I’m standing at the northernmost edge of Manhattan, looking out across the water at the steel arch of the Henry Hudson Bridge conjoining Manhattan to the Bronx. A leaf-covered pathway curls around the water’s edge. This channel of water separating the boroughs is known as Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The name is hard to pronounce, archaic, Dutch. Guidebooks suggest it originally referred to the river’s choppy, unpredictable tides. A folk etymology asserts that the name means “devil’s whirlpool.” Uniting the Hudson River with the Harlem River, the creek has described Manhattan’s island identity since the last glacial retreat.
Spuyten Duyvil Creek once flowed in an S-shape, but its contours were filled in, beginning in the late 19th century, to make shipping easier. The creek’s original course is just barely traceable on satellite maps today. The first loop of the creek was cut off in 1895 (the bottom part of the sideways S). In 1938, the second loop was cut off. Now the shape of the creek is more of a sideways backwards L. Looking at its gentle current today, it’s hard to imagine the furious energy it once possessed, or the forces that muted its turbulent character in the name of progress.
Across the creek, almost hidden by apartment buildings, stands a 16-foot bronze statue of Henry Hudson atop a hundred-foot Doric column. If you squint, you can imagine yourself standing here in an autumn afternoon in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up this channel on the Half-Moon. Back then, this corner of the island was used by the Lenape for hunting snapping turtles and wood ducks, fishing for flounder and pickerel, picking black currants and grapes. The Lenape still call the Hudson River Mohicanituk, “the river that flows two ways,” because of the constant tension of ocean water pushing again the river current.
As I turn to leave, I glimpse an egret standing regally in the briny tidal flats, its reflection startlingly pure and white against the murky water. I think about the S-shape the river once held, and how those riverine curves are evoked in the egret’s serpentine neck.