New York City

The Birds of September 11 by Brandon


On my way to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I stopped for a slice a pizza and to clear my head. The previous week had been a somber one; every anniversary recalls the past, but some make you reflect on what's happened since, and a cloud hung over the intervening years. The nation felt like a different, far darker place than before that fateful morning.

Of course, it's easy to mythologize the past. Even the weather of 9/11, an archetypally perfect fall morning, takes on metaphorical overtones: a time of innocence and bounty, golden and pure, as yet untouched by shadow. Through the lens of memory, the United States was running a surplus, the economy was strong, things were good.

Of course they were not. A year before, the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the fantasy of economic security in an information age. A few months earlier, the Enron scandal surfaced -- a Byzantine mix of accounting fraud, rigged markets, political corruption, ill-conceived deregulation, greed and meanness and outright theft -- perpetrated by people who preached the virtues of free markets, and loaned the President their corporate jet.

Enron, we learned in years to come, wasn't an exception. It was a business model for big capitalism in the early 21st century. The same basic blueprint could be read in the financial meltdown of 2008, when investment bankers -- who rewrote laws that once restrained them, pushed high-interest mortgages at the peak of a real estate bubble, bet trillions of dollars that mortgages would be paid even when they obviously wouldn't, then tried to hide these facts -- crippled the economies of North America and western Europe, and very nearly took down the world.

The consequences were quite different for poor and middle-class people than for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Within a few years, as unemployment soared and cities went bankrupt, the people most responsible for the crisis were even wealthier than before. And between Enron's stock plunge and Lehman's bankruptcy we'd had two disastrous wars, state-sanctioned torture and surveillance, the body politic's split into alternate partisan universes. Pervading it all was a sense of inescapability. Around and around we went, a society spiraling downward and unable to change course.

I jotted down my thoughts, finished eating and walked to Ground Zero. There I said a prayer for the departed -- I don't believe in God, but sometimes one just prays -- and continued to my evening's destination, the Tribute in Lights, which is projected above lower Manhattan each 9/11 night. You've probably seen the tribute, or pictures of it, twin electric blue beams that disappear in the heavens and can be seen from sixty miles away. It is beautiful and utterly haunting and simply immense. For one night, it turns the rest New York's fabled skyline into a row of votive candles.

The year before, I'd seen the tribute from Governor's Island, just below Manhattan in New York Bay. I'd gone there for a concert, and during the opening act people drifted to the shoreline, where they looked at the tribute in wonder and confusion. There was something unusual about the beams: Sparkling white points of light spiraled slowly inside them, hundreds if not thousands, almost like confetti, but confetti wouldn't have been visible from that distance. It also wouldn't have risen. A few people said the lights made them think of souls.

The next day I learned from a friend that the lights had been birds. New York City sits directly in the Atlantic Flyway, the easternmost of North America's four great migration routes. Each fall, millions of birds fly down the Atlantic coast, a stream of energy and life stretching from Greenland in the summer to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, in winter. Along the way the birds funnel down the Hudson River valley, passing mostly unnoticed above the city that never sleeps.

Scientists aren't precisely sure how birds navigate their miraculous passsage, but the general mechanisms are understood. They sense Earth's geomagnetic field, which provides a frame of reference calibrated by the light of stars, sun and moon. Under certain conditions, however, such as moonless, overcast nights when the brightest lights are man-made, these biological compasses spin awry. Birds fly in circles until dropping from exhaustion onto sidewalks or stoops, or escape so drained as to die later in their journey.

September 11, 2010 had been one such night. The waxing moon was a thin, dim crescent. Clouds covered lower Manhattan. Birds had also gathered for days in wetlands north of the city, grounded by storms that blew against them, but finally the winds shifted to the south. In a tailwind flood the birds were released. The brightest light in the region came from the Tribute in Lights, projected by eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights into a dull dark sky.

