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New York City’s Lost Wilderness

2010 October 29

Thanks to a recent move, I missed the September 20 issue of New York magazine when it first came out. When it arrived, I skipped the cover article on Jon Stewart and paged through to “The Concrete Jungle,” Robert Sullivan’s look at the hidden ecology of New York City.

Interesting tidbits in the article include the discovery of an urban coyote population (about which Sullivan has written before), photographs of wild turkeys crossing a Staten Island street and parks reverting to urban prairie, and and the pros and cons of using oysters as water filters in the Raritan Bay estuary (it’s effective, but contaminates the oysters and threatens the seafood industry).

Most interesting to me, however, is the article’s organizing trope of adventuresome ecologists and planners exploring the urban wilderness – which happens to be the world they see every day. In Sullivan’s telling, they are part Lewis and Clark, part Robert Langdon, mapping the natural landscape that had been overlooked or forgotten by human settlers, and tracing the human activities that allowed the landscape to remain that way.

At its wildest, [New York’s nature] exists in the places humans let be, either because we mapped it as parkland and forgot about it, or we abandoned it as ruin, allowing it to transform yet again. Look at a place like Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park: What was once a tidal wetland had been filled with Gatsby’s ash heaps, then covered over by Robert Moses for the 1939 World’s Fair, subsequently turned into ball fields, which frequently flooded and were eventually neglected. What has returned? Wetlands. “It’s almost like they’re under there and trying to come back,” says Ellen Pehek, an ecologist who has worked for the city’s Parks Department for twelve years. “When they flood, you find bullfrogs there. It’s like they know.”

The photographs (by Jason Fulford) that accompany the article play upon the theme of city reverting to urban prairie. My favorite is the shot of a crumpled muscle car, possibly a Chevelle, rusting to oblivion in the woods: one sheet of metal has turned the same color as the ground. Fulford keeps live humans out of the frame (unless you count the shot of turkeys crossing a Staten Island street, with cars in motion in the background). Because of this, the photos have a postapocalyptic feel: you’re not quite sure whether there’s any urban infrastructure left to encroach upon. Sullivan writes that, in rediscovering “lost” urban parks, “it became clear that the Parks Department was an accidental land trust,” and in Fulford’s photos you can see why.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. smonani permalink
    October 30, 2010

    My Environmental Writing students just read a collection of essays called the Hopes of Snakes by Lisa Courturier, and this reference you mention here should be a perfect complement. Thanks for posting.

  2. srust permalink*
    October 31, 2010

    Great post. I was particularly interested in Sullivan’s claim that New York is more diverse than surrounding suburbs. I also think it’s interesting that the photos have a post-apocalyptic feeling to them. It gets me thinking how post-apocalyptic fiction relies on ecological imagery (and nostalgia!) to makes its moral claims about present social conditions.

  3. November 15, 2010

    The New York Conservationist magazine did a recent article on owls in NYC parks. It’s a great piece with the usual lovely photos but also some historical & environmental context.

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