Recent posts--Overview and HwyH2O--tuned into the perspective of looking down from above. Now let's shift our perspective 180 degrees and look up.
After a warm spring Saturday spent mostly in Central Park, I returned home for dinner with the intention of returning to the park to enjoy twilight. But, by the time dinner was over I had lost my motivation. With my teenage daughter absorbed in end-of-semester exam prep and paper writing, I felt like being nearby. Had we a porch or patio, I would have delighted in stepping out onto it to enjoy the warm spring evening while my daughter continued with her homework indoors.
One of the challenges of living in a city like New York is that it's not so easy to step outside from our homes. We apartment dwellers can't just open a door and walk onto a patio, lawn, field, or forest. Going outside is a production, requiring walking down flights of stairs, or a ride in an elevator. A favorite anecdote highlights this difference. I was in the country with my girls, at a house with a sliding door leading to an outside deck. My older daughter, who must have been about five at the time, pulled the door open and stepped outside, shut the door, then pulled it open again and stepped back inside, and repeated this several times, all the while saying, "Inside. Outside. Inside. Outside." A city kid, she was marveling at the realization that she so easily could transition from indoors and outdoors, a transition that is far more complex in her city home.
When the days are getting longer and the air is warmer, I miss the ability to just step outside. I begin to feel a bit out of sorts, claustrophobic perhaps, as if entombed, and think about growing up in a leafy New York suburb. As I kid on an evening like this I likely would be playing kickball with the neighboring kids until our mothers called out for us to come home for dinner. We'd quickly chow down our meals and run back outside to continue the game until near darkness.
No longer motivated to walk the few blocks to the park, I decided to head to the roof of my building, a flight of stairs up from my apartment. The building's roof is unfinished, and the view would not be considered exceptional. There's no direct view of the sunrise or sunset, no view of water or a park. A small, low-slung building, we are surrounded by larger buildings blocking any possibility of seeing the horizon.
But the view upward is not blocked.
My initial intent was to read, and although the book I'm reading is engaging, a voice inside me kept saying, "notice where you are." I put the book down, reclined in my on-the-ground adjustable hiking seat, and began to notice the sky. Layers of clouds moved across the great blue expanse, with clouds higher up illuminated by the setting sun, giving them yellow-pink tinge. Grayer clouds below portended predicted rain. And all the while, in a faint rhythm of surges and releases, a warm breeze enveloped me and let go, the same wind that was making the clouds move, the same wind that was making the branches of trees wave in a penthouse garden across the street. Every few minutes a plane crossed the sky, people in motion within a sky in motion. A helicopter buzzed across at a distance, like a mechanical firefly. As the daylight dimmed, lights in apartments begin to flick on. I stood up to wander about and from a new viewpoint, no longer blocked by a neighboring building, could see the moon in the south east sky, a halo surrounding its glow. Ever in a cycle of change, it was now a waxing gibbous, but in a few days would be a full moon, May's "Full Flower Moon". The world around me was in a cycle of motion and change.
For over an hour, I looked upward from the unadorned rooftop, enchanted by the movement above and around me, seeing it with my eyes, feeling the warm wind touch my skin. The nearby buildings seemed small. The sky felt infinite.
Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? — Emerson, Nature
The Mohicans called it Muhheakunnuk, “the river that flows two ways", recognizing the Hudson as not only a river but a tidal estuary, where south-flowing fresh water collides with saline sea water pushing north twice a day, like a giant, slow-motion exhale.
With a recent post focusing on waterways and cities, let’s take a moment to appreciate the magnificent river flanking New York City’s west side, a river that attracted native inhabitants; beckoned explorers, from Verrazano to Hudson (in search of a waterway to China); helped a new nation grow and achieve global influence; inspired a school of art influenced by Romanticism; and even has a museum dedicated to it (in Yonkers).
Its headwaters in the Adirondacks at an altitude of over 4,300 feet, the Hudson begins as a series of alpine brooks and ponds – Lake Tear of the Clouds, to Feldspar Brook, to Opalescent River, and then Calamity Pass Brook and Indian Pass Brook to Henderson Lake, where a convergence of rivers become “The Hudson”. Winding its way south to Troy, the northern reach of tidal influence, it widens and continues on its 315 mile route. Reaching its widest point of 3 ½ miles in Haverstraw, it continues past Manhattan, and flows beneath the Verrazano Bridge, through the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island and into the Atlantic Ocean.
