My Introduction to Nature via New York City

(scroll down for articles)

My Introduction to Nature via New York City

Back in 2005 I was dreaming of photo project where the creative process would not only produce interesting photos, but also allow me to escape the stress of city life. All this happened at a time when living in the city was becoming very difficult for me. I needed space and a change of environment. My first idea was go ahead with any photo project that would take me away from the city. However, the problem was I didn’t have enough free time to leave the city as often as I wanted. If I left the city to work on a photo project, it would have to be on weekends and only when time and budget permitted me to do so. I quickly realized, leaving the city to work on a photo project was not the answer. Yet, I desperately wanted out of the city.

I soon realized I needed a photo project that would to fit easily into my daily work schedule. Setting aside time for my photography has always been a difficult balancing act since I've always worked a day job to support my photographic interests. As well as wanting a photo project that would serve as an escape from city life, I also wanted a photo project I could work on over a long period of time, possibly decades.

Accepting the fact I’d be working on this project during my free time, I needed a theme where the early photographs wouldn't look outdated when sided with more recent ones. Ideally, the photo project could be paused and resumed at a later date without any noticeable break as to when the imagery was created. It would be the sort of photo project I could take my time with, slowly refine it over the years and still have a consistent theme. In many ways, this would be my ideal photo project. 

In 2005 I was living in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood. Two blocks from my apartment was Inwood Hill Park where I’d often go for early morning walks. Up until this time, I had never been a big nature lover nor really appreciated its offerings. Amazingly, the park has the last strands of old growth forest remaining in Manhattan. Furthermore, Inwood Hill Park has never been blasted and leveled like the rest of Manhattan. The park's terrain is a good example of what Manhattan once looked like. New York City would not only introduce me to nature, but also teach me to appreciate, respect and love nature.

I'll never forget when I discovered nature within Inwood Hill Park and how it affected me. My discovery of nature started with early morning walks through the park that felt like walking through an enchanted, dark forest. Canopies of old growth trees blocked out much of the light and the sounds of city life faded the further I walked into the forest. The smell was incredible. Not the usual smell of the city, but the smell of trees, moist soil and fresh air. On occasions, I’d climb a hill near the ancient Indian cave dwellings and find a place to sit which overlooked The Clove. From this viewpoint I'd look out over a patch of forest that seemed lost in time. Absolutely no sign of modern day New York City was visible. It's quite possible from where I was sitting the view was similar to what the forest looked like back in 1626 when Peter Minuit supposedly "bought" Manhattan from local Native Americans. Interestingly, legend has it this transaction took place at the edge of the present day forest.

During these walks through the park’s forest, no sounds of the city were present. The only sounds were of wildlife, birds and if I was lucky, the high pitched shrill of a Bald Eagle reintroduced a few years earlier. Within moments I would feel refreshed as if all the stress of city life had washed out of me. I began to understand what people meant about the healing powers of nature. I wondered if I could capture these feelings in photographs.

I remember how fascinated I was to discover that a city of more than eight million people, a city known for its concrete environment, would have a patch of old growth forest in the northern tip of Manhattan. It felt like I had found an oasis in the middle of an overcrowded city.

Fascinated Inwood Hill Park's forest had survived centuries of development, I began work on a photo project that documented New York City's natural spaces. I concentrated, at first, on remaining old growth forests, but soon included all forests, wetlands and waterways I could find within New York City. The challenge would be to show the landscape with as little of man's impact as possible. The working title for this project is Urban Nature: A New York City Landscape Study. Very quickly, I realized the theme of this photo project would take me away from the city without ever leaving the city. I believed at the time, and continue to believe, I found the perfect photo project I was seeking back in 2005. 

In 2008 I found myself taking regular trips out of New York City to other regions of the state. I immediately became fascinated with the state's vast natural landscapes. With the working title New York State: Landscapes of the Empire State, I expanded my New York City based nature study to include the entire state. If I only had a day or two off from my day job, I'd concentrate on natural landscapes within New York City. If more time permitted, I'd load up a rental car with camera equipment, suitcase, mandatory beverage cooler and travel throughout the state to photograph the various landscapes I discovered from my research. Currently, I couldn’t be happier spending my time working on these two New York themed nature studies.

I've often been asked why I chose to do a long-term landscape study on New York. My reason is, first and foremost, my love for the state’s natural beauty. Secondly, the state's history is embedded into the landscape and also plays a major role in the nation's history. I find this history to be not only interesting but also unique. Finally, much of America's early folklore, myth and literature was set in New York. In the 19th Century the New York landscape was sanctified by numerous writers and artists. Many of the landscapes that inspired these writers and artists still exist, more than 150 years later, with only the slightest changes. I also believe the New York landscape has been overlooked, or at least not fully explored, by later generations of artists. As a result, I intend to spend the remainder of my life exploring and photographically capturing the beauty of New York's natural spaces. I truly feel this will be a worthy project and look forward to a continuous Odyssey around New York to photograph its visual beauty.

Please revisit my website as this project expands and more galleries are added. Thank you for taking the time to view my photographs.


Richard Serviss

New York City