Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Looking for Nature in New York City

This summer I worked as an Urban Park Ranger with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. I was stationed at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. I entered the Bronx in late May with particular expectations about what I would find there: in terms of the environment, I expected to witness much pollution, over-development, brownfields, basically a wasted landscape. I also expected to find a population ambivalent, if not insensitive, to "nature." But what I found by the end of August was radically different than this imagined understanding of the Bronx and its people that I had once thought true.

A beautiful summer day in heron habitat at Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx

Exploring the Urban Forest

So, the Bronx. It turns out that the Bronx has the highest percentage of parkland as compared to any other borough in New York City (the Bronx is about 25% parkland!). I was assigned to work at Van Cortlandt Park. This park, over 1,000 contiguous acres of land, contains many layers of environmental history: first, it belonged to the local Lenape people, the original human settlers of the Bronx. They referred to this area by the name Ranaqua (spelling varies) which according to some source I read somewhere means "the peninsula." The Bronx is a peninsula: it is the southern tip of the North American mainland, surrounded on all sides by the Hudson River, Harlem River, and Long Island Sound. Everything south of Ranaqua is islands; the Bronx is therefore the only mainland borough of New York City, and because of this, it receives immigrant species from upstate with greater ease than do its neighbor boroughs. For example, deer and coyote are more frequently found in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city (although coyotes have been known to cross bridges at night into Manhattan).

The second layer of the park's environmental history concerns the Van Cortlandt family. The Van Cortlandts settled the land in the 1740s and built a mansion there (which still stands). Other elements of the Van Cortlandt's history extant in the landscape are the family's burial vault on "Vault Hill" and the old cemetery between the mansion and the lake that is now almost unrecognizable (but I was able to find over ten gravestones still poking out from the soil). A great field exists in the Van Cortlandt Mansion's backyard: they likely grew grains there in the eighteenth century. It is believed that Lenape had a settlement there even earlier. Near this field, and through the park, run Tibbetts Brook and the Mosholu River (but I could never figure, with all the highway development, whether these were the same waterway or separate ones). In the mid-eighteenth century the Van Cortlandts dammed the waterway and created a lake; the lake is still there (now the largest freshwater lake in the borough).

A catalpa tree (or something like it) hangs over the lake which the Van Cortlandts created in the eighteenth century

Another view of Van Cortlandt Lake; this is where we go canoeing!

The third layer, the nineteenth century, brought a New York to Boston railroad line (the New York and Putnam Railroad) straight through the Van Cortlandt's property. The old railroad line is now a bike path and the old railroad bridges that crisscross the lake are favorite fishing spots. In the 1870s and 80s, as New York City was growing too large for Manhattan, parts of the Bronx were annexed to the city, and in 1888 part of the old Van Cortlandt property was turned into a city park: Van Corltandt Park. Then, in the 1890s, a large part of the park was transformed into a golf course (the oldest public golf course in the United States).

One of the old railroad bridges crossing Van Cortlandt Lake

The twentieth century brought another layer of environmental history to the park, mostly due to the power of one man: Robert Moses. He built a system of highways that crisscrossed the park (he called them "parkways" because drivers were supposed to enjoy the scenery while driving by - but how many New Yorkers actually do that??). His highways cut off the Northwest forest from the central Parade Ground and cut off the west side of the park from the east. He built steps and staircases to allow park visitors access to all areas of the park despite the highways, but in a sense, he compartmentalized the property into quadrants, defined by the roads that took people through the park but not necessarily to the park. Furthermore, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, "white flight" (especially from the Bronx; especially by the Bronx's Jewish families who left for the suburbs) drove many of the Bronx's neighborhoods to economic unsustainability. Indeed, by the 1970s the whole city was bankrupt. Therefore, funding was not available to help keep parks green and safe, and they became (not just in the Bronx, but citywide) places for increased illegal dumping and criminal activity.

