Archive for November, 2011

Time and Sparrows

It isn’t often that you can actually excavate your own past. You can find a pile of old photos, or drive by an apartment you used to live in. Other, more visceral experiences are harder to come by. Like the scene in the movie where you go back to the old abandoned homestead. Pushing aside the half open rusty hinged door, startling the raccoon in the cupboard, the swallows in the eaves. Running your fingers across the wallpaper, finding the record of your growth on the kitchen doorway jamb. Hoping you’re not breathing in the Hantavirus.

Ever since my quick swing into Four Sparrow where I saw the fox, I’ve been wanting to go back. The perfect opportunity arrived upon meeting writer Brandon Keim. He had written about a show that I was in this summer and had been curious as to what I was up to with this bottle project. So we decided to go out and spread my art garbage together.

Ducking into Four Sparrow on my birthday after Jamaica Bay was a bit of a Proust Madeleine situation. And I’ve never even read “Remembrance of Things Past”! But I did see “Ratatouille” and I know from cookies.

I moved to New York about 11 years ago to go to grad school. At the time, my childhood marine scientist friend (doesn’t everyone have one?), Tali ,was working at the New York City Parks Department in a division known as NRG – Natural Resources Group. They were doing restoration work on a saltmarsh near Marine Park called Four Sparrow, an area designated as a Forever Wild (this will be ironic later) site. They needed someone to make illustrated informational signs. Turns out I knew how to draw animals, and after beating my computer with a stick for long enough I was even able to DESIGN said signs and make some charts, etc…Eventually, under the direction of Tali and David Kaplan, I went on to draw and design a map, logo and ads for the Forever Wild program as a whole.

The map without the text and legend

While working on the signs, I went to Four Sparrow a lot under the auspices of “doing research” for my drawings. But I was drawn there for much more than that. It was – and still is – a sort of sneaky park. Tucked away next to a Toys R Us, it was a peaceful, mosquito ridden place at a time when I desperately needed one. Kind of like “The Secret Garden”, if it was set in a Cambodian swamp and the little girl was a scruffy 20-something bartender/carpenter. You get the gist. Here’s a couple pictures I took back then – with a REAL CAMERA.

So after going back there the first time I went home and got on the ol’ google to see what’s what with the Four Sparrow. WELL. It turns out that my little secret garden was slated to be developed by… wait for it… RATNER. Yup. Same guy. Can you believe this shit? It was like a set up for a Disney movie or something. I’d have to assemble my gang of plucky pals and charismatic animal friends and defeat the big bad developer who would probably be SMOKING and maybe even doing something mean to one of those charismatic animals!

FOREVER Wild my ass! This, from the parks department’s own site:

“As the larger and older of the two remaining salt marshes on the north shore of the Jamaica Bay estuary system, Four Sparrow Marsh serves two critical roles besides nesting habitat. It is a rest stop for up to 326 species of migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway, and acts as a “kidney”, filtering pollution and excess nutrients from the Bay.”

Would you sell your kidneys to Bruce Ratner? I don’t know about you, but the last time I went on a bender and woke up missing some organs I did not feel good.

Wait. Hold on. This happened. It seems as though Four Sparrow is safe for now. For now. But make no mistake; just because we have lost 90% of our wetlands in New York does not mean we can’t lose 95%. I also had the great fortune of running across a great blog which you should all subscribe to: Backyard and Beyond

But I will take us back to the story…

Toys R Us behind Four Sparrow – or the other way around

Brandon and I parked the Holy Corolla in the Toys R Us parking lot and proceeded to make our way through some thick growth towards the water, a slender hooked finger of high tide that would just start to be flowing out towards Mill Basin at that hour. It was amazing to see how much growth and transformation had taken place in the last 8 years or so. There were new trees, plants spazzily going to seed everywhere, and a homeless guy’s encampment.

some carts near the encampment

People may think a homeless (I should say “houseless” as he obviously calls this place home) encampment may spoil the view of an otherwise beautiful place. But keep in mind that he lives lighter on the Earth than any of us with houses and computers. And does not have the luxury of having his refuse taken away for him. People are just another species of animal, so I see it as an example of health that Four Sparrow can support both foxes and homeless dudes.

Only yards from Flatbush Ave, with planes overhead, it actually felt like real wilderness. Whatever that even means now. I know what the common conception of wilderness is as represented by the Discovery Channel etc… Those documentaries (which I do love by the way) are as editorial as anything. The very fancy cameras used to film “Planet Earth” are pointed in a particular direction, showing us an idea of wilderness that is pure and unmarred by the hand of man. But turn those cameras around, or change their depth of focus, and a different picture emerges.

