Dear Friends, When the first humans arrived in what is today New York City, there was no East River and mastodons still squelched about in the swamps of Hunters Point. We’ve prospered through change, challenge, and yes, a bit of … Continue reading
Flora and Fauna Fridays
A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
by Erik Baard
Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!
American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.” 🙂
The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer Tony Joe White mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.
As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.
Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.
Flora and Fauna Fridays
A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
by Erik Baard
Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.
Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.
As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.
Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents, and illegal dumping. Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.
Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!
Water Wonk Wednesdays
A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.
The term “snow pillow” evokes a peaceful, muffling moonlit whiteness spreading a lull across the countryside. For New Yorkers, however, it’s a critical piece of hardware.
Much of the billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents of NYC and surrounding counties arrives as snow. The white caps of the old, rounded Catskill Mountains nestling the Neversink Reservoir are a reserve bank that melts to meet our needs in warmer months. Snow melt can also swell rivers, so anticipating flood risks is very important to towns an farms. With so many lives affected by snow, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with City University of New York and National Weather Service, is constantly looking for better ways to measure it.
At the end of the last decade NYCDEP began using “snow pillows,” essentially scales that weigh snow in remote locations and transmit data wirelessly in near real-time. The technology (first developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska) is often integrated into remote sensor stations in rougher terrains out west. The NYCDEP deployed its first snow pillow at the Schoharie Reservoir in 2008, and later near reservoirs in Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. HarborLAB operates a canoeing and kayaking program at the Neversink for NYC youth groups and public school students to learn about their drinking water sources.
The NYCDEP still uses aerial surveys and good old fashioned field work to measure snowpack, but the agency plans to more than double its constellation of snow pillows to 35 stations in coming years. Another sensor used is the Gmon, which helps researchers estimate snowpack by measuring the absorption of naturally occurring radiation. Future snow data collection might increasingly rely on satellites.
For more about NYCDEP’s work to measure snowpack, please view this PowerPoint presentation by James H. Porter, PhD, Chief of Water Systems Operations at NYCDEP:
Flora and Fauna Fridays
A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
This week’s entry by Erik Baard, Courtesy of Nature Calendar.
Far inland, a wind
lifts fine snow from ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray.
I wrote that haiku over a quarter century ago, intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only later did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.
Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.
As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on what they felt were their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. The Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.
You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn.
Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commodification. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.
Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles, and nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somewhat fire resistant.
Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.
Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:
Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.
Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. I organized a crew of volunteers to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.
For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.”
Water Wonk Wednesdays!
A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.
Even the simple act of cleaning can be chemically problematic! This is especially the case for HarborLAB because we plan to reuse “gray water” to nurture orchard trees, fruiting vines, and native plant areas through underground irrigation hoses.
The antibacterial agent triclosan became nearly ubiquitous but ran afoul of regulators because it does little for human health, disrupts the endocrine systems of marine organisms, and encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. Chlorine bleach lasts a long time in our waterways and is toxic at every stage of its existence, emitting pollution in production and forming compounds like dioxin (a carcinogen) with the chemicals it encounters in our estuary. Phosphates can spur algal overgrowth that snuffs out other marine life. Traditional soaps can contain salts, which over time ruin upland soil for plants not evolved to tolerate high salinity.
Here are our recommendations for simple cleaners that will keep soil and water healthy and happy:
Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) Solution: Sunshine can fade many stains, and for tougher ones this kissing cousin of water does a great job. Its reaction with the organic compounds of stains — especially the catalase present in living things — breaks chemical bonds and results in molecular oxygen (O2) bubbles that lift particles away. The other product is water.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: For simple scrubbing and bathing, the liquid line of this old standard is powerful and safe, according to California-based Ecology Center, which developed a great list of “dos and don’ts” for grey water management.
White Vinegar: You can combine this kitchen staple with hydrogen peroxide and soap to amplify their effectiveness. One trick is to spray surfaces with H2O2 and then white vinegar (acetic acid, or CH3CO2H, made by bacteria) before wiping. The acid neutralizes quickly and leaves no harmful traces. You can soak stained, smelly, and rusty objects in it too.
