Shadows evidence physical presence--the instantiation of our bodies and of other creatures and structures. Bathed in daylight, our corporeal forms have the power to block the Sun's rays and cast dark reflections on the ground, what David Abram calls our "shadowflection". Even nighttime, as Abram notes, is nothing other than a hemisphere of the Earth enveloped in its own shadow.
So too, shadows remind us of the sun's presence, and our position relative to it as we stand upon the Earth, our orbital home in continual motion. As the Sun migrates from low on the eastern horizon in the morning, to overhead, to low on the western horizon in the evening, our shadowflections shapeshift by the hour and season. Transitioning from elongated versions of ourselves, as if we were giants standing on the earth, to squat, to long again, they remind us of the continual motion of the Earth relative to the Sun, and perhaps other cycles and changes our bodies experience over the cycles of days, months, and years.
And far more than a two-dimensional surface-restricted image, shadows have three-dimensional depth. Writes Abram in Becoming Animal:
"My actual shadow is...more substantial than that flat shape on the paved ground. That silhouette is only my shadow's outermost surface. The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the paved ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground.
With the summer sun high in the sky, it is prime time for shadowflections, reminders of the our ever-present connection with the Sun, as the Earth turns and turns.
While we celebrate July 4th--Independence Day--with fireworks and barbecues, America's Revolutionary War still can seem like an event in the distant past. After all, 1776 was 243 years ago. Yet, traces of the war are apparent, vestiges written into, if not shaped by, the topography of the landscape itself--even in New York City.
Central Park's steep bluffs overlooking the Harlem Meer were important strategic features during the American Revolution, their elevation and expansive views providing the site for the military fortifications Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, sites still on view today. During America's War of Independence, George Washington defended New York against invading British forces from this high-ground position that is now the northeast section of Central Park. The British defeated Washington in the area and built a series of fortification extending from the bluffs to the Hudson. In addition to Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, the British constructed a chain of blockhouses, the site of one of which is in Central Park's Northwoods, adjacent to 109th Street. Each of these locations was subsequently used by Americans to defend against the threat of British invasion from the north during the war of 1812.
McGowan's Pass was another key topographic feature during the Revolutionary War in what is now Central Park. Located along the steep hill and switchbacks of what is now the park's East Drive north of 102nd street, it was a Hessian (conscripted German soldiers) encampment for much of the war, from 1776 to 1883. At the war's end, the Hessians and British retreated north through pass, while George Washington reentered New York through the pass.
Gazing at today's runners and cyclists traversing topographies of Central Park that during the Revolutionary War were strategic locations suggests more than weekend warriors. One can, with a little imagination, time travel and conjure warriors of the American Revolution traversing the same terrain and making use of its features. Landscapes carry memory.
Summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, is an opportunity to connect with cyclical changes and embrace the bounty of nature around us. Summer is upon us, a time of abundant growth. The day that provides the most light, it is perhaps then a time for enhanced clarity and insight as well as chance to appreciate the world's plenitude.
Derived from the Latin words "sol" (sun) and "sistere" (to make stand), the word "solstice" connotes an inflection point, a moment when what is before differs from what is after, as is fitting for the day that marks a shift from the sun progressing northward to tracking southward and with this a shift from lengthening daylight hours to shortening daylight hours.
Humans have a rich traditions honoring the summer solstice. Ancient Northern and Central European pagans--including Germanic, Celtic and Slavic tribes--celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, which were thought to enhance the sun’s energy and promote a good harvest for the fall. Early Christians celebrated the day as St. John's Day, commemorating the birth of John the Baptist. The Great Pyramids of Egypt are situated such that, from the viewpoint of the Sphinx, the sun sets directly between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. The ancient Chinese regarded the summer solstice as connected with the feminine force “yin,” and celebrated with festivities honoring Earth, femininity.
The Mayans of Central America built structures to align with the sun's solstice path. And many Native American tribes engaged in solstice rituals, some of which continue to be practiced. The Sioux sun dance entails cutting and raising a tree as a symbolic connection between the heavens and Earth, placing teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos., and participants decorating their bodies in colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
While many ancient cultures were attuned to the sun's cycles and engaged in solstice rituals, contemporary urban dwellers may fell less connected to this astronomical happening. But as entrenched as we may be in our day-to-day lives, the eternal dance between the Sun and Earth continues, a reminder of the extent of time beyond humanity and forces that are bigger than ourselves.
