Category Archives: History

Gale Force

The wind won’t stop. Trash blows through the air, all around the towering projects, skitters along the sidewalk, chasing scraps of paper, cardboard boxes and gust-inflated store bags, black and white. I hide from the cold in my car, awaiting trees to guard. Today excavation goes on in the street, too remote from the London plane and yellowoods to endanger them. I’ve already checked on all the trees on my site, which are safely ensconced in their protective wood frames. 

The wind blows grit against the skin of my face, in my eyes. I nearly got whacked on the head by a metal store sign that had come loose and was flapping back and forth. Young people in safety vests walk the street with a garbage container on wheels and long handled dustpans, but they can’t possibly pick up all the trash as it swirls around them. The city doesn’t bother with public trash containers in the Bronx, it seems.

Workers build houses under the ground so the trench won’t collapse in on them as they work. 

These below ground cabins are muddy on the bottom but otherwise strike me in my innocence as looking very cozy.

The first thing I saw this morning was a man throwing a kitten out the door of his bodega, then coming out to shoo it down the street. The baby tabby shivered in the wind looking back toward the shop door before racing away into the wind. While this went on the usual troubled man stood outside the store by the ice machine, barking and muttering and throwing his head back on his neck.

Here on Webster at East 169 St., men in cars drive up to the tire emporium and jump out to admire the rims for sale. It’s a fascination for them. Stacks upon stacks of tires have been piled beneath the mosaic of silver rims hanging on the storefront . If you can decide, you can get the job done right there in front of the store.

A few blocks away the fortuneteller has had to take her sign down out of the wind. 

The soothsayer reads palms in the back of the smoke shop, waiting all day for a customer. I’ve never been in to see her, much as I obsess about my future. Maybe sometime, if this wind ever dies down.

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Queen for a Day

There is a lot of hurry up and wait for an arborist working on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, catch basins and pipes go into the trenches and the equipment doesn’t brush a tree. In the meantime I people watch.

The folks here are diverse. There isn’t money for Park Avenue designers, but some of them dress like queens. A big African contingent, mainly from Gambia, awes me.

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I’m in my dowdy fluorescent vest and hard hat and they’re flying by in gold embroidered hijabs. Even the little girls have their heads covered. Adolescent girls – princesses, I’m sure – wear the same. I see one hurrying to the first day of school, her head wrapped in a cocoa-colored scarf, pink Converse All Stars on her feet.

A dirt-covered beggar spends his crumpled dollar bills at Dunkin Donuts.

Two Beastie Boys, brims in reverse, cross in the middle of the avenue. A mustachioed older gent in a Navy suit with a light green ascot steps out of the dollar store. A woman crosses the street to get a bottle of water, leaving her chihuahua on the sidewalk, unleashed but waiting patiently for her return. There are turbans in all colors, for one man a pristine light lavendar. Self propelled wheelchairs zoom by, dozens of them. Dreads abound, a head of magenta, another woman with black snaking down her back and a clutch of rings in her nose.

In a store display I see clothes I could wear on the job if I was really daring.

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Their only interaction with the white woman in the hard hat is to ask where the bus stop has been moved to.

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Where the Boys Are

I possess a special dispensation that allows me to sit down and rest on a concrete block in the narrow bar of shade beneath a warehouse while the laborers dig. It’s called gender. And it does feel good to take a rest at about 10 am, three hours into the contractors’ New York City work day, with the temperature already spiking to the high 80s. The men rake gravel over the flat site of the new sidewalk, their faces boil red, they work unceasingly except when they take swigs from pint bottles of water – That’s not enough water! Not nearly enough! I want to call out to them. Hydrate. Because I am a schoolmarm, and I want to tell people to drink in the sun.

But I don’t. My lips are sealed. As an arborist, one who happens to be female, I am mostly ignored, except for the few occasions I have to bring my four sweetgum trees to someone’s attention. We’re on West Street, on the Brooklyn waterfront, a place that’s getting a total facelift as Greenpoint unceasingly gentrifies. These four trees are the living remainder of dozens that got taken down earlier this year because they stood in the way of construction.

