Tag Archives: ellis island

A shout out to nurses everywhere

on this rah-rah chest-thumping holding-up-half-the-sky International Women’s Day 2023. Nurses are the lifeblood of our society. I may be a bit biased because my daughter is an RN, soon to be a nurse practitioner. Here she is all rigged out to do battle with Covid.

Brava Maud! I like to talk about nurses when I give Hard Hat Tours of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island, because they were so fundamental there.

As they always are. Ellis Island Hospital employed great doctors – it was a fine hospital, one of the best in the country in the early years of the 20th century. But nurses’ great skills and essential kindness were absolutely vital.

Elements of their existence persist in the ruined spaces. A scrap of shower curtain holds on in one of the washroom’s in the nurses’ quarters.

I always point out a rainbow that appears on a wall there every day, at some times fainter than others, which I’m pretty sure is the nurses’ way of communicating with us.

One nurse who was pretty much the patron saint of Ellis Island is someone everyone’s heard of: Florence Nightingale.

I love this photo because in it she looks so old-fashioned, sort of like an old fuddy duddy, but in fact she was anything but. She was a radical, a pioneer. Her beliefs when applied at Ellis Island probably account for an extraordinarily high survival rate among the 500,000 people who were treated there over the years before the hospital closed in 1954. A British nurse who practiced during the Crimean War–before antibiotics, before penicillin–she believed in a few simple tenets. Sunshine. Fresh air. You can see a vestige of her philosophy in the baby-cage rage of the 1930s.

Another of her beliefs was hygiene, translated specifically at Ellis to handwashing. She was nicknamed the Lady of the Lamp for her personal vigilance in soldiers’ wards.

Life before hand washing could be dirty, yes, but also dangerous.

Before the nineteenth century a bacterial infection known as childbed fever claimed the lives of the many thousands of women going to hospitals to give birth. Doctors hadn’t yet come around to the idea that handwashing was important. Ignorant about germs, they didn’t bother.

Most doctors, naturally, were male. Puerperal fever was both common and tragic. Two of Henry XIII’s wives died this way. So did Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the seminal Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.

 It seems obvious now, especially with the Pandemic, when we’re always washing our hands. But in the mid-1800s, birthing practices had not come far beyond what they were in the seventeenth century.

And childbed fever continued to be a scourge, though so few people remember it now.

Women’s history, please! Let’s be more than a footnote.

Around 350 babies came into this world at Ellis Island. In the abandoned hospital you can find handwashing sinks throughout, not placed there by accident or as a nicety — evidence that medical practitioners knew how important it was to simply wash your hands before and in between procedures so as not to spread infection.

I had a smart teenager on a tour who termed them the Nightingale sinks, his eyes filled with new knowledge.

The grounds at the Hospital once featured beautifully landscaped gardens, compared by some to the finest spas in Europe, so that patients, doctors, and sailors would be able to get that sun and fresh air that Nightingale considered so critical. The wards were created with huge windows to admit light and ventilation.

One medical researcher who was crucial to eradicating childbed fever was Hungarian physician Ignaz Semelweize. Scorned and ridiculed  by the medical establishment, he wound up dying in 1865 in an insane asylum after a savage beating by guards left him with an untreated gangrenous wound on his hand.

In 1847, Semelweize famously decreased death from the disease in the First Obstetrical Clinic of Vienna from nearly 20% to 2% through the use of handwashing with calcium hypochlorite. He had observed that some women even preferred to give birth in the streets rather than going to a hospital. A street birth, they knew, was more survivable than delivery by a doctor with dirty hands. Much later, Semelwieze would receive his due.

When doctors got with the program and finally began washing their hands, the incidence of childbed fever plummeted and women survived. At around the time the Ellis Island Hospital opened its doors in 1900, handwashing was just becoming routine.

The nurses at Ellis were reportedly formidable. There’s a story about a patient who suffered from mental anguish after a horrible ocean passing and typhus – she tried to do away with herself by jumping into the harbor in winter, and a heroic nurse jumped in after her and saved her. Try to fathom that.

Long since the hospital’s abandonment by humans, we see other critters’ nurturing here.

Nurses at Ellis didn’t make a lot of money. They had to remain single. We know that they went out of their way to teach immigrant children reading and writing. Seventy percent of immigrants did not speak English, and nurses knew how important that was to being successful in their new country.  We also have a set of directives for nurses, and while some are ho-hum one pops out: You shall not kiss or hug your patients. What does this suggest? It’s probably not wise to embrace your measles patient, you might catch measles – but these nurses were so caring and compassionate, they had to be told not to. Nurses knew how important nurturing was to the healing process.

As they still do.

At the end of a tough day at the hospital where she works, Maud comes home and decompresses by relaxing with her pups and husband and tuning in to true crime podcasts.

We have only scant evidence of Florence Nightingale’s personal life, how she might have decompressed, so I appreciate these artifacts. Comfy moccasins!

She deserved them. And then some.


