Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman


After riding the Amtrak rails up and down the east side of the Hudson for decades, wondering about the wreck of a place on its own little island midstream, I got to see it close up. I fortified myself with the best croissant I’ve ever had, from Beacon Bread Company – I think it contained a full pound of butter that now I contain – I set off to see Bannerman’s Castle.

The island floats like a mirage in the middle of the Hudson Highlands, with Storm King on the west side and Breakneck Ridge on the east.

Do not attempt to climb Breakneck Ridge unless you are part mountain goat, it ascends nearly vertically to a summit that is very, very far up in the clouds.

I never thought you could actually go to the island, that I was not permitted, and I was not enough of a bandit to take a canoe out there under the cover of night. But I thought it was the real thing, after reading about the island in Rob Yasinsac’s Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape (2006). I knew Rob from when I was researching the Philipse family for The Women of the House, and he was working as an intrepeter at Philipseburg Manor – he had the perfect long ponytail to go with his Colonial attire. If he said it was a worthwhile “ruin,” surely it was.

So now our little tourist trip was crossing the water and the ruin came into view.

Right on time – the skipper bragged he had been “accused of being a Swiss clock.” The steward, Moose, told tales about a 14-foot-long sturgeon that had recently been detected with sonar in the river, and recalled the bad old days when the water was contaminated by PCBs and all the fish “tasted of oil.” The river was glass only an hour ago, he said, and now it was choppy.

So, it’s actually called Polipel Island, we learn from Rowan, our docent, a casual young woman with Billie Eillish-tinted locks. Dutch sailors, afraid of the Storm King if they passed the area without an offering, threw rookie sailors over board and picked them up on the way back, as if with a pot ladle. Polipel is pot ladle in Dutch.

This is only Rowan’s fourth tour, and she’s doing pretty well. The State owns the island now, and the head of the Bannerman Castle Trust trusted that Rowan was up to the task. The island is swarming with sightseers and when I hear the booming tones of a more seasoned guide, mansplaining all the way, I think we lucked out with Rowan.

We listened and learned. There were a lot of people in the Bannerman line. After the family bought the island, for $1,600, Bannerman the younger hauled things out of the drink – scrap metal from the Revolution, and cotton rope, which could be refashioned as paper. His father, inspired, decided to go into the military surplus business, and in 1900 they set up shop at 501 Broadway in lower Manhattan. It was such a success that the store was bursting at the seams, and they were encouraged to move their dangerous products elsewhere. Luckily they had an island on which to build a munitions depot, and the son was an aspiring architect who wanted to connect with his Scottish roots.  Hence the faux Gaelic style. They could easily put on The Scottish Play here.

Are we bored yet? For many people, the real draw of Bannerman’s Castle is that all that munitions shit occasionally blew sky high. I just learned that loud noises connect with the pleasure centers in the brain.

Some of the walls were apparently reinforced by surplus bayonets from the Civil War. I just wanted to wander around but we were cautioned not to stray from the trails. There was in fact an element of ruin in one building we could go in.

It reminded me of a really fantastic ruin, the abandoned hospital at Ellis Island, which actually  still has all kinds of untouched haunted things, such as operating theaters and cadaver drawers. Here there was plenty of camera clicking.

There did exist some objects that bore the patina of memory.

The paths we followed had honeysuckle, rock harlequin and bayberry, the latter of which requires salinity to survive. Since the Hudson is actually an estuary with both salt and fresh water, this makes sense.

Try to imagine a time when the Bannermans and their servants crossed the frozen Hudson to get provisions in Beacon, a time when the bricks used in constructing the castle were made in the brick factories lining the shores, when shad fishing universally meant springtime. In those days the train ran north and south the same as it does today, and squarely across the façade of Bannerman’s munitions castle was a colossal advertisements with letters four and a half feet tall, an ad about as big as any billboard today.

Bannermans’ Island Arsenal. Note the proper placement of the apostrophe.

Hudson Valley Ruins features the perfect line about immersing yourself in days gone by: Linger here amid the beautiful foolishness of things. That’s an inscription from the ruin of a house in the Catskill Mountains. Beautiful foolishness just about captures the hobby horse of Bannerman’s Island, what we who relish ruins seek. Once upon a time, affluent people, connoisseurs, constructed their own Roman ruins to wander through in the moonlight. At Bannerman’s I kind of wished I had braved the tide and gone there before it was open to all.