All the man stuff seems like a cliché — the bonhomie, lots of hand shaking, especially first thing in the morning, the fights, half serious, yelling that doesn’t come to blows, crotch scratching galore. I knew this was a place of men going in, but now I’m acutely aware of of being the only antelope among a herd of water buffalo. They talk behind my back (sometimes in Portuguese), but so surreptitiously I never catch them at it. We have conversations once in a while, but I feel I have to keep my guard up, not be too cheerful or chatty, lest I become “the girl” and lose their respect. Some girl, I’m twice most these men’s age.

We share an experience. Here is what we have at eleven o’clock. It’s simple. Three men digging an enormous hole, a backhoe hauling up tons of dirt and lumber, massive rocks and pipes, while four inspectors stand at the edge, peering solemnly into the trench. Meanwhile, a truck from King’s Building Supplies rumbles by, loaded with bags of material like king-size loaves of bread. I feel as though I am the only woman for blocks around.

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The sun has broiled us all, and now the clouds roll in. Over the green painted plywood fence to the west you can see the crenellated Manhattan skyline, from the Freedom Tower to the Empire State Building. Soon a real estate mogul will erect an urban village here, where every tenant will have a river view. At 2:30, Elite Concrete pulls up with its churning mixer and its cobalt cab, and the workers start in with rakes and floaters, knee deep in the chocolate-pudding-like cement.

The crew heckles the new guy, who works twice as hard as anyone, a goofy smile on his face. They can be mean or sweet, emotions are high. All the older guys are beer bellied, their guts distending their safety vests, while the young ones stay tendon-thin. The project supervisor chain smokes, his face the color of pastrami. I stand beside a laborer watching a guy welding, he tells me not to look and holds his fingers up to his eyes to pantomime crying. Never look at the light of a welding torch, it’s as bright as the sun. I feel ashamed of my ignorance of these most basic man-matters. An 18-wheeler drives by with a load of crushed cars. West Street is a work site but also a thoroughfare, a speedway for tractor trailers to bang through Brooklyn carrying lumber and sheetrock and rebar.

I have to be here – the city requires an arborist to be present whenever a construction site has trees. I’m a pain in the neck of this crew. That I lack a Y chromosome is an added perplexity. I’m a high-pitched gnat in someone’s ear: Will you build the tree pit forms today? When will you install the steel-faced curbs? Yes, yes, Jean, you’ll just have to wait until we get the real work done.

Men’s work.

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Hear Me Roar

Myriad gnarly lions guard the brick houses of Queens. These are among the gnarliest, even if they are surrounded by pretty posies.  

There are chickens running uncooped down the street here, 104 street in Howard Beach. Maybe they’ll eat them.

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Honey Wears the Crown 

In the Bronx, at Throgs Neck, there was the scent of honeysuckle growing up chain link, and the taste of mulberries, both red and white, along with the blue glint of the East River under the soaring Bridge. The ground was yellow sand under our feet as we pruned trees. I saw vintage bungalows, one with kayaks stacked on the front porch and I thirsted to move in.

And on a nearby Street, Halsey Ave, ran a boulevard  of honey locusts that someone had adopted for their own purposes. On every one of a dozen trees was posted a religious manifesto, tacked high up where it would be hard to take down.


The honey locust seems the perfect tree to use and abuse in this way. Stubborn, hardy, even brutal, they have roots that grow big and serpentine and push up any pavement that’s laid over them. They make their way into peoples’ basements. Their bark has hard fissures, their twigs are small daggers — landscapers hate working with them, and one variety has stiff thorns growing out all over the tree.


Still, grazing cows and horses across the US delight in their pods filled with bright green pope that mellows as it ripens. The trees we see generally are of a thornless variety. They are popular as urban specimens because they are resistant to heat, drought, salt, basically anything you could throw at them. They grow fast, saying just watch me I’m bad but wait for my feathery yellow leaves in fall. And they make for a perfect crown of thorns.

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The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.

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About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

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The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.

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The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.

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At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .

