Even New York’s Plant Life Is Exceptionalist

Where’s the richest natural ecosystem in New York State? In and around the part that’s packed with 8 million human beings , Robert Sullivan wrote in New York magazine this week:

We’ve long known that our waters are home to herring, mackerel, shad, blues, anchovies, blackfish, stripers, crappies, Lafayettes, tomcod, hake, eel, weakfish, killifish, and perch—but we’re only starting to understand that they swim above a still-operative and vibrant food chain of smaller creatures. Just beyond Exit 30 on the L.I.E., there are secret, untended forests, where black locusts shoot sprouts through the rusty chassis of abandoned cars. On Staten Island, great-blue and black-crowned night herons nest in hundreds of acres of marsh grass, and racer snakes and spring peepers live in kettle ponds. A few hundred feet beyond the runways of JFK, dolphins arrive in schools every spring. In a survey taken this past June, scientists turned up more bird species in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge than in Yellowstone and Yosemite parks combined—and nearly half of all the bird species found in North America.

Part of the reason for New York City’s prospering wildlife is neglect—the spaces in the city that humans don’t use, Sullivan wrote, add up to a huge and varied collection of habitat, largely free from meddling management. Rather than

viewing invasive species as a polluting scourge

, the city’s naturalists see them as part of diversity in the active ecosystem. Whatever can survive there is welcome to it.

Even so, why is the harbor full of aquatic life, when, say, the Chesapeake Bay has been steadily turning into a liquid desert? Maybe the source of the vitality goes beyond neglect, to outright abuse:

In the Middle Atlantic states and parts of southern New England, restoring wetlands has a lot to do with planting spartina grass. At first, the NRG researchers imported healthy spartina from Maryland, but it was seemingly overwhelmed by the pollution in Arthur Kill. So they took a chance on the local spartina, hoping that the grass would pump oxygen into the ground, thus re-aerating the marshes so that the bacteria in the peat would ingest the oil. The ecologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doubted the NRG’s plan, but the local grass survived, and after about two years, tests indicated that the total amount of petroleum hydrocarbons in the marsh had fallen. “The bacteria that was there already—they went to bat,” says Carl Alderson, who worked with the NRG at the time and is now a wetlands-restoration expert with NOAA. “The spartina had a remedial effect on the oil.”

In other words, the local marsh grass succeeds because it has been desensitized to suffering and has lowered its standard of living. Now it just has to figure out how to make the credit-card readers in the taxis work.