As the sun set on the New York City skyline last month, sweaty and dishevelled from a long-haul flight and towing a travel case with one broken wheel, I decided to step up and walk the High Line. On what was once known as Death Avenue, plant life now bursts through steel seams, running wild along 1.5 miles of elevated railway.
Climbing above street level, I begin on West 22nd Street at the Chelsea Grasslands where the wooden walkway is bordered by a mix of meadow grass (I note fuzzy pink muhly and Japanese forest grass as favourites) and native plants like rattle snake and wild quinine. Prairie blazing star is present in abundance, New York City the backdrop seen from the new vantage point. The architecture of West Chelsea and beyond stands obediently still and I can almost see into adjacent apartments that run along the tracks. I wonder about New York lives and the neighbourhood opera singer known to practise from her balcony. I resist the urge to stop and spy through windows and with my broken bag stowed safely in a corner shop below, move stealthily south without fear of disturbing the peace.
Familiar with the plantmanship and talent of landscape designer Piet Oudolf, I was nonetheless taken anew by this thoughtful wilderness of his. A park in which depending on your mood or disposition either commands your full attention and draws you close (bluestem or prairie dropseed?), or affords the space and distance to push on: study the city's skyline of the High Line at your leisure.
There were certainly plant spotters, but mostly there were people watchers (in a quiet sort of way). The selection of grasses, shrubs and slender grey birch are practically stage set for the voyeur. This is what I loved most about the High Line. Two builders in hard hats looking friendly, barely covered by firetale mountain fleece. A woman stretched long on a wooden recliner, watching rush hour traffic as if it were a sport. Her feet dancing contently over Frank Gehry's ICA building, dwarfed in the middle distance. Tourists hover over beds of yarrow, while Parsons students take notes on benches designed for that very purpose. Plants usually taken for granted – like echinacea or aster – I admire in a bright new light. There is the genius of Piet Oudolf. Or is it the effect of walking on a high?
From a bench at 10th Avenue Square, a middle-aged man in successful pinstripe sets down his oversized coffee and offers to tie a veteran's ragged shoelace. You couldn't make it up! Maybe I caught the High Line on a good day? He gently pats the bench and a foot arrives between his parted legs. 'A double knot please,' said the homeless man kindly.
Walking the High Line that evening was like touring a bright moment in the future, where for once the world aligns and we get it right. At least to me, everybody seemed to be their better selves. I looked on luxury apartment buildings with the same generous eyes I did the wildflowers, forgetting all about the mean streets below and that bag with its broken wheel.
Kate O'Brien is editor of The Plant
Pictured: Hakonechloa macra, or Japanese forest grass – a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell