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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.

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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.

The Bronx Is Burning… With Good Times!

I launched a bottle in the Bronx. Sounds like a dirty euphemism, “Launching a bottle in the Bronx.” I went to City Island with my friend Olivier. He’s a German reportage illustrator and we went to school together. He’s insanely talented. I know Germans have a reputation for not being funny, and for occasionally killing tons of people, but I can assure you that Oli is one of the funniest guys I know and that these days he hardly kills anyone. We’ve traveled for long periods of time together, a month around the US, a month through Cuba, Florida, and the Bahamas, so I figured the Bronx wouldn’t be too difficult. Here’s one of his drawings from when we were in Cuba. I’m appropriately drinking a bottle of rum. Although it may have been gasoline.


I had wanted to go to City Island for a few reasons.
1. I had never been there.
2. I had yet to toss a bottle in the Bronx.
3. I wanted clam strips.
4. Hart Island.

Hart Island is the City’s potter’s field. Have you ever wondered where all the unclaimed dead of a metropolis of 8 million go? That’s where. The inmates from Riker’s Island do the work. There are so many little islands in New York, all with their own peculiar history. I guess I’m a bit sappy, maudlin, and sentimental, because I wanted to toss a bottle in the direction of an island full of ghosts.

We got stuck in some traffic on the way up, so when we got there we decided to eat first. The part about me wanting clam strips was no joke. I was picturing sidling up at some little shack at the end of a pier, making small talk with the Quint-looking proprietor, petting the resident cat.

What I got instead was a Soviet style prison cafeteria in a parking lot. Or as Oli put it, “This looks like something in the Ukraine.” Say that sentence in a deadpan German accent. On the bright side, there was a VERY healthy population of laughing gulls at said establishment. In fact, the place might be sustaining the entire population of laughing gulls in the Bronx. We all do our part…

After eating and explaining to Olivier what a “douchebag” was (3.5 years he lived in the States, and he didn’t know what “douchebag” was! “I thought it was maybe that hat you wear in the shower or something.”), we went looking for a spot to take a dip and toss a bottle.

This one has a Manx Shearwater in it.

 

Easier said than done. I had heard you can’t swim anywhere off of City Island, and it’s kind of true. Every street ends at the water, and they all have a fence there. And usually a homeowner gardening 15 feet away. I though all was lost until we stumbled upon a graveyard. Fitting. I liked the idea of tossing a bottle from an area of recognized dead to an island of unrecognized dead.


I had a feeling there might be a way in through the graveyard, and I was not disappointed. You only have to pretend to be paying your respects – or not pretending – and then make your way through some semi-dense brush.

What opens up before you is a scene not usually associated with the Bronx:

The water looked inviting and it was. I swam the bottle out in the direction of the boats and then gave it a toss. Then it started drifting right towards some nasty looking rocks so I swam it out further, into the midst of the boats, and it started drifting up toward Orchard Beach. All fine with me. The water wasn’t gross, by the way. I know you’re thinking that.

On the way back we took a stroll through Pelham Bay Park. Absolutely beautiful there.

What is this, the 19th century?! I feel like I should call up the Bronx borough president and pitch some new slogans. “Welcome to simpler times… the Bronx.” Or:

I used to do some work for the parks department and got the chance to see some really interesting parts of the city. The Bronx has very extensive parks, and they are more than worth checking out. The southern end of the typical New England rocky shorline is there. So is the last free flowing river of the city. Throw the Bronx a bone and go visit. There’s even tigers there.

Another Bottle Found!

Another bottle has been found! I received an email from a Ms. Maggie B asking for my address and letting me know that she had found a bottle. I wrote back spazzily wanting to know where and when. She wrote back letting me know that I’d just have to wait and see.
Cheeky.

Well, imagine my delight, gentle readers, when I got this in the mail:

And inside!:

And inside that…:

She didn’t actually cram a tomato and a salt shaker in there, but in a beautifully written letter, Maggie told me that she and her boyfriend found the bottle at Ft Tilden. This particular bottle certainly didn’t set any distance records as I had tossed it at Ft Tilden the same day she found it. But I feel it found its rightful owner. Maggie had had sort of a crappy day earlier (keys forgot at home, burned feet, hot dog dropped in sand) so I think finding the bottle cheered her up.