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The trees have bloomed

and the little green apples are starting to grow. When we lived in a house in the middle of an apple orchard apple blossom time was magical, with white flowers drifting on every breeze like wishes.

We had no worries. An orchard is eternally optimistic. It goes through its cycle of bloom, bud, ripen, drop, predictably every year as long as it is minimally tended. Fall was applesauce time, a little hard work, but we’d had time to rest under the trees all summer and tend the vegetable garden, rich with chicken manure.

Much later, when we lived in the cabin, we found an apple press run by a former ad man who made it a point to sell heritage apples, offering them in crates with signs indicating their provenance. “Black Twig, originated in 1825 in Pennsylvania” – that’s just one example. You could pick a dozen or two varied apples from these crates or drink Geoff’s cider. Each batch was different, and he posted the types of apples that he pulped on a chalkboard. Most delicious cider ever.

We found in an obscure library with a  perennial hole in the roof – in Mount Vernon, NY – a book called The Apples of New York, from 1905, authored by S.A. Beach, a “Report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station for the year 1903.”

Its two volumes annotated the thousands of species of apples that could be found in the state at that time, with full color plates. Everyone knows that apples and cider are part of American history – people drank cider when they feared the water supply was tainted – but who knew there were so many different kinds? It’s a gorgeous book. If you want it for your home library you’ll have to pay around 500 bucks for it.

A man named Tom Brown has made it his life’s mission to collect heirloom apples, making sure no more get lost. The retired chemical engineer llives in North Carolina, but travels throughout Appalachia going door-to-door hounding octogenarians for their memories of trees they knew when they were young, hunting for old orchards, or sometimes the remains of old orchards nearly forgotten in someone’s back forty. He has so far reclaimed 1,200 varieties, and keeps 700 of the rarest in his own Heritage Apples orchard.

Names of some of the old order include Etter’s Gold, Arkansas Black, White Winter Jon, Royal Lemon, Candy Stripe. The flesh and skin are a wild array of colors and textures and flavors. One researcher found that commercial growers in the U.S. had around 14,000 unique apple varities in the 19thcentury.

I’ve always wondered what the truth was about Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, whom I always imagined wildly scattering handfuls of apple seeds as he traipsed across the country. There is some reality there. He was a pioneer nurseryman who traveled to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia. He was a legend in his own time.

There is a story I like of John picking seeds from the pomace of Potamac cider mills in the 1790s. His first nursery was on the bank of the Brokenstraw Creek in Pennsylvania, and then he planted nurseries wherever he traveled. He also preached the gospel as he went. Some say he had a pet wolf that followed him constantly. Sure. And he wore a tin pot on his head. What? What is probably true, on the other hand, is that he was against the practice of grafting, and so the apples his trees produced were wild and usable only for cider.

Americans were mostly drunks then, including children.

Dan Pucci and Craig Cavallo just came out with a book about cider that Alice Waters really likes.

Now we have Honeycrisp, developed in a laboratory, and Gala, whose flavor is mainly sugar. Eleven boring varieties account for 90 percent of  grocery sales. If you have a wizened old apple tree on your property, consider yourself blessed. Don’t worry about the spots. The spots give them gravitas.

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Queens, too, has trees.

Of course it has trees! Its streets are lined with them. What I mean is trees behind an iron fence in a botanical garden, trees that are mature and majestic, seemingly waiting patiently to be admired by garden goers.

Situated in Flushing, the Chinese epicenter of the borough, the Queens Botanical Garden has 39 acres of marvels. It was founded  nearby as part of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and moved to its current location, then an ash landfill, in preparation for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. I ate one of the delicacies of my life, Belgian Waffles, at that Fair.

The Queens Botanical Garden differs quite a bit from its counterpart in the Bronx, named the New York Botanical Garden. It is, and I love this about it, a bit shaggier than the pristine, well trod, picture-perfect New York Botanical Garden. You find wonderful trees, but other unexpected things.

Or a little hobbit-bridge in the middle of nowhere.

Walking around, I felt the crabapple orchard was out of a storybook, put there for my pleasure.

People were doing tai chi on the paths, including one man wearing plastic gloves and a mask. The Garden has some impressive oaks. One swallowed its previous tag and had to be given a new one.

