Tag Archives: urban ecosystem

Spring watch

This morning, as I was getting ready to head up to the church, I happened to look across the street at the maple tree there. Our apartment is on the second floor, so I was looking right into the middle of the tree, the outermost branches still mostly covered with its tiny crimson flowers, although some of the flowers are dropping and the seeds are starting to form.

Some small birds were flitting through the branches. They were flying among the maple blossoms, presumably cropping either insects insects in the flowers, or the nectar from the flowers. This kind of behavior is typical of warblers, so I walked over the the window hoping for a glimpse of some brightly-colored mirgratory warbler. But is was plain ordinary House Sparrows engaging in this warbler-like behavior. Perhaps this is an example of an invasive species which is adept at surviing in a relatively hostile urban environment, filling an ecological niche usually filled by another species.

Molluscs and clean water

Long walk today up to Riverside Cemetery in Fairhaven; from there, I walked out on the point for views of the upper New Bedford harbor. Found some of the older gravestones in the cemetery, dating from the late 18th C.

On the walk back, I went down one of the side streets that terminates at the edge of the water. The tide was low, and I was able to walk out onto the shore, mostly sand but with an admixture of mud. A greater diversity of seashells than I had expected: people say that New Bedford harbor is essentially dead, that only killifish and quahogs live in its waters, but that was certainly not true this far up into the harbor. I first noticed some long meandering tracks through the sand of some small gastropod, which proved to be Common European Periwinkles (Littorina littorea). I picked one up by its shell: the mollusc clenched its body into the shell, but after I held it still for fifteen seconds, it relaxed, letting its foot come out, and then its two delicate black tentacles, which it wriggled gently; if the tentacles are where its chemoreceptor cells are located, and if its eyes are at the base of its tentacles, perhaps it was exhibiting a kind of molluskan curiosity. I placed it back on the sand, and it resumed its course down towards the verge of the water.

There was a small patch of salt marsh hay growing from the muck, which, when I got close to it, proved to support a large number of Atlantic Ribbed Mussels (Geukensia demissa), packed in so tightly that their shells touched and it was only in the interstices between the shells that the salt marsh hay could grow. All these living mussels pointed upwards; with the tide so low, they were all closed tightly. In addition to these living molluscs, I saw quite a few shells and shell fragments, of course including Northern Quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) which is well-known to grow in the most polluted waters of the harbor, but also Atlantic Jackknife Clam (Ensis directus) which we always called “razor clams” when we were children, and Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica).

It was getting late when I stopped at this little beach, and I suspect if I had had more time I could have found a few more species. Given this diversity of species, it may be that the water quality towards the upper end of the harbor (that is, nearer to the Interstate 195 bridge) may be fairly good; and this is the only place in the harbor thus far where I have seen living molluscs.

(Reference: Seashells of North America: A guide to field identification, R. Tucker Abbot (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968, 1986, 1996); in the “Golden Field Guide Series”.)


We awakened to a warm spring morning, the kind of day you’d expect to get in late April: a lazy kind of day, so it was quarter after nine before I got out of the apartment. With the excuse that I was going to look for early spring migrants — although what excuse did I think I needed to get outdoors on my day off when the weather was so pleasant? — I headed over to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with my binoculars hanging around my neck.

I stopped at the chalk board where the birders write down what they have seen that day. A man with graying hair, as unshaven as I, had just picked up the piece of chalk and was looking at small notebook. “What did you see?” I asked, “anything exciting?”

“No, not really,” he said. “220 robins, 6 Northern Flickers, lots of grackles, umm….” He consulted his notebook, a page with the date at the top and each species neatly written on separate lines. The name of each bird was followed by hatch marks, his method of keeping track of his count. “One Fox Sparrow still. Cowbirds, 3 Great Blue Herons…. Nothing exciting. The best bird was the one I didn’t see, a Saw-whet Owl. I found the tree where it had been because of the whitewash and the pellets.” He pulled a small furry lozenge out of his pocket: an owl pellet, the odd bits of hair and bones that the owl can’t digest and later coughs up. “It could have been a Boreal Owl,” he said, “some small owl, but most likely a Saw-whet. But it’s gone now, headed north.”

