“Excuse me—Brooklyn has marshlands?” my co-worker asked me in disbelief yesterday. I assured her that this insect paradise, which I visited over the weekend, had not been a mirage. (If only my bug bites were instead.) But while these wetlands—hidden in southeastern Brooklyn, next to soccer fields and a parking lot—are very much real, they feel as abandoned as the oil and sewage floating through them.
As we approached the salt marsh, we saw a clear division between the suburban streets and the unkempt foliage of the neighboring wetlands. A chokeberry shrub pushed against the metal barrier holding her back from the paved sidewalk, her sinewy fuchsia trunks gushing with blood-black berries as she leaned her elbow branches over the barrier. The chokeberry was the first sign that we were entering a New York City jungle unlike the concrete one we know so well.
Mistaking a sandy path as the walkway to the Salt Marsh Nature Center (or perhaps just keen on an adventure), we found ourselves sinking into mushy, chocolate ice cream soil. Walking between brambly bushes on one side and gentle reeds on the other, we observed the rich biodiversity of the area.
Insects played a concert in the grasses, swirling in social groups and emerging from muddy burrows in defiance of the beaky, cheeky sparrows just next door. Ducks glided in demure couples across the serene waters. In the land of the great blue heron, fiddler crab, and damselfly, we discovered a robust ecosystem just steps from the sterile squirrel sanctuary of suburban New York.
Looping to the other side of the water, we saw tall, homogeneous grasses that waved together in the breeze and fell to the ground as hay. It was like we were on a Midwestern prairie—in Brooklyn. The reeds formed dense thickets, protecting the water and holding visitors at bay. Even though we had come to see the water, we were held at a distance behind the curtain of protective reeds. A tangerine-colored butterfly graced us with her presence, fluttering in and out of the grasses.
The feeling of connection with the simplest parts of nature, the vast grasses and the charming insects, reminded me of some lines from Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneers!: “The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”
Jolting us out of our reverie, a jet ski zipped into the protected wetland, like an ostentatious rock star performing at a yoga retreat. Blasting the engine and stirring up water, the driver was disturbing a nature reserve. And unfortunately, jet skis are not the only concern for the Brooklyn wetlands. Despite legal protections, they are visibly polluted by oil, chemical, and septic system discharge and trash dumping. At the same time, invasive species—such as phragmite reeds—deplete nutrients and inhibit biodiversity.
These wetlands need and deserve our care and attention, but we often forget about them, even relative to other waterways. While we may not think that wetlands have the grace of an ocean wave or the hunger of a raging river—phenomena often immortalized in oeuvres d’art—they instead present a sense of calm well-being. Meanwhile, planners and engineers in the past have often treated wetlands as useless swamps that impede economic development and mosquito breeding grounds, moving more often to drain them than to recognize their ecosystem services.
Now, though, we know that our former understanding of wetlands as muggy wastelands is misguided, from both an economic and a cultural perspective. Wetlands provide critical ecosystem services, such as flood protection, erosion prevention, water filtration, and biodiversity habitats. What’s more, they are spaces that promote wellness and mental health. An increasing number of urban planners are creating wetlands in urban spaces not only for stormwater management, but also as a space of calm amidst the pressures of city living.
Perhaps we will find ways to romanticize wetlands as we have oceans and rivers, bringing them into their rightful place in our cultural consciousness. And perhaps, for some, that will begin with a trip to the Brooklyn marshlands, standing in the golden embrace of the reedy waters and feeling a sense of grace in the grasses’ stirring.