1-25-15 at 4:30 pm
at the Stewart Park Promontory
- Temperature: 20 degrees
- Wind: 0-8 MPH Gusts: 2-12 MPH
- Feels like: Hypothermia weather
- Partly sunny, high wispy clouds
- Flocks of Canada Geese flying in Vs
- A few gulls flying
- One or two unidentified songbirds flying overhead
- A dozen or so people coming and going. Driving by the lake taking photographs. A few walking around.
The sky is pastel this afternoon, slipping toward darkness as the sun steals away behind the west hill. The wind blasts me with cold, cutting through every bit of clothing I wear, as in previous visits. I hasten to the Promontory to see what I can see, with the goal of getting out of the cold as soon as possible. I keep to the loop, then step down onto the small west side beach where the wind doesn’t penetrate.
I’m hoping for a sunset show. As I wait to see what the sun will do, I look around the tiny beach. At first glance it’s all rocks and branches, nature’s debris. Then I see a large, white stick glaring at me and whispering I don’t belong here. A beaver-chewed stick. Utterly odd to find this. There are a few creeks that flow into the lake here at the southern end, but as far as I know, none of them are home to beaver. And to the north there are no swamps or side ponds that would house beaver. It’s a beautiful stick though. Perfect for building a submerged lodge.
I look more around the pebbly beach. There are other odd items to be found. Others that don’t belong.
At forty miles, Cayuga Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes. Stewart Park sits at the southern tip. Though the water in the lake moves from south to north—through the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario, then on through the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean—the winds push surface water, and anything on the surface, to the shore at Stewart Park.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Native Americans had a village at the edge of Cayuga Lake called Neodakheat. By the 1700’s, Ithaca was under the dominion of white settlers. Since then, the land now called Stewart Park saw use as athletic facilities, an amusement park, a film studio, a zoo, and Ithaca’s first Vaudeville theatre. A lot of uses, a lot of humans.
So, in addition to whatever is tossed into the water from all of those forty miles north, and the extensive use of this end of the lake, there are bound to be cast-off relics.
Normally, I would feel compelled to collect all this garbage. Normally, I would feel disgusted and angry. Normally, that anger would switch to depression, as I thought of the lack of human respect for nature. But today is different. Today I have questions. Today, a discussion in my Nature Writing course has me thinking constantly about what nature is. And how exactly humans fit in to it.
A beaver leaving scraps of its housing is ‘natural.’ But a Smirnoff bottle is not. Why? When Native people lived here 400 years ago, did they not cast off their waste? Yet when we find shards of ancestral peoples’ pottery, don’t we clamber to preserve them, often in situ, often as evidence of the previous natural world? If I dug down under the grass and tennis courts in the middle of the park, would I find traces of the carousel, the movie making, the zoo animals that once paced in their cages on this land? Would they be natural items, there, deep in the dirt? Or would they still be foreigners?
There is no doubt that these human remnants are indeed trash. My gut tells me they don’t belong. But right now, I look closely at the various artifacts, figuring out how to take a photo that captures light and creates composition that might be pleasing to the eye. I imagine I can spin trash into art.
I see these remnants as bits and pieces of discarded life. Someone drank from that bottle of Smirnoff. Was he drowning his sorrows in a stolen moment at the far side of the park when he put bottle to lips? Was she leaning on the rail of the dinner boat when a shift in waves under the hull caused her to lose her grip on the bottle, dropping it overboard? Was he with his friends, a few stolen bottles from the parent’s liquor cabinet to try for the first time? I have to wonder if the stories behind the remnants make them belong. For we are behind the stories, and we all are trying desperately to belong.
If the human alteration of earthly materials renders an item unnatural, can a second human alteration—stories, photographs, art—revert it back? Or is it a natural alteration—burial underground, wind erosion, time—that which is needed for a remnant to become a part of nature again?
Back in my car with the heat running I jot down my thoughts about the Promontory today. The sun is gone behind the hill. Only black silhouettes of trees—and many questions—remain. When I look up at a willow outlined in light, I see a contrail. A stab of white cut into the darkening evening, slashed across the tree. An intersection of sorts.
Slowly, the plane traverses the sky leaving its sharp mark behind it. Equally slowly, the wind pushes at it, breaking the water droplets into a thousand pieces, dissipating it into blue.
For a brief history of Stewart Park, go to The Friends of Stewart Park website.