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By Jana Seitz

Pullquote: Rockaway Beach is perfect for an autumn adventure, after the first cool snap but before the cicada chorus dies away

When I left New York City with my family on the <Queen Mary 2> in August of 2010, eastbound on a transatlantic crossing, I had my first true understanding of how connected to the sea the city is, a port town in every sense of the word. Police and fireboats hailed our exit, fishing vessels honked, and sailors saluted as our ship — the size of a fallen Empire State Building — snaked its way out. The pathway is hazardous: through the Verrazano Narrows and under the bridge of the same name connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn, then the Ambrose Channel between the Rockaway Peninsula on the New York side, and Sandy Hook on the New Jersey side. Any ship longer than 100 feet and flying a foreign flag or carrying cargo must hire a harbor pilot to bring the ship in and out through these channels connecting the sea, harbor, and pier of port, where the docking pilots take over. It’s big water scary stuff out there, and not to be taken lightly.

Fast forward to when I left New York City without my family on a jet ski last September to explore the same waterway from a different point of view, I had my first true understanding of just how big a yahoo I am. Talk about being an olive in the martini of the world, both shaken and stirred. What hubris to think I could navigate the same channels the Sandy Hook pilots have navigated since 1694, and must study for years before they even begin an apprenticeship. And how dangerous! Zooming past tankers and ships, ferries and sailboats, huge current and waves, around the Statue of Liberty and past Coney Island. Anyone with any sense loathes jet skis, even I, as they pose such hazards to boaters. But darn, it was fun. So fun that I did it again last weekend with friends, with adjustments made for getting a history lesson on the New York harbor rather than dodging ferries under the Brooklyn Bridge.

You get peeks of sea everywhere you go around here, and it makes me want to get in there and connect the dots: take a john boat through the Bronx, kayak to La Guardia, walk in waders under the Hutch in the Pelham Park estuary. From a God’s eye point of view, we’ve built our empire on flotsam and jetsam, on thousands of floating hummocks connected by estuaries. Jamaica Bay, the armpit of Queens and Brooklyn (the water you see from JFK) is a prime example. Yes it’s probably where John Gotti dumped the body, but it’s also a 25,000-acre estuary, with a 9,155-acre portion (Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge) preserved and protected under the Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge has two man-made freshwater lakes, making it an important stop for thousands of birds on their annual pilgrimage along the Atlantic Flyway. It’s also a sanctuary for birds of another feather, immigrants who practice their religion at its shores, as is evidenced by the brochure: “After rituals, please take all ceremonial items, such as flowers, fruits, candles, bamboo flags, murthi (idols), and saris with you…a coconut can take up to 20 years to biodegrade.”

 

Gateway encompasses 27,000 scattered acres of urban parkland preserved since 1972 in the New York Harbor area and owned/managed by the National Park Service. Two-thirds of the spit of land protecting Jamaica Bay from the open Atlantic is owned by Gateway, flanking Breezy Point at the most western tip with a mile of dunes and sand, and to the east with Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park, both of which have seen finer days. Fort Tilden has been guarding New York City from any sea-faring enemies since World War I, and Jacob Riis Park was built in 1912 as a public beach.

Further east lie Rockaway and Far Rockaway, which are lined by a lovely strip of beach and boardwalk. Rockaway Beach is perfect for an autumn adventure, after the first cool snap but before the cicada chorus dies away. I’d never try it in the height of the summer or on weekends, due to the crowds and tough parking, but on a weekday in September with a bike, blanket, and book is heavenly.

While the Rockaways are welcoming, Breezy Point, not so much. Who knew a town could be a co-op? A 1.9 square mile (500-acre) co-op in fact, with about 5,000 members and one tough cookie at the guardhouse making darn sure you understand this. Non-residents can get in by dining at Kennedy’s or the Bay House (stop at guardhouse and get a pass and a parking token), but don’t try walking off your meal after lunch. It’s in and out, folks. Suffice it to say I asked for forgiveness rather than permission, making me a wanted woman in Breezy.

Map of Gateway National Recreation Area

Exploring Breezy Point on jet skis

View of the Manhattan skyline from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The open sea off Breezy

Navigating the Verrazano Narrows

By Paul Hicks

Pullquote: We might have been living on a lake in the Maine woods when we heard the call of a Common Loon one night.

