Deep winter. I walk the dogs at the start of the latest snowstorm. Soft wet snowflakes brush my face like the whisper of a child. The sparkly holidays lights are down and everything is just dark and grey and cold. Icy winds rake the skin on my forehead and frozen sidewalks chill my toes even through thick wool socks. The dogs want to hurry back inside. Seems like its been forever that we’ve been traversing slush puddles and blocks of grey ice while eternally wearing our snow boots.
After the first polar vortex I decided to set out a window feeder for the birds that inhabit the community garden outside my building. “They must be starving”, I thought. Over the years, the garden has become home to wilder species of birds outside of the rock pigeon, starlings and house sparrows of the urban landscape. We now see robins, thrushes, cardinals and blue jays. Occasionally, a red-tailed hawk will visit and swoop from tree to tree, teasing the squirrels and then perching on the fallen trunk of a willow tree to majestically survey the territory.
Backyard Boys Woodworking tray feeder.
I bought a window tray feeder because part of the fun was to see the birds up close. I did a little research because I did not want my window inundated with pigeons. I learned that pigeons don’t like black oil sunflower seeds and that it is a good high-fat, high-energy food for a wide variety of birds. I bought those and a block of suet. The songbirds need fat for energy in the winter because they don’t have insects to eat.
The tray with the sunflower seeds is dominated by Mourning doves. I’m a fan of doves and even have a pet one, so I enjoy seeing these guys even though they bully the smaller birds. Mourning doves are so named because they make a cooing sound like a lament and when they take off in flight they emit a whistling sound that makes you think, “this is what a helicopter would sound like if it were small and had feathers”. They have soulful black eyes and dots on their velvet brown cheeks. The suet block is visited by “cling feeders”, birds that like to hang from it to get at the seeds and suet. I have seen cardinals, blue jays, a woodpecker and something wild and brown that I couldn’t identify.
Female Downy Woodpecker
The sameness of my grey winter mornings is ruffled and brightened by the feeding frenzy outside my window. I’m happy for that, because spring seems so far away.
It feels like fall has been deliciously drawn out this year. The days are bright and warm and the trees and bushes are dressed in autumn colors. Fall comes late in New York City. They say that the thousands of black tar rooftops create extra heat in Manhattan. Maybe that is why fall is so much later here than just a few miles away.
fence at la plaza cultural de armando perez community garden
Everywhere I look there are leaves on the sidewalks. Many colors of leaves, plain large brown leaves from oak trees, maple leaves tinged in red, many small wispy yellow leaves. It seems that the weeping willow trees are the last to turn – they are still green. So many yellow gingko trees. When I see the golden canopy of those trees, I know that I will forever be reminded of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 when idealism itself was a golden thing as we listened to mic check under the bright yellow ginkgo trees. There is nothing as energizing as being around people who think they can change the world.
el jardin del paraiso
The turtle pond in El Jardin del Paraiso is still. The red-eared slider turtles, those abandoned Chinatown pets, released into the garden pond are already tucked in, burrowed deep into the mud for the winter, nowhere to be seen. The goldfish are moving slow, shining in the water like jewels. They will conquer the winter like they’ve done for years, sitting at the bottom of the pond in the mud till they wake and come alive again in spring.
turtle pond in el jardin del paraiso
There are many spots in New York City where you can feel transported to another place and sometimes even another time. Mostly it happens in indoor spaces. You walk into a tiny Vietnamese restaurant and all of the sudden you could be in Hanoi, eating Pho from a steaming bowl on a stainless steel counter under the florescent lights. Or you could be in an indoor market examining the baskets full of guava and fresh tamarind pods as you feel up the avocados trying to find two that are ripe enough for today’s dinner and you could easily be in Mexico City. Rarely can you be transported from an outdoor space, because New York is so very New York.
6BC Garden in all its glory
There is a community garden on East 6th Street that does transport me – to England I go. It is what I imagine a garden would look like in someone’s big backyard. It is not manicured like a formal garden of the upper classes, but exuberant and lush. I read once that there are people in England who like to tend their gardens in the nude. I think that it is the kind of garden a naked gardener would have. A wannabee formal garden that is a tiny bit wild.
A tiny lily pond
When the gardeners took over the abandoned spaces in Loisaida and began to transform them, they salvaged the rubble. They used the brick and the broken pieces of ornate cornices carved in brownstone and limestone from the fallen buildings. The brick paths in the garden and the flowerbed edges are from pieces of fallen tenements. The buildings live on nestled in the good dirt.
a bench for contemplation
It is said that ten tenement buildings stood where El Jardin del Paraiso now grows. When I first saw it, El Jardin was called an empty lot and it was a desolate place. It was clear to the eye that anything that once existed here had been razed and pulverized in a brutal fashion. The ground was nothing but fine brick colored dust.
The first twinkling of reclamation came in the form of a wooden platform where homesteaders sat in the sun to eat lunch and drink a cold beer after a hard day’s work in the warm summer months. There was also a primitive swing set for children that was two wood boxes that held a frame for the swing. Medieval-like wooden structures in a sea of tenement dust. One of my favorite memories is the sight of Camelia at three years old in the early garden barechested and clad in a pink lace skirt working hard with a tiny rake.
Once the reclamation began there was no stopping it. Raised garden beds arose in a corner of the lot. A teepee was built. It spread. People dug, watered and planted. The roots of weeping willows drank from the underground springs you saw bubble up when you dug deep enough.
People tapped into the electricity from the streetlights and connected amps for concerts and projectors for film screenings on warm summer nights. The renaissance had begun.
Camelia with wings atop a good dirt delivery
For a chronology of El Jardin del Paraiso click here
Stay tuned for Part 2 and maybe 3