Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Wandering along New York’s waterfronts helped me adjust to life in the city.
When I moved to New York, I hurried to its edges, all the way to the water. But I didn’t look at it as escaping the city—just walking along one of its less-trafficked avenues, still vital, still teeming with life.
I’ve always associated home with waves and sand. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit and a farming town in Canada, where my family lived on a spit of land jutting out 8 kilometers into Lake Erie. If I broke into a sprint, I could make it from the back door down to the white-capped lake in 40 seconds.
In the evenings, my parents and I would scavenge for sea glass. We delighted in the hunt. We dove towards the prime pieces, scraping our knees and knuckles. We hugged the curve of the shoreline, tiptoeing around clumps of algae, sidestepping bass carcasses picked clean by turkey vultures. We crouched to pluck wave-tumbled sea glass from the pebbles, turning the foggy purple, blue, and green slivers over and over in our palms. I dragged bone-white driftwood in the damp sand, right where the waves lapped at my ankles. I rinsed my treasures with our garden hose and lined them up on a shelf above my bed.
My collection told the story of where I came from. After a while, most of my shells were zebra mussels (the invasive species were choking out the native ones). And the beautiful glass was a product of commercial fishing boats that trawled the lake for bass and perch, sometimes pitching their garbage overboard. Culls suppressed the number of white-tailed deer living in the nearby provincial park. Still, I found shed antlers in the dunes, a single tine nestled between stalks of grass.
I didn’t see these dynamics unfold in real-time—I never knew what was happening at any given moment in the center of the lake; I rarely saw bucks or does bed down in my backyard. But combing through the natural artifacts made me feel privy to secrets much larger and older than myself.
When I moved to New York, I took my bounty with me. I wrapped my sea glass and shells in paper towels and tucked them carefully into a backpack, cushioned on all sides by pillowcases and scarves. These weren’t just reminders of home—they were also talismans. I moved to the city for a job I was excited about and happy to take. I wanted to live there. But I didn’t want to leave behind the feeling of floating in the lake or of stalking through the park listening for screech owls’ whinnies and trills. I didn’t to be so seduced by concrete and steel that I stopped being awed by the natural world. I was also worried that the city’s kinetic energy would spur a reaction inside of me, and that I’d always buzz a little. I worried that I’d never feel calm again, or as much like myself as I did when I was near the water.
But thankfully, New York is more than its skyscrapers, subways, hip bars, and marble lobbies. It’s surrounded by water, everywhere. Following the currents helped me get to know that side of the city.
To me, the fingerprint of the natural world is just as thrilling as the skyline. It’s subtler, sure, but iconic. The things I found told me something about the places where I’d found them. The water could offer up a history lesson, if I looked carefully enough. I could pick up fragments of stories I hadn’t seen.
So, in an effort to get to know my new home, I reinstated the ritual I’d practiced with my family: I went to the water, and studied whatever I could. I took the Long Island Railroad out to Montauk and collected pearlescent shells, creamy like sherbet and no bigger than my thumbnail. I collected oysters and wondered how many were shucked at Jazz Age soirees. Another weekend, I rode the Metro North railroad up to Cold Spring and found chunks of brick from factories that hauled their goods down the winding Hudson River. I grabbed a piece of glittery micah schist from an abandoned quarry, where it was floating on top of sandy dirt.
I took the D train to Brighton Beach and found the discarded shell of a horseshoe crab, brown and serrated and curved like prehistoric armor. I’d read that the creatures scuttle to lay their eggs in the sand before waves sweep the hatchlings out into the ocean, but I never saw it myself. I found a cobalt-and-coral pincer that faded the longer I kept it out of the water.
And if I felt lonely on the crowded streets—which I often did, especially at first—I could find near the water a vibrancy that didn’t teeter on frenetic. One winter, I hiked out to a nature preserve in Croton to watch eagles perched on the ice floes coasting up the river. They looked like inky brushstrokes against the wide swath of white. In the summer, I sliced through New York Harbor in a kayak, splashing my way around squat, waterlogged remains of wooden piers. Birds bobbed around me, rising and falling with the waves.
One afternoon, I rode the Staten Island Ferry just to smell the brine churned up by the rudders. I rented a paddleboat in Prospect Park and trailed a troupe of goslings around the pond. I walked under the freeway overpass to Sunset Park’s industrial waterfront to look for harbor seals sunning themselves on slabs of concrete—a reminder that nature will have its way with the city, no matter what.
I’ve spent more than 20 years looking for things that wash ashore. Sometimes it makes me homesick, and other times, it just makes me feel at home. On my desk, shells from Lake Erie and stones from Michigan are arranged next to ones from Long Island, Vermont, and California—anywhere I made it to the water’s edge. I labeled some of them in tidy black writing—“Half Moon Bay, May 2015”—but others are anonymous. Sometimes, I can’t remember which are from my old home and which are from my new one—and that, I think, means that I belong to both.