Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

Happy birthday, Edith Wharton!

New York’s finest author (to my mind) was born into the uppertens 160 years ago, and wound up giving us some of the most indelible writing about the city, including The Age of InnocenceThe House of Mirth, and countless Manhattan-centric short stories. Her engrossing memoir, A Backward Glance, has become a classic.

In her autobiography, we learn of her pampered childhood, at which time she could comb through her father’s library but was forbidden by her mother to  read novels because that wasn’t something young ladies did. Edith Newbold Jones grew up in a brownstone at 14 West 23 Street, a relation of the Rensselaers and Astors, at a time when this constituted the best part of town. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her father’s family.

She was only four when she started what she called “making up,” inventing stories for her family. She attempted to write a novel at age eleven, but when her mother expressed her disapproval “Pussy Jones” turned to poetry, earning publication in numerous literary mags under an assumed name. Her interest in writing fiction couldn’t be impeded, though, and at 15 she secretly wrote a novella called Fast and Loose. She indulged her passion for dogs throughout her life.

Her mother looked more favorably on debuting Wharton in society, and she came out in 1879 at a December dance given by a New York society matron, with her shoulders bare and her hair arranged in a fashionable up-do. Clothes and visits and calling cards were everything.

Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciousness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her: “the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.”

Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.

Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.

“Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.”

Then she met a well-bred Boston man, Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton, who was 12 years her senior, married him in 1885 at the age of 23, and together they set up house in Newport. They travelled in Europe (she eventually crossed the Atlantic 60 times) and bought a Park Avenue, New York home in 1897. Teddy suffered depression and other seemingly undiagnosed mental problems, and they eventually divorced.

The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, was purchased in 1902. She wrote the first of her new York chronicles, The House of Mirth, there in 1905. That is my favorite of her books, and ends (spoiler alert) with a knock-em-dead death scene.

She entertained in Lenox too, including hosting her good friend Henry James, who described the place as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” There are some funny stories about their trips out motoring together when the automobile was new. She also visited James in England, recalling how the two of them sat by a ditch at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. “For a long time no one spoke,” she wrote, “then James turned to me and said solemnly: ‘Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’” Kudos to James for the wonderful thought and to Wharton for capturing it for posterity.

Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton’s canon was extensive: 15 novels, 7 novels and 85 short stories, poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism and a memoir. Her Pulitzer came for The Age of Innocence, published in 1920. (In case you were wondering, as I was, Scott Fitzgerald never got a Pulitzer and Hemingway didn’t get his until The Old Man and The Sea in the 1950s.) She was the first American woman to garner a Pulitzer.

For The Age of Innocence, she drew upon the experiences of her childhood. Her great-aunt Mary Mason Jones – personified as Mrs. Manson Mingott in the novel — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had had the first bathtub in New York installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. The buildings were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

The feat of bringing about these architectural gems and then living there is remarkable when you realize that in that era, north of the reservoir stretched a still undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863,  facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.

Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.

Wharton describes Mingott in the novel: “It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting–room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one–story saloons, the wooden green–houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble–stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as every one she cared to see came to HER (and she could fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic isolation.”

Those hoardings, quarries, saloons and goats were quite realistic descriptions of the acreage that would one day become Central  Park.

About her literary experience, Wharton said: “What is writing a novel like? The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi desert. The end: a night with a lover.”

When I visited The Mount I was impressed that the people there had gone to the trouble of traveling the world to track down the books Wharton originally owned, so that the library there presents an accurate picture of her life. I didn’t know it then and it even seems a little odd but Whitman was one of her favorite writers. She recalled that when she was young, “Leaves of Grass was kept under lock and key, and brought out…only in the absence of ‘the ladies’ to whom the name of Walt Whitman was unmentionable, if not utterly unknown.” Later she realized the truth:  “He sees through the layers of the conventional point of view and of the conventional adjective, straight to the thing itself…and to the endless thread connecting it with the universe.”

Despite Wharton’s restrained upbringing and allegiance to the cultural mores of her day, her brilliance allowed her to grasp the truth at the heart of a vastly different writer.

Interested in the Gilded Age? Please go to the Books tab on this site, click on Savage Girl and then on the essays I offer there. Or read Savage Girl, a mystery about a wild girl who comes of age at the end of the 19th century, or Love, Fiercely, my biography of two of the more notable figures of that age, Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.

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I’m not much for views.

I’d rather look up to the peaks than down to the valleys. So I’m fortunate that any number of stupendous trails wind around the base of the mountains at Brown’s Ranch in Phoenix.

Desert vistas abound at this former cattle ranch, which dates back to 1917.

But first you must pay attention. A warning.

I find I like the living desert, with features like this fishhook cactus.

But I equally like everything that is dead or dying.

It’s like the memento mori of the Renaissance, artwork that has ancient roots. Latin for “remember that you will have to die.” Or as I would put it, embrace death and you will live. In some accounts of ye olde Rome, a companion or public slave would stand behind some triumphant general during a procession to remind him from time to time of his own mortality or prompt him to “look behind”.

Especially meaningful to me as I watch my father wend his way toward the end. And I would like to see a death-whisperer behind some of our more insensitive politicians today.