The New York City Urban Park Rangers were established in 1979 as a uniformed presence in the parks to make people feel safe. Over the past three decades the agency has evolved so that rangers now spend most of their time leading free public programs for parks visitors and school groups. Park visitors can join the rangers on hikes through the park to look for birds or for wildflowers, on canoeing excursions on lakes and in bays, and even on overnight camping trips! As a ranger this past summer I had the opportunity to engage in, and lead, many of these activities.

A good old-fashioned campfire right here in the Bronx!

Sunrise over the Parade Ground, Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx

Once the sun came up, the dew on the grass was quite apparent!

I was surprised by two things that I discovered about the Bronx this summer as a ranger: I was surprised by its nature, and by its people. I will proceed to say a bit about each discovery in turn.


Our common ideas about cities, and about New York and the Bronx in particular, include an understanding that cities develop in spite of nature and that nothing close to "wild" nature can survive side-by-side with eight million people, this noise, these skyscrapers. But I have always wondered, if so many people desire to live in a big city like New York, and we have the same requirements for survival as any other biological species does, why should we be so surprised if other species also want to live here? The concept of the city is not so foreign to other species: indeed, we are all familiar with colonial insects (that is, insects that live in colonies) such as ants and bees. They may not practice the same type of politics as we do (bees live in a sort of gendered monarchy where males are sex slaves!), but nonetheless these insects have discovered that their civilization succeeds best under conditions of urban living. Urbanity, on the other hand, is relatively new (just so many thousands of years old) for humans, but nonetheless, we have proven that a lot of good can come from urbanity: for example, urbanity allowed for humans to divvy up work responsibilities so that rather than each family providing for itself and doing little more, some families farmed while others were freed to engage in creative artisanal or intellectual labor, thus advancing arts and sciences for the benefit of all humanity. Or so the standard narrative of human history goes.

Anyway, I do not intend here to make an extended argument for the "natural"-ness, or even the general merits, of urbanity. Rather, my point is that cities are not an inherent hindrance to nature, and for some species, cities appear in fact to be a paradise of sorts.

I needed to learn more about plant and animal identification before I could adequately judge what New York City's nature was like, so I started off the summer with a field guide, Leslie Day's Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. One of the first new animals I was able to identify in the city thanks to this guide was the red-winged blackbird. Viewing these blackbirds over the course of the summer, I have learned that they prefer to live near water, in marshy areas; they nest in cattails and in phragmites. They are very territorial. If I approach a red-winged blackbird nest, the male swoops by and makes a holler. One day I saw an egret in the water get too close to a red-winged blackbird nest (or series of nests) and two males kept zipping by and hollering, trying to scare the egret away; the egret was seemingly unmoved by it all. I always enjoyed seeing different species interacting together. In another instance, I saw a heron on a log in the marsh, with a wood duck sitting close by, and a painted turtle sitting next to the duck. I wondered how these three different individuals felt about sharing this same log together. Did they feel as I do in the subway car, amazed by the great diversity of people in our city, and thankful, rather than resentful, that I am forced to share space with them? They were not curious about each other; indeed, when the painted turtle suddenly fell off into the water, the other two creatures did not even stir to look and see what had happened. I guess they were just real New Yorkers like most of us: concerned only with where they themselves were going, always ready to say "get out of my way!" but not necessarily ready to lend a hand to a stranger.

My field guide only took me so far. When it came to identifying tree leaves, I needed more advanced guides. I learned that leaves grow in either alternate or opposite formation along a tree branch; leaves also grow in either simple or compound (or twice-compound) formations. My favorite compound-leaf tree turned out to be Ailanthus, or the Tree-of-Heaven. It is a non-native species, from China, that has a distinctive peanut-butter-like smell to its leaves! Another tree, with simple alternate leaves, is Spicebush: it has a good smell too. In the marsh near the Van Cortlandt mansion we discovered a field of wild mint! I made some wild mint tea for myself one day; it wasn't half bad. There were so many smells (and tastes: such as the delicious wineberries we ate in late June and early July) that I had never encountered before.