Equally impressive, this medium size, delicate persimmon tree. It seemed appropriate in this very Asian neighborhood.

At the New York Botanical Garden, I have never seen a little half-dressed imp go unsupervised.

Perhaps he was looking for this fort.

A couple of years ago I participated in a planting program for kids at the Queens Botanical Garden called Green Horizons. I was paired up with a really smart DEC forester named Greg Owens. Before the kids got there, when we were preparing, he told me he had brought a lot of cookies. I thought, how nice of you to bring cookies, I hope they’re chocolate chip. When it came time to break them out, it transpired that his cookies were wood, slices of trees, a way of learning something about the age of trees. Made good coasters, too.

If you get tired of tree worship, stop and smell the roses. They’ve been a bit battered by our recent heat and storms, but are still incredible.

The thing about Queens, though, you are not only caught up by persimmons and roses but by the sky. It’s under the flight paths to JFK and LaGuardia airports, and planes are constantly booming overhead. It’s enough to make you want to take off for someplace exotic.

But if you’re grounded in Flushing, you can do what I did – go sit in an outdoor restaurant bubble of clear plastic and eat spicy dan dan noodles. A good finale to an arboricultural feast.

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What would happen if we left the woods alone?

We would have a forest that was beautifully complex and simple all at once. Mindaugas Survila’s masterpiece The Ancient Woods documents one of Lithuania’s old-growth forests. He took ten years to make the film, and the lyrical effect shows off the director’s degrees in Natural Sciences from Vilnius University.

This is what he and his apparently huge and patient film crew did: they left time-capture cameras at exactly the right locations throughout the land, supplemented by a bit of hand-held tracking, and caught it all. All the animals, birds, reptiles and insects you have probably never seen before, that being Lithuania and this the U.S., with an incredible degree of intimacy. A black stork? Who knew?

It’s magical. There are some crazy looking birds going at it with each other, clack-clacking their beaks together, chasing each other. Is it war or mating? There is no intrusive voiceover a la Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to interrupt your own interpretation of events, just the haunting sounds of wind and birdsong as a backdrop. This is a Zen, meditative, poetic piece.

A silver-black snake charges a hapless mouse several times and misses, and we see the denouement as the snake drags the mouse carcass away. Only to be glimpsed in a later scene having undergone the same brutal fate, its limp scaly body being drained by wasps.

Baby owls peep plaintively from their tree hollow, and we wait restlessly with them until we finally see the magnificent mother swoop up to her family, this in slow motion, wings like brown waving flags.

And the stag king of the forest passes by in shadow, his antlers wreathed with vines, bellowing. Now that’s a movie I’d like to see again. In fact, I did.

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It’s Kousa time

in the suburban environs where I live. When there’s an all-day music festival featuring performers from all four of what we fondly call the Rivertowns, you go. If only to snoop in the luxe back yards where the performances take place. Musicians play an hour each. The first hour is Schumann, Piano Quartet in E-Flat major, Op. 44. I am in the shade but staring deep into an overgrown trellis, through which the music floats as if on wings. The koi pond on the way out is almost too full of blaze-red fish.

A folk singer at the Keeper’s House on the Aqueduct jokes about the poison ivy that is his backdrop, draping the Eastern pine.

We hop over to another back yard to see a garage band of our peers, the audience all men with carefully crafted five o-clock shadows and women whose hair is desperately trying to look natural. When we were teenagers, we thought our parents were all grizzled. Now I see it was no exaggeration, they are grizzled, and we are them. Everybody I’ve ever known from whenever I lived in this town is everywhere around us, my childhood friends all grown up, the parents of my kid’s friends…

And the plague is over. At least here, just outside New York, everyone’s vaccinated and hugging, sweating and hugging in the sun. We’ve come out of the cave.

The next stop is a scoot down Squirrel Alley,  a village landmark that is somewhat secret outside our neighborhood.

We go to see a world-class baritone sax player, Gary Smulyan, and his trio, underneath a white oak and a northern red oak, with a Tuscan soft red wall in the background and rising above it a cloud of Kousa dogwood.

In the shifting audience, there’s a guy we once had a fight with but now is a good neighbor, another guy who helped run a campaign for local office I lost, his wife, who comforted me, the saxophonist’s wife, who was Maud’s piano teacher, a bit beleaguered by Maud’s unwillingness to practice, and their daughter, an unusual and precocious personality who remembers the names of every person she ever met. The horn swoops and blows and the drummer whoops and laughs. Across the lawn I see Josefa reclining in her camp chair without a care in the world.