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If you want to know where the bodies are buried

I can show you – at least the ectoplasmic ones at the Ellis Island Hospital ruin. If you come on a photography tour, we get to snoop around the old, crumbling areas we don’t usually take visitors on our regular Hard Hat Tours.

Today I went around with Chris, who moved to NJ from the UK five years ago and was lucky enough to be gifted with the tour by a family member. (If an immersion in an amazing ruin interests you either as a professional or amateur photographer, let me know and I’ll steer you to the right person at Save Ellis Island to set it up.)

The “new” morgue/autopsy room, dating to the 1930s, features refrigerated cabinets which held cadavers, and aspiring doctors would sit on bleachers to learn about anatomy.

A previous morgue, more intimate, was repurposed as a laboratory where guinea pigs were research subjects.

The pharmacist’s quarters, still containing essential potions in a locked cabinet. Since the Middle Ages, colloidal gold was famous for its curative properties.

Random corridors.

Random rooms.

The paint itself evocative of all the years the buildings were used – around 1900 to 1954, when the federal government walked away from Ellis Island, declaring it “surplus property.”

Psych wards where blue paint was often used, supposedly because it was considered a calming color.

What do you suppose the experts meant with green paint?

Other psych wards, single rooms.

Windows barred in the event that depressed patients might take matters into their own hands.

Doors prohibited exit.

Ancient graffiti says it all.

Please, come in.

No, really.

After you.

Be my guest.

Even the smallest details.

Historical gems. To me, anyway.

Don’t think they make radiators like they used to.

Sometimes it’s a relief to gaze out a window.

Yes, that is Our Lady of the Harbor in the distance.

Hang up your coat.

Stay a while.

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Gulls get a bad rap but they are so freaking cool.

Saw two with fish on the secret bridge recently.

One flew overhead, the shiny wet corpus dangling from its beak, the other perched on the bridge railing, head tilted back, chugging its catch.

Gulls love to hunt from this Bailey bridge, a cool structure that was invented by British engineer Sir Donald Coleman Bailey during World War II with function of quick construction and the ability to bear great loads. This one, all of 400 yards long, connects the coast of New Jersey with Ellis Island. It cost $2.4 million to build in the 1980s and is invisible to most people – unless they are on staff at Ellis, or perhaps a contractor, or making a delivery or a park police. It’s how I drive to work.

Me and the gulls. They’re always working, even when they are standing stock still. Ever alert, ever watchful. Steely-eyed. Focused. Did you know that seabirds’ sense of smell is excellent? As good as their eyesight.

And please, don’t call them seagulls. There is no such thing. Thirty-four species of gulls can be found throughout the world. They belong to a large family named Laridae, which also includes terns, kittiwakes, and skimmers, with a Greek derivation meaning “ravenous sea bird.”

I think I’m being followed. Are they everywhere? Or is it just me. Here is the WPA-commissioned mural at LaGuardia’s Terminal A, which I noticed as I waited to enter security this morning.

Flight, imagined by James Brooks in 1940, got painted over in 1952 by rabid McCarthy-ite forces who thought it was pro-commie. By a miracle it had been preserved beneath a coat of varnish, to emerge just as beautiful when restored in 1980. It tells the story of Icarus and Daedelus and Pan Am all at the same time, accompanied by, what else, a flock of gulls.

In fact, gulls are everywhere. Gulls thrive in the thousands, the millions, all the world over. Naturalist Adam Nicolson in his masterful work The Seabird’s Cry focuses his attention on gulls as well as puffins, gannets and the mighty albatross. It is required reading if you want to understand these canny creatures.

You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open sea. It goes, that’s all. So said Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor famous for round-the-world single-sailing adventures, who knew a thing or two about disappearing toward the open sea.

When you take note of gulls you’ll see differences in their appearance – herring gulls, most common around New York Harbor, feature grey wings, while the ring-billed have, of course, a black ring around the bill. There are others too, but the point is they all, as Nicolson puts it, share the same “mentality, their opportunism, their particular mixture of the brilliant and the obtuse.”

Yes, they can be greedy, yes, they can be loud and obnoxious. But can’t we all? Nicolson observes that unlike most sea birds, gulls are “coastal creatures, living on the ecotone, that margin between life systems, picking at the leavings of the tide, relishing the comings and goings of a beach. They are not unlike us, who have always thrived on the shore, shuffling our way through its multiple resources, turning to the sea when the land is inadequate, to the land when the sea refuses to deliver. We and the gulls are co-habitants of the same world, uncomfortably recognizing each other, thriving in the same way, behaving badly in the same way.”

I’ve noticed them during the past year strutting their stuff at Ellis. They like to lurk near the outdoor café tables, begging for table scraps, which people gladly give them even though they might know that feeding wildlife human victuals is bad for beings not human. They make a lot of noise because they are expert communicators. Again, Nicolson: “This is the herring gull’s long call, its neck down first, hieeee, then a sudden jerking up, the head high, undulating, yellow mouth wide open, its throat visibly oscillating with each syllable, the whole body gradually bending forward, a marshalling cry, ay ay ay ay ay, slowly lowering so that the gull ends nearly horizontal, its urge to call exhausted and all conviction gone.” Crisis over, it settles.

