Hot New World, Toxic Old World

In the New Yorker magazine a few weeks ago, Ian Frazier wrote about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island.

His report mixes the heartache and loss suffered by the community with the cold, wet facts of climate change and other injuries we’ve inflicted on our surroundings.  At one point, Mr. Frazier (whose nickname is Sandy) is dubious that some of the storm’s victims’ bodies were actually – as the New York Times reported – found among cattails.  He doubts cattails still exist on Staten Island.  He checks the territory and reports that, as suspected, any cattails in the marsh at the end of McLaughlin Street long ago succumbed to invasive phragmites.

Invasive phragmites (pronounced “frag-mighties”), unlike their native cousins, do not co-exist with cattails.  Mr. Frazier tells us they reproduce by dropping seeds and by sending out runners both above and below ground, thus driving out the native cattails.

I immediately thought of my own 21st-century nature preserve – the Superfund site near my house.  A former industrial canal, it was used for decades as a dump for coal gas residue.  Now thirty years into its federally designated isolation, it’s a dystopian mix of wasteland and wildlife habitat.

It was there, along the canal’s banks, I was sure I’d seen both cattails AND phragmites.  Of course, I read Mr. Frazier’s article while on an airplane heading west, so it took me a few weeks to gather actual data.

A layer of nasty, cake-like snow covered the ice of the canal, rendering it unfit for skating.  Phragmites dominated the canal’s east bank, towering over my head (phragmites can grow to be 20 feet tall).

On the west bank, however, right where I remembered them, were cattails.  “Aha!” I thought, “Either Ian Frazier doesn’t know his phragmites from a hole in the ground or these are the native species.”

Alas, neither is true.  I think what I found are the last two holdout stands of cattails at my local Superfund site.  The line between the phragmites and the cattails was clear as the Berlin Wall used to be.  In fact there was a two-foot gap between the species, perhaps evidence of the phragmites’ underground rhizome runners.

Maybe this seems nerdy to you; I found it exciting.  I wanted to run and find people and show them what I’d found.  I thought I should document it, call the newspaper, something, maybe I should post something to my neighborhood listserv, the Five Snitchers.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in there and do I really want a bunch of Yahoos traipsing through what I’m beginning to consider my own private wildlife preserve/toxic waste hell?

So I compromise and tell you, knowing, most of you will never visit before the phragmites complete their conquest of the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site.  So be it.  Ian Frazier says he found a hot new world among the ruined houses and bodies washed into the phragmites of Staten Island.  My work has taken me to that hot new world several times.  It’s a trip through time, to a future I’m not eager to inhabit on a permanent basis.

My visits to the Superfund site are a trip through time, too, to a toxic industrial past and my own past, having grown up in the industrial belt (it wasn’t rusty then) and my early years as an environmentalist, bouncing from one poison-benighted community to the next.

I’m going to spend some time with the cattails while the ice holds out.  (I have no desire to cross that canal in its liquid state.)  They’re representatives of a world – good or ill, toxic or sweet – that is passing away.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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