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.

5 Responses to “Time and Sparrows”

  1. 1 Robbin November 16, 2011 at 7:58 AM

    AWESOME blog and project, George!! I’ve been feeling a little lost here in my Boston-commuting life. Thank you for dropping a few bread crumbs to help me find my way back home. :*)

    The bottle project is brilliant! I hope that you will persist so the weight of it seeps into the conciousness of New York. In a superficial way, it reminds me of the blue plastic balls we used to find in the Arthur Kill marshes. Legend has it that they were markers for a drift study; but, they look more like play pit balls from Ikea. I’d guess we found at least a couple of dozen of them over the years. After a big Nor’easter it seemed like most of them “drifted” to New Jersey, though. What we throw away says so much about who we are as a culture. One year, maybe ’96?, the Salt Marsh Restoration Team packed up the most interesting items from our marsh debris collection and mailed them to the Smithsonian Institute for an exhibit they were creating on ocean debris. I never saw it but, they said it would look like a giant breaking wave made of garbage.

    Anyway, I’ve always loved your work and especially enjoy the idea of your interpretive signs as a kind of archeological find in the jungle of Four Sparrow Marsh. A prize for the daring!

    I have a story about a redtail hawk and a rabbit to share sometime. It’s winter tale.

    All the Best!
    Robbin Bergfors

  2. 2 mthew December 13, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    This is a fantastic essay. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to it! I hadn’t realized those panels were your work. I’ve been watching them be overtaken by the wild now for several years; the most recent trip, last week, they were invisible from just a few yards away. There’s a flavor of left-on-the-moon about them now.

    I always seem to get there at low tide, when the mud is goopey, and, in summer, crawling with fiddlers. Now in late fall, the mugwort is chest-high and smells remarkably good.

  3. 3 Out Walking the Dog January 5, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    What a gorgeous post. I’ve been reading about Four Sparrow (noth the marsh itself and the fight to preserve it) on Backyard and Beyond for some time, though have not yet visited. Your drawings are beautiful, overgrown and not, and I love the meditation of this post.

  4. 4 Meemsnyc March 2, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    I just found your blog by the way of Backyard and Beyond. That was a nicely written post. It must have been surreal to see your artwork / signage again after all this time.

    I think for myself, I get sad seeing all the garbage affecting marine life. Birds and mammals getting scarred by accidentally eating the garbage that is polluting our waterways. Or birds, fish, marine life getting caught in netting etc.

    Behind my house in Staten Island is a large swamp area and we were told that it is protected land. Hopefully parks and marshes like this will stay protected in the boroughs. We need places like this.

  1. 1 Scale « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on March 1, 2012 at 7:17 AM

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