Archive for the 'Other' Category

Where the buffalo roam

From an old school spring-rolled wall map that looked like it dated to the mid-1960s, seen in a loft on Washington Avenue in Wallabout on the Clinton Hill House Tour this past Sunday. The American buffalo, actually a bison, once did roam in the eastern woodlands, along with their megafauna cousins.


As a miniscule part of the complex life-system of the planet, I understand that everything comes back to the nature that surrounds me and is me.

Most of the invasive species that have crossed the oceans have come from Eurasia. The Americas, long separated from the planet’s largest continent, were sitting ducks for viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other, more complicated, life-forms. Smallpox, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, emerald ash borers, zebra mussels, starlings, kudzu, are just a few examples of things to hit these shores and transform them.

It used to be thought that syphilis was the New World’s revenge upon the Old for this cross-oceanic transportation, but there is now archeological evidence that the disease was long resident in the Old, and that it may have been a cross between New and Old world strains that caused the virulent outbreak in Post-Columbian Europe.

A couple of our native mammals, like the wily muskrat, have spread throughout Eurasia. Without a doubt, however, the deadliest example of an American species to ravage the world remains Phylloxera. Originally classified as Phylloxera vastatrix (meaning, basically, leaf-drying destroyer), this tiny louse was native to the eastern U.S. Here, they lived in relative détente with American grapes species. However, this wasn’t the case with the primary European grape species, Vitis vinifera, from whence the great grape varieties stemmed. The little bugs got over the big water on American rootstocks sent to the south of France for experimentation. Starting in 1863, they spread out to vanquish the European wine industry by cutting off vines at the root. Only a few grapes were safe, mostly those that grew in volcanic or very sandy soil.

After Europe, Phylloxera swept across South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and then, ironically, swamped California, where an infant wine industry was based on European grapes. 17,000 acres of California vineyards were destroyed. (There was a second devastating outbreak in California in the 1980s, due to a poor choice of rootstock.) Pretty much everything was tried to stop the insects, which were so small that at first people had no idea why the vines were withering. Chemicals were poured, fields were flooded, vineyards were irrigated with white wine, toads were buried (the desperation of livelihoods destroyed led to desperation; we’ll be seeing more of that as radical climate change and accompanying sociopolitical transformation ravages populations).

The ultimate solution turned out to be pretty simple: take American grape rootstock — from the species V. riparia, V. ruspestris, and V. berlandieri — which had evolved along with the insects and tolerated them, and graft them to V. vinifera cuttings. As a result, almost all of the world’s wine vines today have American roots. The rootstock has no effect on the grape itself, so your Bordeaux is still Bordeaux.

Yes, there can be solutions.
In vino veritas: I’m taking a wine tasting class at the French Culinary Institute, where the hallways, unlike any school I’ve ever been in, smell really, really good. Cheers.

Save the dates

May 1
The Listening Tour.
I will be leading a Proteus Gowanus event on May Day at 6:00 a.m., as part of the interdisciplinary gallery and reading room’s Paradise exhibition. We will meet at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park. Then we’ll SILENTLY walk through Prospect Park at the crack of dawn to listen to the sounds of spring: the dawn chorus (dozens of species of birds are passing through), the tumble of water, the beating of our own hearts, the hounds on the Long Meadow. This is a walking meditation, a sensory re-adjustment, and, yes, a god-awful early time to wake up. I, for one, will be joyously disoriented by time, ready for the crack of dawn in the urban maelstrom to tear me asunder, and open to the sounds of this tiny, tiny, tiny bit of the universe.

May 15
Botanical Walk.
I will lead a tour of Four Sparrow Marsh for NYC Wildflower Week, starting at 11:30 a.m. Wildflower Week (May 6-15) is a now annual series of events and tours throughout the five boroughs aimed at getting New Yorkers to become familiar with the nature in their backyard. (A mission after my heart, so you know we were destined to come together.) Check out the long week’s other events, too, because there’s a full slate of great things going on.

Four Sparrow Marsh, which I’ve written about before, is a little bit of wild Brooklyn under threat from developers and their politicians.

Coney Island’s Endemic Species

You have to be a certain age to remember when Coney Island Whitefish teemed off of Brooklyn’s shores in such massive schools that beach-goers wouldn’t dare go into the water. Today, however, they’re a rare sight.

