Wild New York

IMG_1150I’m southbound, riding window-seat in a steel-bodied Amtrak carriage past what is, more or less, my home topography. Do I know it?

Ponds never mirror life so perfectly as at daybreak: blackwater and hardwoods under a snow blanket. My travel companions, mother and aunt, pass the time chatting about people they know, and I don’t. The baby who last night wouldn’t sleep has at last given in and draped her small, strong body across my heart.

This conveyance is so… animalian, alive with energy and progressive movement. Though settled in my seat I retain that bleary-eyed buzz of “travel morning.” There is little so invigorating as starting the day before dawn: watching through arboreal zoetrope as the night sky peels back, blue-black to blue, then blue-white by Syracuse.

Home is an ethereal concept. “Home” where I grew up suddenly feels so much more “grandma’s house” than mine, and the “home” where we’re headed—New York—is a begrudging one at best. But this spring, as our August baby creeps closer to her first orbital anniversary, peers curiously into her second warm-season of life, I vow to appreciate, and even love, the wildness where we find it. To teach said sweet baby about the natural world, if through the lens of an unlikely macroscope.


“In ecology, crypsis is the ability of an animal to avoid observation or detection by other animals. It may be a predation strategy or an antipredator adaptation. Methods include camouflage, nocturnality, subterranean lifestyle and mimicry.” -Wikipedia

“The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.”

-Amy Leach, Things That Are

I have written here about some of these places before. But here is a list, more concentrated, meanderingly annotated, of my found slivers of green, my known rebellious wildnesses and wildernesses, my refuges of more-than-human life, in Greater New York City.

The New York Botanical Garden: In the Bronx, close-ish to home, across a monumental spread that dates to the late 19th century, cultivars and curated gardens fill most of the planted space, allowing for close-up labeled examination of plants and critters. Many of the garden’s plots and walkways owe their layout to Central Park’s design team of Calvert Vaux and the studio of Frederick Law Olmsted. Here the mind ponders wildness as a concept: does the planted flower know its own wildness? Is a single specimen of a species of rose, of lily, of orchid, actually of that species, if denied its own sense of place, will, community, and distribution? The garden encloses as well a mostly unadulterated forest at its center: tulip trees, oaks, hemlocks, many of them old-growth, overlooking the Bronx River. Indoors, behind an ornate facade and statued fountain, floors and floors of Linnaean cabinets bear the collective weight of the world’s second-largest herbarium collection: “native” plants snipped from their home grounds, dried and pressed, stitched or glued to uniform slabs of archival cardstock. Some thousands of these I have touched myself, and examined, photographed, digitally preserved, during volunteer hours.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden: This garden, also an Olmsted Brothers creation hailing from the late 19th century, boasts perhaps more formal spaces, more linear and geometric lawns and plantings than its sister-park in the Bronx; I come here to sit, to bird-watch, to smuggle disallowed picnics, to think. Here there are several conceptual gardens, designed for guided, yet free-spirited engagement: a larger-than-life play garden “for kids” (it is of course my own favorite section) with a wooden xylophone, a waterworks play area, a walkway through gargantuan trees, and a nest even grownups can roost in. There is also a Japanese ponded garden complete with viewing pagoda, koi, and weeping trees. In the spring two lines of cherry trees cascade blossoms of pink cotton over a lawn that is, just a few nights a year, open for eating and drinking.

Governor’s Island: Here, gulls nest atop old forts while butterflies and summer songbirds flit among young trees and bushes in a hammock garden. One visits Governor’s only for the day: a ferry brings you here and back, whether “back” is Manhattan or Brooklyn, and only ghosts linger by night in the barracks. Sunsets can be hailed from any one of three observation hills, built up over a base of material excavated for the creation of the Lexington Avenue subway line. One hill boasts a metal slide—New York City’s longest— winding some 57 feet, three stories in height. Whimsy rules this place: by summer, public and performance artists inhabit the houses on Officer’s Row; pop-up mini-golf courses and yarn sculptures intermingle with reps from city environmental non-profits. Sacks of oyster shells, restaurant castoffs from all boroughs, hang out off island edges into the water—efforts of the Billion Oyster Project to reestablish New York Harbor’s reefs.

Roosevelt Island: Picture it: a slender sliver of land in the East River, halfway between Manhattan and Queens, home at varying times to all manner of social institutions: prison, physical therapy facility, insane asylum, smallpox hospital. You can reach it by subway, yes, but why train it when you could fly in, high over the East River on the Roosevelt Island Tramway (America’s first aerial commuter tramway)? Speaking of flight: from the southern tip of the isle, just beyond a floating-head-sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, across the water from the United Nations, a tiny island—perhaps more accurately, an outcrop—rises. Here nest a flock of cormorants: walk the bigger island’s circumference, if you can bear the gusty harbor-born wind, and you’ll spot them playing, diving, snaking their heads above the water. Adding to the whimsy of this place: “The Marriage of Money and Real Estate,” a series of sculptures by Tom Otterness that peer out of the water on the island’s west side, revealing more or less of themselves with the tide.