The saguaros here are ginormous, as they say. I think the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Carnegiea gigantean counts itself a member of the cactus family, not a tree (but you knew that) and takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm. It only grows about one inch per year. This one’s a small fry.

The arms are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity, bearing more flowers and fruit.

Near Scottsdale, one known as the Grand One is 46 feet tall, measured by a representative of the National Register of Big Trees in 2005 (though, note, not a tree!), burned in the Cave Creek Complex fire and might not have  survived if not for treatment of bacterial infections and the creation of waddles, small structures made of straw that help channel streams of water towards the thirsty saguaro. I think some of the specimens I’ve seen today could reach grand status one day.

Their skeletons are amazing.

We were standing underneath a palo verde, a tree whose name translates to “green stick”, remarking upon its stature and probable age, when we heard bird noises and looked up to see a pair of Harris’s hawks tearing apart a mouse. They noticed us and fled the nest, of course, and we saw the unmistakable white color at the base of their tails.

Harris’s hawks are only one of two hawk species that hunt in pairs, like wolves. I was glad not to be descended upon!

A morning in the desert is like any morning in the desert and no other morning, all at once. It’ll weary your legs as it restores your spirit, hawks or no hawks. But they were pretty superb.

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A few corny sentiments

are in order when you’re sprung from your Covid cell, told you’ve tested negative and are free to storm the world again.

I walked in the miraculous Arizona desert landscape, among plants that are ancient yet fresh, survivors on only a few drops of rainfall a year.

The oft-quoted lines from a Mary Oliver poem seemed relevant, as sentimental as they sometimes seem: “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” Well, I thought about it as I walked.

What in fact do I want to do?

Pacing the perimeter of my parents’ development, I thought I might want to take some inspiration.

To kiss and to hug. That’s something that you think of first when you’ve been told not to come up close to anybody, even wearing a mask.

To hydrate.

The city of  Scottsdale actually goes out and dribbles water on individual plants. That’s responsible.

Allow my book to germinate.

Toughen my hide.

Bloom.

Stretch out.

Plant.

Pay attention to what’s above.

Be thornier.

Burst forth.

If I can do any of these things with a microcosmic bit of the spirit of the sage inhabitants of the desert, it will be awesome.

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“Who moves into an R.V. and hits the road

in the middle of a pandemic while our democracy and society crumble? This girl!”

This girl goes by the handle Badass Cross Stitch, but her civilian moniker is Shannon Downey, and she is out to teach us all to embroider.

On her way across the country she is offering on-line tutorials about hoops, fabric, needles and thread, as well as printable sample patterns that your grandmother might not have approved of. One pattern:

The modern-day needlework movement is a feminist one. Another pattern:

Covid hasn’t stopped her. Though it has me on pause, temporarily, hunkered down with a “mild” case in my mother’s Arizona apartment. Ever masked. Watched over by Minerva on the branch outside the balcony.

One thing Ms. Badass likes to say: “Stab it until you feel better.”

Okay. Shannon aims to teach embroidery to one million people.

“I am queer,” she writes on badasscrossstich.com, “anti-racist, anti-capitalist, highly political, and committed to growth, learning, honesty, and doing whatever I can to make this an equitable world. My art generally tackles what I call the ‘big three’ systems of oppression: white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism….I’ve lived a million lives so far and all of them have brought me to right now—doing EXACTLY what I’m supposed to be doing in this world. I live for community, equity, art, and adventure.”

“My work is meant to disrupt,” she continues. “I disrupt via the medium, the application of the medium, the projects that I build, and by living and making outside of the rules.”

“I also LOVE embroidery.”

Well, perhaps I do too. I’m willing to try, anyway.

Stabbing some shit is something to do in quarantine. As Shannon would say.

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The most famous tree guy

that no one now has ever heard of is William Bartram. Maybe you are the exception.

If you visit Bartram’s Garden outside Philadelphia you will find the oldest ginkgo tree in North America, grown from a seedling that was imported to Bartram in 1785  as a gift from noted plant collector William Hamilton of The Woodlands, in England. The Garden is now a 50-acre botanical garden on the banks of the Schuykill River, but it was once the home of naturalist and wilderness champion William Bartram.

Bartram lived out his years in the house where he was born, built by his father John and added onto over the years. John before him was a well-known botanist, in 1765 designated the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, which meant that he shipped exotic native American  seeds and plant samples across the Atlantic to not only his majesty but grateful wealthy gentlemen for their estates.

William Bartram wasn’t always a success. Though his artistic skills impressed people at an early age, he first embarked on a career as a merchant in Philadelphia and a rice farmer in the Carolinas before his father welcomed him into his botanist world in his mid-30s. He is most famous for a four- (or five-? apparently his counting skills were uneven when he was out in the woods) year stint in the unsettled wilderness of the southern United States, beginning in 1753, which he wrote about in the illustrated Travels in 1791.

Bartram waxed rhapsodic about wilderness. The key descriptor of the time was “sublime,” as in  “the sublime wilderness,” just as Thoreau would in the next century. Thoreau, a true kindred spirit, would write a friend, “I grow savager and savager every day, as if it fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness.” Not sure I totally get that grammar, but it sounds much like something William Bartram would have felt in spades out in  forest. The two of them could have gone camping together.