Far more than a concrete jungle, New York City boasts miles of coastline, which in late May and early June are the setting of an annual ritual that has taken place for nearly 500 million years, one of the oldest rituals to occur among animal species.
During a recent stroll on Orchard Beach at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, I came across horseshoe crabs pulling up onshore. Intriguing looking, ancient creatures, they remind me of small tanks, able to ambulate while being fully protected by a hard carapace. Japanese legend too identifies the horseshoe crab with military symbolism. It was said that brave warriors who died honorably in battle were reborn as horseshoe crabs, with their shells like samurai helmets, forever traversing the ocean floor.
Why were these creatures migrating onto the sand? Why now? Thanks to the Historical Signs Project of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, answering my questions -- and more -- was a nearby sign, "Horseshoe Crabs in New York City Parks, Orchard Beach - Pelham Bay Park." This is what it said about the fifth oldest species (after cyanobacteria, sponge, jellyfish, and nautilus), which has contributed greatly to medical science:
Every May and June, horseshoe crabs emerge from Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound onto Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. Female horseshoe crabs arrive on the beach to lay their eggs, with their male counterparts literally in tow. Males grasp onto the back of the female's shell using their specially adapted, hooked legs, sometimes two, three, or four onto one female. When they arrive on the beach, female horseshoe crabs dig a hold in the sand and lay up to 20,000 tiny olive-green eggs . The males then rush to be the first to fertilize.
The process is heavily tied to the lunar cycle and its effects on the tides. The mating begins when the moon's force is strongest and the high tide allows the horseshoe crab to venture further onto the beach. As the force weakens, the water is never able to reach the eggs. Two weeks later, when the moon's force peaks again, the eggs are ready to hatch and the water sweeps the newborns into the sea. While this timing has provided protection from the sea, the eggs face other dangers. The thousands of protein-rich eggs provide a feast for hungry migrating birds, which can eat enough to double or even triple their body weight before moving on. Some birds are believed to time their migration to coincide with this mating ritual and its resulting source of nutrition.
The horseshoe crab...has been around since before he dinosaurs.... This prehistoric creature may resemble a crab, but is actually more closely related to the spider and scorpion. While the horseshoe crab has a tough exterior that has helped its survival, it is one of the most harmless creatures on the seashore. Its high tolerance for pollutants has also allowed the horseshoe crab to thrive where other species have failed. When not swarming on the beaches in the spring, the horseshoe crab stays mainly on the ocean floor, feeding on mollusks, worms, and seaweed. In the winter, it burrows into the ocean sediment. While the lifespan of a horseshoe crabs in the wild is not clear, they have been known to live up to 15 years in aquariums.
This "living fossil" plays an important role in modern medical science. Its blood contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), which is used by scientists for the detection of bacterial toxins. Tests using LAL are required by the Federal Drug Administration for medications and vaccines. Blood from the horseshoe crab is also used to make a variety of products, from fertilizers and conch bait to hairspray and contact lenses. These uses have led to the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and a decline of its population in the Atlantic. However, the ancient horseshoe crab can still be seen crawling onto the shores of the Bronx, at Orchard Beach, every year.
Botanists call flowers that have either male or female sex organs "imperfect", whereas flowers that contain both male and female sex organs are called "perfect". What a contrast to the negative views about human sexual diversity among all too many communities!
June marks the arrival of "Pride Month", celebrating sexual diversity and gender variance. The month includes parades and other events to foster a positive, self-affirming stance against violence and discrimination toward LGBTQ people. June, 2019 promises to be the largest celebration of LGBTQ pride in history as it marks the 50th anniversary of the rebellion at NYC's Stonewall Inn in response to a police raid.
Tolerance for human gender diversity may be an ongoing struggle, but gender variability is well recognized in the plant kingdom. Some trees, such as white ash and willow, have male and female flowers on different trees (that is, individual trees bear either male or female flowers). Others, such as beech and oak, have separate male and female flowers on the same tree. And others, such as magnolias, serviceberries, and elms, produce flowers with both male and female parts.
That gender isn't binary is apparent in the plant kingdom. And, as the courageous people standing up for LGBTQ rights have shown us, gender isn't binary among humans either. Rather, among many natural creatures, ourselves included, there are variations of gender expression, with gender manifesting along a spectrum rather than black or white.
