Proceeding along Braddock Avenue in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens, high winds gusting all around, we went about the business of pruning street trees. I saw dozens of American sweetgums. Liquidambar is the poetic scientific name for the species, and it refers to the honeyed sap that flows beneath the bark if you cut into it. I love these trees, most especially for their fruits, prickly brown seed-filled “gumballs” that litter the ground in winter.
They hold on tenaciously, coexisting with the waxy pinkish flowers about to unfurl in spring as though they just can’t say goodbye to mommy and drop away.
They remind me of the coal carriers in Hayao Miyazaki’s inspired movie Spirited Away.
One tree I came across was well past its prime, weathered and half dead, its limbs truncated where Con Ed had cut them free of the power line that ran through its crown. Any branch that enters the “box” around the line, my pruner told me, is unceremoniously lopped off.
It was about the saddest sweetgum I’d seen, the old girl. She had a shape like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but she was not treasured and adored but left to linger in her too-small tree pit with razor wire for a neighbor.
She brought to mind Shel Silverstein’s disturbing fable The Giving Tree, in which an apple tree gives itself unceasingly to a boy, until all that is left of it is a trunk. The thing about a book, though, that allows children to not die from the horror of this story, is that you can go back to the beginning again and again, seeing the tree whole and gracious. Yes, the tree suffers an awful decline, but it springs to life everytime we open the book’s cover. We have a chance for a do-over. That is the power of art.
I am writing this now as the trimmed branches from another tree rain down around me, the crew’s work almost done for the day. I’m standing fifteen blocks from the saddest sweetgum in New York, too far to pay a call before I get in my car and leave for home.
I don’t know if I want to see her again anyway. She’s old and homely, her spiky fruits long fallen. She has nothing to give, unlike the presents of the giving tree. She is all that has already been taken, in this harsh city, and nothing, no careful pruning, no perfect cut, will bring her back.