Biologist John Waldman Explores Nature in New York in New Book

December 21, 2012 | Queens College

“Few juxtaposi­tions conjure as many mixed reac­tions from city dwellers . . . as the blatant appearance of ‘nature’ against their urban back­drop.” This dual­ism is the premise upon which Queens College Biology Professor John Waldman (Biology) edited Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York (Fordham University Press), a collection of essays by 11 writers offering their perspec­tives on the experience of nature in a total­ly urban landscape—a concept Waldman explored in a conference, Why Nature Matters to New Yorkers, that he convened at QC in December 2005.

In his introduction, Waldman explains how his own career has been shaped by the dualism of his Bronx childhood: growing up within earshot of a busy expressway, but also just a bike ride away from the Long Island Sound. The concept was most famously expressed, he notes, in the recent much-publicized account of Pale Male, the Red-tail Hawk, who along with his mate built a nest on the ledge of a Fifth Avenue residence near Central Park. When the building’s wealthy residents—distressed at the appearance of growing numbers of rodent and pigeon carcasses—dismantled the nest, they created a furor among city residents who had become captivated by this wild pair.

The essays that follow offer perspectives that are scientific, historical, and personal. They can be somewhat startling, as in Robert Sullivan’s account of his “so-called journey to the dark side” when he spent a year closely observing the daily activities of the city’s rats. They can be contrarian, as in Philip Lopate’s argument on behalf of cities being allowed to be cities, places where people can efficiently thrive away from nature—thus, preserving nature in its natural setting. Or, post-Hurricane Sandy, they can be alarmingly prescient, as in Anne Matthew’s descriptions of various “visions” for the future of New York. Her “urban vision #4” depicts New York as a coastal mega-city “profoundly altered by global warming . . . where officials rightly worry about the effects of giant storms.”

Coinciding with the publication of Still the Same Hawk, Fordham University Press has re-issued Waldman’s award-winning Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor. It includes a new epilogue which, from the perspective of 2012—13 years since the book’s original publication and 40 years since the enactment of the Clean Water Act— details the continuing stages in the revival of New York’s major body of water.

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Maria Matteo
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