Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

Let’s go to NYC!

Let’s go! seems to be my pet phrase of the moment. I must use it a dozen times during every tour at Ellis Island. So when friends said they had had the archetypal NYC day recently, visiting the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street followed by the famed Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, I had just one thought.

Let’s go.

Crispy, crumbly elephant ears on the train to Grand Central are a must. And the view along the Hudson. Even after the millionth time. John Cheever said, Better views than the Mediteranean about the Hudson Valley.

Manhattan in December features the usual fashionista tourists, and also the always welcome juxtaposition of hats for sale and tall buildings to gawk at. The lions that greet you at the front of the Library, Patience and Fortitude, have received their holiday adornment.

The exhibit currently on view at the Library, Treasures, features an assortment of the most extraordinary things from the 56 million the institution is lucky enough to own. For example, the custom-made dress shoes of Arthur Toscanini, the dramatic conductor whose shenanigans while performing resulted in many broken batons and chronic pain in his right shoulder and arm.

A 1908 poster advertising one of Houdini’s most death-defying feats.

A powerful 1971 sculpture by American feminist Elizabeth Catlett called “Political Prisoner.” Maybe Houdini could offer some get-out-of-shackles pointers.

Just down the way, the original Winnie the Pooh, given to the real Christopher Robin Milne on his first birthday, and, even more interesting because I had never glimpsed it before, the original Tigger. And because I always really liked Tigger the best.

A sumptuous altar gospel from 1791. Silver and enamel. Nothing else in the world compares. Sort of like you or me.

A comic book about Harriet Tubman. What?

From the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime, with a picture of three greats, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, captured by jazz bassist Milt Hinton, who also happened to be a great photographer.

Of course it makes sense that the most important library in the world (to me) would have some amazing literary artifacts. Some I’d seen at an earlier exhibit but never tire of include Dickens’ lecture copy of David Copperfield from 1861. The writer loved giving over-the-top performances of passages from the book, and wrote to a friend, I read “Copperfield” and positively enthralled the people. It was a most overpowering effect, and poor Andrew [a lieutenant in the Royal Navy] came behind the screen, after the storm, and cried in the best and manliest manner. Also on display, Dickens’ paper knife, embellished with the mummified paw of his beloved cat Bob.

And the desk chair where the great man plopped his bottom down to produce his amazing work.

Also a favorite, the walking stick Virginia Woolf took on her final walk in 1941 to her drowning death in the River Ouse. They recovered the cane later.

At this point it would do well to note that some of the most impressive things at the Library are not in the exhibit proper but the exhibit’s surroundings. Look up at the intricately carved ceiling.

Or down at the floor, at the buffed brass electrical plate. Another gem, and it didn’t cost them anything.

A couple of other favorites. The Castello Plan, the first street map of New York City, dating to 1660.

And the Greensward Plan, the original map of Central Park.

I happen to know because I wrote a book about a man named I.N. Phelps Stokes that he was responsible  for salvaging both of these precious items from obscurity — the Central Park map mouldering in the City Arsenal basement, the Castello Plan disintegrating on the wall of a remote Italian palazzo. But I see no mention of Stokes in the extensive write-ups of these treasures.

So let’s go elsewhere in the Library for more Stokesiana. I spent much time here when I was researching the mighty collector of New York history – he was one of the founders of the library back in the day and had an office here on the second floor. In these uncertain times, security is tight all around the place. I couldn’t wander back to see his old office as once was possible. Two stern volunteers prohibited my passage before posing for the camera. “Do you have a gun?” asked one, smiling politely.

One flight up, more rules. It is no longer possible to simply walk into the Rose Reading Room, or along the echoing marble corridors, which have new barricades and guards all around. A nice person named Sam who was there in some official capacity escorted me around to see the changes the digital age has wrought – you no longer submit card catalog requests via a pneumatic tube, for example, one of the wonders of doing research here in the past. To return the favor, I introduced him to the wonderful bit in the lower right hand corner of one of Edward Laning’s monumental murals, dedicated to Stokes, who had them installed here in 1940. Except for his unfailing helpfulness and encouragement these paintings would not have been. Indeed.

Enough with the nostalgia and out through the new, expanded gift shop. A chachka in every pot.

