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.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)
Photos and text by Erik Baard
Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.
Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.
These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.
In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too, including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!
HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.
HarborLAB is grateful to Greg Mocker of WPIX and Tanya Kilch of NY1 News for sharing our “Cocoa Coast” work with fellow New Yorkers. You can click through to read and view NY1 story, “Student’s and Volunteers Use Cocoa Beans to Restore Queens’ Shorelines.” Gallery below by Erik Baard.
Both reporters did a great job of showing HarbotLAB, MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers, and Hunters Point Community Middle School are combining environmental service with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. HarborLAB will be conducting classroom activities to build upon this field experience in late winter and early spring. The method we chose to generate soil in situ is called “lasagna composting.”
African Americans have made contributions to maritime history and the sciences from the colonial period forward. The first wave of academically credentialed African American marine scientists, however, would not be born until toward the end of the 19th century. HarborLAB serves budding African American scientists through its youth programs each year, and for Black History Month honors trailblazers from years past.
Outstanding among the first generation of African American university scholars in the marine sciences were Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, both born in the 1880s. Both went to prominent universities and did field-shaping research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but white students were deprived of their gifts as teachers because of racial bigotry. Fortunately Dr. Just and Dr. Young received faculty appointments at historically black institutions where they inspired new generations of scientists.
Dr. Just was renowned as a master designer of experiments. Though he died before the discovery of DNA, Dr. Just focused on eggs, especially those of marine invertebrates, because he saw them as the key to understanding life as an emergent complex system. An excellent biography of Dr. Just is Black Apollo of Science, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Dr. Young was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in zoology. She studied under Dr. Just and they both shared a mentor in Frank Rattray Lillie, a founder and first president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She performed cutting edge experiments on the effects of radiation on marine eggs. Her radiation work, study of cellular salt regulation, and dehydration and rehydration of living cells can be seen as a precursor to today’s booming field of extremophile studies. Understanding the extreme tolerances of terrestrial organisms aids astrobiologists searching harsher worlds for signs of life.
Despite the achievements of the generation of Dr. Just and Dr. Young, and those who followed, even today to be a black marine biologist or oceanographer is pioneering. Dr. Ashanti Johnson, oceanographer, shares her experiences and inspiration in the video above. Students entering the field will likely have few or no black professors. HarborLAB’s message to these students is a simple one: Please, don’t be discouraged. Don’t allow yourself to feel excluded. We need as many bright young people as possible to study these fields because with fish stocks crashing and coral reefs dying, and ocean acidity increasing due to carbon dioxide pollution, advancement of marine sciences is a matter of survival.
A great resource for students of color seeking careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is the Institute for Broadening Participation’s Pathways to Science program. HarborLAB strongly recommends studying with our Natural Sciences partners at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and CUNY Baruch College. And of course, HarborLAB volunteers serve students by introducing them to the greatest teacher of all: Nature. As Dr. Just describes his first classroom, it was not with four walls:
“[It] was full of birds and flowers, especially in the spring, when the wrens awakened to the smell of wisteria and dogwood. Azaleas and camellias blossomed along the ditches where tadpoles swam, and Spanish moss gleamed from the trees…”
If you are part of a school or community group and want to join HarborLAB in environmental service learning on our boats or ashore, please email email@example.com.