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Glories Strung Like Beads

A nondescript work morning on a nondescript street in East Flatbush. 8:00 a.m. 39th Street off Snyder Avenue.


I haven’t seen one resident –are they all asleep?–but the backhoe is going gangbusters. The usual.

Except…Holy Cross Cemetery across Snyder is getting a haircut and I can smell the cut new grass as the mower motors toward me.


There are slightly soaked bears, signs of somebody’s Iove. You stumble across these pocket graveyards in New York sometimes.

I find velvet roses around the corner, climbing above the chain link.


Their perfume is as heady in gritty Brooklyn as it is anywhere else. I dip my nose in once. Twice.


Here there is the promise of the end of the world and the start of something new. Miracles await.

And I find Amur Maples, something I’d never come across, I’ve never seen.


Walt Whitman, writing about Brooklyn, extolled “the glories strung like beads on my smallest/sights and hearings, on the walk in the street. ”

I’ve never seen anything.

It’s all new.

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The Beautiful Sea Air

I went to Coney Island to survey trees first thing this morning. At that hour the streets were empty and Luna Park smelled like fresh paint – the season is coming soon enough. The Cyclone was ghostly, silent.

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You might be surprised how many trees there are at Coney Island. I saw some soaring oaks. Of course concrete predominates. But then, as seven rolls around to eight, life breathes into the barren streets. People start to come out and about. Music floats out of car windows, even Motown, somewhat surprisingly. Teams of men are washing windows on some dingy high-rises. Chain-link daffodils bloom gaudily.

I went around thinking about beauty in the fresh sea air, about the window washers on those dingy high-rises working to let more beauty in, and the people that planted those bright daffodils behind the chain-link. I exchanged a shy smile with my fellow boss in orange, the female flag person directing traffic.

We all want beauty. I’ve learned so much about what is gorgeous looking at trees. I am coming along in my ability to identify species in the up until now cold weather. And it’s come to a point where I’ve decided that trees are not lacking when they don’t have leaves yet, when they are out of season. Really their beauty is more pronounced when they are bare. I do like greenery and I do like soothing shade, but  I love bark, like the diamond furrows of this ash.

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You have to lay your hands on it, don’t just use your eyes. Here’s a lilac tree.

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And don’t you just want to touch the patchy orange-gray of this zelkova?

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Look at the impressive sprawl of this london plane.

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I have a book called Bark and that’s what it is all about. Very niche, quite nerdy, and just up my alley at the moment. Most bark, it is true, is similar, gray and furrowed. But if you pay attention, if you truly want to learn, then you begin to see the differences.

Now as spring progresses I’m seeing new movement among the bare ones. Mysteries, to me, since I am so new an arborist. Open yourself to me! Tell me what you are.

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Or lush cherries coming into blossom, their buds like paint brushes dipped in fuschia.

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Some trees, I know, have flowers that actually open on their trunks. Now that’s beautiful.

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Budding Out

Long ago, probably 50 years ago, someone planted a grove of oaks along the Kings Highway in Brooklyn, running from Farragut Road to Clarendon. A greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” I surveyed trees there on the two medians that bracket this frantically fast and loud urban speedway. Old, gnarled, rough-trunked trees are not what I think of when my mind goes to NYC normally, especially its fast roads. But here there was a forest, the inheritance from the days of monoculture, when people in charge of planting in New York thought it was ideal to plant all one species. You could tell you were not deep in nature, however – many of the trunks were marked similarly with gross tearing of the bark at the bottom, about knee height. I asked a homeowner about it. “Yeah, we have a lot of traffic accidents on this road,” he said. But however victimized the oaks were by human car culture, they stood tall and survived.

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Today I’m standing on the margins of another highway, the Bruckner Expressway, a Robert Moses creation. Bruckner Boulevard is the service road that runs along both sides of this freeway, and it has trees that need pruning. The trees are in bud, about to leaf out – zelkovas, london planes, ash trees, cherries all coexist with the traffic fumes and grit and wild traffic patterns of the Bronx. Another grove of sweet green in the midst of concrete, cars and trucks.