In coastal nesting grounds, colonies of thousands, they engage in complex social behaviors. They mince, dance and vocalize about everything from hunger and possible predators to anger, to submission, to, yes, coupling.

In fact, gulls have a noble history in the study of animal behavior. Nobel-prize-winning expert Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen studied the vocalizations of herring gulls in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In The Herring Gull’s World (1954) he observed that while at first a colony would appear to be utter chaos, “it soon becomes evident…that it must be an intricate social structure, organized according to some sort of a plan. The individuals are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”

A ritual called a “choking display” takes place when gull partners dispute the proper site for a nest. The behavior includes a repetitive, delicate murmur given by one member of the pair who thinks it has found the ideal spot on the ground: the huoh-huoh-huoh choke call. They might be better at negotiating this kind of thing than we oh-so-intelligent humans are.

I had a long confab recently with a juvenile ring-billed gull near the secret bridge. She still bore some brown speckles, which she would ultimately grow out of. The day was soare cu dinţi – that is the perfect Romanian phrase for a sunny but briskly cold day. It means, if you want to be literal, sun with teeth. Gulls like cold, wind, ice, you name it. They’re the opposite of fussy.

She was pecking at crumbs on the seawall and barely seemed to notice me.

I had some corn muffin crumbs of my own, left over in a paper bag from breakfast, and shook them out for her even though I knew it was wrong. They’ll eat anything. Even baby gulls. Don’t hate them for it.

They’re survivors.

A bigger, older gull chased her off. I was sorry to see her go.

As I noted, some gulls are cannibals. Others do nurture their young, but so privately that you’ll never ordinarily see a chick. Spot Baby Speckles here?

Even their color is smart.

Why are gulls mainly white? It is in fact “aggressive camouflage,” which allows birds that dive for their prey to get closer to fish without being noticed as they would if they were darker in hue. Some gulls have black faces, which researchers have found makes sense from a territorial standpoint. A black face, it seems, can frighten other gulls away.

“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them,” writes C.S Lewis about the capital of Narnia. “Before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you ever heard it? Can you remember?”

Gulls can fly as fast as 28 mph. They can even drink salty ocean water when thirsty – each one has a special pair of glands right above its eyes to flush salt out through openings in its bill. What this means is that they can remain out at sea for longer to forage for food without needing to return to shore to get a drink of fresh water.

These acrobats of the air live between 5 to 15 years in the wild. Their roots are ancient. Fossils of the species Gansus yumenensis, first found at Changma in northwestern China, and nearly all water birds, including loons, grebes, penguins, pelicans, and gulls, can be traced back to this single common ancestor 110 million years ago, in the early part of the Cretaceous period.

They’ve had time to reach a sort of liminal perfection, if you ask me.

Next time you see a gull, don’t give it a crust of bread. Just give it some respect.

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Bald eagle on the turnpike this morning

swooping up into the crown of a tree. Omen, sign, portent?

I believe in marvels, antithetical as such ideas might be in our modern rational age.

There is always a new unravelling of old mysteries. Naturalists have just come to the realization that prehistoric mastodons brought the honey locust with them to West Virginia 10,000 years ago.

Being partial to both grazing mastodons and spiky honey locusts, I am happy that the connection has at last been made.

I visited Bainbridge Island, floating just off the coast of Washington State, when I spent time in Seattle this past week. Bainbridge is a place of mysteries, the center of Suquamish Ancestral Territory, peopled for thousands of years and rich in archaeological sites. Made a pilgrimage to Fay Bainbridge beach, a place overlooking Puget Sound where thousands of bare, huge driftwood logs have washed up on the shore. Where do they come from? Why here? You need to pick your way over them as you make your way to the surf, they are so thick across the sand.

The eminently quotable Thoreau: We often love to think now of the life of men on beaches, at least in midsummer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beech-bird.

In the old times this place was called Salagwep, base of spit where butt end of trees are lying. Other parts of Bainbridge had different names: Xwadzus, Sharp face, or Daxkdsaxb, Place where water gets jumping, or Yeboalt, Fighter’s home where north and south winds tussle.

Even in the cold weather, now, in November, the jag of driftwood speaks. There are some telephone poles here also, obviously thinking they belong among the imperfect tree trunks. Someone has built a fortress, a home, a gathering place. Simple and ingenious.

In Danish the expression is hygge, meaning a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable. During the long, dark winters when Danes retreat inside their homes, hygge is what brings a sense of comfort and joy. Same in Norway, except there they call it koselig.

(Knowing a little about Scandinavian habits, I have a feeling it usually involves strong coffee also). Hygge usually refers to an indoor environment, but I think the structure at Fay Bainbridge is also a place of succor, the beach-y equivalent. A shelter from the storm for whoever built it or whoever came after and hung out here.