It’s so nice to get an actual letter. You can see someone’s penmanship. We don’t even know most of our friends’ handwriting these days. And holding the physical object makes you feel more connected.

Maggie moved here from Florida and found the initial adjustment hard. She said she made a pact with herself to get to the beach once a week this summer. I used to live in Florida too and found both the adjustment moving there AND moving away hard. Florida is nuts, and I could go on and on about how much I love it and hate it, but I’ll just say that it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Mainly because we had Hurricane Irene sweep through the area. I’m just waiting for the swarm of locusts at this point. I moved to Miami for college about 12 hours before Hurricane Andrew struck and I know full well how bad it can be.

Everything was basically fine here. A tree fell on my parents’ house in Jersey, but they’re fine, as is the house. No power as of yet, but fine (My dad: “Yeah, well, your mother and I just go to bed at 8.” Me: “Why doesn’t mom just charge up the laptop at work so at least you guys could watch a movie or something?” My dad: “Ah, we don’t need to get involved in that.”)

When I first moved to New York I made a similar pact with myself as Maggie did. I wanted to make sure to go to the beach, and to swim in any available pools or bodies of water that weren’t too polluted. That’s how I initially found Ft Tilden. In the last ten years or so, what was once a blank spot on the map has now certainly been discovered. But I prefer it that way. It’s fun to look at people on the beach. Unlike the subway, pretty much everyone is in a good mood. And why shouldn’t they be? It’s beautiful. There’s birds. And interesting rubbish. And shells. It’s for everyone. And you may even find a message in a bottle from the guy playing Kadima 50 yards from you.

New Jersey Pelagic

This is a long post – but wait! – it also might be boring!

You didn’t read the title wrong, by the way. New York Pelagic went on location! It may seem like cheating, but hell, they’re my rules, I can break ‘em. And there is the little fact that New York shares many of its waters with New Jersey, so there’s that. And I’m the biggest Jersey booster, so there’s that too.

The last week of July, my friends and I rented a house in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. I grew up going to Long Beach Island. Usually a week with my family and an additional week with my best friend who lived there during the summer. I loved every minute of it. The place where one spent vacation as a child becomes a personal Shangri-La. It was magic then and it was magic this year with my friends. Of course anything is magic after enough gin and tonics, but the shine of the shore has not worn off for me.

 It’s also not an overstatement to say that the time I spent there as a kid shaped the artwork that I make. I’ve written in the past about the impact that New Jersey has had on my work. It is the Bittersweet State, summed up quite heartbreakingly in the slogan that adorns the bridge in the state’s capital: “Trenton Makes. The World Takes.” There is so much nature there, and so much development, and the brutal, surprising, and bizarre compromises between the two are plainly on display. It is so easy to see what’s been lost, but also easy to see how life thrives there in spite – and sometimes BECAUSE- of it all.

Down the shore this contrast is even more marked. The shore is heavily developed. And the ocean is true wilderness. And there is no buffer zone between the two. Nature and all its relationships are laid explicitly bare. For a kid from the suburbs like me, it was the first time I caught food that I ate, and saw seagulls and terns doing the same. It was also the first time I noticed that there were different types of gulls, that there were smaller types, terns and sandpipers, and I remember the thrill of emerging from a wave as a black skimmer sliced through the water only yards from my nose.

Clearly a bottle toss and some BudLites™ were in order. If not for science-y artistic expression, then for nostalgia. So I packed up some beers, and my bottle, and my minstrels. I don’t go anywhere without minstrels. I wanted to toss the bottle at the end of the jetty at the inlet between Barnegat Light and Island Beach State Park. It’s pretty hairy in there and I wasn’t sure where it would go, but I was hoping that since the tide was running out it would head out too. It didn’t. It sort of carved a wide arch and seemed to be heading IN through the inlet towards the bay. Who knows. I’m just happy I didn’t lodge it in the blow-hole of a dolphin. We’d seen a whole pod only about 20 yards off the end of the jetty earlier that day. They were really wet and didn’t seem tired of swimming around at all!