I left him writing down his findings and wandered off. I had started too late in the morning; the birds wouldn’t be very active this long after sunset. I stopped at the top of one small rise and just listened:

Blue Jays somewhere in front of me. Beyond them, the rush of tires on pavement from Mt. Auburn St. A chickadee up above me; then two more off to one side. Robins behind me, and to my right, and off in the distance all around. Banging from the workers up on the scaffolding over at the chapel. I didn’t see any of this, just heard it around me. Then a funny nasal “cawr” sound: two Fish Crows right up above me. I looked at them through the binoculars, and they looked just like ordinary American Crows; the only way I could tell they were Fish Crows was their call.

The wide-spaced trees and open ground under them creates a sort of savannah in the cemetery. The trees grow more closely together in a few wooded places, and you can hear the difference between the savannah and the woodlands: in more thickly wooded areas, the songs of the birds take on a peculiarly characteristic sound, as their songs echo around the trunks and branches, and it becomes more difficult to determine exactly where the singer is sitting; whereas in the more open areas, you can pinpoint a bird’s location with greater accuracy.

Down at one of the small ponds, I could see a few inches of the new green shoots of cattails coming up above the water. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds squabbled at the edge of the water, setting up nesting territories perhaps. Sounds coming over the open surface of the little pond were characterized by their clarity: the sounds arrived at my ears without anything intervening.

I find it fairly difficult to distinguish between two sounds; I do not have great aural acuity. I once stood at the edge of a field with a professor of ornithology. She said, OK, you hear that Song Sparrow? –well, do you hear the Indigo Bunting that is directly behind it? I literally could not hear the Indigo Bunting; my hearing was unable to sort out its song from the louder, more familiar song of the Song Sparrow. This may be why I am always surprised when people say that a god or gods listens to their spoken prayers. Why would a god listen to individual people? — to me, that seems like a hard way to go about things. If I think more carefully, I suppose I am baffled by the thought of trying to distinguish between the thousands — no, millions — of spoken prayers arising at any one time; no matter how omnipotent a god might be I simply can’t conceive of making sense out of that cacaphony.

Nor can I understand those philosophers who say that language is what creates Being, that without language we have nothing, no meaning, no existence. Or the philosophers who spend their entire lives trying to sort through how language works. Language is not a primary experience for me; it’s probably a tertiary experience. I find myself in the world by knowing where I am in space, not by means of language. Language offers me no insight into the squabble between those three Red-Winged Blackbirds, yet I understood them better than I understand some people.

They say — at least some people say — that spoken prayers find their way to heaven. Who is listening? and where is heaven? –that I don’t know. I know who is listening as I stand under a tree and next to a pond. The Gray Squirrel on that tree is listening to me, and keeping a weather eye on me to boot. The three blackbirds are listening to each other. The Blue Jays listen to each other, and sing at each other using a highly variegated repertoire of sounds that range from harsh cries to flute-like solos; as watch-keepers of the trees, they also listen to everything that goes on, and send out warning calls as needed. I listen to as much of all this as I can distinguish. We’re all listening to each other.

I can’t discount those people who say that God or a god or gods listen to their prayers. I have a friend, someone whom I respect, who says that God has spoken to her and that she speaks to God in her prayers. But when it comes to me, no one in particular is listening. The philosopher Edmund Husserl reviewed Descartes’s famous argument that the only thing you can be certain of is that you think, therefore you exist. Husserl showed how Descartes was in fact wrong. Instead, said Husserl, one thing you can really know is intersubjectivity, that is, you can know that other beings exist. Husserl says this does not happen through listening or language, but through direct apprehension. Therein lies god or the gods.

By half-past ten, the birds had gotten much quieter, and they had retreated into places where they were difficult to see. I watched one tiny Gold-crowned Kinglet flitting from branch to branch high above my head in a tall pine tree. A few chickadees buzzed and whistled. A funeral procession wound by on the cemetery road below where I stood, the black hearse and the train of cars following it with their headlights on. By eleven o’clock, I arrived back at the chalkboard, and I read through the list of birds seen as written by the man to whom I had spoken. I hadn’t seen half the birds he had seen; and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen half the birds on my own list, I had only heard them.