We pass one more nostalgic favorite on our way, surely the last remaining phone booth in New York City, where I dropped many a quarter back in the day.

Hungry? Let’s go. It’s time for the Oyster Bar, founded in 1913 at the behest of Cornelius Vanderbilt himself and pretty much exactly the same now. A good way to enter is the back-door staircase to the Saloon, strictly for cognoscenti.

The cognoscenti also sit at the counter and know to ask for the oyster stew, made to order. You can get a lot of other fancy stuff at the Oyster Bar, but why would you? Carlos has been at the restaurant 31 years.

He filled me in on some closely held Oyster Bar secrets. Have you ever noticed that people will tell you secrets, if you only ask?

There are six oysters in each plate of stew, he confided – more if the chef decides he likes you. The oysters in the stew are all bluepoints, because that particular variety is neither too salty nor too sweet. Customers also order bluepoints on the half shell – sometimes two, three, four dozen at a pop. Yum. The place shut down for 18 months during the Pandemic. What did you do during your time off, go fishing? I asked. No! he said. Porno and pot.

At Doughnut Plant, the Marzipan Star special “just dropped yesterday,” the haughty counterperson told me. Worth every calorie.

Just outside the Oyster Bar is the famous whispering gallery, low ceramic arches designed famously by Guastavino. If you stand in one corner and speak in a low tone, through acoustical wizardry your buddy standing all the way across the hall at the other side of the arch can hear you perfectly. Everybody standing around like in Blair Witch.

Am I hearing I love you or Let’s go! Does it matter?


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

If you ever have known anyone who died “too young”

you probably get a hitch in your chest around old graveyards, places where mysteries exist as to cause of death but not the carved-in-stone age of the person buried. Thinking about it, I drive to work along all the tangled metropolitan-area highways before dawn, the tips of the tree branches brushing the tarnished gray skies. Thinking about a burial place I visited recently. The Community Church of Yorktown cemetery wraps itself softly around the historic structure dating to 1848.

Situated on Baptist Church Road in Yorkville Heights, the place originally belonged to a Baptist congregation, serving a community known as Huntersville, which largely disappeared when the New Croton Dam sunk much of the area under water after its completion in 1906.

In a beautiful spot on a country road, the burial ground has dozens of pre-revolutionary graves. It’s a site that can’t help but make you wonder about the people who have come before, all the ones who used a big old key in the church’s big old front door.

This morning, as I crest the hill on the highway, a strip of orange flame appears on the horizon. Sailors take warning. At the cemetery, I poked around among the stones. So many appeared to have died too young.

Either really, really young. Babies.

Or many in their 20’s.

Or 30’s.

It seemed as though if you just survived your 30’s you might get all the way to your 80’s.

This is why I like to go to do tree work in Queens, nice and early: the horizon glows, salmon, blush pink, cotton candy pink, all the tired descriptors for the endlessly new phenomenon of dawn. We don’t have words adequate to describe sunrise. Or death, for that matter. All you can do is experience it. I drive beneath the chain of lights glimmering on the Whitestone spans. The pink ribbon of sky dazzles beyond the burning red taillights, and then, finally, over the site I’m bound for, a thicket of red brick housing development buildings.

Everyone has someone they know who died too young. Or probably more than one. For me first, a boy, a friend who was found suddenly dead when we were teenagers. Also, a friend robbed of her life by cancer when our kids were just graduating high school. Or an aunt, a dazzling person, a beauty queen with substance abuse problems, at around the age of 40. Too soon, too soon.

The graves on Baptist Road, haunting. Haunted.

I always find myself wandering off to the edges of a burial ground, as if I’ll find some answers on the outskirts. Every one of us is losing something precious to us, said Haruki Murakami. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.

Answers about what? The people here? Death? Life?

Anyway, it’s the ones on the fringes, the unmaintained, I like the best. And I always love it when stones nudge up against trees. The person who carved one of these monuments in all probability personally knew the person buried beneath it.

Today thinking about my New York grandmother—she died in her 80’s and had a good life but still I felt she went too early, just as I was getting to appreciate her as an adult. So it’s not only a question of age. There was an older woman I worked with, helping her write a book when I was just learning to write books. I sure cried when she died, and it felt too soon, though she was already a grandmother. I felt broken.

