Issue: May 2007
FROM THE EDITOR: Poplar Island, Version 2.0


A few years ago, in an experiment designed to see how much shoveling it would take to put me in the hospital, I had delivered to my backyard some 16 cubic yards of fill dirt. With said dirt I built a grassy slope where there had been only a bleak stretch of weedy savanna, bordered on one side by a crumbling cinderblock wall. If you know dirt, you know that 16 yards is one hell of a lot of it--roughly six tons by my fevered after-the-fact calculations, more than 3,000 shovelfuls. Thanks to above-and-beyond help from my beloved, and from a couple of neighbors, I managed to stay out of the hospital, but for weeks I had aches on top of aches.

With that as a reference point, I am simply dumbstruck by the scale of the island-building project now under way at the mouth of Eastern Bay. I speak of course of Poplar Island, a once-inhabited isle that had all but washed away by the mid-1990s, but which is re-emerging from the Bay with a new tidier shape--and with great expectations as new wildlife habitat--courtesy of dredge spoil from the shipping channel.

Sixteen yards of fill dirt? Oh, please. By island-building standards, that's infinitesimal. On Poplar Island, you can find that much dirt stuck in the treads of one of the earthmovers. Try 40 million cubic yards, which is what they estimate it will take to rebuild the island. And instead of nice dry soil, try working with the goopy near-liquid mud that comes from the bottom of the Bay's shipping channels. You think that dump truck looked big when it backed into your yard? It's a Tonka toy compared to the barges that carry the mud to Poplar Island; they're as long as football fields and 50 feet across.

You can read all about it this month in "How to Build an Island", Tom Horton's excellent follow-up article on Poplar Island, which he first covered for us in 1999, when the project had just begun. Then, as now, the incomparable Dave Harp supplied the photos--though this time there was actually something to see, other than heavy equipment on barges and a few muddy hummocks poking out of the water. As you'll see, now it's a bona fide thousand-acre landmass, a blunt-ended crescent with its back to the Bay and, for now, its own protected harbor (for barges). Eventually, though, that harbor will be like the rest of the island's outer half; it will be wooded upland habitat, with an elevation of some twenty feet, perhaps more. The inside half will be lowland habitat, a combination of high marsh, low marsh and year-round wetlands.

In fact, that part of the island already is habitat for some wildlife. As Tom points out, and as I saw for myself when I toured the island in late March, nobody's waiting for an engraved invitation. Terns, egrets, ospreys, herons and diamondback terrapins have already set up shop. And speaking of the official tour, I heartily recommend it. By the time you read this, the tours (once a day, Monday through Friday) are likely to be booked into early summer, but if you're willing to plan ahead, it's well worth the trouble. It'll give you a whole new appreciation for the science of earthmoving.

Best of all, you can leave your shovel at home.