City critters

Went to park my car in the Elm St. garage at about ten last night, and wound up getting into a long conversation with the evening parking lot attendant about what mammals might live in the downtown neighborhood. He’s in the parking garage five evenings a week until eleven at night, and from his perch in the entrance booth he regularly sees skunks and possums. We have both seen gray squirrels, of course. And he said there’s a feral cat that lives nearby, appropriately named “Downtown” — a woman who lives nearby feeds “Downtown” every night just across Elm St. on North Second St.

We talked about whether coyotes have made it to the downtown neighborhood yet. He has talked to several people who claim to have seen coyotes in other parts of New Bedford. We agreed that one of the sure signs of a coyote living in the neighborhood is a distinct drop in the cat population. I argued that the presence of “Downtown” the cat indicated that there are no coyotes nearby, but he argued that “Downtown” is tough enough to lick most coyotes.

What other mammals in this center-city neighborhood? Well, I’ve seen harbor seals swim right up to the downtown waterfront. He saw a cottontail rabbit in the garage once. There are doubtless rats and mice. I’ve seen a big brown bat in the church. But shouldn’t there also be raccoons? — can we confirm the presence of coyotes downtown? — any other mammals? We decided this topic calls for more investigation. He’s going to talk to the people who come into the garage and pump them for information; I’m going to start watching for road kill along Route 18 to see what turns up.


Last week, I was walking up William Street towards the church when I saw two Herring gulls standing together in the bright morning sun, right in the middle of Achusnet Avenue. The one was an adult gull, and the other a brownish first year gull. The first year gull had hunched itself down and was trying to peck at the red gonys spot on the bottom of the adult’s bill, all the while making a high-pitched call note. The adult, its bright gray and white plumage looking quite dapper in comparison with the dirty brown of the younger bird, had its head pulled back, dodging and keeping its bill out of reach of the young gull.

We are told that young Herring gulls on the nest will peck at the red gonys spot, stimulating the adult to regurgitate food for them. At this point in the year, the young gulls should be able to forage for themselves, but here was this gull engaging in what seems to be immature behavior. The two gulls were oblivious to the car rumbling along the paving stones towards them, the young gull still trying to hit that red spot, the older gull moving its beak out of the way but not flying away either. The car came to a complete stop a foot from the young gull. The adult immediately flew away, and the young gull hesitated for just a moment, and then fled.

Gulls live their own lives in this city, and seem to pay little attention to human beings. The roof tops of the tall downtown buildings are their domains. You can hear them calling ten stories up, you can see them wheeling around, settling in, gathering in little groups at the edges of the building roofs. The Elm Street parking garage is never full, and the fifth and top level, open to the sky, is littered with shell fragments where gulls have dropped shellfish to crack them open. The gulls swoop down into the streets to rifle through garbage cans, or to pull open particularly fragrant garbage bags on trash collection days. From a gull’s point of view, human beings must seem to be little more than annoyances who sometimes come along to drive them away from garbage cans, or from pecking at the red spot on an adult’s bill. If all the humans went away, the gulls would miss the garbage we produce, but aside from that I doubt they’d notice we were gone.

Sublime nature in cities

First in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

In his essay “On the Sublime in Nature in Cities,” Robert Rotenberg begins by asserting that city dwellers in the United States lack “a meaningful language to talk about [their] connection to landscape.” It’s almost as if many urban dwellers don’t even think of themselves as living in a landscape at all.

Rotenberg is an urban anthropologist who has been studying urban gardeners. He has been studying urban gardening in Chicago, and at the same time has research partners in Vienna, Austria. He found that American urban gardeners do not understand their gardens to be a part of the urban landscape:

Urban gardening in Chicago exists on a continuum between the amateur and the agriculturalist. Amateurs include home gardeners who plant small beds for aesthetic enjoyment… Their design rules and landscape tastes derive from popular media such as Martha Stewart’s magazines and Home and Garden TV, on the one hand, and the more serious magazines, such as Organic Living, Organic Gardening, and Horticulture Monthly.… The urban agriculture end of the continuum is characterized by for-profit and nonprofit community gardening…. The nonprofit version aims to build community and… is characterized by such ideologies as sustainability through intensive soil-building practices [etc.]. The for-profit organizations supply locally-grown, high-quality produce for restaurants and food pantries. [Emphasis added.]