I watch a plump squirrel carrying a wisp of something scurry across the pedestrian overpass, headed for its nest. There’s a collection of ash trees here, too, though emerald borers have had their way with them. London planes bulge with a girth of 30 or more inches like satisfied Buddhas. And there are the pink and green infant samaras so delicately dangling from the branches of the sycamore maples.

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Here are some whirligigs posed in the palm of the landscaper’s son, a millenial who knows how to wield a chainsaw and has already received his tree climbing certification. Still, he prefers to surf.

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One resident left her love on the bark of a juvenile london plane.

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Spring comes to the highways of New York, just as it does everywhere else, and it is brought there by trees above all.

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The Pleasures of the Urban Arborist

I wish I could suck it all up, absorb it and remember every single thing. Driving in the black night over the highways of New York City to get to the site. The lichen on the burly oaks. Their majesty.

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The flashy red leaf plum.

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The smell of sesame oil wafting through the Chinese neighborhood at Francis Lewis Boulevard. The 7:30 am parade of children to school, holding their parents’ hands. The identical row houses of Queens. The crone who was surprised when I approached her: “She’s a lady!” which is true, though I like feeling a little bit like a man on this job. The persistent smell of exhaust from the landscaping truck. Prickly sweetgum balls, red maple twigs, the puffs that hang swaying from the london plane.

 

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The way the root of the l.p. emphatically bulges over and raises up the sidewalk.

 

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The resident who was aghast that her neighbors had had their mammoth tree butchered: “I came back from Vegas and it was done!”

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The haunted houses of Brooklyn.

 

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Learning to differentiate between a zelkova and a linden. Bad bodega coffee. The best lunch in the world.

 

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The soapy grace of laundromats that let you pee there. Proud pit bulls. The soft detritus of leaves pushed up against the gutters. Laying my palm on a fat cherry trunk, feeling its lenticels under the pads of my fingers.

Days that are poems.

 

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And always, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.

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I’ve been doing this for just under a year now.

 

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“I Like Trees, but…”

“Cut ’em all down, babe, cut ’em all down!” The man called out to me from his bicycle as I stood by a tree in my orange vest, taking notes on my clipboard about a giant white oak standing between the sidewalk and the street. Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment expressed, but always disappointing.

“It’s too high and too many mosquitos come into my room,” one woman complained about the specimen outside her window.

Three guys stood around a driveway on a mild March afternoon, shooting the shit. “Little things come off the trees and make a mess,” said the man with the pushbroom, clearing the gutter of maple twigs that had fallen in the recent rain.

“Can’t the city get us some little trees instead of these big ones?” asked his friend.

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Sometimes, rolling up on a big old black locust, the kind that casts its welcome shade all summer, the resident of the house behind it runs out: “Are you taking the tree down?” Not aghast at the prospect but delighted and hopeful that “their” tree would disappear. “The sap drops all over the tops of our cars,” I’ve heard.

Two times recently, in Queens and in the Bronx, I saw maples that had been girdled. Someone had stripped a wide circle of bark from around the trunk’s base — a technique for killing a tree.

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But why? Trees protect from the sun, they pour out oxygen to breathe, and on top of it all they’re beautiful to look at. Wouldn’t you like to have a statuesque linden in from of your house? But, but… trees are messy, with their litter of acorns dropping on the roof,  the pom pom london plane seed balls scattered across the sidewalks. If you walk barefoot when the sweet gum seeds come down the prickly pods would cut your feet!

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Ouch! But who walks barefoot in New York City?

Someone has to rake up the perfect leaves of the pin oak. What a pain.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t manage it I will.

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A Conversation in Snow

You should see how I look in summer, he told me. Not from the beach. Dark just from being up in the branches.

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Today there were driving snow showers in Queens. The tree pruner and the arborist hid from the cold for a while in the cab of the landscaping truck. He chainsmoked Newports, I warmed my fingers in the blasts of warm air from the windshield vents. He smokes up in the bucket too, wielding his saw at the same time.

When you prune a tree, you write your name across it, he told me. You have to be able to stand by that name. Out the window we could see those crazy old maples, the ones whose bark glints chartreuse with moss in the sun, now outlined in fresh snow. He had trimmed trees in much worse conditions, he said.