I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Elsewhere on Bainbridge, horse chestnut leaves hold the autumn light.

Mysteries. No one is here. Even a bit of plant fluff can appear miraculous atop a human hand.

A puff of breath in the cold air can seem miraculous. So can someone sighing in their sleep. The miracle of Klimt.

What is he dreaming? It can only be good. I wonder sometimes, do I sigh in my sleep? I don’t think so. I sleep like a rock, when I sleep at all. I take my dreams in the daytime, thank you very much.

Returning from Bainbridge, we see Mount Rainier rising in the distance. It looked the same to ancient eyes.

But what did the sight of a snowy, iconic mountain on a clear, crisp day such as this portend? We can only imagine.

At Ellis island, touring the measles ward, one person said he was sure he was tapped on the shoulder by an unseen presence. Another guest said she smelled chocolate in a room where no one had been for 100 years. What do these occurrences signify? Are they portents?

If you listen, things speak to you. Today, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She hasn’t been alive for 30 years. Yes, it was all in my mind. That didn’t make it unreal. She told me to re-read Ulysses, by James Joyce, her now-tattered copy, bought as a first edition in Paris a century ago. She was so smart – she came from nothing, and wound up living well on New York City’s Upper West Side. I remember climbing on the big Manhattan schist boulders across Central Park West. You could see them from her window.

The rocks, were they signposts? Central Park would be an integral part of my life eventually. Did those rocks speak to me even then?

There are marvels wherever you look. Sometimes they’re audible. Don’t we always find signs in songs?

When Ella scat-warbles Chelsea Bridge, does it send a shiver down your spine? Is it a sign? Is it important? It’s mysterious. Or, if you prefer, Leon Russell singing Tightrope.

The wire seems to be
The only place for me
A comedy of errors and I’m falling
Like a rubber-neck giraffe
You look into my past
Well maybe you’re just too blind to see

 I loved it when someone once told me I had a musical soul. But doesn’t everybody have a musical soul? It’s just the music that differs. For me, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, the duet sung by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Incomparable. Doesn’t that just wring your heart out? Or Julia, by The Flatlanders, also referencing a circus, a different kind.

Night wind blows
Stars above the blue
Heaven knows
Only love will do

Or do you prefer Do You Realize, by The Flaming Lips – Do you realize/That you have the most beautiful face? Or, of course, Smokey Robinson, Ooh, Baby Baby. The Miracles, indeed. The Beach Boys, that big whomp of a single drum beat at the beginning of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, what does it signify? Everything, I think. Or J.S. Bach, Concerto in D Minor.

Whatever music makes you both smile and cry. Listening to a transistor radio late at night as a child, under the sheets, so no one would know. Private. Secret. I want to hold your hand. Mysterious. Did I say secret?

The marvel of scent. The fragrance of wood smoke. Whatever smells hold magic, release magic.

I saw a newly released Polish film, EO, about a donkey, in which a circus performer memorably presses her smooth face against her donkey co-performer’s rough fur.

A very sad movie, very scary, but still something so magical about the animal’s eyes. Polish poetry.

A 16-year-old girl on my Ellis Island tour after peppering me with questions the whole time: I’m sorry for asking so many questions, but I just really want the answers! Yes, so do I, missy. When I was younger I thought of mysteries as things that must be solved. Something to get to the bottom of. Now…

I’ve always resonated to cabinets of curiosities, those neatly arranged treasures you find depicted in artwork of earlier centuries. Like the famous collection of one professor of medicine in Copenhagen, a studio stuffed with animals, plants and minerals and including both a crocodile and an armadillo.

The sole purpose of the Wunderkammern was to elicit awe. The wondrous was a cult that combined “variety, whimsy, and extravagance “ in the description of one of my favorite books, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. Unicorn horns (really narwhal tusks) and griffin claws (bison horns) were prized along with nautilus shells and sharks’ teeth. Churches suspended giant eggs, teeth and bones from their vaults to prompt admirationem. Folks also believed in exotic human races, including the Cynocephali, dog-headed inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.

Debate existed about whether they were civilized and rational or cruel cannibals who preferred the meat of strangers raw and highly spiced.

Marvels, wherever you look. From bald eagles to dog-faced humans to hovering pink clouds.

Another ho-hum sunset over the Palisades just across from my home. A talisman of… you tell me.


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Do you like dead trees? I do

and especially, it seems, when they stand sentinel along the New Jersey Turnpike. Every day I see a big old hawk on a big old tree along the highway. The perfect spot for waiting to catch your supper. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift said that.

When I first started working as an arborist, I felt all the trees along the road should be alive and magnificent, and I was almost offended if I saw a bare branch sticking up out of the canopy.

