in North America it’s mostly Crassostrea, which is considerably different. They reproduce differently and they grow in a somewhat different environment, grow at a different rate.  Crassostrea is much more durable and can grow in a wider range of environments.  They’re kind of taking over.

Erik Baard: And now are some species better than other species for aphrodisiacs?

Mark Kurlansky: I’m not sure. You know I think…

Erik Baard: I think the zinc levels are a critical part of that in terms of being a building block for testosterone.

Mark Kurlansky: I suppose. You know, the closest thing to any science on it is that there’s a lot of zinc in oysters and as you say, that’s a building block for testosterone. But you know, I think the key thing for aphrodisiacs is believing in them. And people have always believed that oysters were aphrodisiacs. It was the food of Roman orgies.

Erik Baard: And I guess it would be very fashionable for today’s club kids as well. But now, looking at oysters the same way you would look at salt and cod, what did you learn uniquely from oysters as a window into world economic history?

Mark Kurlansky: Well, one of the things that I thought tremendously interesting about oysters in New York is that their market crossed all socioeconomic levels. That’s a very rare thing for food. Generally, if you keep the price down they become a food for poor people and then rich people don’t want them. But that didn’t happen with oysters. They were as popular with the rich as with the poor eaten the exact same ways. So, it’s an example that defies everything we know about the price mechanism in marketing a commodity.


I was also surprised that we would tend to think of oysters as fragile, which of course wouldn’t be as much of an issue today with airplanes, but with transportation in the 18th century and 19th century, you wouldn’t think you’d be able to ship oysters very far. You know they ship them from New York to Europe to San Francisco and you know it turns out they’re quite durable if you pack them right.

Erik Baard: Yes, you had mentioned that you had to pack them with the (curved) side down.

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, yes, to hold the liquid in.

Erik Baard: One oddity. The American government tried to encourage people to
anesthetize their oysters?

Mark Kurlansky: Yes, because oysters are eaten live and so there’s this idea that it would be more humane to put them to sleep before you eat them. But the problem the people in the oyster business had with all this is that it was going to point out to everybody that you were eating live creatures, which most people don’t realize. So they decided it was better to just not bring up the subject.

Erik Baard: Well, on that note, now that we’ve ruined a lot of meals, thank you so much for your time and we look forward to your next book.

Mark Kurlansky: Thanks, great talking to you.










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Red mulberries. Photo by \" width=

by Erik Baard

In New York City, messy sidewalks are usually cause for pinching one’s nose. But over the past few days I’ve been overjoyed to see purple splotches all over the place, from the sidewalks to fingertips. It’s mulberry season!

Flash forward: This photo is from another kayak trip, in 2010. LIC Community Boathouse logo artist Steve Sanford in foreground.


Our native red mulberry trees (the fruits of this and related species actually ripen to a deep, nearly black, purple — photo by “Wildman” Steve Brill) can be found all over the city. They spill onto the street all over St. George, Staten Island, and offer themselves up to ravenous joggers at the Central Park Reservoir. Sebago Canoe Club reports that it has a good population of them, and Socrates Sculpture Park has some dropping onto Vernon Boulevard in northern Long Island City as well. I know of at least a half-dozen more locations, so it’s a safe bet that you can find them too – and please write in with your findings!


My favorite spot, however, is Mulberry Coast. Where’s that? Well, okay, that’s just a name I’ve given to the west side of Randalls Island. A small strip of sand allows for kayak landings, and the red mulberry trees are immediately past the rough shoreline. Want to see them? Come kayaking this Saturday, on the “Mulberry Night” tour with the LIC Community Boathouse!


 Mulberry shakedown. Photo by Friends of Brook Park.

Of course, that’s if our hungry, often-vegan, buddies at Friends of Brook Park don’t eat them all first! That’s their photo above. They shot a teasing note to the LIC Community Boathouse accusing Queens paddlers of piracy. But I say that since Randalls is administered by Manhattan, we’re both borough raiders and therefore should work together!  🙂

White mulberries can also be found in some places, descendents of trees brought over in the 19th century in a failed attempt to start a North American silk worm industry. I foolishly ignored a white mulberry tree throughout my adolescence, wondering why its fruits never ripened and marveling that the birds wanted them anyway. Oops. I feel better that even Wildman Steve Brill confesses to making that error in his early foraging days.


Steve has a great mulberry entry on his site, with creative suggestions for using this fruit. I’m with the birds, however, in loving the fruit straight up. It was also interesting for me to learn from a little bit of research that the fruits might have a commercial future, after all. You don’t come across these early summer delights in grocery stores because they ferment and mold quite quickly, due to their high water content and thin skins. But they’re rich in anthocyanins, a blue pigmentation that is valuable as a dye and a disease-preventing antioxidant. 


