Saturday, January 4, 2014

Central Park from Harlem


I walked south from home yesterday, down Lenox Avenue (also called Malcolm X Boulevard), which begins at Central Park North (110th Street), above, and runs to the top of Manhattan.


I headed for the North Woods, the park's forested northwest corner. I have known these woods only since last October, when we moved to Harlem and have seen them in a red and yellow fall, in the bare brownness of midwinter and now under snow. I return to the same place, walk the same paths because I feel that an intimacy with any landscape, be it sidewalk or forest, comes only through repetition, understanding the same tree in every season, watching the evolution of weeds and flowers, learning where the birds go. 


On a snowy path an elderly man in a floor length raccoon coat stood and watched a red cardinal. A few minutes later as I listened for a woodpecker under the empty trees a Coopers hawk swooped low between them, showing its white and brown flecked undercarriage, and swerving around tree trunks. He seemed to be hunting the downy woodpecker, at work on nearby trunks. 


Steve Brill called these pretty fruits, below, "jet berries" and warned of their toxicity on a foraging walk many years ago. The shrub is widespread through our parks, growing under tall tree cover, and has mock orange-like flowers in spring. One source associated with those walks that identifies them as Ardisia humilis, but I've just discovered that they are not. Using the common name "jet bead" (after searching more images - I love the Internet) I learned that they are Rhodotypos scandens. It is an exotic from China. No word on whether it is in fact poisonous. I might have to open an actual book!


It would be nice to replace some of these park exotics and invasives with shrubs that are indigenous to the Northeast; this benefits everyone from pollinators (remember the butterfly affidavits?) to birds, to other native plants struggling to make a living in competition with successful interlopers, and to the health of local waterways. Consider doing this wherever you live.

I'm by no means a fundamentalist when it comes to an indigenous plant palette - I will always love roses - but be honest with yourself about just how many invasive plants your garden may be harbouring, and then re-think. Just because it grows there does not mean it stays there. Seed is spread about by animals, birds and wind.

Alternatives for the jet bead, which loves, it seems, high shade, are blueberry, button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis),  chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa and A. arbutifolia), Pinxter azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides),  serviceberry (Amelanchier spp), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sweetspire (Itea virginica), and sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).

Hm. Maybe I should dedicate a post to native substitutes for invasive species.


Back to the snow.

But snow is for thinking, isn't it? About what to do, and what to do better.


I was warm while walking. I had borrowed a pair of the Frenchman's long johns - weird, effective things - and was wrapped in one of his lightweight super-warm jackets. Oversize, lightweight Frenchman-gloves covered my hands.


The Harlem Meer was frozen over. 


Cattails (Typha, probably latifolia) - having discovered how delicious they are in Cape Town, I now need a source. Anyone have some private cattails I may forage in late spring?


I was hungry at the end of my two hour walk, and headed hopefully back up Lenox Avenue, turning right on 116th Street to Sea and Sea. Home of the Wall of Ice Fish. I asked for a $3.50 whiting sandwich, but "just two pieces (rather than the usual three) of fish, please" in a small voice. I looked like a total tourist: white, wrapped in European gear, camera over shoulder. I expected opposition.

No opposition came. Two fillets were fried for me and slapped down onto a piece of bread on wax paper. The fishman moved off to another customer, an elderly man who'd just told his friend he'd had no heat or hot water for two days. Remembering the drill from last time, I grabbed the hot sauce bottle, splashed the uppermost, sizzling fillet with the red sauce, and then salted it. I closed the sandwich. In a split second the fishman was back, bundling the hot sandwich into its wax paper and sealing it in a brown paper bag. I handed over $4, but he gave me $1.50 back. I had expected to pay full price for my custom order, but this worked out to $1 for each bit of fish and 50c for the bread. I have never seen food this cheap.

As I turned to go, the elderly man's friend was brandishing a crisp $10 bill, and buying him a fish and chip plate, his treat.

I walked up Lenox Avenue in the sharp cold, one ungloved hand holding the wax paper open at one end, biting off mouthfuls of the crisp hot fish, tasting the vinegary heat of the sauce, the salt, feeling pretty happy.

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