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An Outlaw of Robins!

An outlaw of robins on the High Line

An outlaw of robins on the High Line

For Shakespeare, the robin is a symbol of love. Speed, servant of Valentine in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” notes that his master has of late been wandering around, his head in the clouds, relishing  “a love-song like a robin-redbreast.” Just a week before Valentine’s Day, the robins have stormed the wintry gates of Manhattan, and this morning they seemed downright gleeful on the High Line. And there were tons of them.

I combed the Internet for an accepted collective noun to describe a bunch of robins, but can find no such word. There’s an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, a flight of cormorants, a convocation of eagles, a murmuration of starlings, a tiding of magpies, a pitying of turtledoves, a kettle of hawks, a murder of crows. But the little robin doesn’t show up on any of the lists. So I’m coining a word myself, in honor of the man from Sherwood Forest and all the early trespassers on the High Line. If you visit the park today maybe you will have the great joy of seeing it yourself: an outlaw of robins. [click to continue…]


Preparing for Cicadas

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Seventeen years ago we were spending weekends in a small 19th century converted saltbox in Germantown, New York, that had once been home to the local school teacher. It was also her classroom. I bought the house in 1985 from an Episcopalian minister who was partly deaf but swore he could still hear the voices of 1860s school children echoing across the ancient floorboards. He loved the old wreck so much he hired a local contractor to restore it. The item he prized most highly about the lovely little house was a stairway bannister that dated from the Civil War.  It was a wonderful place where I spent many happy years, but little did I know that something — or, to be more precise, hundreds of thousands of something — was lurking below ground.


We’re hearing a lot about the seventeen-year cicadas these days. They are coming soon, and the memories of 1996 are returning to me like scenes from a Stephen King novel.  For weeks we couldn’t go outdoors without being dived-bombed by hundreds of them. Our dog tried to catch them in his mouth as they flew by, but they pelted him with their orange wings and drowned out his barking with their endless buzz. We would race to the car in the driveway, swatting locusts from our heads with both hands, and then slam the doors closed. Crunch. Many cicadas died a quick, Toyota death, but inevitably one would make it inside, onto someone’s lap.

“Well,” I once said to Ann, “it’s better than mouse, don’t you think?”

Disgusted silence.

The cicadas made so much noise we couldn’t read, or carry on a sensible conversation with the windows open.  When I played the piano I was accompanied by an orchestra that droned on and on in a weird, endless, Arnold Schoenberg track. It was like living in a chapter of the Bible. For six weeks the cicadas hurled themselves at the windows and doors, flying their crazy missions, 24/7, from pillar to post. And then, finally, they all died, and it got very, very, quiet.

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

I don’t know why it is that one patch of land would be more cicada-rich than another. Perhaps it’s that the Germantown place was once farmland, and the soil was rich and pliable, perfect for a cicada to hunker down and spend seventeen quiet years. Inexplicably, friends nearby didn’t have nearly as many of the creatures as we did. We were, it seemed, Cicada Ground Zero. Today we spend weekends five miles north of Cicadaville but on a rocky mountain that seems — or perhaps I am just in Pollyanna mode — highly cicada-unfriendly. We shall see.

Meantime, I’m taking to heart the advice of David Haskell, I writer a greatly admire. In a blog post yesterday he urges those of us who are “lucky enough” — his words — “to live where the action is, to remember what you’re hearing: seventeen years of stored sunlight being released all at once as acoustic energy. The terrestrial end product of nuclear fusion exploding into your consciousness.”

While I’m waiting for the cicadas to rejoin us, does anyone have a good recipe?








Barbie on the High Line

Sarah Sze’s “Still Life with Landscape” is one my favorite exhibitions on the High Line. As readers of this blog know, I tend to get sentimental about certain exhibits, notably Stephen Vitiello’s “A Bell For Every Minute,” which I still miss. But the point of the public art program is that new works continually appear, and in order for that to happen, old favorites have to come down.

Sze’s work has been attracting birds, butterflies, bees, and humans in huge numbers since it debuted on opening day of section two last year. Even the occasional dog stops by to have a sniff (see photo gallery). Barbie selected Sze’s piece from all of New York City’s landmarks as the location for her latest fashion shoot.