Now I know that trees cope with their living conditions in different ways. Cladoptosis is the process by which trees shed their branches or “self-prune” as part of their normal physiology or in response to stress. All large trees will have some dead branches, it’s part of their life cycle. There’s even a phenomenon known as Sudden Branch Drop, first identified in 1882 by a botanist named Kellogg, who wrote of trees “said to burst with a loud explosion, and strong limbs…(which) unexpectedly crash down, the fracture disclosing not the least cause of weakness.” Of course when you drive along the highway you might be seeing the effects of emerald ash borer or beech leaf disease, two current scourges of the forest. Not good.

But sometimes in nature death and life intertwine, as is the case with one of my favorite phenomenons, the manzanita, grey and red braided together as the plant grows.

Hawks’ habit of perching perfectly still, making use of those bare branches, impresses me. They are doing anything but nothing. It’s so hard to maintain that kind of patience. I’ve observed it also with seagulls that hang out on the secret bridge at Ellis Island.

Sometimes as I drive across a gull will fly over with a crab, but they usually just pose with drops of harbor water hanging from their beaks. They are intensely focused, gazing out with that reptilian look they have, waiting, waiting.

It’s hard to be patient. The gulls and hawks teach us that patience is an art. It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing. So said Gertrude Stein. Hard to stay waiting for someone to return.

Waiting to consume the pie until it cools from the oven. Waiting for the soup dumplings to cool so you won’t burn your tongue on the delectable broth inside.

Waiting for the coffee to brew. For beauty to unfurl.

For some special someone to smile. I feel that all the time on my tours, as I wait for a visitor to crack a smile, to respond. Waiting for my daughter to have children. Drop your babies already! You know you’ll be happy when you do! But no, it’s on somebody else’s timeline, not mine—as it should be.

Waiting to grow up. We’ve all been through that. And then, later, you wonder why you wanted to hurry.

The patience to wait before opening a present. Or even (especially?) an envelope when you know there’s a holiday check inside. I love presents but you can’t rush it.

Waiting for the Bartlett pears to ripen, the pineapple. Hard to fathom when a pineapple will ripen, or an avocado. You cannot rush it. Waiting for a book to find a publisher.

The patience you need when someone is slow to forgive you. The patience you need to begin forgiving somebody. Patience is not learned in safety, says Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest, wrote William Least Heat-Moon. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.

Soon the trees will lose their leaves, and we won’t even know which branches are dead and which ones aren’t. When snowfall comes, the pristine white that coats every branch will be just as beautiful.

The age of the bristlecone pine called Methuselah, which stands in Inyo National Forest in California, has been gauged at 4,600 years. Somehow it seems to be both alive and dead, a natural miracle.

I am paying attention.

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A secret note awaits me

when I climb the stairs to the attic above the administration building at Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex. A central spot there, the admin building, it is the place where all sick immigrants checked in a hundred years ago, and is also the place where nurses were quartered, upstairs. The air in the attic is dense with the aroma of old wood. There’s rusted machinery here, the workings of the original Otis Elevator shaft, and the note, age-yellowed, was carefully taped there by somebody, once, who believed it was important.

Also, on the floor below the attic, the ruins of wards, right down the way from where the nurses lived. So they could get there right quick if their help was needed.

Is there anything better than a secret note? I don’t think so. I remember long ago I wrote a poem called The Back of a Love Note, now gone with the wind, as is the life of a poet I fancied myself having. I still love secrets, whether they’re the back of a love note or any other kind. Ellis Island has them in spades.

I saw a lot of secrets today, secrets I hadn’t seen before. In the attic, a trick of the light which somehow produces a mysterious green shadow.

A bird’s nest in a light fixture.

Mysteries everywhere. Spirits? Possibly. Somebody told me yesterday on my tour that they smelled chocolate in the empty corridor. Today, when I took around a group of photographers, they were sure they caught the scent of laundry soap in the nurses’ dorm. Olfactory hallucinations.

I am well aware that ghosts may not be real. I know some people don’t believe in them. I believe that ghosts are the thoughts and ideas and emotions and need we bring to certain spaces. When I enter the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Staff house, where doctors lived with their families, my chest seizes up. The presence of the past is that strong. People lived here. Loved here.

One ward with locked rooms for psychiatric patients has graffiti that someone was smart enough to preserve. Men undergoing treatment here scrawled their names by the door frames. Johnies Room.

Secrets of the past. Someone thought it imperative to pencil a crude drawing of the Immigration Station. And to offer his thoughts on the sad way of the world.

Where the nurses lived a rainbow is a constant on an otherwise neutral wall.

Do the nurses speak to us, sending this prismatic message across the decades? Sometimes things just glow here.

A guest came with me into the room that was the equivalent of hospice a century ago, a place for the sickest of the sick, where many died of multiple ailments, tuberculosis and syphilis and heart disease.

She told me that something had popped up on the ghost hunter app on her phone when she entered the ward. Just three words. Simple: We are everywhere. Make of it what you will. Of course, 40 percent of Americans can trace their family lineage through Ellis Island so perhaps it’s not such a stretch that we are everywhere.