For Bartram, many places he goes are sublime. Camping next to Florida’s Lake George, he talks about being “seduced by these sublime enchanting scenes of primitive nature.” I love the story about his specimen collection in Georgia. He climbed far up a range “from which I enjoyed a view inexpressibly magnificent and comprehensive…. of the mountain wilderness through which I had lately traversed.” Then he adds, “my imagination thus wholly engaged in the contemplation of this magnificent landscape… I was almost insensible… of…a new species of Rhododendron.” He was a wonderful artist.

Both William and John Bartram thought snakes were great and only killed them on the trail. when absolutely necessary, even rattlers. Black snakes they judged harmless enough to keep around the house as mice hunters. (We had families of black snakes at the Cabin and I never cared for them much.) Bartram drew many gorgeous if dangerous snakes. You may still find some if you hike Bartram Trail, which follows his approximate route through the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. I’d like to try at least a part of it, though admittedly I’d rather drive down to Philadelphia and walk the more civilized pathways of the gardens where he spent so much time—the site is open 365 days a year, dawn through dusk.

He was also a champion of the afternoon nap, best performed in the shade of a favorite tree in his yard. Let’s hope that when George Washington visited the homestead he didn’t have to shake Bartram awake.

Which would you  rather do, hike Bartram Trail or visit Bartram’s Garden?

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The Palisades

sag under their coat of snow while a  god’s eye floats above.

I’ve been hunkered down, distracted by the weather, researching my book about forests. To the process of book building I raise a toast: “Let be be finale of seem,” as Wallace Stevens put it in his poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

More interesting stuff tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and don’t subscribe, please go to my main page at jeanzimmerman.com and enter your email address. Every two or three days I will come winging in to greet you.

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In our time, we will drone

to our grandchildren, it was so harsh, it was so difficult. Every day a challenge. Look at the newspaper, Covid infections run amok, out-of-control wildfires, people who had clearly lost all of their political marbles. Violence in prisons, larcenous gangs performing break and snatch routines in luxury stores.

Was it really that bad, grandmother?

Well, yes. And no.

For every one of these bad things there were people who performed miracles to make them better.

I passed  a painted stone left with some others on an old concrete pump structure as I hiked south along the Old Croton Aqueduct trail. They’d been there a long time. I never paid much mind before.

There is something about leaving a stone – on a grave, as a visitation stone, a commemoration; or a cairn, a waymarker, to help the next hiker along; or stacked in a  Zen garden, where the placement of a stone is an effort to bring order out of chaos.

Just leaving a stone, but somehow it’s moving at the close of 2021.

Let’s welcome 2022 with grace, intelligence and love. Hope. Show our grandchildren that we attempted to place a stone along the way.

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Trees are winter poems

and, like written poetry, sometimes you must talk yourself into reading them. Lyndhurst, the estate near where I live, makes it easier, because its 67 park-like acres offer an arboricultural bounty. Forget the house –a gothic revival castle designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, when romanticism reigned. (Where was Frank Lloyd Wright when we needed him?)

The place is known best as the familial headquarters of rapacious banker Jay Gould in the Gilded Age, and his daughter Helen added a bowling alley and immense greenhouse, the skeleton of which remains. Carriage roads with precisely wrought stone gutters.

The Old Croton Aqueduct cuts across the landscape, which might have been somewhat annoying to the residents of the mansion in the nineteenth century. But it was progress, and the pre-Gould-era occupants were civic minded. New York City must have pure water!

You can still follow the trail’s path up a rise.

In fact, that’s the only place you’re supposed to go off season, for some reason.

I have other plans. I have resolved to break more rules in 2020 and I think I won’t wait to set my intent.

Andrew Wyeth has an oft-quoted line: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.”

Lyndhurst in winter is all bones. A stand of oak on closer inspection reveals itself to include a burr oak (you can call it a bur oak if you want to be ridiculous.) They have the mossiest, shaggiest caps of all acorns, a look that surely serves some dendrological purpose, like keeping from being eaten.

Look closely and see that there has been some living creature here.

I know an arborist who likes these oaks for “the deep lobes and lustrous green of the leaves.” Only visible in the imagination now, of course. “The very large acorns can be the size of golf balls, which gives this oak its Latin name…  Quercus macrocarpa is a slow grower that can become quite large in maturity. Better suited for parks than street trees due to its size and the size of the acorns.“ Exactly! Here at Lyndhurst it can really spread out.

Wyeth also said: “I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.”

Live bones. A slightly scary concept but one that I like. The magnolia looks like it’s already ready for a warmer season.

Wait a bit. Enjoy your dormancy. You can explode later.

An arboretum in all but name, Lyndhurst has a number of mammoth beech trees that is so large as to be almost unfair to the rest of the world’s estates. I know that Newport has its share also. The Preservation Society of Newport County has even established a beech tree nursery “to ensure the future of the iconic landscapes of the Newport Mansions.”

Magnificent is a word undeniably coined to describe European beeches.

Weeping bones. Easier for any arborist to ID some specimens after leaf-out than now, but a beech can’t fool you.

