Tag Archives: Old Croton Aqueduct

A bent tree and a black butterfly

figured prominently in my hike along the northern section of the Old Croton Aqueduct on a day so early in spring that only a few plants were peeping up green.

Also peeping up reddish-brown with yellow streaks, in the case of skunk cabbage.

One of my favorite plants, the skunk cabbage enjoys an interesting chemistry which allows it to create its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts, and always comes dressed in some of my favorite colors. It could be an official Pantone Color of the Year. (The Pantone Color Institute Program, begun in 1999, previously has included such boring hues as Classic Blue and Tangerine Tango.) Once popularized thus, you could buy a ball gown or paint your walls with it. Actually, the Pantone Color of the Year has already been chosen for 2023, and it is Viva Magenta, which is not that far off.

So then, the Color of the Tear for 2024! Skunk Cabbage. It may be poisonous for us, but pollinators find it delicious.

I was fortunate on the OCA trail to have naturalist Diane Alden as my guide. Some years ago, Diane showed me around Wildflower Island at Teatown, a gorgeous place that you can’t visit unless you tour it privately, they are so dedicated to not mashing down the precious horticulture. Here we saw a white wood aster just poking out.

Wild plants are Diane’s passion, and she has devoted herself to rooting out invasives on the OCA trail so that native flora can flourish. I don’t believe I had ever set foot on this northern portion, which soars above the Croton River Gorge.

Since 2014, Diane’s initiative with Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (she’s a board member) she has had a great deal of success, pulling in tons of volunteers of all ages, especially on I Love My Parks Day every spring.

On our promenade, I saw some familiar things I knew the names of, as well as those I’ve seen a million times but couldn’t name, and those I’d never even noticed. It was that kind of a walk, when all your synapses are wide open and you want to commit every observation to memory.

Diane pointed out Christmas ferns, which it turns out has the remarkable ability to self mulch.

Lift off the new growth to find the old fronds mouldering underneath, ingeniously protecting the roots. Diane pointed out some rushes, and reminded me of the lyric that helps naturalists differentiate grass-like specimens in lieu of an ID book: Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, Grasses have nodes all the way to the ground. We talked about lichen.

This one is crustose, one of three major kinds. There are also the foliose and the fructicose. Lichens are a type of symbiotic organism made up of a plantlike partner and a fungus. Known colloquially as smokey-eye boulder lichen, the one we saw featured an exquisite tapestry of tiny dots if you bothered to take a close up view.

Crustose, Diane said, “can’t peel off.” Guess that’s a handy survival tactic.

Just then a mourning cloak butterfly appeared. “That’s the first I’ve seen this year!” said Diane. I could not capture it with my camera, it swooped and flitted so fast, but I did Google the species later.

Nymphalis antiopa, native to both Eurasia and North America. has a name which came over with Scandinavian or German rather than British settlers. There is a cool historical nugget concerning the species. British lepidopterist L. Hugh Newman ran a butterfly farm in Kent that supplied the creatures for Sir Winston Churchill’s enjoyment and also wrote many popular books in the 1940s and 50s (Butterfly Haunts, Butterfly Farmer, Butterflies of the Fields and Lanes, Hills and Heathlands… and so on). He likened the wing’s pattern to a girl who disliked having to dress in drab mourning clothes and defiantly let a few inches of bright hem show below her black dress. I like just about all defiance, so I love this butterfly.

We walked by the bane of the invasive-eradicator’s existence, multiflora rose bushes, just now beginning to leaf out.

Native to Asia, the multiflora rose first came to the U.S. in the 1860s, when it was employed by a well-meaning but somewhat naïve horticultural industry as an ornamental garden plant. Fast forward to the 1930s, when the USDA Soil Conservation Service thought it would provide a nice natural barrier to roaming farm animals (a “living fence”). Well, the bush skedaddled out of any confines that ever held it back, and has since been classified as a noxious weed in many states. Scores of volunteers have pricked their fingers pulling out the shrub along this trail.

Diane described garlic mustard, which “exudes a fungicide so we are eager to eradicate it to preserve our valuable mushrooms that are so important to the health of the forest.” Also, those “pretty little yellow flowers all along the edges of the trail” are lesser celandine, and they crowd out the much more beautiful wild violet.

Invasive plants have no natural enemies. Even the deer eschew them. Diane pointed out a stalk of the particularly evil wild raspberry, whose sumptuous fruits I have sampled many times but which wreak havoc with birds’ digestive systems, “kind of like junk food.” It’s nearly as bad as porcelain berry, and that’s saying something. I wondered if well-meaning invasive whackers ever yank up anything good by mistake. Diane told me that once a fellow who had not been adequately trained proudly displayed a plant he had ripped out by the roots, believing it to be porcelain berry. Sad ending, it was actually a rare doll’s eyes plant.