By total coincidence, as I drive into Queens a song comes on the radio called Hollywood Forever Cemetery by pop god Father John Misty: But someone’s got to help me dig/Someone’s got to help me dig. Always good to go do tree protection. Doesn’t it sound grand: tree protection? It’s something of a privilege to help save trees in New York City. Today, a London plane standing obstinately in the area designated by some city official as the proper place for a new pedestrian ramp. The soft-hearted field engineer wants a tree consultant to weigh in. Well, no, the excavation would in fact damage the roots and hurt the tree. Danger averted. We’re both relieved. And rather proud.

I wonder what Nat, my teenage friend who loved nature, would think about saving this London plane. Or my pal Debbie. Or my grandmother. What if the people you lost too soon could come back for a bit to have a cup of coffee with you, say, what would that be like? You could catch up. Just for a few moments? Or my father, for that matter, now gone not quite a year. He knew I became a late in life arborist, but what would he think of this bright sunrise, these bland brick buildings, their doorways and decorative plantings draped in twinkling holiday lights?

Helen Keller said, What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us. You don’t need to climb the steps of a church, even a picturesque church, to know what she meant.

The beautiful uncut hair of graves, wrote the immortal Whitman. Sometimes shorn, but still breathtaking.

And that’s something, a way of coping with too soon, too young. Shakespeare recommended: Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break. So though I am not sanguine about death, that works to some extent. The impulse to give sorrow words.

There’s also, for some people, protecting trees. Splendid sawtooth oak on 33rd Avenue agrees, shaking its shaggy branches in a gust of wind.

Too soon? Not me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

A rainy tree day is better than no tree day at all

if you happen to be heading north to New England for your holiday Concolor, the evergreen that gifts your home with the scent of citrus.

Is there anything cornier than a Christmas tree farm?

Sleighbell’s, in Sutton, Massachusetts, even has a food truck with corn on the menu…28 different varieties of kettle corn, including Coal in Your Stocking, Buffalo Bang and Bananas Foster.

Better get an early start, while the neon on the sign of our Village’s main drag diner still glows.

This is the smallest tree farm I’ve visited, with mainly pipsqueak specimens.

Have the larger ones been harvested already this year? All that are left come about up to your chin. Time to reimagine the look of your holiday great room.

If you have a great room. We don’t, so we’re fine with what Santa has made available to us this holiday. What’s here is undeniably hokey. The air in the shop is thick with sentiment and has a toy train running and a great vintage display.

But still, less corny than some places. There is real atmosphere under the lowering skies. A mammoth white oak muscling up over it all.

A pond, beyond.

A nifty bird house.

A bird’s nest someone saved, displayed on a perfect spot, a trailer hitch.

A warming fire where you can chow down on your turkey sandwich picnic. Mulled cider, bourbon optional.

A very nice young couple with a very nice couple of dogs.

Oh, wait, they’re the ones we’re meeting here! Maud and Dan. Gus and Ottie. Excellent. Saws for all.

When your tree is small you only need to take one or two rest breaks while cutting it. Easy for me to say.


As if that’s not enough corn, a trip to Vaillancourt in Sutton, the long-time, globally celebrated designer of snazzy ornaments, shipped all over the world. The store is also a museum and a workshop where little old ladies paint Santa’s and snowmen and Christmas trees as if their livelihoods depended upon it. Which they do. Mr. Vaillancourt happened to be giving a presentation and he spoke about an employee who decided to call it quits at the age of 85. He said to her, Why are you retiring so early?

Snow globes galore. I’ve been dreaming about how I’d like to move into a cozy snow globe, shut out the world, perhaps with a fire and a couple of puppies and guests I like. A private life of magic.

Hard to figure which are the most amazing.

Sometimes spooky items for sale here.

Plenty of Belsnickles, anyway.

All I know is that at 100 or more dollars a handcrafted trinket they are too precious and too rich for my blood.

The rain held off until the long highway slog home. Would be nice to have some of that Buffalo Bang right about now. Time to shake out the tree, throw on the lights, string cranberries. We’ll make our own corn at home.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

I will tell you the secret of pie crust.

