Joseph Mitchell, who died in 1996, was the great wandering and listening soul of New York City. True, you won’t find any of his titles at local Nature Centers, but his sketches of the urban scene shows us a writer immersed in his home landscape. From Fulton Fish Market to McSorley’s Saloon, Joseph Mitchell observed his given plot of land keenly and compassionately, like the ideal naturalist that he was. To this day, his essay Mr. Hunter’s Grave is one of our favorite pieces on the ties between people and the land.
The following passage is from The Rivermen, a piece in Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor. Cities around the world were founded on the banks of rivers and streams allowing humans to naturally network with one another along and with the river itself. This unstoppable, steady, often gentle flow sculpts any landscape, and has certainly shaped our thinking at the Land Library. The South Platte River (our version of the Hudson) has inspired the Land Library’s Headwaters to Plains at Buffalo Peaks Ranch, Waterton Canyon, and in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood – each site rests on the banks of the South Platte River.
Here’s one of our all-time favorite descriptions of a river:
“I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice. I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running — a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide — and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls as long as a half an hour, during which, all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.”