A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Thursday, October 10, 2019

MULTISENSORY: Urban forest bathing

The buildings of Central Park West rose beyond the treetops as Brooke Mellen, the owner of Cultured Forest, a local forest bathing and nature therapy group, instructed us to face each of the four cardinal directions. "Which one feels best?" she asked. This was the opening of what would be a two-hour session of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in a setting far removed from the practice's roots in 1980s Japan. To me, the most comfortable direction was west, toward the city, with the sunlight on my left arm.

I admit that when I first heard the term "forest bathing," I pictured myself splayed on the forest floor, gazing up at the treetops, or perhaps sprawled facedown, nuzzling into a bed of moss and pine needles.

So I was surprised to find that, at least in the United States, forest bathing includes few moments of rest. As described by the US-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, here shinrin-yoku is "a practice of developing a deepening relationship of reciprocity, in which the forest and the practitioner find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of each. In forest therapy, there is a clearly defined sequence of guided events that provides structure to the experience, while embracing the many opportunities for creativity and serendipity offered by the forest and the individual inspiration of each guide." 

As we concluded our opening ceremony, peals of laughter and waftings of palo santo incense drifted toward us from a nearby group of French picnickers. Rather than feeling annoyed, I smiled at the thought of this group engaging in their own form of forest therapy, albeit with wine and cheese. 

Next, we stopped at the junction of two paths. Brooke had us reach into a bag of stones and select one to infuse with good intentions for the person across from us. Mine was prickly and glinted with mica. We squeezed our rocks and tried to exchange them without opening our eyes. My partner and I crashed into each other, but succeded in passing off our stones. Hers was still warm from her hand.

We strolled on to our next location, observing the movements in the park around us. A dog leaped to catch a squeaky ball. Chipmunks rustled in the underbrush. Bees hovered over flowers. A topless man did calisthenics on a picnic blanket. As usual in the city, everyone was doing their own thing, but on this fall day their disparate activities seemed to be in sync.

Brooke led us to a secluded grove, where she encouraged us to spend ten minutes immersing ourselves in the forest. Aha! Forest bathing at last. I found a slab of Manhattan schist and lay on my back, inhaling the tannic scent of early autumn and letting the breeze wash across my face.

My reverie did not last long, however, as three men emerged from the trees lugging bulging trash bags. They were soon followed by a man on a bike. "What y'all doing here?" he chastised one member of our group. "I was smokin' some weed--or I was about to smoke some weed till all y'all came along!" As it turned out, he was a forest bather himself, though perhaps not by choice. The eye of his tiger-print blanket glared out at me from beneath some trees.

After a few more activities, including communing with a tree and throwing stones representing our burdens into a waterfall pool, Brooke had us create Andy Goldsworth–esque art installations in the woods. As I rooted around the forest floor, I kept coming across pieces of litterfour blue cigarillo sheaths, a Magnum condom packet, sublingual film for narcotics overdoses, a Honey Bun wrapper, nickel bags. All seemed to be tokens of the ways humans escape from themselves and their surroundings. 

Rather than reject the detritus, I decided to incorporate it into a mandala to honor the dark underbelly of the city's woodland. Brooke had told me she sometimes arrives ahead of the session to pick up litter from each of the sites, but in this case I was glad she hadn't. Even if the point of forest bathing is nature appreciation and contemplation, it seemed disingenuous to ignore the reminders of our urban setting.

Our last stop was a boardwalk overlooking a burbling stream, where Brooke unveiled a forest-themed tea ceremony from her backpack, including a thermos of dandelion tea and a box of maple leaf sandwich cookies. She passed around a balm made from hinoki cypress, native to Japan, to rub on our wrists to stimulate our sense of smell. Then she sang a heartfelt rendition of the Beatles' song "Blackbird," her voice mingling with the rushing water. An elderly birder with binoculars around his neck paused to listen, smiled, and mentioned a wood thrush he'd spotted near the stream, another urban forest bather making the woods his own.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

MULTISENSORY: A two-vine winery on a Carnegie Hill brownstone rooftop

When Latif Jiji was twelve years old, he would pass by his father’s wine barrel near their kitchen in Basra, Iraq, lift the lid, and inhale. Seduced by the scent, he sometimes dipped in a finger and licked the juice from his fingertip. (His father, an amateur vintner, hadn’t yet figured out that wine should not be stored in containers with loose covers.) “That was the origin of my daring to repeat it. It’s all based on feeling, intuition,” Latif, now in his nineties, says.

Those stolen moments were the sensory spark of Chateau Latif, Manhattan’s only vineyard and winery, which evolved by accident in the backyard of his family’s Carnegie Hill brownstone. “I’m not really into fine wine tasting or anything like that,” he says. “The taste of my father’s wine is the one that has stayed with me.”

In 1977, Latif snuck a Niagara grapevine into his garden, which had previously been his wife’s domain. Then he sort of forgot about it. But seven years later, after he returned from a summer vacation, he noticed that it had grown to about fifteen feet long—and had started to produce grapes. 

Excited by the prospect of re-creating family history, he decided to harvest the fruit. The first crew, in 1983, was just Latif and one of his daughters; no wine was made that year. Soon after, he planted a sprig from the first vine to create a second. Together, the twin vines, now more than one hundred feet long, have climbed the back wall of his four-story home and sprawled across a rooftop arbor in an urban terroir of bitumen roofing, AC compressors, and water tanks, and with a view of skyscrapers.