There is no secret.

There are tricks, to be sure, but no reason to dread and fear preparing the home-made as some people say they do when confronted with the holiday task.

It’s all good.

You do need to have some proper fat. Lard is good, leaf lard better. Leaf lard is the delicate, magical stuff covering the pig’s kidneys. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to find it fresh and render it yourself, but it can also be ordered on line along with everything else in the world.

Alright, you don’t have leaf lard and you’re not going to bother ordering it. Perhaps you can’t even get the blocks of lard they sell in the supermarket.

Crisco will have to do. And butter, of course.

Combine 3 cups of flour with a little salt and a little sugar in a sturdy bowl. Get ahold of a pastry cutter. You do know what that is? If not, Google it.

Warm up a stick of butter to room temperature (or microwave, no shame in that, for 20 seconds). Chop it up into the flour. Add a third of a cup of leaf lard, or plain old lard, or Crisco, or more butter. Use the pastry cutter to mix it all up until it’s crumbly – neither pea-sized or like cornmeal, as some pundits like to say, but somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t really matter. Dump in a cup of cold tap water. Mush it all around with a fork until the cough somewhat holds together. Then stick it in the fridge for a while.

What to do while you wait? I thought I’d listen to some sentimental music, Carole King singing So Far Away. And think about what place mats to use tomorrow. Natural Woman. There you go.

If you haven’t yet, this is a good time to pick up your turkey. We get ours at Hemlock Hills Farm, where they have turkeys running around outside and living the good life until they get whacked.

Oh yes, the pie filling, got to have that.

I use a recipe for chocolate pecan pie my mother clipped for me.

Now, years ago I won a contest held in my community for a pretty fancy chocolate pecan pie, but after I told her about it my mother felt she would weigh in with a simpler version which was just as good, so that is what I use now.

Note: “just dump everything.” Excellent idea. What makes good pie is a shared recipe.

After a half hour or so, remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on any clean floured surface you’ve got. And use anything you have to roll it with – a wine bottle will do. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nothing in life has to be perfect.  What you do is drape the circle of dough over the rolling pin and lay it off into the pie pan. You can fix the edges however you want. Pinching works, or pressing a fork all around the rim of the pan.

Et voila. Add your filling.

Bake and serve.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Throw in a little James Taylor for good measure.

Will you love me tomorrow? I think the answer is yes, if offered a pie.

I have heard there is no problem too large that pie can’t fix. And I happen to think that that corny truism applies equally to making pies and eating them. So make yourself happy this holiday season. Don’t sweat, don’t stress, and roll out some dough.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Bald eagle on the turnpike this morning

swooping up into the crown of a tree. Omen, sign, portent?

I believe in marvels, antithetical as such ideas might be in our modern rational age.

There is always a new unravelling of old mysteries. Naturalists have just come to the realization that prehistoric mastodons brought the honey locust with them to West Virginia 10,000 years ago.

Being partial to both grazing mastodons and spiky honey locusts, I am happy that the connection has at last been made.

I visited Bainbridge Island, floating just off the coast of Washington State, when I spent time in Seattle this past week. Bainbridge is a place of mysteries, the center of Suquamish Ancestral Territory, peopled for thousands of years and rich in archaeological sites. Made a pilgrimage to Fay Bainbridge beach, a place overlooking Puget Sound where thousands of bare, huge driftwood logs have washed up on the shore. Where do they come from? Why here? You need to pick your way over them as you make your way to the surf, they are so thick across the sand.

The eminently quotable Thoreau: We often love to think now of the life of men on beaches, at least in midsummer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beech-bird.

In the old times this place was called Salagwep, base of spit where butt end of trees are lying. Other parts of Bainbridge had different names: Xwadzus, Sharp face, or Daxkdsaxb, Place where water gets jumping, or Yeboalt, Fighter’s home where north and south winds tussle.

Even in the cold weather, now, in November, the jag of driftwood speaks. There are some telephone poles here also, obviously thinking they belong among the imperfect tree trunks. Someone has built a fortress, a home, a gathering place. Simple and ingenious.