We want the birds to eat good foods and prosper! As if on cue, a lovely little nest appeared.

Something that survives when Diane’s volunteers succeed are intricate stone walls dating back to the mid-1800s. These have the most beautifully pink-streaked quartz.

Robert Frost is famous for these lines:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Recognizing that historic walls are vulnerable, the Friends commandeered stone mason George Cabrera to shore them up. I had to confess to Diane that I love old, tumbling-down structures better than any tidied-up restoration. But the farmers who originally assembled these stones – probably employing the same stonemasons who built the underground Aqueduct itself – would have repaired them so that they would last forever. So it only makes sense to honor their efforts by doing so now.

Speaking of stone, we passed through rock that was split apart by gunpowder at the time the Aqueduct was installed, between 1837 and 1842. Yes, gunpowder.

Diane pointed to chutes cored out from above where the powder would be dropped down and ignited. Boom! Impressive technology predating dynamite’s invention by Alfred Nobel in 1867.

We passed some incredible trees. A broken off trunk with loads of character and a nice hidey hole at its base. Dead trees often go underappreciated for their important role as habitat.

A soaring hemlock. Hello up there!

I remember asking a more seasoned arborist if losing all those lower branches meant the tree was dying. The answer: No, the tree just wants to conserve its energy in order to keep growing. And, as Diane pointed out, to reach for the sunlight. Trees, as usual, are smart.

Some impressive roots here too.

And a sight that struck me as almost too amazing. A branch bent up at a right angle. Was this just an unusual growth habit? Sometimes trees do grow in ways that might be construed as strange – say, conjoined trees, my favorite. This might be different, though.

Could it possibly be what is called a Trail or Marker Tree, or more technically a Culturally Modified Tree? These specimens, which curve and grow sideways at such an impossible angle, often turned sharply up toward the sky, are historical curiosities found all around the country, whether out in the woods or in city parks or front yards.

Experts say that CMT’s once helped the Native Americans who trained their growth find safe paths through rough forests and locate river crossings or natural springs, shelter or encampments Tom Belt of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma explained their purpose: “The bending of trees was essentially part of a great highway system that allowed people from many tribes to interact with each other, and there was an inordinate amount of trade going on.”

I don’t know if the one on the trail today was a Marker Tree, but I want to believe.

We racewalked back, late to meet a friend for lunch. Diane’s house has a rapturous view of the Hudson, dozens of birds attendant at the bird feeder – she tracks their comings and goings daily – and one hundred or so thriving houseplants. She offered to gift me with one. Would I prefer a walking iris or a jade plant? Decisions, decisions. Once, long ago, I kept a jade plant that I sadly, shall we say, undernurtured. I figured I’d make atonement for that fiasco this time around.

The jade plant has taken up residence on my office window sill. If you peer out the window into the distance, the ridge you see is the top of the Palisades. Not a Hudson River view, but close enough on this day of small but impressive sights in early spring.

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Is the High Bridge redundant?

The High Bridge is indeed pretty high.

It soars 138 feet above the Harlem River, with a length of 1,450 feet. But how often have you seen a low bridge? Really? Perhaps the bridge skipped across by the three billy goats gruff.

Or the Bow Bridge enjoyed by rowers in Central Park.

In any case, when this High Bridge first went up over the Harlem River in 1848 it duplicated nothing. It was a blast of the new.

Remnants of that time exist when you walk its length between the Bronx and Manhattan today.

Small details, relics of an earlier time. An original gate house.

A decorative detail. A doodad, if you want to get technical.

The High Bridge, an engineering marvel, brought the miracle of fresh drinking water by gravity from upstate New York to New York City in the form of the Old Croton Aqueduct, with a source that originated 41miles north in Westchester County.

It took an incredibly brief five years to construct the Aqueduct, which was largely the painstaking work of expert stonemasons specifically brought over to the U.S.  from Southern Italy.

Fear of disease, especially cholera, drove city planners to import pure water. When it gushed forth in the island’s first decorative fountain in City Hall Park on October 14, 1842,  the people celebrated.

“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” read the article in The New York Times

Author Lydia Maria Child exclaimed: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!” It even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step.”

The new High Bridge, designed by John B. Jervis, had 15 Roman-style masonry arches. When completed, it was the longest bridge in America.

Earlier, the site had been farmland, owned by such settlers as the Morris family, remaining undeveloped until bought by New York City in order to install the bridge. It is the city’s oldest.