Sitting there, we listened to a radio show that scolded about climate change. The tree pruner never studied his art, he said, he learned by observation. Was I a Republican or a Democrat, he asked. He thought the two were basically identical, that the system was rigged. Was I a 9/11 truther, he asked. He was.

I was bundled like an Eskimo. He wore a windbreaker. He knew all the trees by their bark alone. He called london plane trees l.p.’s. After 25 years in the business, he had no pension to retire with.

Sometimes he looks back on his tree climbing days, he said. He was hired to scale mammoths, reporting back on infestations of Asian Longhorn Beetles, in Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens. Sometimes he misses going up with the other guys, way high up, above it all, where they would play cards in the branches and drink soda and joke around, hitting each other with things.

He hopped out of the cab. A woman had come from her house in the snow to get his attention. He spoke to her briefly then hopped back in. She told me she was ninety-two years old, he said. That’s a life, said the pruner.

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Skipping History

A girl I knew in college used to tell me she had a crush on the subject of Anthropology, in which she had taken so many wonderful courses. She like to say she was having an affair with Anthro, until she came to her senses and settled down with Economics as her major.

I know what she meant. I feel as though I fell in love with history early in my writing career, that it was exciting and wild and soulful, everything I wanted in a subject. (It never disrupted my marriage, however.) As I continued to write, I got deeper into history – I never jumped to economics! – with forays into different periods, especially colonial New York and Gilded Age Manhattan. I was thinking about how the lure of the past grabbed me when I re-shelved some of my research books the other day. I came across a thick, illustrated book about the world of historic textiles, then a compilation of maps dating back to when New York wasn’t yet New York. And I felt a thrill about being connected to all the lives led in the past and being able to access meaning through calico and vellum… yes, and pot shards and iron nails and beaver pelts and all the material goods you get to commune with as a historian.

Now, however, I am discovering the sometimes jarring beauty of something else – How We Live Now (a literary reference, to Anthony Trollope’s most famous novel). Working as a seasonal sales associate in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the mall has brought me up close to retail, and retail is unremittingly of the present. Especially the glimpse of the fluorescent, perfumed corridors in the moments after the stores close, when each storefront is a goldfish bowl that shows the private lives of the people who work there. When the doors are locked, I walk past the Godiva store, where two young men dunk strawberries for themselves into the milk chocolate goo that is usually reserved for the paying customers. I’m fatigued, my feet are sore from pacing the floor and rehanging merchandise, but I can’t help but be struck by relationships between these and other sales associates, like me, with the imagined David Mamet flavor of their interactions. At Ann Taylor, a shoplady sullenly pushes her swiffer around the linoleum. Behind the Apple façade, kids in red logo’d polos bob like maraschino cherries around the Ipads and watches, laughing and loose after their hours serving patrons. I feel wide awake, taking it all in.

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But in the morning, before the stores open, I also get an infusion of non-historic pleasure. Of course we have mall walkers, a sizable number of them, in pairs and threes and fours, deep in conversation as they motor past my store before it opens. I am constantly amused, though, by the gaggle of about a dozen young mothers with strollers, exaggeratingly skipping as they push their babies, all in a line. This, my friends, is today, when legging-attired women drive themselves to be their best first thing in the morning, burning calories as they go, only to consume those same calories with their venti soy lattes at the Starbucks around the corner, the one that is just getting ready to open its doors. You don’t need a history book to appreciate that scenario.

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Storm Hardening

We live in a wooded area in the Hudson Valley where suburban tracts alternate with stone and clapboard homes tucked into areas of forest. In the middle of October, it dawned on residents along my street and others nearby that Con Edison had arrived and was systematically cutting down swaths of healthy trees along the sides of the road. Not small trees but 50 and 75 year oaks and maples were leveled – “a haircut” in the woods, as Gil said. More like a crew cut.

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The community got angry, naturally, and meetings took place with Con Ed and with town administrators, who first professed ignorance and then appeared to have give the permission to slice the town right-of-way property. It was too late. The roads are now lined with lopped off trunks and piles of sawdust.

