Betsy McCully

Manhattan from New York Harbor. Credit: Betsy McCully

Great Egret. Photo credit: Ben Cooper


City at the Water’s Edge: A Natural History of New York
City at the Water’s Edge: A Natural History of New York chronicles the geological, ecological, and human history of the New York region. Its timeline extends backward more than a billion years and forward to a not-so-distant future, when rising seas reclaim Manhattan.

Excerpt from Chapter 6, “Muddied Waters”:

Looking across the salt marsh of Jamaica Bay, I see the skyscrapers of Manhattan shimmering in the distance, their hard geometry juxtaposed against the soft muddy lines of tidal flats and wavy grasses. The city seems a world away, and a time apart. Dwarfing the Manhattan skyline, a snowy egret stalks its prey at the edge of the marsh, its head cocked, motionless. Here, a bird in the marsh reenacts an ancient scene; there, manmade towers rise like upstarts – hives of concrete and glass that serve as a human habitat.

Before cities were dreamed of, the New York archipelago was created when the last glacier receded, and a rising sea reclaimed the continental shelf. In the glacier’s wake, the land slowly rebounded from the weight of the ice, and islands rose from the sea. Over the millennia, the ocean continued to encroach on the land, drowning the mouths of rivers like the Hudson, Connecticut, and Hackensack. The commingling of fresh and salt waters created estuaries, which are tidal rivers – geologically rare ecosystems that form only when sea level reaches a certain point. At high tide, the sea pushes upriver, and at low tide, the sea withdraws – hence the Lenape name given to the Lower Hudson, Mahicanituck, which eighteenth-century Mahican scholar Hendrick Apaumaut translated as “the great waters or sea, which are constantly in motion, either ebbing or flowing.” The word “estuary” is derived from the Latin word aestus, meaning tide. In the shallow waters of the estuaries, sediments eroded by tidal action are deposited along the shores, building mudflats where cordgrasses take root and grow into salt marshes. The estuaries, bays, and salt marshes of the New York City region have supported a diversity of species, including our own: hunter-gatherers settled along the waterways here, thriving for thousands of years on the abundance of plants and animals that shared their habitat, and gave them the food, shelter, fuel, clothing, and tools they needed.

“Monarchs of the Mind,” essay in anthology Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York, ed. John Waldman (Fordham University Press, 2012).
"There are other publications that deal with urban ecology, but no other work looks at one -place, a very urban place, and helps the reader to understand all facets of how people connect to or find nature in that city. . . Highly recommended."—Choice

“’Culturally Scripted Places’: People and Nature in New York.” Book Review on David Stradling, The Nature of New York, H-NET Reviews, Jan. 2011.

“Willa Cather,” “George Perkins Marsh,” and “Urban Sprawl,” Encyclopedia of American Environmental History, ed. Kathleen Brosnan (Facts on File, 2011).

"A Sea Change on the Hudson," WaterWrites: A Hudson River Anthology, ed. Laurence Carr et al. (Codhill Press, 2009).

"The Maize Doll" in Stories from Where We Live: the North Atlantic Coast, ed.Sara St. Antoine (Milkweed Press, 2000).

Selected Works

“A natural history of a different stripe.”
–William B. Gallagher
"CITY AT THE WATER'S EDGE: A NATURAL HISTORY OF NEW YORK is a top pick for two audiences: any collection strong in New York City representation, and both college and specialty holdings strong in urban natural history and ecology topics. The author's a long-time urban dweller who argues that NYC has a rich natural history underlying its human history - and her 20+ years of nature exploration lends to chapters covering these natural areas. From an early New York region before Ellis Island immigrants to Manhattan's geological riches, CITY AT THE WATER'S EDGE makes for lively, involving reading." Midwest Book Review, 2007.