There is much that plants can teach us, including that sexuality manifests in diverse ways.
Invasive species upset the delicate balance of natural ecosystems. They disrupt food chains, destroy nutrient-providing resources, and overwhelm native species. Though invasive creatures can be introduced by storms and climate shifts, more frequently they are introduced by humans. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, it can seem close to impossible and perhaps futile to attempt to eradicate invasive species. Yet, responding to them is necessary.
New York City is particularly vulnerable to invasive species as an international city. Visitors arriving from around the world sometimes accidentally carry seeds lodged in the soles of their shoes. Cargo ships inadvertently carry other stowaways. A number of invasives can be found in our parks. Tea Crabapples, a native of China is found in woodlands such as Central Park's North Woods and has been described as "the little apple that ate the Big Apple without careful management". Japanese Knotweed, grows so rampantly that it can crowd out other, more desirable plants. English Ivy wraps around tree branches, making it more difficult for native trees to receive the sunlight they need to grow.
As with natural ecosystems, the delicate balance of a nation can be upended by hostile intrusions. Such attacks can require aggressive responses, at great sacrifice. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives protecting and defending our country and its allies from militaristic threats and intrusions. We pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice and the unfathomable loss felt by their loved ones.
I am a restless person. Left to my own when confronted with free time I like to go elsewhere, to get away and explore places near and far, other countries, other landscapes, other neighborhoods, and I am fortunate that circumstances allow me to do so.
Restlessness has had its rewards. It has introduced me to different people and cultures, to new perspectives and has broadened my sense of natural and human history and activity. At the same time, it can take a lot of resources to be on the go, including time, money, and pollution-emitting carbon.
Through hiking, exploring and guiding forest therapy walks, I spend much time in the presence of trees, pausing to take in their presence, to notice their form, and to contemplate their lives. Unlike animals, trees can't run away from their predators. They live their entire existence, sometimes hundreds of years, in one place (200 years in the life of a tree is the equivalent of 40 human years). Not able to run away or fight with tooth and claw, they carry their own medicine and systems to ward off danger. There's a reason so much of our medicine derives from plants: Imagine what trees have witnessed over the years as their trunks grow tall and thick and their branches reach skyward!
Of course, trees are hardly still. From large vascular systems transmitting xylem and phloem to micro-activity on a cellular level, there is much movement, even if it isn't always visible to us. Yet, other than through the disbursal of seeds, trees are not mobile, whereas we are. As a human, I am animal, with muscles and limbs that enable me to ambulate and senses that enable me to to be drawn to what I need or to turn away from what is unpleasant or dangerous. This way of being is as central to me as it is to any other creature in the animal kingdom.
Yet there is much that trees can teach us. Lately I've been thinking a lot about tuning in from time to time to a tree's perspective and the lessons to be learned. Without the impossible task of abandoning my animal self, maybe there is something to be said for staying more local, for standing tall while the activity of the world happens around me. What lessons would I absorb? What powerful medicine might I generate from such a stance?
I recall the snarky word play, "Make like a tree and leave!" Cute, maybe, but what a brusque and inapt dismissal of our botanical, oxygen-providing neighbors on which we depend.
Maybe it's time we "Make like a tree... and stay."
They stand tall, nurturing their offspring to enhance their chances of growing steadily and sturdily. They support their neighbors, transmitting messages across vast and intricate networks to ensure the community’s safety and well-being. They have withstood the cycles of many years, including challenging conditions, yet persist with grace and beauty. They are mothers – mother trees.
Much attention has focused lately on the networked nature of forests. Trees exist not simply as individuals but within a highly collaborative, interconnected system, communicating through elaborate circuitry of fungi and root tips. "Forests", notes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies" Key to this interconnectedness are "Mother Trees", a notion pioneered by Scientist Suzanne Simardin (who appears as a fictionalized character in Richard Powers' The Overstory, the subject of the prior blog). The dominant trees in forests, Mother Trees function as central nodes for extensive underground networks of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. They nurture young trees by spreading fungi to them and conveying needed nutrients.
