On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

My Girl Scout troop did a beach clean-up on Earth Day.

“What year?” some of you will ask. But that’s my point: it was the first year and we didn’t really think about whether there would be another.

With the 50th anniversary approaching, I decided that I would mark the day, in part, by taking a walk to that same beach. As it turned out, COVID-19 means New York City is “hibernating” (as I’ve chosen to call it) and there aren’t any other events happening today, except virtually. That’s just one of the things that’s changed since 1970. There was no virtual or online back then.

The biggest thing that’s changed is that the neighborhood that used to be there is gone. It was washed away by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and all but about a dozen homeowners took a buy-out and left. Someday it will be a New York City park (incorporated into Great Kills Park), with flood mitigation (PDF) infrastructure, but for now it’s just open space returning to the wild and a great place for a socially-distanced walk.

Paved driveway in foreground. Behind, Canada Geese on grass, trees, telephone wires. A house barely visible in the distance.
A few driveways remain, but nature is reclaiming the Oakwood Beach neighborhood. Canada Geese are making themselves at home.

To some this return to nature is beautiful, and in time I’ll agree, but for now my feelings are mixed. Hurricane Sandy made landfall in October 2012, but it wasn’t until June of last year that I worked up the courage to see it for myself. Aside from that first Earth Day clean-up project, a friend in Girl Scouts had cousins who lived in Oakwood Beach. We used to visit occasionally on our bicycles and we had pretty much cornered the market on Girl Scout cookie sales.

My June visit was emotional, but I didn’t quite cry. There were moments when I saw how beautiful it could become, but others when the reminders of the neighborhood—house numbers spray-painted on the curb, bits of driveway—made me sad. On that first Earth Day nobody talked about how air pollution might cause carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to rise, in turn warming the planet and altering weather patterns such as coastal storms. The pollution we couldn’t see or pick up from the sand turned out to be more destructive at Oakwood Beach than the trash we hauled away.

I am coming to terms with it, slowly, and the enforced limits of social distancing force me to get used to what Oakwood Beach and the nearby Cedar Grove neighborhood have become. (Cedar Grove, before its homeowners also accepted buy-outs, was a private gated community, so I never visited.)

In January I joined local environmentalists from Protectors of Pine Oak Woods and Natural Resources Protective Association, for a walk along the beach and berm. It was a chilly, windy day (the rain arrived just after I got home) so I didn’t get a lot of photographs. We were a dedicated group.

People in winter clothing on a path through a park.
Dedicated walkers on a chilly January hike.

Since New York City shut down non-essential businesses and activities, I’ve been taking walks in local parks once or twice a week. I’m used to walking and miss it, but don’t want to do anything unnecessarily risky. Walks in sparsely populated places fits the bill.

Two mallard ducks, on male and one female, on grass with puddles.
The mallards have also staked a claim.

When not walking I’ve been occupying my time with a website called iNaturalist. It’s a citizen science community for uploading and identifying observations of living things. I signed up for an account in December, expecting that there would be a few days too cold and icy for nature walks. Then we had an unseasonably warm and snowless Winter. So when social distancing became the norm I started uploading photos from past nature walks. Sometimes it’s almost like retracing the route, and although local bird and nature walks are cancelled and I now walk alone, I have fellow iNaturalists to share in identifying what we see.

My first Observation posted to iNaturalist was a red-winged blackbird I saw while roughly retracing that January walk, but in much better weather.

A red-winged blackbird perches on a tree branch.
This Red-winged Blackbird, seen near Oakwood Beach on March 18, was my first observation uploaded to iNaturalist.

I also took a walk to Oakwood Beach in early April as part of a “Socially Distant BioBlitz.” Apparently I’m not the only one taking refuge in nature.

Today I walked to Oakwood Beach, then on to Cedar Grove as we did in January. Much has changed, but the beach itself looks just like I remember.

A beach. Sand in foreground, trees in the distance.
Oakwood Beach as it looks on Earth Day 2020.



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