Strong emotion on display with statuary scattered about the grounds, which I suspect no one but myself has examined closely for some time.

Some of these carvings gave off a strong whiff of an earlier era, when sexuality had to be expressed clandestinely. It was only proper to reveal oneself in all Nature’s glory if you were a nymph of some kind.

We’re still squeamish about some things even going on 2020, like depicting the litter of scat all around the Lyndhurst estate – deer, of course, and goose, and – this. First to identify it (dog, bear?) gets a mention in these pages.

I don’t know the intended meaning of this image. I’m sure it had one when carved. Bacchus wiping the wine from his face?

But it reminds me of one of my very favorite poems, written by William Butler Yeats in 1892 (the Gould epoch at Lyndhurst, though it’s hard to believe he ever read it). This poem is a douzaine, meaning a 12-liner, and in it Yeats wears his heart on his sleeve for wild woman – Irish republican revolutionary and suffragist –Maud Gonne. She knew how to break rules and she knew how to break hearts. One good way is to find a poet to make you immortal. Wish I knew her.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

That’s what that little guy hiding his face in the statuary says to me, out in the beautiful dormant cold.

I took a burr acorn cap with me when I left. To quote Jay Gould: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

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The KING of FLORIDA consulting his MAGICIAN

previous to his going to battle was the delectably mysterious caption of an old print hanging above the table at Elephant and Castle.

The latte in a bowl also was delectable on this windy Manhattan day.

I had just been reading a novel called Jacket Weather by current New York literary darling Michael DeCapite, in which Elephant and Castle figures prominently.  It’s pretty cool when you not only know the location of a place in a book but can go there on a whim, especially having been there before during another different era. I first ate at the British-pubb-ie brunchie spot decades ago, when you only had to lay out 10 bucks or so to eat Eggs Benedict with a bloody mary. DeCapite writes about Mike resuming a relationship with June, now both middle aged, having first met in the 1980s when they were in their 20s. 

He finds himself madly in love as a geezer. The book contains torrents of emotion and sex, leavened by jibing banter with the old guys at the local gym, and Italian home recipes. Worth a read, even if you can’t go for a bowl of latte. His author photo has him in a probably staged pose at what would appear to be the Chelsea Hotel. Or maybe not.

Christmas is over! Hooray! Now we can be funny again. And somber again. Just not squeezed-from-a-tube, tinny, pro forma holiday. Oh, there’s one more hurdle on the way to normalcy. New Years. For a non drinker somewhat on the “grey stone” side, though there are other substances of course. (You’ll have to look that up.)

New York City is returning to its pre-Christmas energy. A model changed her clothes on the street in a popup tent.

Emerged from the chrysalis ready for her 15 seconds of fame. Traipsed off with her handlers to wherever the real party was.

Around the corner, people could fight all they wanted.

In SoHo shops, tourists from foreign lands were exchanging expensive apparel for other expensive apparel.

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth presented itself at the Angelika Theater with all its studious black and white shadows, overhyped and overacted, but hey, it featured words by our biggest 400-year-old genius, so what could be wrong?

What a witch! Didn’t they have Christmas back then? The clothes looked expensive. And the orange blossom macaron at Angelika’s cafe proved worth the trip to Hollywood.

Up Sixth Avenue, satire ruled with the ongoing Banksy exhibit. A lot of people know the enigmatic artist’s probably most famous work, the image of a young girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon, which was first painted under the stairs at South Bank.

You can get it silkscreened on a T shirt. There is of course much more to his oeuvre.

The stencils on outdoor walls are still the best, I think.

                                                                                

I liked this 2020 doormat with its message made out of refugee life vests.

Playfully snarky and unapologetically political, Banksy is, as I said, an enigma. Going out,I asked the coatcheck girl if his identity had been somehow revealed in the show. “He’s very mysterious,” she said mysteriously. “I highly doubt it.”

Funny, the show opens with  a view of “his studio”.

I was waiting for the bathroom and listening to a conversation in the office next to me behind some black curtains. Inside, surely another Banksy.

The inside of the bathroom door was of course an homage to graffiti, which Banksy loves.

More political whimsy and snark, now that spiritual jubilation and reindeers are no longer the order of the day: Don’t Look Up, the newest take on the end of the world,  played kind of like The Day After Tomorrow if the ocean liner floated down Fifth Avenue alongside a bunch of oversized rubber duckies. In this movie, DiCaprio is hilarious, Streep is hilarious, Jonah Hill is hilarious, Mark Rylance is the most hilarious, Timothee Chalamet is too cute and Jennifer Lawrence is Jennifer Lawrence.

Hits the spot just about now, I’d say.

So Christmas is over. Tree in the corner begging me to leave her up another month. Well, since you implore, okay. Tree sprites always get their way.

Soon it’s gonna be a new year. Maybe I’ll do some things differently. No, definitely.

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A cold walk among mysteries

is probably the best cold walk of all. The Old Croton Aqueduct today was a hospitable place for runners as well as musers.