As clearly illustrated by all the pelagic plastic that inspired this project in the first place, our mark is everywhere. Whether you think that’s good or bad is beside the point; it just is. We find the image of a polar bear rummaging through garbage sad. But who’s to say he’s sad? He’s looking for food. We project our aesthetics onto animals. A bird doesn’t care if there’s plastic bags around its nesting site. Unless it can use them as material. Animals are just trying to live, so if you’re depressed at the sight of a sandpiper pecking around a Doritos bag, that’s your guilt. He’s not affected by the exxxtreme packaging; he’s just hoping there’s something to eat near it.

After some trekking and backtracking (lot’s of underbrush, but I’m not one to machete my way through Brooklyn) we eventually hit the water. And it was beautiful.

Surprised a couple cormorants. Because it’s hard to get to, I wanted to make sure to toss the bottle after high tide, but while the water was still high enough to float the bottle out. It seemed to be flowing well, so I waded out a bit and plopped it in.

This one has a common tern in it. A bird that never fails to thrill to me. And yes I know that’s corny. But it’s true.

We watched it float away, and then continued bushwacking. I wanted to see if the signs I had drawn were still up. Four Sparrow isn’t really open to the public as a proper park, and I wasn’t sure if they had taken down the signs or what. We made our way towards where I thought they would be, although with the amount of growth it was hard to tell. And then – boom. There they were.

I almost bumped right into them as they were quite overtaken by phragmites and new small trees. I brushed aside the fallen leaves and looked at my drawings.

It was eerie, digging up my own past, the bones of my artwork. It felt like finding a time capsule, even more Indiana Jones than that actually, and seeing this passage of time so literally represented affected me more than I let on to my companion.

The thing is, it didn’t affect me in a bad, “holy crap I’m so old” way. It felt like a kind of triumph. When tracing the path of one’s past, the markers are usually seen in the giant condo replacing the little house you remember, the local bakery eaten by a Dunkin Donuts, the wooded lot supplanted by a mall. Surrounded by a veritable jungle, my own marks being taken over by natural forces, it all felt like nothing less than a clear green shout cutting through the litany of loss.

I also don’t think I realized how much Brooklyn, especially this place, shaped me artistically. I talk about how formative New Jersey was to my world view and the work that I make, but I think I’ve given short shrift to Brooklyn. It was in fact right in this place that I first got interested in birds in a substantive way. Seeing nature still making it in such a place made me SEE nature differently, and it was after working on this job that I started making the work that I now make.

Sharp-tailed, seaside, swamp, and song. Say those names out loud and hear the poetry of it. Those are the four species of sparrow that give this place its name. Not all little brown birds are the same. Many people don’t think about that. (Certainly not the first time a powerful hubristic society thought all little brown beings were the same…) The more you learn and know about something, the more you care about it and value it. If you don’t know how to read, a book is just a bounded stack of paper. We have become illiterate to the natural world, and that puts it, and us, at risk.

Found near the hull of a boat in Four Sparrow

As Brandon and I walked back towards the car, I was shocked at how much this place felt like home.

Those of us in the First World are able to go to a lot of places. We swing in wide migratory arcs, growing familiar with a wider world, establishing homes in the places where we land for a while. For the first time in history it’s possible that we conceptualize the Earth in a way similar to that of migratory birds. It’s a shame to think that this moment, when we understand these birds more than ever, corresponds with their decline.

A couple years ago I was watching this thing on PBS (George likes PBS?! What?!) about Red Knots. They’re shore birds that make a tremendous migratory journey, and they are in a precipitous decline. (One of the places most important in their journey as a refueling station is in New Jersey. They are dependent on the eggs of horseshoe crabs at that point, and they’re being over-harvested.) One of the scientists being interviewed up at their arctic nesting grounds was being all science-y and talking about weighing and banding them as they come in etc… when all of a sudden she broke down. She was describing holding a tired bird that had just made it to the arctic. It was thin and she could feel its heart beating, and that’s when she lost it. This small thing, fighting so hard against so many odds just to make it, just to live.

There is something heartbreaking in that. But there is also something noble and inspiring in this blind drive to live, to survive. To not notice the Doritos bag, to keep fighting, to keep going, not knowing or caring that Ratner is out to get you. Because isn’t that what we’re all doing? Just trying to make it? That raccoon in Prospect Park, that homeless dude, that tiny bird in your hand. Its heart pulsing against your fingers, the clutching claws surprisingly strong.

Sharp-tailed, seaside, swamp, and song.

Another Bottle Found! But don’t get too excited…

A while ago I got this comment on the “About” page of the ol’ blog:

“One sealed bottle found on August 30th, 2011 in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY. My friends are employees of a marine construction company and called me about the bottle. I did a web search on “New York Pelagic” and found this website. They confirmed that the bottle had a bird on it, so it must be one from your project. I’ve asked them to save the bottle and its contents. I’ll follow-up if I get everything.”

