Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Following the Water: Snapshots of my Everyday Journeys by Cheryl French

BODIES OF WATER: Saw Mill River, Harlem River, Bronx River, Hudson River, Rum Brook, Sheldon Brook, Silver Lake, Andre Brook

Sitting beside the Bronx River with the sun warming my back and a gentle breeze tossing my hair in my face, I hear the whistle and clatter of the trains as they rumble to and from Grand Central. I hear the hum of traffic along the parkway. I hear the high-pitched whir of the HVAC system for the train station. I also hear robins, chickadees, sparrows, and orioles chirping, geese honking, new spring leaves rustling, and water flowing in eddies and currents down the river. This is what I love, and this is why I walk.

Nearly three years ago, I decided to leave the stability of my full-time job and return to the uncertain world of freelancing. I also let go of my car, choosing instead to rely on public transit and my own two feet. My work takes me all over Westchester County, where I live--a land of suburbs and small villages just north of New York City--and the city itself.

Water shapes my days and nights. From my perch on top of the hill, nearly every step out my front door propels me toward water. The mighty Hudson pulls me forward. It provides a constantly changing landscape and a reassuring familiarity at the same time. I follow the Hudson to and from work most days. I bid it farewell as I turn to follow the Harlem River, and I greet it upon my return. There are other waterways, too, many of which I never would have noticed from a car. Like me, many of the smaller rivers and streams eventually make their way to the Hudson, or they flow into the Long Island Sound, which then mixes with the East River, which finally joins with the Hudson in the Upper Bay. 

As with walking, relying on public transit requires time and patience. My schedule is not fully my own. Half the time, I have to rush to make a train or keep an appointment, only to arrive at one place with time to spare before the next leg. I have learned to savor those in-between moments as opportunities to explore; water is everywhere. The Saw Mill River, the Bronx River: I used to drive the parkways; now I walk beside the rivers themselves. Mamaroneck used to be the name of a town I could never remember how to spell or pronounce. Silver Lake was a preserve I read about online and thought I needed a car to visit. Then there are the streams, brooks, and tributaries: Andre, Sheldon, Rum, and others whose names I am still learning. They appear and disappear, forced under roads and buildings.

Taking photographs reminds me to pay attention. Sometimes I want to remember a particular moment or the play of light and shadows on the water; sometimes I want to return to a photo to try to identify a flower, tree, bird, or stream; sometimes I merely want to document how a scene changes from week to week.  

I can’t always stop to take photos, nor can I always capture images the way I see them. Even when I do not actually snap a picture, the habit has changed the way I see and experience the world around me. I have discovered tranquil water in the midst of urban and suburban settings where busy highways, parkways, and city streets lie just outside the frame. I see the trash, the abandoned shopping carts, and other signs of human carelessness, the ways we try to control nature and direct the water to suit our purposes, and the birds and other creatures that thrive in and along the waterways despite it all. Following the water means being rewarded by moments of quiet beauty, by the gangling grace of long-legged birds taking flight, by the glassy smoothness, gentle ripples, icy patterns, rough whitecaps, and angry currents of the water. I move slowly, and I stop to look.

Cheryl French is a writer, educator, editor, and photographer. She lives in Tarrytown and spends her days traveling around the Greater New York City area trying to engage her students in the wonders of the English language. She takes photographs along the way. You can follow her on daily rambles on Instagram: