Calvert Vaux was born in London (the family name rhymes with “fox”), immigrated to America, worked with Andrew Jackson Dowling, the founding father of American landscape architecture, and published Villas and Cottages, a landmark of American neo-Gothic design. Vaux’s great claim to fame, however, is teaming up with Frederick Law Olmsted to work on both Central and Prospect Parks. The two men had a famously testy relationship, but the glory of their parks is testament to their clash of prickly genius. Olmsted, who wrote a lot and had a son/step-son carry his name well into the 20th century, long overshadowed Vaux (there was a benighted time when Olmsted got sole credit for the parks). Both men had sad ends, Olmsted sinking into senility, Vaux drowning in Gravesend Bay in 1895. It seems that one day he took a walk and never came back. It was rather mysterious. His body washed ashore along the south coast of the borough. Some belated recognition has come in the renaming of Dreier-Offerman Park in Bensonhurst for him. (The park had been named for a home for unwed mothers; some of the land cobbled together for the park had been used for landfill from construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.) Half-sunk barges and the famous yellow submarine clog the inlet between the southern and northern parts of the park. The inlet in particular becomes muddy flat at low tide, making it rich bird habitat (I saw a guy crabbing there once, too); and the park as a whole is an important first stop for migrating birds coming up from the south. A good chunk of the park is currently fenced off, part of the sports-facilities-heavy re-design. The “contaminated soil removal” signs are a reminder of how the area was long treated. The park is not particularly pedestrian-friendly, being between the water and the infernal Belt Parkway. But we managed to infiltrate anyway, walking from Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island. The other nearby subway stop is the D train at 25th Avenue/86th St., with a pedestrian bridge crossing the highway at 27th Ave. Actually, there is a bumpy road in, but we went down Bay 44th Street, crossed a tire-filled gully (as we were eyed by big feral cats), and went through a hole in the baseball field fence that some earlier commandos had snipped. A juvenile red-shouldered hawk — which has been reported hanging around the park for a while now, rather unusual for the borough — on the fence, and two killdeer on the field greeted us along with the usual Canada and brant geese. South of the active baseball fields, we found a surprising expanse of flat land bordering Coney Island Creek, which was still full of geese, ducks, and gulls. Only other other person was about, mysteriously emerging from the reeds with his bicycle (he, no doubt, wondered about us with our bins and rooting around for snail shells). The views of the Narrows were superlative. In the winter-squashed grasses along the shore we found a huge number of land snail shells. These are Cepaea nemoralis, which is also known as the brown-lipped or English garden snail. Note that the three smaller snails at the bottom all have umbilicuses, navel-like holes, which I thought would mean they are another species. After consulting with a specialist, Aydin Orstan of the excellent Snail Tales blog, I learned that juvenile C. nemoralis have open umbilicuses, and the occasional adult will too.
- O lions of the deserts, tigers of the hills: may you never find the taste of my sherbet bitter. 10 hours ago
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This work by Matthew Wills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.