Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

Are some trees bad?

Well. Depends who you ask.

Norway maples, callery pear, ailanthus, ash. Spotted lanternfly adores laying its disgusting eggs on the bark of the ailanthus, commonly known as the tree of heaven.

So ailanthus deserves to get whacked. But what about grape vines? Apple trees? These host the same invasive insect.

As for the callery pear, you might have some gracing your downtown sidewalks or your apartment complex. Offering bright white blooms for a week or two in early spring. Arborists’ assessmen: Pyrus calleryana is a nightmare. Why? Inquiring minds (mine) have investigated. These trees, originally from China, were widely introduced by landscapers in the 1960s, and displace native trees and plants. Also, they don’t smell sweet, as you would expect them too. Communities around the U.S. can’t cut them down fast enough – some are even offering rewards to those who destroy them.

Ash trees play host to another noxious bug, also imported from Asia, known as the emerald ash borer. Cities are eliminating dead trees by the thousands as well as infected ones as a kind of stay of execution. Last year I accompanied a crew in Queens that was feeding axed ashes into the chipper.

Whole blocks were decimated, and once-graceful allees of mature trees vanished, much to locals’ shock and confusion. Everywhere these strange diagrams exposed by peeling bark, the sure sign of disease.

Where is the tree I grew up with, whose branches swayed outside my window my whole life? No more birdhouses.

Thinking about the nature of bad and good trees as I stand in the grueling heat of an early Queens morning. The parade of Norway maples along 145 Street in Flushing provides the only shade separating residents from an New York-style Hades.

People tend toward puzzlement when the sidewalk crew comes along. Are they taking down our trees?

Don’t get me wrong. Sunshine is good! If you asked medical pioneer Florence Nightingale, she would have touted its healing properties. In the nineteenth century, she espoused the wondrous effects of sun and fresh air in the absence of cures we take for granted, antibiotics and penicillin and the like. One approach in the 1930s was to suspend a babe in need of fresh air out a tenement window!

But today, what we now call the heat island effect afflicts neighborhoods like this one in Flushing disproportionately. They need all the cooling they can get. Even the shade of the “invasive” Norway maple plays a part.

Researchers have noted that individuals with mental health issues (e.g depression, for example) are more at risk when faced with high temperatures and “need to take extra care” as cognitive performance has been shown to be differentially affected by heat. People with diabetes, are overweight, have sleep deprivation, or have cardiovascular/cerebrovascular conditions should also avoid too much heat exposure.

Residents need shade. These trees, in the words of an arborist friend, are working hard. And they’re not getting paid, either!

What’s the use of being house proud, like so many Queens-ites, if you haven’t any trees?

Residents love their flowers.

Some even plant small-scale farms – more ambitious than my raised tomato beds.

But others bake. The heat island effect means that people are cooked, literally, in their homes and neighborhoods. Fried like so many sidewalk eggs. Within the United States alone, an average of 1,000 people die each year due to extreme heat.

Mainly poor people. Those without recourse to decent air conditioning, swimming pools – and trees. Trees are a necessary feature in combating most of the urban heat island effect because they reduce air temperatures by 10 °F and surface temperatures by up to 20–45 °F.

Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. The process of taking up water through its roots, up through the leaves and out again as vapor into the air, called transpiration, is something all trees excel at. It’s nature’s air conditioning. Canopy cover is always important, but nowhere more than in the places where it can’t be taken for granted.

In the suburbs we have grand old tall cedars.

In urban areas, not so much.

Nothing makes up for the simple, absolute value of coolness in hot weather.

Some surprising trees make it to a good old age on these mean streets. A Siberian elm somehow thrives in a 4×4 inch tree pit.

I stand outside a nondescript bungalow on 107 Avenue.

There is a robust swamp white oak. How nice.

These are some of the exotics you might stumble across in the boroughs of New York. Older specimens have obviously offered shade to strollers for quite some time. London planes thrive in the most destitute circumstances, and we are all the better off for it.

When you hear about property owners razing “good trees” to build additions or housing projects or basketball courts, it’s common sense to mourn their loss. Mature oaks, sweetgum, lindens don’t just spring up overnight and surely don’t deserve to be disappeared. We know we need them, though some knuckleheads will always come along to say they don’t matter and remove them.

But what about the specimens sometimes dismissed as trash trees? Are honey locusts expendable simply because they are so common in this city?

I think that logic is mistaken. Honey locust has its own sharp-shouldered beauty.

Even the city version without the spikes can make itself welcome as a shade tree where we need shade.

Trees can’t help the species that spawned them, or the whims of the city planners who once planted these sometimes struggling urban forests. A Norway maple has gotta right to live too! And we deserve their shade. All of us.

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I do like pin oaks

and especially those in groves, urban oases, such as in Flushing, the massive ones ringing Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Whoever laid the concrete sidewalks here most recently politely made room for the spreading roots of venerable Quercus palustris.

Excuse me, said the tree, we were here first. And the City complied, which is more than happens in other municipalities. New York’s rigor regarding tree protection is legendary.

A breezy day in Queens. Anthony the flagger on a well-deserved break: It ain’t a hard hat, but it keeps off the sun. Not a day over 40, indeed. 

Deeply carved sinuses, the scallops that distinguish the pin oak leaf.

The tree has a unique habit – its branches hold up the sky at the top, stick out straight as a t square in the middle and droop a bit at the bottom of its shape. There is a monster of a pin oak square in the middle of this sprawling burial ground.

