But it has been difficult to convince politicians that urban nature is worth the investment, and even those whose livelihoods depend on urban wildlife can take issue with how it’s restored. Last month, the State of New Jersey ordered the conservation organization Baykeeper to remove the oyster beds it was propagating in the Raritan Bay estuary. Oysters are natural water filters; one bivalve can cleanse up to 50 gallons of water a day. But one measure of how efficiently they capture pollution from the estuary is how quickly they become contaminated—and dangerous to eat. To Governor Christie, the oysters looked more like a threat to the state’s seafood industry than hyperproductive natural cleaning agents.
Just before dawn, Mike Feller, the NRG’s chief naturalist, puts in a canoe at Gerritsen Creek, on a berm of trash and white sand on the Brooklyn coast, about fifteen miles due south of Central Park. An oystercatcher circles over a dormant mechanical crane, which in a few hours will begin moving the trash and barged-in sand at the docks off Marine Park as part of one of the NRG’s longest-running restoration projects. Feller paddles past roughly twelve acres of freshly planted spartina grass encased in tall fence cages and topped with foil—all to prevent Canada geese from eating weeks of work in a day. In the morning light, the cages look like something along Oregon’s Columbia River, or the famous sandy vineyards in Provence’s Bouches-du-Rhône.
As the NRG has focused its attention on restoration ecology, it has discovered that a model for doing so had already been invented, albeit unwittingly, by a former Parks Department employee: Robert Moses. When Moses, in his glory days of parks and highway construction, wanted to make more land in the New York Harbor, he often dumped garbage into the marsh. Sometimes he covered the trash with dirt, which didn’t do much for the ecology of the region. But in other places (like in Ocean Breeze Park in Staten Island), Moses layered sand on top of garbage, and something else happened: He unintentionally restored the coastal grassland habitat.
Feller, who is 52, has been around since the early days of the NRG. He remembers when they moved from the old birdhouse to an office beneath the arsenal, where the staff used the incoming steampipes to heat their lunches. He grew up in Marine Park and has explored, researched, and written on most of the city’s Forever Wild areas. This morning, he points to the shore, where sand is already making for grassland flora and fauna, vis-à-vis the Moses method. “This is a garbage layer, and there is the salt marsh on the bottom, and sand goes on the top, just as Robert Moses did it,” he explains. “One hundred and ten cubic yards of beautiful sand from the Rockaway channel!”
We pull ashore to the adjacent White Island, which has been topped with sand dredged from the channel. “See the golf course over there? That’s where it all started for me,” he says, referring to Marine Park Golf Course, which is framed by the Kings Plaza shopping mall just beyond. “I started out birding on the golf course, seeing gulls. Once, when I was in junior high school, I saw a goldfinch alight on this big purple bull thistle. The color! I had never seen anything like that. It occurred to me that maybe it was a canary, and I ran across the golf course, into Kings Plaza, into Waldenbooks—I had to find it. And the great thing is in the old Golden Guide bird book, the American goldfinch is sitting on a bull thistle. So I knew this was legit.”
If ecology is anything, it is a process. It is the tiniest actions mixed with long stretches of time to make large differences in the unimaginable future of the land. The Gerritsen Creek restoration project started in 1992. Feller watched the proposal proceed slowly, then stop completely when funding disappeared in 2001, then return last year with a new commitment from the Army Corps of Engineers. “There have been things that have been frustrating about this taking eighteen years, except that I see a silver lining,” he says. “This is not rash. You want a project like this to simmer. It’s not like flash-cooking a swordfish.”
The oystercatcher circles again as we walk up the hill to the top of the island. To stand there is to stand on all the layers of New York: the burial grounds of the local Lenni-Lenapes; the Dutch settler Gerritsen, whose mill is still barely visible in ruins; the seaside landscape of the Whitneys, who vacationed here until the early 1900s; the trash; the sand imported from the construction of the Belt Parkway; and, in a few field-size patches, a bizarre asphalt covering. (The asphalt was a mystery that Feller only recently solved; according to a retired Parks employee, it was sprayed over White Island to stop sand from blowing on the course during tournaments.) In the mix of creatures, we see a heron, an egret, and, on a little creek coming off Flatbush Avenue, a small gaggle of geese that Feller guesses escaped from a Long Island foie gras farm.