More Kousa Dogwood overhead, a canopy with a bronze Japanese maple and a sugar maple with its delicate noses scattered over the fine grass.

I know the musicians, a band called Timbila, who play electrified music from Zimbabwe that is trance-inspiring.

Nora plays the Mbira, the thumb piano, for the band.

When she smiles on you the sun shines.

It is a well known fact that my nephew Jasper is the number one jazz pianist of his generation, at the age of 14. Before heading home to my cool apartment I stop at the basketball court for the teen segment of the festival, where Jasper backs up a seventeen-year-old girl interpreting standards.

She is amazing, but I have to say after seeing her belt out “I’m feeling good” that there ought to be some kind of mandate against people under the age of 18  rendering Nina Simone. Still, she’s trying. We’re all trying, on this day of almost too much music, overdue hugs and just enough Kousa dogwood.


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Loving Walt Whitman

is loving yourself, or so I think when I remember lying on my bed poring over Leaves of Grass as a teenager after school instead of going out and playing field hockey. How could my parents not know it would stoke the flames of adolescent rebellion to allow me that book?

I’m marking his birthday here but off  by a few days. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind!

We think of him now as a full-bearded bard – apparently he loved to have his picture taken, and this was when photography was novel. But our greatest American poet was just 37 when he published Leaves of Grass.

There was no author credited, and he posed for the engraving on its cover as a rakish working man. None of the poems had titles and there was no table of contents.

He was born on Long Island (a local mall, the Walt Whitman Shops, in South Huntington, New York, stands near his birthplace). He moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was five.

At various times in his life, he worked as a printer and editorial writer, a schoolteacher and a journalist, and as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. The love of his life was great love was a streetcar conductor.

Once he published Leaves of Grass, on July 4, 1855, revision became a fixation, and he wrote and rewrote and added poems during the course of his life. Ever the newsman, he did the typesetting for the first edition himself. That first book had 12 poems, the final compilation over 400. It was always about the body, about the material world, and singing the praises of it all. In his time, of course, frank talk about sexuality was considered questionable, and so Song of Myself, probably the best American poem, was heartily debated.

He got fired from his job at the Department of the Interior. One reviewer suggested that Whitman throw the poems into the fire, another that he commit suicide. An early critic called the work “a mass of stupid filth.”

You have to love it, don’t you? Even much later, the revered literary figure Malcolm Cowley called Leaves of grass “An extraordinary mixture of greatness, false greatness and mediocrity.” That quote comes from the introduction to The Works of Walt Whitman, published in our time, and it’s kind of unfair – couldn’t they have come up with a more partial introducer?

He appreciated trees. From Song of the Open Road“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”

I have tried to find a line, a stanza, any one thing to put in here from Song of Myself, but I can’t choose.

So why don’t we start at the beginning:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loaf and invite my soul,

I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Whitman always intended that the book be small enough to fit in a pocket. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air,” he once said.

I loaf and invite my soul. A sentiment teenagers of all ages can embrace.

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Rivers are sad

To see the passing of advocate Christopher Stone, who fought tirelessly for their rights. Yes, that’s right, he fought for the right of rivers to have what is known as standing in court. In the ’70s,  the idea seemed eccentric, though the environmental tide was beginning to turn with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. 

It might seem a stretch to attribute personhood to rivers but what was obvious was the degradation of the environment. All thoughtful people were talking about it – with 1970 came the advent of Earth Day, then there were back to the landers, people were still debating Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, etc. – but nobody knew what to do about it.

What about trees? Stone—the son of muckraking journalist I.F. Stone–raised a question. Everything can flow from a question, if you’re smart enough or brave enough to raise it. What if endangered non-human beings could see their day in court? Should trees have standing? Towards legal rights for natural objects was the law review article he published in 1972 asserting that since entities with standing, or locus standi, have the right to bring action or appear in court, and environmental entities cannot themselves bring action or appear in court, this standing can be achieved on behalf of the entity by a representing legal guardian. 

Representation could increase protection of culturally significant aspects of the natural environment, or areas vulnerable to exploitation and pollution.

I know that I have rather snarkily suggested in a post here that trees, environmental entities if they are anything, are not in fact people. But that does not mean they shouldn’t share the rights of people.

