Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 9, 2015

You Can Go Home Again

Osprey pair, Marine Park, Brooklyn (RE Berg-Andersson)

When I was growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn, I knew Sheepshead Bay, which gave my neighborhood its name, but did not know my junior high school was named for Shell Bank Creek, which flows to the north of Plumb Island and east into where Gerritsen and Mill creeks merge, in turn flowing into Plumb Beach Channel and on to Rockaway Inlet and, eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean.

I knew there was a neighborhood called Mill Basin and one called Gerritsen Beach and the little beach off the Belt Parkway I could walk to from my house was Plumb Beach. But the waterways for which they are named meant nothing to me. My family didn't boat and didn't fish.

When we went to Plumb Beach or occasionally Gerritsen Beach, we had to watch for trash (or worse) in the sand and in the water when we walked to the edge. We never swam and no one ever kept the fish they caught in Sheepshead Bay.

Fast-forward over 40 years. The federal government took over the waterways and beaches stretching from New Jersey's Sandy Hook through Staten Island, hooking east to Brooklyn (including the former military base, Floyd Bennett Field), Queens' Jamaica Bay and the western-most parts of the Rockaway Peninsula to create the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972. Gateway, according to its website, is a "complex urban park, preserving 27,000 acres of land and sea across two states and three New York City boroughs."

This is when the cleanup began as well as recognition that these inlets, bays and creeks are what make this area of New York City unique. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of environmental activism, when people worried about the effects of polluted air and water on their children, their communities and themselves.

The federal government stepped in it because it was expected to -- a far cry from today when the idea of any federal government program enacted for the public good draws outcry from some areas and is considered a foreign and dangerous concept akin to socialism.

I left Brooklyn for college in the early 1970s, and did not spend much time visiting the beaches when I would return for visits. It has only been in the last 15 years, when my husband and I, while living in New Jersey, became interested in watching birds, did we start visiting some of these areas, which had become prime birding sites thanks to cleaner beaches and water.

Marine Park salt marsh (RE Berg-Andersson)

For instance, I had been reading about a Marine Park Salt Marsh area and some of the interesting birds found there, but I was having a hard time visualizing it. I knew Marine Park - I would ride there, alone, no mobile phone or pager, no child-safety helmet - on my bike, go around the paved, circular drive a few times and then either come home or visit my grandmother in nearby Flatlands. The area across the road was dark, dense with trees and covered in garbage. You didn't go in there. How could this be a salt marsh?

Well, the area was opened up and there was the marsh, where it had been all along. An educational center was built to explain the marsh's importance. Best of all, a paved path takes you along the marsh itself, which is the end of Gerritsen Creek. At one point, we could see where the end of Mill Creek starts (at the back of the Marine Park golf course on Flatbush Ave.). In the distance one way is the  Gil Hodges Bridge to the Rockaway Peninsula. The other way stands the reminder of 9/11 known variously as the Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center or That Ugly Building Over There.

Thanks to federal spending on Gateway, I have learned about the forts that defended New York harbor, seen hundreds of different types of  birds and visited an airfield that is now a wildlife habitat.

Had I been a birder as a child, I would not have seen the osprey, green herons, black-crowned night-heron, great and snowy egrets and other marsh and shore birds I witnessed at the Marine Park Salt Marsh.

Great egret and smaller snowy egrets (RE Berg-Andersson)
It's too bad my parents weren't inclined to have a boat and ply the waters so near our home to such exotically named places as Dead Horse Bay, Island Channel and the Raunt. Then again, what would I have seen in those dark, unenlightened times?

We didn't know what we had back then. We do now.

At a time when the Obama administration wants to broaden environmental protection and cut back on the forces that promote global warming, opposition in Congress and some states wants to bring things back to the way things were, when water was polluted, the air was brown and bins of coal dust were out for the garbage men to dump. (I saw these bins because coal was used to heat my public school, across the street from my home.)

Those people who think any rules that impinge on their ability to deplete the land of birds, animals and fish or pollute the air we all breathe or do whatever the hell they want without "government on our backs" don't know what we have either.

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