In Danish the expression is hygge, meaning a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable. During the long, dark winters when Danes retreat inside their homes, hygge is what brings a sense of comfort and joy. Same in Norway, except there they call it koselig.

(Knowing a little about Scandinavian habits, I have a feeling it usually involves strong coffee also). Hygge usually refers to an indoor environment, but I think the structure at Fay Bainbridge is also a place of succor, the beach-y equivalent. A shelter from the storm for whoever built it or whoever came after and hung out here.


I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Elsewhere on Bainbridge, horse chestnut leaves hold the autumn light.

Mysteries. No one is here. Even a bit of plant fluff can appear miraculous atop a human hand.

A puff of breath in the cold air can seem miraculous. So can someone sighing in their sleep. The miracle of Klimt.

What is he dreaming? It can only be good. I wonder sometimes, do I sigh in my sleep? I don’t think so. I sleep like a rock, when I sleep at all. I take my dreams in the daytime, thank you very much.

Returning from Bainbridge, we see Mount Rainier rising in the distance. It looked the same to ancient eyes.

But what did the sight of a snowy, iconic mountain on a clear, crisp day such as this portend? We can only imagine.

At Ellis island, touring the measles ward, one person said he was sure he was tapped on the shoulder by an unseen presence. Another guest said she smelled chocolate in a room where no one had been for 100 years. What do these occurrences signify? Are they portents?

If you listen, things speak to you. Today, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She hasn’t been alive for 30 years. Yes, it was all in my mind. That didn’t make it unreal. She told me to re-read Ulysses, by James Joyce, her now-tattered copy, bought as a first edition in Paris a century ago. She was so smart – she came from nothing, and wound up living well on New York City’s Upper West Side. I remember climbing on the big Manhattan schist boulders across Central Park West. You could see them from her window.

The rocks, were they signposts? Central Park would be an integral part of my life eventually. Did those rocks speak to me even then?

There are marvels wherever you look. Sometimes they’re audible. Don’t we always find signs in songs?

When Ella scat-warbles Chelsea Bridge, does it send a shiver down your spine? Is it a sign? Is it important? It’s mysterious. Or, if you prefer, Leon Russell singing Tightrope.

The wire seems to be
The only place for me
A comedy of errors and I’m falling
Like a rubber-neck giraffe
You look into my past
Well maybe you’re just too blind to see

 I loved it when someone once told me I had a musical soul. But doesn’t everybody have a musical soul? It’s just the music that differs. For me, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, the duet sung by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Incomparable. Doesn’t that just wring your heart out? Or Julia, by The Flatlanders, also referencing a circus, a different kind.

Night wind blows
Stars above the blue
Heaven knows
Only love will do

Or do you prefer Do You Realize, by The Flaming Lips – Do you realize/That you have the most beautiful face? Or, of course, Smokey Robinson, Ooh, Baby Baby. The Miracles, indeed. The Beach Boys, that big whomp of a single drum beat at the beginning of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, what does it signify? Everything, I think. Or J.S. Bach, Concerto in D Minor.

Whatever music makes you both smile and cry. Listening to a transistor radio late at night as a child, under the sheets, so no one would know. Private. Secret. I want to hold your hand. Mysterious. Did I say secret?

The marvel of scent. The fragrance of wood smoke. Whatever smells hold magic, release magic.

I saw a newly released Polish film, EO, about a donkey, in which a circus performer memorably presses her smooth face against her donkey co-performer’s rough fur.

A very sad movie, very scary, but still something so magical about the animal’s eyes. Polish poetry.

A 16-year-old girl on my Ellis Island tour after peppering me with questions the whole time: I’m sorry for asking so many questions, but I just really want the answers! Yes, so do I, missy. When I was younger I thought of mysteries as things that must be solved. Something to get to the bottom of. Now…

I’ve always resonated to cabinets of curiosities, those neatly arranged treasures you find depicted in artwork of earlier centuries. Like the famous collection of one professor of medicine in Copenhagen, a studio stuffed with animals, plants and minerals and including both a crocodile and an armadillo.

The sole purpose of the Wunderkammern was to elicit awe. The wondrous was a cult that combined “variety, whimsy, and extravagance “ in the description of one of my favorite books, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. Unicorn horns (really narwhal tusks) and griffin claws (bison horns) were prized along with nautilus shells and sharks’ teeth. Churches suspended giant eggs, teeth and bones from their vaults to prompt admirationem. Folks also believed in exotic human races, including the Cynocephali, dog-headed inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.