But it doesn’t end there.
At the mouth of the Hudson River begins the Hudson Canyon, a submarine canyon extending over 400 miles into the Atlantic, cutting through shallower continental shelf and then dramatically into the deeper ocean basin. With walls reaching ¾ mile from the ocean floor at its deepest point, 100 miles off shore, it rivals the depth of the Grand Canyon’s mile-deep cliffs and is one of the largest submarine canyons in the world. Last exposed over 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the canyon formed when the sea level was 400 feet lower and the mouth of the Hudson was 100 miles east of its current site.
If you can, take a look at the river. You might notice it flowing north! You also may notice a patchwork of movement across its surface – central sections dredged deeper for shipping perhaps moving more swiftly than shallower areas along Manhattan and New Jersey, various micro-currents, and the influence of wind. Think about the clash of forces and wave patterns when the tide is moving in, pushing against the current. And think about how quickly the river moves when the tide is outbound, a double whammy of south-bound current and outbound tide conspiring. Think about traces of the Hudson continuing off shore, through one of the world's deepest submarine canyons, and about the ebb and flow of the river that flows two ways.
Grace Paley, 2007
what a hard time
the Hudson River has had
trying to get to the sea
it seemed easy enough to
rise out of Tear of
the Cloud and tumble
and run in little skips
and jumps draining
a swamp here and
streams and other smaller
rivers with similar
longings for the wide
except for its spelling
an ordinary town but
the great heaving
ocean sixty miles away is
determined to reach
that town every day
and twice a day in fact
drowning the Hudson River
in salt and mud
it is the moon’s tidal
power over all the waters
of this earth at war with
gravity the Hudson
perseveres moving down
slower look it has
become our Lordly Hudson
and we are
now in a poem by the poet
Paul Goodman be quiet heart
then the sea
New York has always attracted beautiful and flamboyant creatures, all the more visible in spring, when the weather warms up. And the past few days witnessed a particularly high concentration in the Central Park area, creatures costumed in colorful, body-hugging couture, designed to attract attention, a visual announcement of “Here I am! Take a look at this! I am spectacular!” I’m talking about the concentration of Warblers in The Ramble.
Oh, and the annual Met Gala took place too, a few blocks north.
At 6:15 this morning, I joined my friend, Carl Howard, and a few dozen other birders for the New York Audubon Society’s annual Birdathon, a two-day all-out effort to identify as many bird species as possible in the New York City area. Carl is a master birder who can rattle off a slew of bird songs and recognizes species by their calls. The day before, the group identified 106 species.
On my way to the meetup spot in Central Park, I passed by The Mark, a luxury hotel on the corner of Madison and 77th. Although it was 6 a.m., a group of people had gathered outside, with cameras ready. The Mark is not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted its annual Gala the night before, an event of utmost fashion splendor, and these folks were hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two who were spending the night at the hotel following the nearby event.
After pausing to ask a few people in the crowd what celebrities they hoped to see I continued making my way into the park until I found another group preparing for rare sightings: birders, armed with binoculars instead of cameras but equally enthusiastic about the colorfully coutured creatures they were hoping to see.
The Met Gala might have hosted an unusually dense concentration of A-listers, but during spring migration Central Park hosts the most varieties of Warblers on the planet. Like the stars at the Gala drawing attention from adoring fans, they appear garbed in yellow, red, gray, blue, black and white, and many other hues, all designed to attract attention.
Stars! They're just like...birds!
Running around the Central Park Reservoir this evening, I noticed the stunning cherry blossoms in full bloom. Like delicate pompoms in shades of white, pink, and deeper pink, the clusters of flowers with their smooth, silky small petals decorated the trees' contrasting dark, thick and cracked bark.
A strong breeze burst across the scene. The cherry tree branches waved, and petals began to fall. Like snowflakes, each one of the hundreds in motion found its own way to the ground, in its own dance of drifting, twirling, fluttering, and spinning, a collective ballet of pearly pastel petals, like tiny ballerinas in pink slippers.