It was built underneath this trail between 1837 and 1842 by a group of largely Italian stone masons so that New York City would get clean water from up north. When the water first gushed from the taps in New York, there were fireworks. The Aqueduct lives on as a beautiful corridor to nowhere. If you live in Westchester County “on the Aqueduct” that is about as cool as it gets. After all, vaulted magical chambers lie below. Walkers get to snoop into the backyards that haven’t been thoroughly fenced off, and even then the arboreal property of the homeowners snakes out above for our enjoyment.

Some things along the way make me wonder. Who crafted this ornament perched at the edge of a koi pond?

Where do the ghostly children go in winter?

Is any human braving the Piermont Marsh in this weather?

You can see the beige ribbon across the river from Dobbs Ferry, which is not in fact a sand beach but two miles of shoreline reeds said to be prehistoric in origin. When you canoe through the marsh along black ribbons of tidal water, you might see a fish flop or a hermit crab furiously working its way across the silty sand when it senses your presence. An eagle might pass close above. I have never seen a snapping turtle there but apparently they come along once in a while. It is a place of cryptic messages from another time. Just don’t get washed out into the Hudson when the chop is high.

On the Aqueduct, the Overseer’s House is a preening facsimile of itself from its construction in 1857, when it was the home of James Bremner, the principal superintendent of the Aqueduct north of New York City. It’s the only surviving Keeper’s House from the old days.

Funny conundrum – what sprite is caring for this little spot nestled among a couple of tree trunks?

Also, whose carefully constructed hut is this, that seemingly has no entrance or egress? Peter Pan might be near.

Home. To whom?

If this was not arranged deliberately as a work of art, it should have been.

Thank you, I am welcome, but these signs are leaning against a wall in the middle of nowhere.

No Trespassing has been forcefully crossed out. Never seen that before.

Is this oak leaf a pin or a red? If any arborist would like to weigh in, fine, though it hardly matters, this specimen is so lustrous and perfect.

Has it occurred to anyone that oak leaves sometimes appear to be crawling the way a crab crawls out of the ocean surf?

I meet a dog named Sage, a very good girl who seems accustomed to getting her picture snapped, while her owner turns her back and continues her phone conversation. Okay.

Walking home there is a mystery that is only a mystery for those not in the know.

Squirrel Alley sculptor Raffaello Menconi lived in Hastings in the early part of the 20th century. I read someplace that rubbing the beast’s head would give someone good luck, but I’ve never needed to try it. I’ve always had good luck.

These young trees will certainly bring spiritual uplift to the people who planted them. Is it witchery to think so? Maybe.

And down the block lies the sweetest sidewalk expression I’ve seen.

Sweeter even than the Squirrel or Sage.

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The yellow-brick road might, surprisingly,

take you to Hastings-on-Hudson, one-time home of good-witch actress Billie Burke and her husband Flo Ziegfeld. They repurposed a mansion in 1910 on a centrally located estate (calling it Burkeley Crest), and installed a menagerie that it is said included among other wonders, an elephant and some bears. At the age of 24, she wasn’t as famous yet as she would become with The Wizard of Oz, but she was already pretty famous.

The animals would regularly trundle from Burke’s estate down Rosedale Avenue, where I later lived, to a watering hole near the Saw Mill River. At some point an impressive copper beech grew on the estate. When I was young, kids used to congregate there, climbing and making out and smoking things they shouldn’t. But that was a long time ago.

Today Hastings has grown hipster-sophisticated, and you can get a soy latte at the train station in a café naturally called The Good Witch, which struggled a little during its first year (Covid) but is now finding its legs (or gams, as they were known in Billie Burke’s time). A great place come the holidays to find a decorative donut before taking the train to New York.

Hastings has an astounding yet amazingly sad view of the Hudson River. The water tower is a local landmark, and there are always fights over whether it is an eyesore that should be destroyed.

There is nothing like the Palisades, of course, in winter or in summer. But you can’t get away from the 26 acres of Superfund site left over from when Anaconda Wire and Cable Company closed its plant here in the 1970s, having produced high-tension copper cable for decades. Now PCBs clot the soil, and residents have been waiting for decades for a many-multi-million-dollar cleanup and revival of the waterfront.

Still there is such jaw-dropping beauty approaching the George Washington Bridge, under a silvery sky.

Oddly, or maybe understandably, the train is empty.

Masking and staying six feet apart are not enough, apparently. We will shut our own selves down.

If you can brave it, though, there are still wonders to be had in New York this crazy 2021 holiday season. Like the satin sheet on which the baby Jesus himself will undoubtedly appear at some point at Our Lady of Pompeii. Optimistic, yes?

Or a place with camel meat on the menu (from the three wise men’s caravan perhaps?)

Or some amaryllis bulbs just waiting to burst – is there anything more optimistic than that?

It’s possible to stumble upon secrets if you keep your eyes open.

The iron gate at Milligan Place on Sixth Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets is usually locked and you can barely see in. Today by some good fortune it had swung open, revealing the gracious town homes that were originally built in 1852. Patchin Place, a better known neighboring mews, housed literary greats like e.e. cummings and Theodore Dreiser. Milligan Place was built originally to shelter workers for the nearby Brevoort House Hotel but ultimately put a roof over Eugene O’Neill and other lauded types. Sneaking in now is stepping into the past. Sshhhh. If you want to rent the penthouse of one it will set you back 7,000 a month.