Debate existed about whether they were civilized and rational or cruel cannibals who preferred the meat of strangers raw and highly spiced.

Marvels, wherever you look. From bald eagles to dog-faced humans to hovering pink clouds.

Another ho-hum sunset over the Palisades just across from my home. A talisman of… you tell me.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Thanksgiving is a rolling affair

when you like the holiday as much as I do. It’s a chance to revisit some favorite haunts, stock up on delicious foodstuffs, celebrate that all that is warm and fuzzy and corny and great. Under the glowing leaves, we visit some of the best places in the Hudson Valley.

It’s cold, even a bit of snow crusting the ground, but it’s all good.

Fable Farm in Ossining.

The fat goats gorge on crates of vegetables.

Kiki in particular likes to get her skull petted. Proust wrote, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. What would it be like to see the world through G.O.A.T. Kiki’s diabolical eyes?

At Thompson’s Cider Mill in Croton-on-Hudson, the trees have been picked clean.

Arkansas Black is in stock, my favorite eating apple. Rock hard, dense. Perfect.

Nearby, the best magical gate opens out into absolutely nothing but your imagination.

At Stone Barns, at the Rockefeller Estate in Tarrytown, the farm stand is out of leaf lard – oh no! – but we get to see a bride and groom strolling away from a cold-weather wedding ceremony. Love in the air.

What shall we make for Thanksgiving? Sausage and apple for the stuffing? What kind of pies? Apple crumb, check. Chocolate pecan. Will brussels sprouts suffice or do we need another green vegetable? Who will bring the cheese? All the vital questions. Mull them over, take your time. We are so lucky.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Bear LeVangie speaks the truth

when she talks about climbing trees. “Once above 10 or 15 feet,” she told me, “your whole perspective on day-to-day life changes. It’s a biosphere you can’t get from the ground.” As founder of the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop, Bear knows what she is talking about.

I gave a presentation today at the Partners in Community Forestry conference, sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, as part of a lightning round focusing on “inclusion”. By which is meant relative newcomers to the tree industry.

The crackling electricity in the jam-packed room was indicative of two facts – that women are indisputably a part of this field now, and that they bring an outsize passion to their work. As a fellow presenter pointed out, a simple signifier of progress vis a vis trees and gender was the of the line of women waiting in line for the conference restroom.

I dealt with the immense subject of women in the tree industry by looking at it through the microcosm of female climbers. Climbing is at the core of what we do. Not everyone starts up in the trees, but many entry-level jobs still take you there. The path forward—through the green ceiling—features what once was seen as an insurmountable barrier. Actually getting up there in the crown of a tree. Climbing is the purest form of tree work. But let’s look back.

In 1882, the American Forestry Congress held its inaugural convention in Cincinnati. Twenty-five thousand people attended the first-ever National Arbor Day tree planting. Not one woman graced the dais, though a bevy of schoolgirls did train their watering cans on the memorial saplings going into the ground. Okay, fine. The business of caring for trees is still overwhelmingly male. Statistics vary, but the best guess I’ve heard is that only 12 percent of arborists are female.

Seven years ago, I took a detour from my career as an author and established myself as an arborist. I started at a consulting company in New York City, making sure construction companies didn’t kill trees.

The imaginary people who had kept me company at my computer were replaced by real people in real time. My fellow consultant Roland, seen here, had seven kids and a killer smile, and schooled me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup. Tree work, I found, is really about the people who do it.

Earlier in my career I wrote a book about girls, sports, and self-esteem, about what a game changer physical activity was. It came out of my experience.

I had an athletic daughter of my own, and climbing was her daily vitamin. Maud  scaled trees, fences, mountains. I asked my audience, is this bit too personal? I think what we do is personal. Caring for trees is personal. Saving the earth is personal! Now I began to meet and talk with the women who climbed both because they loved it and because it was part of their job.

