December 1, 2017, was a glorious spring afternoon in the anti-climate. For the first time since I brought some of my favorite people with me in October, I wasn’t alone in post-Nature. Coming back to Newtown Creek was like coming into community with entities that I don’t yet know well.
For this trip I walked with words, as I had not during my two November visits. I listened carefully during each stage of the walk to the audio tour recorded by the FSDE (Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies). I’ll use the thirteen tracks on the audio tour as a running narrative of the day’s encounters. (Here’s the NYC Parks flyer that also describes the space.)
TK1: The Rock
The tour starts with a boulder on the corner of Paidge and Provost Streets in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The voice asks you to put your hand on the ancient stone. “The boundary of human time can be porous,” the tour intones in the words of John McPhee.
TK2: Paige Avenue
Next you walk down Paidge toward the stairs that lead up into the Walk proper. “This neighborhood has harbored industry for almost two centuries,” the voice continues. “Nature has never been natural,” it explains, paraphrasing and idea from the philosopher Graham Harman.
Preparing yourself to enter the Walk, you feel “some mixture of expectancy and revulsion.” It’s a form of anticipation. I usually walk this part quickly.
TK3: The Vessel
The first section of the walk is shaped long and narrow like a boat, with portholes on the right side looking onto an industrial landscape.
TK4: The Creek
Even on my fourth trip this fall, my steps quicken as I near the edge. Here’s one of my favorite things: the honey locust tree that was ablaze in orange in early November.
No yellow leaves left in December. The honey locust marks the Creek’s edge, as the glacial erratic marks the edge of the Nature Walk itself. As winter nears, the tree seems as bare as the rock.
“Naming,” the tour continues, “has a Biblical power.” In my November blog, I forgot the name of the honey locust tree.
At the water’s edge you can’t avoid thinking about things below the surface that you can’t see. “The shit will be here until we transform it again,” the voice intones, “or it transforms us.”
TK5: The Steps
“I’d like to tell you to enter the water here, but I won’t.”
“Consider the poetry of sewage water, in a city where you are one of the shitters.”
My first companion on this not-wintry December day was a mostly submerged plastic floatable. I watched it swim just below the surface of the clear cold water I would not enter. It was gorgeous, fluid, florid. I stared at it for a long time. I took several pictures.
TK6: The Watershed Bollard
The table is shaped like a shipping bollard, “a cylindrical post used to secure ships in port.” On top of the stone surface is a map of the watershed as it was before European contact. “The etching has a slight gradient, so falling raindrops can replicate the journey of the Creek’s own, original waters, albeit on a much smaller scale. A small, brass pin on the shore indicates your position on the watershed map.”
“A suggestion floats by,” from the Floating Studio voice: “if we could name everything in this Creek, maybe we could master it.”
TK7: The Digester Eggs
“What do we do with the biosolids?” asks the audio tour, but I’ve already seen the answer, all 150-feet of steel simplicity: the Sludge Barge Rockaway.
She’s a big beauty, an industrial powerhouse that hauls away the biosolid cakes that are all that’s left after the Digester Eggs have done their work. I walk alongside the ship for around 20 minutes, taking pictures and marveling at the massive vessel. Big ships like these have small crews in the automated age, but I did see a crewmember come out on deck for a little while, to smoke a cigarette in the afternoon sun.
The sludge barge almost filled up Whale Creek; if I’d taken a running start, I might have been able to jump from shore to her deck rail. After that I could have walked across the deck to the far side. This afternoon, the Creek was almost crossable.
TK8: The Garden
This day, the garden space at the end of Whale Creek sits in the shadow of the big barge.”You might notice that it’s cooler here,” says the Floating Studio voice.
I chatted for a few minutes with a pair of documentary filmmakers, who were working on a project for NYU Journalism school on industrial composting in New York City. They wanted to know if I could get them closer to the Digester Eggs. I didn’t have any good ideas, though we looked at the maps etched into stone tables. The maps made it look as if the Nature Walk may expand in the future, and the extended path might lead closer to the Eggs.
TK9: The Fountain
“Take a drink. Trust me,” says the voice. But the water fountain in the garden isn’t working right now.
TK10: A Return
Walking out of the Nature Walk and returning to the outside world means seeing a postcard view of the Empire State Building and also wondering if any part of that unsettling mixture of smell, toxic unease, and beauty will travel back out with you.
The Floating Studio asks us to leave with some questions. Here’s my favorite:
“How large would the placard need to be to include all the things you can name here?”
I’ll give the last two tracks over to the voice of the Floating Studio —
“If Newtown Creek had a voice, what would it say to you as you are leaving?…Will it miss you? And will you miss it?”
“Can you carry out some of the everythingness?”
“All roads lead back to Manhattan.”
TK13: The Fragrance Garden
“Here is the end…the Nature Walk at its most awkward.”
“Imagination is vital to restoration.””We have to hold the refuse and the labor and the wildlife all together. Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?”