Second nature

“It isn’t all squirrels and pigeons,” reported Verlyn Klinkenborg in his The Rural Life editorial column in The New York Times in 2013. “The group reported sightings of several unexpected species — a diamondback terrapin in Turtle Pond, a Wilson’s warbler in the North Woods, a bullhead catfish in the Harlem Meer. And though it might seem a stretch to talk about ecosystems in Central Park, that is exactly what the group found — a healthy mix of species, overlapping generations within many species, and a sense of balance, especially within the aquatic zones.”

Klinkenborg, who wrote for The Grey Lady for 16 years, lives in Columbia County and teaches writing at Yale. Nature in Central Park, he concluded in this 2013 column, can’t easily be divided onto native or nonnative species. When we make this classification, he noted, “we always leave one species out: call us what you will — native, naturalized, alien or invasive.”

The title of Klinkenborg’s provocative column? “Hey, You Calling Me an Invasive Species?”

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We are. From our lofty perches as masters of the universe, we arrange and rearrange the natural world as we see fit, extinguishing species, disrupting ecosystems and disturbing climate knowingly and unknowingly. Then we elect politicians, some of whom who happily deny that we’re doing anything harmful at all and others who want with varying degrees of enthusiasm to come to terms with what we humans do.

The creation of the 778-acre Central Park in the center of Manhattan was one of the very many important things New York City folks did. The building of the upstate water system and the creation of the Catskill Park were among their other significant accomplishments. So were the Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 9/11 Memorial, and now the Second Avenue Subway.

Those city folks are used to thinking big. But do they think bog? “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

Think of the middle and upper portions of the Hudson Valley not as New York City’s back yard but as its mirror opposite. Where New York is characterized by a dense sea of humanity punctuated by token islands of green, much of the Hudson Valley consists of islands of people within a still significantly green sea. The two struggle in uneasy complement to each other.

That characterization’s a seriously optimistic perspective, and we all know it. Last month, The New York Review of Books published Klinkenborg’s review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. Two major economic strategies are being used by the environmental movement, the book says. One is sustainable development, “the idea that we can go about our usual business while changing its emphasis to include the protection of ecosystems.” The other commodifies nature through an ecosystems service model, “costing out all the services that nature provides, as if nature were a giant utility in charge of cleaning the water and freshening the air and sheltering coastlines from damaging storms but incapable of presenting us with a bill we can understand.”

Reviewer Klinkenborg counsels a vaguer but more radical environmental stance. He wants us to recall how much nature we’ve lost and how much we have to protect. At least in this article, he doesn’t say what to do. He suggests that the intention should be reclaiming nature for nature’s sake.

“Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness,” wrote Thoreau. “I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen.”

The notion that this “prevailing tendency” is more remote from prevailing in every generation may be a false perspective. A greater proportion of us in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills are, I believe, closer to wanting to live in harmony with nature’s fullness than we were in the past. More visitors are willing, even eager, to learn. The region has long been the poster child for thoughtful environmentalism.

I just finished a soon-to-be-published book by a naturalist who lives in what she describes as the Great Western Catskills, which by her description seems somewhere south of the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs. The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills consists of close natural descriptions by a well-educated ex-city person of a particular place. She tells stories of being in the woods, in the clearings, along the creeks. One of the local neighbors nicknames her “Flatland,” which after a while becomes a grudging term of respect.

Author Leslie T. Sharpe is a poster person for reclaiming nature for nature’s sake. Most people who have lived in the countryside around here can tell similar tales, though probably not as well. (The book’s scheduled for publication in March by The Overlook Press.)

Nature’s still around, albeit in damaged form, and still being celebrated. It’s nice to know, over 150 years after Thoreau’s death, that there’s still enough wilderness left a hundred miles or so from Times Square, to withdraw into.

Happy new year.

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