When I called New York City's chapter of the Audubon society, I learned that more than 10,000 birds -- yellow warblers on their way to Central America, redstarts headed to Mexico, probably tanagers and thrushes and orioles, too -- were pulled in over night's course. Five times Audubon volunteers briefly shuttered the spotlights, giving circling birds a chance to escape.

It seemed a noble thing to do, keeping our memorial to tragically lost life from accidentally taking lives; and so, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, wanting to honor the day with more than remembrance, I volunteered, arriving just before dusk at the rooftop parking garage where the tribute's spotlights are installed.

Night fell. The sky over New Jersey turned from blue to purple to black. The lights hummed. Audubon volunteers lay on their backs, staring into the beams and trying to count the birds. There weren't many. Previous nights had favored flight, preventing the buildup seen a year earlier. Except for a few wispy clouds, the sky was clear, and the gibbous moon would soon be full. There seemed to be more people than birds: family members still grieving, tourists posing, a British man with a burn-scarred face who'd been installing floors at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who mourned the Muslim lives lost since.

Only once, when clouds covered the moon a few hours after midnight, did birds enter the beams in significant numbers. The clouds soon blew away. The birds followed. As dawn approached, the beams were empty. Six days later, the first protesters arrived just down the block, at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street had begun.

From The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. To read more, pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books or Kobo.

Photo: Dennis Leung

A Snail's Tale by Brandon

Earlier this week I visited Pelham Bay in the Bronx. On the low tide-strewn beach I gathered several empty snail shells — Neverita duplicata, also known as the shark-eye or Atlantic moon snail — only to learn yesterday, while arranging them in a terrarium, that one was still very much inhabited.

He* had retreated into his shell, stopping up the opening with his foot, and though he'd spent several days in my backpack, out of water and in indoor heat, I hoped he might yet be alive. After all, an intertidal life is already one of extremes. Googling "how long can a snail survive out of water?" also returned at least a couple stories of aquarium snail-owners who'd accidentally dropped their animals on the floor, found them months later, returned them to water and watched them come back to life.

Those were not the same species, or probably even the same genus or family, as my snail. And it's the internet. But still: a flicker of hope. At least I owed him the possibility. So today I set off for my nearest salt water, the East River, which enters the Atlantic not far from my apartment.

I caught a bus on the B44 line, which the city's transit authority split last year into two services: the standard bus, which covers about half the route, and the select bus, which completes it. Supposedly this makes the journey faster and more efficient. In practice, it often means taking the standard bus part-way, then waiting twenty minutes and a half-dozen more standard bus arrivals before the select service arrives.

Which is annoying on a chilly day, but also a reason to strike up a conversation — "... and all this for a snail!" — and so I ended up talking with two fellow passengers. Somewhat unexpectedly, they didn't seem to think my errand crazy. "That's awesome!" said one, a young woman, who advised me to open my snail's Ziploc bag. "He needs to breathe," she said.

The other, an older woman with a distinct Jamaican accent and kindly, I-saved-you-some-dinner demeanor, complimented me on not killing. "I never kill," she said. After all, other animals are simply trying to live their lives, just like her. And it was only fair: how would she like it if the animals she met wanted to kill her?

True, she might step on an ant sometimes, it can hardly be avoided, but she wouldn't swat flies. In summer, she opens her window and lets them out. In winter, she lets them be. "My husband chases them around," she explained, "but I say, 'Just wrap up the food!' The fly just wants to be warm." When waiting for a subway train and seeing a rat on the tracks, she revealed with a slightly conspiratorial air, she would even toss them food. "I can't stand seeing a hungry animal," she said.

The bus reached its final stop. We said our good-byes. I walked several blocks to the river. In that neighborhood it's kept off-limits behind fences and warehouse walls, but in a parking lot beneath the Williamsburg Bridge I snuck past a security guard and down to a section of fence just above the water line.

