- by Carol Standish
Who could resist a title like Heartbeats in the Muck (The Lyons Press, 178pp, $24.95), triggering as it does an irrational surge of primordial optimism by suggesting that the life force is stronger than the worst we humans can throw at it? Author John Waldman, an ichthyologist and fisherman, calls his book, "a horror story with a happy ending."
The book's subtitle, A Dramatic Look at the History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor offers a more rational reason to read about the centuries of abuse heaped one of the world's largest and busiest harbors. (The multiple estuary encompasses over 1500 square miles and the Port handles more than 25 per cent of all U. S. maritime trade.)
Waldman, a New Yorker himself, confesses to having initially shared in the general public's na´ve disdain for the waters of New York Harbor, assuming for years that it was an area of utter lifelessness. That viewpoint has long been supported by biological incidents-such as the bubbling and boiling of various pockets of chemical stew-and other physical facts. Recently, the dredging of the harbor to accommodate ever-larger container ships has run into a snag - the exhumed sludge is too contaminated to be legally dumped in the ocean. And then there is the city's 3,000 acre land fill on the banks of the Passaic River which can be seen by astronauts. The ruined beyond salvation assumption is also continually reinforced by the attitudes of corporate polluters. (Exxon declared that a harbor spill was of little consequence since the water was so degraded to start with.)
Admittedly this is a hard opinion to argue against when an harbor tradition called "Floater's Week" occurs annually in April. As the water temperatures warm, "bacterial activity will bloat the previous winter's bounty of murders and suicides and cause them to rise to the surface - a synchronized resurrection of the damned." Macabrely picturesque but seriously unhealthy!
After marshalling a gloomy procession of facts, Waldman turns the table and presents a case for improvement, if not recovery, of this massive and magnificent multiple estuary. Man has indeed begun to clean up his act as sewage treatment facilities are steadily improved and tougher environmental laws have reduced toxic discharges. Nature has responded. Herons, egrets and even peregrine falcons have chosen to nest in the harbor environs. Seals, dolphins, porpoises, even a manatee have been sited swimming in the harbor. Sturgeon, weakfish and striped bass populations are increasing and oysters are reappearing.
Best of all, many New Yorkers have taken up the cause. Today, the river systems, bays and marshes of the greater harbor have "keepers" and keeper organizations (see November Web Reviews) which are dedicated to protecting specific water bodies. The Hackensack River system, the Hudson, the New York/New Jersey Harbor and many small creeks, canals and beaches have watch-dog committees which support scientific habitat studies and advocate for responsible treatment of the waterways and coastal zones. Such efforts are nursing this great harbor back to health, "like the survivor of a ghastly medical accident." If Heartbeats in the Muck doesn't really have the happy ending Waldman claims, it certainly has a hopeful one.