The bridge itself immediately proved a destination for strollers.

Much like the Reservoir at 42nd street, also fed by the Old Croton Aqueduct – now occupied by the Research Library and Bryant Park –  where the uppertens liked to promenade.

You can still see a chunk of the Reservoir’s granite if you search it out in the Library’s substrata.

For a century, the High Bridge existed as a tourist attraction. In 1899, Jesse Lynch Williams of Scribner’s Magazine wrote: “There is a different feeling in the air up along this best-known end of the city’s water-front. The small, unimportant looking winding river, long distance views, wooded hills, green terraces, and even the great solid masonry of High Bridge…help to make you feel the spirit of freedom and outdoors and relaxation. This is the tired city’s playground.” Restaurants and beer gardens sprang up on both banks.

In 1927, the architecture of the bridge changed, when engineers replaced five of its arches with a single steel span that would allow larger vessels to use the waterway.

A few decades after the bridge went up, a hexagonal water tower was constructed as the city expanded northwards and the Aqueduct’s gravity-based system proved not strong enough to deliver water to the higher elevations, especially as flush toilets came into use. The tower contained a 47,000-gallon iron tank. One contemporary critic has called it “more picturesque than beautiful.” Okay, if you say so. It still stands proud over Washington Heights, though its reservoir has been reduced to a swimming pool.

I want to take you higher: Sly and the Family Stone. If you’re feeling blue, this is not the place to go to resolve your life by suicide. A preventive fence takes the High Bridge even higher.

 At the Washington Heights terminus, a chunk of rock finds itself displayed.

Is it Manhattan schist or is it Manhattan gneiss? Does it matter? One is schist as gneiss as the other, has Gil likes to remind me.

When you walk the neighborhood streets you can see how the rock was blasted away to make for sidewalks.

Water flow to the city via the Aqueduct ceased in 1958. The bridge closed in 1970, partly due to incidents of pedestrians throwing over sticks, stones and bricks that seriously injured passengers on Circle Line tour boats making their way up the river. Highways came to dominate the old majestic view. In 1972 the bridge and water tower went on the National Register of Historic Places, but the site continued to atrophy.

Restored in the past decade at a cost of 61 million dollars – it originally cost 950,000 to build – the High Bridge has been a park since 1937 and is now managed by the NYC Parks Department.

Landscaped areas on either side of the bridge afford the customary parks accoutrements, places for chess or checkers, depending on your skill level.

The neighborhood, its once-bucolic nature hard to fathom today, still sports some distinctions.

Plenty of yucca.

If you need some Bronx-style sustenance at the eastern end of your High Bridge promenade.


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When I said my favorite color was brown

one time, everybody laughed.

In writing class, teachers use a prompt to get everybody’s creative juices flowing. I hiked the Old Croton Aqueduct trail today, using brown as a prompt.

The familiar sandy light brown soil. Hadn’t been here for a while. The sound of the mid-afternoon breeze rustling the leaves, late summer insects’ buzz. Black cherry trunks snake up, brown.

Underfoot, my own personal school-days madeleine, a horse chestnut, glossy brown in its miracle of a small spiky package. 

Sun-browned old brick from one of the brickyards along the Hudson, a booming business back in the day.

Across the river, the light brown strip of the Piermont marshes, ancient, brackish, mysterious in a canoe.

Thinking about dog-nose brown.

Iced-coffee brown. Always great, but especially when consumed recently at MoMa before paying homage to Matisse’s magnificent canvas The Red Studio.

I’m not saying how much coffee I drink, only that if it keeps me up, the more interesting thoughts I get to have. Recently stumped by midnight riddle: what would happen if you combined orange soda with grape soda? The answer? Plenty of sugar buzz. But also the color brown, carbonated.

Thinking about young-hair brown.

On the trail, wizened mulberry trunk brown. Where I live, somebody petitioned the Village wanting to remove an elderly specimen from their property, saying the fallen berries were “messy.” Really? Messy is good, it’s what makes us alive.

I love mulberry trees with their misshapen mitten leaves.

Brown shadows. In the immortal lyrics of John Prine, Shadows. Shadows!

Fungi brown.

Fruiting bodies, if you want to sound like a supercool arborist.

Thinking of cattail brown.

Peegee hydrangeas’ pink tinged ever so slightly brown.

Oak leaves verdant, still, yet stems and acorn cap brown.

Grey cherry trunk with its delicate brown lenticels, my favorite feature, the stitch-like pores that allow oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.

Finally, coming home, the brown face of a late-summer sunflower.

You may have your run-of-the-mill rainbows. I will take my beautiful brown all around.


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