A better deal in the West Village offers a current obsession for me and many New Yorkers: soup dumplings.

Don’t be fooled by “dumpling,” “soup” is the important part.

You pick up a steamed, plump dough package with chopsticks, set it on a spoon, bite off the top, slurp the soup and then gulp down the pork meatball inside. Divine. Burnt tongue optional.

The sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) just doesn’t get the picture that it’s winter now and time to drop its leaves. No one clued it in. Or maybe it’s just stubborn. I saw an English oak today with a mask embellishing its lowest branches.

Glance at the dirty New York City sidewalk, where Mariah Carey has made her mark with something indelible. This holiday is ancient; it will survive us all.

The lines for Covid testing in the Village are two or three hours long in the brisk air. Thank you, everyone, for helping establish a safe community this Christmas. I find out almost every day about someone I know who has fallen sick. Listen as you walk down the street and it seems all you hear is “Omicron, omicron, omicron” or “Mask, mask, mask”.Some people will simply not budge from their homes out of fright.

But there is still all kinds of pleasure to be had, like in the sexy party store on West 4th Street, the window all decked out for a special visitor down the chimney..

I am finally getting to this point: if you ever have the opportunity to see a documentary called The Velvet Queen, please go. As far as I know the independent house The Film Forum has the exclusive opening, but it will soon come to an art house near you. Or come to New York! Soup dumplings! We have to keep on living.

The movie tells the story of an award-winning French wildlife photographer, Vincent Munier, who takes along a writer as they attempt to locate the elusive snow leopard in the heart of Tibet. Much of the narrative has to do with waiting patiently in blinds for animals to pass.

Poetry resides in the sunlit and shadowy peaks of the up to 15,000 feet they travel, with the reward of  viewing some ordinarily very private and human-shy creatures such as bears, hawks, yaks and yes, finally, the mesmerizing snow leopard itself. A highlight comes when the cat-searchers come upon some unexpected bear scat in a high-up cave. If that floats your boat, as it does mine, this effort will entrance you. But the trek is really not only about animals, but about patience and faith and appreciation, as well as protecting all the natural good that is the earth rather than despoil it unthinkingly.

With every purchased ticket comes an ornament, a snow leopard sewn of felt from sheep wool, handmade in Mongolia. A reminder that in this very complex and difficult time it is good to focus on what is beautiful in the moment. Like a frosted donut.

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There are some things I’ll miss.

Read no farther if you don’t like the Bronx, or dogs, or people, or trees. I’m moving on as an arborist to sites elsewhere in New York City, but thanks for the memories, Grand Concourse:

Six miles of walking a day (sometimes just after dawn). It’s a good thing when your legs hurt.

Graffiti – note “FUN” hovering above it all.

Slobbering pit bulls. Their drool is a magic elixir, you know.

The antenna-powered car. Can’t get a pic of the owner, too skeevy—but he can usually be found trading in his cans at the recycling center.

Winston the kitten, whom I’ve watched grow from a month old into a teenager. I recently saw him scale the honey locust outside the bodega where he’s being groomed to guard again rodents.

At that bodega, the one where I get coconut water and iced coffee, the women who greet me as Mami and make my day.

Also there, mouth-watering chop cheese sandwiches, kind of like an exploded cheeseburger with everything on it.

The skinny new trees. Let’s hope they make it.

Reed, my arborist coworker, who reports on the plant installation in the medians, and  informed me that 150 of the perennials planted in the past month have been stolen. I believe he was a religion major in college.

Although I appreciate that residents might want greenery in their apartments…grasses?

The gracious old trees.

Let’s not forget what I’m here for: making sure trees are preserved during a construction project. 

The women who are flaggers, who keep everybody safe. When they’re not loudly admonishing a car to slow down they’re sweet as can be.

The engineers on the site, especially Soheil, who is kind and inquisitive and has glowing green-blue-grey eyes, from Urma to NYC via Texas A&M.

The crews.

These men are a constant inspiration as they hoist and hustle day after day,  with very little goldbricking, though if they slack off once in a while, leaning on their shovels, the break is well deserved.

Jimmy, the god of tree guards.

The time the city sent some people around to actually pick trash out of the tree pits.

The life force of nature in the city.

Fruit stands. This neighborhood knows how to eat.

Mannikins. Tight, tighter, tightest.

Even the trash is memorable. Several people came up to my parked vehicle wanting to salvage the stuff under the wheel. Perfectly good wrapping paper, and Christmas on the way!

On the other hand, a fairy tale princess costume just tossed away.

A discarded scale. Someone might have gotten tired of weighing themselves after all those heavy meals at La Estrella Restaurant.

I won’t miss scooters. The constant threat to my life as they motor down the sidewalk is one thing I’ll be glad to leave behind.

On the other hand out on the sidewalk there is the scent of oranges freshly peeled.

This smiling face at the vintage movie theater every single morning.

Always front and center, the job of making sure roots don’t get mangled. And I think I succeeded for the most part.

Cows’ feet the size of bowling pins in a butcher case.

Every morning, the warmth of parents walking their little ‘uns (Maud-speak) to school.