Well, I’m sure you can imagine how excited I was. Another bottle found! Awesome! I was wondering why I hadn’t gotten an actual email, but whatever, no problem.

I was especially intrigued as I haven’t launched a bottle in Greenpoint, and I promptly wrote to the address associated with the commenter, asking which drawing they had found, etc… And then I waited.

Have I heard back? No. No I have not.

Hey, I know what I signed up for here. I should be happy that I’ve had the good luck that any of these at all have been found. After all, this is part of it. The response, the level of interest, all of it is up to chance. And there’s a beauty to that chance and that dialog. Or lack thereof. Hell, not everyone gets as excited as I do about sea gulls and drawings and messages in bottles. And a pretty integral part of this is letting things go. Literally.

But still. It’s a little… well, you know.

I have a feeling the one that ended up in Greenpoint was the Leach’s Storm-petrel launched into the East River on my rowing adventure with Joel and co. But who knows.

So that makes it four that have officially been found. Although I know it’s actually five because I saw that dude on the beach taking pictures of the one with the Cory’s Shearwater in it. Doesn’t mean he took it, but damn, seems like someone would have taken that one. The beach was packed!

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that a fair amount of these have been found. And really happy that on the whole people have been pretty excited to find them. I put a lot into these, re-doing drawings so they’re really nice, with the full knowledge that most will never be recovered. So when one’s found and then I don’t get any follow-up, you know, it just makes me feel a little, well…

On the bright side, a google image search for “disappointed” yields some of the most hilarious pictures available on the web.

So! Guys who found the bottle in Greenpoint! Get in touch with me! Lemme know which one you got!

Until then…




Tough Love. Bottle in the Gowanus

So this happened…

Winter. I take you back every year. Maybe those months when you’re “up north”, and I don’t have the bus fare to go up the river to visit, I forget how harsh you can be. Then you waltz back in promising, “This time will be different, baby. I’ll change. I’ll be warmer to you. We’ll make plans together.” But sure enough, you’ll fall back into your old ways, get rough with me, and wear me down. I’ll see friends, looking beat to hell, and they’ll say, “It’s Winter, isn’t it? Isn’t it?! When will you leave that bastard?!” Of course I’ll just claim that I was asking for it, that I fell, burned myself on the stove trying to keep you at bay by roasting everything in the house. By April or May, I usually throw you out.

But I know I’ll take you back again. Next year.

Holy crap though, I didn’t think you’d be back so soon! It’s like the illustrated interlude in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when summer turns to fall, to winter, to summer, then skipping fall, back to winter. If it keeps up like this I’m definitely going to have to eat the minstrels.

Just before the snow, there had been some Hot Migratory Action™ out on the ol’ fire escape. Black-throated Green Warbler:

And a blue jay working on something…

The next day it looked like this though, which you have to admit, is pretty beautiful:

The perfect day to launch a bottle. Right in my own backyard. The Gowanus Canal. I had wanted to toss a bottle in there from the beginning of this project. In fact I thought it would be a good place to start because the Gowanus is famously polluted, connected to the sea, and often overlooked. Now a superfund site, it has been concluded that no matter what is done, the canal will always be polluted. A permanent change. And one long in the making. Since Dutch times, the canal (then a tidal creek) has had an industrial history. The tidewater gristmill north of Union St was the first operating in New Netherland. If only we were using tidal power in New Amsterdam now…

At any rate, from then til now, the canal has been more or less a dumping ground for all of our processing and progress. The slopes and hills of good portions of Brooklyn drain into the canal, so all that oil and junk from the streets will eventually end up there even if all industry is removed from it’s immediate borders. Not that I think it should be. We all take advantage of industry and it has to go somewhere. Maybe we should think of the Gowanus as the colon of Brooklyn. Colons are always going to be kind of gross, but you definitely want them to be as healthy as possible. And sure, you may not want to spend too much time there, but you do have to investigate them from time to time.

There is plenty online about the canal, and plenty of pictures (seems like the Times does a feature every couple of months “discovering” the neighborhood”), so you can troll the web if you want to know and see more. But on a typical day this is pretty much what it looks like:

When I tossed the bottle, I bumped into some friends by chance. They’re great artists, and made a beautiful short film about waterways and fish. I also bumped into a guy from the Gowanus Dredgers. So if you want to explore the colon…

This bottle had a drawing of a laughing gull in it. I love these birds. They are so graceful, have good design, character, and their call is inseparable from summer. This snowy day was the perfect day to acknowledge summer. I realize that now these bottles, and these drawings, are becoming love letters of a sort. As I move through these summer species, the laughing gulls, the terns, I’m sending these bottles to them, wherever they may be. Hoping that they’re well. Thinking of their return. Knowing how happy I’ll be to take them back.

