I made sure to turn 33 in Prospect Park, where the witch hazel was unfurling.
This cold, snowy winter has lifted my spirits. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Montreal by train and watched the ice build up on the Hudson, and then the mountains of the Adirondacks rise, and, finally, the vast frozen expanse of Lake Champlain recede into the distance in a haze of mist.
Last weekend, I saw eagles over Croton Point, and one screech owl hidden in an Eastern Pine.
Most recently, I saw the valleys within valleys and lakes beyond bridges from the vantage point of a ridge far above Bear Mountain. The curve of each geologic shape was made visible by the absence of leaves, and I thought about how the quality of light in winter is reflective, rather than absorptive.
I’ve welcomed the new year in New York several times on Coney Island. And this year, feeling the urge to see the ocean, I traveled by train and bus to Ft. Tilden. It was cold and silent, and the rocks and shells gleamed in the weak morning sun.
It seemed a fitting end to my fifth year in New York to greet the next in such a desolate space.
Ft. Tilden is mostly closed to the public now, ostensibly because of the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Old military roads lie fragmented into platforms of concrete, and some dunes were washed away. But the beach has always seemed somewhat haunted and abandoned. Remnants of the old base still stand, possibly filled with the ghosts of sentries, never needed.
The last time I was in Ft. Tilden, I lay on a blanket by the ocean and watched the lonely swimmers. Before that, I came out here in the cold and saw the beach club that is now still in ruins.
These buildings reclaimed by the sea and by the folly of their original intention remind me of the buildings in Kolmanskop, and the way that the sand angled into the blue and pink rooms illuminated by the desert light. And I think I might have been made slightly mournful by the memory and the correspondence had I not been surrounded, in time, by birdwatchers with their eyes pinned to the sea. Surf scoter, long-tailed duck, King Eider: these are the names of the birds that floated on and dove below the freezing water and I felt momentarily elated and then glad to be there with these creatures, oblivious or uninterested in what lay behind me or ahead.
I spent a week in Virginia over the holidays and made a point to walk every day, either in the large field behind the church or in Sky Meadows. I didn’t have my camera the day that everything was encased with ice–shards falling all around us–and the trees were glittering and creaking. But it’s enough to remember the sights and sounds, and to be relieved that even these grasses made it through such an ordeal.
Back in New York, the winter has not been so picturesque, but, yes, there are lights and the ocean remains close, and, as ever, I hear the sounds of the little resilient birds who are staying put.
Every time I go home to Virgina, I take a trip to Sky Meadows. If I’m lucky, the sun lights up the grass and milkweed strands coat the fields in some places. Despite the cold, I love this landscape in winter. All the colors are muted, the trees are reduced to striking shapes grasping the sky, and all the hunting birds are visible. The wind, though, whips across this rise with some forgotten strength, and I’m always happy for some warmth to return to.
I found myself in Inwood Park at 6am this Saturday for a workshop, and the world was a different color. There was evidence of the storm, too: huge old trees had toppled from the hillsides, exposing bird nests and the canopies of trees previously only known to the sky and the high winds. It was cold on the water and when we witnessed the politics of the geese in formation, I felt a sort of unearthly alertness, a post-shivering sense of everything.
We were asked to interact with our environment, and so we ran to keep warm in the great field before ascending into the forest to discover remnants of old things: glass bottle shards, fire hydrants, stone walls. The whole park was formed by earthquake faults and the effects of a slow-moving glacier, and so there are exposed rocks with the remnants of swirling water in the form of pools, and classified rock formations with poetic names: Fordham Gneiss, Inwood Marble, Manhattan Schist.
The park is haunted by the history of New York. There are oyster shells and remnants of fire pits. Landfill from subway construction shores up the ridges, and when the trains go by, they seem like some strange interloper from a different planet But of course, it is the world outside Inwood–that faraway place–that comprises our normal habitat, and the ghosts are different.