The late Bob Laskowski was so admired by the Great South Bay Audubon Society that a plaque hangs on a wall on their Sayville club house. In addition, the club named a winter birding expedition after him…the Bob Laskowski Waterfowl Count.
I met Bob in Central Islip in the late 1970’s. He was working at the Agway store on Suffolk Avenue in Central Islip. We started having conversations about birds and conservation issues. I concluded that he was a major player for his knowledge and experience with the natural world. He is credited for the discovery of a huge American Crow roost in Nesconsit, He found a rare green snake somewhere in Central Islip. He discovered a globally rare flower called Sandplain Gerardia in Sayville.
I learned that he spent a great deal of time in Edgewood Preserve, the former grounds of the New York State Pilgrim State Hospital grounds now knows as the Edgewood Preserve on Commack Road in Deer Park. I asked him questions and eventually, he invited me to take a tour.
I met him at the entrance on Commack Road and climbed into his car. The hospital, 11 stories high was demolished, but the roads, railroad spur, and large sewage basin remain. Bob had several white five gallon buckets filled with grass seed. Bob collected the seeds to plant in what I now call Bob’s Lot. When Bob discovered this sandy rectangular lot he knew he had a good restoration project.
Bob discovered that a developer had bulldozed the lot and cleared it right down to sand. A habitat that had taken centuries to evolve was wiped out in a few hours. Bob’s adoption of the Edgewood property urged him to do something to restore this desolation. I met him at the entrance, climbed into his car. There were several white, five gallon buckets in the passenger and back seat. I squeezed in and asked. We drove to the lot. He handed me a bucket and said cast seed low so it doesn’t blow away. Bob was beginning what was going to take decades to show signs of recovery.
Grass seed has an interesting adaptation that allows it to bury itself. The seed has a long bristle called the awn that can move with changes in humidity. As the seed sits on the ground, the awn slowly creates a small depression that the seed can fall into and be covered.
We emptied all the buckets. “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Bob said as we left. “The pine cones in those pitch pine trees nearby will release seed and this place will heal itself in quarter century.” He predicted.
“Promise me you’ll keep an eye on that lot.” Bob asked when I visited him in the hospital. Soon after, he died. For the past two decades, I’ve visited Bob’s Lot to check its progress.
On my most recent visit I saw a large pay loader dragging the back stop for a train. This is the iron stop so the train doesn’t run off the tracks. The railroad bed is a siding from the center line of the Long Island Railroad. Coal cars carried fuel for the enormous community of the Pilgram State Hospital complex. This object was one of the last historic links to what whet on here for almost fifty years.
The lot is dominated by pitch pine trees of all sizes. The mother trees on the edge release seeds and they helicopter their way onto the lot. Under these trees, pine needles have deposited and are slowly decomposing to start a thin layer of top soil. As I meandered through the lot, I came to openings with no trees. It was like a maze which made my survey interesting. I took photos. I found clumps of moss, tall bush clover, clumps of little blue stem grass, lots of yellow clover, a few poplar trees. The yellow clover is important because it sequesters nitrogen for the soil which invites other plants.
John Updike who lived on a Pennsylvania Farm wrote a book titled The Farm. Here is a quote that applies to Bob’s Lot:
“Land is like people. It needs a rest. Land is just like a person, except that it never dies, it just gets very tired,”
If Bob were here, I’d give him a progress report and thank him for inviting me. Being able to chart the succession of a barren “tired” piece of land has focused me. “Bob, the lot is recovering.” I thought as I left.