When I spoke with Bear, (and pictured here are participants in the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop on a beautiful live oak in Texas), she told me the percentage of women who climb in the course of their work is probably just three percent of the arborist field. Bear said, “climbing makes me feel my inner child spirit. It brings absolute joy that you’re in a living and moving creature that’s speaking to you.

Before the bucket truck, jobs required not only pole saws and extension ladders but a strenuous amount of climbing.

The tree world was rough and tumble. Back in the day, I heard, a crew might settle on their perches far overhead during breaks, downing beers and smoking weed. Consultant Franc Reidy shared her experience. “I loved working with the boys,” she told me. “Those brutal, horrible days, and those really good days.” Climbers scaled the branches with a taut line hitch and a 25-pound chain saw. They’d be old men by the age of 45.

Climbing since that time has professionalized. High-tech equipment  means that people of different frames, weights and statures can participate. I spoke with Rhonda Wood, who won the ISA’s Western Chapter climbing competition 4 out of 7 years, beginning in 2007. What she told me really resonated. In her words, “I love the challenge of it, the thrill of it. But also I just love connecting with trees and the art of pruning. It’s an art and a science.” Yes.

The origin of the term “tree hugger” goes back fifty years, when women in the Himalayan hills of northern India fought to have sacred trees in the vicinity preserved, throwing their arms around the trunks to do so. The Chipko movement had success, with a tree-felling moratorium. True heroism.

Talking to climbers, I asked myself, what protectors? What are the challenges? And why is it important to teach women climbing skills?

How cool is this gang of three?

I spoke with Dana Karcher, president of ISA. “We are just now coming to the table in a big way,” she told me. “When we enter into this new workplace, sometimes we make people uncomfortable. And so everybody kind of has to get over it.” Jenny Gulick, a forestry consultant, told me, “It’s not a ya-hoo cowboy thing anymore. Women bring civility to the profession. Female arborists know the science, and pay attention to safety. Mixed-gender crews all work together as a team.”

Most people I spoke with dismissed the idea of any difference between “tree guys” and the women who work alongside them. Fran Reidy told me, “Just because you’re a woman doesn’t make you immune to bad behavior. We’re not all angels flying on our little wings blessing this industry with our goodness and kindness. There is no sisterhood of the traveling chainsaw.” I was told that men are also nurturers, and that many men have saved their share of the squirrels’ and birds’ nests they come across up above our heads.

In the end, LeVangie told me, “it’s a triumph personally when I go to a job site and they don’t think twice that it’s a lady in the tree. We’re all trained in the same way. The tree doesn’t care if you have ovaries or testes.” Rita Hill, head of the American Forest Foundation, has said very aptly that only an inclusive approach will correct what she called “an imbalance of representation” which would cause us to, quote, “miss an opportunity to broaden forest impact and climate benefits.” Hear, hear.

You can see how these kids feel about climbing.

At American Forests, Director of Urban Forestry Maisie Hughes told me about getting underrepresented people into tree work.  She told me how lucky she feels to be, quote, in “the field where we’re growing the solutions to some of the most pressing issues of our time, with a product that is probably the most beautiful thing on the planet.” Teaching women to climb not only elevates the field, but guarantees more success with these larger issues. Clearly a case of more talent, better results.

What is most important, for climbers and for everyone else, is what happens next. Here are Tana Byrd, Kate Odell and Melissa LeVangie Ingersoll up in the canopy hammock. Their smiles, I think, reflect the fact that the future looks bright. Sharon Blackstock, a sales arborist, told me, “We need to focus on doing the right thing for future generations and for the earth.” Watch women as they learn to climb and you will see empowerment in action. I was struck by a great expression I heard: “climbers with wombs.”  Along with girls holding watering cans, let’s have more girls in trees.  We need them. We owe it to ourselves. Women teaching women how to climb is fundamental. It’s passing along the skills, but also confidence. Bravery. Strength. Fire.

My forthcoming book Heartwood: The Epic Tale of America’s Forests and the Battle Over Their Fate will focus in part on current issues in arboriculture, including the incredible women entering the profession as climbers. One person in the audience came up to me afterward and suggested that Sisterhood of the Traveling Chainsaw would make a pretty nice tee shirt slogan.

I would agree.