If you look closely, you’ll find secrets. We are told to stop then let go. A fairly wise message, applicable every day, I think.

A resident felt it was important to decorate the edge of a shelf in a hidden closet.

A secret bathtub under the eaves.

Even the textures of wall paint, remnants over remnants over the years, offer their own secret story.

Secrets. Mysteries. Sometimes, love.


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Beauty hurts

and I shoot when I’m in the most pain. Joe McNally credited a fellow photographer with that exquisite sentiment in the course of a workshop at the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island today. He taught, and led by example, shooting pictures of his own as the day progressed.

I liked helping guide the group around the complex and hearing this pro’s ideas about how to see and to show what is all around us there.

McNally, a veteran photographer (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, New York Stock Exchange annual reports, etc., etc.) had shot Ellis Island in the late 1980s, when even the main immigration building hadn’t been fully restored and the south side of the island was a wreck. Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit that employs me as an educator, has now stabilized some spaces to what is called a condition of arrested decay.

We snooped around a lot of areas I don’t usually take tourists.

Some wards, as decrepit as they are, give off a somehow beautiful feeling. Blue was thought to be a calming paint color to use in wards, especially those housing patients with psychiatric woes, and I think it still soothes the savage breast, as playwright William Congreve said about music back in the day.

Other people helped with the tour and provided their own bright color. Charles.

I thought about Leonardo da Vinci. He said, Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

For the photographers today, it was all about the light. The quality of light here is very forgiving, McNally assured his students.

You feel it palpably, he said.

The weather cooperated. Dawn came up pink in New York Harbor.

Later, lightning and rain, courtesy of Fiona brushing by up the coast, offered just enough mood.

Photographers don’t all like to be bothered with facts, even at such an iconic spot. It’s usually about the framing, the exposure, shutter speed.

Some tolerated a little historical grit to accompany the visual grit at the hospital. This was a ward where the sickest of the sick received treatment, I told a few of them, keeping it simple. Or, Nurses lived in these quarters.

To whomever I could get to listen, I said, Florence Nightingale’s ideas were so important to the medical protocol here. She believed in sunshine, fresh air, and handwashing. That’s why you see so many handwashing sinks as you go throughout the complex.

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily, quoth La Rochefoucauld, back in the 17th century. Perhaps it is just too difficult to stand in the hospital ruin’s spaces and really grok what went on there, that there were human beings working, suffering, being healed there. Existing. The oversized autoclave was used to sterilize mattresses so that people wouldn’t die.

Emerson said, The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. A faded scrap of carpet remains, improbably.

Coal bins in a jumble. Don’t mind us, we’re just crucial historical artifacts.

An industrial spin dryer: The Fletcher Whirlwind. We can only imagine the important folks who once did the wash here and kept everything sanitary.

The group spent time in the morgue. Nice location for a fashion shoot some day.

McNally talked about what to do if you want to impart a patina rather than shooting it raw.

The abandoned hospital complex offers nothing if not patina. Are there ghosts here? You be the judge.

One photographer actually came all the way from Lisbon to take the class – also to hang out with half a dozen pals who knew each other from the trenches. He said you can’t beat the atmosphere at the abandoned hospital complex. I said, Say spaghetti and meatballs! and clicked. Savoring the light.

You must give birth to your images, said Rilke, he who knew everything about everything. They are the future waiting to be born.


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Something happened today. Something out of the ordinary.

I was taking my group on the walking tour of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island. We went into the “hospice room,” which was many peoples’ last stop at the hospital. As usual, the spaces at Ellis had been magical, evocative, spooky, and above all historical. There is a room where someone once swore they caught the fragrance of lavender. Another person, it is reported, heard children’s faint laughter down a corridor. In one space, the nurses’ quarters, a rainbow likes to appear on one wall no matter the weather, rain or shine. I’ve seen it many times but have never been able to capture it in a picture.

I always like to ask people when we get to the hospice room to take a moment to reflect on all the people that had come through the hospital wanting to come to America, making sacrifices we cannot imagine to come to America, and ultimately not making it here. 

(Or, as has been pointed out to me, only making to one of the New York area cemeteries.)

Blue, by the way, was considered a calming color, and so many of the sick ward walls at Ellis were painted blue.

People on my tours take that moment to reflect, then we move on to another space. After today’s tour a woman caught up with me to tell me something. She said that on her ghost-buster phone app, as we stood in the hospice and took that moment of silence, some words popped up on her screen: “we are everywhere.” That had never happened before, she said.

Phone app– latter-day Ouija Board. Okay, easy to say. Nonsense? When you are there, in the moment, it feels like anything but. Chills.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Anything is possible.

