- First published July-August 2009.
“Changing Tides” was first published in the July-August 2009 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
Robert O. Binnewies, Palisades: 100,000 Acres in 100 Years, New York, 2001.
William Cronon, Changes in the Land, New York, 1983.
Forests, like nations, can go through periods of succession. Much as a devastating fire can allow for new growth, for sun-loving plants and trees to regenerate a forest, a nation can rise from the ashes of war and misfortune. Historically, the success of a civilization has often been gauged by how well humans have been able to control wilderness, through agricultural production and expanding cities. Until recently, in historical terms, few seemed to care about the health of forests, because forests were not seen as more than mere resources.
While it was not until 1866 that the word “ecology” was coined by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, a concept of ecology — a codependency of organisms, including humans — had been understood for millennia. Native Americans, for example, deeply understood forest succession, because they depended on the natural processes of regeneration for their own survival. Indians would set the forest ablaze so that the newer growth would attract more wildlife to hunt, but they did so in controlled areas. When Europeans first came to the New World they were amazed by the abundance that American forests offered. Firewood, for example, which had been scarce in European cities, was now readily available for even the poorest of folks. All too often, however, “the people of plenty were a people of waste.” The settlers, unfamiliar with the land, stripped it of its largest trees, at the same time they hunted animals to the point of near extinction. With these practices, there was often no chance for rejuvenation of the natural world.
Out of the devastation of the Civil War (1861–1865) arose a postwar industrial boom. The iron, mining, textile, railroad, and oil industries quickly developed without concern for environmental consequences. Cities swelled and buildings became so tall that they seemed to “scrape the sky.”
Nowhere was the demand for resources greater than in New York City. The three- and four-hundred-year-old trees of the Palisades, just across the Hudson River, were felled by axe-men and thrown from the cliff top to make, among other uses, millions of railroad ties. The old-growth forests of the Palisades, lush from centuries of maturation, were stripped bare, while the unique and picturesque cliffs themselves were blown up for gravel and concrete.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that people and politicians began to realize not only the importance of America’s development, but also the significance of preserving America’s natural beauty. The Romantic Movement and the “Hudson River School” of painting that emerged from it, it is thought, played a key role in changing people’s concepts of wilderness. Nature was no longer to be feared, but to be looked at with awe, as an inspiration to human affairs. It was around this time that public outrage at the destruction of the Palisades cliffs began to hold sway with politicians, and in 1900 the blasting ceased.
The saving of the Palisades not only stopped the cliff habitats’ ecological destruction, but it also blazed the way for urban populations to appreciate nature as nature — instead of nature as resource. The early years of the Palisades Interstate Park saw countless opportunities for public recreation. Millions of people visited the park’s swimming beaches and picnic groves and campsites until the economic and social stresses from World War II forced these facilities to close. For the next few decades, the Palisades were allowed to return to wilderness. First vines and herbaceous plants, then shrubs and small trees began to grow out of the concrete of the old pavilion floors. Fields that once hosted thousands of weekend vacationers became sunny breaks from the tree canopy. The trails, most of which were wide enough upon which to drive a car, narrowed with adolescent trees, seaside shrubs, and shifted boulders.
The environmental movement of the 1970s called for a change in our general attitude towards nature. Forest preservation was no longer solely for the benefit of human aesthetics or recreation, but also for the sake of ecology and the forest itself. What was once seen as overgrowth is now appreciated as biodiversity. This is not to say that human intervention has come to an end. In fact, our influence on the forests — through the introduction of invasive species and with increasing pollution and development — has probably never been greater.
The forest is always changing, whether through direct human interaction or through the natural succession of one tree species over another. But today, a century after the dedication of the new park in 1909, as one looks north from Ross Dock and sees the salt marsh cord grass bringing the man-made beach back to a tidal marsh, it at last appears that we are getting the picture.