City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York

By Betsy McCully | Go to book overview

1
Bedrock New York

A cold day in January is a good time to walk the beach. Only hardy, beachloving souls are out here on Coney Island, drawn to the shining expanse of the Atlantic lit by the low winter sun as it arcs across the southern sky. A few gulls warm their breasts in the sun, a dog races ecstatically along the water's edge distantly trailed by his bundled-up owner, and a human scavenger sweeps her metal-detector across the sand. I search for what the tide has disgorged—an interesting piece of driftwood, an unbroken conch shell— and a jagged piece of rock that glints and glitters when the sun strikes it catches my eye. I pick it up and turn the rough, flaking stone in my hand, knowing I am touching the bedrock of New York City.

This rock connects me to both the natural and human history of this place. The jetties that protect beaches and homes from the ocean's direct onslaught are comprised of ripped-up bedrock, called rip-rap. These were quarried during Manhattan's great building boom at the turn of the last century, the by-products of subways and skyscrapers. The rock I hold in my hand is a piece of Manhattan schist, one of three layers of rock that form the bedrock of New York City. The rocks bear testimony to the rich geological history of the city, a story that takes us back a billion years. Imagine a Manhattan skyline of jagged mountain peaks.1

This piece of schist tells me that around 450 million years ago, volcanoes erupted off the northeastern coast, spewing lava that cooled and gradually formed a volcanic island arc. Winds blew volcanic ash into a shallow marine basin, where sediments accumulated in mineral-rich layers that were gradually compressed into shale. The sediment-laden oceanic crust slid beneath the lighter continental crust in a process known as subduction, and the volcanic island arc accreted to the continent. The mica-rich shale, subjected to the intense heat of the earth's mantle, was recrystallized and transformed into the schist I hold today, plucked out of the sands of Coney Island.

Most of New York City is built on three layers of strata known as Manhattan Schist, Inwood Marble, and Fordham Gneiss. The exception is Staten

-1-

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City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction - Coming Home ix
  • 1: Bedrock New York 1
  • 2: The Teeming Shore 16
  • 3: At the Glacier's Edge 32
  • 4: Land of the Lenapes 45
  • 5: Staking Claim 62
  • 6: Muddied Waters 76
  • 7: Footprints 96
  • 8: Forests for Trees 111
  • 9: Urban Flyway 127
  • 10: Weathering 146
  • Notes 161
  • Index 177
  • About the Author 186
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