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A Walk in the Forest Primeval

Contemplating the fall of civilizations in Inwood Hill Park

At times, it feels like we’re living at the end of civilization. With the arrival of the global pandemic, many governing structures are teetering at a breaking point, one measured in graphs, curves, and waves. Whole systems like mass transit and global trade are fractured as well.

Steps leading to a high ridge trail in Inwood Hill Park

Most threatened are our social arrangements, the ones in which most of us were socialized. The norms of human interaction are shockingly in tatters these days. Just three months ago, it was normal to hang out with others in person without worrying if being in one another’s presence would cause illness or possibly death. Political and economic structures are teetering, with a critical collapse of what was once known as the public space.

A Baltimore Oriole visits a tree near the main entrance of Inwood Hill Park on Seaman Avenue.

It’s easy to imagine a swift evacuation of once proud cities and the future ruins. I’m haunted by 2030 visions of Midtown Manhattan, the tall concentration of skyscrapers south of Central Park. I think of busted out windows, dark towers commanded by hawks and falcons, and the occasional gusts of copier paper drifting onto the street from high above.

Glacial potholes in The Clove were shaped by the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier.

Where have the people gone? Many of the affluent ones left for the countryside, to the Hudson Valley or the Berkshires or Miami Beach, to steer what’s left of their ghost offices. Some left in haste, and future archaeologists sifting through the debris will come across many curious foodstuffs abandoned in the office refrigerator. 

A catbird sings in Inwood Hill Park.

The end of civilization doesn’t have to be all that dramatic or conform to the gothic or science fiction genres. In fact, there’s evidence of former life and abandonment of previous civilizations throughout New York City - the Lenape tribe who made Manhattan their home, the once mighty Dutch civilization that subdued them (and bought the land for 60 guilders) and planted a flag for New Amsterdam, the British Redcoats who overran the forces for American independence along with their Hessian fighter friends, and later successful Americans who built hillside manors with great views of birds and the Hudson River.

At the Overlook in Inwood Hill Park, with views of the Hudson River.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was one of these Americans, French by birth during the time of the French Revolution, spending his declining years ravaged by dementia on a Hudson River estate near the shore of what is now W. 155th Street. (About three miles to the south of Inwood Hill Park.) He is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery just to the east of Church of the Intercession. For his final residence, Audubon picked a great place for watching birds.

A black and white warbler in a tree toward the south end of the park.

At the beginning was the island of Manhattan, a forested and hilly island shaped by the retreat of glaciers. The Wisconsin Glacier was the last and most significant, sculpting the contours of the city with its retreat over 10,000 years ago.

A trail in Inwood Hill Park near the western edge.

Inwood Hill Park at the top of Manhattan provides many of the clues to the previous civilizations of Mannahatta, the Lenape name for “land of many hills.” Unlike much of the southern part of the island leveled for apartments and skyscrapers, the surrounding park area here retains many hills.

Workers reinforce the Henry Hudson Bridge. 

This paradise, alive with the young greens of spring, is not entirely pristine. For example, during the 1930s, under the direction of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, teams of construction workers hurriedly wrecked the forest primeval by tearing down the trees and altering the landscape forever to build and expand the Hudson River Bridge. Moses wanted to accommodate burgeoning car traffic and better connect Manhattan with the Bronx. The Parks Department also straightened the waterway flowing under the bridge. There’s more to this story, and those interested may want to peruse the relevant chapter in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). The fall of New York was in part about the fall of Inwood Hill Park. I recommend reading the whole book for a quarantine project. 

Whale Back, an outcropping of Manhattan schist, is centered at an intersection of the two main hiking trails in Inwood Hill Park.

Nestled within the old growth forest, park trails lead to glacial potholes, caves once inhabited by the Lenape, the former location for an earthen fort from the American Revolution, the foundation of the mansion inhabited by Isidor and Ida Straus (owners of Macy’s who perished on the Titanic), and to many geologic curiosities. Among the latter is Whale Back, a raised crop of Manhattan schist that resembles the back of a whale. If the civilization of Manhattan will be known to have produced one literary masterpiece a thousand years from now, it will likely be a story of a whale.

Site of the Straus Mansion in the northwest section of the park

A walk in Inwood Hill Park during spring migration brings the special sight of visiting birds, with the warblers hardest to see way up at the top of trees. The loud vocalizations come from ubiquitous robins and catbirds. A flock of stunningly red Scarlet Tanagers came through the park last week, flitting from tree to tree along a ridge east of the bridge, awakening passersby.

Scarlet Tanager! On the ridge just east of the Hudson River Bridge. Birders have delighted in the arrival of these bright birds throughout the city.

An echo of bird sounds  - otherworldly, like something in an amusement park – provides the soundtrack for a walk in The Clove, the verdant recessed valley between the two main hills of the park. The northern end of the Clove spills out into the soccer field (originally part of the salt marsh, backfilled in 1930*) where Shorakkopoch Rock marks the spot where a 280-year-old tulip tree once stood and where legend has it that Peter Minuit bought the island for 60 guilders.*

A Tree Swallow finds a favorite perch near the Salt Marsh.

In 280 years from now, what will the future residents of Manhattan find of us? What will they see when they climb the hill and look in all directions?

The view from the Cock Hill Fort site (approximate), overrun by the British during the American Revolution.

Apocalypse aside, Inwood Hill Park makes for a fine and safe setting for an outing in a time of social distancing, especially in the early hours of the morning. After the pandemic eases and travel restrictions lifted, the spirit of exploration and summer camp will still be here - at the north end of the island of Manhattan, in the city of New York, in an archipelago of the New World.

Looking north, past the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, on the Hudson River. On a clear day, you can see the Tappan Zee Bridge, officially named the Mario C. Cuomo Bridge.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 2020.
         
Notes:

• The reference to “the forest primeval” in the post title is borrowed from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline (1847). https://poets.org/poem/evangeline-tale-acadie

* See Inwood Hill Park Hiking Trails, NYC Parks, with downloadable map. https://www.nycgovparks.org/park-features/hiking/inwood-hill-park

* Inwood Park History: See the NYC Park page for details.
https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/inwood-hill-park/history

• Walking notes: Consult the maps posted within the park. The main paths lead north or south (or uptown, downtown, if you prefer). That way, if lost, let the Hudson River on the western edge be your guide. The path that leads up the slope at the north end and curves under the bridge offers particularly fine views of the terrain and the Hudson River.

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