Mount Hebron opened its gates in 1909, and its permanent residents include Holocaust survivors and people who lived through the pogroms leading up to World War II. For example, a monument to the immigrants and immigrants’ descendants from the city of Grodno in today’s Belarus is dedicated to those who were “brutally persecuted and slain by the Nazis.” A stroll reveals many people in their mid-30’s and 40’s who died in the 1930s. Beyond tragic.

I couldn’t find acorn litter today. Someone here stays on top of autumnal sweeping. The nut would poison us but make a fit snack for a squirrel. Critters are more present that most people think here in the greater metropolitan area. I watched a woodchuck dive under a scrim of shrubbery recently in Liberty State Park. I’ve seen raccoons in a Flushing alleyway. This morning at six a.m. as I drove onto the Parkway, headed to the work site, an eight-point white-tail stared and stood stock still at the edge of the woods. Haven’t seen deer in New York City proper but surely it’s a matter of time. Do they like hydrangeas? Then they might like Flushing.

The chain link surrounding Mount Hebron had been conveniently pulled aside as an unofficial entrance for me to slip inside. No one I approached in the neighborhood seemed to know the name of the 250-acre burial ground in their midst, not the Mobil station attendants on the next block (5.59/gallon, with the cleanest restroom in Queens), not even the grave digger, who rose above the dirt he was shoveling to Google the query on his phone. The Yiddish theater industry produced  quite a few of the souls buried at Mount Hebron. 

The lady with the daisies hadn’t a clue as to where they might be.

Plenty of observant Jews have payed tribute to the dead here, leaving stones atop the graves.

Also abundant, the gnarly limestone faux tree trunks known as treestones. As a sculpted quote from the Biblical tree of life, they represent both eternity and humanity.

By serendipity, I came across a friend’s great grandparents’ plot – they fled Kyev when the pogroms came through and wound up in the Bronx, where Abraham was an expert jeweler and watchmaker.

But I knew the Yiddish actors were someplace – though my favorite, the ever entertaining one-time vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red-hot mamas” – had been buried elsewhere.

As a child, Tucker regaled diners in her parents’ restaurant between waitressing duties. She recalled later that she would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The chanteuse’s hit Some of These Days made her super famous, kind of like the Taylor Swift of her day, if Taylor Swift were a middle-aged red hot mama and had a ribald sense of humor. Tucker’s version of The Lady Is a Tramp is the best out there. Banned in Nazi Germany: My Yiddishe Momme.

Plenty of mobsters here. Perhaps the most famous was Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944 for the 1936 murder of Brooklyn shopkeeper Joseph Rosen after six judicial reprieves. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commented after the funeral, Well, they certainly tried everything. Pressed as to whether there would be another Lepke in New York, he was certain: Yes, there will, if we turn government over to the politicians. Take the rackets, the slot machines, gambling – that’s where the Lepkes find their pickings and their perquisites. LaGuardia put himself through law school at night by translating for immigrants at Ellis Island during the daytime. During his tenure as mayor he outlawed organ grinders with their capuchin monkeys, eliminating a source of much color on the streets and a certain career for many first-generation Italians.

LaGuardia believed that organ grinders perpetuated a stereotype of his countrymen. He spoke half a dozen languages: Italian, Croatian, Yiddish, German, French and Hungarian.

Mount Hebron sits on the former 2,000-acre Spring Hill estate of Colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, who died in 1776, four days after the British claimed New York. Colden acted as the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Confederacy and wrote the first history of the Five Nations. A doctor and botanist, the polymath was a patrician pioneer of public health, an expert on the subject of yellow fever. Looked okay in his crimson regalia.

Colden was reportedly not a nice guy. A slaveowner, he reputedly sold one female member of his chattel, a “good House Negro,” for a cargo of “white muscovado” sugar. He got a lot of flak from American patriots, who to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 burned him in effigy along with his coach after smashing it to smithereens in a celebratory bonfire on Manhattan’s Bowling Green (note: then a small green park where you could still go to bowl).

Cadwallader Colden had a number of distinguished children, but the standout was his daughter Jane, who followed in her father’s Linnaeus-inspired footsteps and became the first botanist of her sex in America. Most famous for her untitled manuscript describing the flora of the Hudson Valley that featured her own ink drawings – she was the first scientist to describe the gardenia! – Jane died  tragically from complications of childbirth in 1766, at the age of 41.

A visitor to her home noted that she actually made “the best cheese I ever ate in America,” a skill she detailed in her Memorandum of Cheese in 1756.

Cadwallader is buried here somewhere, in present-day Queens, in a plot on his old property, where he now rubs shoulders with mobsters, Yiddish stage stars and survivors of evil. Jane lies interred at the family’s upstate estate near her beloved flowers. I think she might have liked the pin oaks that line Main Street as much as I do.

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A nice trail at a nice time

if you happen to be a dog. Not.

Or the owner of a dog. Nope.

Or people temporarily in possession of granddogs. Yes. Their actual, official humans are in Italy for the week, so Gus and Ottie are making do with us.

Magic hour. Rowley’s Bridge.

Nice trail if you happen to like white mulberries.

Swamp white oaks.

A sugar maple mysteriously tagged long ago.

We buried a dog here once. Grave undisturbed, good to see.

A stand of mature osage orange trees, probably celebrating their millionth birthday. No production yet this year, of course.

Maclura pomifera is not actually an orange at all, though its oversize pimply fruits do resemble citrus. It is linked more closely to the mulberry. Native Americans preferred its wood for war clubs and bows, so much so that they would travel many miles to harvest the trees.

A nice place to pick raspberries, now still holding tightly to their promise.

The Hudson, majestic. A word coined specifically to describe the Hudson.

