If you are a perpetual learner

(I am) this is the job for you.

Haitian Inspector’s name is Jean, too. Jean-Robert, he tells me. Explains that where he comes from, the Catholic church would put the name Jean first in front of all the boys’ names because men should be in front of women. Doesn’t happen these days, he says. Phew, good to hear. Jean-Robert is one of the careful New Yorkers who still wears his mask shield religiously.

Start location today, corner of Orloff Avenue and Cannon Place in the Bronx. Little crinkum-crankum streets in this neighborhood that someone outside New York would probably not expect. Two juvenile Eastern redbuds flank the entrance to Van Cortlandt Library. One might stand in the way of a pedestrian ramp to be constructed here. Hence the presence of a tree consultant.

Nearby, honey locust dangles its acid-green seed pods. One worker on a previous site was intent upon the question of whether these seed pods are edible. He brought one home to investigate. People are curious, no matter how jaded we might think everyone is.

In fact, when the legume of Gleditsia triacanthos ripens, its gooey green contents may be devoured by cattle. Digesting the pulp, cows and horses then part with the hard, tannin-rich seeds contained within the pod, and so junior honey locusts are born. Not, of course, in the Bronx. Native Americans had a use for the pod–they had a use for everything, of course– it was utilized for food and medicine and also for tea. Europeans had the bright idea of using the tree’s thorns as treenails for shipbuilding.

Success always demands a greater effort. Thus spake Winston Churchill, a man whose greater effort customarily required great quantities of alcohol. We have a doctor’s note to be used on the statesman’s trip to the U.S. during Prohibition.

In a letter to his wife, Churchill mentions drinking “champagne at all meals & buckets of claret & soda in between.” There was also the beverage his children called a “Papa Cocktail”: a tipple of Johnnie Walker Red to cover the bottom of a glass, to be filled with water and sipped throughout the day. However, as is well known, the man loved champagne the best. And Cuban cigars. Perhaps he would like this shirt on display in a Bronx shop window.

Thinking recently about when I first transitioned into the field of arboriculture and had a lot of learning to do, a major effort. In the tree industry as in other fields you need a credential to define you, and so I devoted many late nights to preparing for my certification exam, offered by the International Society of Arboriculture. I remember that I couldn’t quite believe I was studying for a multiple-choice test, at my stage in life—and that the material was so grueling. The memorization is challenging, even for people who have had years in the field. There were late nights spent at my desk studying diagrams of xylem and phloem, fortified by repeat listenings of a pop song by the band TV on the Radio that had as its chorus Everything’s gonna be okay! Everything’s gonna be okay!

That wee bit of hypomania I had been diagnosed with decades before now worked its charms. My love of language trailed me into the profession like the long shadow of a tall old pin oak, Quercus palustris. Would I really have to learn Latin? AP English had been more my speed back in the day. When I was growing up, what I knew of trees confined itself to the apple tree I climbed as a child and the oak tree by the driveway in whose crevice I created domestic worlds out of acorn caps and twigs. I was to find later on, teaching writing to arborists, that many had a Malus in their childhood which was their formative experience with dendrology, that the wizened backyard apple they encountered as an adult was their madeleine.

Now, even if I had wanted to I could not shake my obsession with the names of the exotica I was learning, terms like lion tailing, thimble, water sprouts, whoopie sling, gymnosperm, cow hitch, come-along grip, antigibberellins.  Yes, Winston, greater effort.

I newly fathomed the phrase, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Mr. Samuel Beckett, of course.)

Clevis, inflorescence, bucking!

By day I mused over the petiole, the slender stalk that connects a leaf with its stem; my night dreams overflowed with phosphorus, oxygen, h2o. I filled my Five Star composition notebook (once the incubator for my book ideas) with the qualities of biotic diseases such as fire blight, nematode, black vine weevil, frass borer and  adelgids, leafhoppers. I still wasn’t sure if I’d be able to identify gummosis in the field, but now I knew at least that it was the exudation of sap or gum from a wound or other opening in the bark. Asterisk! Important! Field-grown no longer brought to mind farm-fresh green beans or juicy tomatoes but ball-and-burlap saplings that would survive transplant shock, no fertilization necessary. And of course, to the repeated rock-and-roll exhortation Everything’s gonna be okay!, the vital necessity of organic mulch. Yikes! How would I remember it all? Later I was to learn that even the most grizzled arborists customarily looked up the more arcane facts, there was no shame in it.

I recall sitting in front of a computer terminal at a bland Manhattan testing site near Grand Central Terminal and sweating over the questions, not sure I could make the grade. All around me people were proving their worth as correctional officers and real estate brokers, probably going on to great things, not grubbing in the arboricultural dirt (yes, tree people do call it that, not the more p.c. soil.) Yet I was excited. This project of mine was blowing up – it was heady, it was real. And, somehow, I passed.

On to the Bronx, years later, where ginkgo leaves flutter.

As do the latest fashions.

Haven’t had to use a cow hitch yet.

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