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The Hopes of Snakes: And Other Tales from the Urban Landscapeby Lisa Couturier
Reversing the Tides
The story is told in my family that when I was a year old my parents took me to the beach at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which from the shoreline has a view of Manhattan. They took me out to the edge, where the sand meets the rocks, marking the intersection of Sandy Hook Bay, Lower New York Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. My father lifted me up on his shoulders and my parents pointed to New York City. They say I looked. They say I saw the city then, on a clear day.
For many years I lived in Manhattan, and every day I walked to the East River — which, although big and wide as most people might imagine a river to be, is technically a tidal strait and part of the larger Hudson estuary ecosystem that surrounds Manhattan. On my walks to the river, the wind, carrying the water?s salt scent, surrounded me; and I was pulled to its estuarine currents. To get near the river's side I walked along a tar path that began at the end of my street and wound through a manicured park, around the mayor?s mansion, and over a small grassy hill. Coming to the top of the hill, I always anticipated what the water would be like at my favorite spot on the river — Hell Gate, named so for the tangling of tides that mix here: the Atlantic tide travels up the Manhattan arm of the East River to collide with the tide of the Long Island Sound and the current of the Harlem River. Some days the tides looked as though they were fighting. Dark olive green waters hit and chopped at each other and swirled and spiraled all at once. Other times nothing, every drop of water seemed to be just strolling along, friendly — as if water could sigh. I cleared the hill, walked under an American basswood tree growing in a triangle of grass, and stopped to let the wind blow over me. I took the air into my body, consciously swallowed it, gave my lungs — my entire being — a fix of the river's essence.
The smell of the water was as close as I could get to the river itself. There was no access, no great green shoreline. Looking at the river was more like looking at a mangy pound dog when you really wanted to see a shiny-furred, well-muscled purebred, its tail wagging. This body of water, like most of the waters around New York City, is for the most part surrounded by the dirty environment of the human world — fuel tanks, abandoned buildings, highways, skyscrapers, and such. But recently a bit of nature's more wild presence has returned to the river: butterflies, seaweed swaying over rocks, seagulls laughing, Canada geese flying in their autumn V, striped bass passing through from the Long Island Sound to the Hudson River, snapping turtles who've survived, somehow and somewhere, over the last four centuries in New York waters, American eels who swim to the Sargasso Sea to lay their eggs and whose young make the thousand-mile return trip to the city, peregrine falcons who nest twenty blocks downriver but hunt and fly up near where I lived, cormorants, herons, and egrets.
When I was by the river, which itself was so stripped — of its wetlands, of its shoreline, of its purity through pollution and abuse — I shed my own urban skin, a general impatience with things slow-moving, to listen to the movement of the river and to its waves against the rocks. The rippling of the water soothed me, as though its sound fused with my blood to calm me. Often, when the sun reflected pink and orange on the river in early evening, flocks of starlings or sparrows exploded out from the park's trees and circled out over the water as though they were riding an airborne roller coaster. They flew back over me, their wings beating against their bodies, and returned to the park. As the sky darkened, the birds settled in for the night and I began my walk home, envious that the birds, unlike me, were safe in the park at night by the river. If it was a summer evening, I left the river's side during a concert of cricket song with a light show of fireflies.
It's been a while since I stopped being surprised by nature in New York City, which is, after all, simply a name we've given this landscape — label meaningless to the birds, the turtles, the river. Besides, writes James Hillman, the Jungian psychologist, the "Greek word for city, polis,...draws from a pool of meanings related to water...polis locates city in the wet regions of the soul....We need but remember that the city, the metro-polis means at root a streaming, flowing, thronging Mother. We are her children, and she can nourish our imaginations if we nourish hers."
Walking the river's promenade and looking across at Roosevelt Island, I think of a local legend, Thomas Maxey. He knew something about the wet regions of his soul, from whence his feelings and dreams informed his life and helped him nourish the riverscape. It is said he was a bit of a madman who was quite fond of birds. Shortly after the Civil War, Maxey built a fort at the tip of Roosevelt Island, just below Hell Gate; and in front of the fort, he erected a gate that was somehow designed to be used as a nesting site for wild geese. On the gate he wrote this message: I INVITE THE FOWLS AND THE BIRDS OF THE AIR TO ENTER.