In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life — into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage, the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty. Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.
Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.
HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your requests and ideas!
HarborLAB is pleased to announce that volunteer Perry Leung has been elevated to secretary by unanimous vote of the board. Perry is a stellar administrative volunteer, drawing upon his education and experience in business and environmentalism.
“I’m looking forward to serving HarborLAB in the coming year! I’ve been inspired since the start of my engagement with HarborLAB by the amount of positive impact our volunteers have had on the environment and New York and will do my part to make sure we continue to educate and inspire on New York’s waterways,” Perry said.
Perry graduated from NYU Stern School of Business with honors in Economics and Finance before working as a senior manager in global regulatory risk compliance in New York City and Hong Kong. Throughout his demanding career on two continents he’s remained an active and committed grassroots environmental organizer, leading beach cleanups and composting efforts. He also secured a seed grant through the ASHOKA Youth Venture program to start three new Ultimate Frisbee programs in New York City High Schools to engage inner city students in team sports.
All of HarborLAB’s governing documents and financial reports are readily available upon request but Perry is helping Business Manager Katherine Bradford to organize post them for easier sharing. Perry is also spearheading with volunteers Fatoumata Magassa, Ricky Marcello, and Betty Liu much of our outreach for new sponsors and institutional support.
HarborLAB’s bylaws, adopted in 2016, permit volunteers who are not board members to serve as officers. The secretary:
- Is for the period of one year and will be voted upon at each annual meeting; and
- Includes these responsibilities: “The Secretary shall keep the minutes of all meetings of the Board in books provided for that purpose. He or she may be responsible for the giving and serving of all notices of the Corporation and shall perform all the duties customarily incident to the office of the Secretary, subject to the control of the Board, and shall perform such other duties as shall from time to time be assigned by the Board.”
Thank you, Perry!
HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.
We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.
We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!
HarborLAB warmly invites NYC public schools and community organizations to paddle with us for FREE on our Neversink Reservoir kayak and canoe fleet to learn about the natural and engineering wonders that make our city’s water wealth possible!
Here are our initial program dates:
To participate please email email@example.com with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.” To volunteer for this program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Neversink Reservoir.”
All adult participants must have free access permits from the NYCDEP. Apply here: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/recreation/access.shtml
No permit is required of children under the age of 16 if accompanied by a valid permit holder over the age of 18, as will always be the case with our programs. Anyone 16 years old or older must apply for a permit.
Bus transportation grants are available from the Watershed Agricultural Council for groups incorporating forestry education into their visits to the Neversink Reservoir. ReservoirLAB will take participants on forest walks and using NYCDEP materials we’ll teach how forests protect and clean our drinking water. Classroom visits by NYCDEP professional educators also cover this topic. Apply for grants here: http://www.nycwatershed.org/forestry/education-training/urbanrural-school-based-education-initiative/bus-tours/
We’re grateful to HarborLAB Camping Co-Manager Ray Tan for exploring alternative affordable busing options.
The ReservoirLAB program is provided by HarborLAB volunteers and was made possible by a Catskill Watershed Corporation grant and its kind donation of boat racks; the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which taught our volunteers to be “watershed docents” and provides reservoir access (NYCDEP also provided funds to the CWC for the grant); and ExxonMobil’s community outreach program for the Greenpoint Remediation Project, which financed a dozen volunteers’ Red Cross certification in CPR, AED, and First Aid (all for juveniles and adults) and basic water rescue for all of our programs from the Newtown Creek to the Neversink Reservoir. HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson is kindly allowing HarborLAB to use her mobile home as a camping base (for volunteers serving multiple days) and equipment storage site near the Neversink River and reservoir. Frost Valley YMCA has stored our five canoes and ten tandem kayaks, and our paddles and live vests, while we completed training and permits.
Below is a gallery of photos from a recent site coordination meeting of HarborLAB volunteers with NYCDEP and CWC officials at the Neversink Reservoir. Note nearby campgrounds, posters about invasive species and other environmental matters, a hiking path, Chandler’s Cove, and the boat racks donated to us by the CWC.