Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Changes: End of Chapter One

To hack it in a salt marsh, a creature must be both terrestrial and aquatic. Tolerant of fresh and salt water. Tolerant of water that freezes by winter and simmers by summer. In short, tolerant of change. Especially the kind brought on by people.

Rocky Point Marsh is a highly disturbed ecosystem. Clogged with debris. Infested with alien vegetation. Mutilated by dredging and jetties. Yet it remains where no other marsh does, and provides refuge for species that will tolerate no other habitat. How long has it been here? Why is Rocky Point the last remaining marsh on the Rockaway Peninsula? To answer these questions, I made a trip to the New York Public Library's map division. I wanted to see what Rocky Point looked like 50, 100, 200 years ago.

The oldest map available was from 1773. In it, the Rockaway Peninsula appears to be weakly connected to "weFt Long Island," AKA Brooklyn. Here's pre-Revolutionary Breezy Point (lower right).

Interesting, but I needed more detail than that. So I gathered every Jamaica Bay nautical chart I could find. The last century's metamorphosis was mind-blowing. Here's a short video (16 seconds) I compiled of Jamaica Bay charts, spaced roughly every 15 years from 1888 to 2006. It's worth a couple views. First watch it while focusing on the tip of the peninsula. Then watch again while focusing on the green shading, which represents salt marsh.

The peninsula stretched two miles westward over the course of the past century. The entire community of Breezy Point is built on land that was underwater not 80 years ago. But Rocky Point marsh was always there, and it was surrounded by other marshes. By 1937, most of them had been filled.

To fully grasp the changes that took place, one must look at the greater Jamaica Bay area in 1903 vs. 2006.

Examine these closely. Note the rim of the bay. Note the area covered by JFK (upper right). Note the channels cutting through the marsh islands. Note the sheer scale of development. To see all of this in more detail check out NOAA's Historical Charts and Maps Collection. I spent the better part of a day exploring that site.

The metamorphosis was not limited to Jamaica Bay. All told, New York City buried 84% of it's original salt marsh over the last century. The repercussions of that loss are beyond the scope of this blog post. But somehow, this little marsh of ours did not get priced out. How it managed to do so amid such sweeping land alterations is unclear. What's clear is that measured on a human scale, Rocky Point's level of tolerance ranks somewhere between Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

It sustained injuries along the way. And it will undergo further changes. But now that we know better, we can try to make those changes positive.

Our restoration efforts have slowly inched Rocky Point back toward what it may have looked like in that 1888 map. I took a photo of the marsh from the same spot every week for a year. Here I've stitched them together as a parting ode to Rocky Point. Music: Joshua Cody by Antony Partos.

One last and very important change to report. The Rocky Point Marsh Makers blog will live on through Kim-Nora Moses, a talented photographer, fellow volunteer, and friend.

Thank you Kim-Nora for taking over, and for letting me marsh vicariously through you from the west coast. Tony, make sure she keeps those rakes and shovels points-down. I know you will.



  1. Wow - that is a powerful portrayal of the marsh. I will miss your images very much

  2. Awesome, Shervin! You know you are sorely missed already. I have a LOT to learn in order to carry on with this blog with an elegance and creativity that have portrayed the stunning metamorphosis of a forgotten land. Hope that doesn't sound too weird.