A few weeks back, we published a piece on first and second nature elements within the city, focusing on parks as unnatural, but green elements within the urban framework. The central thesis was that parks, although they embody the qualities of nature, are the products of human design and ingenuity, and were deliberately placed within the city, as opposed to being remnants of the city’s untouched natural state. To reiterate some of the key terms from that article, “first nature” refers to the original natural elements of a space, and “second nature” refers to both human insertions into, and manipulations of said natural space. Continuing on the that theme is this piece, a spotlight on the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx.
In addition to holding some of the world’s top research facilities for botanists and what is basically an extensive museum of plants, the NYBG is also home to something truly unique in New York, or really any city. 50 of the garden’s 250 acres of land are comprised of “old-growth” forestation. This means that 20% of the NYBG’s space is full of trees, greenery and potentially wildlife that have been left untouched by deforestation and urban development. These trees, arguably the thickest in the five boroughs, were here when Henry Hudson first explored what would become New Amsterdam. Last year, the NYBG staff completed an exhaustive survey of plant and wildlife diversity in the forest, and the area was formally dedicated as the Thain Family Forest.
While the secondhand effects of urbanization—acid rain, air pollution, etc.—have certainly impacted the forest, and it also faces problems with invasive species of plant life, it remains one of the city’s few extant first nature elements. Obviously, the forest cannot take care of itself, and the Botanical Garden requires yearly manicuring to maintain the original forest. The Gardens are staffed with some of the world’s foremost botanical experts, and protecting this segment of the garden is certainly a priority for the NYBG.
The NYBG itself is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark, but draws only 800,000 visitors annually, compared to 900,000 at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a whopping 35 million for Central Park in its entirety. While both the BBG and Central Park are certainly products of human-altered “second nature,” the “first nature” elements within the NYBG and the untouched natural beauty of the old growth forest make it a one-of-a-kind natural space.
Even the old growth forest, however, has suffered from a combination of age and the aforementioned second-hand environmental effects of urbanization. All in all, though, the forest’s thick leafy trees have survived urbanization, environmental pollution, extreme weather patterns, invasive species, and phytopathological disease within the NYBG. The old growth shows what the city used to be, and its natural beauty acts as a window to the Bronx’s past. It is important to note however, that the city’s oldest plants and wildlife, this original forestation, are provided for and protected by the NYBG.
While the trees themselves might be a part of “first nature”, their very presence, preservation, and threats to said presence are thanks to “second nature” human developments. There are very few places left in the five boroughs that are as untouched, organic, and natural as the old-growth forest in the Bronx, but it is important to remember that the future preservation of “first nature” elements goes beyond taking a hands-off approach to natural beauty. The polluting effects and second-hand damage produced by cities place an imperative on environmentalists to actively protect and preserve those remaining “first nature” elements in New York and other cities worldwide.