The dinosaurs had long vanished into legend and the great glacier had slipped back to its beginnings. Time and tide and the legacy of the ice blanket had forged the land into a fish-shaped island that stretched eastward into the ocean.
Long Island was beginning its transformation into Eden.
The sparse shrubs and grasses of the treeless tundra that followed the glacier had been replaced by forests of hemlocks and spruce. They in turn had given way to vast pine barrens and then to woods heavy with oak and chestnut and hickory trees and to swamplands filled with Atlantic white cedars and red maples and tupelos.
Life abounded in the streams and woodlands and along the shores of the new island. Horseshoe crabs mated in the surf and buck moths clung to each other in the pine barrens and dragonflies danced in the marshes.
Creatures of the Pleistocene Era had wandered across the land bridge that once traversed the oceans of the far north, and their kind still roamed the island. Saber-toothed tigers and huge dire wolves hunted mastodons and woolly mammoths. Elk and caribou and bears and musk oxen and ground sloths lived in the pristine wilderness, and as millennia passed, they gave way to smaller mammals — to deer and wolves and beavers and bobcats.
When the first people followed the mastodons and mammoths across the land bridge of the arctic regions, the place a poet would call Paumanok teemed with flora and fauna. There are no written records of that time about 12,000 years ago when Paleo-Indians came to the fish-shaped island, but geological evidence and educated guesses enable experts to sketch a picture of the way it probably was.
Tundra vegetation such as reindeer moss, cotton grass, low bush blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries still grow in the pine barrens. Fossilized pollen holds evidence of the tiga. Mammoth and mastodon teeth and tusks have been found in South Shore waters near the continental shelf that was dry land when humans arrived. Bison bones were discovered in the Hempstead Plains.
The pine barrens themselves are a relic. So are the 80 acres that are left of the 60,000-acre Hempstead Plains, once famous as the only prairie east of the Mississippi. Island Trees was just that — an island of trees in a sea of grass. Jamaica Bay is the descendant of a 24,000-acre wetland dominated by Atlantic white cedars, now a rare species in New York State.
Stroll the boardwalk at Jones Beach on a hot summer day when blankets and bodies litter the sand, or drive along the Long Island Expressway at rush hour and imagine what it must have been like when the first human stood upon the shore and gazed at the swelling sea or ran through the fragrant pine forests. Perhaps a line from a Joni Mitchell song comes to mind — “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’’
The paradise that was Long Island kept evolving. The same basic climate and vegetation that we know today took hold about 8,000 years ago when deciduous plants rooted in the silty soil. Oak trees shaded out the pines. Spartina alterniflora, a grass still found along North Shore waterways, flourished in the salt marshes. Big game was becoming scarce and Indians started to settle near the bays and salt marshes plentiful with shellfish and the fresh-water streams laden with trout.
It was all still here when the first Europeans arrived. In 1670, Daniel Denton, a minister’s son, wrote of his travels across Long Island. He cataloged mulberries, persimmons, “plums of all sorts,’’ “grapes great and small’’ and “strawberries of which is such abundance in June, that the Fields and Woods are died red.’’ Denton rhapsodized about “an innumerable multitude of delightful Flowers not only pleasing the eye, but smell, that you may behold Nature contending with Art, and striving to equal, if not excel many Gardens in England.’’
It was clear the land enchanted him — thickets of elder and sumac and “groves gleaming in spring with the white bloom of the dogwood, glowing in fall, with liquid amber and pepperidge, with sassafras, and the yellow light of the smooth shafted tulip tree.’’
Game abounded, although the settlers would hunt wolves and bobcats to extinction on the Island — even posting bounties for them. Denton saw deer, bear, polecats, and otters. And he told of wild turkeys, heath hens, quail, partridges, and “green silken frogs’’ whose singing rivaled that of the birds.
It was, he wrote, a place “where besides the sweetness of the Air, the Countrey itself sends forth such a fragrant smell that it may be perceived at Sea before they can make the Land; where no evil fog or vapour doth no sooner appear but a North-west or Westerly winde doth immediately dissolve it, and drive it away: What shall I say more? . . . that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ‘tis surely here, where the Land floweth with milk and honey.’’
It was a time before progress when a world was still new. Before paradise was lost.