Beaver Kill Ravine Botany
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
Tucked in the north west corner of Lincoln Park in Albany, NY is a small stretch of wild land officially named Beaver Kill Ravine. As a boy growing up only a block away from Lincoln Park, I knew about this place, only we children called it The Gully. It was an area of the park that had gone wild, either because it had been set aside by the Albany Parks Department as a nature sanctuary, or perhaps it was a wasteland through simple municipal neglect. Whichever the reason, the place had an aura of mystery and threat about it. We were warned by adults not to walk through it because of some perceived danger regarding an open sewer hidden someplace in the trees and the possibility that a child could fall into the rushing water and be swept away and drowned.
To get to my Middle School, I had to walk past The Gully on a daily basis, usually taking the street that followed the northern perimeter of the top of the steep slope that fell away into the ravine. On one side of the street, there was a wide lawn maintained by the park, that separated the sidewalk from the drop. This manicured green space and the blank Victorian row houses that lined the other side of the street, made the taboo Gully seem benign, almost safe. The tops of trees could be seen growing from the sides and bottom of the rent in the ground, yet you could see unobstructed across the gap to the elementary school built on the other side. You had to walk to the edge of the ravine and look down into it to have an understanding of its unruly presence.
After school, most of the boys who had to walk back home through the park took the short cut through The Gully disregarding all of the adult warnings we had been issued. During my first year of Middle School, I didn’t. I was walking to and from school with my older sister, who always wanted to be “good,” which was really an excuse not to mess up her clothes with burrs and because of her uncultivated sense of exploring. However, by my second year in Middle School, I was walking with my brother younger by one year, and we began exploring The Gully together just like the other boys. It was an expedition into the unknown and who knew what we would find.
Although travel through The Gully was supposed to be forbidden, there was a small, but well defined path worn directly through the center betraying the others who had traversed there. After a brief hacking through last summer’s weeds at the entrance, we were swallowed into the ravine by the walls made up of a crumbly shale and the canopy of trees which hid any secrets happening at the bottom. About halfway through there was a low, circular brick wall, covered with an iron lid. Rushing water could be heard from under the lid. This was the mysterious and dangerous sewer we had heard about. At some point during my three years of Middle School, the lid was pried off, reset, then disappeared to be replaced with a few crossed pieces of rebar embedded into the brick. There really was fast, rushing water running through The Gully, which at the time we believed was a sewer line. The lid had been pulled off by other boys who wanted to see the water flowing and would throw things into the brick lined shaft to see what would happen. What usually happened was that the objects were swept away. To where, we did not know, but we imagined all sorts of places where the water went, some farfetched or imaginary, some more logical. Still, we enjoyed our fanciful speculations, while the final destination of the sewer water remained a mystery. Our own falling in and being swept away, like the sticks or paper boats we tossed, never seemed to be a concern for us.
After the explorations with my brother, The Gully was no longer the place of trepidation and wonder it had been when I was younger. For me it became a place of refuge, a place where I could forestall reentering into the chaotic, turmoil of my family life with five other siblings. It became a place where I could begin solving the mysteries of nature I was interested in learning about. And as I was in the middle of my adolescence, it was a place where I could try to understand the changing of my body, indulge in my loneliness, and wonder about where this new yearning for a special someone came from. Even with three sisters and two brothers, I felt alone in the world. My siblings were either too young for me to relate to or headed off into their own lives and chafing at the bonds of family. The Gully was where I could think about what was this life everyone was so interested about that lay in the future.
At some point, I brought my camera to The Gully and photographed it. Those images became the series An Adolescents Appropriation of Eliot Porter. At another time I collected autumn leaves from the trees there. The leaves were collected to embed into resin disks we made with a kit that my brother and I had each received as a gift one Christmas – we usually got gifts that made things. With this plastic casting kit, we were embedding everything we could think of, like rubber insects and small Halloween toys, and insisting that we were preparing scientific specimens. Leaves seemed like a particularly scientific thing to prepare.
Beaver Kill Ravine Botany is a new work that I have recently constructed out of those resin embedded leaves I made while I was in Middle School. After rediscovering them while looking through items I had in storage, my memory of my adolescent insistence on their being scientific specimens sent my mind in the direction of nineteenth century scientific presentation and mid-twentieth century scientific illustration of young adult books. The painting on the lid identifies the trees from which the leaves belong, along with their flowers and seeds. It also identifies the location of where the leaves were found – in the Beaver Kill Ravine, Lincoln Park, Albany, NY.
Part of this project was to research this particular place which had become a refuge for me. What I discovered was that in the original landscape that was found by the Dutch settlers of Fort Orange, there was a torrent and waterfall that ran through that part of the territory which eventually became Lincoln Park. The Dutch named this rushing water Beaver Kill and the water fall, Beaver Kill Falls. For a while, the fall was used to power a mill, but eventually, with growing urbanization after many decades, the kill was covered over by the construction of the park. Although hidden and forgotten, it still rushes its way underground to the Hudson River. The place with the iron lid (and later rebar) was where human eyes could get a peek at the vestige of the hidden Beaver Kill and travel back to pre-settlement days. The ravine itself was cut by the flow of the torrent and waterfall. It is the last remnant of the original landscape. I once came across an early twentieth postcard of the ravine where the parks department had landscaped it as a rustic ramble to encourage tourism. That was long gone when I was wandering its overgrown and neglected paths.
We often think of the ground under our feet as something permanent and immobile. It provides us with a sense of security to believe in the permanence of the ground. But what we perceive as the solid earth on which we walk has layers of history buried under it. There are now plans for the city to fill in the ravine altogether to make a level foundation where a sewage treatment plant is proposed. This latest developmental proposal makes me sad that the loss of so rich a landscape should continue to be desecrated under the banner of progress.
The hand of man has transformed the landscape we take for granted in ways that we do not understand and have even forgotten. A stream gets bricked over or diverted. It becomes buried or filled in and in one generation, what is left are rumors and faulty memory. The buried stream continues flowing its course and eroding along its way buried in the darkness , or no longer bound by its own channel, the undirected water finding a new path, will mysteriously flood basements or streets until angry citizens and sheepish civil engineers figure out that the hidden stream must have its way. Nature does not care about the needs of men or the safety of their children. Nature follows its own laws that have been set before the mind of men began to interfere.