There is an energetic movement of people arguing for the rights of apes. Their credo: The great ape personhood movement aims to extend legal personhood to apes, a distinction that recognizes these non-human animals as beings with the capacity to hold both rights and duties.

Since the early 1990s countries have taken steps to protect great apes and other animals. Switzerland amended its constitution in 1992 to recognize animals as beings and not things. In 1999, New Zealand granted protections to great apes, and as a result their use is today forbidden in research, testing or teaching. Some European countries, including Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, have completely banned the use of great apes in animal testing.

In the past, it’s gone the other way too, with animals having standing in courts and thereby being sentenced to death. The earliest documented execution of an animal comes from 1266, when the trial of an infanticidal pig took place in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. In the Middle Ages, dogs, pigs, cows, horses and bulls and even rats routinely faced judges and, if found guilty of capital crimes, went to the stake or gallows.

So much has changed over the centuries. In 2015 in India, a decision came down from the Delhi High Court that birds have the fundamental legal right to fly,

But we stray from the rights of rivers. Stone’s article and the book that followed had a real impact on the lives of some riverine entities.

In New Zealand, the Whanganui River was declared to be a legal person in 2017.   This new legal entity was renamed Te Awa Tupua and is now recognized as “an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea, incorporating the Whanganui River and all of its physical and metaphysical elements.”

The lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi, Gerrard Albert, said “we consider the river an ancestor and always have…treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

The Ganges is now considered a legal person, an action taken in order to combat the 1.5 billion liters of untreated sewage that flood into it daily.

Back at home, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in 2019, making the point that the lake has the right to “flourish.” The Bill was struck down a year later.

What about trees? Do they have rights in court?

This ash tree died today in Ozone Park, Queens and was fed into a chipper. The worker with the saw sang as he cut off the branches, high up in the air.

Are we violating those rights when New York City Parks asks that certain trees be taken down? Will they have their day in court when the wooden gavel falls in their favor? So far I only have questions.

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Happy birthday Marilyn,

who joined the one-name wonders with an undeniably cultural legacy. If you don’t like her, you just don’t understand.

Gil, who is working on a television project about MM, has things to say about her.

He comments, “Marilyn, we hardly knew ye. You were smarter, cooler, funnier and deeper than anyone. Forgive us, we knew not what we did.”

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Discovery of something

where it looks like there is nothing is always a pleasure. It’s especially delightful, at least for me, when the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is hallowed,  precious and aged. Taking the trail through the sudden spring puddles in Tivoli, New York, I didn’t know what we would find.

Fleabane (a Shakespearean sounding daisy, though it’s native to North America) bloomed. Sore throat, fever and swelling are some of the folk remedies it offers.

All around were the wild flowers I’ve known all my life, multiflora roses that bloom a week or  two in May, then offer nothing but thorns the rest of the year. An Asian plant, it was transported to America as a rootstock in the late 19thcentury for grafted rose cultivars, then used as natural fencing for cattle. Ouch!

Our guide: my brother Peter, who had tried three times to find this place, working off of near illegible old news clippings. He is nothing if not dogged.

Appearing out of nowhere like a woodland mirage was the cemetery. The local American Legion stalwarts found their way through the muck this Memorial Day to plant flags on the graves. To bushwack for a mile and find in the wilderness this startling scrap of history was a marvel.

This was known as the “smallpox” or “colored” graveyard, all of them deceased veterans. The stones date back to 1812, and even the most dedicated gravestone rubber would have a hard time making out some of the letters.

According to the confusing article we had, and examining the stones, there was someone named David Wool and someone else named Wool – perhaps they were father and son? Under our feet, a black Tivoli resident named Lewis Henry  who had been honorably discharged in 1865 died in the Tivoli Hotel. “He had been suffering for a long time from various diseases and this winter slept in an old boat at the dock until his last few days.” We also saw simple, rough blocks of stone, embedded in grass also studded with flags. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who was buried here once.

Long ago, victims of the pox and black soldiers were not dignified with a burial in the mainstream church cemetery and they wound up here. Some accounts have it that those with smallpox were sent down here to be tended until they died by black veterans in a “frame house”. It was a short trip from that frame house to the graveyard. Now we are honoring these dead in this very small corner of the world, even if we had to muddy their shoes to get there.

