Each of these landscapes seems to be a snapshot of some distant natural beauty that is somewhere far away from industrialization. Not one image hints at the idea of human interference. The message these pictures convey is that nature exists only completely disconnected from human life and civilization. Similarly, a common first thought response to the world “wildlife” is visions of large animals roaming jungles and deserts and forests, in deep unpopulated areas.
I’ll admit that I definitely perceived nature this way for a good amount of time. Recently, however, I’ve adopted a new idea. Obviously influenced by living in the Bronx and having to re-adjust to the concept of nature, I think I’ve developed a greater appreciation of it. Van Cortlandt Park, spanning over 1,146-acres and ranking as the fourth largest park in New York City sits right next to me. In New York, it boasts one of the highest rates of rare plant species and is home to wildlife not seen many other places in the city.
On paper in comparison to many of our countries national parks and wildlife conservancies, it is an unimpressive blip in the guide book. But I’ll argue that picture perfect landscapes in the middle of nowhere have less to prove than a deeply nature rich park competing with the urban spectacle of one of the biggest cities in the world. I think it’s the stark contrast that allows for a deeper appreciation of what nature is. I couldn’t explain this in words until I walked from my apartment down to Van Cortlandt Park for the first time.
When I walk out of the front door of my three story walk up-overpriced-student apartment- I’m immediately greeted by the familiar scent of garbage piling up on my curb and the sight of scaffolding for construction that never seems to be finished, if it’s even been started. Walking down 238th street the air is thick with the aromas of Chinese food and pizza and that weird stale beer smell that wafts out of Fenwick’s bar in the daylight. Deranged looking squirrels are fighting over what looks to be the sorry end of a bacon egg and cheese thrown on the ground.
A standard lulling sound of traffic, people and bustle is all I can really hear. Strangely, as I descend upon the steep 238th stairs down to Broadway, what lies ahead is an even more urban and bustling scene. The stairs themselves are a treat as well. The pits that lay on either side of the railings are filled with a grab bag selection of beer bottles, soda cans, plastic bags and any other trash someone couldn’t throw in a garbage can. The stairs are also shadowed by two high rise apartment buildings packing in more people than I could probably imagine.
As I get closer to Broadway the focus seems to be on the loud rumble and screeching of the subway overhead, with lots of people racing up the stairs to get on. Walking on Broadway towards the park is dark and shady from the subway. When I near 242nd street, I could throw a rock to 4 different fast food places, a liquor store and a few bars. Gypsy cab drivers are standing around the Dunkin Donuts acting as friendly loiterers but asking if I need a ride. I contemplate grabbing an iced coffee but then feel strange about bringing it into the park as I attempt to experience nature.
My caffeine fix can wait I guess. Crossing the street to the park entrance is almost laughable. Dodging four lanes of traffic and a bus route, I find myself standing safely on the other side. After shuffling around a crowd of people waiting for the bus, I enter the park and walk towards the conservancy. Would it be dramatic for me to say the air changed? I’m willing to say that it did. I kid you not it was fresher. The sound of the subway was gone and the air felt like something you were happy to breathe in. It smelled like good old fashion nature. I smell dirt and grass and its lacking any cheap food stench.
The conservancy looks as old-world as the rest of the park makes you feel. The stones are weathered and the architecture is a far cry from high-rises and bodegas. Walking further into the trail I notice you can feel the life in the area. Without the outside noises I can feel every crunching footstep and ever rustle in the leaves. I’m not one to notice birds, but for some reason I take note of a few flying in and out of the tree line. Looking at the different plants is interesting. Something I would normally just classify as leaves I notice there is a great variety. My mind wanders to survival.
My school bag suddenly feels like a bag of supplies and I feel like I’m in an episode of LOST. That makes me smile when I remember I can still probably throw a rock and hit Burger King. The trees are magnificent. Tall and dignified and old. The understory trees are strong and full. I fall victim to technology when I find myself trying to lookup what kinds of trees they are on my phone. Understory tree species come up as Ironwood, American Hop Hornbeam, and Flowering Dogwood. The taller trees yield results of Tulip Tree, Red Oak, White Oak, Bitternut Hickory, Sweet Gum and White Pine.
The pictures are so tiny on my phone I can barely use it as a guide. I make a mental note to look when I get home. I sit down for a minute to try and get a full surroundings view. It feels really nice to be sitting here in this beauty. I feel like I haven’t seen this many trees in a long time. I don’t really see much animal life besides a few squirrels and birds, but I know it’s there. I can feel movement in the space. Insects of a dozen different kinds are under a rock I turn over which is cool. Bugs don’t scare me and I like knowing where to find them. They’re so small and seem particularly hard to identify.
I check my phone and realize I should probably head out if I plan on making it to my next class on time. I’m going to need to follow the same route back to campus. Over the traffic and up the stairs out of this haven I’m in right now. It’s sad to say this is the first time I’ve done this, sat here and enjoyed the park. I’ll need to come back for sure and spend more time. Replacing the movement of people and things out on Broadway with trees and wildlife down here is an amazing feeling. I’m almost positive this place would not seem so beautiful if the urban landscape of the rest of the Bronx wasn’t right outside the gates.