Tracks looking very Stand By Me.

I’m pretty sure we once parked here to speak of things that matter.

A nice place for a Golden mud bath in a filthy stream.

Just a start if you are a German short hair. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, according to  Seneca. Apt words for dog ball chasing.

Back at home for more wind sprints under the sycamore maple. Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure. Another quote applicable to ball chasing from another sage, Mr. Stephen King.

Why not stop and smell the tiger lily blooming out of a patch of fennel?

It’s a granddog’s life. Food, water, a ball chase at magic hour. Soak up all the mud while you can.

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Fragrant, spicy, lemony, lush and voluptuous

are some of the inadequate terms we use to describe roses, but equivalent to the terms oenophiles employ for the equally ineffable flavors of wine. Oaky, fruity, tannic, et cetera.

Really, no word can describe the experience of sticking your nose in a bloom and inhaling. My friend needs little encouragement to dive in. Swoon.

The thing to do if it is available to you (as they say in yoga class, referring to your ability to hold a pose) is to simply wander about a rose garden like the one at the Lyndhurst Estate and, yes, stop and smell the roses. We are so fortunate to have this magical place within walking distance.

What I love is that delving into botanical literature you find that roses have stories, roses are stories. The Lyndhurst rose garden was first planted in 1914 as the project of Helen Gould, the eldest daughter of robber baron Jay Gould, who bought  the estate in the 1880s. Over time and with successive owners who weren’t quite as enthused about the project it almost died out, to be revived by the Garden Club of Irvington-on-Hudson starting in 1968. Now 500 plants in five concentric rings thrive at the garden’s peak each June, and the lot is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Each ring features different kinds: the outer ring has been planted with shrub and old garden roses, the middle hybrid teas and grandiflora, and the inner with polyanthas and floribundas. The ones I like best have labels, barely legible old keys to each one’s provenance.

Pink Knockout, for example, is a bubblegum-pink sport – meaning, basically, offspring– of Double Knock Out. Kind of like race horses.

Another, Soaring to Glory, developed as recently as 2018, is a sun lover that is especially resistant to disease. Something to like in a rose.

One of the arches bears a mysterious old plaque, Zepherine Drouhin.

It’s a special flower, dating back to 1868, described in the rose literature as a vigorous climbing Bourbon rose with masses of highly fragrant, semi-double, carmine flowers, 3 in. across (8 cm), counting up to 30 petals. Born on thornless, purplish stems.

The world might be complicated, tedious, awful. The only complexity of rosa is how many petals each one has, what shape its whorl, how the heck you describe its scent to differentiate it from all the other spectacular specimens. There is no bad rose.

One reminds me of a wild rose we once found in a neighboring meadow. Why it strayed from a domestic border I don’t know. That flower had no name that I ever knew; it was anonymous yet ravishing. I dug up part of it when we sold the house and replanted it when we moved to suburbia, careful to leave some of the roots so the plant would bloom for the new occupants.

Some efforts fail, as in life outside the rose garden. Some deaths remain in the borders as if to remind us that existence is in fact fleeting. Such as Summer Surprise, surprisingly a nonstarter.

Or Voluptuous, which doesn’t quite live up to its hype.

You must time your visit to the 67-acre Lyndhurst properly. We have been overeager and jumped the gun with a visit when the season has barely started, only to find tight buds, not yet coaxed into blooming by sun and rain.

On the other hand, if you go too late in June, much of the fragile prettiness has shattered. Already, today, petals litter the lawn.

But still we find swaths of buxom beauties.

It’s difficult to take a bad photo of a rose, try as you might.

This is what one looks like close up.

Though it’s tempting to click, best to pocket your phone and simply drift from bed to bed, under the perfect sky, in a state of rose-addled bliss.

The frame of a greenhouse designed in 1881 by Lord & Burnham, when it was built the largest in the country, rises beyond a hillock. Once the foremost metal-framed conservatory in the country, now a ruin. You know I love ruins.

When Jay Gould had it built, he was inordinately proud of the orchids that were raised here – with a full-time staff of 16 gardeners, what could go wrong? – and used to run the plants down to gift to grateful New York City residents, with a steam heater to keep the flowers warm. Now there are just three gardeners to run the whole estate, and the greenhouse is nominally off limits.

Okay. But an original fountain in the center bubbles, its bowl upheld by… pelicans perhaps? Or some mythological creature with bird feet?

When Helen Gould first dreamed up the rose garden, she planned for the folly to have only pink climbing roses. After her death, the estate passed to her younger sister Anna, the Dutchess of Talleyrand-Perigord, who had gained a divorce from her new husband’s cousin Boni, the Count of Castellane, he who had bilked her of $10 million of her inheritance. The heiress had two children in this second marriage, Howard de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan (1909-1929), who died of a self-inflicted gun wound when his parents refused him permission to marry until he was 21, and Helene Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord,  who married Comte James Robert de Pourtalès, divorced him, then married Gaston Palewski, former Minister of Scientific Research, Atomic Energy and Space Questions. Lives perfumed with the best of the best, aside from that unfortunate suicide. By the time Anna went to the rose garden in the sky in 1961, few of the shrubs were left.

Jay Gould enriched the lives of his swanky city pals with orchids. Perhaps he might have sent roses.

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Perfectly performed

on a perfect early spring evening in Tompkins Square Park, the music of a person (pronouns fluid, if you are up to date) who calls his band Pinc Louds. He began in 2015 playing in the New York City subways for spare change, and now he goes all over the world, but also does his thing in New York at places like Joe’s Pub and Lincoln Center and Poisson Rouge. Still plays gigs for free in the Park though, as a fixture of the East Village.

He’s from Puerto Rico, and in his few hours not occupied with music he’s known as Claudi. 

Dogs walked their people all over the place.

Pinc Louds worked out on his guitar, though sometimes he prefers electrified mbira.

The friend I strolled with has played with him before – she’s a fantastic mbira player too. She describes his voice as Billie Holiday in Puerto Rico. Sometimes he has giant puppets with him.  Wish I’d seen that.

I especially liked the lyrics of one of his songs:

A little girl she tells me I got soul

She sees it when I sing

Yes, a little girl she tells me I got soul

She sees it when I sing

I tell a girl your eyes are getting old

You couldn’t tell a mountain from a hole

‘cause I can’t feel a thing

No, I can’t feel a thing

No, not even when I sing

[Chorus]

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

Cause there’s no soul in our bodies

Just soul in our brains

[Verse 1]

Ooh, Singin’

My heart ain’t singin’

And still

You’re wishin’ on it like you’re wishin’ on a wishing well

The drops sink to the murky depths of hell

I saw you once and you

Your little stars were true

Please take me up with you

[Verse 2]

So press me to your dress

And press me to your thighs

And press me to your chest

Caress me ‘til I’m blessed into the tide

Rushing to your blushing blood inside

And though the die is cast

And I am sinking fast

I feel alive at last

[Chorus]

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

Cause there’s no soul in our bodies

Just soul in our brains

Under the shade of a big old tree in the park, just leafing out, dusk fell. Yes, Virginia, there are big old trees on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Critics have deemed Pinc Louds “the band that saved summer” because it appeared in the park during the pandemic and lifted everybody’s spirits. People of all ages danced and went wild, with socially distanced mosh pits.

Someone’s observation underfoot. Not necessarily true, at least on this good-luck night.

Claudi and his wife have a baby at home. He told me that the child has watched him “transition” into his performance getup, but hasn’t yet had any kind of reaction. You can check out Pinc Louds on YouTube.

Pinc Louds, you can wear whatever you want, whatever look you want to rock. Just keep singing.

Your music is splendid.

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Can a flower speak to you?

I think it’s possible.

Standing in Floral Park, Queens, under the canopy of Lady Linden, I’m distracted by the  perfume in the air.

It takes something to be distracted in the shade of a linden, especially at this time of year, when the heart-shaped leaves (cordate, if you want the technical term) have materialized and you can see the lighter colored bracts hanging all over the trees like golden tickets out of Willie Wonka. Few seem to agree about the purpose of the mysterious linden bracts, which are actually a kind of specialized leaf. Do they exist to channel rainwater away from delicate buds and flowers, do they attract bees, are they some kind of wing to carry seeds away?

Lindens are magical — in ancient mythology, tilia symbolizes faithful love, and is more currently believed to neutralize negative energy. The edible flower is a sedative. Its fragrance is also seductive, but flowers here haven’t yet bloomed… so what smells so good on the streets of Queens? It could be the curry cooking in someone’s house, as I watch the Sikhs go about their business.

Yes, here there are plenty of Norway maples and honey locusts—weed trees — and pin oaks (no tree looks lovelier silhouetted against the sky).

Even some Japanese pagoda trees in these cramped New York City tree pits. Take that, Bronx Botanical Garden! Where we’re working I see a baggy, saggy old London plane, sheltering a seedling in its crook.

You might think it has seen better days, but I would assert this actually is this tree’s better day, perhaps its best, the distinguished old grandmawmaw, queen of the Queens block where Whitney Avenue meets Bryant Avenue, no doubt rooted here long before the tickytacky abodes sprung up in the neighborhood.

But what is so sweet about the air today? I looked around and then I crowdsourced some Petal Pushers I know to find out the ways in which flowers have spoken to them.

A lot of our passions seem to come down to bouquets. The yellow sweetheart roses in my wedding bouquet, a memory that blooms every time I see a yellow rosebush.

Lily of the valley, noted by one Petal Pusher as the bouquet she loved passionately but was denied when she got married because the flowers were “too fragile,” though she knew her mother had held them as a bride. Another Petal Pusher told me she was obsessed with the lilies of the valley in her yard when she was growing up, remembering leaning over them to inhale.

The lilacs by the railroad tracks one Petal Pusher used to gather for his mother: nobody cared how many I picked, he says.

I remember as a teen being so captivated by the scent of honeysuckle that I searched out the essence of honeysuckle perfume and dabbed it on, drowning pleasantly in its fragrance.

I always wanted to grow allium, the giant onion, but never have. Once upon a time, when we lived in a farmhouse in an upstate apple orchard, I used to patronize the garden of one Mrs. Yurg — she sold rose plants and day lilies, and visiting her you’d wind up chatting over a bucket of day lily plants swimming in a cold bath.

Some Petal Pushers cherish flowers that they associate with a loved one no longer with us. Trilium, for example, was the favorite of one Petal Pusher’s mother, whose passion for the wildflower was something the family would gently tease her about. White orchid, says another Petal Pusher, recalling the one that stood as a sentinel overseeing her husband’s hospital room at the end.

Flowers can speak of another time, a simpler time. Or perhaps they give a more complicated past some simplicity. The garish spectacle of tulips in a Dutch field, in the recall of someone who saw them on a teen tour of Europe. We passed fields and fields in every color of the rainbow. I swooned!

The iris farm across the street from where one Petal Pusher lived in college, into which he slipped on hands and knees so no one would see me to gather floral displays for dinner parties.Swanky!