Not long ago, we moved from a home with trees and gardens to a condominium overlooking Long Island Sound — two distinctly different habitats for watching and listening to birds. Previously, we enjoyed a chorus of Cardinals, Wrens, Robins, Gold Finches, and many other songbirds. There were also occasional raucous calls of Blue Jays, Starlings, and Grackles as well as the sounds of Red-bellied Woodpeckers hammering on our house, but they were definitely in the minority.

What a difference we discovered in the calls and songs of our neighboring sea and shore birds when we moved close to the Sound in the midst of the fall migration season. We might have been living on a lake in the Maine woods when we heard the call of a Common Loon one night, the familiar yodel of a male who was heading to his winter territory. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Common Loons are famous for their eerie, beautiful calls. Among these is a wavering call given when a loon is alarmed or to announce its presence.

When we heard a loud call on another evening out on the water we discovered that Mute Swans are not mute after all. They have a hoarse bugle-like call, which is not as loud as that of another species called the Trumpeter Swan. (See the Cornell Lab’s website for a wide range of bird songs and calls.)

Many people are familiar with the sounds made by Canada Geese, which can be seen floating or flying in V-shaped groups over the Sound throughout the year (often on their way to a nearby golf course). Some say that the sounds of males and females differ, but, according to one birding guidebook, the lower pitched “honks” are made by larger-bodied geese.

Around the end of October, geese called Brants return from their nesting grounds in the high Arctic tundra to winter in our nearby coastal waters. No other geese nest as far north as Brants, and few migrate as far. One of our favorite species, they are much smaller than Canada Geese and do not have large white patches separating their black necks and heads. Unlike the loud noise made by the “honkers,” Brants make a soft gargling sound as they swim about in flotillas.

Ever since seeing the movie “Finding Nemo,” every gull seems to be saying: “Mine! Mine! Mine!” That includes the locally common Ringed-billed Gull, which congregates in flocks on the beaches at Rye Town Park and Playland. Adults are clean gray above, with a white head, body, and tail; their black wingtips are spotted with white. They have yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black band around it. 

Since June we have been watching the nesting and parenting of a pair of Greater Black-backed Gulls, visible through a scope on a large offshore rock outcrop. This is the largest species of gull in the world, with broad wings, a thick neck, and a heavy, slightly bulbous bill. Their one offspring is now about two months old, but, according to guidebooks, it will take at least four years to reach maturity. If we are lucky, it will come back to its native rock in the future.

Best of all our new avian neighbors are four American Oystercatchers that divide their time between the same offshore rock outcrop and the shores of some nearby coves. Among the largest shorebirds, they feed mainly on oysters, clams, and mussels by breaking or prying open their shells. They look like harlequins with black-and-white plumage and long, bright orange beaks. Their loud piping calls have become as welcome a sound as the mellifluous sounds of songbirds we left behind.

Animal Agriculture and Our Land


By Andrea Alban-Davies

Pullquote: It all comes down to <what> we decide to eat.

As the global population explodes, and promises to reach dizzying numbers in the decades ahead, the issue of land use becomes increasingly pressing. Not only do we have to find places for an ever-increasing number of people to live and build the infrastructure to support them, but we also have to meet their basic needs — clean air, clean fresh water, and food, principal among them. In order to meet the last of these, we need arable land. 

How we use our land has far reaching effects, not only due to the impact of the activities that we undertake on that land, but also to the uses that we forgo. Every acre of land that is used to produce food is an acre that cannot be wooded or grassland. So, while the overwhelming majority of us would likely appreciate seeing more forests and otherwise naturalized tracts of land, we accept that we have to forgo those in order to feed more people.  

But what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if there were far more efficient and sustainable ways of meeting the nutritional needs of every person on the planet? Ways that would let us stop burning down rainforests, and still feed everyone? Ways that could restore millions of acres of forests – thereby adding beauty and peace (and carbon sinks, climate change buffers, and wildlife sanctuaries) – to our country and the rest of the world?  

The truth is that it doesn’t have to be a “what if” — it’s all already possible. We have the answer; we know that we can feed tomorrow’s population on far less land than we use to feed even today’s. It all comes down to <what> we decide to eat. How can what we put on our plates so drastically influence how many natural landscapes and wildlife corridors we can support? Well, because not all foods are created equal when it comes to land requirements. Producing meat, dairy, and eggs to feed one person requires a huge amount of land; plant foods much, much less so.