Could it be that Maxey wasn't mad, just in love with the birds and the river? Perhaps he simply sensed what writer Thomas Moore says now: "Maybe one function of love is to cure us of an anemic imagination, a life emptied of romantic attachment and abandoned to reason."
Of course there must be biological reasons why the animals have returned to the East River — a body of water that, according to some accounts, was so toxic it would burn a ships hull clean if the ship was docked in the river for a few days. Even as recently as the 1950s, sewage and pollutants from manufacturing plants were poured into the river. And it wasn't until the Clean Water Act of 1972 that New York finally stopped thinking of the river as its toilet. Until then people were dumping raw sewage into it daily. (Even now, when it rains more than an inch and a half, sewage treatment plants along the river overflow into it.) And today, although there are still PCBs and other toxins in the river's sediments, the East River is staging a comeback, which, according to local news reports, has environmental officials somewhat mystified. Nevertheless, oxygen levels are up; coliform bacteria (indicating the level of sewage) is down; amphipods — food for fish — are back, as are the crabs and minnows herons feed on; apparently, biodiversity is on the rise.
The river is making enormous changes, as is the city. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection reportedly has invested over a billion dollars to research the contamination of the East River and other parts of the estuary.
Environmental science: What is it but a way to rationalize our longings for interdependence and interrelationship?
Environmental legislation: What is it if not a desire for deep change, a kind of compassion for the earth?
For years I thought of the East River as nothing more than a polluted, liquefied roadway on which rode huge foreign tankers, garbage barges, speedboats, the yachts of the rich, and a few sailboats. Now I stand alongside Hell Gate, breathing the river into me, gazing at it, waiting for its turtles, geese, herons — the innocents we more often associate with Heaven's Gate. Thomas Berry, the eco-theologian and cultural historian, says that by pursuing what we love — our allurements — we help bind the universe together. Am I a madwoman now to think, like Maxey, that my allurement for the river might help her call in her creatures?
As a tugboat chugs down the river, I see a cormorant sitting on a dilapidated pier. It's not far from where I recently saw a snapping turtle swimming close to the surface of the water and almost mist took it for a deflated, discarded soccer ball. The cormorant extends his black wings to dry in the sunlight, and from the back looks much like the silhouette of Dracula. I watch him and remember the time I spent three years ago traveling through the underworld of the East River?s sister waterway: the Arthur Kill. It is the place from whence the cormorant had flown, a place where all my ideas of nature as resplendent were abducted from me.
It is the faintest of sounds — a tiny tic, tic, tic — I hear as I hold to my ear an egg from which a seagull chick is pipping.
I am on the pebbly, scrubby, sandy shoreline of an island in the Arthur Kill — another large tidal strait in the Hudson estuary that runs through a polluted wetland along the western side of New York City's Staten Island, separating it from New Jersey. It is the end of my second summer as a volunteer assistant to two biologists for the Harbor Herons Project, and today we are searching for Canada goose nests. The search is a break in our usual routine of studying the more glamorous and elusive long-legged wading birds who, since the seventies, have made a miraculous comeback in the wooded interiors of isolated islands in the East River and the Arthur Kill.
As I place the seagull chick back into its nest on the shore, I silently laugh at myself for missing the messy research we do in the heronry. Going into the birds' seasonal nesting area as quickly and quietly as possible, we gently lift the baby birds from their nests in gray birches and quaking aspens to weigh and measure them. We handle just a small sample of the nestlings of the four thousand great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, little blue herons, blackcrowned night herons, green-backed herons, yellow-crowned night herons, and glossy ibis who are living and raising their young quite invisibly within the boundaries of New York City. We count how many young are born and how many fledge. The birds are what is called an "indicator species" — as they are at the top of the food chain in their environment, their health indicates the health of the estuary.
Across from the heronry and the seagull nest, on the New Jersey side of the Kill, the giants of the oil and chemical companies — DuPont, CITGO, American Cyanamid, Exxon, and others — make house. Their huge white storage tanks stand silent in the tall, lime green salt-marsh grasses, while their smokestacks spew out EPAapproved amounts of waste into the air over the marsh.
