Tag Archives: animals

No humans, no dogs, one swan

populated the Ridgewood Reservoir when we saw it.  Ridgewood sits in the middle of Highland Park in Brooklyn, bordering Queens, and it is the closest thing to wilderness you will find in all of New York City. Those haunting pictures of life coming back to Chernobyl when it was absolutely impossible for life to come back – Ridgewood is like that, minus the nuclear blast.

In 1858, the city fathers (note: no mothers among them) realized that clean water was a vital necessity, and they bought Snedicker’s corn farm to become the reservoir.

Over the years the borough’s thirst only intensified and The People in Charge bought acres and acres around the original site to use as a buffer against “pollutants generated by cemeteries and garbage plants.” The boroughs of New York were still independent cities until 1898. By bringing water to Brooklyn, the reservoir allowed Brooklyn to become America’s third-largest city, as well as the country’s largest beer producer. (That honor now belongs either to Chicago or to Portland, OR.)

The reservoir was decommissioned and drained by 1990, and the land basically left to its own devices. 

During our visit we made our way all along the perimeter (1.18 miles) and met no one but a lone birder, who told us the bird song quieted at the hotter hours of the day. (I knew that.) I wanted to go because I heard there was a birch forest growing in Brooklyn, but in fact I saw nary a birch. Black locust, yes, very fragrant.

And lots of black cherry.

Sassafras. Imagine fifty-plus acres of sassafras. There’s also red maple and sweet gum. There are thick carpets of moss and the bogs we couldn’t get at.

I wonder what old Frederick Olmsted, master landscaper who designed Central Park, would have thought of the pristine pool becoming a jungle.

Highland Park sits atop  a ridge formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet’s terminal moraine. Olmstead loved blasting the hell out of ancient boulders to make Central Park.

In 1894, Brooklyn hired Olmsted’s firm to design the main drive and concourse for the reservoir’s southern portion, lined still today with towering, bulbous London plane trees.

The Olmsted company erected an iron fence and electric lights, which were barely heard of in those days. The fence went up because of repeated drownings, suicidal and otherwise.

You can still read on the base of each light fixture: MAGNIFLOOD.

Old pumphouses still stand.

Nine cemeteries ring the park, including this one, the B’nal Jeshaurm and Shearith Isreal cemetery. There is one just for nuns, too, and one for the World War I dead. I think I have family in one of them.

Actually, the original tract featured three reservoirs, and two were drained in the 1980s while water remained in one. That body is now ringed by phragmites, which is the insidious non-cattail taking over deteriorated landscapes everywhere. At the Cabin we had a swamp filled with phragmites; a botanist friend visited and told me, “Oh, those are an invasive species.” Which I felt kind of insulted by at the time, but she was correct.

The swan on the beach is cleaning itself. The person who uses the flat-bottomed boat is used by ecologists, and maybe Huckleberry Finn.

Ridgewood is now a wildlife refuge, with forests, fields and wetlands.  Preservationists have rallied against any threat to its development. We tried to imagine the wildlife that would get over the fences, down the steep slopes and survive there: possum, raccoon, squirrels, voles, snapping turtles (the New York State reptile), garter snakes and frogs. And probably coyotes. In the heart of Brooklyn! We saw only a red winged blackbird but could hear birdsong. A total of 127 bird species have been counted there.

“It’s like a postage-stamp size id in the middle of the raging ego of New York City,” says Gil.

I just say it’s a cool place.

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Bringing a forest to NYC

can be a lot of work, even for Maya Lin. Yes, that Maya Lin, the one who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC (opened in 1982, when Lin was 23), winning a lot of criticism at first and then nothing but accolades.

The same Maya Lin designed a factory in Yonkers, the city next to where I Iive, that makes scrumptious brownies, which find their way into Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. The factory employs people who might otherwise be unemployable with open hiring policies—not requiring resumes, for example. It’s called the Greyston Bakery, and its motto is: “We don’t hire people to make brownies, we make brownies in order to hire people.” 

Every once in a while Greyston makes its brownies available to the public, and they are irresistible (coming from someone who makes a mean brownie herself).

Lin applied her touch to other Yonkers venues, including a shuttered city jail and an environmental installation at the Hudson River Museum. And she created wonderful waves of landscape art at upstate New York’s Storm King sculpture park. Worth a viisit if you are in the area.

Now, in a Manhattan park, she has planted a grove of forty-nine Atlantic white cedars, with the odd factor that the trees were dead before she harvested them  from the New Jersey pine barrens.

The piece is called Ghost Forest. It’s a harsh comment on climate change. Before the 1700s, Atlantic white cedars provided at least 500,000 acres of habitat for unique plants and animals. Today there are just 50,000 acres of the species. Ghost forests are a widespread phenomenon in coastal areas, a matter of concern among ecologists.

In fact, believe it or not “ghost tree farts” are a recognized by-product of such tracts. Standing dead trees, also called snags, have been killed by saltwater. They no longer have a leaf canopy to photosynthesize and consume carbon dioxide. So they can potentially increase the ecosystem’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 percent.

Snags don’t move water and nutrients around for growth. The gases they emit probably come from decaying wood or emissions oozing up from the soil. Scientists are alarmed by the world-wide profusion of dead forests, as the ocean rises and saltwater intrudes on heretofore healthy wetlands. Some ecologists have made it a focal point of their study, such as Emily Ury, here measuring soil salinity.

The trees Lin brought to New York came from  a stand that had been infiltrated by salt water and were being cleared as part of a regeneration effort. When I think of the pine barrens it brings a spooky scene to mind: we canoed down a river in November and as night came on passed close enough to a dead deer lying underneath the water to prod it with a paddle. A perfect crescent slice had been taken out of its flank, cattle mutilation style.

The deterioration of our forests unlikely to be an issue on the mind of any of the hundreds of picnickers among the Ghost Forest installation. It’s the most beautiful spring day of all time, at the final gasp of a horrific pandemic, after all. The last thing anyone wants to think about is the end of a livable earth as we know it.

But some visitors may tune in to another element of the installation, a soundscape accessible via smart phone, that renders what you might have heard at what is now 26th Street and Broadway five hundred years ago. The audio track has English names, Latin names and linguistic translations from the Lenape Center in New York City. How cool is that? Madison Square Park sits on the traditional homeland of the Lenape-Delaware people. Using West Virginia species that are living today, the acoustic exhibit takes you into the forest: grey fox howling, cougar meowing, American black bear vocalizing with a sort of urgent whine, a beaver splashing its tail in water. 

To me, the haunting “sounds of the silenced” was worth the price of admission.

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