This bottle has a Norther Fulmar in it.

The next day I took out a kayak because I wanted to head across to Island Beach State Park to do a bit of poking about.

I had seen Brown Pelicans all week. This I certainly do not remember from my childhood. There were adults and juveniles. Guide books still list their northern extent at about North Carolina, but they seemed pretty comfortable up here. The intercyberworldwide says they’ve been coming up here during the summer since some time in the 80’s, and that there was an abortive breeding attempt in the early 90’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are breeding somewhere on Island Beach State Park. Here’s one looking  like a regular local:

On the way over I found this!

Their northern extent is also supposed to be around North Carolina. Stragglers can head up all the way to Maine, and during the summer it is not at all unusual to encounter tropical species that have been swept up with the Gulf Stream. But coming right on the heels of the pelicans, it seemed a little… fishy?

Here’s another introduced species in New Jersey.

No one knows for sure when they got here, but it seems they were in a larval stage in the ballast of a cargo ship containing hair extensions and Ed Hardy t-shirts that ran aground off the coast. It was believed that they wouldn’t be able to establish a viable breeding population because of genetic bottlenecking, but they seem to have beat the odds. The healthiest rookeries seem to be centralized in Seaside Heights and Wildwood, with stragglers distributed along the Eastern Seaboard. The photo shows two females “presenting.”

I explored the marshes and sand flats of the island. On these barrier islands slight differences in elevation, thus salinity, determine which plants can grow where. It’s like reading a chart looking at this type of habitat.

These islands look like other impoverished habitats, the desert, and tropical seas. The crystal clear waters of the tropics owe their clarity to the lack of nutrients in them. That’s why coral reefs are so important. They are the actual substructure for life. You can see a similar thing in the desert. A creosote bush will become a kind of anchor for a whole community of organisms, and the pattern of growth in a patch reef or a scrub desert, or a sandy barrier island is shockingly similar. Cactuses and corals even seem to echo each other’s forms.

There were a lot of birds. It was great to watch all the interactions of the terns and skimmers. I respect a good spaz, and the spaziness of a juvenile tern trying to get food from its parents – or any adult for that matter – is especially charming.

On the way back to my kayak I ran into a guy clamming.

 I asked if he had had any luck. “Ha!” he said, “Thirty years ago, you’d have a five gallon bucket full in five minutes. Ten years ago, not so bad. Now?!” and here he held his hands palms up, shrugged, and looked around.

Just like every other corner of the ocean, life here is on a well-charted path of decline. An almost universal lament of scientists studying the natural world is that they’re just “documenting the decline.” And you certainly don’t have to be a scientist to notice it if you just decide to look. Like the guy clamming, I remember when this bay was teeming with clams. The friend I stayed with here as a kid lived on a boat in Ship Bottom, then in the lagoons of Manahawkin. Occasionally we would take out the inflatable dingy and row out to the bay during low tide. We’d clam around with our feet, simultaneously grossed out and in love with the oozy mud sliming it’s way through our toes, hoping to find clams but not slice those same toes off when we did find them.  We’d load up a bucket then row over to a fish market on a pier. Exchanging our clams for clams, we’d then row to an arcade that was also on a pier and play skee-ball, essentially turning those clams into the same cheap plastic crap that is now floating around the world. Then we’d buy Wimpy a hamburger, fight Brutus, and rescue Olive Oil and Sweet Pea. But this wasn’t in the 30’s, this was the 80’s! It’s shocking to think how quickly things can change. Christ, and how old I’m getting.

Found this appropriately titled piece of trash:

So yeah. This could be pretty depressing. But it’s also what I love so much about these barrier islands. They’re changing and fleeting. Knowing them is more like knowing a person than a place. And like a person they won’t last forever. They are fragile, and they are delicate, yet they stand up and greet the enormity and power of the ocean. Just like the little birds that breed on them. Who knows what will happen to them, or how long they’ll last. Maybe even they know they’re in decline. Yet it doesn’t stop them. They keep flying, and fishing and mating and dying. Some feathers, some bone, a fist of muscle, and a beating heart that moves them forward through this world. These brave little islands. These brave little birds.


