The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for February 27th, 2012

curious heaps

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like Thoreau, your humble narrator occasionally needs to escape it all and commune with the beasts of the field on their own terms. Journey toward nature and become as one with it, all that. Accordingly, a recent perambulation was embarked upon whose destination would reward me with the presence of creatures for whom freedom is no abstract notion, rather it is their daily experience.

from wikipedia

Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.

Published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.

By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles (3 km) from his family home.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unfortunately, despite the unseasonably warm temperatures of recent weeks, it is still winter- limiting my options for observing natures bounties. There will always be birds exploiting safe harborage, it was reasoned, so my steps headed for the shoreline.

There I found my reward as small flocks of birds were exploiting the mud flats typical of estuarine coastlines.

from Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau, courtesy

What is a country without rabbits and partridges? They are among the most simple and indigenous animal products; ancient and venerable families known to antiquity as to modern times; of the very hue and substance of Nature, nearest allied to leaves and to the ground — and to one another; it is either winged or it is legged. It is hardly as if you had seen a wild creature when a rabbit or a partridge bursts away, only a natural one, as much to be expected as rustling leaves. The partridge and the rabbit are still sure to thrive, like true natives of the soil, whatever revolutions occur. If the forest is cut off, the sprouts and bushes which spring up afford them concealment, and they become more numerous than ever. That must be a poor country indeed that does not support a hare.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unlike Thoreau, I have no virginal woodlands with an untouched body of water to retreat to, rather my lot is to yearn for the accursed East Branch of the hated Newtown Creek. Saying that, however, there is a mythology about this body of water which I have become keen to dispel.

This ain’t a dead place, it’s actually teeming with life. Unfortunately, it’s not the cuddly or cute kind of life- instead there are mainly worms, bugs, and other creepy crawlies for whom these anaerobic mudflats are a nutrient rich paradise. The hypoxic state of the water actually reduces the number of potential predators they might encounter.

It’s precisely this sort of critter, who live in the sediment mounds of the Newtown Creek, that the lovely birds in the shots above are feeding on.

from wikipedia

Hypoxia, or oxygen depletion, is a phenomenon that occurs in aquatic environments as dissolved oxygen (DO; molecular oxygen dissolved in the water) becomes reduced in concentration to a point where it becomes detrimental to aquatic organisms living in the system. Dissolved oxygen is typically expressed as a percentage of the oxygen that would dissolve in the water at the prevailing temperature and salinity (both of which affect the solubility of oxygen in water; see oxygen saturation and underwater). An aquatic system lacking dissolved oxygen (0% saturation) is termed anaerobic, reducing, or anoxic; a system with low concentration—in the range between 1 and 30% saturation—is called hypoxic or dysoxic. Most fish cannot live below 30% saturation. A “healthy” aquatic environment should seldom experience less than 80%. The exaerobic zone is found at the boundary of anoxic and hypoxic zones.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Across the City, State, and even the Nation- engineers are working feverishly on grand designs and byzantine plans whose purpose it is to “fix” Newtown Creek. Many are experts on the place, and can quote a staggering amount of raw data about it from memory, but so few of them have ever actually been here.

It’s as if one can say they understand a neighborhood because they’ve memorized its map and boundaries.

When confronted with the fact that birds, including exotic specimens like egrets, cormorants, and herons are nesting along its banks- to appropriate a term from the British- “they are gob smacked”.

from wikipedia

Tidal flats, along with intertidal salt marshes and mangrove forests, are important ecosystems. They usually support a large population of wildlife, although levels of biodiversity are not particularly high. They are often of vital importance to migratory birds, as well as certain species of crabs, mollusks and fish. In the United Kingdom mudflats have been classified as a Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitat.

The maintenance of mudflats is important in preventing coastal erosion. However, mudflats worldwide are under threat from predicted sea level rises, land claims for development, dredging due to shipping purposes, and chemical pollution.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Don’t misunderstand, this is an extremely troubled waterway, and the biomass which it should be supporting is exponentially higher than what you’ll find living here today. The early Creek, the one that the Dutch encountered, was known for an abundant biosphere. All of the highest forms of the mammalian, ichthian, and avian species were here in great numbers- everything from pike to bass to shrimp swam in it, deer and bears and wolves were roaming the hills adjoining the salt marshes and coastal wetlands and hawks, owls, and eagles were described as soaring overhead.

Such fauna obviously won’t be coming back, but there are still fish swimming around here. Not big fish, but fish nevertheless. They eat the creepy crawly things too.

from wikipedia

A tidal creek, tidal channel, or estuary is the portion of a stream that is affected by ebb and flow of ocean tides, in the case that the subject stream discharges to an ocean, sea or strait. Thus this portion of the stream has variable salinity and electrical conductivity over the tidal cycle. Due to the temporal variability of water quality parameters within the tidally influenced zone, there are unique biota associated with tidal creeks, which biota are often specialised to such zones.

Creeks may often dry to a muddy channel with little or no flow at low tide, but often with significant depth of water at high tide.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What chance can such an environment stand with an open sewer the size of an 18 wheeler truck, though?

See, my version of Walden Pond is rent asunder by CSO Outfall NC-083, which discharges an average of 586 million gallons of filth into the East Branch of Newtown Creek per year.


Combined Sewer Outfall NC-083 discharges approximately 586 million gallons of untreated wastewater year into Newtown Creek. This accounts for 2.2% of New York City’s total sewer overflow into the estuary.

This CSO is ranked at #15 out of the 434 permitted outfalls in the city, by volume. It is located alongside a second, smaller, CSO outfall, NC-019.

Written by Mitch Waxman

February 27, 2012 at 12:15 am

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