Tag Archives: Nature

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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How old were you

when you first noticed flowering trees? Think about it.

I had an apple tree in my back yard when I was a kid and I sure never noticed its blossoms. Later, living in my 20s on Manhattan’s upper west side, where the medians were a jungle of pear trees, I remember having the certain knowledge that all the blooms popped open the same night. It was a romantic view and I was a romantic.

Much later, when we lived in the Cabin, we had a magnolia that survived a late winter storm, but one hefty branch fell off, into the marsh below.

It was early spring, the tree was still in bud, and as the weather warmed up, the fallen branch blossomed as generously as the tree itself. It was another kind of romance, the romance of a miracle.

What flowering tree did you see first?

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Take one step

in the desert and you see something astounding. I am parched. I crave liquid, anything, water, iced coffee, beer. Desert plants thrive in the heat of the sun. Without water, they ooze color. Yellow desert marigold, a member of the aster family.

The flame of indian paintbrush.

Or these more delicate desert mallow.

Textures seem improbable, like the flirty catkins of the mesquite.

Or the haunted-house barbs of the fishhook cactus.

The prickly pear, just on the verge of busting out.

Back home on the east coast, so far away, the pretty cherries are in bloom. Daffodils mildly wave their snouts. Forsythia, rich but somehow insipid, you can find it at the edge of all the roads.

Here there is drama.

The blue bell jar of sky covers everything. Magnifies it all. Holds you as if you are pinned, gape-mouthed, in thirst and in awe.

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An Ichthyologist’s delight

The Hudson River Almanac, compiled by a sage named Tom Lake, covers the Hudson River and everything that flies above it, swims in it or roams its banks, from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to New York Harbor. “It seeks to capture the river’s spirit, magic and science by presenting observations from many individuals who delight in the diversity of nature in the Hudson Valley.” It’s crowd-sourced by a bunch a nature nuts. Dip in and have a happy day.

To illustrate, recently the “Fish of the Week” was the northern stargazer. I had never heard of it but once introduced couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Ichthyologist C. Lavett Smith, I learned, calls the northern stargazer “a bizarre fish.” They are somewhat like the oyster toadfish and somewhat like the goosefish. “They have a nearly vertical mouth surrounded by fringed lips,” The Hudson River Almanac tells me. “Much of their body mass is in their head and they will eat pretty much whatever they can fit in their huge mouth. They bury themselves in the sand with their eyes and mouth sticking out just enough, aimed skyward (star-ward) and wait for prey. When something appealing swims by, the stargazer uses its large mouth to create a vacuum to suck it in.”

Also, these appealing creatures have an organ in their head that can deliver an electric charge that can stun prey and perhaps ward off predators. Their genus, Astroscopus, comes from Latin as one that “aims at the stars.” Their trivial name, guttatus, comes from Latin as “speckled,” like raindrops.

To subscribe to this always surprising publication, go here: Hudson River Almanac . In the meantime, keep your fingers and toes in the boat.

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