Central Park: To love Central Park properly, to know it intimately, takes time; one may expedite this process by reading Marie Winn’s classic Red-Tails in Love, which chronicles the life and mating habits of a singular hawk by the name of Pale Male. Winn details her deep dive into the world of urban birding, as she joins expert and budding-expert birders and critter-watchers on early morning canvasses of the park, in all seasons. While Central Park was designed for one to get lost in—a clear east-west traverse, for instance, is nearly impossible, due to winding passes and staggered reservoirs and playing fields—Winn’s book helps even non-birders to learn the intimate “neighborhoods” and ecosystems within this greater greensward. Having lived most of my New York existence on the more northerly end of things, and preferring wilder country to a city-pleasuring-ground vibe, I have become most attached to Central Park’s top section: 110th street south to about 96th. Here, two waterways—”the pool” and Harlem Meer—are connected by a recently re-landscaped wooded creek, which set the scene for my watching of warblers, raccoons, and baby chipmunks last spring. Lastly, a gem in Central Park’s middle-south: the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, an area recently refurbished and astoundingly quiet, considering its proximity to the edge of the park. This small gated, secreted ridge holds woodchipped walkways, benches, decent shade, excellent birding, and that aforementioned, unexpected solitude.

Inwood Hill Park: One of our daughter’s first parks, I came to love this place more than ever during my pregnancy, when its trails became my refuge. I ran each morning (until I couldn’t run anymore) through Manhattan’s last bit of un messed-with forest, then later, strolled the baby through the same, the air moist with summer. One winter day I traipsed into the forest next to the playing fields and stopped to soak in the quiet. I looked up to see a flash of red, then another. I made a slow turn, a pivot really, and counted a circle of cardinals. Nineteen cardinals, plus three downies, spotted from that one position. My heart! My backyard wild woods!

Fort Tryon: This pillared park walks visitors high above the top tip of Manhattan, with stellar views of the Hudson River and New Jersey’s Palisades to the west. Autumn color here is astounding; birding is decent; and no walk will conclude without at least one skunk, black squirrel, possum, or groundhog sighting. Epic boulders bleed into planted rock walls; fruit trees, a heather garden, and a linden terrace add color and life to the landscape. This park is also home to one of my favorite trees in New York, a great mother gingko with huggable roots and cascading maidenhair fans.


Van Cortlandt Park Backcountry Trails: I believe a soul requires some backyard wild, and this park, right now, is mine. Ours. The forest is thick back here and there’s enough topography to necessitate water checks along the trail. Here I spotted my first kinglets of the season; here I watched the leaves change and nibbled sassafras, wheeling the baby as I adjusted to “stay-at-home-momdom.” Lastly, this is the place where I witnessed my first, and thus far only, white-tailed deer in New York City.

Staten Island Ferry: A wildness one might not immediately conjure. But to ride this ferry—for free—across New York Harbor, from Manhattan to Staten Island or vice versa, is to submit to the blustery reality of ocean winds.


Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, The Battery, Brooklyn Bridge Park: In each of these locales, wind and water meet land, and we are reminded of New York’s position as an ocean city—a fact too often forgotten in the islands’ dense interiors. Coney Island’s modern human history is one of amusement parks and tawdry sideshows: mixing of wild human behavior and freedom from social constraints, with the natural wild of the shore. The Rockaways are great shell-collecting beaches, populated as well by plovers and gulls, jellyfish and crabs … and the getting-there involves the unique experience of birding-by-subway, over the open water, shores and marshes of Jamaica Bay. On the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, newly redesigned community gardens draw more birds and butterflies to the area than ever before, while the position of this park alone allows for invigorating walks in salty winds. Brooklyn Bridge Park, also relatively newly landscaped, keeps a walker pinned consistently between young bird-and-berry-thick plantings, and the tidal East River, whose waters here are remarkably photogenic.

Untermyer Gardens: A short Metro North train (or BeeLine bus) trip up the Hudson into Yonkers ferries a city-weary soul to this decadent themed oasis, which includes a Persian walled garden, grottoed Temple of Love, Rock Garden, and terraced vista overlooking the Hudson. The gardens were commissioned by Samuel Untermyer, a prominent public welfare lawyer, and his philanthropist wife Minnie, beginning in 1916. Today Untermyer Gardens is maintained by a Conservancy and is free to enter. A visit is minimally staffed or guided. A wonderful place to experience both the loving, shaping touch of the gardener, and the wildness of natural decay.


Wave Hill: Lower on the Hudson, here in my home country of Riverdale, stands Wave Hill, a public-private park consisting of woods, sloping hills dotted with Adirondack chairs, and a series of hillside and greenhoused gardens complimenting two estate homes-turned-art galleries. This is hawk country, river country, and once again, an open-space bucolic refuge after the built density of the city downriver.