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One girl told her mother,”Mom, it’s not the road I grew up on.”

Why did it happen? According to Con Ed, measures were taken to ensure that there was less risk of power outages in the event of a disaster like Superstorm Sandy. They called it “storm hardening.” And it’s true that transformers blow in this area when bad weather hits. We have lived candlelit lives for days. After my neighbors threw a collective fit, Con Ed left messages in mailboxes stating they would soon begin pruning trees rather than felling them and that their “professional foresters follow the International Society of Arboriculture guidelines.”  Not the ISA guidelines I’ve ever heard of. A friend and fellow arborist had a theory: peculation, in other words, grease. Someone gets paid a lot to take down trees.

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Woody may look happy, but he is still a stump. When trees come down they don’t come back.

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The Secrets of Washington Square

I have always been fascinated by the early history of New York City’s Washington Square. Once upon a time, as shown in a 1782 document called The British Headquarters Map, a waterway called Minetta Brook passed from around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square and on to Greenwich Village. The waters of this ancient stream still run through some downtown basements.

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The early topography of Manhattan was to change rapidly in the 19th century, and the park changed too. Graceful row houses went up on Washington Square North in the 1820s. But the reputation of the square was mixed, and public executions still took place there– in 1820, for example, a servant named Rose Butler was convicted of arson and hung there.

And it was a potter’s field, after its swamp was drained in the 1790s, interring the City’s indigent, receiving 22,000 bodies over time. Residents were spooked by a yellow fever epidemic so the graveyard moved uptown. The city bought more land around the square and the Washington Parade-Ground was established, opening July 4th with that mainstay of early America, an ox roast. A crowd of ten thousand attended. More elegant homes gradually went up on the south and north sides of the park. Henry James would situate his incisive novel Washington Square in one of them in 1880.

 

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But all those bodies underfoot. Did you say potters field? Walking under the arch (erected as a temporary grace note in 1889 out of plaster and wood, then made permanent in Tuckahoe marble, designed by Stanford White in 1892), I found myself obsessed with what lay beneath my feet.

wash square

In June, I accompanied a Con Ed team to install a new gas line at the junction of Washington Square East and Washington Square South. It was a cloudy day, spitting rain. The canopy of a forty-foot honeylocust tree spread above us, its trunk behind the park’s iron fence, in its maturity at least 75 years old. A short distance away, also on the park grounds, stood its neighbor, a nearly-as-tall linden. The three-foot-deep trench the crew was excavating along the sidewalk turned out to be dug on top of a previous trench, and there were no roots of any kind to protect, so all I did was observe.

The foreman was late to the job, I noted, then smoked a cigar and threw the butt in the pit. I had already taken a turn through the park and learned from a handy Parks Department sign that the goldenrain tree was introduced to America in 1763 from Japan. Not this particular specimen, which would then be over 200 years old. I hopped over a metal chain-link divider and held one hand against the bark – as usual no one bothered me with my blaze orange vest, which invests me with instant authority. The trees of Washington Square Park were all so beautiful, especially against the wool-grey sky.

TiliaDrawing

But did you say bodies underfoot? Six months after my work there a tremendous discovery was announced. Just down the street from where my Con Ed crew was digging in the rust-colored fill that day, a little up Washington Square East, another crew of diggers, these preparing to install a new water main, hit a brick arch only three and a half feet beneath sidewalk level. Through a gap they saw human remains. A second vault was then discovered. A stone was removed, a line of sight. And there were coffins, two dozen or so, including, poignantly, the small coffins of children. Some of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped identification plates.

bones

Excavation stopped, of course. Who were these people? Archaeologists came on site and revealed that at least two churches had cemetaries in the vicinity in the 1820s, and these could be them. It turned out that the first vault had been discovered once before, by Con Ed workers, years ago, who saw about 25 skeletons.

I felt as though I just missed the discovery, back in June, distracted by the honeylocust and linden trees. If only we had known to dig a little deeper. Six inches would be enough. There is so much to find beneath the ground, if you know where to look.

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