Wild mint in Tibbett's marsh. It makes a decent tea, but for today I left it all for the bumblebees.

One of my discoveries about New York City's nature was that it contained a heck of a lot of diversity within very small areas. I had often thought that the quality of a forest or marsh could be judged by how expansive it is; if it was all I could see for miles ahead of me, with no visible human interference in the way, then I figured that this was a very healthy, "natural" place. The Bronx forced me to look closer - to see nature as more than just the aesthetically-pleasing landscape - and I found life everywhere: life that seemed to care less whether or not this was New York City or the Adirondacks. In the marsh we daily saw great egrets, great blue herons, green herons, mallard ducks, wood ducks, painted turtles, snapping turtles, dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies (and their eggs and caterpillars), lotus plants, lilies, duckweed, and small insects and birds and weeds that I could never learn all the names of. I had discovered that New York City was built right along the Atlantic flyway, and therefore migrating birds loved to visit our parks and green spaces on their journeys north and south each year. And it did not make them any worse to have to take a rest stop here, in our great metropolis. They found ample supplies of fish, insects, garbage, whatever they wanted. True, the fish in our rivers and harbors contain harmful levels of mercury, dioxins, etc., but these birds are no worse off than we are to eat the fish. I do recognize that there is an important moral question here: I recognize that we can choose whether or not we want to eat the living things that we ourselves pollute, and we can choose whether or not we want to keep polluting our food, but other living species do not have that choice. They are forced to live in the world that we alter.

And yet, even as environmental historians are always saying that nature (as an idea and as a place) are just human constructs, that the places we protect and preserve as "natural" are in fact infinitely altered and maintained by our own beliefs and behaviors, it is hard for me to see what is so human about the Bronx's nature. Of course, I do not deny the pollution I have already mentioned that harms all living things, including ourselves. I also do not deny that the very ecology of the park where I worked was as unnatural as it comes: the lake was created by a dam; much of the marsh was "reconstructed"; and we engage in a never-ending war against the non-native immigrant species who constantly arrive (just like human immigrants in New York), attempting to protect the indigenous species (I wish we tried just as hard to protect the indigenous people and languages of North America, but we don't). Sure, we were and are creating nature in the Bronx and in New York City every day: we are making it how we think it should be, according to our own ideas about nature. But despite all this, there is a nature there that prevails: while eight million of us do our day-to-day activities all across the city today as I write, so do untold millions of other living things go about their day-to-day, and we cannot control them.

If I came away with any new discovery about nature in New York City from this summer, it is that eight million people and a huge bureaucratic government and unbridled dreams of endless economic "progress" still cannot control life for the coyotes, for the raccoons, for the chipmunks, for the herons, for the eagles, for the grasshoppers, for the cicadas, and for all the other non-human animals that call New York City home (or have one of many homes here). Yes, we have an impact on the natural world of New York City, but so does the natural world of New York City have an impact on us. We live together, in a great circle, in a great, green city, and we are way too proud, I think, if we are to say that we control nature.


My second great discovery of the summer is this: the people of the Bronx are not all ambivalent about, or insensitive about, the nature that surrounds them. Remember that the Bronx has more parkland than any other borough of the city. Sure, there are probably some families that stay inside all day playing video games and do not experience the nature that is available to them; and it is also true that some residents, especially in the South Bronx, live in concrete jungles, with very little parkland nearby to enjoy. Not everyone in New York City lives next to over 1,000 acres of forest and marsh as the neighbors of Van Cortlandt Park do (I surely don't). So I must admit that my observations here are limited to those people who did regularly come to the park, the people of the Van Cortlandt Park neighborhood.

