Nature in the Land of King Kong

Who says it's impossible to enjoy wildlife in Manhattan? All it takes is a little ingenuity and a lot of persistence

  • Mariana Gosnell
  • Aug 01, 1992
Manhattan: It's the primal asphalt jungle, where the dominant wildlife image is of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building and swatting at airplanes. According to a recent estimate, 40 percent of the island of Manhattan is covered by buildings (at least 7,000 of which are more than six stories high), 38 percent is covered by streets (over which more than a million cars, trucks and buses travel each day), and 15 percent is covered with sidewalks (on which the 1.4 million people who live in the city compete for space with the 2.5 million who come in every day to work, shop or sightsee).

In the densest of the five boroughs of New York City, getting a natural experience is not easy. Yet some Manhattanites do manage, by exercising the same qualities their fellow New Yorkers direct toward becoming big stars on Broadway or winners on Wall Street: determination, ingenuity, persistence and, probably most important of all, vigilance—a readiness to seize an opportunity, no matter how unexpected.

A man walks down a street in Greenwich Village (people walk in Manhattan; only 20 percent have access to private cars). He hears a sound like a "backhoe in reverse" but sees no backhoe. Curious, he traces the sound to a tree with a mockingbird in it, singing the song of the local mechanical troubadour. Later he learns that other city mockingbirds mimic ambulance sirens.

An artist leaves a supermarket and heads for "the closest greenery," a community garden (equipped with rat traps). A stranger there points to a tree. In the tree the artist sees "thousands of bees," working the white blooms. She thanks the stranger; she probably wouldn't have noticed the bees on her own. "Would you ever imagine," she muses, "there would be that many bees in the city?"

A red-haired woman stands on a path in Central Park (the small portion of Manhattan not under a building or pavement is mostly park; yards are almost as scarce as live gorillas). She looks up to see a scarlet tanager, "in full sunlight, at the top of a tree, like a Christmas ornament." From that moment she becomes a passionate bird-watcher, and in the years that follow is rewarded by spotting more than 200 species in the city.

New York City, as it happens, is on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating birds, and as they pass over the rocky canyons they spot the green of the park and drop down for a rest. One of the people waiting for them every spring and fall is Nick Wagerik, an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. One day when he was out bird-watching, Wagerik noticed a dragonfly flitting by, then another, and another. "Suddenly I realized dragonflies were beautiful," he says. "I'd never really seen them, until I started seeing them." Since that day, he has found 24 species of dragonflies in Central Park alone, mostly at the pond next to the Shakespeare theater.

As he was checking out a Hudson River promenade one day, a "strange silhouette" darted by and "right away I knew it was something good." He focused in on a long-tailed skipper, a butterfly from the South, rare for New York City, and "began jumping up and down." The next day at the same spot he found another rare butterfly, a small tortoiseshell, from Europe, which may have arrived in a packing case via Kennedy airport.

Stalking wildlife in the city does require being on the lookout for more than small, fluttering creatures. "Sometimes I get a creepy feeling in the [Central Park] Ramble," Wagerik admits. "I was robbed there once, in winter. Fortunately he didn't take my binoculars."

One young man, a born-and-bred New Yorker, devised a way to be alone in a park and safe. When the secret of how he achieved it came to light, many people broke out in dreamy smiles; he'd done what few had even fantasized about.

For eight years, starting at age 14, Bob Redman built treehouses in Central Park, a dozen, one after another, by shinnying up trees and pulling the building materials after him with a rope. He built the houses high up, where they were usually hidden until autumn when the leaves fell, and lived in them for long periods, with the wind tossing him about, the rain falling on him, squirrels scampering about him, stars coming out above.

"I wanted to be alone," he explains. "I was very shy." He assured his anxious mother, "No one [else] can shinny up a trunk without any branches for 30 feet!" He named his houses for his favorite stars, and his last construction, Epsilon Eridani, had five levels resting on branches with not a single nail driven into the big beech it was in.

Early one morning about five years ago as he was asleep in his house he was discovered by park workers, who, perhaps with dreamy smiles of their own, decided not to arrest him. Instead, they helped him get a job—pruning trees. Redman never built another treehouse in Central Park, but at a recent Paul Simon concert there he was again out on a limb, of a white oak with a fine view of the stage, and this time he was not alone. There were 750,000 people at that concert, and 500 of them were, like him, up in trees.

In building his aeries Redman was inspired, he says, by squirrels. "I always loved squirrels and wanted to be like them, run up a tree and get away." Eighty blocks south of Epsilon Eridani and two blocks from Washington Square Park lives another lifelong New Yorker with a special fondness for squirrels, but she doesn't try to run like them; they run to her.

One year on her birthday Grace Spruch was awakened in her brownstone apartment to the sight of her rubber plant, "normally stable," swaying strangely and a gray "shmoo" shape moving through it. She set out a walnut, and, from that day to this, for almost two decades, she has been feeding squirrels, at home, five or six at a time.

They are not pets, she insists. They don't want to be petted—"I got socked when I tried"—and never play. A physics professor at Rutgers University, Spruch dealt with the animals as a scientist as well as a fan, taking notes on their behavior when she discovered how little was known about it. She learned first to identify them as individuals, mostly by their "quite distinctive" ears.

One observation she was well equipped as a physicist to make concerned the squirrels' habit of leaping from the floor of the fire escape to the railing above it. "My heart would miss a beat; it's five floors down," she says, "but they never missed." She concluded it was a case of "projectile motion"; that is, at the high point of their leaps the squirrels reached "zero speed," as tossed balls do at the high point of their arcs, and so had "plenty of time to grab a railing."

