Four Directions from Manhattan

A couple of months ago while crossing 23rd Street on my way to Madison Square Park, I realized that in the middle of this busy street I could see all the way to Brooklyn in the east, and all the way to New Jersey in the west. Then I looked north up Fifth Avenue. The horizon was completely unobstructed. To the south, I could see almost 20 blocks to Washington Square and the Arch. It seemed amazing to have these views in a city as dense as New York. I’ve lived in this part of Manhattan for 30 years. How could it be that I hadn’t really noticed, or felt, the impact of these limitless horizons before?

Later, I learned that it was DeWitt Clinton, New York City’s mayor and urban planner, who, in 1811, had created the rigid grid system of streets and avenues above Houston Street. Much despised in his own time for leveling all of the rural areas of Manhattan to spark commercial growth, he thoroughly destroyed its natural character, its rolling hills, winding streams, and oak forests. Now, ironically, Clinton’s infamous grid system was putting me more in touch with the city’s island character.

Over the past few years, I have been actively searching out the "nature" of Manhattan Island. Initially it was the open sky above the buildings that grabbed my attention. Then I began to notice the parks, the wildlife, the trees, and a few years ago, the geography. Manhattan is an island, I remind myself. To make its geography more tangible to me, I’ve developed a brief morning ritual that I do outside on my way to work. I look in each of the four directions, starting in the east, the direction I’m heading on my way to the subway.

As I look east, if it’s a clear day, I feel the rising sun on my face and I try to imagine its path through the sky as the day advances (which I will miss working in a basement darkroom). If it’s a cloudy day, I acknowledge the sun’s presence even though I can’t see it. Since nature is always in flux as the months change, so does my experience of this eastern direction. In early December at about 7 a.m., I can actually see the sun coming up and lighting the clouds above in pink and yellow. In August the sun has been climbing the sky since 5 a.m. I’m a morning person, and the Earth and the city at this time seem ripe with possibility. I give a little prayer in gratitude for this day that has been given to me.

I reach the intersection of Broadway and 22nd Street, and, looking south, I can see the trees of Union Square, one of my favorite destinations. Some days I go farther south in my mind and imagine New York harbor, the open Atlantic, and if the day is cold and snowy, places like Florida. The south for me signifies warmth in temperature and also in relationships. I think warm thoughts about the people in my life, especially those who are recovering from an illness or a loss.

Looking west I lean out from the corner to get a look at the New Jersey Palisades, my land of the setting sun. I imagine the sunset; the brilliance of light and color in the west before darkness. In June, as the sun reaches the solstice, the fading golden light shoots directly down 22nd Street. The west for me is sunset and the coming night. Light and then darkness: it becomes a metaphor for the awesome mystery of our existence.

To the north I notice the trees, especially the London planes with their light bark, in Madison Square. In winter their bare branches are as muted as the colors of the city, but in spring, summer, and fall they provide a visual oasis of green and gold. From here, depending on my mood, I might go north by envisioning other natural areas; Greenbrook Sanctuary on the upper Palisades, further on to Lake Minnewaska in the Shawangunk Mountains, and finally up to Lake Tear of the Clouds at the headwaters of the Hudson River.

Looking above I let my eyes take in the long expansive strip of sky above 22nd Street as it changes from east to west, taking special delight in any clouds sandwiched between buildings on either side.

Down below the concrete sidewalk, sewers, and subways, I sense the actual Earth—as a bedrock of Manhattan schist that made this great city possible. Below that, deep down, I visualize the fiery furnace at the core of our planet.

Every day this ritual is different, entirely dependent on the weather and my imagination. Rainy, foggy days block the horizons and induce a more interior contemplation. But on a sunny day, the sometimes intoxicating warmth moves my mind to stretch out physically and mentally in every direction. The changing weather, seasons, and my mood keep this meditation fresh.

My appreciation of Manhattan’s geography did not develop overnight. I was raised in a small Ohio town on Lake Erie, and when I came to New York City at age 23 as an editor and budding photographer, I did not notice the geography of the city, as much as its cluster of cultural locations such as the Met, Lincoln Center, and the Shakespeare Theater in Central Park. Thirteen years later, in 1986, I had grown tired of the city, its overstimulation and constant busyness, and I was spending much of my free time traveling away from Manhattan to photograph the natural areas nearby. Gradually I slowed down, and I began to photograph in a slow, meditative way. Instead of taking one picture, I took a series of photos over time and space that I later pieced together to make one work of art. Dutch artist Jan Dibbets’s work gave me clues on how to do this.

A turning point came when I brought some of the same approaches I had used outside the city to photograph nature inside the city. Because of the changing light, sunset became the time to study space and time itself. I looked for places that offered me large pieces of sky: the shorelines of the East River and the Hudson, and the tops of the highest buildings like the former World Trade Center towers and the Empire State Building. I was curious: What would it look like if I photographed only the sky from the horizon on up at sunset from each side of the observation deck of the Empire State Building? What would it look like if I did this on a clear day, and then on a cloudy day, from the four corners of the deck? And finally, my most ambitious composite photograph: What would happen if I photographed the sky from four directions over five consecutive days at sunset and put all of these views together in grid form? When this piece was finally realized, I found that I had photographed a weather pattern.

New York City is my home, but for sanity’s sake I must retreat to quieter places. Destinations in the Southwest, my antidote to New York’s density, have offered me food for mind and spirit since 1986. For two weeks of the year, usually on a spring break from teaching, my husband and I go to New Mexico or Arizona where we can see the horizon in every direction and drink in the endless space. Enriched by the Navajo of Arizona and the Pueblo cultures of the Rio Grande valley, I can imagine what it might feel like to truly belong to this Earth.

Traditionally, Navajos have their hogans facing east and rise before dawn to greet the sun. The four directions also figure importantly in their cosmology. Four sacred mountains lie to the east, south, west, and north as boundaries to their homeland. Father Sun inhabits the sky and Mother Earth is below. The medicine wheel, the primary symbol of many tribes, features four quadrants, four winds, four directions, four dimensions of human nature, four races, and four elements. In many cultures of the world, the number four is a principle for ordering space and a symbol of the Earth and wholeness.

With my own "four directions" daily ritual, I’ve been making New York City’s geography real to me, and strengthening my connection to the city I call home.

I am reminded each day that Manhattan is an island, as I seek its shores in every direction. I truly feel that I inhabit the lower part of the Hudson River Valley bioregion.

Not only do I know the city’s museums, theaters, and stores, but I’ve penetrated its natural character. Spending time in the parks, getting to know the trees, walking the shores, pulling weeds in gardens, I have been refreshed by nature here. Now as I stand at 23rd and Broadway, I am grounded in a way I had not thought possible in this city of millions. A connection to this piece of the Earth and its preservation has become an essential part of my life.

Janet Soderberg

A photographer of "urban nature", Janet Soderberg is a member of 15th Street Meeting in New York.