The lotus blossom, which signifies resilience, on account of the troubled adolescents this Petal Pusher works with.

Childhood memories. Someone fancied Rose of Sharon: We would wait until a bee went deep into the flower then close it up.

Still another Petal Pusher reminisced about the wild purple lupines that grew at the edge of her grandparents’ land, and how she used to pretend I was either a Pilgrim or a Witch, and the lupines were my food or magic elixir.

I recently paid a visit to a border of peonies I walked by every June on my way to high school. Peonies, I have often thought, are the perfect flower. The ones I remembered had vanished, and I guess the new residents preferred the tired old standby, arbor vitae. Undeterred, I called upon a church where I knew they’d be on display, and I wasn’t disappointed. There they were, nodding after the rain.

And only one pink specimen in bloom, a promise of what’s to come.

Complete with a moment of inspiration.

In Queens, under the tilia, it is the rose that permeates the air, framed as it is by the chain link.

A rose is a rose is a rose – something of a misquote, in fact, from Gertrude Stein’s 1913 poem Sacred Emily.

She really said, Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, somewhat less intelligibly, referring to a person named Rose, but more the way Stein rocks it. Later, as the quote became known, she commented: Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a … is a … is a …’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

The point about roses is it doesn’t matter the location, they’re always superb. Yes, as I said, yellow sweetheart roses. But even the delicate pink but somewhat frowzy ones shine against the vinyl siding in Floral Park.

It can’t only be the roses. Is it the clover? Crush one between your fingers and it releases the scent of honey.  A whole yard of clover – why does anyone plant turfgrass?

They are truly bellyflowers, the term another Petal Pusher shared that is used by wildflower fanciers to denote blossoms you have to get down low to see, preferably with a jeweler’s loupe. Don’t possess a loupe? No time like the present.

Another flower lover prefers the gigantic fleshy flowers, like the okra blossom she grows on her deck.

Remember flower power? Such a cool expression. Coined in 1965 by American poetry icon Allen Ginsburg and inspiring countless daisy head garlands, not to mention the practice of inserting daisies into the snouts of National Guardsmen’s weapons.

Generations later, powerful flowers survive in Queens, between the curry and the bracts.

They do speak to those who listen.

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Someone we need to remember

this Memorial Day: Kara Hultgreen F-14 pilot in the U.S. Navy, who perished in a tragic accident in 1994. I got to know Hultgreen lo so many years ago while researching Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook. I wrote the book at a tipping point – in 1992, the Navy changed its outdated policies on recruitment, retention, training and selection of occupational fields to be “gender neutral to the maximum extent possible.” Women could now serve in all combat positions except SEAL commando units and submarines, and the top brass was putting them on aircraft carriers methodically, albeit slowly. Of course, women had long served honorably, and they had earned this expanded role.

Just as the book was going to press, Hultgreen died.

When she trained as an F-14 Tomcat pilot alongside men when she didn’t know if she would ever get to serve as anything other than as an instructor. Now that the Navy had changed its rules for women, she would get the chance to go out on real missions. Hultgreen was rangy and brash and smart, like so many of her male counterparts in Navy flying. I had spent hours with her, much because so many people I had interviewed said, Kara, she’s the one you should talk to. She’s the real thingA real Top Gun. Her handle was The Hulk. Now she had carrier qualified (brought her F-14 to land on the deck of the carrier with its tailhook catching the wire stretched across the deck) and she’d joined the Black Lions of VF-213, who were getting ready to deploy to the Persian Gulf. Her squadron’s aircraft carrier was the USS Abraham Lincoln, or, as Hultgreen enjoyed calling it, the Babe-raham Lincoln – the Babe.

I was writing the last few pages of Tailspin, writing about Kara and the future of naval aviation’s women, when I opened the Times on October 26, 1994 to see her picture. During a practice run over the Pacific, as Hultgreen was readying her plane to land, the aircraft suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the ocean. She wasn’t able to eject in time to survive the accident.

Women in today’s military know the chances they are taking.  That old chestnut, She died doing what she loved, is one I have always found a bit dubious, yet in this case it was so true. As you enjoy the blockbuster Top GunMaverick, remember Kara as a true maverick and leader in naval aviation.

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Memory lane has no potholes.

A trip to see a large old tree, rotten to the core, in my capacity as a member of my village’s Tree Board, led me to the neighborhood where I grew up. In fact, it stands right across the street from my childhood home.

That street served as my madeleine during this visit. Indulge me, recalling the cocky sprite that I was.

As T.S. Eliot said, We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

As I explored I felt awash in memories, each one a bead on a string, recalling experiences that seemed so important when I was growing up, forgotten until now.

The woods where we raked our teeth over birch twigs, relishing the taste of wintergreen.

The curb at the corner where a kid confessed he was sweet on me.

The stucco steep-roofed house, the abode of a witch in my imagination.

The street just over the line in the next town, so near and yet impossibly foreign. An early introduction to the concept of borders.

The house inhabited by my neighbors the Quinns, family of a friend we would now call “learning disabled,” dancing on her lawn to the strains of Dylan’s song Quinn the Eskimo. Yes, I know that Manfred Mann had the hit.

The Andersons’ substantial abode, and it was always a marvel that they rolled out fresh sod to replace the grass each spring.

Our house, with the long shadow of an oak in whose hollow I built houses out of acorns and twigs, now seemingly inhabited by hoarders.

Clapboard across the way, where we knew a friends’ mother was chronically “depressed,” without the slightest inkling of what that meant.

Our neighbors, whose son a jock I never conversed with but who always seemed to my teenage heart the most perfect physical specimen.