Industry calculations show that providing for the average American’s diet high in animal products requires <18 times> the land that it does to provide for an all plant-based diet. Substitute in 100% grass-fed “organic” meat, and you’re looking at multiple times more land.

At first, I found it easy to dismiss this concept with the argument that human populations are clustered in and around large cities, leaving large tracts of land available to farm and graze; but the more I learned, the harder it got to rely on this logic. The truth is that, in many areas of the world, there isn’t enough arable land left to meet our current food needs; in those areas, people cut down old-growth forests to create arable land. Worldwide, approximately 5 million acres of rainforest are destroyed <every year> to graze livestock and grow crops to feed them.

By way of example, take the Amazon, the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks. When we hear mind-boggling statistics regarding the rate of daily destruction in that particular rainforest, we are talking almost exclusively about the devastation wrought by animal agriculture. Two hundred million acres of the Amazon have been destroyed during the last 40 years, with over 90% of the destruction attributable to the livestock industry. It’s important to keep in mind that most of the countries engaging in – or at least permitting – these practices aren’t doing so to meet local demand for animal agriculture products. Instead, they are producing food for export to satisfy market demand in wealthy, first-world countries like ours.  

For as long as I can remember, there have been campaigns to save the Amazon. And while many of these campaigns have succeeded in slowing the rampant rate of deforestation, the destruction continues. Donating to some of the hard-working non-profit organizations is a wonderful way to get involved; however, if we’re serious about saving the Amazon, the way to do it is dramatically reduce demand for the principle driver of the desecration.

Perhaps the Amazon feels far away, and not particularly relevant as you sit reading this in Rye, New York, so let’s bring it back home. Seventy percent of the arable land in the U.S. is used to grow food to feed animals (not humans). How is this possible? Well, consider this: it takes 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Or take soy, the ultimate protein crop. In the U.S., over 70% of our soybean crop is grown to feed-grade standards for livestock. Key to understanding the land intensity of animal vs. plant products is the fact that only 5%-7% of the total protein consumed by a feedlot cow or steer is returned for human consumption as meat; thus, one expert calls cows a “protein factory in reverse.” That’s why we need over 50% of the land in the continental U.S. to support the animal agriculture juggernaut, land that could otherwise be forests, meadows, and grasslands. What’s more, ranchers are grazing their cattle on our undeveloped federal land, arguably at a fraction of the going rate, destroying existing grasslands and advocating for the rounding up or outright killing of the wildlife residing therein.

If I had met a family on a 100% plant-based diet a year ago that told me they were eschewing animal products because they were nature lovers invested in preserving the natural wonders here at home and the world over, I probably would have thought that they sounded a bit extreme. But the truth is, that for the conservationists among us, the first, easiest, and most impactful step we can take is as we stroll the aisles of the grocery store. Don’t take my word for it, read up on land-use statistics and the recent history of our rainforests. They tell the story better than any one of us can.

 

Where the Hills Are Alive with Art

By Jana Seitz

Pullquote: The land itself is a medium creating ever-changing art out of the earth.

I have met the storm king, and you shouldn’t mess with him. He guards the gates of Storm King Art Center like the Sphinx from his lawn chair at the bicycle rental kiosk. If you incorrectly answer his riddle for admission, your fate is sealed: expulsion or death. I mercifully passed his test by sacrificing the ladies I brought with me and was thus spared. He could only hurl empty words in my direction as I entered his kingdom.

Okay, maybe he was just a grouchy man who woke up on the wrong side of bed and we, his first customers of the morning. But the majestic Storm King Art Center plays on one’s mind in such a fashion. It’s bigger than life and sets a stage for the impossible becoming possible. There’s nothing quite like meandering beneath gigantic sculptures to make you feel as significant as an ant. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if King Kong came swinging down the maple tree alley or a fire-breathing dragon flew over the surrounding hills at us. It’s a village of Big Art, reminding you just how small you are in the scheme of things, a paradoxically soothing realization.

Frederick Remington wrote, <“Big art is a process of elimination. Cut down and out. Do your hardest work outside the picture, and let your audience take away something to think about – to imagine.”> Storm King is the very incarnation of these words.

