Posts Tagged 'Gowanus'

River of Milky Jade

gowanusSigns of life in the Superfund Gowanus, which has a weird milky jade color (and, oy, the stink!) this time of year.

Death and Life on the Gowanus

Gowanus CanalThe northern, terminal end of the Gowanus Canal. Where we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. Dolphin memorialOn Friday, a dolphin ended up in the canal, causing a media frenzy, including, evidently, a helicopter overhead, and the usual circus of social-media-alerted gawkers. (I was blessed to have missed it all.) The animal died in advance of plans to intervene Saturday morning. In retrospect, that seems rather predictable: it’s unlikely the animal was healthy to begin with, and the toxic sludge of the canal may or may not have been whatever the opposite of gilding the lily is. (One small consolation is that the animal was not around long enough to be given some stupid-ass cutesy-wootsie name.)

A Superfund site, erstwhile industrial gutter, the Canal is thick with heavy metals, petroleum variations, and much else. A young minke died here in 2007.

Yet there is still life on and around the canal, struggling on against our violations of the planet.

The other night at twilight, I saw at least thirty ducks on the portion of the canal above, the water still unfrozen (perhaps due to old antifreeze in the water). It was dark, but they looked to be all Mallards. In another section of the canal earlier this year, I saw three Black-crowned Night Herons hunting for the fish that come in on the tide. And overhead, there are always Ring-billed Gulls.

Gowanus Fish

Life in the Gowanus, and I don’t mean the mythological Carroll Gardens flipper-baby frogmen that are supposedly heard plopping and flopping in the greasy water on still moonless nights.

Three Gowanus Trees

The Valley of the Shadow of the Gowanus, as I like to call it, is the lowland between the ridge of Brooklyn Heights and the Harbor Hill Moraine. The western slope of Park Slope and the eastern slope of Punkiesburg (Cobble Hill) used to drain down into the marshy Gowanus creek, thought to have been named after a native American by European settlers. In the colonial era, the creek and Wallabout Bay to the north pinched off Brooklyn Heights, making for a strategic passive defense for the glorious retreat of the Americans in the Battle of Brooklyn in August, 1776. The 1.5 mile Gowanus Canal, the great greasy green Gowanus, completed in 1869, turned the area into an industrial zone. Nearly a century of toxins resulted in what is now a Superfund site.But… silktrees, Albizia julibrissin, sometimes called mimosa, are blooming now on Union Street. This species is native to southern Asia from Iran to Japan. Persian silktree is another of its common name.Starting out as a big weed, the tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, the tree of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Anywhere in Brooklyn. Everywhere in Brooklyn. A native of China and Taiwan. The largest leaves in town? Royal paulownia, Paulownia tormentosa, also starts off a weedy-looking thing. Native to China and Korea.

All three of these trees were originally imported to plant in gardens and parks. They took on a life of their own, though, and have become naturalized.Ailanthus, paulownia, and silktree fighting it out at the Union Street Bridge over the canal. They are all growing out of the soil covering a fuel bunker, and squeezing through the fence.

Gowanus Lady

This week, the Gowanus Canal, a relic of the Industrial Age that runs through the soft underbelly of Brooklyn, was declared a Superfund Site by the EPA. I’m inordinately fond of the ol’ toxic sewer outlet, which is also known as the Lavender Lake, although I prefer to borrow Kipling’s “great greasy green” aliteration. It’s surrounded by the ruins of the industry our FIRE-masters have chased out of the city (and the country), although a couple of businesses still operate on it, barging in cement mixings and barging out scrap metal. Originally a swampy creek, evidently named after a Native American leader, it’s also a bit of hallowed ground: the burial site of the Maryland Four Hundred, who strategically held off the Brits and their Hessian “military contractors” (cough, cough) in August, 1776, is a block away.

My friend Jose Gaytan has taken some great photos of the Canal. Nathan Kensinger, who I don’t know, evidently had to climb over some fences to get these interiors. The Hall of the Gowanus should not be missed.

I’ve crossed the Canal innumerable times. Each of the five streets bridges is unique, each a different kind of drawbridge. Although often stinking, and horribly polluted, the canal does support life. It’s mostly invasive plants on the edges, as you’d suppose, but I’ve seen Mallards and black ducks, red-breasted mergansers, and double-crested cormorants on and in the water, and ring-billed gulls above. When we had our big jellyfish invasion a couple of years ago, they were coming right up the canal, which is, sluggishly, tidal.

When the City Blog over at the Times put out a call yesterday for a slideshow about the Canal, I submitted a couple of pictures. The top view is one of them. Back in early October I was crossing the Union Street Bridge and dodging through an overhanging mimosa or silktree, Albizia julibrissin. The sapling was growing out of an earth-covered fuel bunker of some kind and eagerly reaching over the fence. I noticed a small reddish object on one of the leaflets. Looking closer, I found a pupa. I brought it home to identify it. It was the multicolored Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis. I put it on my desk, near my computer, and soon enough, I noticed movement: a pale, unspotted lady-bug had emerged! It crawled out of the Gowanus! (Like the legendary flipper babies they whisper about in Carroll Gardens…). Over the next several hours, the beetle, which I transferred to a bean leaf outside, slowly darkened and developed a host of spots. I checked every hour. She moved from the top of the leaf I’d placed her on to the underside, hiding her face under a curling edge. She was obviously safer there during this vulnerable time.  And then she was gone.

True, the Gowanus Canal is a toxic disaster, but life on earth is profoundly resilient, and adaptable, and will long outlast us.


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