Saturday, December 3, 2011

Urban Wilderness: Staten Island, NY

The photographs throughout this post are from Staten Island’s Greenbelt system of parks and trails. Some of them illustrate passages directly from my story, but others are meant as a complementary photo essay.

Having a few hours before I needed to return my rental car at Newark Airport, I thought I might explore a bit of the Meadowlands, which are nearby. However, the spaghetti of freeways on the map was more than a little intimidating. Trying to navigate them in the car seemed a fool’s errand. I opted for Staten Island.

Although I grew up in New York and have visited “the city” many times since I moved to Wisconsin, I’d never been to Staten Island before. Someone said, “Why go there? It’s just another suburb.” In fact, on a map it looks much more like part of New Jersey than New York.

Why go there? I’d read about Fresh Kills, once the world’s largest landfill. An ambitious project now underway means to transform it into parkland. Its 2,200 acres make it three times larger than Central Park. It sounded like an appropriate urban wilderness adventure to me.

After the twelve-lane expanse of New Jersey Turnpike, the drive across the tunnel-like Goethals Bridge was a white-knuckle adventure in itself. A large steel paneled truck rattled along mere inches away from my side mirror. As we sloped down out of the cattle trough onto Staten Island, the road widened again. Wetlands stretched off on both sides, seasonally sear and brown, but a welcome contrast to the seemingly endless port terminals, refineries, industries, and highways of New Jersey.

Fresh Kills was easy to find. The West Side Expressway slices it like thanksgiving turkey. Barren mounds rise on either side like skinned breasts laid on a platter; man-made mountains that dwarf the houses, hotels, businesses, shopping centers, and power plants around its edges.

Cypress knees
As parkland it seemed completely unsatisfying; a pregnant wasteland that leaves me wondering how a landfill can be called “former,” as if the noxious contents will ever disappear. Maybe it will be more convincing in thirty years, when the “state-of-the-art ecological restoration techniques” have had a chance to mature.

Cypress and goose pond at Willowbrook Park
I circled it, looking fruitlessly for a way in. I didn’t need the numerous “no trespassing” signs to convince me to find a more inviting place for my urban adventure.

Fortunately, Staten Island offers many other opportunities to scratch my itch for exploration.

I chanced upon Willowbrook Park, despite narrow street access and low visibility signage. I found there a lovely pond surrounded by a paved path full of people strolling amid aggressive geese; cypress trees and a slew of their attendant knees along the water’s edge; and a park office with a map of The Greenbelt. Score! That led me to a larger, more alluring natural area.

I parked at the Greenbelt Nature Center, ignored the irony of the bench on its small lawn that bore a plaque reading “THE ADVENTURE BEGINS HERE!” (Am I supposed to sit?), and plunged gratefully into the forest. A more compelling sign on the nature trail proclaimed that this area will remain “forever wild.” I set out hopefully in search of its promise.

The trail, which was wide and clear enough to follow without assistance, was emblazoned with rectangular swatches of colorful paint. Apparently that wasn’t enough for someone; everywhere I went there also were vibrant pink and orange ribbons dangling from branches overhead. As I progressed along several trails with differently hued markers, I came to places where some over-achieving trail manager (or adolescent volunteer?) had spray-painted the ground itself, along with an occasional rock, wooden bench, and even dead leaves. No getting lost in this urban forest!

Photomontage of trail markings

Spray paint aside, the forest was indeed pretty wild. Leafless trees poked up from heaps of logs and downed branches that were shrouded in vines, brambles, and creepers, like thick cobwebs, making the place appear disheveled, faded with neglect, like Miss Havisham’s dining room in Great Expectations.

The trail dropped into hollows, some too muddy to cross, requiring me to backtrack and choose an alternate route – red or yellow this time? It wound around stagnant pools, like dark, cloudy crystal balls, mirroring the broken sky. In one a giant timber dipped into the still water, as if a gargantuan witch had long ago abandoned labors over a murky cauldron.

An unmarked (but easy to follow!) spur trail led to “ruins,” as identified on the trail map. My expectations of discovering a romantically decaying colonial mansion were dashed, though, by what proved to be the remains of a small corner made of rough stone with a set of concrete steps leading up to…a snarl of small trees. A ring of blackened charcoal, along with beer cans in a cave-like basement window well, indicated regular and irreverent visitation.
However, despite all the manifestations of humanity, my hike was quite solitary and peaceful. By the time I returned to my rental car I had spent long enough in the wilds of Staten Island to quiet my restless spirit and to brave a return trip over the Goethals Bridge and the short stretch of turnpike to the airport.

Ribbons hanging from branches to mark the trail.
The Meadowlands, as well as a rehabilitated Fresh Kills, remain on my bucket list for future explorations.

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