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“A trip to Montauk, the Point, is more of a pilgrimage for individuals interested in coastal dynamics and Pleistocene history” – USGS
“19,000 thousand years ago – the glacier was melting faster than it was advancing. The “receding” glacial melt-water formed a huge lake from Queens to Martha’s Vineyard. The Ocean was 300 feet lower than it is today. The Ocean shore was 80 miles from the current Fire Island.” –Sean Fanelli, Nassau Community College
Long Island, the most populous island in any U.S. state or territory, is the longest and largest island in the contiguous United States. It’s also a 120 mile long pile of Pleistocene glacial till.
We’ve been inhabiting a small corner of Long Island, also known as Brooklyn, for just about a decade now. A few weeks ago we realized that we somehow never found the time or reason to check out the other end of this Pleistocene-sculpted island. How could this be?
As inhabitants of New York City, it’s easy to live within one of the following cognitive gaps: either imagining our city as its own, localized entity, disconnected to anything not specifically “New York.” Or, at the other extreme, thinking of NYC as anything but “local”–because of how it exceeds its own geographic and geologic boundaries through the scale and intensity of its flows and connections to the rest of the world.
Yet, because of the Pleistocene, we Brooklynites are connected to towns such as Islip and Bridgehampton as much as we are to Queens.
A detailed Pleistocene history of Long Island can be read on the USGS website. One relevant excerpt reads:
“Long Island is formed largely of two spines of glacial moraine, with a large, sandy outwash plain beyond. These moraines consist of gravel and loose rock left behind during the two most recent pulses of Wisconsin glaciation during the Ice Ages some 21,000 years ago (19,000 BC). The northern moraine, which directly abuts the North Shore of Long Island at points, is known as the Harbor Hill moraine. The more southerly moraine, known as the Ronkonkoma moraine, forms the “backbone” of Long Island; it runs primarily through the very center of Long Island, roughly coinciding with the length of the Long Island Expressway.
The glaciers melted and receded to the north, resulting in the difference between the North Shore beaches and the South Shore beaches. The North Shore beaches are rocky from the remaining glacial debris, while the South Shore’s are crisp, clear, outwash sand. Running along the center of the island like a spine is the moraine left by the glaciers.”
Always in search of “edge” landscapes, FOP decided this past weekend to physically embody the Pleistocene connection between our familiar, eastern edge of Red Hook in Brooklyn to its western edge counterpoint–Montauk Point. We would perform a west-to-east transversal across the glacial moraines that compose Long Island.
topographic Long Island, image Dr. J Bret Bennington
Along the line, we paid close attention to how humans have put Pleistocene landscapes to use. Putting the images below in relation to the topographic map above, and we realized that the Montauk arm of the Long Island Rail Road runs through the outwash plain of the terminal moraine, whereas the Long Island Expressway rides the Ronkonkoma moraine across the island.
Sites of terminal moraine “infrastructure,” or perhaps just “terminal infrastructure,” appeared at either end of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). One of the LIRR’s twin termini–at Montauk Station–is unmistakable, whereas the LIRR terminus in Brooklyn is nested beneath a bustling cityscape.
According to Sip New England–and to our own experience during a welcome pause–Long Island’s Pleistocene history makes the area a particularly pleasing place to have a glass of wine or taste of local cheese. “It was here that the melting glaciers dumped all of the fertile soil they had dredged up from the New England landscape in their slow, icy progress across the region. The dumping of millions of tons of fertile soil formed Long Island and destined it to be one huge farm and garden.”
A local vineyard describes Long Island as the ideal place to grow wine due to its close proximity to cool breezes from the Atlantic, and its glacial soils: “It is this winning combination of climate and soil that ensures the ripeness and acidity necessary for producing elegant wines…the wines are a rich concentration of fruit and lively acidity produced by the Bridgehampton soil formed by the glacial moraine that formed Long Island.” – Wölffer Estate
As we moved across the island, we encountered scenes that were eerily similar to some we passed in the western United States, namely places where Pleistocene landscapes have been put to use for military research and development. The Brookhaven National Laboratory is situated upon the Long Island moraine just 60 miles east of Brooklyn. According to its website, this location was chosen for a new nuclear-science facility because it was a surplus army base “way out on Long Island.” The Pleistocene-shaped east-west strip of land that we call Long Island afforded a site that once seemed far “off shore” from the populous East Coast. Formerly run by the Atomic Energy Commission, now overseen by the Department of Energy, the lab has left its mark on the local Pleistocene landscape in the form of dangerous air and waterborne leaks of radioactive materials.
The militarization of this Pleistocene landscape also marks the end of the end. Just outside the town of Montauk, we found the remnants of Camp Hero. Strategically located at the easternmost tip of Long Island, Camp Hero’s military significance dates back to before the Revolutionary War. It has been used by the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force. Here, during World War II, the United States Navy bought most of the east end of Long Island and turned it into a fortified military base.
Base Buildings were disguised to appear from above as a New England fishing village and several concrete bunker observation posts were built near the coast. The bunkers remain today.
In 1957, the Army closed Camp Hero. It was then taken over by United States Air Force. With the Cold War underway, a 100-foot radar was built to detect incoming Soviet bombers.
A massive concrete building housed the radar’s computers. The radar quickly became obsolete. But it still stands today as a navigational point of reference for local boaters. Decades of secret activities at the end of Long Island has spawned elaborate conspiracy stories, such as that of the epic Montauk Project.
Another legacy from a previous era now aging at the end of Long Island, is a subdivision of Leisurama houses. A model Leisurama home was exhibited at the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow. It was the venue of the famous Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev. In the early 1960s, two hundred of these prefab, “modern” houses were built in Montauk, while back in New York City, Macy’s, marketed the house from its 9th floor display room.
the Art Barge
Today, near Montauk, contemporary artists create work at the juncture of the geologic and the human. Summer classes at the Victor D’Amico Institute of Art expose them to inspirational Pleistocene-shaped landscapes while they inhabit a beached WWI navy barge.
Edges are good places to sense what’s coming next. The easternmost end of Long Island is often pounded by powerful storms. During the Great Hurricane of 1938, Montauk was temporarily turned into an island. Today, because of its exposure to storms, the land surrounding Montauk is eroding at a rate of almost five feet a year. We tend to forget that New York City is just as subject to geologic forces. But, after seeing the other end of Long Island, we headed back to Brooklyn with a renewed sense of living on a geologically shaped island. Like Montauk and all edges of Long Island, Brooklyn is poised to be flooded by global climate change.
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