An earlier version of this essay was presented at the “Site Specifics” session at #mla18 at noon on Sun Jan 7, when most conference-goers were stuck in long security lines at JFK. All photos are by the author.
"Imagination is vital to restoration. […]
Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?"
— Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies (Audio tour, Track 13)
I wanted answers, so I went to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. The short path winds its way through buildings and along polluted waters in the industrial borderlands between Brooklyn and Queens. It traces the forgotten history of maritime Brooklyn, including garbage cans shaped to resemble the barrels built by nineteenth-century coopers. It leads up to a sci-fi view of the “digester eggs,” massive teardrop-shaped machines that process New York City’s human and household waste. It’s a complex, painful, oddly enticing place. I never leave without wanting to come back, in different weather or at a different time of day. I discovered the Nature Walk with the help of the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies, “an art/science framework for hands-on creative inquiry that promotes new ecological paradigms.” I often walk there while listening to the Audio Tour created by Marina Zurkow, Nick Hibbard, and Rebecca Lieberman. Newtown Creek has become my touchstone for a fluid and dynamic Anthropocene, a place of toxicity and access.
A locked gate faced me when I arrived at the Walk early on the afternoon of Dec 14. It was my fifth visit of the fall, and I’d never seen the gate closed before. I’d driven through snow that morning to teach in Queens, but the skies had cleared by noon and I got to the Creek around 3 pm. (I’d not read closely the “weather permitting” language on the website.) Not sure that hopping fences was viable for a quinquagenarian academic, I stood outside the gate, took a picture, and left. That moment of failed entrance has become one of my favorite images of the fall: the locked gate hides the secrets that I haven’t yet entered into.
The next morning I came back early, and my foot was the first to mark the snow on the steps leading down to the water’s edge.
I came to this place of toxicity with two echoing questions, both of which I realized must be answered the same way.
Will it hurt us?
Can we love it?
To both questions: yes. It will hurt us, and we must love it. It’s our future, and a reminder of the ecocidal past we inherit. On raw autumn afternoons, the Creek overfills the imagination with our environmentally damaged now. The place sidles up alongside you, indisputably present but also opaque, making any efforts to respond feel simultaneously urgent and insufficient.
Walking along Newtown Creek performs on a physical level an essential task for the environmental humanities today: moving past green dreams. The smells and sights and textures of this post-industrial land-and-waterscape force upon your body the realization that moving past comfortable pastoral capital-N “Nature” will be a disorienting experience. Poets and theorists have shown us the way we must go. Our environment has long since stopped being happy and humanizable, if it ever really was so. I’m ready to venture beyond the Romantic green that constructs nonhuman environments as passive backgrounds to human striving and resources to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do with the brown spaces left behind after the end of Nature? How do they make us feel? What verses can they contribute to great goddess Natura’s creating hymn?
What I want when I am near the shores of Newtown Creek is what every Nature-lover wants: to be porous. To let some of the inhuman seep into me. But how can we dare porosity there, in that painfully apt and poisonous representation of our Anthropocene future?
My favorite parts of the Walk are the steps that the designer, George Trakas, built to provide access to the water. When I first walked down the steps, around low tide on a warm mid-October afternoon, I stared past mud and garbage into and through emptiness. I walked as far down as I could go, stopping when the next step was covered by three inches of water. I looked down and I saw – nothing. The water lapped the steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all.
I knew there was something more. Beneath the surface, they say, lies “black mayonnaise.” According to the Newtown Creek Field Guide, a booklet that accompanies the Audio Tour, there is a “fifteen – twenty-five foot layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom….a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).
My project of returning deliberately to the Creek throughout the fall was to enter into community with the place. I saw many different humans and other creatures. A solitary crewman on a sludge barge, parked in the dead-end of Whale Creek. A hipster fisherman casting for polluted sea bass. Two documentary film-makers from NYU by way of China. A honey locust tree that blazed orange and later didn’t.
My favorite objects were the floatables, which is the EPA’s name for marine trash.
When I look at a plastic floatable hovering inches below the surface on a cold afternoon, I see beauty before poison. I see an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of polluted but moving water. Both of these things perch above a thick, invisible swamp of oil mayo. Floating is like flying, in that it holds a body up inside a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but dared not – swimming into a damaged future.
Floatables in water produce a jellyfish aesthetic. Our generation is being trained, in part by gorgeous displays in aquariums, to see in jelly-geometries the alien future of our oceans. That’s one reason, perhaps, that these ethereal bits of plastic seem both familiar and dangerous to touch.
I have more questions for the Creek’s mute bottom. I want it to tell stories about transitions, how changes happen in time. I want its hidden mouth to spew ecological truths: that History can be a form of blindness, that the Future embraces toxins, that Now is the bittersweet instant in which what we see and smell and touch exceeds the language we have to express it.
I went to Newtown Creek looking for damage and found multiplicity. I’m waiting for the new paths it will open.