By contrast, the Viennese urban gardeners make direct connections between their gardens and the greater urban landscape:

In Vienna, my partners connected their home gardens to public gardens, and through public gardens to several different discourses, including the relationship between activity and health, and between the individual and the community.

Rotenberg believes that here in America, the meaning of “nature” has become limited to wilderness. If an American wants to get out into nature, he or she will get in a car and drive away from urban areas. Because of this, says Rotenberg, when we talk about nature in cities, we are likely to talk about “concerns of sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.”

Case in point: here in New Bedford, there’s a local group called “Friends of Buttonwood Park,” a citizen’s group that wants to support beautiful Buttonwood Park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead. But the Friends have faced stiff resistance from the city government when they have tried to plant more trees in Buttonwood Park. Even though the new trees would be consistent with Olmstead’s vision for the park, the city government does not want any new trees because that just means more leaves to clean up in the fall. Thus, the discourse immediately turns towards sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.

Rotenberg goes further. Here in America, he claims that we have gotten to the point where we understand the sublime only in the context of wilderness. The sublime is an experience of nature which can overwhelm us, terrify us. But we tend to ignore sublime nature that exists in cities. Rotenberg gives two examples of sublime nature in cities: wild animals and extreme weather. Here in New Bedford, we have seals in the harbor, which stay at a distance in the water and seem kind of cute and cuddly rather than sublime. But we also have peregrine falcons; in fact, a peregrine made the front page of the New Bedford Standard-Times a week ago Thursday. Pergrines have no qualms about sitting outside office windows and ripping apart a bloody pigeon to eat it; watching any large raptor eat can be terrifying enough to be sublime. As for extreme weather, any community on the New England coast experiences weather extremes. I happened to go into a supermarket the night before the blizzard hit on February 12. You could almost smell the fear as people stood in long lines at the checkout counters; I’d argue they were anticipating a sublime natural experience.

Rotenberg points out that by denying the sublime in nature that already exists in our cities, we are “debilitated from experiencing [nature] in its fullness,” and, worse yet, we “deflect attention from the nature that already exists in the city.” He ends his essay by saying:

To invigorate urban life with a more direct experience of nature means to embrace the sensibility of the sublime. The embrace of the sublime has already begun to occur in the reclaiming of spiritual and nonrational experience that is often associated with postmodern social movements. It may be merely a matter of time before our sense of the desirability of nature in the city has more to do with trembling fear than quiet beauty.

So what’s the role of liberal religion in reclaiming the sublimity of nature in our cities? One big stumbling block for my own faith community is our over-insistence on the primacy of reason — which by definition means denying the sublime. Unitarian Universalists are still stuck in the extreme rationality that dominated modernism in the past century. Yet if we look back at some of our spiritual forebears, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would find that they made room for both rationality and the sublime. We will have to move beyond Thoreau and Emerson, however: they had the unfortunate tendency of only seeing the sublime in wilderness and ignoring the sublime in the city. Yet their embrace of nonrationality and their acceptance of the sublime in daily life could serve us well, as we try to grow into a postmodern religious movement.

The clouds yesterday and the rain today brought back seasonable temperatures, down in the forties instead of in the eighties last week. The house at the corner of 6th and Hamilton here in Geneva is surrounded by red tulips ready to open — but with the cold weather, they have remained shut for the past couple of days.

Yesterday, I took the train downtown to the Loop. Next to the Boeing building, which is on the south branch of the Chicago River at Randolph St., you can walk down some steps to a little pocket park just above river level. There I found green grass, and a few trees with their leaves just opening — and, of all surprising things, I also found a Hermit Thrush, who looked a little bewildered by the urban environment. It flitted back and forth between the small trees, and appeared disturbed by my close presence. By today, I’m sure this bird has flown further north towards its breeding grounds.