The Urgency of Fall

Remember how I used to have that blog and I was all into birds an’ junk? I still do! And I’m still into birds! And junk! I just haven’t posted in a while.

Fall came. I’d like to say it crept up on me, but that’s not really true. I had a long full summer. It didn’t rush headlong after the fourth of July like it usually does.

To mark the return of Fall (begrudgingly), and my birthday (also begrudgingly), my friend Dayna suggested that we go out to Jamaica Bay. A capital idea. I wanted to toss a bottle there. And I also like looking at birds. And junk.

Cormorants using a platform intended for osprey. Don't worry, I saw a ospery and he didn't look homeless.

I was sort of thinking about the change of season, thinking more about getting bagels really. But when we got to Jamaica Bay, Fall in all it’s garish glory snapped my foggy head to attention.

People love to wax poetic about Spring. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a fan of Spring. It just makes me impatient for Summer. Summer’s totally better. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the beauty of Spring. But where Spring is a clear crystal needle of a note piercing the Winter, Fall is a shout. A howl. All timidity gone, calling in reckless abandon, “Take me! Take me! This is it! These are my seeds! I made them for you!”  This is the season where bucks crash through school windows, charge cars, polishing their antlers, forgetting to eat.

You can see it in every plant. So blatant. So garish. Spring is the prettiest girl at the bar. Her hair just so, sipping her wine, confident that her radiance will bring others to her. Fall, on the other hand, is ten whiskeys in, on top of the table, tearing her shirt open, screaming herself hoarse. She’s loved before, and baby, she’s going out with a bang.

Or at least that’s how I see it. This sumac?

Totally trying to get laid.

I didn’t alter the color of these berries at all:

Have you been to Jamaica Bay? I know I say this about every corner and pocket of the city, but really, Jamaica Bay is pretty special. You’d be shocked at the variety and sheer amount of birdlife you can see there.

Double-crested cormorants, a bunch of snowy egrets, a bunch of ducks (mallard, black, think I saw a shoveler but I didn’t really check hard), a black crowned night heron on the opposite side of the pond along with some introduced swans.

Jamaica Bay is so important to this city’s wildlife. We’ve lost most of our wetlands. Thought of as bad and useless land, they were largely drained and paved over. This was before we realized how valuable they were. Wetlands are extremely productive ecosystems. Which shouldn’t be surprising. It’s where the land meets the sea. Meeting points in general are pretty fertile ground, whether we’re talking about people or ecosystems, ideas or oysters.

What remains of Jamaica Bay is still vital, is still productive, and is more important than ever.  Flooded twice a day by the tide, Jamaica Bay is a beating heart of nature in New York, providing the lifeblood to countless animals that live there, radiate out, and pass through in migration. Without these undeveloped stretches, where would we dump our bodies? Without all that wildlife, how would they be so thoroughly disposed of?

Look! It’s my old friend, Beachjunx!

Did you know that New York has native cactus?

Well it does. Prickly pear is native to almost every state in the union. Tumbleweed on the other hand?…

I thought these were only native to Red Hook. I used to have a quite lovely but lonely studio there and joked about how it was just me, a cat, and some tumbleweeds. Little did I know, even they had abandoned me for greener pastures. Seriously though, anyone have any idea that we had/have tumbleweeds here? It smells really good. Have it at my apartment now.

So I had a bottle with me, but for some reason it just didn’t feel right. I just didn’t want to toss it there for some reason. The weather had cleared so after Jamaica Bay, we decided to check out Floyd Bennett Field. Here’s some goldenrod really living up to its name:

And here’s a guy living up to his boat’s name. Chillin’. Enjoying the day. This dude rules.

Suspenders even?

A beautiful, mournful looking kestrel. You can see these little raptors in the city quite a bit.

After Floyd Bennett we went somewhere I’ve been meaning to revisit for a while. Four Sparrow Marsh. I have quite a personal history with the place and I will go deeper into it in a later post.

Here’s a picture of a song sparrow that I took that day. One of the eponymous sparrows of this park.

You need to be prepared for some bushwackin’ with Four Sparrow and the mosquitoes are  biblical. We didn’t have bug repellent and Dayna didn’t have appropriate footwear for a proper trek, so we just ducked a little ways in. But then! A fox! A red fox in the brush! I never expected to see one in Brooklyn. After one look at me he quickly (slyly?!) slinked off. Here’s where he/she was:

Seeing the fox was quite a good birthday present. I didn’t even toss the bottle. Don’t worry though, it gets tossed soon.