Concrete and stone transmuted the the rumble of far-above traffic into something like the sound of wind. A family of brants fed in the shallows, bobbing on a ferry's wake. I threw the snail over the fence and into the river, where he landed with a splash.

* Or maybe she, or even — given the marvelous sexual variety of gastropods — s/he.

A Bed-Stuy Wilderness by Brandon

Recently I read of a neighborhood group who dedicated themselves to restoring their local outdoor space, a stretch of weedy canal-side land kept blissfully free from further development by pollution. They were, explained the article, making ecological improvements. Before-and-after photographs showed volunteers tromping on tall grasses and plants, and later tending to a few Home Depot-style outdoor shrubs planted in a barren bank of mulch.

It feels mean to criticize such decent, civic-minded efforts, yet the photos made me cringe. What resulted from the improvements seemed far less verdant than what existed before. Those unkempt, untended weeds were full of life, giving home and shelter to insects and small animals; and the land was wild. Sure, it was just a vacant lot — but such is the nature of wild in a megacity. Nobody tended it, nobody directed it.

Wildness as a value has fallen into disfavor among some conservationists. One hears a disdain for wildness: nothing is pristine, therefore nothing is wild. But to be wild isn't to be unimpacted by human activity. Wilderness is undirected, uncontrolled. It's where life continues regardless of what we do. Not outside the human sphere, but not within it, either.

On my corner is a vacant lot. It's maybe 40 feet on each side, and despite the march of gentrification down Bedford Avenue and up Myrtle, nobody's built anything there. Bordered by a concertina wire-topped fence, the gate locked, it's inaccessible; people throw trash inside, and street garbage accumulates in unsightly drifts on the outside, but it's left alone.

Each spring the lot is fast overgrown by weeds, that derogatory label we give to plants guilty of thriving, particularly in conditions — compacted soil, disturbance, dehydration — we've created. I use the term, too. It was in the Weed Atlas of NYC that I learned their names: stinging nettle and lamb's quarters, clover and curly dock and purslane, crabgrass and ragweed and mugwort, and most of all horsetail, which by mid-summer forms a hip-high forest. Morning glories climb and cover the fence. Bumblebees buzz from flower to flower, climbing in and out until the blossoms close in afternoon. Rats move through the brush. Sparrows gather there in the morning, our songbirds, and calling insects sing at night.

Unglamorous species, all, but wild. Give me a rat in the weeds over a snow leopard in a zoo, a horsetail patch over the High Line's manicured, unnatural nativity.

Early this spring I thought I might grow something in the lot. A pollinator garden, I hoped, packing dozens of mud balls with lovely-sounding seeds — agastache and penstemon and linaria, sunflowers and moonflowers, black-eyed susans, foxglove and lupine and teasel — and late at night tossing them over the fence. In coming weeks I watched the field. My flowers failed to grow, which was disappointing but gave me a new appreciation for the lot's life, for all that did grow so dense and rich.

Then one afternoon, that life was gone. The plants were cut to bare ground, the morning glories torn out. The trash had been hauled away, and along the fence were black plastic boxes of rat poison — as if that would control rats anyways, and as if environmental point sources of neurotoxins were any better for the neighborhood. The land was, to my eyes, despoiled, my neighborhood's wildest and most beautiful place destroyed. My heart ached.

Shortly thereafter I went away for several weeks. When I came back, a new generation of weeds was already shin-high. The morning glories were well up the fence, growing so fast they'd climbed the weeds, too, and for a while the lot was a field of their blossoms. Within two months the weeds were tall again, the morning glories splendid; my flowers still didn't grow, but no matter. They didn't belong. The lot is verdant. The trash is back too, but that's peripheral. The bumblebees feed, the sparrows sing each morning.