So, with the glory of the Grand Concourse in the rearview, I am off for further adventures. I’ll be sure to tell all about them here. With photos.

Please remember that you can scroll down to subscribe to this blog so it will hit your inbox when I publish and you won’t miss a single cow’s foot.

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New young trees for Xmas!

along the Grand Boulevard from 175 Street to Fordham Road.

Some have been planted among the new shrubs in the medians, and others in the new tree pits, sixty trees all told, a mixture of honey locusts, English oaks, gingkos, swamp white oaks, willow oaks and zelkovas.

Checking out the work of the landscaping crew, I noted that the planting soil seemed to be mounded a bit high around the two-and-a-half-inch trunks, but I was assured that topsoil would be added to the proper level when all is said and done, as well as a mosaic of cobblestones.

It’s a gift from the city to this section of the Bronx, the saplings, which as they grow will gradually increase the canopy cover in this beleaguered place. The Nature Conservancy recently released a study of gotham’s green infrastructure and found that while its famous canyons had gotten shadier by about two percent between 2010 and 2017, the benefits varied a lot by area.

By the way, planting a single New York street tree costs the Parks Department $2,700. You heard that correctly. The price tag has been precisely totaled. Merry Christmas! Eric Adams, our mayor-elect, has said he favors funding parks during his tenure to the tune of one percent of the city’s budget – double what it is now. That is incredibly paltry, actually pathetic.

The Grand Concourse celebrates the holiday season in its own way.

As I passed on the sidewalk, a guy shouted out, “Hey, they took away his legs!” Note the scooter — that’s how Santa makes his deliveries in these precincts.

You could add to your at-home creche with a dreamy small person, in artistic circles called a putto. Or the cupids could just wreak some romantic havoc in your placid life.

Something incredible happened as I walked the site. I passed a pigeon, which unlike any pigeon I have ever seen was not alive.

Perhaps at Xmas she will be resurrected.

I was also introduced to a young man’s early present  — they couldn’t very well hide this animal under the tree!

Legend is the name of this beautiful brindle creature, who romped over to me and softly mouthed my fingers. He’s a one-year-old puppy, obviously quite spoiled in his slippers and jersey. A similar pit bull is exactly what I would like for Xmas. But first I must abide by the instructions in a Concourse furniture shop window.

Is that adage at one with the Christmas spirit? Not sure. But if I work hard enough, perhaps my canine dreams will come true.

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Trees are transmogrified

at the New York Botanical Garden’s Annual Holiday Train Show.

I am not sure all of the hustling, bustling, a-little-bit-shoving visitors make note of how the marvelous creations come into being. A company called Applied Imagination (founded by a landscape architect) does it all (as they do in myriad cities across the country), re-creating the built environment in miniature with bits and pieces of nature.

The show has been around for 30 years. It seems to me the experience gets bigger and grander every year, now taking up a big part of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory’s Palm Dome, which stands 90 feet tall.

It’s all about New York. What’s not to love. And an interesting conceit, because although tracks once ran all over the place, they most certainly did not run close to these classic buildings. Fantasy. Christmastime. No holds barred.

Even in winter, the Botanical Garden has things to love, like the sumptuous hue of these beauteous Beautyberries.

Or a half moon gleaming through the branches of a huge mature tree.

Or even a six-dollar cup of hot chocolate from the cafe. (!) Still, the finest hot chocolate I’ve ever swallowed.

But come inside!

The thing is, every one of the 175 classic NY buildings surrounded by tracks is made of reeds, moss, pine bark, fungus, eucalyptus stems, grapevine tendrils, acorn caps, pistachio shells, cocoa nuts, white pine cones, et cetera. And did I mention twigs? Lots and lots of twigs. I didn’t see any Beautyberry but it probably doesn’t play well with others. The cables of the suspension bridges are made from willow twigs. The spans are supported by hidden wooden beams (and steel cables).Some structures are lit up inside with an inviting glow. There are a lot of different forms of transportation represented: trolleys, passenger and freight trains, steam and diesel engines–just not cars.

One two-masked guy knew everything about everything and informed everybody about it all in a rather loud voice.

Alice Austin’s house is here. Austin is a not-well-enough-known photographer who spent her life at the domicile Clear Comfort on Staten Island. Some of her pictures are pretty wild and she led a bohemian life that probably would not be as shocking today.

The buildings don’t look like the actual buildings so much as represent them in a tea-soaked hobbit-house dream state. Like the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx. I can tell you that the Van Cortlandt house does not bear much similarity to its replica.

Or the Poe Cottage. In real life, this landmark is white clapboard. I drive by it every day going to work in the Bronx. This version is actually a little scary and might have been conjured up by Edgar Allen Poe himself in a drunken, addled frame of mind, as he often was.

One of the Garden’s iconic buildings, the Mertz Library, with a grand allee of tulip trees–which were planted beginning in 1903 and made a New York City Landmark in 2009–has pride of place at the Train Show. As the century-old trees naturally senesce, they are being replaced with great purpose and care, under the auspices of the Tulip Tree Allee Committee of the Garden’s Board of Trustees. Now that’s responsible arboriculture.

Looks like this in the Train Show. Pretty good.

