Nature Waiting to Take Back the City
Nature is waiting to take back the city, with tenacious plants, secret wildlife and agressive survival strategies. An ode to urban wildlife.

November 21st 2006 - Nature Takes Back The City
by Karen Vaughan

I live in New York City, one of the densest cities in the world. And yet nature is ever waiting to take things back should urbanization ever decline.

I first noticed nature's tenacity when I tried to uproot an alianthus tree that had taken root in our coop basement. It was growing through the concrete floor, in a subterranean room nearly devoid of light, surrounded by concrete corridors between our building and the next one. We pulled it out, as nearly as possible. And it returned, only to be cut back. And returned, for years and years.

Later I went to inspect an apartment building on lower Madison Avenue, and visited the basement where a stream, complete with pebbles and sand, ran through base of the highrise. "It's a creek. We pump it out and it flows to the sewers," the superintendant explained. Back at the office I found a 17th century map of Manhattan, with streams running through the area around Madison Park. I found that the skyscraper belonging to a major insurance company off Madison Ave is built on pontoons. A river runs under Times Square. And streams under the streets of Brooklyn, always ready to escape their culverts, have caused rows of brownstones to subside.

A highrise loft building near the Manhattan Bridge had been standing largely empty. When I went to appraise it, the executive floor had been taken over by pigeons, entering through broken windows and nesting in the walnut lined board room. They resented the intrusion.

Then there were the primordial first year catalpa trees that popped up in the industrial areas around the polluted Gowanus canal, with massive leaves growing straight out of the stems, shading any competition for the limited growing space. The leaves became smaller as the tree was older and less threatened. And nearby an otter somehow found its way into the canal after the flushing pump was installed, reducing the foetid odor of the water to something wildlife can stand.

Alianthus trees and Boston ivy, with seeds carried by wind or bird take root on rooftops and cornices, It seems that the Old First Church in Park Slope perpetually has allianthus trees sprouting out of its limestone lintels. The roof of the Empire Stores under the Brooklyn Bridge sprouts a veritable forest.

And wildlife is alive and well. We tend to think that city wildlife is confined to pigeons, rats and the squirrels that sneak into apartments through the security bars of open windows. Not so. Skunks wander the Bronx Zoo at night. The city is at the junction of three migratory skyways bringing in a variety of birds, from osprey to egrets. Falcons roost in the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Flocks of feral parrots allegedly escapees from Kennedy Airport roost in Greenwood Cemetary and in Midwood, oblivious to snowy winters. Parakeets are found deep in Prospect Park. Along the stream in the Park's ravine is a slow pool with a school of large goldfish that somehow manage to elude the birds and the nearby waterfall. Exotic turtles, often released for Chinese New Year, stock the great lake. And the fish pulled out by local anglers often exceed a foot in length.

At dusk last week I climbed Butterfly Hill in Prospect Park to watch the sunset, finding a place away from other visitors. As I was turning to watch it I came face to face with a racoon sitting in a tree that had been struck by lightning. Now a racoon may seem only a pest to those who live in less urban areas, but it is some kind of miracle in the depths of New York City. We watched each other cautiously, and I began talking softly to it. He retreated and approached, never taking his eyes off of me. People walked by, oblivious. I finally turned to watch the sunset and when I looked back some minutes later, the racoon was still watching me from his tree. Finally after 20 minutes or so I said goodby and continued down the hill. I followed a jogger on one of the unpaved side paths, finding an assortment of turkey tails and conk mushrooms as I passed. The harvest moon was rising above the Nethermead, and bats were flitting in the twilight. Life was beautiful.

copywrite by Karen S. Vaughan

Contact Member:
Acupuncture and Herbs by Karen Vaughan, L.Ac in Park Slope and Manhattan.
118 East 37th Street, New York, NY 10016
Brooklyn, NY 11215