Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Review: Wild New York

I am slowly working my way through the pile of books I left behind in Greece following my 2010 visit to America. One of these is Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson.

What a fascinating read Wild New York turned out to be. Essentially two books in one, Wild New York examines the human history of New York City, as well as the natural history waiting to be discovered in each of the five boroughs.

Wild New York includes:
  • Dozens of  Wild Facts describing the city's worst snow storms, the best places to watch the sunset, the rarest animals, the highest points, the healthiest forests, and the hottest spots for bird-watching
  • Fascinating biographies of the city's animals, from the much maligned pigeon and the dreaded rat, to falcons nesting on Park Avenue and sharks lurking off Coney Island
  • A history of the city's 1.1 billion-year-old geologic past, including the unearthing of a mastodon's 10,000-year-old bones in Manhattan
  • Sixteen pages of color photographs showing rare views of New York City and its wildlife
  • Directions for 33 walking tours in parks and wildlife refuges throughout New York City with 18 detailed maps to help urban eco-tourists find nature in the city.
Speaking of walking tours: during two of my extended visits to New York City I have been lucky enough to stay in Washington Heights, within easy walking distance of two of the parks mentioned in Wild New York―Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Hill Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a copy of the book with me on my walks through these parks which meant I often walked right past geological formations and historical landmarks completely oblivious to their existence and importance. Wild New York includes walking tours for both these parks, as well as two walking tours for Central Park and numerous other locations.

If I have any complaints about Wild New York, one would be the format of the book, which in the hardcover version has dimensions measuring 9.1 x 7.4 inches. This makes the book somewhat bulky and inconvenient to tote around the city comfortably if one wants to use it ‘on location’.

Although completely understandable, given the 1997 publication date, another complaint is the absence of internet addresses for the many organizations and individuals mentioned throughout the book. Wild New York is crying out for an updated reprint that would solve this issue. Better yet, an updated Wild New York would also be available as an eBook making the information in it even more accessible to the urban explorer.

On the positive side, the chapter detailing 33 parks, nature areas and wildlife refuges in Wild New York provides a comprehensive overview of the whole city. All the major parks are of course examined here, from Central Park and the New York Botanical Garden to Prospect Park and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Less well known is the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge adjacent to JFK airport, and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Staten Islanders may be familiar with the Staten Island Greenbelt, but how many other New Yorkers (let alone visitors) have taken the time to visit there? Or Alley Pond Park in Queens? Or Breezy Point, and Plumb Beach?

The good news is that Wild New York makes it easy to visit these places by providing clear ‘How to get there’ details for visitors using public transport or their own vehicles. Having said that, another criticism comes to mind regarding the walks detailed in the book, and that is the lack of information about the walking distances involved. It is not always possible to know whether to allocate one hour, three hours, or more for some of the suggested walks just by looking at the maps. Nor is it always clear if the terrain is flat and easy to cover or hilly and harder to negotiate. An updated reissue of Wild New York would hopefully address these concerns and the others previously mentioned.

Despite my caveats, I discovered a wealth of interesting facts and historical information about New York that was previously unknown to me, and I would venture to say that even long term residents of the city will discover much about their home within the pages of Wild New York, that they are completely unaware of.
“Whether a native New Yorker or visiting from out of town, if you have the interest or the inkling to find hundred foot trees, tidal pools, salt marshes, Native American caves, hilltop vistas, or even just learn which wildflowers grow between the sidewalk slabs or which trees are tough enough to stand up to the stress of city life, this book is for you.”
~ Vincent M. Silenzio on September 26, 2000 (Amazon Review)
I suspect Wild New York has been long out of print, and your best bet for finding a copy is by scouring your local bookshop or online via Amazon or Abe Books, both of which have copies available.

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