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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery & the Gardens

My wife's niece came up from Charlotte, NC, to stay with us for a week. She and her family lived in Brooklyn until they relocated about 6 years ago, so she's no stranger to the Big Apple.

Organizing the agenda for an 18 year old female is not really my forte, so I left the cultural activities and clothes shopping outings with her aunt. Bethany is a talented, self-taught artist, who enjoys painting, drawing and photography. Her father recently bought her a really nice digital SLR that's been getting a lot of use. Finding cool places for her to take photos - that's right up my alley.

I don't know if reading my blog put the idea in her head, but one of the first things that she told me that she'd like to do is go on an "adventure". I presumed that she meant a nature adventure, because pretty much that's all I'm good for. I hadn't been to the Ridgewood Reservoir in a little while, and she seemed intrigued by my description of it, so we decided that would be our first destination. Thankfully, she likes to walk ... I mean, REALLY likes to walk. She is a little over 5 feet tall and maybe 105 pounds, but I have to shift gears to keep up with her!

Bethany and I climbed down into the reservoir's northeast basin. We spent over an hour hiking through the forest and bog. Wearing cargo shorts and Teva sandals was probably not the best decision I made that morning, especially since the basin has an abundance of thorny plants, such as multiflora rose and blackberry. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because it was hot and humid, but by the end of the day our legs looked as if they'd been used as scratching posts for an entire neighborhood of cats.

Speaking of cats (sort of), the interior of the basin was loaded with Gray Catbirds and their offspring. At one point, we were pursued by a very agitated, mewing catbird, presumably because we were close to its offspring. They are as common as dirt in New York City parks during the breeding season. Many are curious and approachable, but this individual actually seemed intent on driving us off. I'm guessing that the basin birds don't see very many humans near their nesting territory, so we obliged by moved away quickly.

Before the Ridgewood Reservoir property was turned over to the Department of Parks & Recreation by the Department of Environmental Protection, there was a small, homeless encampment inside of two basins. Those folks are all long gone, evicted in 2004, but artifacts from their homesteading days can sometimes be seen poking up through the emerging forest's floor. Most items are merely discarded food containers or shelter materials, but sometimes I stumble on, what can only be described as, the bizarre. A detached and slightly burned doll head would fall into the latter category.

We took a short stroll through Prospect Park on Monday. I was hoping to locate one of the members of the Ravine Red-tailed Hawk family. I figured that even if we didn't find a hawk the park is really lush at this time of year, so I was confident that we'd find something interesting to photograph.

Starting in the Ravine, we walked up the east staircase to the roofless wooden shelter, over the Boulder Bridge, then passed Rick's Place to my favorite muddy puddle. When we were approaching the puddle on the bridle path, Bethany focused her sights on the towering arch of the Boulder Bridge ahead of us. She wanted to take some photos of it. As we were walking, I mumbled something about looking for bats underneath, put my bins up to my eyes, then, as if by magic, spotted a fuzzy, brown head sticking out from between the stones. I couldn't believe it and was ecstatic! For 14 years I've been walking under that arch and thinking, "This would be a good place for a bat to roost", but this was the first time that I found one who agreed with me. Encounters with bats in New York City parks are usually just abrupt flashes of diving, darting silhouettes in the dark. For me to be able to stand beneath one and look up into its sleepy, red eyes was a special experience.

After a long look at the bat, and a search through the other openings in the bridge, we headed back into the Ravine. Along the edges of the paths, Purple-flowering Raspberry vines are fruiting, but the animals are going to have to wait just a little longer if they want sweet, ripe fruit for their cereal. At the Fallkill wildflower meadow near the baseball fields, tall stands of Wild Bergamot was attracting a diversity of bees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. One big surprise was finding a Hummingbird Moth, then realizing that there were 4 or 5 more in the vicinity. Bethany had never seen one before and was amazed by the insect's mimicry.

My good friend Marge is a member of the Green-Wood Cemetery Historic Society. In addition to all her other talents, she is a virtual encyclopedia of American History facts. Her dedicated work on the Civil War Project at the cemetery uncovered a high-ranking, but forgotten Civil War captain buried in Green-Wood. In the past, she has offered to give us a guided tour of the cemetery and I decided that Bethany might enjoy it.

The Green-Wood Cemetery is, essentially, a museum and monument of New York and American history. It is not only the final resting place for many famous and infamous Americans, but also the location for an important battle of the American Revolution. My thoughts were, why bring Bethany to a stuffy museum when we could enjoy the rolling scenery and untold stories in the cemetery.

Among the tens of thousands of sculptures, headstones and mausoleums is probably one of the most striking, sorrowful and haunting portrayals of "Azrael, the Angel of Death". The sculptor, Solon H. Borglum, was a personal friend of Brooklyn Mayor Charles Adolph Schieren. When Schieren and his wife died of pneumonia within hours of each other, Borglum decided to create a unique memorial for the pair. At only 40" high, I think the artist succeeded in creating a piece that is even more powerful that some that are ten times larger.

We spent about 15 minutes gawking over the beautiful lighting within the cemetery's chapel. During the day, the Warren and Wetmore building is illuminated by luxurious, arched stained glass windows by Tiffany. The Bridge and Tunnel Club has a page with several images here. Photographs don't seem to capture the vibrant hues and saturation of the real experience.

On the 22nd we walked across Prospect Park to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Entering at the Flatbush Avenue side of the garden, we meandered north, towards the Native Flora Garden. An island of selected daisies within the Family Plant Collections section was buzzing with insect life. Most of the yellow and white flowering plants towered above Bethany's head making photographing bees and butterflies impractical. Artichoke Thistle near the fountain at the south end of the Cherry Esplanade was a surprising addition in an area dominated by roses. Bumble bees seemed to enjoy its hard to reach, but abundant nectar. I'd never seen artichokes outside of the produce market and was surprised at its hard, thorny exterior. I wonder who got it into their head that, deep down inside that forbidding armor, there could be something soft and delicate to eat.

In the forested Native Flora Garden the buttonbush flowers have all withered and the jewelweed has gone to seed. Across the path from the kettle pond new flowers have emerged. Suspended from thread-like stalks, brilliant orange Turk's Cap Lilies bobbed on the breeze.

Summer Azure butterflies flushed from their perches on knotweed plants and fluttered ahead of our steps.

Next week Bethany's younger brother will be staying with us for several days. I haven't yet given much thought to any adventures with him, but I'm sure he will also keep me moving fast. Over the past year he joined the track team and recently returned from track camp. I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be the hardcore walkers. Well, they were born in New York and I guess that is something that isn't lost just by moving to another state.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

1 comment:

Pamela said...

the death angel (oh, and the doll, too) --- kind of chilling...
But, I'd still like to see the cemetery.

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