Leaving, we walked through the better tended cemetery a good mile away. A lucky bluebird dipped in front of our windshield. May everyone have someone to tend what Walt Whitman called “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”


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“I was already dozing

off in the shade, dreaming that the rustling trees were my many selves explaining themselves all at the same time so that I could not make out a single word. My life was a beautiful mystery on the verge of understanding, always on the verge!”

Charles Simic

Henri Matisse (French, Le Cateau-Cambrésis 1869–1954 Nice) Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1905, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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The birds and the bees

and other fortunate critters now live off the incredible array of foodstuffs that still survive in what are called “forest gardens.” A delightful oxymoron, the wild forest and the cultivated garden. These deliberately created orchards and plantings existed for thousands of years, tended by indigenous peoples in northwestern British Columbia, before the European incursion in the late 18th century. It was then that, “Disease turned whole societies to ash,” in the memorable phrasing of Charles C. Mann, in his absolutely essential examination of the New World, 1491. The way of agriculture that had sustained them for thousands of years perished as smallpox and influenza took over.

But the forest gardens’ remains remain. Ts’msyen and Coast Salish peoples once planted and cared for plots of native fruit and nut trees, shrubs, and medicinal plants and roots along the north and south Pacific coast, write the authors of a university study. The way they planted is not uncommon elsewhere in the world, especially in the tropics. But this is the first time these orchard-like land parcels have been studied in North America.

Here is what they grew: crabapple, hazelnut, wild cherry and plum trees. These formed a canopy over a lower planting of elderberry, hawthorne, cranberry, wild ginger and wild rice root. The forest gardens might be surrounded by conifer forests.

Though no longer serving their purpose of feeding humans, the forest gardens still attract wildlife, from birds to bears to pollinators.

Meantime, in the east, home to the Haudenosaunee (known by some as the Iroquois Nation), men and women transformed forests into orchards for fruit and mast. Chestnut was especially popular, and hickory. The observant naturalist William Bartram traveled among the Creek in the 1770s. 

Of hickory nuts, he wrote, “They pound them to pieces, and then cast them into boiling water, which, after passing through fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid” to make a milk “as sweet and thick as fresh cream.” Like a splash of hickory milk in your Starbucks?

European travelers were astounded to see peach trees in the woods, a vestige of plunderer Hernando de Soto’s 16th-century importation of hogs and peach trees. The wild-running hogs ate, did what came naturally, then the Indians discovered the sweet fruit and planted the trees where it suited them.

The lead author of the study of the Ts’msyen and Coast Salish peoples, Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, says of the cultivated woodland plots, “These plants never grow together in the wild. It seemed obvious that people put them there to grow all in one spot – like a garden.”

But what were the tricks of the trade? How did they achieve botanical /edible perfection? Controlled burning, fertilizing, transplanting from other places, pruning and weeding. Early farmers also engaged in something called coppicing, which means cutting back trees or shrubs to ground level to encourage growth.

Of course, these agricultural efforts worked best on a small scale – and that’s the best scale there is.

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I’d like to take a hot bath

And wash away the summer-camp cheer I’ve been immersed in over the last few days. I put on my shiny salesman shoes and visited more than a dozen camps nearby to see if they needed tree work before the season started. What magnificent places! Ballfields and climbing walls, zip lines and a pool and little bungalows where kids go to rest.

I did not see any children, of course, they show up at the end of June.

But I could imagine them having the time of their lives. These pics are from various websites.

I went to sleepaway camp myself, at a YMCA joint in the Berkshires. We also swam, and ate s’mores. We lived in canvas tents that I loved – I thought it was so magical to roll up the sides and let the breeze flow through. Eight to a tent. I was 10 or 11.

Something was eating at my mind as I drove from camp to camp and thought about the privileged kids that went to them. There was always something underneath the surface. I remembered that one girl was African American. She tried to befriend the other girls but had little luck. She was sort of heavy and when she made her way down the trail to the washhouse before curfew, some campers snickered behind her back that she used a whole bar of soap every time she showered.

Racist prigs –at this wholesome, family-style summer camp, where everyone was friends with everyone else, belting out the camp anthem and all that. I look back now and see it as so sad. Now attitudes have changed, supposedly, and intolerance is out of style. But I’d like to know what goes on behind the climbing wall at some of the camps I saw today.