Woodlawn and Green-wood Cemetaries: These sylvan resting places in the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively, boast some of the best birding in the city; for color and flair, look to the escaped pet parakeets nesting in the ornate gate complex at Green-Wood. Both are National Historical Landmarks; both bear that cemetary-requisite character of simultaneous permanency and impermanence. Woodlawn is home to five of New York City’s “Great Trees,” so-called for their size, including an epic Eastern White Pine. Both cemetaries offer guided and self-guided walking tours, birding events, and tree walks. My favorite grave site at Woodlawn is Samuel Untermyer’s: its tucked-away wooded hillside site bears scalloped terraces and fountains reminiscent of his namesake gardens, just up the Hudson.

Salt Marsh Nature Center: It’s a hike to get here from anywhere I’ve lived in New York, but this treasure of a spit just north of Coney Island is worth the journey. On my first visit here I was just days into my pregnancy, and a few weeks “retired” from a seasonal interpretive position at Jamaica Bay. I was missing my birds, craving company from the marsh, in need of contemplative surroundings, and the Salt Marsh Nature Center delivered. Here one can get up closer and more personal to the marsh than at Jamaica Bay: trails lead right through the phrag and cattails, and osprey platforms are lower, closer to the path. Sadly this marsh is less protected from the whir of boats and jet-skis, though on my visits the mama osprey remained nonplussed.

Alley Pond Environmental Center: My one visit to this deep-in-Queens gem—another 3-hour-long subway and bus-trek from my old home in northern Manhattan—saw me calling my husband from the wooded path, violating my own sacred rule about not using cell phones in the backcountry. “I hate nature!” I shouted to him as mosquitoes blanketed my legs. Wild, I thought, and as my legs swelled I turned course and made my way to one of the park’s namesake ponds. A Thoreauvian respite, quiet but for a pair of night herons. Alley Pond emphasizes childhood outdoor education and has wild outdoor classrooms to match its critter-rich indoor spaces. It’s the kind of place that makes you excited to have a kid, or be one. I cannot wait to bring her here.

New York Public Library: The NYPL and its “nature writing” stacks have saved me time and time again when I couldn’t get out into the actual wild. Because there are 92 locations across three of five city boroughs, I’ve often been able to stumble into a library during regular flaneuring and find something that ignites. My old favorite, the Mid-Manhattan Library, is closed until 2020 for renovations, but its circulating collection has been passed across the street to the stellar Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, which boasts wood-trimmed high-ceilinged reading and research rooms and lords over 5th Avenue, guarded by a pair of lions called “Patience” and “Fortitude.”

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge: My home. This unique birding area—home, also, to horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, raccoons, muskrats, and snakes, though I’ve spotted very few of the latter—came to be in an unlikely time, under the reign of city planner and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the asphalt-loving 1950s. That its acres of marsh were protected, that new ponds were created using subway fill, that rangers were hired and education programs begun—on territory that directly abuts John F. Kennedy International, one of the busiest airports in the world—is a modern miracle, and one of my favorite ever New York stories. The visitor count to J-Bay is remarkably low, considering its location in a city of so many millions. But its human solitude is a gift, and Jamaica Bay remains one of the best places in the northeastern U.S. to learn your birds.

So here is spring, in and around New York City: fields of geese and holy flyovers; epic March snowstorms; crocus, in Central Park, where yesterday there were none. Daffodil shoots, starlings on the fire escape, grackles at the schoolyard tree, osprey back at the refuge. One stunning little ape, jabbering and straining against her harness, craning her neck toward the sky. One still-new mama, learning and forgiving, renewing a vow to love her home country.


3 thoughts on “Wild New York

  1. Wow! Such treasures and your magical descriptions bring them to life. My blindness keeps me from seeing such treats now, but your post brings them to life. Thank you!


  2. Neysa

    I’ve never been to New York, the city, and don’t have any burning desire to experience it. But, if I happen to find myself there, I know where to go! Thank you for this!
    I love your words, your vocabulary and how you use it. Keeping in mind my tendency towards perfectionism and that I am, quite often, wrong…I believe it’s “cemetery,” not “cemetary,” an easy error. And did you really mean the osprey was nonplussed? Puzzled? Perplexed? Or did you, perhaps, mean “unperturbed” or the like. “Crypsis” is new to me and I love it, but it’s a reminder of just how ancient and dusty my degree in biology and environmental science is! 😉
    Thank you, again, Hilary…your daughter has a wonderful mother and a great start to her life.


    1. Hilary Vidalakis

      Thanks Neysa! You are a compassionate reader and editor. I appreciate your wording suggestions too. Could dwell in words all day. Sometimes do :). Crypsis was a new word for me as well and came to me only from the quote in the Amy Leach book, which I’ve not yet read. A friend sent me the quote and I thought it was just so quirky and beautiful. And, if you do ever end up in NYC please give me a holler! Would love to take you on a wild urban hike! 🙂


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