I’ve been photographing “Still Life” all year, jostling amongst the many tourists who stop, in surprise and delight, as soon as they reach it. I love the architectural quality of this piece; it makes the perfect bird feeder, but it also frames several standout buildings with its boxy pattern of steel girders:  London Towers, General Theological Seminary, the Empire State Building, the Guardian Angel Church.  Most wonderful of all, it brings the birds up close. Even New York’s pigeon population — normally happy to perch on a prosaic lamppost — has discovered Sze’s work, along with the sparrows, mourning doves, and other feathered friends.

Mourning Dove

The piece comes down at the end of June, so be sure to pay a visit between now and then. To learn more about Sarah Sze and her work visit SarahSze.com. Check out the gallery to see more photos.


The Crickets of the High Line

If you’re having trouble re-engaging with work this first week after Labor Day, I encourage you to take a walk through the Chelsea Thicket, one of my favorite sections of the High Line. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for why a billion crickets have taken up residence in this particular patch of Manhattan, but after a long day in the office you probably don’t care.

I couldn’t resist doing a bit of investigation into this question and quickly stumbled upon a project that took place in New York just a few months after the High Line opened in 2009: the Cricket Crawl. This was a crowd-sourcing event whose purpose was to discover whether the common (or true) katydid  (Pterophylla camellifolia) — the cricket we commonly hear in the country — had disappeared from New York City. In 1920 an amateur naturalist, William T. Davis, published a paper in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in which he lamented that “the true katydid is either extinct or nearly so on Staten Island.” He speculated that it was also gone from the surrounding area, a victim of poor air quality that resulted from the many factories that were active at the time. (You can download Davis’ report from Ken Kostel’s blog.) The Cricket Crawl, organized by the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Geological Survey, took place on September 11th and the news is good: there are indeed true common katydid’s in town, along with seven other species of cricket. You can read the group’s final report here.

But all of this is getting rather wonky. You’re tired, longing for another week of summer. The Chelsea Thicket is a particularly peaceful part of the High Line, and it has become wonderfully unruly as the trees have grown. Branches reach out across the path, and in wet weather you’re likely to emerge drenched, as though you’ve had a sponge bath that lasted a full city block.  But best of all is the sound track: those chirping crickets — who knows what species they are, but who cares? — all male (because only the males chirp), singing up a storm.

You might prefer, this September 11th, to tune out the news and listen to crickets instead. So head over to the Chelsea Thicket for a live concert. If you can’t make it to the High Line, you can listen to a few examples that were aired as part of this NPR story. Or you can really wonk out and listen to mp3 files of citizen cricket crawlers reporting on what they heard, when, and where.


The Shy Birds of High Line

A quite wonderful thing is happening on the High Line in section two: the birds are really flocking to Sarah Sze’s sculpture.

But they’re shy, at least during the daytime when thousands of people are passing by, sticking camera lenses into their little wooden houses and offering good, old-fashioned New York City food critiques of their bird seed. However, once you approach the exhibit you start hearing this chorus of chirping, and if you look around in the grass and stone mulch you can see them hopping around. I caught this mourning dove today, but there were lots of sparrows too, as well as butterflies who were enjoying the fruit that has been left for them.

I marvel that there’s this habitat just outside my window and am reminded, again, at what “Keep it wild” really means.


Readers of this blog know that I have been mourning the impending loss of Stephen Vitiello’s “A Bell For Every Minute” exhibit, which comes down on June 20th.  But you can be consoled by a very cool exhibit in the new section of the park — at around 21st Street — by the artist Sarah Sze. There’s a way in which this is a “living” exhibit: there are trays with seeds to attract birds and orange and apple slices to attract butterflies. And the little bird houses in the sky make a nice contrast to the sturdy human abodes that you can see in the distance, through the exhibit — the stately water towers of the Lincoln Towers apartment building and the Empire State Building.

I caught this fella, a house wren, early this morning. If you were a bird, isn’t this where you’d want to be?