Sunday, March 25, 2012

Corson's Brook Woods Today in the Times, in 1981 and in 1893

Do you read the nature column that Marielle Anzelone writes in the Times? Last fall she chronicled the progress of autumn in some woods she knew of in northern Manhattan. Now she’s following spring on Staten Island.

On Twitter yesterday, Matthew Wills (who tweets from Brooklyn as @backyardbeyond) noted that “we found two woodland wildflowers in bloom yesterday on Staten Island,.,,” I clicked the link and saw photos of spring beauties and trout lilies, and saw that he had visited the island with Marielle Anzelone and that she had also identified two other plants, Virginia waterleaf and blue cohosh.

As soon I read the names of those wildflowers, I DM’d Matthew (we’ve never met but we follow each other on Twitter and occasionally retweet each other) and asked him where they had found them. He confirmed: Corson’s Brook Woods.  

I haven’t been to Corson’s Brook Woods since 1982 but I know it well. In fact, I named it.

In the spring of 1981 I was working for a local Assemblywoman, Betty Connelly, whose district office was at Willowbrook (it's the College of Staten Island now but at the time it was Staten Island Developmental Center and was still a home for developmentally disabled people; when I was a kid it was Willowbrook State School, so we called it Willowbrook). A friend and I had become distressed at the destruction of Staten Island's natural areas, and we became friendly with the leaders of a group called Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, who were led by a terrific, friendly, dedicated naturalist named Dick Buegler.

In April 1981, Dick was in the final stages of conducting fieldwork for "A Comparative Flora of Staten Island 1879-1981,” a catalogue of the island’s plants that he and another naturalist, Steve Parisio, were working on for the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary.

One Saturday afternoon that month, Dick led a small group of us through Willowbrook, one of the few places he had yet to survey for the Comparative Flora, and we ended up in a small tract, maybe 20 acres, of rich, moist woods bisected by a brook. I was inexperienced in identifying wildflowers but Dick knew what was rare on the island, and he was tremendously excited by what we found.

For starters, there were three plants that grew nowhere else on Staten Island: wild leek, bladdernut (a shrub/small tree) and American sycamore. Later that summer we found a fourth, zig-zag goldenrod. There was wild ginger, blue cohosh, sweet cicely, baneberry, Virginia waterleaf, false hellebore, silvery spleenwort, spikenard, hop hornbeam and basswood. There were hundreds of sugar maples; the only other stand on the island had perhaps two dozen specimens. The 1981 Flora that Dick and Steve were working on eventually listed basswood as uncommon on Staten Island; all of the others were characterized as rare.

Dick was thrilled at the discovery. Because my office was at Willowbrook, and because I worked for a state lawmaker who was sympathetic to the cause, I became the official tour guide for a succession of naturalists and others who wanted a first-hand look.

Staten Island Developmental Center was slowly being closed in those days, as its residents moved into group homes. There was serious talk by New York State of selling it for development. We thought that was a bad idea and we thought the discovery – or rediscovery – of this small section of it, full of rare plants, was a good rationale for opposing the sale.

I wrote a piece for the Staten Island Advance, explaining what was there and why it was important, and calling on the state to keep it preserved, to make it part of the Staten Island Greenbelt, which was just coming into being at the time.

As part of my research I went to the archives at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences and read some of William T. Davis's journals. Davis (1862-1945) was the grandfather of Staten Island’s naturalists and environmentalists, an interesting guy and a good writer. I found in the journals that Davis had been to these same woods in 1893 and had described almost precisely what we had seen in 1981.

I also found the area on a 1917 atlas of Staten Island, which identified the brook that flowed through the woods as Corson’s Brook. Hence, Corson’s Brook Woods. To my amazement, the name stuck.

The Greenbelt was dedicated as a New York City park-nature preserve not long afterward, but Corson’s Brook Woods was not included. So on that count we failed. On the other hand, public opposition to the plans to sell Staten Island Island Developmental Center led the state to drop the idea; instead it is now the home of the College of Staten Island.

The chances of CSI being sold and developed are slim. Let’s hope that the small section known as Corson’s Brook Woods will remain as wild as Davis found it in 1893, as we found it in 1981, and as Marielle Anzelone and Matthew Willis are finding it today.
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