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.

‘Ice Cubed’: A Conference on the Many Sides of Ice on April 15

As melting polar icecaps and receding glaciers have generated a global consciousness of the planet’s fragility, ice is now more than ever a subject of fascination and analysis, whether historically or in the contemporary world. On April 15-16, the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University will host Ice Cubed–a two-day conference exploring the wide range of possibilities and contradictions of ice in contemporary analysis and artistic expression.

“Dawn of the Anthropocene.” New York City. Photo by Nora Ligorano.

With support from two Columbia organizations–the Center for Science and Society and the Heyman Center for the HumanitiesIce-Cubed will bring together artists, academics, scholars, and scientists to explore the generative possibilities of ice as a medium for bridging disciplines within and beyond the academy in an era of global warming.

The conference will begin on the morning of Friday April 15 with a full schedule of interdisciplinary academic panels organized around themes from making and melting ice to material structures. Presentations by humanists  and scientists from Columbia and beyond–including Robin Bell of the Lamont Earth Institute, Hasok Chang of Cambridge University, and SIPA’s Ben Orlove–will be followed by a screening and discussion of Isaac Julien’s 2004 video installation, True North.

Barry Lopez, March 24, 2003
Barry Lopez. Photo by David Liittschwager.

On Friday evening at 6, Ice Cubed is pleased to welcome the public to a Keynote Conversation between Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams and writer Barry Lopez, author of the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams. As artists with long experience living and working in the Arctic, Adams and Lopez will discuss the ways in which the stark, ice-bound landscapes of the Far North become incorporated into their work, and what happens when the boundary between artist and activist blurs under the pressure of contemporary climate change. This special event will include a reading of Lopez’s “The Trail: A Short Short Story,” and a performance of Adams’s “…and bells remembered…” by Sandbox Percussion.

Saturday’s schedule offers a continuation of the scholarly discussion around ice, capped off by a Art + Science WALK, co-organized with City as Living Lab, in which GlacierHub’s managing editor Ben Orlove and public artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese will lead conference participants and the public through the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Since 2013, landscape artist Mary Miss and City as Living Lab have been organizing artist-scientist led WALKs with the goal of bring artists, scientists, and the broader community into conversation around contemporary social and environmental issues. Ice Cubed is thrilled to have partnered with City as Living Lab, and to be able to offer the WALK as part of the conference program. For those who attend Friday and Saturday morning events, footage of Ligorano’s and Reese’s work–including “Dawn of the Anthropocene,” a melting ice sculpture that coincided with the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit and the People’s Climate March–will be on view at the conference.

John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams. Photo by Pete Woodhead.

The organizers of Ice Cubed, Maggie Cao and Rebecca Woods, are both postdoctoral fellows at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. The idea for the conference originated in the Fall of 2015 when Cao, who holds an appointment as Assistant Professor of Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Woods, who will begin a tenure-track position in the History of Technology at the University of Toronto in July of 2016, discovered their mutual interest in things icy and cold. Cao works on nineteenth-century American landscape painting, with a particular interest in objects and art produced in polar settings, and Woods studies the history of cold (natural and artificial) in the British Empire. From conversation around this shared interest, and taking inspiration from recent discourse around the cryosphere, came the idea to host a discussion across disciplines within the academy, and beyond.

All Ice Cubed events will take place on the Columbia Morningside Campus, and are free and open to the public. No advanced registration is necessary, although those who wish to attend the WALK can email Rebecca Woods in advance in order to meet up with the group as it sets out from the Columbia Campus at 11:45 on April 15. This will be a great opportunity for the public to meet and mingle with conference speakers and participants.

Full details, including times, locations, and speaker bios, are available on the conference website.