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Arlow Burdette Stout

had a great name, and also revolutionized our thinking about day lilies. Never thought much about Hemerocallis? The name Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words for “day” and “beautiful”.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance. John Ruskin wrote that. I don’t believe that peacocks are useless however; nor are day lilies. I have been walking past a beautifully planted border of day lilies for the past month at Ellis Island, where the flowers are as diverse as the multitudes of immigrants that passed through over the years 1892 through 1954, when the facility closed. I get the feeling that many visitors just hustle past them every day in a rush to find their ancestors on the Wall of Honor, or to get a quick sandwich in the café before jumping on a ferry to Liberty Island. Everyone is in such a hurry, even on vacation.

Tens of thousands of cultivars exist. Arlow Stout alone produced over one hundred Hemerocallis hybrids, reawakening popular interest in the flower, which was introduced to America by European settlers—probably brought from Asia along the silk roads. By the 1800s they were naturalized in the U.S., and still what is called the “tawny” variety can be found springing up by the roadsides all over the country. Ancient Chinese paintings depict glowing orange day lilies.

It’s not actually a lily.

In the department of Harumphh: in 2009, under the APG III system, day lilies were removed from the family Liliaceae and assigned to the family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily HemerocallidoideaeXanthorrhoeaceae was renamed in 2016 to Asphodelaceae in the APG IV system. Will someone wake me up when this is all sorted out?

Growing on long stems called scapes, flowers bloom for one day each. You can gather them, eat them, press them, present them to people you love. Hybridizers like our friend Stout like to fool around with properties like height or scent, ruffled edges, putting contrasting “eyes” in the center of a bloom, or creating an illusion of glitter called “diamond dust.”

Sylvia Plath also wrote about them, in a poem from 1962 called “Crossing the Water.” Stars open among the lilies./Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?/This is the silence of astounded souls.

But we don’t need such a hard sell. Their season is almost over. Go out and be agog over one, before their beauty sleep ’til next year.

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A felicitous and unexpected event

took place on Ellis Island. That’s my favorite kind of event, don’t know about you. A duck took it into her head to create a new family in an abandoned enclosed courtyard.

We have a few of these areas in the ruined hospital complex: semicircular, small spaces where patients would have been encouraged to go in order to take some fresh air. Back in the day.

Now the lovely little courtyards are crumbling, of course, and trees grow up out of the once manicured ground. Nice installation here by the French artist J.R. Perhaps not well known in America but applauded throughout the rest of the world as a photo-graffeur, J.R. wheat-pastes enlarged archival images on windows and walls. At Ellis, they lend a piquant magic to the surroundings.

How do ducks decide where to lay their eggs? Do ducks even think about it? By the way, how did a clutch of 11 eggs fit inside the womb of so diminutive a creature? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sometimes I feel like a teenager just learning about the world. And that’s something, for a wizened old woman like me. Always surprises, all around.

At Ellis Island, if you can tear your vision away from the scorching views of the lady in the harbor there are many other revelatory experiences to be had. Openings into other worlds.

But this one was not expected. I couldn’t see the mama duck, to begin with, she hid herself so well, even though I was told by a fellow Educator that she was in fact there. Then one day she appeared, and not only that, her eggs had hatched. If you know anything about ducks, you know that their eggs take about 30 days to incubate and that you should never under any circumstances try to relocate the nest, even a short distance, as the maternal progenitor might not recognize it as her own and fly the coop.

Ultimately eight brawny, uniformed members of the Parks Service came in with two by fours and built a ramp so that the mother duck could march up and out with her brood of ducklings (aka a waddle of ducklings). We’ve got it under control, the head of the team told me, a serious look on his handsome face.

Ellis is well known for processing immigrants, less famous for hosting wildlife. However, animals are abundant here, from feral cats and abandoned dogs to raccoons, a bewildered fox, geese, gulls and falcons. Also rats of course. I am hoping not to meet a raccoon on one of my tours. The critters all cross the secret bridge from Jersey, just as I do, and then I guess they like this habitat, or else they don’t know how to leave. The fowl arrive by water or air, of course.

Secrets and surprises are my favorite things. Something else I like, making mistakes. It’s humbling, and that’s how I grow.

Apparently the lady mallard nests in the same courtyard every year. The new family has to be helped out and led along the damp dank dark corridors of the contagious disease hospital to safety. And they made it.

Hooray. Nature triumphs over adversity, with a little help from burly humans. Good to know. Just watch out for hungry foxes.

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It seems they wouldn’t know a sycamore

from a sasquatch.

Peoples’ lack of knowledge about tree species comes as something of a surprise as I begin to lead tours at Ellis Island. It has dozens of mature sycamores lining a landscaped lawn just in front of the main immigration building, as well as elsewhere in the complex of 29 buildings.

Pose the question, Do you know what tree this is, and everyone draws a blank. That provides a good opportunity for me to natter on about the cream-and-brown camouflage bark, how these amazing trees grow, how impervious they are to difficult natural conditions, how old they can get. Five hundred years, I have read, though I doubt it. These are somewhere under a century old.

Elegant, substantial, even hearty. Yes, some have seen better days. Some have been cared for better than others.

There are always surprises on Ellis.

Bagpipers assembled today to celebrate Scottish-American Heritage Month.