Enchanted by the beauty, I also felt a tinge of melancholy. Time was passing. With each petal dropping the flowers were slowly fading. Beauty and death, hand in hand.
gentle breeze wafted away
a pink cloud
the old woman’s appearance
as a young girl
My heart too
is floating through the air –
On the heels of the previous blog, Overview, take a look at a map of where you live, preferably in satellite view. If you are like most people, you live in a densely populated area. But why is your home region located where it is? Take a closer look, and you will notice a nearby river, lake, or ocean, or combination of these, not only providing access to drinkable water but also enabling the transport of goods long before the availability of railroads, when the only alternative was costly overland transport via wagon and pack animal.
New York City sits at the nexus of the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean, and its location near major waterways is key to its prominence on the world stage. In Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace describe some of the geographic features of New York that led New York to become "the principal link between the United States and world markets." Its location on the Atlantic, with a deep harbor accessible to the open ocean and rarely impeded by ice, led to regional and global commerce, with markets in the West Indies and Europe for farm products and cotton. By contrast, Boston's Harbor was often blocked by ice in the winter, and Philadelphia, 100 miles from the mouth of Delaware Bay, was accessible to large vessels only during flood tide.
But it was the Hudson that connected New York City to the interior of the content and led to the development of a nation. Canals constructed in the 1790s linked the Hudson with Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario, extending the the reach of New York City into hinterlands along Lake Erie and western Pennsylvania. Completed in 1825, and later enlarged, the Erie Canal—America’s first super highway—contributed to New York City’s global ascendancy by creating an inland navigable waterway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and enabling the transport of inland mining and agricultural goods to overseas markets. This engineering feat was made possible by the geologic good fortune of New York State: an east-west gap in the Appalachian Mountain chain, along the Mohawk River valley between the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. Extending over 1,500 miles, 400 miles inland from the Atlantic Coast, the Appalachians were a considerable barrier to western migration and trade, with only five east-west gaps allowing travel by pack animal.
Notice other cities central to manufacturing: Duluth, Minnesota, on the western edge of Lake Superior, in the heartland of North America, 1,500 miles from the Atlantic coast in a region rich in iron ore and accessible to the beaver fur trade; Chicago and Milwaukee, abutting Lake Michigan; Detroit on Lake Erie, via the Detroit River; Cleveland and Toledo on Lake Erie too. These interior cities are port cities because of their access to the Atlantic, first via the Erie Canal and later via the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway, more recently named "Hwy H2O". Consider Minneapolis, with access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River; Saint Louis, at the juncture of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the gateway to the west, with the Missouri extending to its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains in Montana; and New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi estuary. And take note of countless cities and towns along major rivers of the U.S.: the Connecticut and Housatonic, Mohawk, Delaware and Schuylkill, Monongahela, Susquehanna, Allegheny, Ohio, Platte, Arkansas, Tennessee, Savannah, and Potomac, supporting the manufacturing of textiles, lumber and paper mills, and steel and transport of goods.
The same waterways that enabled industry and transport, which in turn gave rise to cities and towns, attracted our country’s original inhabitants; what is now Manhattan, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Detroit was once occupied by other nations--Manhattoes, Lenape, Erie, Illinois, Pequot, Mahican, Ojibwa, Delaware, Powhatan, Huron, and Cherokee, to name a few. Contemporary place-names, rolling off our tongues with such familiarity that we rarely think about their original references, are reminders of the legacy of these earliest inhabitants. And of course, proximity to water isn’t unique to US cities. Paris’s began on an island in the Seine; London on the Thames; Istanbul on the Bosphorus; Agra and New Delhi on the Yumana. And grade school children learn of the “cradle of civilization” developing between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
These days, with water magically appearing out of our kitchen and bathroom faucets and goods available to us in stores and via online delivery, it's easy to disregard the impact of nearby waterways and their significance in the location of our major towns and cities. But, towns and cities are located where they are because of the availability of resources and transportation, with oceans, rivers, and lakes functioning like giant vascular systems enabling access to resources and materials and the exchange of goods, long before the invention of the railroad and air travel.
Take a moment and consider your nearby waterways, and how they helped shape the place where you live.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.