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Rare Opportunity on the High Line!


The One and Only Rip Van Winkle

If you go to the High Line today you have the chance to see the one-and-only Narcissus ‘Rip Van Winkle’ flourishing in the Chelsea Grasslands. Yes, there are tons of daffodils up there now, but just one outlier: this lovely star-shaped flower which came uninvited to the High Line. It’s not exactly an illegal immigrant, but it has no papers; when the original plant order was placed, this daffodil was not on it. The abundant Narcissus ‘Intrigue,’ pictured alongside Rip in the photo below, was part of the original plant design, and this much-appreciated harbinger of Spring is also strutting its stuff in the Chelsea Grasslands right now.

‘Rip Van Winkle,’ however, was a volunteer.  I love this plant because in the fine tradition of the High Line it hitched a ride to get here. After the freight trains stopped running in 1980 the viaduct became a lushly diverse wild garden, filled with plants whose seeds came here from far and wide: the prairies of the Midwest; Europe; Asia; Africa.  Many were carried across the ocean and our own country by birds; others hitched a ride on railroad boxcars that eventually rumbled down Tenth Avenue with their loads of vegetables, canned goods, meat, poultry, or the U.S. Mail. The seeds tumbled out and made a home, and by the time photographer Joel Sternfeld arrived to catch the zeitgeist of the abandoned High Line, they had transformed the viaduct into a place of exquisite wild beauty. These earthy visitors created an impromptu garden atop an industrial ruin, inhabited, just like the city in which they found themselves, by a magnificently diverse group of fellow immigrants and uninvited guests.

I wrote about this flower in my book; while I was doing research I spotted it on the plant list but could never find it in the park. I asked one of the gardeners about it, and she explained that a single ‘Rip Van Winkle’ plant snuck into a flat of invited seedlings and made its surprise appearance the year the park opened in 2009. So Friends of the High Line added it to the plant list. It caught my eye not because I’m interested in daffodils but because of its name. This flower takes its name from the sleepy character created by Washington Irving, who, among his other literary flights cofounded the satirical journal Salmagundi, which coined the nickname “Gotham” for New York City. (It also poked fun at then-President Thomas Jefferson, calling him “a huge bladder of wind.”) In his famous satire of New York City, Knickerbocker’s History, Irving wrote about “Sancte Clause,” whose chimney antics were later appropriated by Chelsea author Clement Clarke Moore in “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” It was Moore who donated the land for General Theological Seminary, which sits directly across the street from the spot in the Chelsea Grasslands where Narcissus ‘Rip Van Winkle’ makes its home.

So it all comes full circle. You can read much more about all this history in my book, but it’s a beautiful day, so why not just get off your duff and go now to the High Line and see ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in person. He didn’t show up last year, and this is a tough city for a single, solitary plant, even one with a name so august.  Who knows if he’ll be back again next year.

Rip Van Winkle and friends

Rip Van Winkle and friends


Meanwhile, Back in the Garden…

Today was groundbreaking day on the High Line. It was a festive event in the still-wild Section 3, with lots of politicians, celebrities, sponsors, Best Friends of the High Line and kids from Chelsea’s Clinton Middle School, who were on-hand to toss wildflower and native grass seeds into the old rail bed. I watched it on NY1 and it looked very jolly indeed, but there was something missing. In this last stretch of truly wild garden on Manhattan’s west side, there were no gardeners.

I took a walk through the park later on, and they were all there in their usual posts: deep in the flower beds, riding carts filled with trugs and clippers, kneeling in the rocky railroad “ballast” to weed and trim, standing patiently in the pathway answering questions from tourists about the names and purposes of various plants.

Actually, the High Line was filled with celebrities today, and only some of them were there for the groundbreaking ceremony. There was a major bottleneck on 14th Street as Nigel Barker pranced about in front of other photographers and a zillion tourists. On the lawn, a lady in a pink chiffon dress mugged for more cameras, teetering on a pair of skyscraper-high black & white platform shoes. Celebrities love the High Line, and the High Line loves celebrities; it’s a mix that has served the park well since the very beginning.

But if you ever wonder why the place looks so beautiful whenever you go there, the answer is quietly, often very shyly, laboring away behind a stand of tall grasses. The High Line is divided into zones, and each zone has its own dedicated horticulturist. These guys are incredibly knowledgeable and hard-working, patient as the day is long, and perhaps the most adaptable creatures in Manhattan. They manage to stay cheerful in every extreme, from the broiling hot sun of summer to the icy winds of winter that knife you in the face and steal your wallet to boot. They work in thunder storms, ice storms, and almost always, these days, tourist storms.

If you want to know what it’s like to spend a day with the gardeners of the High Line, read my piece about “The Choreography of the Cutback.” These are the folks who make the High Line sing. And I guess it makes sense that they were in the garden today, working with the plants, instead of hanging out with politicians and celebrities. These guys break ground every day; why should today be any different.




The Choreography of the Cutback

Over the years there have been zillions of articles about the High Line Spring Cutback (including several on this blog), but until today I didn’t have a clue what a complex and coordinated operation the whole thing is. This morning I had the great privilege of watching and participating in Act II of the Cutback: removal of the clippings from Manhattan island and their transport to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where they complete the circle of their natural life and become compost for someone else’s garden.

It is an amazing piece of choreography that takes place every week after the volunteers have put down their clippers. What was most remarkable to me is how this group — the extraordinary gardening staff of Friends of the High Line — works together so smoothly and easily each step of the way. Like they do it every week!

Here’s how it goes.

First: huge bags that the Cutback volunteers and gardening staff have filled with clippings throughout the week are loaded onto hand trucks and transported through the High Line’s bog to the 14th Street elevator.

Giant bags loaded with clippings head south along the bog

Sticks, branches, etc. are carried out separately.

Loads of branches and sticks

Thirty-some bags neatly line West 14th Street. (Bringing back memories of Madeline:  “Thirty-three bags in two straight lines; They left the Line at half past nine….). As it turns out, there are a few too many bags to fit inside the panel truck, so three or four will make a rare trip back up the elevator to the Southern Spur and cool their jets for another week before moving along to Staten Island. [continue reading…]