Life’s a Beach (Grass)

A Day with the Greenbelt Native Plant Center

For years I’d been curious about the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC). I don’t remember where I’d first heard about it, but it was there on the New York City Parks Department website, tantalizingly close yet never open to the public. Its inaccessibility only piqued my curiosity.

And then one day last year, as Spring was approaching and I browsed the Parks’ website for nature walks, there it was: a volunteer event at the GNPC! “Processing beach grass” is what the description said. Processing? Of course I pounced on it, even if I wasn’t quite sure what the task was. It wasn’t the first time I traded a bit of elbow grease (as my Grandfather called it) for access, and I doubt it will be the last.

Processing beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata, one of several species known as “beach grass”) turned out to mean stripping the dry, brown leaves from clumps of grass to leave the fresh green stems and roots ready for planting at various beaches in the City. It was fairly easy work; we could even sit down. Best of all, after we’d stripped grass for a couple of hours one of the GNPC staff offered to take us for a tour of the facility.

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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.

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