Wind, Current, Love.



Vlad and Johna. Photo by Larson Harley.

HarborLAB incorporated in September 2012. In October Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The communities and shores we were freshly chartered to serve and steward were devastated. We didn’t have a single boat in our fleet or a home launch, but we had a core of wonderful volunteers ready to help when a call went out from battered Far Rockaway.

The first and largest donors to HarborLAB’s relief work were founding science adviser Vladimir Brezina, his partner Johna Till Johnson, and their colleagues. They pooled thousands for a generator, food, water, sanitary supplies, blankets, and more that HarborLAB volunteers delivered and distributed.

Today we salute their love, and year of marriage, that began on the water. We also salute the generous spirit and fecund mind of Vlad, who passed in December after a years-long struggle with cancer. It’s fitting that Vlad turned to the sea for his neuroscience research. He studied marine invertebrates to blaze trails toward a better understanding of how animals like humans move through, respond, and learn from their environments. For a fuller appreciation of Vlad, the most moving tribute is Johna’s In Memoriam post.

Johna and Vlad’s first day together started with a handshake at Pier 40 in Manhattan. They paddled from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, NJ. Their lunch chatter on the beach was a debate over the relative impacts of the world wars on American culture. “We never did agree,” Johna says, much like their ongoing discussion about the happiness of ducks. But they did agree to more voyages.

“After a while I noticed I was always happier around him than not. After a further while I figured out why, and told him I loved him. Things progressed rather rapidly thereafter,” Johna recalls.

Spreading love across the harbor is something Vlad and Johna did well together. Despite Vlad’s struggle with cancer, they provided HarborLAB with a trip planning workshop (to be published online soon) and they shared their adventures, knowledge, and Vlad’s beautiful photographs through their blog, Wind Against Current: Thoughts on Kayaking, Science, and Life. We’re happy to say Johna is continuing the blog.

Below is one of Vlad’s recent lectures, delivered when he was already deep in his chemotherapy. Still full of energy, and still sharing. No energy is lost. No ideas vanish.

As we salute Vlad, we also solute all scientists and the scientific method, humanity’s surest philosophical approach to material truth and means of equipping ourselves with solutions to the challenges ahead. We HarborLAB volunteers thank you and hope to inspire young people to join your ranks. We love your pursuit of knowledge in service to humanity and ecology.



Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!


Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at!