Much recent scholarship in environmental history has demonstrated that white, elite men have long been the engines of environmental conservation in American history. But these studies have also questioned the heroic narratives of conservation history and asked whether or not these white, elite men disadvantaged non-white and poor peoples through their conservation practices and policies. In his book Crimes Against Nature, Karl Jacoby showed how white, elite conservationists dispossessed poor white peoples and indigenous peoples from their lands in order to create "wildernesses" for the enjoyment of the higher social classes. Indeed, even here in New York City, African-Americans and Irish immigrants were evicted from their lands in the center of Manhattan island in order to create Central Park; all this for the benefit of the city's wealthy elite who wanted a park there.

What does this history mean for nature in the Bronx? Well, I am sure that when Van Cortlandt Park was founded in the 1880s that it was mostly an affluent white community that stood to take advantage. In 2010 that is no longer the case. But do today's non-white and non-affluent neighbors of the park care about the park? What does nature mean to them? Unfortunately, environmentalists (overwhelmingly white and affluent in the United States) have always seemed skeptical of the way that non-white people relate to the natural world. They are caught in a Frederick Jackson Turner mentality that our country's core values developed out of the experiences of "pioneering" white men and the nature they overcame in the great West (even though African-Americans and immigrants pioneered the U.S. West just as Anglo-Saxon Protestants did). In my lifetime I have heard many debates about "just why do blacks not enjoy or care about wilderness like we do?" Often the well-intentioned environmentalists asking these questions have come to the conclusion that love of nature is unique to each culture, that African-Americans, because of their people's history of enslaved labor in the outdoors, have a "natural" dislike for nature. (They might also ask for example: why were there only a handful of black or Hispanic Urban Park Rangers hired this summer even though about 1/4 of the city's total population is black and nearly 1/3 of the population is Hispanic?) I find that most of these discussions often overlook the fact that the best parks have long been built where the wealthy white populations can enjoy them; that housing discrimination against blacks and other non-white peoples have forced families to live in the least green areas of the city; that entrenched socio-economic differences continue to follow racial lines, and that in New York City - due to continued racial discrimination - some families are left without opportunities (not enough time or money) to leave the city to go hiking, camping, etc.

Well, what I found in the Bronx was that despite all the different conditions facing different sets of people within this city, neighbors of all backgrounds love nature - they just love it in different ways.

The rangers run a nature center in Van Cortlandt Park, and I often staffed the center. I was always amazed when kids came in to look around at our small exhibits: we had two box turtles, a slider turtle, lots of stick insects, and those were just the live exhibits. We also had many preserved insects and animals - even a stuffed coyote. The most common thing kids would say when they looked around at the exhibits was: "Is this real?" They would point at the stuffed coyote: "Is that real?" I would say "yes." But I often thought: what did they mean by "real"? It is there in front of their eyes, so how could it not be real? I realized that to them "real" nature, whether dead or alive, was a rarity. They may have learned about nature in books and on television, but this may have been the first time that had seen a "real" coyote.

And so over the summer this common refrain "is that real?" reminded me just how important this park is to its human neighbors. We would often go to a playground where kids would play under the watchful eyes of camp counselors or parents and siblings. We led craft activities, games, and in other ways found opportunities to teach about the natural world to the children at the playground. We did not twist any arms; the kids always voluntarily came running over to participate. I will always remember and appreciate the conversations I had with these little children of all races and backgrounds in the Northwest Bronx. They brought a "natural" excitement for learning about nature that I must believe is inherent in all of us (before teenage distractions, or parental misguidance, kills it). I liked to ask them what their favorite plants were, or insects, or animals. I liked to ask them how many trees they could name, or how many insects. They were each incredibly proud of their knowledge, as they should be. They may have not known much about the local flora and fauna, but they knew more than I did about certain extinct species (dinosaurs) or foreign ones (kangaroos). Some families did not even speak (or perhaps understand) English very well, but in the natural world of New York City, this was irrelevant.

Not everyone likes spiders, especially in our apartment buildings. But how can we deny the right of the spider to belong once we have seen the diligence with which it makes its web? It is a beautiful sight, and a reminder that people, too, come in various guises. It takes understanding to appreciate why we all belong.

