The Poetry Project

The Ways of East River Park

Marcella Durand

Between what is deemed politically and therefore
environmentally as important and who and what is important

where water might and does touch land, does undermine land
a question of: is space ever empty? Unvisited? What does it mean if
a place is not visited. When it is. What is uncounted and unseen, deliberately.

Here is an accounting of what life is seen in East River Park, counted from today:

(9 pm, 9/22, autumn equinox)

The East River

Night fishing, fishing poles one after the other, in line, lines into water,
fishing in groups or pairs, or as partners, partners sitting on bench, pointing
out when a line moves, tightens, pull the lines in, squid on the hook, toss it out again.

Promenade is collapsing in area east of amphitheater. This could be convincing; we have no details. Asphalt has been poured along one line of subsidence. The hexagonal tiles are splitting. The tiles are wet—waves are smacking over. Two rats run from water to land at end of promenade.

Air is beautiful. Lights on the waters. Powerplant, ferries, triangle of dust across the water. We breathe it all in.

The Common Ditch

(12 pm, 9/22, autumn equinox)

Meet other birder around siberian elm. Siberian elm is invasive and ratty looking. Lush green leaves at base return every year. Two or three or 12 mourning doves on every dead branch at top. Siberian elm is uniquely alive/dead in almost perfect half.

American elm is shapely with open spread like arms. Walk to and from american elm to siberian elm under american sycamores/london plane trees. Milkweed stand is devastated for some reason. Monarchs all over the butterfly bush. Feel like a sucker getting completely sucked into their black-and-white polka dots and stained-glass-like wings. Can’t take my eyes off them to the extent that I feel their wings as breath against my skin. Insect synesthesia.

Road to the Ferry

(3 pm, 9/20)

15 mourning doves are either coming or going south. Eight pigeons, three starlings after a summer of many, two cardinals fooling me with their warbler-like chipping, and one black-and-white warbler behind the newly mown brambles behind the siberian elm. So the walk was worth it. I am late for the restructuring meeting. People are disagreeing about the most effective methods to save the park. We are all so anguished. The city is brutal and unresponsive. How can our eyes be the only ones to see the trees here? How did the meaning of “value” become so relative? The weight of this city’s laws toward land possession presses this island down. We are not going to be able to breathe when this park is destroyed.

The Sheep’s Pasture

(9 am, 9/16)

I meet two other park activists to take a bird walk together. We are trying to relax and enjoy what we are fighting for. We meet at the top of the amphitheater and immediately start discussing the situation. We walk along the compost yard when four large goose-like birds fly out of a tree. I think they are cormorants but have never seen them in a tree before. We talk about the hawk that sits on the chain-link fence looking for rats in the compost. We also see a crow and talk about how crows are being affected by a virus. We identify laughing gulls and wonder why they never laugh while flying over the park. A herring gull sits on top of one of the ferry piles. We see three or four yellow-rumped warblers and 25 pigeons. The activists know the park in ways I don’t. Like when I learned that the plastic cauldron under a tree with a skull in it was particular and deliberate. Or when I saw that the squares of weeds running along the FDR were actually cultivated gardens. After being told this.

The Shore of the East River

(11 am, 9/11)

I bring my binoculars to the rally to save East River Park at 11 on the 11th. We had spent the morning obligating ourselves to remember our own experiences on that day and now I was ready to yell against capitalist land grab and see some birds. I count: 6 crows, 5 mourning doves, 1 american redstart (maybe), 1 red-tailed hawk, spotted by someone else, and another activist counts about a hundred people. (We guess about 200 people later). Poets Karen Weiser, Brenda Coultas, Atticus Fierman, Laura Henriksen, and Morgan Võ join us. I remember how much the same group (plus Kristin Prevallet) gathered in the exact same spot in 2010 to mourn the BP oil spill. We thought about how the East River is an estuary and connects to the Atlantic Ocean that flows eventually downward to the south and into the Gulf of Mexico. Water finds its way, even when laden with oil.

The Oblique Road, or Pathway to the Ditch and Fort

(4 pm, 9/7)

I see exactly one mourning dove. It is a miserable birding day. I run into a fellow activist and unload my ideas about how the city has planted ultrasonic repellers to scare off the birds. She looks perturbed. I feel crazy. But I can’t figure out why there are no birds. Even house sparrows or the robins who last spring by the dozens had been pulling worms out of the grasses north of Seal Park. Last fall, there were a dozen pine siskins in the goldenrod stands just south of the park. Now that area is fenced off and the goldenrod gone. Contagious construction and destruction soon to be ours.


(3 pm, 9/24)

I am torquing time and bringing the last day back around because I want to end this piece here and because I can do that in a poem. We can celebrate and explore and juxtapose and experiment and push the edges of creativity and compassion in a poem because we can do that in a poem. But the poem also now needs to be respectful. Of other beings, of that which begins from our skin and extends outward to the sky. Of our history, of the air and all of those of us under the soil. We are not buying into the myth of uninhabited wilderness. Nature is heaving, sleeping, working, eating, watching each other breathe. Web. Net. Connection.

So. Yesterday extraordinary bird day. I knew it would be good as soon as I crossed Corlears Hook Bridge. It began with common yellow throats in the leaning juniper trees. Then I saw a leaping little warbler with yellow stripe extending from its head down its back in the narrow strip of native greenery they like. I actually shrieked when I came upon a slightly larger grayish bird in the grasses at my feet. It flew over to an oak tree and its gray resolved to a more beautiful nuanced lime-yellow-salmon color—the indefinable color of cedar waxwings. Its tail feathers dipped in gold. We looked at each other for a good long time—long enough to see the leaping little warbler again and a tiny mystery gray bird with white-ringed eyes. And two yellow-rumped warblers flying back and forth—at least, they had the streamlined bodies of yellow-rumps. Or could be magnolia or pine or canada warblers. It tortures me to think I am misidentifying a rare species of warbler that could save the park single-wingedly.

I move up to the troubled area about the siberian elm, which has developed an issue of biting bugs and scattered toilet paper. I’m irritated by this, but the essence of this park is to share it, even with the couple who walk by talking loudly just as I’m recording an american redstart chirping. Because this is all part of the park in that it is a beautiful and jarring juxtaposition of people and nature that needs to be in this new apprehension of ecology that must include the human within it. This park is that: it must be music and fishing and picnicking and dancing with warblers and the smell of ocean and oak trees and food and squid bait and squirrels. That said, they could open the public toilets again. Instead of destroying the park for money and power. Again. As they do and did and do.

On the way back, there she is: the red-tailed hawk at perfect apex of amphitheatre arch, taking in the view of estuary.


All but the last subtitle is taken from street and area names in a map showing the original lots of Dutch settlement located at Steven Duncan’s blog on the watercourses of New York City. The last subtitle, “Narrioch,” is what the Canarsie people called the area I now inhabit on lands unceded by them. Thank you to Evan Pritchard, a descendent of the Micmac people and founder of The Center for Algonquin Culture, who shared with me the term and the fact that the Canarsie people have lived here since 1300.

The punctuation of the line “What does it mean if/ a place is not visited.” is an homage to Eileen Myles, who has been a powerful force in drawing attention to East River Park, and who often finds an essential space between questions and truths.

To learn more about East River Park and how you can protest its destruction, visit

East River Park Feature