Founded in 1960 by Ralph Ogden and Peter Stern, Storm King is 500 acres of woods, fields, lawns, wetlands, and water with sculptures scattered throughout, like a playground for the gods. Rolling vistas intertwine with open expanses and wooded retreats, lending an element of surprise, a treasure hunt for art. There’s a swing set and play scape by Alexander Calder, some kick balls and a croquet set by Henry Moore, a bunch of cool Legos by David Smith, and huge seesaws, playhouses, and slides by an array of artists. Giant toys abound.

Of course there’s loads of factual information in the brochure or on the guided tours and fabulous programs, but that’s not my thing. I find their map difficult to follow. I’ve absorbed it and discarded it — prepare and improvise. I prefer their “Field Guide For Young Explorers” if you’re lucky enough to find one tossed aside by a bored kindergartner.

I just like to lose myself in the beauty of this place for a few hours on a regular basis, and always during Mini Adventure time (weekdays from drop off until pickup) where I have it more or less to myself. It’s a new discovery each season, whether dipped in fall, dusted in snow, or dotted with wildflowers. The land itself is a medium creating ever-changing art out of the earth. It’s only an hour’s drive from Rye, but worlds apart.

I naturally gravitate toward the road less travelled, so Moodna Creek Trail is my favorite, a wooded path along the creek skirting the eastern and southern edges of the property. The Café (open 11-4:30) makes a fine sandwich to stick in your backpack to eat along the way, and a fine cuppa Joe for the quick drive home. I regularly break the “no food allowed outside the designated picnic areas” rule, but I leave no trace behind for fear of The Sphinx and his minions. Just keep moving and you’ll be fine.

I enjoy popping into the Museum Building to see what’s happening and to buy yet another Rainbow Maker in the Museum Store (best gift shop ever). When time allows I like to explore the nearby village of Cornwall-on-Hudson, ripe with history. Next trip up I intend to check out the Black Rock Forest and Storm King State Park. There’s just never enough time to squeeze it all in.

So riddle me this, Mr. Storm King: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?

Oedipus: “Man.” Crawling in childhood, walking mid-life, and using a cane in old age. My answer: “Man on a Mini Adventure.” Four car tires in the morning, two bicycle wheels at noon and 3 p.m. pickup, completely satiated with perspective in check.

Box

Storm King Art Center

1 Museum Road, New Windsor

845-534-3115

www.stormking.org

Bikers: Rye moms Sharon Mequet, Kerri Olson, Renate Desai, Kristin Siano, Lisa Greenspan, and Robin Azer enjoying the art-filled air at Storm King.

Alexander Calder, <The Arch>

 Alexander Liberman, <Adonai>

Menashe Kadishman, <Suspended>

Alyson Shotz, <Mirror Fence>

 

The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program gives garden lovers a bounty of opportunities to visit some of the finest private gardens in the country. This Sunday, June 25, a number are open in Westchester County. Hours are 10-4. Admission is $7. Visit www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days for a complete schedule.

Head to North Salem to see <<Artemis Farm>>, owned by Carol and Jesse Goldberg, who, 18 years ago, dismantled an unused barn and created a formal garden on the site. More recently, they created a “secret garden” behind another barn — a charming oasis with meandering paths, a seasonal stream, and a variety of shade plants. Don’t miss the intimate garden off the kitchen.

Artemis Farm is located at 22 Wallace Road.

While you’re in North Salem, take time to stop at <<The Hen & the Hive>>. The 11-year-old organically cultivated gardens feature wildflower meadow paths and woodlands. The four acres both ward off and take advantage of the white tailed deer population; only the vegetable and berry gardens are protected by deer-proof fencing.

The Hen & the Hive is located at 9 June Road.

<<The Garden of Phillis Warden>> in Bedford Hills is a perennial favorite. Water, wildflower, fern, and marsh gardens are among its many attractions. It also features a formal vegetable garden, a woodland walk, and a hidden garden.

The Garden is located at 531 Bedford Center Road. It will also be open on July 30.

<<Brae Willows,>> a one-acre garden at 49 Long Ridge Road in Bedford, is designed and maintained by the owner. The property is divided by a small seasonal creek that winds its way to the Mianus River. Conifers create seclusion, surprise, and year-round beauty. Arbors and natural stone paths await.

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