Last summer an article, which may or may not have been serious, appeared in the London Daily Mirror reporting "a plague of drug-crazed squirrels" in Central Park. The squirrels, the article stated, had chewed on "half-empty vials of crack dumped by addicts," and, "high on crack," began attacking "lunch-time walkers." Manhattan skeptics doubted not only that addicts would throw out half-used crack vials but also that city squirrels would take up the habit. In a letter to The New York Times, Jeannie R. McCloskey, Spruch's "squirrel sitter" for the summer, defended the whole urban breed. "The squirrels of Washington Square Park," she wrote, "can still navigate busy streets, cross dog- and cat-infested gardens and climb up four-flight fire escapes for their daily ration of nuts. . . . [They] are as sure-footed, perky and alert as ever. Couldn't possibly be on anything!"

Some city dwellers, faced with the fact that 40 percent of Manhattan is covered with roofs, have decided to make use of that land area, no matter how elevated. When writer Val Gerry moved into a tenth-floor co-op apartment in Greenwich Village, she found an "incredibly bleak" scene on the roof, a few boxes full of weeds. Unable to "live where there isn't anything green—I grew up in the country," says Gerry—she started a garden, carrying buckets of water up from her apartment at first, fighting summer heat ("it gets up to 125 degrees"), winter winds from New Jersey and year-round pollution, including effluvia from a stained-glass factory next door. "I actually saw forsythia dissolve before my eyes," she declares. "The petals started shriveling."

Now Gerry can stand on her roof and see the Empire State Building to the north through laden branches of apple and cherry trees, the World Trade Center to the south behind pink peonies and Marchioness of Londonderry roses. Growing lushly in tubs and barrels along roof-beam lines are a birch tree, a crabapple, 22 rosebushes, a juniper hedge, lilacs, azaleas, lilies, cosmos, phlox, honeysuckle, daphne, irises, hostas, yarrow, veronica, clematis and yellow alyssum. "Last year I picked two pounds of blueberries," says Gerry proudly. Aloft, the growing season is an extended one: "There is always a rose in bloom." The garden has several microclimates : "I get tete-a-tete daffodils cuddling up to the air vent in January." Birds stop by; one day a thrush serenaded her from the TV aerial.

At ground level, in cleared vacant lots around the city, many gardeners grow the food of their homelands, such as winter melons, valore beans and amaranth (more than a quarter of Manhattan residents are foreign-born). Yet when Daniel Perez planted the blood-red and yellow corn that reminded him of his native Dominican Republic, it was with a difference. He planted it (plus garlic) for beauty, in a spot not noted for its beauty: a garbage- and weed-filled median strip on upper Broadway, between three lanes of traffic heading north and three heading south.

Perez worked alone, often at night, clearing, tilling, planting and weeding his little plot mere inches from passing cars. And, until the corn got to be 6 feet high, he also worked anonymously. When word got out of who was responsible for the 131 waving stalks, he was bombarded with media attention. What made you do it? Corn on Broadway! "All I wanted," says Perez, a porter who lives alone in a basement apartment nearby, "was to see something nice."

Steven Brill took the opposite approach—he made into food what most people think of as being around just for looks. Several years ago he started foraging in Central Park, learning about, then plucking and eating what grew naturally, everything from pink ladies thumb, wine-cap mushrooms and foxtail-grass seeds to burdock, lamb's quarters and high-bush cranberries. "The parks became intellectually stimulating instead of just swatches of green and brown," he notes. Now he leads "wild-food" tours through city parks for a living and gathers all of the mushrooms he eats and half of his fruits and vegetables from city parks (claiming they're a "renewable resource"). He tells people as they trail through the park behind him and munch bits of gout weed, "To enjoy nature, you don't have to go to the top of a mountain in the Rockies or to the deepest reaches of Africa."

A typesetter on night shifts, Maureen Gedman, would agree. One fine spring day found her at the park's Rowboat Lake teaching Elayne Skylar, a seventh-generation Manhattanite whose great-great-grandfather operated a farm where the United Nations building now stands, how to fish. Gedman has done most of her fishing in such big-deal spots as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Lake Bishop, yet she was clearly having a great time casting for sunfish and catfish and pulling up what looked like "the bottom of a sweatshirt." Without a trace of sarcasm, she exclaimed, "This is awesome! The flowering trees, the gorgeous ducks, the rocks, the waterfalls. I'm not going to catch a marlin or a steel-head salmon, but I still enjoy this. I dig my worms right here. I totally forget I'm in the city—totally."

Indeed, a generous attitude is important to having a natural experience in the city. Some would-be stargazers complain about the light pollution that keeps them from seeing less than three magnitudes of starlight (Manhattan has more than 48,000 street lights and 2,700 traffic lights, not to mention countless lit windows at night). Yet John Pazmino, a computer manager who works in Manhattan, regularly totes his 600mm camera lens with detachable eyepieces up to friends' roofs, terraces and windows for evenings of sky-viewing. The high skyline is the main problem, he says. "Still, there's a hell of a lot you can see here, with modest equipment: the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn. Double stars and variable stars and the moon going through its phases." Last spring, he points out, Mars, Jupiter and Venus were "doing a dance in the western sky," and during sunset hours "you could see them from a street corner, or the elevated train. All you needed was to be sky-aware."

Most people in Manhattan are not sky-aware; they come for the bright lights, not the stars. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, in New York recently to get medical funds for his tribe in the Amazonian jungle, said of New Yorkers, "They are like the ant. They start one way and turn around and go the other way. They look all the time at the ground and never see the sky." But Kopenawa was wrong. There are Manhattanites who do not avert their gaze, who look up and out, seeing birds, bees, roses, worms, fish, dragonflies, edible mushrooms and planets, dancing.

Writer Mariana Gosnell lives in Manhatten. She has written a book on flying a small plane across the United States, soon to be published by Knopf. 

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