Happy Glorious Fun Lucky Double Launch Prosperity

On Wednesday, July 20th, I did another launch at Ft Tilden. I could make up some sort of reason why, like, “I’ve been really interested in certain tide fluctuations at certain locations and feel as though I need more data from those spots.” But really the truth is that it was a 100 goddamn degrees and I wanted to go to the beach.

My friend Dan had just flown in from the Arctic. And by “Arctic” I mean San Francisco. We used to work together at a ceramics factory in the Bay Area. The years I spent working there were filthy and hilarious and for the most part I loved them. And I’m happy to report that even though Danny has done gone become a lawyer, he is still filthy and hilarious and I still mostly love him.

So we loaded our sweaty selves into the Holy Corolla, along with the also filthy and hilarious Joel, and headed to the beach. It was fairly thick with Brooklynites desperate to cool off and show off. I looked for a not too crowded stretch, found one, and gave the bottle a really pathetic toss. So then I just swam it out. This one had a Great Black-backed Gull in it.


The tide was cooperating so I’m sure Queen Elizabeth will stumble upon it on her next jaunt to her favourite English topless beach. While ruminating on this uplifting yet sagging thought I noticed a piece of sargassum floating nearby. I swam over and there was some sort of tropical looking fish floating about it in. Black and white striped, but not a Sergeant Major fish. As soon as I got close though, he ditched the seaweed and began trying to take up residence in my shorts. He was acting like a pilotfish and maybe it was Naucrates doctor but I can’t be sure. Maybe he was just lonely.

After some damn good Pro-Kadima and general admiration of the half (and sometimes fully) naked hipsters around us, we were properly tanned and ready to head home along the demolition derby that is Flatbush Ave. That evening I was to be one speaker at a lecture put together by Underwater New York. The night was great, with all the speakers being entertaining and enlightening. I was especially interested to hear Marie Lorenz talk about her work, and she didn’t disappoint. Very inspiring.

I spoke last, and after boring/depressing everyone in attendance I was to then do a bottle toss from the Frying Pan along with anyone who desperately needed a drink after learning that the ocean and its wildlife are basically screwed. Well, maybe not the jellyfish. They’ll do fine.


Once at the Frying Pan I had to find a good spot that wasn’t too well lit, but where people could watch if they wanted. I have a feeling the ol’ FP staff doesn’t look too kindly on people throwing glass, and although it seems appealing on paper, I didn’t feel much feel like beaming a frat boy on the head with a bottle. Found a decent place on the port side up by the bow and let fly the bottle Molotov style. I think it was slack tide and I’m pretty sure it just floated around for a while. There’s a Herring Gull in it!

General good times were had, and we drank sangria that was both more expensive and better tasting than I would have expected. Thanks for the booze, Dan and Eddie!

Heave Ho

So far all of the tosses have taken place from land. So when my friend Joel invited me to go rowing, I figured it would be a nice opportunity to throw my garbage right into the water while floating upon it. His friends Fung and Cody have built a boat – a “sharpie” oyster boat – and it is a thing of beauty. It was built to take a mast, but as they haven’t finished that part yet they take it on rowing adventures around the city aided by (dictated by, really) the tide. I met them on Governor’s Island in order to do the return trip to Long Island City with the inflowing tide.

Here’s Fung and Cody, the boat builders:

Governor’s Island is great. Since it was opened to the public I’ve found myself here a few times a summer. It’s unique and transporting, and so close that apparently squirrels can swim to it. The weather was perfect. After we ate watermelon, stole some cookies, and played some heated matches of Double Ball (yeah, I had no idea what it was either), the tide was right for us to heave ho up the East River. It’s shocking how fast you can go with the tide. I was trying very hard to keep in time and not destroy the beautiful handmade oars (they made the oars even!) and before I knew it we were taking a break just north of the Manhattan Bridge. The sun was setting and it seemed the perfect – and perhaps only – time for a toss. This one has a Leach’s Storm Petrel in it.


We were actually pretty close to where I pitched the first one. I stood on the bow to throw it and miraculously avoided throwing myself into the drink as well. And speaking of drinks, they flowed as free and forcefully as the tide once we got back to Long Island City…


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