Nature (was once here) walk

Friday is our nature journal day, and the kids and I take turns picking places where we will go.

Detail of mosaic at a Brooklyn subway station.
The last time it was my turn to pick the destination, I said "We're going to a waste water treatment plant, kids!" 

And they said, "Really?"

And I said, "Yep."

We've been studying water lately, including how water is supplied to New York City. The idea of visiting a place that handles the water after New Yorkers use it seemed to flow, if you catch my drift. 

After riding three subways, we arrived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The water treatment plant has a visitor center and a nature walk along the Newtown Creek. The nature walk along the creek is what piqued my interest in making this field trip with my family. I read about the nature walk on the web and printed a scavenger hunt booklet that is specific to the site. The scavenger hunt included sketching activities, and I thought the booklet would serve as a fun break from our regular nature journaling project.

Water is brought to NYC in aqueducts using gravity. At the visitor center, we climbed to the top of the staircase and looked down to the floor, and learned that was the same height difference the water travels from its origin upstate to our city.

I waxed poetic about the gift of gravity as we stood at the top of the stairs. My kids nodded politely, not really appreciating Mom’s words. But, come on, gravity is cool – every once in awhile you have to stop and feel some gratitude for it.

As I was feeling gratitude, my kids looked out the windows of the visitor center. The view was of a street lined with scrap metal businesses. 

My son asked, “Can we check out one of those scrap metal places?” 

“Why do you want to go to a scrap metal place?” I asked, knowing it was a silly question to ask a nine-year old boy.

“To get scrap metal! That would be so cool!” said my son.

I said, "Really?"

And he said, "Yep."

To my son’s disappointment, we didn’t stop at any scrap metal place – not even the one that advertises honest weight. We walked and walked until we found the location where the scavenger hunt map led us, the entrance to the nature walk. 

Without the scavenger hunt in hand, we might have missed the entrance, and we would've missed details like the fish-scale pattern of brickwork on the ground and the references to ships in the shape of the walkway. The scavenger hunt made the experience better than it would have been for us if we didn’t have the guide and activities. Without the scavenger hunt, I might have taken one look at the place and left.

We ducked under the walkway and discovered a little garden path.

This long passage is built to resemble a ship, in homage to the shipping industry that was important in the area’s history. In the far distance is the Empire State Building, the top covered with clouds on the overcast day.

It looks like my son is in a severe time out, with face to the long wall, but he’s looking through a porthole. Here’s what he saw:

Through the portholes, we saw the workings of the waste water plant. The place is huge! In the visitor center, we looked at a diorama of the plant and learned about the different stages and places the water goes through, so when we looked through the porthole, we knew what we were looking at. In the distance, you can see a church steeple – that’s the same church in the photo of Greenpoint above.

But what excited us about this peek through the porthole was the goldfinch mom and baby we saw on the railings. You have to look very closely to see them, and perhaps they are impossible to see on the computer screen. They were almost impossible to see in real life. 

I look this photo of the nature walk while the kids worked by the creek on their scavenger hunt:

As I looked at this stark scene, I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” That black speck in the sky was a huge helicopter. The helicopter, the factories and cement surroundings, the dead creek behind me, the loud sounds of heavy machinery, and the stink in the air – I felt like I was in a dreary futuristic movie. 

But I wasn't in a movie or in the future, and I wasn't in a rush. I had time, right then and there, and I told myself to find something good. What I came up with is that it’s good to see sites that are normally invisible to me, to see what makes our lifestyle possible, to see reality. I live in a beautiful city and the views I usually see are gorgeous....but this scene is part of the nature of our civilization, whether I notice it or not. And, it’s better to notice it. It’s better to know.

We spent an hour or two on the walkway and only saw one other person, a jogger. Across the creek, we saw a worker in the cab of a big piece of machinery. Operating the machine, he lifted demolished cars and dropped them one by one into a large shipping container on the creek. My son would have been happy to watch the smashing action all day. 

We intended to have a picnic lunch at this spot. The table was great. The waterways of the area were craved into the stone, and the table top was on a slight slope. When we poured water on the table, we watched how water moves through the riverway system. In the background you can see big silver eggs. They are digestors and are the last stop for the sludge in the water treatment plant.

The stink of the place took away our appetite and we didn’t picnic after all, but headed home.

I didn’t know what to expect on our nature walk at the water treatment plant, but we went with a sense of adventure. We came home with a new perspective. The place supplemented our studies about the water system, and this field trip, like most field trips, made our studies memorable. 

I didn’t expect this field trip to be a lesson in design. The visitor center and nature walk were indeed created with a thoughtful eye toward design and history, truly. 
Moving sidewalk at a Brooklyn subway station.


  1. Woman... this was AMAZING, you are a true explorer. Are you sure you have not been reading Outside Lies Magic? What you say sounds exactly like this professor that wrote that book, that around us, when we stop and OBSERVE, when we don't just walk by or rush, we look at what it makes our cities our cities, and the layers of the past, and the things that support our present... I'm mailing you the book once I finished it, because the book is YOU.
    I thought this is more than naturalist an urbanist of sorts, when our 'nature walks' have to be done in the midst of the urban territory that has overtaken nature, and where nature struggles or comes up again, acclimated to the new landscape of steel and iron.
    Ah, and your skill shows in your pictures, you have an eye for shadows and light and composition, friend.
    Thanks for the inspiration, true to your name, CM in the City!

  2. I meant once I finish it, email me your address please at,



  3. Your sense of adventure is wonderful. I love reading your posts. I grew up in the heart of Los Angeles and it can be easy to loose a sense of the beautiful natural world around us. Sometimes you can live in a city all your life and never catch that beauty. Design & Architecture in a city can very much resemble that beauty as well. I'm glad you've shared it with us.

    Thanks for the great shots!!

  4. Silvia and Grace'n'Chaos - thank you for your comments and for being encouraging to use our senses to realize what is around us.
    And, what a kind offer, Silvia!! I will email you.