What lies under the city sidewalk? Dirt. Sand. Rocks, bricks, miscellaneous debris. Skeletal remains of vermin. And thousands of miles of pipes.
I found one today on the job, a gnarled and grizzled specimen, a time capsule from before the jungle of New York was so concrete. This London Plane root, a yard long and six inches at its fattest, had been severed by the backhoe as it excavated the old concrete sidewalk. It was still wet with life.
It made me think of those anguished lines by Neruda, in Walking Around:
I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
In a way, the metaphor is truer than the reality. We’re a lot more insecure than that root I found today, chopped through though it was by the backhoe.
I don’t know how they poured concrete a hundred years back, in the 1890’s, when the pop song “The Sidewalks of New York” was Taylor-Swift hot. Then the streets were mainly cobbles, Belgian paving blocks. Asphalt was relatively new. Some streets were still dirt, more country lane than city slicker. It must have been fantastic for a woman to sweep down a (relatively) clean sidewalk without befouling the hem of her skirts. Especially if she was responsible for cleaning those skirts.
Now a root in the city seems fantastic. On my first job going among the trees, in June, there was a foreman with a sticker on his hard hat that read Irish. His name was Sean, and he had a salt-and-pepper mustache and a twinkle in his eye. I had been tracing the progress of an excavation to install a new gas line, watching the roots as they materialized in the “moist guts of the earth.” Making sure they weren’t broken by the backhoe. I had to leave, and I asked Sean to keep an eye on a certain root I was concerned about. He smiled, with only a hint of irony.
“Ah,” said Sean, “the lovely root.”