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

By Betsy McCully | Go to book overview

6
Muddied Waters

Looking across the salt marsh of Jamaica Bay, I see the skyscrapers of Manhattan shimmering in the distance, their hard geometry juxtaposed against the soft muddy lines of tidal flats and wavy grasses. The city seems a world away, and a time apart. Dwarfing the Manhattan skyline, a snowy egret stalks its prey at the edge of the marsh, its head cocked, motionless. Here, a bird in the marsh reenacts an ancient scene; there, manmade towers rise like upstarts— hives of concrete and glass that serve as a human habitat.

Before cities were dreamed of, the New York archipelago was created when the last glacier receded, and a rising sea reclaimed the continental shelf. In the glacier's wake, the land slowly rebounded from the weight of the ice, and islands rose from the sea. Over the millennia, the ocean continued to encroach on the land, drowning the mouths of rivers like the Hudson, Connecticut, and Hackensack. The commingling of fresh and salt waters created estuaries, which are tidal rivers—geologically rare ecosystems that form only when sea level reaches a certain point. At high tide, the sea pushes upriver, and at low tide, the sea withdraws—hence the Lenape name given to the Lower Hudson, Mahicanituk, which eighteenth-century Mahican scholar Hendrick Apaumaut translated as “the great waters or sea, which are constantly in motion, either ebbing or flowing.”1 The word “estuary” is derived from the Latin word aestus, meaning tide. In the shallow waters of the estuaries, sediments eroded by tidal action are deposited along the shores, building mudflats where cordgrasses take root and grow into salt marshes. The estuaries, bays, and salt marshes of the New York City region have supported a diversity of species, including our own: hunter-gatherers settled along the waterways here, thriving for thousands of years on the abundance of plants and animals that shared their habitat, and gave them the food, shelter, fuel, clothing, and tools they needed.2

Hudson River historian Robert Boyle describes the Lower Hudson estuary as “a nutrient trap, a protein plant, a self-perpetuating fertilizer factory”

-76-

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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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