In this room, in this space, I can smell the sea. I feel it heavy on my skin, hear it distantly beyond that building and the next, and the street, and the big open space, and the freeway, the song sung by the passing ship. I can smell it, it weight on my tongue, tasting like salt and the sea birds cry.
Even here in the city where I can see nothing but brick and steel and concrete from this window, and sometimes sky, I am on an island, where the tide rolls in and out not two long blocks from my apartment.
City-dwellers, we turn our backs on nature most of the time. We shudder at the animal inhabitants we share the land with, rats on the subway, cockroaches on the sidewalk, sparrows in the cross-tubes of street signs, pigeons demanding. We know the squirrels carry plague and the raccoons rabies.
We decry the nature that sprouts up between the pavement squares, they are “weeds.” We deplore the huge puddles that stretch across crosswalks after the rain, deep and muddy, a symptom of the wetlands this once was, we avoid their touch on our shoes and on our clothes when cabs splash by.
Early in the morning, before the city wakes up enough to drown it out, I can hear from my apartment what I think is a frog. It may be a cricket, but I think it’s a frog. “Do you hear that?” I asked my husband. He shook his head. It sounded again. “Don’t you hear that?” Again, he could not. It’s a new sound after having lived in this apartment for 20 years. Not new like the birdsong I heard every morning this spring, when everything was shut down. New, perhaps because the neighbors in the concrete courtyard ten floors below built raised beds this summer and somehow a tiny frog found his way in here, from where, I don’t know – perhaps from the lot awaiting another highrise at the end of our block; it’s closer to the river, perhaps it came from there.
I’m always surprised when nature finds a way into the courtyard. It’s surrounded on all sides by buildings and surrounded within that by high fences with razor wire at the top, and beyond the buildings, streets. And yet, from time to time, something of nature appears. One morning, maybe 17 or 18 years ago, we saw a raccoon climb the fire escape on the building behind us, and disappear into the penthouse roof garden. That night, he reappeared to descend, and we never saw him again. Squirrels made the route more frequently, sometimes pausing at the open windows they passed on their way up, tiny paws tentatively soft on a window sill, sniffing the strangely scented air from within the apartment. We held our breath wondering if they would venture within. Then they drew back – that apartment has cats – and continued their ascension. A year or two ago the penthouse got wise and placed a plexi gate across the top of the fire escape. No more squirrels. But in the winter – to the delight of our cat, an avid birdwatcher – doves.
I miss my walks in Central Park, where I saw animals all the time. Usually the big five: pigeons, sparrows, grackles, squirrels, and rats. If I ventured into the woods or the ramble, raccoons and other birds. Along the north end of the reservoir, not on the reservoir path itself, but on the wide unpaved path that runs parallel to that side, a pair of cardinals made their home. I could hear them and sometimes whistled back. In the ponds there are turtles, in the reservoir, a huge flock of seagulls, and sometimes I see white waders, intently stalking something in the water. They say there is a kingfisher in the meer and I think I glimpsed it once.
When it is very cold upstate and prey grows scarce, young hawks come down to the city, in hopes of an easy meal. I’ve seen them in Central Park, in Thompkins Square Park. Of all the parks, the Highline, so popular with people, is oddly devoid of animal life. A rich grassland and forest, I love walking along it, but I’ve never seen animals there and rarely birds, aside from pigeons and sparrows.
On mornings like this I want to be out in it. I want to watch the sun streak across the East-West streets to kiss the buildings on the far side of the park, to feel the wind in my hair, smell the leaves. I want to watch the world wake up around me.
I want to yet it feels impossible – so many excuses. It’s Monday, I won’t have time before work. It’s Covid, there are fewer people out and the streets feel less safe. My knee hurts and my foot still hurts from yesterday’s walk, a walk that took me only as far as the southern edge of the park. It feels impossible but it’s not. In the past, I’ve tried to take my husband, to share with him my love of the park, the transitions from the southern end’s focus on people and paths, through the zoo, past the tribute to Balco, up the promenade, across Bethesda fountain, through the ramble, along the West Side, through the memory of the Black village, up the hill, down by the weeping willow beside the lagoon, up Great Hill, down through the North Woods, around by the meer, down through the Conservatory Garden, then south along the reservoir, and then the south side and back again through the zoo. He makes it as far as the ramble and complains that he’s tired.
So it’s a solitary walk for me. As is the other, across to Fifth Avenue, then across 34th, down the highline, pick a way through the West Village and across the West Side Highway to the park along the river. It shifts from focus to focus, eventually ending up at Battery Park City and then past the Irish Memorial and the Holocaust Museum, around the Battery itself, and the Ferry Terminal, then up the East side, past the helipad, the old fish market no more, under the freeway where the people of Chinatown exercise on the outdoor gym machines, and men fish for what I don’t know. Then up past the bandstand and the playing fields and under the bridges. Past the outdoor fountain with the stone seals where children play and once I saw a rottweiler escape the owner’s ineffectual girlfriend who should never have been allowed out with him, he made a b-line for a pitbull who was minding his own business, tied up on the fence by the river while his owner fished. The rottweiler regretted it, trapped in the pitbull’s jaws and yelping like a puppy. “Stay away,” the owner cautioned while the girlfriend fluttered. “He’s not hurt, he’s got him by the collar. I’ll get him loose. Just stay back.” “My boyfriend’s going to kill me,” she moaned. I moved on, none of my business. Past the turn of the century building, now an ecological center (maybe?) with restrooms, and then up the narrow pathway along the freeway, too narrow, with the water treatment plant on one side, where the cyclists are supposed to get off and walk and they don’t. Then a long, slightly wider, paved area, and then up through the cove parks, where men fish for crabs along the water. On stormy days, the water splashes high, threatening to splash them, then past the gas station and the boats for hire, and the international school, cut through the condo building to stay on the river, past the boat that is a restaurant, then along another helipad, under the freeway again, past the ferry and under the freeway and back to First Avenue then home. Four, maybe five hours of walking.
And a wealth of memory.