A beautifully landscaped property with massive rhododendrons – we’d sneak in and it was always totally, mysteriously desolate of humans.

A house in which lived friends whose mother and father were both, incredibly to me, doctors, and where I almost jumped out of my skin at a slumber party viewing of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

A household perfectly of the times in which the parents smoked pot and the daughters had sex with their boyfriends.

Site of teenage friend’s sudden death by cerebral aneurysm – I remember the oddest thing, that his mother used to bake a ham and leave it on the counter for visitors to consume.

The family whose house I cleaned as a maid for a day until I was asked to scrub the toilets, whereupon I quit.

The sledding hill where I stayed out so long I peed in my snowsuit.

The horse chestnut tree whose glossy conkers in their spiky green suits were the object of my fascination.

The old stone pumphouse, now defunct, with a tar roof that served as a gathering place and fort.

Memories, some of them sweet, others not so much. But they’re mine. You have your own – draw a map of your childhood street and see where it takes your imagination. Know the place for the first time. Yes.

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Little paths wind through

the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The sprawling 281-acre park was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1872 and still represents a great refuge if the crush of the metropolis (ha ha, crush? In Boston? I guess it’s all relative) begins to get to you. Of course we took the quiet, meandering little Beech Path.

There are indeed majestic beeches here. Some have their root zones cordoned off, to keep would-be vandals away from the tempting, gleaming silver bark.

Rene had obviously snuck in at some earlier time and made his mark. Or her mark. Or their mark. Whomever the culprit might be in this gender-fluid age.

The leaves of the copper beech positively glow.

A massive pin oak displays its new leaves with their deeply cut nodes.

Elsewhere, Beacon Street in Boston proper is thick with flourishing white oaks, whose leaves’ curves always remind me of old fashioned doilies. Along the venerable trolley tracks we also see plenty of green ash, with some of the urban forest in poor shape. The city began a tree inventory in Spring 2021 and vowed to examine all of its ash population to determine which ones had suffered depredation from emerald ash borer. Which ones could be saved and treated with the possibility of survival, and which would have to go. Looks like it’s more than about time to render this assessment. When city planners put these ash specimens in the soil many years ago, no one knew what would happen to them – it was imagined they would just keep on growing forever, not be felled by a lowly beetle. But, as is well known, stuff happens. We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us, said E.M. Forster.

Despite its moniker other trees also share the Arboretum’s Beech Path grove with the beeches. Eastern pines.

A Norway spruce, bristling with cones.

The fragrance that comes off the ground is reminiscent of happy camping summers. I’m ready to roll out a sleeping bag right here! Life is just one ecstasy after another, said Margaret Anderson, the publisher who founded The Little Review, early on in another century, famous for publishing Pound and Elliott when no one else thought the greats were any great shakes.

Rhododendron claims top honors among the Arboretum’s scented flowers right at the moment.

Azalea for color.

Compared with me, a tree is immortal wrote Sylvia Plath, And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,/

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Lilac, the favorite of grannies and granny wannabe’s, is still in bloom.

Sitting on a log, we speak of things that matter, with people we don’t get to see that often. Also of things that don’t matter at all. Under the trees, all that really matters is that we are here, now, with each other.

Wrote Ezra Pound:

…whatever comes

One hour was sunlit and the most high gods

May not make boast of any better thing

Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

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Today is the finest day of the season

and possibly of the year, and maybe in the history of the world, and I am going for a walk with my friend Barbara, an author, the type of person who can use the word lyrical in a sentence and get away with it.

I always like the Lyndhurst estate, acres of lawn and statuesque trees surrounding a faux castle once belonging to robber baron Jay Gould.

The dogwoods dazzle. Some people find the pink ones too garish.

 I would agree that the white blossoms appear more classic.

Note: dogwood flowers are really not flowers at all, but bracts, a kind of leaf. When the cherries and apples and redbuds have faded and the dogwoods step up, I am glad to have the last pink trees of the season.

The weeping copper beech has not yet leafed out. It shows its bones,  a ruddy red.

In her intricate book about the beech, Casting Deep Shade, C.D. Wright tells us that the druids grew wise eating their nuts. And that in dreams, the tree signifies both wisdom and death.

I love the inscribed bark of the trunk, the place of bold identity statements and love proclamations.

Another senescent one on the estate  had to go, and its fulsome branches lay tumbled in the sparkling sunlight.

Magnolia shows no sign of blossoms to come, now all waxy leaves.

We enter the private drawing room of a gargantuan old linden.

Its heart shaped leaves so delicate against the sturdy old branches.

Everything smells incredible. The lilacs. Lilac wafts on air beautifully, though its syrupy scent is somehow a bit chemical. I remember a bank of lilacs that towered over  a lawn near a cabin we lived in when we first were married, taking it for granted, believing that around every corner would stand a bank of lilacs.

We inhale the fresh cut grass. That classic smell, which seems like simplicity itself, is actually an airborne mix of carbon-based compounds called green leaf volatiles, or GLVs. Plants often release these molecules when bruised by insects, infections or mechanical forces — like a lawn mower. GLVs are small enough to take to the air and float into our nostrils, and sometimes they can be detected more than a mile from the place where they originated.

I’m not big on lawns, but experts estimate that there are something like 40 million acres manicured grass across the United States, and mowing becomes our best chance to encounter that incredible smell. According to scientists, people who live near tea plantations in China might get the same feeling from the scent of the tea harvest.

The only aroma to rival that of cut grass is petrichor, the cool word for the way the earth smells after it rains.