Mother Trees also restrain the unfettered growth of young trees so that they can grow in ways that make them sturdier and more resilient.Writes Wohlleben:
" Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem a all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offspring with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This canopy lets only 3 percent of available sunlight reach the ground and, therefore, their children's leaves. Three percent--that's practically nothing. With that amount of sunlight, a tree can photosynthesize just enough to keep its own body from dying. There's nothing left to fuel a decent drive upward or even a thicker trunk .... [S]low growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. ... Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking in storms."
Slow growth also makes trees resistant to disease-bearing fungi,, which has difficulty penetrated the their tougher trunks. In the meanwhile, over a period that could last 200 years (the equivalent of 40 human years), the Mother Tree passes along sugar and other nutrients to the offspring. "You might even say they are nursing their babies," notes Wohlleben.
Thanks to the attentiveness of Mother Trees, young trees can grow up strong and resilient, and forests can thrive. The same can be said for the roles of mothers (and fathers) within human families and communities. On this Mother’s Day, consider the Mother Trees around you.
New York is the epicenter of the book publishing industry. So, in exploring NYC nature connections it is apt to note the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to Richard Powers' The Overstory, a novel in which trees shape the lives of nine characters and are so vividly evoked as to be characters too. In addition, Victoria Johnson's American Eden was a finalist for the Pulitzer for history. American Eden is a riveting biography of David Hosack, visionary physician and botanist during the early Republic who created the New York's first botanical garden (more about this terrific book in a later blog).
Nature certainly received much attention from this year's Pulitzer Prize Board.
The Pulitzer Prize Board describes The Overstory as "An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them."....a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe."
With stirring, incisive descriptions, Powers awakens deep, limbic understanding of humans' biological and emotional connection to the natural world and the primacy of trees. “This is not our world with trees in it" he writes. "It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” And what lessons there are to be learned from trees. Here's a passage I particularly like, one that portrays survival of the fittest not as fierce drama played out through competition among individuals but rather as a result of successfully networked, interrelated, and cooperative communities:
"The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of mile of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests.... Her trees are far more social than [she] suspected. There are no individuals. There aren't even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn't red in tooth and claw, after all."
There is much to learn from trees.
Trees are bursting forth in flower in our parks, offering heady, sensory ecstasy of color, shape, and smell. Yet missing from the vibrant whites, pinks, yellows, and purples on some trees is a touch of green. On these trees, flowers are blooming but leaves have yet to appear.
Why is it that some trees -- Eastern Redbuds, Cornelian Cherry Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Crabapples to name a few -- flower before their leaves unfurl? With most plants, leaves begin to unfold and then flowers bloom, but for some the sequence is reversed. An insightful friend with a sense of humor likened this behavior human adolescence, with often distracting reproductive hormones triggering well ahead of long-term sustaining activities, like education and career advancement.
Flowers, as you know, are plants' reproductive structures. Once pollinated, they form fruit that bear seeds that enable new life. Leaves, on the other hand, are plants' source of sustenance, enabling the production of food through photosynthesis. Through chlorophyll and tiny stomata found primarily on the leaf's lower surface (a square centimeter of a leaf contains anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands) leaves breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out blessed oxygen on which we depend, while producing sugar for plant nourishment. And through transpiration, water absorbed through root hairs evaporates through stomatal openings from the leaf surface, enabling water and minerals to be absorbed from the soil and conducted to the top of the plat.
Without leaves, trees die once stored sugar is depleted. Why would a tree flower before leafing out?
Hysteranthous -- the behavior of leaves expanding after flowers have opened -- occurs for a variety of reasons, which give these trees an edge in reproduction. These trees often pollinate through wind (19% of all pollination), which drifts more freely through a tree canopy in the absence of leafy vegetation, making it easier for these trees' inconspicuous flowers (catkins and cones) to be pollinated. And for the 80% of trees that pollinate by vertebrate or insects, early flowering offers the advantage of fewer other blossoms to distract pollinators. For understory trees and plants, like Redbuds, Forsythia, and Witch Hazel, that blossom solely from stored nutrients, flowering early avoids competition with vegetative growth for limited resources. Early flowering also allows for greater time for fruit growth and seed maturation as well as dispersal. Fruits and seed dispersed by birds need to mature to coincide with bird migration.
The sequencing of trees' and plants' flowering and leafing is diverse and driven by physical, biotic, and environmental conditions. One wonders how the same impact human reproduction.
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.