It created a nice musical accompaniment to the opening of my tour, in which I introduce myself as a proud product of Ellis Island, having a grandfather who came to America as a child in 1900, fresh off a Polish shtetl, with nothing but five dollars in his hand. The sight of the Statue of Liberty out a hospital window would have been a surprise, even a revelation to him.

Sycamores are often called plane trees – they belong to the genus Platanus, an ancient kind of flowering tree with fossils confirming it to be at least 100 million years old. The American sycamore is Platanus occidentalis, but there are other recognizable versions, including the London plane tree that clots the sidewalks of its namesake city, yes, but also New York City. Somewhat confusingly, the London plane is a hybrid, Platanus x acerfolia, a cross between Platanus occidentalis and Platanus orientalis. I’ve heard it said that the two species sort of randomly commingled in the back yard of a London botanist some time in a previous century, but that would appear to be myth. Somebody, surely, intentionally crossed the two kinds — maybe Dickens? He knew everything about everything.

Another Ellis surprise – to me – came when I asked the guard at her post on the New Jersey end of the 400-yard back door bridge to the Island how she liked her view of the daffodils in front of her window.

Oh, is that what you call them? she asked in perfect English. I didn’t know! I texted my friend to say what’s with these crazy yellow flowers? She said to send her a pic.

Yes, they are daffodils, blooming in profusion everyplace In Liberty State Park, along the Turnpike, in our Westchester yards. Everywhere. Daffodils. New life.

The London plane tree was planted throughout London during the Industrial Revolution and it proved to be astonishingly good at thriving in the soot and smoke.

Some have called the sycamore the buttonwood tree, a name deriving from the seed balls that bounce from its branches. The terms of the New York stock exchange were hammered out in the shade of a buttonwood tree down on Wall Street in 1792. Yes, totally true story. Okay.

More current, and definitely more accurate, the trees in front of the immigration station were designated Ellis Island Sycamores in 1987 in honor of the Bicentennial of the United States constitution. At that time, the ruined, abandoned historic facility had been taken in hand, cleared of trees, poison ivy and squatters. The Guastavino ceiling tiles had been polished, buffed and restored. The landmark was about ready to receive its hundreds upon hundreds of tourists and ancestry-seekers. Welcome! Now, we care for our trees.

I have not yet established when these particular sycamores took root here. But they lend a calm and stolid presence to the many people bustling by in the quest for their own roots. The sycamores and the daffodils. Let us name them.


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The ghosts of immigrants past

congregate volubly at Ellis Island for those who would pay attention.

Some fortunate people enter through a back door bridge from Liberty State Park in New Jersey rather than the tried and true ferry.

If you insist on visiting the Statue of Liberty, fine. I’ve seen her enough and I’ll probably never scale the heights to the torch, even if it reopens. At Ellis Island there’s a nifty view of the Lady of the Harbor’s back.

But there’s a lot I find more thrilling. It’s good to stoke up with a humous and kale sandwich in a café thronged with high school students. Check out the ho-hum view out an ordinary window. Just the Freedom Tower, up close and personal.

But nothing at Ellis Island is ho-hum for long. The high-ceilinged, well-refurbished, shiny Great Hall offers a view of how some of our ancestors arrived in America. One in four of us, in fact, have some tie to an immigrant who arrived here on Ellis.

If you take the Hard Hat Tour on the unrestored south side of the island, be prepared for a different view.

And this is why I love it. You can feel the presence of the past. The walls breathe magic.

There are 29 structures on the south side that have long since fallen into ruin, and lucky visitors get to go behind the scenes and see it all. The fantastic organization Save Ellis Island raises funds to restore the complex, and there is a long way to go. In the meantime, being there means immersion in a fever dream.

These were all hospital buildings, constructed in the most up-to-date manner, with proper ventilation.

Our guide points overhead to where the nurses lodged, in a bunk room we are not now permitted to enter because of its fragile state.

It was a mandate that all nurses be single. There were four female doctors on the premises as well. But the story becomes largely about nurses and the children they cared for, in addition to the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases, the problems that detained so many immigrants here until they could be released into the general population.

We are introduced to a nurses’s station, long disappeared.

Then and now. A sick ward—can you imagine it?

Here is a visual aid.

A French artist named JR created blown-up images from photos taken at Ellis in its heyday, then wheat-pasted installations throughout.

This was the era’s version of a psych ward. Spooky.

American sycamores across the site received the designation “Ellis Island Sycamores” in 1987 to honor the Bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, and their seeds are now being propagated. It’s said some of these trees get to be 500 years old. The name is derived from the Greek sukomoros, a type of fig native to the Mediterranean. The leaves of the sycamore resemble fig leaves.

Here on the south side of the island, the practices of arboriculture need a bit of attention. Pruning shears, anyone?

I would like to offer my attention. And in fact I plan to spend much more time among the ghosts of Ellis Island as an Educator, leading these Hard Hat Tours. I can’t wait.


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