Macy’s on 34th Street comes across well. Macy’s has 2.5 million square feet, reduced here to the size of a large microwave oven.

Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s cottage in Tarrytown and dating to the 1830s, has muscled its way in. I have heard it said that the wisteria at the front doorway (reproduced here, albeit dully brown rather than deep purple) was the source of a quip by Irving himself, who said his nieces were afraid that the vine threatened to take over the whole estate. Interestingly, Irving mourned when the new long-distance train tracks materialized at the back of his property in 1847.  In a letter he wrote to Gouvernor Kemble, he described being awoken at night by the “horrific sounds” and “constant calamity” of the train.  I wonder what he would think of the toy train making its way past his model house to the delight of visitors in 2021.

I remember when I was young building miniature houses out of acorn caps and twigs. They had a miraculous real-ness to me.

Same here.

The roof of Brooklyn’s Wyckoff House, built in 1652, looks a bit more organic than the real thing. Is there a fungus among us?

You see behind the curtain sometimes, at the Train Show, like when a particular train needs fixing. It must be done on the double.

Patience and Fortitude are the names of the lions in front of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. But you knew that. This one is Patience, I think.

When you get to the end of the tracks, you are greeted by New York Harbor.

The Staten Island Ferry takes to the waters around New York Harbor, topped by two interesting shapes.

Lady Liberty has something of a serious face. Well, so does the original Actually, she wears a draped, fig leaf toga, her hair is made from mesquite pods and her torch is a dried pomegranate with a monarch flower flame.

Throngs of people pose, of course, in front of the Freedom Tower.

Kids go wild here. I saw one toddler trying to yank off a piece of wood from the display. Others a little older are really too mature for this kind of thing. This zonked little guy, on the tram afterward, ignored grandma’s arm sweeps toward the handsome oak forest and the cherry grove, envisioning the Xbox that lay ahead.

He’ll have to wait until his second childhood – when he’s in his 60s, say, to appreciate the magic of enormous New York City rendered jewel-like and small. Constructed, incredibly, of twigs.

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Paper birches and polar bears

have something in common. Neither one is actually white, it’s only a trick of the eye. White is what we see when an object absorbs no visible light but instead reflects back to our eyes all colors in equal proportion. Paper birch trees appear white to us because they reflect most of the sun’s rays. In contrast, dark trees – all others, pretty much – reflect very little but instead absorb nearly all colors. Dark trees absorb light, white trees reflect it.

Same with bears. Polar bear hair shafts are actually hollow, which allows the fur to reflect back the light of the sun. Much like snow.

You can etch a love letter into a piece of the bark of a Betula papyrifera. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to write on the hide of a polar bear. Also, acres of birch forest thrive in Maine, whereas as far as I know polar bears never wander down to so southern a clime.

Birches grow like weeds, says the proprietor of Balsam Hill Farm, where he is “2 years into a 30 year project” to make a living growing Christmas trees.

Some of the balsams are teeny – pampered in a small wood frame. It’s hard to grok that they will one day be seven feet tall, standing fully lighted and dressed in someone’s greatroom.

In fact, he says, the local workers here call the birches that literally, weeds. His fragrant trees can be purchased on the honor system; just drop the cash or check into the red box after hours and drive away with your prize.

Weeds? I guess some people call weeds beautiful. See: “Long live the weeds,” by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

We’re in a hamlet called Hope, just a few miles from the general store owned by Jon Fishman of the rock band Phish. (Great place to go out and grab an organic vegan pizza for lunch when you’re sick of your yurt.) The fat balsams at the dirt-road farm are dwarfed by the delicate towering white and grey birches.

The roots of all these trees are interconnected, says the boss, kindly taking time away from ringing up peoples’ trees and wreaths, so it’s actually one big organism. He might be thinking of aspen, which do grow as a clone.

Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard describes a related phenomenon in her book The Mother Tree, which has garnered attention even beyond dendrological circles. She talks about how trees communicate using underground fungal networks. Simard  grew up in a British Canadian logging family before becoming a plant biologist, learning about how trees connect with each other and what they need to thrive, with paper birch a particular focus along with Douglas firs. 

Balsam Tree Farm grows so much birch it sells much of it for pulp.

It also makes logs available split for burning and whole for fireplace decoration.

You can wander among the birches when visiting to collect a balsam and admire the sheer abundance of white trunks shimmering in the Maine sun. In fact, Betula’s common name, “birch,” is derived from an old Germanic root, birka, with the Proto-Indo-European root bherəg, “white, bright; to shine.”  Betula papyrifera’s bright white relates to the property called albedo, or how much light is reflected or absorbed by an object’s surface. The tips of its twigs have been described as violet by Nordic Noir writer Asa Larsson.

There are around 60 types of birch around the world. Moose devour birch when they can get it, not because they like the taste so much but because it fills their stomachs.

In the local food CoOp, in Belfast, birch syrup stands shoulder to shoulder on the shelf with maple syrup. Probably some people here like it better on their waffles.

Poets have long extolled the tree, famously Robert Frost.

He wrote in 1915 about a boyish fantasy of climbing birches:

…Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

A stand of paper birch, in Maine, with the cold air all around. No lovelier place exists.

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