The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, and it also has a scientific basis, derived as it is from when chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are released. These aromatic compounds combine to create the pleasant petrichor scent when rain hits the ground. Related, at least in terms of glossing some of the finer points of rain, the Japanese have a word, potsupotsu, that describes the sporadic raindrops that you see (or feel) when it is just about to start raining.

Now that’s lyrical.

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The thing about Arbor Day

is that while for most folks it’s about planting a few symbolic trees, its reach is immense.

I attended a celebratory event in White Plains on April 29, at Highlands Middle School, produced by the White Plains Beautification Foundation, a group that believes “the beautification of our City lifts the spirits of all who live here, work here, or who are just passing through.” What grinch could argue with that?

Babies bounced.

Gentlemen gave the proceedings their undivided attention.

The ceremony included remarks by White Plains’ mayor and the commissioner of public works, and also a speaker subbing for the school’s principal in his absence (he had something more pressing to do?). The jazz band stepped up, after the requisite teenage hair styling.

Everyone in a fine mood on this chilly April afternoon. Even the stalwart edifice of the school building received its share of compliments from the podium.

The grounds seemed to have been prepped for the occasion, with bright and shining pink-blooming trees all around. Is it my imagination, or is this the finest spring on record for springtime tree flash?

Two trees were already in the ground, so no one had to get their shoes muddy: an eastern red cedar and a black gum, one dedicated to a beloved teacher nicknamed Mr. Bill and the other to a generous-minded graduate of the school district who owns a successful auto body shop in the city.

My colleague George Profous, a genius forester with the New York State Department of Conservation, attended. We cochair a committee for a group called ReLeaf, whose purpose is to educate and advocate for trees.

There are too many Arbor Day functions around the lower Hudson Valley for George to visit all of those whose municipalities he has assisted, but his presence here was gratefully acknowledged.

Finally, a literary contribution, from student and no-doubt future Certified Arborist Olivia Tuzel.

She had clearly put a lot of time and thought into the subject.

Trees, what more could they be?

Oxygen providers, contributors to cozy fires

And perhaps nothing more than suppliers

Within the grained surface, lies more than what we see

But our greed envelops our cravings, blinding us from an everlasting fee…

And so on, for six meaningful stanzas.

I liked the last one.

All we need is devotion and effort to bring change

Along with a little bit of hope

So that future generations can tell their children,

“No need to fret, that part of our past lies only as an educational anecdote.”

In 1882, the first American Forestry Congress convened in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, in conjunction with the first National Arbor Day tree planting, attended by 25,000 people. Saplings named for prior U.S. presidents got planted, their roots moistened by children wielding watering cans.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” runs the Chinese proverb. “The second best time is now.” 

How else to address the macro issue of climate change? Start on a micro scale. Plant a tree. Even a tiny seedling contributes to reforestation. It seems every organization is putting a million, a billion, a trillion trees in the ground, an impulse that serves as a poetic if not totally logical reaction to the recession of actual forest lands. I know New York is beefing up its already ambitious arboricultural effort. The ever-worthy Arbor Day Foundation has fostered the planting of nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world.

Even the Girl Scouts (or of course the Girl Scouts?) have climbed on the bandwagon, pledging that they will plant five million trees in five years. Middle-schoolers track the trees they plant on line to earn a Girl Scout Tree Promise patch.

Arbor Day can be every day – at least in the cool weather of spring or fall. So go ahead, get your shoes muddy.

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A felicitous and unexpected event

took place on Ellis Island. That’s my favorite kind of event, don’t know about you. A duck took it into her head to create a new family in an abandoned enclosed courtyard.

We have a few of these areas in the ruined hospital complex: semicircular, small spaces where patients would have been encouraged to go in order to take some fresh air. Back in the day.

Now the lovely little courtyards are crumbling, of course, and trees grow up out of the once manicured ground. Nice installation here by the French artist J.R. Perhaps not well known in America but applauded throughout the rest of the world as a photo-graffeur, J.R. wheat-pastes enlarged archival images on windows and walls. At Ellis, they lend a piquant magic to the surroundings.

How do ducks decide where to lay their eggs? Do ducks even think about it? By the way, how did a clutch of 11 eggs fit inside the womb of so diminutive a creature? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sometimes I feel like a teenager just learning about the world. And that’s something, for a wizened old woman like me. Always surprises, all around.

At Ellis Island, if you can tear your vision away from the scorching views of the lady in the harbor there are many other revelatory experiences to be had. Openings into other worlds.

But this one was not expected. I couldn’t see the mama duck, to begin with, she hid herself so well, even though I was told by a fellow Educator that she was in fact there. Then one day she appeared, and not only that, her eggs had hatched. If you know anything about ducks, you know that their eggs take about 30 days to incubate and that you should never under any circumstances try to relocate the nest, even a short distance, as the maternal progenitor might not recognize it as her own and fly the coop.

Ultimately eight brawny, uniformed members of the Parks Service came in with two by fours and built a ramp so that the mother duck could march up and out with her brood of ducklings (aka a waddle of ducklings). We’ve got it under control, the head of the team told me, a serious look on his handsome face.

Ellis is well known for processing immigrants, less famous for hosting wildlife. However, animals are abundant here, from feral cats and abandoned dogs to raccoons, a bewildered fox, geese, gulls and falcons. Also rats of course. I am hoping not to meet a raccoon on one of my tours. The critters all cross the secret bridge from Jersey, just as I do, and then I guess they like this habitat, or else they don’t know how to leave. The fowl arrive by water or air, of course.

Secrets and surprises are my favorite things. Something else I like, making mistakes. It’s humbling, and that’s how I grow.