Harvesting such small fruits isn’t the chore you might imagine. I enjoyed Steve’s description of the standard practice:


I love taking children mulberry-gathering. Everyone holds up a drop cloth, while I climb into the trees and shower the drop cloth and kids with fruit.”


Some might worry that eating from trees inside the city is unsafe. As always, you do so at your own risk. While trees do a remarkably good job of filtering toxins through many layers of osmosis before water and nutrients reach the fruit, pollution deposits can contaminated the surface. Rising or using a nontoxic wash will make the fruit safer but less flavorful. Another option is to seek trees at a decent distance from street traffic, the usual toxin source. This is another reason I love Randalls Island and hope our mulberry trees are doing well there!

I’ve been taken for many years with the visual counterpoint the small dark berries offer to these longest, brightest days of the year. Back in 1991, when I played with lyric verse a bit, I wrote the following short poem. It’s about the rush of awakening (amidst what many myopically dismiss as “lazy, hazy” days of summer) I perceived while observing a Central Park church picnic, when mulberries were in season:




Dawn and dusk are parted lips and

these are days of yawning

skies of chalked turquoise and

wild-willed muddied boys and

berry-stained girls in sun

dresses, too full to run.


These days are near past playing coy and

everything is near ripe

and ripening, ripening!



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Safran and a banr swallow. Photo by Kevin Stearns.



by Erik Baard


If you want to score with New Jersey babes, wear red. At least if you’re a barn swallow. And on second thought, I’d advise swallows to do two things: avoid dressing for a role they’re not able to fulfill, and watch Star Trek.


One rare trait in the animal kingdom is self-recognition in a mirror. You probably didn’t grasp that the reflected figure was yourself until you were about 18 months old. Other primates and species as diverse as elephants, dolphins, whales, and magpies also shared the insight, some without special training.


Individuals of most species therefore rely entirely on community feedback for their sense of status, or in squishier terminology, “self-esteem.” A Current Biology report on an experiment with barn swallows (which we reported in our May 27 posting were darting around Fresh Kills) provides an excellent demonstration of this fact. Dig deeper with the full press release and video.


A study of 63 male barn swallows, captured from six colonies in New Jersey at the start of breeding season. All had blood samples drawn, to measure hormonal levels. Half of them were gussied up with a $5.99 nontoxic red marker to make their breast plumage match the richest shade of the population. The birds were then released and recaptured a week later. The enhanced males showed a spike in their testosterone levels at a time in their annual cycle when they should be slacking off.


A few swipes with a magic marker set off a fascinating loop of physical and neurological interplay, reminding us that the psyche is very somatic and that the sense of self is fluidly social.


The deeper hues attracted and retained more females, who read it as a sign of robustness, and that attention pumped up the bird’s biochemistry in line with his sense of social standing.


Some reports, and the researchers themselves, chuckled that the study proves “the clothes make the man.” I hold strong reservations against that emphasis.


An increased capacity for dominance through higher testosterone levels is vital to perpetuating the pigmentation’s potential genetic windfall, because envious rivals will spar with a male who has more mating opportunities. In a sense, one can view the testosterone boost as the endocrine system’s frantic game of catch-up as the altered males try to grow into roles for which they aren’t equipped. 


One possible sign that the ink job was a mixed blessing at best, that there’s a steep cost to primacy, is that the enhanced males lost weight. Is that because they spent so much time getting busy with the females, or was the competition from males taking its toll? Predators can also target a brightly feathered barn swallow more easily, perhaps leading to a few stressful encounters and energetic evasions. In nature, showy displays like plumage and antlers are outgrowths of a stronger and capable organism – truth in advertising, as University of Colorado at Boulder biologist Rebecca Safran, the lead author of the study, noted.

I wonder if a longer-term study would reveal greater mortality rates for the posers than the authentic alpha males. Also, now this is stretching the study much further out, I can imagine that isolating members of the species and leveling the pigmentation playing field in the same manner would in time cause sexual selection for females with greater visual acuity, to detect the chromatic fakes, or the evolution of new male signals of prowess.


Even among the Wodaabe people, where young men wear elaborate makeup and outfits (pictured below) to parade before marriageable women, special emphasis is made on height, white teeth, and perfection in the whites of the men’s eyes (to the point where they roll their eyes back to show off the purity). In short, catch their attention with the flashiness, but close the deal by proving your health.






Of course, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of time by heeding the central wisdom of Star Trek: any situation is made worse by a red shirt.


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