The history of the Arthur Kill, like that of the East River, should render it essentially lifeless from centuries of oil spills, raw sewage, and chemical dumping. The soft turf of the marsh has absorbed, and will continue to absorb, numerous oil spills that have caused the collapse of the fragile and already badly bruised ecosystem. Only recently has the Kill begun to bounce back. Still, when I glance down at my footprints in the sand I see oil that will persist for decades. It is buried but not benign.
I picture the mother herons fishing in the shallow depths of the Kill, their long bills poised to skewer fish, crab, shrimp: invertebrates who themselves have ingested the toxic and carcinogenic oils. The poison will be passed on, and in part explains why many of our nestlings fail to survive.
Scattered along the shore and hidden in the marsh grasses is a veritable Wal-Mart of used plastic products: empty plastic containers of dishwashing detergent, shampoo, yogurt, toilet-bowl cleaner, and Chinese takeout, as well as balls, toys, kitchen sinks, anything and everything I could ever imagine having in an apartment. The trash has slipped off garbage barges that every day carry more than ten thousand tons of New York City's trash through the New York Harbor and down the Arthur Kill to be dumped in the world?s largest landfill that, as it happens, sits next to the heronry.
Not far from the hatching seagull are children's baby dolls. They dot the shoreline. One is stranded in the stark sunlight, halfburied in the sand with a hand in the air. Another is missing its eyes and a leg. A third is just a head. We are several women on this island investigating the birth of birds, and we are of course acquainted with dolls, symbolic plastic bundles of the life within us — our own children, healthy, happy, living in a world abundant. But there is something sinister about the dolls' presence here, as though they are lost little ambassadors from the human world, living not in a foreign country but in humanity's damaged future.
On the days when our work with the baby herons is finished, we emerge from the heronry carrying an assortment of dog ticks on our bodies and splattered with what we call "splooj" (the word for the large and liquid bowel movements of baby birds), bird pee, and regurgitant (which is often a concoction of undigested invertebrates or, if it's that of cattle egret or black-crowned night heron mothers, maybe a few pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken or a small mouse or two that mom plucked from the landfill).
But I also carry a gift: an intimacy with the spirits, sounds, and touches of birds. The snowy egret nestlings, so fearful even as I try to calm them, wrap their long reptilian-skinned toes around my fingers in an effort, I guess, to feel safe. The excruciatingly shy glossy ibis lay limp in my lap while I stroke their dark brown feathers. And although the black-crowned night herons assertively nip at me, I admire their aggressiveness; it helps them survive. The colors, habits, feathers, pecks, personalities, smells, movements, eyes, and cries of these birds are inside of me. I, quite simply, love them.
Tic, tic, tic. The seagull chick works tirelessly in the late morning sun to release itself. Using the powerful hatching muscles that run along the back of its neck and head, it is able to force a special egg tooth (a sort of temporary hatchet that has grown on the chick?s upper mandible) against its beige and brown speckled shell to break it open — bit by bit by bit.
It is time to search for goose nests. As I gather up my binoculars and notebooks, I realize that after traveling through the Arthur Kill for two summers, I have given up trying to hate it. It both stuns and offends me. I cannot describe the chick's place of birth as ugly or beautiful: such labels seem too simple. I walk away from the chick knowing only that I feel deeply for this wasteland, where through the births of birds I've witnessed a kind of magic.
. . .
The tugboat on the East River sounds a loud honk to a passing oil freighter and the cormorant flies off to animate the sky. Another day and still no snapping turtle. Tomorrow I will wait again.
My attachment to the East River has nothing to do with dipping my toes into it, with skipping stones over it, with riding it on an inner tube, with swimming it, with cooling my face with a splash of it, with walking along its shores, with even sitting close to it the way I imagine rural folk might do on lazy summer afternoons.
I feel sympathy for the East River, for everything it has lost, but I love it for the same reason I love the Arthur Kill: for its magic. In all their woundedness, these resilient waterways are managing to give life. I can't accept the injuries New Yorkers have caused this estuary, but I feel there's a need to cherish what is left.
Who knows, maybe when my father lifted me up on his shoulders all those years ago, my eyes focused not on the city, but on its surrounding dark and damaged olive green waters.
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