Thursday, September 24, 2009

Night mysteries of Inwood

How very like a whale the hill of Inwood is, rising at the north-by-northeast Q-tip of the Inner Borough. Three quarters bound by Hudson, Harlem River Ship Canal, and, at low tide, the glistening mudflats of a lagoon that in the night reminded me of a beech tree in the rain, Inwood humps up as phalanxes of mighty schist riven down the center by soft marble that has, in years measured in the hundreds of millions, been worn away, creating a valley, known locally as the Clove. Thick tuliptrees and red oaks tower above the smell of skunk. The soil is deep and rich in the Clove. The darkness was wonderful, like no other in the city, until it clouded over and became, in that white night paradox, lighter. Snowy tree crickets and katydids of the oblong winged, greater, and lesser anglewing sort sawed away, making a finer music than the humbuzz of the Henry Hudson. Cave crickets, silent, were seen working their way up tree trunks. Some of these are reputedly as big as a thumb; the largest we saw was a pinky, with a humped, stripped abdomen somewhat reminiscent of shrimp. Night-herons barked in the lagoon. There were oodles of earthworms under a couple of logs; our guide, Mike Feller, said these were all invasive, that the glaciers killed off native worms when they scraped through over and over again (Wisconsin, Illinoian, Kansan, Nebraskan), that that these suckers were radically turning the forest soils from acidic to base. Good for the garden, but bad for the woods. Darwin, the worm king, rolls over in his grave. I must look into this heresy.

But the highlight of the night was the slug sex.

Yes, two hearts that beat as one, slippery hermaphrodites doing the mystery dance. I’d just seen this in David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth (here’s the clip) and read about it in Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark. They coil together while suspended on a mucus thread and spin around and extend these pale male organs which also entwine around each other and merge to create a sort of blue flower… There are more things, Horatio, than dreamed of in your philosophy, o yes, indeed. Actually, our pair didn’t go all the way. Might have been hard to get in the mood with three flashlights and repeated camera flashes on them. I know I’m not in the mood when paparazzi are about. Meanwhile, a couple of inches away from this primal scene was this enormous wolf spider, easily two and half inches long toe to toe. There were just five of us, so the wolf spider might have been able to take us. One of us, however, “Betsy,” turned out to be a ringer: Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, landscape historian, and the founder of the Central Park Conservancy, and hence fairly responsibility for pulling That Other Park (as we like to say in Brooklyn) out of the mire. She is updating her out-of-print Forests and Wetlands of NYC. And she is delightful.

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