Image: Brandon Keim/Flickr

A Parrot Nests in Brooklyn by Brandon

Escaped from an ornithologists' crate that fell to the tarmac at JFK, refugees from pet owners, released by a guerilla naturalist in Greenwood Cemetery: Whatever their origins, monk parrots have settled in Brooklyn, favoring utility pole transformers for building their Smart Car-sized, hive-shaped colonial nests, which are unexpectedly tolerated by Con Edison, the city's electricity company. Locals hold the birds in fond esteem, perhaps because they're loud, colorful and scratch out precarious livings on the fringes of institutional power; they are, in short, the perfect symbol for this borough of immigrants.

Photo: Brandon Keim

Marilynne Robinson, Subway Ride, Lesson by Brandon

In the opening essay of When I Was a Child I Wrote Books, Marilynne Robinson writes of the miraculous improbability that is every human being: each mind containing more neurons than stars in our universe, arranged in patterns complicated beyond our reckoning, loving and hurting and thinking, floating through a vast vacuum gulf; if from a certain scale even a chair would look like a cloud of energy, what might each of us appear to be....

I'd been trying consciously to keep this in mind, to remind myself (lovely how the word remains ingrained, linguistically guarded from decades of neuroscientific preference for brain) each time I found myself angry or dismissive: How can so-and-so, such-and-such, be so stupid, corrupt, mean, thoughtless? Squint on the inside, see them for a moment as a cloud of light. An effective routine, but easy to forget, and when I stepped into the subway on my way uptown I saw the wool army blanket pile, a sneaker poking out one end, garbage-bagged belongings, a slumbering twitch, smelled it/him, and chose a seat from which vantage he'd be hidden.

Above him was one of those Poetry in Motion subway posters. "Graduation," by Dorothea Tanning:

He told us, with the years, you will come to love the world. And we sat there with our souls in our laps, and comforted them.

Forty-five minutes later, a few minutes late for dinner, I walked fast toward the 72nd street B/C station exit. I passed a boy, maybe twelve years old, black, who called to me and matched my pace and asked how he could get on the 4/5 train. A cloud of suspicion: Maybe he was selling something, thinking of stealing something? Not breaking stride, I told him that he'd have to catch a train back downtown -- to 59th, I thought, I wasn't sure, I could have checked my iPhone subway map but that would have meant stopping -- then ride the E across town to 51st, then take the 4/5 from there. His face fell, he looked as though he were halfway to tears, and then I was up the stairs and on the street, thinking what an asshole I was.

At dinner I checked the phone and realized I'd given him the wrong station. He needed to transfer at 50th, not 59th.

Dinner, wonderful company, movie -- about Moslem immigrants risking themselves to save Jews in occupied Vichy France -- back downtown on the subway. Waiting for the G train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a homeless man walking up the platform, asking for money. No singles in my wallet, I shake my head when he passes. On the train, headphones on, I look up and he's passing through the car. This time, finally, I feel in my pocket, find two quarters and hand them over. From no perspective at that moment would I appear as a cloud of light.

Image: Man sleeping on the subway.

On Waldman’s Pond by Brandon

"The water," said John Waldman, "varies between green and shockingly green."

Perched on a thin strip of grass between a road and the water's edge, he stared intently at the surface. On a postcard fall noon it was the color of fresh spinach, the algae and silt so thick that the sun was swallowed just a few inches into the murk.

"Minnows," he said, pointing to a dappling of translucent silver-pink fish several feet from sure. "It's salty, with a sky-high pH, but it's rich and full of life nonetheless." We stood at at the mouth of a short creek between two bodies of water that elsewhere would be called ponds, but in New York City they are called Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, and are faintly miraculous. Like so much of the estuary now entombed beneath the world's eleventh-largest city, it was once a tidal marsh, and still receives the tide. This explained the salinity. The pH — nine, to be exact, same as baking soda — came from coal ash, which residents piled by the creek when Queens was still country. Builders used the ash to line the lakebeds, and it prevents the water from spreading back into the silt.

