Reviews of The Forests and Wetlands of New York City

New York Times

The title of Elizabeth Barlow’s The Forests and Wetlands of New York City may strike one as amusing — a gentle sick joke. And at first it makes one sad to be reminded by the author, who is a former Parks Council consultant, that wolves once roamed Manhattan, that Indians once hunted in the Bronx, and that Adrian Van der Donck, an early resident, once wrote that “The air in the New Netherlands is so dry, sweet and healthy that we need not wish that it were otherwise . . . There are no heavy damps or stinking mists in the country, and if any did arise, a northerly breeze would blow them away and purify the air. The summer heat is not oppressive in the warmest weather, for it is mitigated by the sea breezes, the northerly winds, and by, showers.”

Yet, oddly enough, Mrs. Barlow’s study is not at all what the foregoing may suggest it is — a jeremiad on human folly, or a polemic on the ecocatastrophe. Quite the contrary, her book is therapeutic, for if one of the extreme hazards of existing in this city is the anxious and disorienting sense of being cut off from the natural surface of the globe, then Mrs. Barlow has provided an antidote.

For she has reached back to recall for us what the city once was like — how Manhattan island used to be divided by a marsh system, part of which was Collect Pond (famous for its fishing), where the Criminal Court building now stands, and part of which became the waterway that gave Canal Street its name. How the Indian village of Nipinisicken once sat on Spuyten Duyvel Hill (“whose rock face is today painted with a huge blue C for Columbia to encourage the home team at Baker Field”). And how the finest sheared chrysoberyl crystal ever found in North America was discovered at Riverside Drive and 93d Street.

She has linked the present city to its past by showing how its geological history shaped its development. Did you know, for instance, that major thoroughfares like Broadway run along bands of soft, corrodible Inwood marble that lie between the “heights” of tougher stone? (It was the location of similar marble that determined where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers were to cut their beds.) Were you aware that between 30th and Chambers Streets the firm bedrock of Manhattan schist that elsewhere supports the city’s skyscrapers dips below the reach of building foundations, thus accounting for the “valley” of low buildings in Greenwich Village and the loft district?

Finally, in the major chapters of the book, Mrs. Barlow has explored part of what is left of comparatively pure nature in the city: Manhattan’s Inwood Park, the wooded area overlooking Spuyten Duyvel Creek, where Indians once lived in caves that are still extant, and where Hessian mercenaries were quartered during the Revolutionary War. (Among the artifacts located there and now on display in the relic room of the Dyckman House at Broadway and 204th Street “is a tooth-marked bullet probably bitten by some anguished soldier undergoing surgery or a beating.”)

And Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park, on Long Island Sound, where, in the shadow of Coop City, a few doughty city residents stilt secret their fishing tackle and commune with nature; Staten Island, once a naturalist’s paradise, but now threatened by the sprawl of urbanization unloosed by the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; and Jamaica Bay, which, thanks to the efforts of former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and resident superintendent Charles Johnson, has become a refuge for 310 species of shorebirds and waterfowl, not to mention the 2,000 city residents who like to watch them, but which now faces extinction if plans to expand Kennedy airport are allowed to go through.

The point that Mrs. Barlow is driving at with her graceful prose is as multilayered as the rock-formation beneath the city. We have all but obliterated the natural city with our concrete, steel, and garbage “landfill.” Which is lamentable. Still, wiser souls have intervened now and then and here and there to preserve pockets of precity life. Which is cause for celebration. And with still more careful planning in the future, we ought to be able to expand and preserve simultaneously (as Mrs. Barlow feels we are doing in the current reconstruction of Welfare Island). Which is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

An eminently reasonable book to swallow, then, with unusual side effects. As one reads along, one can feel the fists in one’s viscera untightening. One begins to sense the city again, begins to think of it as lifesustaining, and begins even to like it a little. Which is altogether remarkable.

— Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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New York Times Book Review

This is a book full of good news. Even at this moment, when human existence itself too often seems threatened in New York City, Elizabeth Barlow reminds us that the red fox, the pheasant, the muskrat, the bald eagle live here in the wild; that water cress, trout lilies and jack-in-the-pulpits sprout from our municipal earth. Even now, when Model Cities fills welfare hotels by tearing down housing in Brownsville, she tells us that all is not destruction — nature in its own inexorable way is adding a mile of virgin beach every 23 years to Breezy Point or the western end of Rockaway peninsula.

In her survey of our city’s ecology she avoids the comparatively well-publicized natural beauties of Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Rather she traces the geological changes over millions of years that established our Venetian city of islands, then zeroes in on marvelous, relatively unknown areas: Inwood Hill in upper Manhattan; Pelham Bay in the Bronx; the Staten Island Green Belt; Welfare Island; and the great wildlife refuge in Jamaica Bay.

Jamaica Bay is a good place to focus on. It was created in the mid-fifties by Robert Moses when he was Parks Commissioner. (Yes, we do have one or two things to thank him for.) But it would not have reached its present glory with out Herbert Johnson. Johnson is bright-eyed and indefatigable, the chief Parkie in Jamaica Bay. By careful planting of various types of bushes and trees favored by our feathered friends, he turned Jamaica Bay into a bird watchers’ paradise. Even the glossy ibis, basically a tropical bird, now nests there.

The wild places are there, flourishing, but Elizabeth Barlow realizes that their existence is precarious. Wisely, she points out that their preservation “lies with in the realm of politics and public demand.” The depredations of highwaymen happened because open citizen politics was throttled by the New York City Democratic-Republican machine, especially in the decades of the forties and fifties. The situation today is vastly different. A network of block associations, civic councils and conservation groups is on the alert to any further attempted acts of destruction.

For example, the Sanitation Department wanted to use the remaining salt marshes of Pelham Bay Park as a dumping ground for landfill. Conservation and community groups dug in their heels, gave some spine to Parks Commissioner August Heckscher, and the destruction of these marshes — home of the muskrat and the owl — was stayed for the moment.

The writing in this book is as careful and as beautiful as the subjects it describes. The author’s prose (and excellent photos) perfectly evoke the brooding masses of schist and tall tulip trees that form northern Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park; the netherlands of Jamaica Bay; the marshes of Pelham Bay; the glacial pools and deep forests of the Green Belt. Many a reader will want to get up one of these crisp mornings and see for himself that New York City is not just concrete and steel.

— Joe Ferris

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