By Andy Katz
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
“OK, who can tell me what these are not for?” Audubon New York educator Tom Van Duyne asked, holding a garden trowel with a white metal blade and bright orange handle before the dozen or so uplifted faces that surrounded him in a rough semi-circle.
Initial responses varied. But it was pretty clear that third-grade students of P.S. 110, the Monitor School in Greenpoint, had been well-prepared for this day, the culmination of eight weeks of learning environmental awareness through the study of birds and their habitats.
“Not hitting people!” was the consensus — and correct — answer.
Now they were ready to consummate weeks of classroom study, field trips and observation by planting bird habitat-enhancing flora such as Joe Pyeweed and Miss Manners in their school’s garden.
“We’re gonna get a little dirty,” Richard Santangelo, education program manager for Audubon NY, told the kids as he passed out gardening gloves. “But we’re not going to look like dirt monsters.”
Audubon New York’s “For the Birds!” is a statewide program that teaches elementary school children the principles of ecology and the importance of habitats to sustaining species’ presence in a particular area. The Monitor School’s participation was funded by the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, an environmental grant program created by the NY State Attorney General’s Office to administer a nearly $20 million settlement from ExxonMobil after decades of using the area as a toxic waste dumping ground.
“Our plan is to build school gardens all over the area,” Fran Agnone of the National Wildlife Federation told reporters, “and eventually create outdoor classrooms.”
The kids worked quickly, and with surprisingly little horseplay. Under Richard and Tom’s guidance, they buried the tender offshoots into the rich dark soil of the round cement planters that would house and protect their initial growth.
“My uncle has a garden,” third-grader Eden Touhy explained. “I help him plant tomatoes and flowers there.”
“We saw the wood-thrush,” said another student when queried about the class’ field work. “And the orange-breasted robin in McCarren Park.” Students were encouraged to use e-bird, an internet site dedicated to identifying and reporting bird sightings all over the world.
“I like the bald eagle best,” another girl said when asked about her favorite sighting, suggesting that that at least some scientific observation comes more from the heart than from the mind.
Greenpoint’s legacy as a toxic wasteland goes back more than a century, when refineries lined Newtown Creek. It has since, along with the Gowanus Canal, been designated an EPA Superfund Site. More recently, the ground underneath McGorlick Park, directly across the street from P.S. 110, was found to be contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals. ExxonMobil is by far not the only culprit in creating what’s been called an “artisanally themed cesspool.” Complete detoxification of the neighborhood will be a long, expensive and uncertain journey at best.
But on this Friday morning, as third-graders wiped the soil from their clothes before gathering in the playground to collect their Aububon New York “Junior Birder” certificates, proudly displaying them in the clear morning light of a quintessential New York spring day, the future looked very positive indeed.