You know, there has been so much hate and anger in the national media of late about immigrants and about all Americans who aren't white or Christian or Jewish, and who are, apparently, taking over (or about to take over) our country. The media paints these neighbors of ours as if they don't belong: as if their cultures are bizarre and their behaviors and ideologies repugnant if not subversive. The people who hold these extreme and ignorant views are likely the same who would think that the non-white and immigrant neighbors of Van Cortlandt Park would be "naturally" unable to understand and appreciate why parks matter, unable to enjoy the beauty of seeing geese landing in the lake, unable to share in a community effort to protect a particular non-human species. But they are wrong.

I myself had false ideas about the Bronx and about the people I would encounter here. But I have discovered that no matter what country you were born in, you can just as much love and understand the complexities of a marsh in the Bronx as anyone else. And I have discovered that no matter how poor you are, and no matter how much this society suggests that you will not succeed in this world because of your gender or the color of your skin, there is a park for you - as a place for reflection, or for cathartic recreation, here for each unique person in this community. Some people come to the park to bird or to botanize, to learn about the intricacies of nature and our wide world through the joys of accumulating knowledge about taxonomies. That's fine. But others come to the park to play baseball, tennis, handball, basketball, and they just as much enjoy the fresh air, the sounds of birdcalls, and the swaying green leaves of the tree canopy overhead. And others come to the park to hang out with friends, to smoke joints, whatever - they might appear to be "bad kids" - but it is likely that they came to the park for more reasons than to just hide from society - they, too, enjoy the nature around them; there are many concrete underpasses in the city if all they want is a place to hide.

Three views of lotus plants in the marsh

During this summer we saw one man take his own life in the park, and we likely averted our eyes from many couples creating new life on top of blankets in the park. Here, in our big ant colony called New York City, we reproduce, eat, die, just like every other species. We are the same nature that we seek in the park, it is just that we tend to forget this about ourselves while we speed here and there along the concrete. I promise to look closer this fall, at nature, at others, and at myself. I find great beauty in our coexistence, and I find great hope that if we might just better understand how we coexist in this place - diverse humans and diverse nature - we can then overcome the hate and ignorance that threatens to divide us.

Lucky me: I snapped this photo of a red-tailed hawk while preparing photos for this blogpost!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Not only did it summarize a lot of my own feelings about "offerings" of nature in the city and many of the shared observations at my own post-Prospect Park-this blog also examined and expanded my own views regarding human inhabitants/park goers. I appreciate that you asked all these questions about the environment, the species that visit Van Cortlandt--whether to feed, nest, lie on a blanket, or fish--and that you placed yourself in the picture. That is, how you viewed the park patrons before, and then after your summer there. I only visited just a small fraction of Van Cortlandt Park once, I did not even have, or take the opportunity to explore. On the day I arrived to volunteer there and as we were finishing one of the tasks, it began to rain heavily. I just know that the park is immense; little did I know of the body of water (the lake, even if it was man made) and the marsh and all the lotuses that would grow in the summer. I feel the same that people enjoy and even appreciate nature, the park, in their own ways, though at the same time with varying levels of respect; something I witnessed in Prospect Park and its diverse neighbors. That's why environmental education in urban parks is needed. The kids were always excited; it's true. Sometimes I wish more of the guardians would have participated as well. Although, more did towards the end, happy to say.

  2. Dear L:

    I am glad you enjoyed the post. And I am glad to hear that over at Prospect Park there is an equally diverse array of non-human species and human neighbors. It is true, as you mention, that guardians were often not very encouraging when the children in their care exhibited a desire to learn. That's why I, too, am glad that the rangers are out there doing programs in the playgrounds in addition to in the woods. For some families, the playground is the park, and so environmental education needs to begin there.

    I am very interested in checking out your blog. What is the web address?