Chateau Latif produced its first fifteen half bottles in the second harvest, in 1984. Though wine from the early years is drinkable, he didn’t know enough about proper corking those first years. He has saved these bottles for posterity in his wine cellar, a hobbit hole in the front of his basement. 

A retired engineering professor, Latif is always making improvements, but Chateau Latif’s operation is decidedly homespun. His vines are watered by urban rainfall and city water, and he prunes them only once, in winter. In 2019, he harvested four hundred pounds of grapes, which will make eighty bottles of white wine. On harvest day, around Labor Day, about thirty friends and family members—including Latif’s children and grandchildren, who all live in Manhattan—will gather and work from morning till early evening. The process starts with a climb up Latif’s defiantly steep staircase to the roof, where a hatch leads to the arbor.

In most vineyards, the vines are only five or six feet tall, so harvesters do not need to snip grapes upside down, standing on benches and milk crates, as they do at Chateau Latif. But here the crew is rewarded by a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.

The crew shuttles them down the back wall of the brownstone in a plastic laundry basket, using a pulley system.

In the backyard, the harvesters receive the grapes, weigh and wash them, and feed them into a manual crusher and de-stemmer. Children love to turn the crank and watch the stems move to one side of the de-stemmer and fall into a bucket.

The grapes then go into a wine press lined with netting to extract the grape juice. The first sweet squeezes of Chateau Latif wine ooze out the sides.

They pour the juice into five-gallon glass jugs and add a precise amount of metabisulfite to kill the natural yeast. A measured amount of yeast is then added and fermentation begins in a day or two. Fermentation ends after about a week, and the jars are topped off and sealed with airlocks to let gases escape but no air can enter. The jugs are stored in Latif’s ingenious wine cabinet, constructed of insulation boards and cooled by a mini-fridge with the door removed.

Using a back issue of the New Yorker and school glue, Latif attaches the signature labels. They are hand-watercolored by family and friends and feature an image of his brownstone with the roof arbor atop and legendary vine trailing down the side.

He seals the bottle neck with a plastic heat-shrink capsule over his kitchen stove burner.

“My goal is not to make the best wine but to have a story,” Latif says. Is it a stretch to say the 2018 vintage tastes of the Second Avenue subway, the pleats of private-school uniforms, glazed Dunkin Donuts, the metal chains of a playground swing set, dry cleaning, and the wax-and-wood of Brick Presbyterian Church—all in the vicinity of Chateau Latif’s vines? Perhaps, but that it tastes most of is family and history.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

SIGHT: The weed-eating goats of Riverside Park

One recent weekday morning, a group of goat enthusiasts gathered at the intersection of Riverside Drive and 120th Street to see five of their favorite ungulates compete for the title of “Greatest Of All Time” (G.O.A.T.). A balloon-bedecked fence separated the crowd from the goats, who were up on their hind hooves trying to reach the shrubbery of Riverside Park, which was, for now, tantalizingly out of reach.

After the awards ceremony, the top four goats would be led from the podium, through a gate, and into a two-acre enclosure, where they would spend the next month munching 25 percent of their body weight in weeds each day and revitalizing the soil with their droppings. 

The fifth-place contestant would be returned to its home pasture in Rhinebeck, New York. As the park has learned, there is not enough Japanese knotweed, poison ivy, or porcelain berry to sustain more than four goats at a time. Massey, Bella, Skittles,  Chalupa, and Buckles were selected through a public “Vote the Goat” election (there’s also a “Goat Fund Me” site) from an original group of twenty-four; three thousand online ballots were cast. 

The goats debuted in Riverside Park in May 2019 as an experiment in natural, sustainable invasive-weed management called “Goatham City.“ They quickly became a local sensation.

Goat puns abounded in the opening remarks—with a little soapboxing about paid family leave and marijuana legalization. Dan Garodnick, president and CEO of the Riverside Park Conservancy, presided. George Shea, the emcee of Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, certified each goat’s consumption performance. “We hired some of the most active, ambitious, and hungry summer interns and a full-time professional weeding staff,” Garodnick announced, gesturing to the goats. One of the conservancy’s human interns, Nina, in a tiara and gown, beamed from the sidelines. 

The goats were now trying to hurl themselves out of their pen. “You have goat to come down here,” joked councilmember Mark Levine, indicating the goats’ future home. “The weed situation was baaad.” In fact, the twenty-four original goats had been so effective—each goat ate about one thousand pounds of weeds over the spring and early summer—that they had to be sent home to give the weeds time to redevelop. 

Finally, the goats were led to the podium by handlers wearing flower crowns. Nina the intern draped medals around their necks, Shea certified each animal as a champion eater, and they were presented with golden goat trophies and bouquets of weeds. Ten-year-old, 166-pound Massey from Massachusetts was pronounced the “G.O.A.T.” and, after making short work of her bouquet, dragged her handler to a table decorated with hay bales.

At last, the goats were released to the hillside. A guy in an I LOVE GOAT YOGA tank top snapped photos. A little boy holding a stuffed goat watched the animals tackling the weeds. 

“One day I want to do a human-versus-goat eating contest,” Shea told a member of the press. He didn’t clarify if the food of choice would be hot dogs or poison ivy.