Thursday, September 8, 2011

High Rock Park

For many New Yorkers, Staten Island is the butt of jokes. I don't know how this started, but it's less to do the landscape than it is with perceived cultural attributes. It's like the New Jersey thing, too. We just love to hate New Jersey, and it's easy to buy into, like joining a pack of thick-necked bullies taunting the weasel-faced kid. You're going to NJ!? Have you had your shots!? Or the superior geeks despising the dull-witted thicknecks. You're going to Staten Island!? Why!?

There's something primitively gratifying about hating something with common purpose. And in our PC world we have to indulge this animal trait on the sly, but even the New York Times gets on board, a recent profile of a gated SI community ending with the clever, ambiguous line, uttered by a complacent homeowner innocent of its probable reception: "It's so beautiful...It's like New Jersey!"

Weed-free and in fall, this could be a good picture

Vince's first experience on Staten Island was memorably horrible, involving sucking mud, urioshol and a terrible rash that persisted for weeks. It just confirmed our opinion of the place: avoid.

Actaea pachypoda, doll's eyes - (very) poisonous

My experience of Staten Island has been limited to an obligatory work-related outing to the botanic garden, and a couple of trips back an forth by ferry, never setting foot off the boat. The ferry's free, it's a nice ride. Unless you are Spalding Gray, and it is your last.

Arisaema triphyllum - Jack-in-the-pulpit

It becomes harder to go on bullying when you study the subject at closer hand, of course.

Phytolacca americana, pokeweed berries - reputedly poisonous when raw

So - it was nice to walk in the woods. I am in search of new green places to visit within the five boroughs and these woods appealed because rain might have brought mushrooms and because it seemed there might not be another soul in sight. Who goes to parks on Staten Island?? So with Frank's door-to-door van service off we went, sandwiches packed.

Persicaria sp

In the excitement of camera packing I forgot entirely to equip myself with paper bags for mushrooms. So most of the mushrooms were photographed in place, and some possible Agaricus (below) brought back for what turned out to be an aborted spore print.

Still new to North American mushrooming I have never seen so many kinds in one place.  Not bringing any of these back for a spore print is a black mark to my mushroom-identifying name, but there it is.

In High Rock Park, the woods are on a grand scale, very beautiful. The forest floor where we entered was a clean litter of leaves that had bubbled up over scores of risen mushroom caps, hands' breadths across. There were huge old beeches, as well as oaks and maples. These leaf litter woods with an endlessly disappearing view of trunks, were gorgeous.

Other parts of the forest were less attractive, their understory a tangle of catbriar (Smilax rotundifolia) and bittersweet (prob. Celastrus scandens), the result an interestingly repellent mix of canes and low green leaves and a foreshortened, cluttered view.

Poison ivy

Vincent  lagged far behind us, as a small boy might,  religiously turning over every log he could find. Eventually he found his salamander. He also saw a lot of huge earthworms, which, until last week, I had thought were an indicator of soil health. Apparently not! They are invaders of forests and can compact the forest floor, destroying the fragile leaf litter layer. Speaking of which, surely in Prospect Park, where cruising men have created a network of compacted paths under the old trees, the earthworms may help that very specific situation by aerating? But in natural leaf litter, where no foot has fallen repeatedly, the worms are said to destroy the humus layers.

Lindera benzoin - Spicebush

Less beautiful were the monstrous mosquitoes. People think that South Africa is populated by ravenous insects. It is not. New York is. I have never met as many mosquitoes (and ticks!) as I have here. Not to mention poison ivy. Hiking on this coast is a perilous and itch-inducing adventure.

We shall return in fall after a cold snap, when the woods will bleed and flash colour and the mushrooms will be worm-free. I have become quite suspicious of humid-weather fungi. Oyster season is upon us.

Young hen of the woods - too buggy too eat.

Leaving Staten Island by car is interesting, because you could be anywhere. Visually, it has nothing to do with New York City. It is simply, Town: America. Cars set people apart, and those who can, drive, because public transport is limited; the houses are free-standing, there are strip malls.

And in the middle of it, there are mushrooms, guarded by mosquitoes...


  1. Go back and pick those red spice bush berries. They're delicious!

  2. Jackpot for mushroom hunting for sure. Know almost nothing about identifying mushrooms, but I recognize the Indian pipe plant (Monotropa uniflora) among the mushroom pictures. It's a plant without clorophyll which actually siphons its nutrients from a fungi, if I understand the process correctly and chances are high that I don't.


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