Category Archives: History

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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