More-Than-Human in New York

Manhattan skyline, from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis
Manhattan skyline, from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis

A hot wind cures my face as the L-train roars to a halt. It’s ninety-two degrees outside and almost a hundred underground. I inhale, just once, and hold my breath, trying to keep out the saturated stink of urine, and the sort of squalor that produces bedbug pandemics and Medieval diseases.

The L-Train of the New York City Subway System, in Brooklyn. Yelp.com
The L-Train of the New York City Subway System, in Brooklyn. Yelp.com

I am a new, reluctant New Yorker, transplanted here by way of my husband’s new job, and I feel the same way about the subway system that I feel about the city as a whole: it is a landscape, to quote Theodore Roosevelt, that “looks the way Poe sounds.”

Roosevelt wasn’t talking about his native New York City when he wrote that line, but rather, the North Dakota Badlands, his rugged out-West soul-retreat, and the site of my own first employment with the National Park Service. The Badlands are the kind of terrain that, left alone, I would seek out for myself: wide open, perhaps treacherous, the stuff of good Romantic poetry. If I have to be “fenced in,” I would prefer an enclosure of woods, rocks, caves, rivers, and gorges– not skyscrapers.

When I learned I would be moving to New York, I decided I would make it my mission to find, photograph, and write about wildness within Gotham City limits. Social Media already has its Humans of New York, a photo-journalistic project demonstrating the multitude and variety of this city’s homo sapiens. What if I could do the same for its plants? Animals? Winds?

Ospreys, Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Photo: NPS
Ospreys, Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: NPS

I asked my family and friends for tips about where to look, and ideas came pouring in. “Check out the parakeets in Green-Wood Cemetery,” said one of my old classmates. Another suggested a rock-scramble on Breakneck Ridge, or a trip to see the waterbirds on Jamaica Bay. An old roommate told me I might find some peace and quiet in Fort Tryon, near the Cloisters, an Uptown branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Yellowstone friend recommended a stroll through Central Park. My brother told me to go paddling on the Hudson. My sister-in-law’s advice was the clearest. “Get to Coney,” she said. “Saltwater cures everything.”

Coney Island Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis
Coney Island
Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis

They all tell me I will fall in love with this place. I’m skeptical, but I hope they’re right. It’s fun to fall in love, to soften like a clam and open yourself up to experience, to let a landscape — even an urban one — write its story upon you. There’s nothing sexier or more convivial than adaptation. New York is one of the world’s most culturally relevant cities, one of its most dense, energetic and creative centers of human ingenuity. Eight million people live in its five boroughs, and millions more wish they could join in the party. I absolutely have to respect that energy, that pulse, even if this isn’t the home I would have chosen for myself.

I am prepared, however, to offer some loving criticism. Manhattan, in particular, boasts of its man-madeness — some 60 to 70 percent of its land mass is developed, and much of it on a scale that isn’t quite human. I can sense the abstraction that accompanies a work-life in an office 50 stories off the ground. Manhattan’s bedrock is gneiss, marble, and mica schist. Who here knows that, I wonder? Who here is in touch with, or really cares about the soil, the predominant winds, the more-than-human elements of the city?

The conservation movement received a provocative and, I believe, worthwhile criticism in 1995, with the publishing of environmental historian William Cronon’s essay, The Trouble With Wilderness, featured in the compendium Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. By focusing so narrowly on wildness, Cronon asserts, a woodsy conservationist runs the risk of neglecting the perhaps less sexy, but equally important planet-protecting measures connected to areas of human settlement. Furthermore, by setting up a strict binary between “wild” and “civilized,” so-defined wilderness, he asserts, sets up the opportunity for its opposite: over-developed, wilderness-exclusive urban enclaves, like Manhattan.

Much of Cronon’s argument resonates with me. I’ve spent years in the field and behind the ranger desk talking about biodiversity and wildness, but I haven’t done a damn thing on the city side — no lobbying for fossil fuel divestment, no civic education about sustainable food systems, too few letters or phone calls to Congress on behalf of species-saving measures or against tar sands development. I see the risk inherent in creating the binary, though I worry less for human-free wildness than I do for wildness-less humanity.

New York, in other words, suffers from the more dangerous pole: there’s so little wildness here that (I fear) most New Yorkers have forgotten what wildness feels like. There’s a bustling culture of urban agriculture, and a passion for local food-sourcing. Scads of environmental advocacy organizations (I know, because I’m seeking employment with several of them) hole up here, taking up floors in a few of those aforementioned skyscrapers. Sustainability and resilience are part of the New York lexicon, if primarily, in a marketed, consumption-driven way. But what is unmistakably lacking is wildness.

A week before we moved here, my husband and I made a visit to my family’s farm in Allegany County. On the way home, we took a guided tour of the Mt. Morris Dam, a flood-control structure built by the Army Corps of Engineers over the Genesee River during that agency’s golden-era of dam construction, the early 1950s. My husband was more impressed than I with the sheer volume of concrete, the elegance of the spillway, the enormity of the hydraulic valves responsible for opening and closing the gates. But when we got out of there, and I could breathe again, I looked up at the sky. A trio of turkey vultures circled overhead, riding thermals produced by air rushing over the concrete structure. They didn’t give a dam where the wind came from.

A turkey vulture in flight. Photo: allaboutbirds.com
A turkey vulture in flight.
Photo: allaboutbirds.com

So we return to the questions that keep me awake at night: does the weed give a damn where it grows? Does the greenery in Central Park care whether or not it was human-planted, landscaped, shaped? Should I? My instinct says — yes. Because too many of us live too abstractly, too far from the dirt, too wrapped up in ourselves, too insulated from our fellow critters’ experiences.

I long for wildness in my new city. And I’m eager, so eager to find it.

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