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Emerald Cities

Emerald Cities

The New Times 8/15/2011


“Wastewater Treatment Plant” may not sound like a scenic destination. But some ecologically minded towns have been designing a new breed of wildlife preserve, one that gives recycling a lively twist. Instead of dumping treated water, they return it to nature as the essence of an ecosystem that offers food and habitat to animals. Migrating and native birds find a niche, entangled communities of plants and insects take up residence and a hodgepodge of wild animals bustles in.

As a result, city dwellers needn’t travel far for an interlude of wilderness to refresh their habit-dulled senses and reorient their inner compass. Strolling, gawking, sitting — at times camera-clicking — humans become one more changing feature in the perpetual tableau.

A favorite preserve of mine is the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in suburban Delray Beach, Fla., (Wakodahatchee means “created waters” in Seminole). On a boardwalk raised about 10 feet above any hazard, one can watch an alligator gliding among the bulrushes, fish defending their mud nests from turtles, ducks and teals dabbling, whiskered otters catching whiskered sail-finned catfish.

If you’re lucky, you might see a patch of water fizzing like frying diamonds in the sun — where a male gator is bellowing in a bass too low for human ears. You might spot a giant apparition atop a tall evergreen, as an endangered wood stork displays its distinctive bald head and long curved beak.

One-hundred-and-forty species of birds broadcast on every channel at Wakodahatchee, from a pitying of collared doves to a pandemonium of monk parakeets. Red-nosed moorhens add trumpeting, clucking and cackling. Pig frogs loudly grunt like their namesakes. Courting roseate spoonbills play the castanets of their bills. Red-winged blackbirds spout their buzzwords.

Black and brown anhingas regularly perch atop lone rocks or dead branches, still as art-deco statuettes, wings outspread. Unlike many other birds, their feathers don’t shed water, so they can grow easily waterlogged. Drying feathers in the sun, the anhingas look like skewed crosses adorning the marshes.

What at first seems a flush of algae, or a pointillist mural of sun-flecked water, is only chartreuse duckweed. This simple aquatic plant floats everywhere on slower moving waters, offering food to birds, shade to frogs and fish, and a warm blanket to alligators and small fry. One day it may also provide a cheap source of protein for humans (it’s already eaten as a vegetable in parts of Asia) or a cheap fount of biofuel that powers cars while filtering carbon dioxide from the air. At Wakodahatchee, duckweed helps to purify the water, and rarely blooms, but when it does, it sprouts the tiniest flower.

A similar panorama greets visitors behind fashionable waste treatment plants around the country. What an admirable trend. Our planet’s web of life is so fragile that one can’t afford to be a snob about reclaimed land or mind why a business goes green.

For instance, pharmaceutical companies — including giants like Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb — are engaged in high stakes bio-prospecting in some of the world’s most endangered rain forests. Working with local shamans, plant collectors, scientists, and others, they examine seeds, nuts, berries and bark for potent medicines in an environmental “gene rush.” Mining the wilderness for new formulae, while leaving it intact, they’ve discovered that a standing forest is more valuable than a leveled one.

Another city shade of green comes from derelict railway tracks that have been reimagined as inviting habitats for plants, animals and humans. Nationwide, there’s a network of peaceful “rails-to-trails” ideal for biking, hiking or cross-country skiing. I’ve biked on some beauties in Ohio, Vermont, Arizona and New York. But the most surprising recycled railway may be the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side, a self-seeding tapestry of wildflowers and domestic blooms, undulating benches, nests, perches and lookouts. It isn’t the first raised park. (There was the Promenade Plantée in Paris. And remember the hanging gardens of Babylon?) But it’s the cleverest I’ve found, a dandy way to recycle infrastructure and revive unused land. Richly detailed and alive, with picturesque vistas, the High Line stretches one’s gaze — out to city or riverscape and back to blooms or butterfly, over and over. In the process, the psyche also glides, between general and personal, blurred and crisply present. Geological in its repose, it nonetheless allows one to feel elevated in spirit, aloft in a garden in space where all sorts of organisms mingle. Earth is also a garden in space.

More than two million people have already sampled the High Line, and other cities are follwing suit, inspired to convert crumbling infrastructure into sky parks of their own. Like the wastewater wetlands, it has widened our notion of “recycling,” and given New York City yet another bridge — this one between earth and sky.

Diane Ackerman, whose recent books are “One Hundred Names for Love” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” is a guest columnist. David Brooks is off today.