Waldman, a biology professor at nearby Queens College, hoped the minnows would attract a snakehead. The voracious intruder was found this spring in Willow Lake, likely introduced by an owner exasperated with its boundless appetite, and earlier this fall, Waldman saw a juvenile — evidence that they might have spawned.

"It's still not clear whether they are highly successful," he said. As for whether the snakeheads will eat everything in sight, fulfilling the fearsome though overstated reputations — Snakehead!! — spread by toothy tabloid covers three summers ago, when the air-breathing Asian natives were discovered in Maryland, nobody knows. "Its possible they'll overshoot the food source before reaching some sort of equilibrium," said Waldman.

Overshooting the food source, of course, is a technical way of saying, eat everything in the lakes. Worse yet, a breeding population of snakeheads would threaten any other waters to which misguided bucket-carriers could haul them. The Department of Environmental Conservation has taken control of the situation, but Waldman, who worked for twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation before taking his professorship, still comes by to look. He is a fish junky, a city boy who spent his life exploring, and later chronicling the history of, the waters around New York City — waters that, he and others discovered, are full of life, a life that is surprisingly resilient, clinging to and even thriving in niches shaped by human destruction.

Waldman crossed the street to look for snakeheads on the other side, easily vaulting a concrete divider. At fifty he is still fit and trim, with sharp blue eyes, an angler's grip and a chin of stubble that matches the white of his hair. He wore a brown jacket — herringbone, appropriately — and loose slacks, somewhat resembling the Victorian gentleman who, in a framed drawing on his office wall, carries with aplomb a man-sized fish on a stick over his back.

"The drive for life is really intense. There's an awful lot of contamination in this world," he said, speaking for a moment of life above the water as well. "They may not produce so many eggs as in a pristine environment, or grow as well, but there's still a living to be made here."

Waldman continued up the creek. The leaves had already turned, and many of the fallen had yet to lose their color; thickets of head-high phragmites lined the water's margins with green stalks and loose flaxen heads that waved back the sun's gold. We passed beneath the interleafing of the Van Wyck Highway and the Long Island Expressway, their supporting concrete columns aged by weather and almost as wide around as some of the trees that once lived in the surrounding valleys.

The water's surface vibrated from cars passing above and was boiled by thick schools of minnows that surfaced in flight from our footsteps. A chemical skein floated with lazy iridescence beside a drainage inflow where we next stopped. Littering the water was a collection of trash straight from central staging: milk crates, tires, shopping carts.

"Shopping carts are one of the major features of urban aquatic environments. Another one is the spare tire," Waldman said. Beside one bridge, he said, it is possible to walk across the water on the trash collected beneath it. "Tumbleweed," he said, pointing to a wind-blown plastic bag.

We saw no snakeheads there, or farther along at the locks that hold the lakes in. Nor did we see any other fish, though the water teems with them — sunfish, white perch, carp, catfish, the earlier-seen minnows, which are technically named killifish, and American eels, which despite their name breed in the Sargasso Sea, not far from the West Indies. These fish have survived, even thrived, amidst some of the worst pollution in the world, but now face eradication from the latest offhand transformation.

The snakehead, of course, just a few generations removed from some brackish backwater in northern China, is an unwitting victim in the whole affair, arbitrarily moved by the fate of globalization and human nature. Singling it out as an alien in an already-altered ecological balance could seem unfair — but shaping the development of nature is a power that, for better or worse, people exercise simply by existing.

"The snakehead is a gritty fish, with great survival instincts. It's hard to dislike it," John said on the walk back to the car. "But it just doesn't belong here."

Image: A satellite photograph of Meadow and Willow Lakes.

I wrote this almost five years ago (!) in school, as part of a profile on Waldman that I never did manage to get published. Which is a shame, because John is a gracious and fascinating person, whose work on New York City's aquatic ecology deserves much attention.

If you're looking for a gift or just a fun read, check John's 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish and Heartbeats in the Muck, his aquatic history of New York City.