Apparently the lady mallard nests in the same courtyard every year. The new family has to be helped out and led along the damp dank dark corridors of the contagious disease hospital to safety. And they made it.

Hooray. Nature triumphs over adversity, with a little help from burly humans. Good to know. Just watch out for hungry foxes.

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Weedy but wonderful redbud

buds out at the end of April-early May, strutting its stuff alongside highways and abandoned roads. Then it explodes into bloom. There are a few I pass going to and from Ellis Island, in Liberty State Park.

No one pays them any mind.

But the tree also plays well with others, at home in a civilized suburban yard, behind a chainlink fence.

I love this specimen because of the magical way its blossoms stray from the expected place, bursting forth straight out of the bark on its branches and trunk, like the one I caught alongside a busy street in Austin. The botanical term for this habit is “cauliflory,” and I think I like it because it is just so preposterous.

Redbud’s fuchsia is a color unparalleled in nature. Soon it will have heart-shaped leaves.

Ezra Pound wrote of “petals on a wet dark bough.”

That’s redbud, ravishing and ephemeral. Just like spring.

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My father fell for an orchid

late in life. It was a simple series of white flowers on a stem, nothing fancy, yet he insisted that it accompany him from the hospital to his room in the Care Center. A friend had brought it as a gift, and it somehow spoke to him, he who had never had a thought for plants earlier in his life. Orchids can be magical.

The ones at the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show practically knocked me to the ground.

I was lulled by the piped-in yoga-class soundtrack. Then reawakened again and again by the five greenhouses’ worth of tropical specimens.

How can something be unique yet generic, astoundingly beautiful yet ho-hum, run of the mill? That was my honest assessment of the oxymoronic goods on hand.

The orchids went on and on.

Moth orchids, ghost orchids, slipper orchids, rainbow orchids. Moonlit orchids, which attract nocturnal pollinators, and are also especially fragrant by the light of the moon.

Sugary.

Clownish.

Ever so slightly obscene.

A bit of TMI, thank you very much.

Easy on the signage, New York Botanical Garden horticulturalists! Sometimes I prefer my facts optional, at least when viewing the natural world.

I found myself admiring other living beings in the vicinity, anything not obviously pretty, the ones with thorns, like the South American floss-silk tree.

Or the non-orchid plant that that presented itself in an extraordinary, almost indescribable shade of green – a jade vine, it grows only in the Philippines.

I was drawn to the womb of a tunnel that connected parts of the exhibit.

And my fellow visitors clicking, clicking, clicking, intent on capturing the essence of a particular flower. Human beings, cameras, nature, always fascinating. Note: it is impossible to take a bad picture of an orchid.

Outside, the catkins dangled from the April birch.

A prickly sweetgum seedpod lay nestled in the grass beneath its parent, a sweetgum tree not yet leafed out.

And the equally prickly human being waiting on our bench for the next tram.

The orchids are always going to be splendiferous, whether they come from the supermarket or the Enid Haupt Conservatory show. The ones I saw today made me realize how exquisite everything else is, too.

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My own personal cherry tree

may not be the biggest or the buffest, but it is the best because I see it outside my office window every day.

It grows outside the municipal building in our village. I’ve been looking forward to the moment it blooms.

The cherry trees are not the only ones to boast the perfection of spring – window box planters down the street are filled with blooms so perfect they look like they’re not even real.

Why is it that trees that weep make us happy? Weeping willows, weeping beeches. I know that it is the pendulant cherry trees which I like the best.

In Branch Brook Park, in Newark, New Jersey, 5,200 white and pink trees burst into bloom at approximately the same time in April. That’s more than they have in D.C., and quite a bit closer to home, so we thought we’d go for a look. First, fortify with a “belly buster” hot dog from JJ’s food truck, the finest New Jersey has to offer in that department.

Clouds of blossoms appear everywhere you look. The park received its first cherry trees, called sakura in Japan, as a gift in 1927.

Branch Brook is an urban park. Roads cut through it, creating an interesting counterpoint between the natural, graceful trees and the hard-edged automotive energy. Reminds me of Central Park in Manhattan, probably because the hills and dales and automotive conduits were designed by Olmsted Brothers, the successors to Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind Central Park’s greenscapes.

Picnics under every tree. The Japanese call the practice of imbibing under a blooming sakura hanam, and the tradition goes back centuries, to the Heian period (794–1185).

Part of the modern tradition, posing for pictures.

Quilts of dandelions dot the lawns.

If you look closely, what I consider perhaps the cherry tree’s best feature: Its lenticel-scored bark. That’s how it breathes.

Cherry trees are not universally cherished.

I knew that protesters had chained themselves to cherry trees in a park on the lower east side, on Manhattan’s East River, so I went to have a look. NYC is shoring up the edge of the island to make it more flood-resistant, to the tune of $1.4 billion, and the sakuras, among others, would have to go. This conflict has to do with what needs to be taken away to achieve the city’s goal. Protesters are having none of it.

Taking the footbridge over the FDR to Corlears Hook Park,  I saw the classic sneakers hung over a wire –a practice whose meaning has been disputed. Gang activity, loss of virginity, mere hijinks?

In this case, it did not indicate anything positive. Everything had been bulldozed, everything was gone.

Early Saturday morning, a pair of protesters were charged with criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration. The city plans to cut down 1,000 trees for the project. The irony of cutting down trees to fight climate change was not lost on protesters. It’s a tough call, certainly.

Back home, my own personal tree, the weeping sakura, though small, stood tall.

I felt fortunate that it wasn’t going anyplace anytime soon.

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