What gives me hope we’ll make it? Kate Orff and oysters

A few weeks before Ida hit, it was dramatically prescient that the August 9 New Yorker’s Eric Klinenberg published under the rubric Brave New World Dept., “Manufacturing Nature: How a landscape architect designs ecosystems to protect cities from the sea.”

Every word thrilled me.

I’ve often written about being a helpless optimist, “helpless” because my inner workings perceive catastrophes as awful, yes, but also as presenting possibilities beyond the terrible. Climate change is terrible. What is worse, of course, is the sense that no major efforts are being made to mitigate it.

Seems this is not a fact.

The landscape architect referred to in the subtitle is a woman named Kate Orff. And Kate Orff believes in oysters which, along with “tide pools, grasses, lots of colorful marine life…were a big part of New York’s coastal-protection system. They acted like breakwaters, absorbing wave energy and slow the water before it hit the shore.”

Don’t know if you know — I did — that New York’s waters used to be chock-full of oysters. Some of them were as big as dinner plates. Not any more. But what Orff and projects like the Billion Oyster Project and Orff’s own design firm, SCAPE, are working on “introducing the bivalve, in vast quantities, to the waterways of New York.”

…”Correctly deployed, oysters can form dense reefs that slow the movement of water and mitigate the impact of storm surges.” And do it far less obtrusively and expensively ($60 million, financed by the federal government) than seawalls or gates ($billions). Moreover, construction projects like seawalls do not produce reefs and oyster beds.

I love oysters. And I love the reality of ‘”an oyster reef, with lots of nooks and crannies…It’s designed be messy, with lots of little critters, invertebrates like tunicates, really colorful sponges, young sea bass and striped bass and silversides darting around and finding places to hide. Then we’ll have the oysters, hopefully tons of them. It’ll be teeming with life.

“It’s not easy,” Orff said of the project’s ambitions, which are both social and ecological. “But the oysters do a lot of the work.”‘

And the Billion Oyster Project is birthing new oysters in huge tanks in Red Hook, using cages full of clean oyster shells made on Governor’s Island. It’s local.

I reached a high emotional point when I read the story of Plumb Beach, a “federally funded ecological restoration project, [which] provided an early test case of whether Orff-style natural infrastructure projects can succeed.”

Plumb Beach is in Brooklyn, although how one gets there is tricky. When Orff gave Klinenberg directions for getting there (it involves the Belt Parkway, in case you want to know), she told him, “It’s after Exit 9 and before Exit 11, but there is no Exit 10…It’s a warp in time and space. Just trust that it’s there.”

After Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers built a berm, a couple of rock jetties and a breakwater at Plumb Beach. Then they shoved tons of harbor-dredged sand in there, just in time for Superstorm Sandy.

I’m going to copy here from the article a reminder of what Sandy did to New York because you won’t appreciate the punch line without it:

The East River had rushed into a Con Edison substation, plunging a quarter of a million households into darkness. [My neighborhood, the West Village, was without power for weeks. One family apartment was flooded.] Scores of large apartment buildings were inundated. “The tunnels had turned into rivers,” [Orff] said. “People were wading through the streets of Chelsea. And there were many deaths in Staten Island…”

In Plumb Beach, however, the berm held…

That’s when my eyes teared up. “…the berm held…”

Borrow a little of my optimism about life: read the article. One inventive, intelligent and educated woman and billions of oysters will lift you up.




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