Walk through the Glacial History that Shaped New York City

New York City is often referred to as the concrete jungle.  However, a few hundred years ago this artificial forest was an actual forest, and 20,000 years ago Manhattan was covered in hundreds of feet of glacial ice.  The city’s natural history has shaped our modern landscape. Understanding that urban connection to the natural world was the purpose of CALL WALK, a recently held environmental education walking tour in Manhattan, New York.

From left to right: Ben Orlove, Mike Kaplan and Marshall Reese discuss evidence of glaciers on rock (bottom left) in Riverside Park. (Source: CALL)

CALL WALK was created in affiliation with City as Living Laboratory (CALL), a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading environmental awareness through artwork and tours that show how modern life has been defined by the natural world. The organization recently released a new video capturing the walking tour.

The tour was presented in conjunction with a two day conference hosted by Columbia University, Ice Cubed: An Inquiry into the Aesthetics, History, and Science of Ice.  The conference explored the use of ice as medium to express concerns over global warming artistically as well as academically.

CALL’s artistic director, Mary Miss, founded the the non-profit  in 2009 with a mission stated on CALL’s website to, “Increase awareness and action around environmental challenges through the arts.”  Miss’ work with CALL is a continuation of over four decades of projects that she has completed in cities all across the country.  These include 2007’s Connect the Dots in Boulder, Colorado, where she created a citywide map of the changing waterways.

Ben Orlove touching Manhattan bedrock bricks of Broadway Presbyterian Church on Broadway and West 111th St. (Source: CALL)

Recently, Miss and her staff of four have designed several art installations and WALKS that call public attention to the link between natural and man-made systems.  CALL WALK was an extension of a current project, BROADWAY: 1000 Steps (B/CALL)

Anthropologist Ben Orlove, also founder and editor of GlacierHub, lead the CALL WALK along with and poet and artist  Marshall Reese.  The artist is known for his work with ice sculptures with which he uses melting ice that has been fashioned into keywords as social commentary. He and his collaborator Nora Ligorano will bring large ice sculptures of the words “The American Dream” to the Republican and Democratic conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia later this month, where they will melt and disappear.

Along the way, the two guides and their geology expert, Mike Kaplan of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, commented on remnants of the mighty glacier that covered Manhattan during the last ice age.

He [Kaplan] pointed out some glacier erratics in Riverside Park, pieces of rock from the Palisades, the cliffs on the other side of the Hudson. He showed that they could have been transported by the ice sheets back in the last Ice Age,” Orlove said in an interview following the mid-April CALL WALK. “I was surprised because I have visited the park many times, but I had never stopped to look closely at those boulders and to wonder where they came from.”

Connecting the present to the undiscovered past in our backyards is what makes events such as CALL WALK and B/CALL intriguing and important.

“Through exploration of the Broadway corridor, viewers will become aware that nature is everywhere and in action at all times, that the city is an urban ecosystem, that innumerable numbers of small decisions over time have shaped the environment we inhabit today and that our decisions today (behavioral choices) will impact the future of all of nature,” said CALL manager Christine Sandoval.

Section of the Sanitary and Topographic Map of New York, published in 1865, which highlights the area of the CALL WALK. (Source: CALL)
Section of the Sanitary and Topographic Map of New York, published in 1865, which highlights the area of the CALL WALK. (Source: CALL)

Participants followed a bygone creek that now manifests as a puddle that forms in the subway, or as a patch of moss in Riverside Park.  They were also led to touch smoothed bedrock and massive boulders transported by ancient glaciers that melted and produced massive floods, changing the course of the Hudson River.  In years to come, when walking around their neighborhood, they may realize the rock that their building is made of was quarried from the Manhattan bedrock right under their feet, just like the church they saw on CALL WALK.

The walk concluded with a moment of silence at Straus Park, a small patch of green between W 106th & 107th streets.  The park is dedicated to Ida and Isador Straus, who lost their lives on the Titanic after it was struck by a floating iceberg, calved from a glacier in Greenland.  As the group took in the sounds of traffic and birds, they were asked to imagine the unsinkable ship crashing into the large chunk of erratic glacial ice, and to picture the immense ice sheet that molded much of New York’s urban landscape.

Leave a Reply