Did you know that there’s a week in April that New York Harbor aficionados call Floaters’ Week, when all the winter’s corpses suddenly pop up? That sharks used to forage along the East River’s commercial waterfront? That during WW II the U.S. warded off enemy submarines by installing a metal net between Staten Island and Long Island?
That’s the sort of delicious trivia you can pester friends with. It comes from John Waldman’s Heartbeats in the Muck—a speedy, informative, entertaining read. As Waldman, a scientist at the Hudson River Foundation, works his way through his richly anecdotal reports on the 1500-square-mile harbor’s geology, marine life, water quality, and habitat, its history emerges as backdrop: The estuary whose beauty and abundance dazzled Henry Hudson is devastated by torrents of human waste and industrial contaminants, then makes a slow but near miraculous recovery following the 1972 Clean Water Act.
It may be a revelation to many readers that the harbor is now clean enough to swim in, let alone that it has 206 documented species of fish, plus clams, oysters, lobsters, and much more. There are still vestiges of a time when marine life was central to the city’s culture and economy. Did you know there’s a guy out in Jamaica Bay who still makes his living trapping muskrats for both their fur and musk sacs, which are used to make perfume?
As Waldman puts it, the harbor “took society’s best shot and, without fanfare, bounced back up again.” Of course the body of water that Henry Hudson observed is gone forever; the present-day ecosystem is brand new, radically reengineered by humans and their public works. Waldman raises some thorny issues: What, at this point, is natural? Which artificial structures are most and least beneficial? These as-yet unresolved questions are central to the long-running debate over the West Side waterfront, with opponents arguing that development will almost certainly harm the environment. Waldman suggests a more complicated reality, in which new piers might generate additional habitat for some species, even as they discomfit others.
Heartbeats’s optimism lies in the form of wildlife’s amazing adaptability. Have you heard that seals and porpoises are making appearances in the Hudson?