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

By Betsy McCully | Go to book overview

7
Footprints

On a humid late summer day, I stand in a trash-strewn parking lot gazing across a steel mesh fence to see a remnant of the only extensive prairie east of the Alleghenies. Once covering sixty thousand acres on western Long Island, what's left of the Hempstead Plains is now surrounded by concrete fields of malls and highways. As cumulus clouds scud swiftly overhead and dark skies threaten a thunderstorm, I am reminded of the unmowed fields of my midwestern childhood. I would gather wildflowers for a bouquet to bring my mother. Chicory's blue flowers beckoned me to pick them and yielded their aniselike scent when I broke off the stem. The caps of Queen Anne's lace, like giant snowflakes, invited me to stroke their soft, tiny flowers. The assertive colors of black-eyed Susans added sparks of gold to the bouquet. Happily, I brought them all home to place in a vase of water. I did not know then, nor did I care, that some of those flowers had not always grown there, but were instead brought by pioneers who wished to re-create the fields of their childhoods. I delight in what has been preserved of the original Hempstead Plains, but mourn the loss of what was once a vast grassland.

The field where I stand is an eighteen-acre parcel just south of Nassau Community College, saved from development by the Nature Conservancy and lovingly maintained by the Friends of Hempstead Plains, now under the management of Betsy Gulotta. Two other parcels on the eastern edge of Mitchel Field, encompassing part of the Meadowbrook Stream valley, bring the total of preserved prairie to a mere sixty-two acres. The original prairie established itself on glacial outwash after the ice sheet retreated from the region, and was a climax ecosystem—that is, one that evolved over millennia to reach its present grassland state. Prairie grasses have deep, extensive root systems that create a thick sod almost impenetrable to woody plants; however, trees and shrubs would eventually invade the grassland if not for periodic wildfires. These lightning-set fires kill the trees, but the burned grasses are able to regenerate by sending up new green shoots from their roots. Grazing by wild animals such as deer, elk, and bison also keeps down volunteer

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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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