Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sukkah City

Earlier this week, an old friend and I wandered through Union Square taking in this year's finalists in the Sukkah City architectural competition. For those of you not "in the know," a sukkah is a temporary structure built for the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert following their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

There are an elaborate set of talmudic rules in constructing a sukkah. For example, the roof must be made using the leaves or branches of a tree or plant and be sufficiently permeable so that one can see the stars at night. Also, on the stranger end of the spectrum, a whale or living elephant may be used to make the walls. (I laugh, but I've been told it's not much different from the City's Building Code.)

There's been some debate about how kosher this year's finalists actually are, but it's fascinating how much they varied in building materials and design. My favorite, and incidentally the winner of the competition, was "Fractured Bubble" by Queens-based designers Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan. This sukkah was fashioned from phragmites (an invasive marsh grass) and looked like a cross between a Pieter Bruegel painting and, as my friend put it, a really bad hair day.

What I like about the tradition of building sukkahs is the way it acknowledges how we can be both dependent on wilderness and at its mercy. Forty years in the desert doesn't sound like a party, but the Israelites worked with what they had and muddled through with a little help from upstairs (if you go in for that).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tornadoes Vs. Trees

I would be remiss if I didn't address the immense damage to the urban forest as a result of the two tornadoes that ripped through New York City on Thursday evening. The storm was brief, but devastating. I was astonished at how dark it got and then realized that the streetlights hadn't yet turned on. Then it hailed and everything went white. In the aftermath, thousands of the city's trees are damaged or destroyed. Such loss.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fairwell and Adieu to You, Fair Spanish Ladies

I blame it on Jaws, but whenever I'm in a body of natural water, my flight response kicks in the second any fish or, let's face it, piece of seaweed comes anywhere near me. I also have an all-consuming fear of suspicious dark objects in the water, which usually turn out to be rocks. Well, it could have been a man-eater.

Despite my Spielberg-induced neurosis, I'm excited to report that, as a part of the effort to restore the Bronx River's ecosystem, the Parks Department's Natural Resources Group (NRG) has reintroduced two types of herring to the river.
The alewife and blue herring are diadromous fish, meaning that they live in salt water, but migrate to fresh water to spawn. The Bronx River, New York
City's only freshwater river, was prime spawning ground for the herring until access was compromised by the construction of several dams beginning in the 17th Century. (Just think what would happen to Park Slope if subway service was disbanded – adios triple-wide strollers.) The dams are here to stay, but NRG will be implementing fish ladders – which are exactly what they sound like – to allow passage over the dam so the herring can successfully get it on!

"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."