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No humans, no dogs, one swan

populated the Ridgewood Reservoir when we saw it.  Ridgewood sits in the middle of Highland Park in Brooklyn, bordering Queens, and it is the closest thing to wilderness you will find in all of New York City. Those haunting pictures of life coming back to Chernobyl when it was absolutely impossible for life to come back – Ridgewood is like that, minus the nuclear blast.

In 1858, the city fathers (note: no mothers among them) realized that clean water was a vital necessity, and they bought Snedicker’s corn farm to become the reservoir.

Over the years the borough’s thirst only intensified and The People in Charge bought acres and acres around the original site to use as a buffer against “pollutants generated by cemeteries and garbage plants.” The boroughs of New York were still independent cities until 1898. By bringing water to Brooklyn, the reservoir allowed Brooklyn to become America’s third-largest city, as well as the country’s largest beer producer. (That honor now belongs either to Chicago or to Portland, OR.)

The reservoir was decommissioned and drained by 1990, and the land basically left to its own devices. 

During our visit we made our way all along the perimeter (1.18 miles) and met no one but a lone birder, who told us the bird song quieted at the hotter hours of the day. (I knew that.) I wanted to go because I heard there was a birch forest growing in Brooklyn, but in fact I saw nary a birch. Black locust, yes, very fragrant.

And lots of black cherry.

Sassafras. Imagine fifty-plus acres of sassafras. There’s also red maple and sweet gum. There are thick carpets of moss and the bogs we couldn’t get at.

I wonder what old Frederick Olmsted, master landscaper who designed Central Park, would have thought of the pristine pool becoming a jungle.

Highland Park sits atop  a ridge formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet’s terminal moraine. Olmstead loved blasting the hell out of ancient boulders to make Central Park.

In 1894, Brooklyn hired Olmsted’s firm to design the main drive and concourse for the reservoir’s southern portion, lined still today with towering, bulbous London plane trees.

The Olmsted company erected an iron fence and electric lights, which were barely heard of in those days. The fence went up because of repeated drownings, suicidal and otherwise.

You can still read on the base of each light fixture: MAGNIFLOOD.

Old pumphouses still stand.

Nine cemeteries ring the park, including this one, the B’nal Jeshaurm and Shearith Isreal cemetery. There is one just for nuns, too, and one for the World War I dead. I think I have family in one of them.

Actually, the original tract featured three reservoirs, and two were drained in the 1980s while water remained in one. That body is now ringed by phragmites, which is the insidious non-cattail taking over deteriorated landscapes everywhere. At the Cabin we had a swamp filled with phragmites; a botanist friend visited and told me, “Oh, those are an invasive species.” Which I felt kind of insulted by at the time, but she was correct.

The swan on the beach is cleaning itself. The person who uses the flat-bottomed boat is used by ecologists, and maybe Huckleberry Finn.

Ridgewood is now a wildlife refuge, with forests, fields and wetlands.  Preservationists have rallied against any threat to its development. We tried to imagine the wildlife that would get over the fences, down the steep slopes and survive there: possum, raccoon, squirrels, voles, snapping turtles (the New York State reptile), garter snakes and frogs. And probably coyotes. In the heart of Brooklyn! We saw only a red winged blackbird but could hear birdsong. A total of 127 bird species have been counted there.

“It’s like a postage-stamp size id in the middle of the raging ego of New York City,” says Gil.

I just say it’s a cool place.


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Bringing a forest to NYC

can be a lot of work, even for Maya Lin. Yes, that Maya Lin, the one who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC (opened in 1982, when Lin was 23), winning a lot of criticism at first and then nothing but accolades.

The same Maya Lin designed a factory in Yonkers, the city next to where I Iive, that makes scrumptious brownies, which find their way into Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. The factory employs people who might otherwise be unemployable with open hiring policies—not requiring resumes, for example. It’s called the Greyston Bakery, and its motto is: “We don’t hire people to make brownies, we make brownies in order to hire people.” 

Every once in a while Greyston makes its brownies available to the public, and they are irresistible (coming from someone who makes a mean brownie herself).

Lin applied her touch to other Yonkers venues, including a shuttered city jail and an environmental installation at the Hudson River Museum. And she created wonderful waves of landscape art at upstate New York’s Storm King sculpture park. Worth a viisit if you are in the area.

