Shel Horowitz:‘Nerd Nite’ offers different takes on nature found amid urban environs

Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2014

Just as I was pondering what to write about in this month’s column, I went to a pair of lectures organized by Nerd Nite Northampton (yep—that’s how they spell it).

The juxtaposition of the two talks was striking. I don’t know if the organizers considered this aspect — but one was very optimistic, and the other quite pessimistic about living here on planet earth.

The optimist, photojournalist Greg Saulmon, took us on a tour of the amazing birds of urban, industrial Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts: snowy owls, spotted owls, Cooper’s and redtail hawks, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and a host of smaller birds. His stunning photography captured a pair of raptors on the roof of an industrial building, framed by a plume of steam. He caught birds doing acrobatics and birds speeding through the air. Birds on building gutters and an own in the back yard of a woman who thanked him for being in the news media and wanting to report something other than a shooting.

His message was simple: nature is all around us, even in cities — and our kids can learn to love it. We can create effective habitat for both wild animals and people, even in the toughest inner-city neighborhoods.

As a New York City native, I concur. Watching Saulmon’s talk, “The Birds Downtown,” I kept thinking about my own childhood in a far more urban place than Holyoke, and how much nature I experienced even in one of the largest cities in the country.

Many of my earliest encounters with nature were within the city limits — in the parks and on the beaches, of course — but also in the plane trees that lined many city streets (dwarfed though they were by the giant buildings around them), and the little oases of parkland. Noticing the different grasses growing along an abandoned railroad track, tromping through city parks with my high school biology teacher as he led a tree identification walk, observing squirrels, and even going hawk-watching with my mom at the Pelham Bay landfill, just a mile from our 20th floor apartment in a 26-storey high-rise, within a complex of 33 high-rises tucked into a corner of the Bronx.

This neighborhood of 58,000 people was not important enough to get a subway extension, or even to make a new station on the commuter rail line that bordered the project. But while it may not have gotten on the radar of city planners, it definitely did get on the radar of the migrating birds. The buildings were spaced some distance apart from each other, and there was a lot of open land. Active marshlands bordered the community, and the Hutchinson River and Long Island Sound lay just beyond. A resident colony of geese acted like they owned the place, and gulls were always swooping around.

So if you live in a city — help your kids, or the kids who live near you appreciate nature. The first step in saving the world is awareness, and you can be part of that.

The second talk of the evening was much less upbeat. Filmmaker Ian Cheney’s “The End of Darkness” focused on a part of nature that’s slipping away rapidly: a night sky dark enough to see thousands of stars.

Growing up in New York City, there was so much light pollution that I never knew what the sky was supposed to look like. Cheney described a New York City native who thought the Hayden Planetarium sky show was a hoax. And I can understand that, because when I used to walk home from the subway at night — a mile walk along an eight-lane highway — I’d never seen more stars than I could count — usually few enough that I could actually count them on my fingers. And living in a rural area for many years now, I’m still amazed when I look up on a clear night and see thousands of little dots of light.

But star deprivation, says Cheney, isn’t just an aesthetic issue; it has severe consequences for our own and other species. Two among several examples: 1. Sea turtle hatchlings have evolved to head toward the brightest thing they see when they emerge at night from their eggs—because, historically, the ocean, catching the moonlight in its water, was brighter than the land. But now, if their mothers bury the eggs near a coastal city like Miami, the turtle babies head downtown, and die before they find the ocean.

The human example is even more disturbing; there seems to be a correlation between the false daylight of our populated areas—and breast cancer. Cheney doesn’t have a solution—but he knows we need to look at this as a society.

Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz writes the monthly Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).


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