Sunday, September 21, 2008


An unexpected joy of seeing "Hoffman," an Offenbach opera performed on the Red Hook Pier, was getting such a close view of the Buttermilk Channel, and being shocked by how close Governor's Island seemed. It is, as I read, only a quarter of a mile away. So maybe it's true what Whitman wrote in a newspaper article, that during Revolutionary War times the channel was so narrow and shallow that at low tide dairy herds waded across, leaving a milky trail in the brine. In watercolor painting, that would be called a wet on wet technique. All of this would have been before some hard core dredging, obviously. Now the channel's depth is 35 to 49 feet, deep enough to support the business of the piers, and only passable by very bouyant cows.

The other explanation for the name is that by the time Breukelen dairy farmers made it across the channel to sell their milk in Manhattan it had soured from the rough ride.

Hmmm, these are 2 very different explanations. Being an HUGE fan of the bathers tradition in painting, I fancy the wading cows explanation STRONGLY.

I would have favored a warmer night for the opera. We froze, but luckily the strength of the performance plus a little wine prevented the blood from curdling. We sat there in the outdoor theater flanked by stacks of shipping containers 3 high. The moon was visible through a break in the two stacks on my right, and by the time the show was over it had risen above the highest container. Meanwhile broad swathes of clouds, ethereal drifting proscenium, seemed to embrace The Vertical Players endeavors.

I wondered how far away from us was the pipe that draws the water from the channel a mile inland to flush and oxygenate the Gowanus. If the 600 horsepower pump is the Gowanus' artificial heart, that pipe is a critical ventricle, slowly rinsing the canal of whatever effluvia made it lavender before the pump was fixed in 1989. Of course its original heart was not mechanical, just the endless evaporation and condensation cycle, the tides, and the local watershed created by all the Brooklyn brooks that must have creased the slope of the Slope.


Anonymous said...

Butternilk Channel reached it's present depth because of land fill deposited around Governor's Island. The fill changed the flow of the East River to such an extent that the Cannel floor was flushed out into the harbor.

Maybe that is where they got the laim idea of mechanicaly flushing out the Gowanus Canal--might they have been hoping that the flushing water would also dredge the canal?

amarilla said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm confused, though. Why was it a laim idea to mechanically flush the canal? It's improved the environment there, hasn't it? Was there another option?