Although sometimes mistaken for the pallid Manhattan eel  (Mentula brevus), the Coney Island Whitefish is a unique species. Sitts coneius breeds terrestrially, separating from the parent like a shed polyp. The young Whitefish are then dragged into the ocean by the receding tide. In the sea, they’re notoriously sluggish swimmers. In fact, they’re usually washed back ashore, and then sucked back out again. It’s a Sisyphean existence, in and out, in and out with the tide.

Fishermen despair of the limp things. When asked about them, Sheepshead Bay charter boat skippers Sal Ippolito and Tony Quadratti, who between them have three quarters of a century worth of experience, look at each other and shake their heads.

“Hardly ever see those anymore,” says Sal. “Not that I miss ’em. Nobody eats ’em, they’re too rubbery, not even the gulls.”

Tony adds, “And when you do find them now, they’re sometimes green! Sorta, you know, like they’re minty. Never saw that back in the day.”

And yet… what a piece of Brooklyniana is the Coney Island Whitefish! The borough’s mythos resounds with them, slipping through the rotting wooden piers of the first half of the 20th century. Ah, what glories! What memories! They’re as Brooklyn as apple pie is American. After all, who doesn’t remember Brooklyn-born Phil Slivers quipping, in the hilarious This Accountant For Hire, “Even if the whitefish fits, don’t wear it!”, especially after the line was sampled by Brownsville hip-hop duo Smif-n-Wessun?

In honor, then, of the Coney Island Whitefish, lost marker of the glory that was, Borough President* Marty Markowitz will be eating a plate of them today on the Borough Hall steps at noon, followed by a slice of Junior’s Cheesecake.

*The Borough President is our official municipal cheerleader. Formerly hereditary, the position is now underwritten by major developers and Russian oligarch-gangsters.

Two Projects of Note

The marvelously named “Friends of The Pleistocene” and Smudge Studio are working on a geological guide to the city’s building materials as a way to show how geological time very much intersects with human time. The work is called Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York and I’m really looking forward to it (as I pass by the guys mixing a little crushed Triassic into the sand in preparation of painting the brownstone brown).

The NYC BiodiverCITY blog pulls together submissions from thoughout the city on our biodiversity, to make the point that the revision of Bloomberg’s PlanNYC needs to take this wealth of plant and animal life into account. I’ve already contributed. Have you?

Some housekeeping: I’ve recently added some NYC bird lists and other blogs and sites to my blogroll. Check them out.

Also, I encourage you to subscribe to this blog and link to it as well as Digging/Tweeting/Stumbling/MyFacespacebooking and otherwise sharing it if you enjoy it. Comments are always welcome.

GCK Abstractions

Natural Object: Paleontological Find


Brooklyn, which is located at the mouth of what Walt Whitman called “fish-shaped Paumanok,” using a Native American word for what we now call Long Island, is, geologically speaking, loosey-goosey. We are sitting on glacial till, the rubble (sands, clays, gravels, erratics, etc.) pushed down here during the Pleistocene by the ice. (There was plenty of beach-front property in those days, only it was much further to the south.) There are actually two terminal moraines on Long Island, from different glacial advances. The moraine curving through Brooklyn is called Harbor Hill, but that’s not a very well-known name; better known are such neighborhoods as Bay Ridge, Park Slope, Greenwood Heights, Prospect Heights, and so on, which memorialize the topography. (And on the other side of the moraine is the outwash plain, rather appropriately called Flatlands and Flatbush around here. )

As a result of the glaciers, we have a lot of differently-aged pieces of earth here, all a-jumble. (The Rock Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a number of boulders labeled as to type and place of origin.) What this means for our purposes is that it is very hard to date anything found in the ground. Take this, for instance:

If this isn’t an ancient stiff-tail, Trilobitomorpha telsonia, then my name is Harcourt Fenton Mudd. These suckers haven’t been sighted since the Permian! I’m no expert, of course, far from it, but I think this is rather extraordinary, even with the muddled provenance. I found it at the building site for The Teilhard, the look-at-me-glass-wrapped needle of a “luxury” apartment tower on Nelson St., hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

I am awaiting a delegation from the AMNH.


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