Now, in a Manhattan park, she has planted a grove of forty-nine Atlantic white cedars, with the odd factor that the trees were dead before she harvested them  from the New Jersey pine barrens.

The piece is called Ghost Forest. It’s a harsh comment on climate change. Before the 1700s, Atlantic white cedars provided at least 500,000 acres of habitat for unique plants and animals. Today there are just 50,000 acres of the species. Ghost forests are a widespread phenomenon in coastal areas, a matter of concern among ecologists.

In fact, believe it or not “ghost tree farts” are a recognized by-product of such tracts. Standing dead trees, also called snags, have been killed by saltwater. They no longer have a leaf canopy to photosynthesize and consume carbon dioxide. So they can potentially increase the ecosystem’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 percent.

Snags don’t move water and nutrients around for growth. The gases they emit probably come from decaying wood or emissions oozing up from the soil. Scientists are alarmed by the world-wide profusion of dead forests, as the ocean rises and saltwater intrudes on heretofore healthy wetlands. Some ecologists have made it a focal point of their study, such as Emily Ury, here measuring soil salinity.

The trees Lin brought to New York came from  a stand that had been infiltrated by salt water and were being cleared as part of a regeneration effort. When I think of the pine barrens it brings a spooky scene to mind: we canoed down a river in November and as night came on passed close enough to a dead deer lying underneath the water to prod it with a paddle. A perfect crescent slice had been taken out of its flank, cattle mutilation style.

The deterioration of our forests unlikely to be an issue on the mind of any of the hundreds of picnickers among the Ghost Forest installation. It’s the most beautiful spring day of all time, at the final gasp of a horrific pandemic, after all. The last thing anyone wants to think about is the end of a livable earth as we know it.

But some visitors may tune in to another element of the installation, a soundscape accessible via smart phone, that renders what you might have heard at what is now 26th Street and Broadway five hundred years ago. The audio track has English names, Latin names and linguistic translations from the Lenape Center in New York City. How cool is that? Madison Square Park sits on the traditional homeland of the Lenape-Delaware people. Using West Virginia species that are living today, the acoustic exhibit takes you into the forest: grey fox howling, cougar meowing, American black bear vocalizing with a sort of urgent whine, a beaver splashing its tail in water. 

To me, the haunting “sounds of the silenced” was worth the price of admission.

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With hope and the best of intentions

the Village of Ossining is throwing itself a tree-planting party. The new forest of 80 – yes, 80 – native specimens will be the gift that keeps on giving, especially to those members of the community who live in apartments and for whom the parks with the new trees will create a beautiful back yard. New York City’s Central Park was designed by the landscape authority Frederick Olmsted in the nineteenth century to be “the lungs of the city.” That is no less true today in the little Village of Ossining. Trees breathe and help us breathe. It’s especially important for folks who don’t necessarily have those lush, lavish estates that are fairly common in Westchester.

At SavATree, we helped them get the trees into the ground. Matt, the arborist ninja, is capable of walking many miles a day to conduct a tree inventory, taking note of the attributes of every tree along the way, from its DBH (diameter at breast height) to the condition of its crown.

Clients couldn’t be happier; he’s the best. For this project he took three adjoining parks and designed a forest to fit them.

He did this at the behest of Maddi, the Assistant Village Manager of Ossining, ever beaming and optimistic. She organized the effort with some help, both monetary and advisory, from the New York State Department of Conservation.

Did you notice I said 80 trees? Yes, that is ambitious. Matt ventured to Roth Nursery in Armonk to select each one individually (in one trip , of course).

At the start of planting day, there is by necessity some education given about planting ball-and-burlap stock. My colleague George, a forester from DEC, steps up to explain the proper depth of the hole, how high in it the base of the trunk should rest, and the nightmare of girdling roots. We must attack the wires that bind the burlap, he counsels, snipping them apart so the roots will be able to flourish.

George also walks a lot, counseling towns and villages about how to better manage their urban forests. He is able to convince municipal planners who never gave leaves and branches a second thought that a row of strong, healthy trees is exactly what the populace needs.

People show up, including the Village Manager and this woman, who knew an awful lot about how things grow.

The first tree in the ground is a white oak.Then a swamp white oak. Then a honey locust.

Only 77 left to go. The sky gleams blue and at 9am it is a perfect 60 degrees and nothing else matters as we create our own rays of sunshine.

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