[With thanks for photos to Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop; American Forests; ISA Western Chapter Women’s Arboriculture Climbing Workshop; Speak for the Trees, Boston.]


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Catching an airborne salmon

is the thing you supposedly do at iconic and touristy Pike Place market in Seattle.

Always a go-to for foodies, this year it also drew tree people attending the Partners in Community Forestry/Society of Municipal Arborists conference, one of the main annual gatherings for the industry. I wandered down to the market while waiting for events to get underway and found a lot that got my juices flowing. First the coolest non-fish eatery downtown, Biscuit Bitch.

Take out a sausage-egg biscuit to a picnic table overlooking Puget Sound and you will have many darling starling friends.

The weather is perfect.

Who said it rains in Seattle? Not on my parade it doesn’t. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.

I want to cook!

There are indeed people throwing salmon around, though luckily not in my direction.

Salmon everywhere here.

Of historical interest here, the original Starbucks with an eternally long line. It all started here, for better or for worse. A logo to become better known than Coca Cola.

Eat enough at Pike Place and you will begin to resemble one of the bronze beasts stationed around the market.

I’m pretty sure that these macarons are the best in the world.

Wild strawberry and passion fruit, thank you much.

Somebody’s got my number. I was born in ’57.

Tree people share a language, concerns, enthusiasm. Of course I like hearing about making vacant lots into permanent urban forests in Syracuse, as described by the city’s brainy forester. Especially important in low-canopy, low-equity neighborhoods. Pretty cool to hear about the Urban Food Forest Project, also in Syracuse, which features persimmon, paw paw, ramps, hickory and currants.

In the typical airless hotel conference room we hear about wonderful green vistas in Washington, DC: adding tree boxes to the rights of way, where you will also find a road diet, in other words shrinking the dimensions of a street and adding medians to make them safer and increase canopy cover. Canopy, canopy, canopy! Other terminology that would be arcane elsewhere is instantly understood here: ground-based Lidar, green infrastructure, utility conflicts, community engagement, eco-ambassadors, bump-outs. Climate-ready tree-planting palettes. Did I hear that right? Most important, in terms of a takeaway, questions about the pipeline, in other words the future generation of urban forestry. The time for trees is now. Rock star urban forester Beattra Wilson, a big shot at the U.S. Forest Service, exhorted her audience to continue with successess in diversification to better reflect the population. Advocacy is for everyone.

But I keep coming back to salmon. Not the hokey salmon toss in the market. Something tree conferences do well is take participants on tours of the area that highlight shared interests. So we set out by bus to check out bioswales altering the topography of a street in the suburbs, which was cool. Beautiful Pacific Sunset maples, a cultivar first developed in the early ‘90s.

Even cooler was Part 2 of the tour, a stop at a waterfront park, where a city naturalist explained the steps being taken to restore the local salmon population.

Micronutrients that are usually found deep in the ocean have been discovered at the tops of the trees here, a result of the salmon entering the rivers after their years in the Pacific. We’re all connected. We observed chum salmon making their way up a shallow steam to spawn, hauling themselves, thrashing, really almost crawling.

Dozens of them, something I’ve never seen before aside from in nature flicks. Their efforts so moving. As a colleague said, watching their massive struggle, I can’t help but think about my own life. The naturalist showed us one old grandaddy after his struggle was over.

“We need the tonic of wildness,” said Thoreau. “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

As much as we try to deal with tree issues, as professionals and as a society, that mystery is paramount. Watch the spawning salmon and you will know it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Melancholy and rapture

would be pretty good words to characterize the music I heard recently, performed by my friend pianist Beth Levin at Merkin Hall in Manhattan. Outside the concert venue, pin oaks held tight to their leaves in the autumn gloaming.

The piece Beth played, Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, has stayed with me. The composer was a product of the Russian nationalist movement of the late nineteenth century, but remains fresh today.

Beth’s self effacement in person is matched by her thunder as a performer.

We treated ourselves to dessert beforehand at the classic New York diner Old John’s Luncheonette, across West 67th Street.

Good place to go if you want a Broadway mojito (rum, muddled lime, mint, soda), or a brief Prossecco, or a ginger ale, or “momma’s meat loaf.” Or, more my speed, a warm brownie with fresh mint chocolate chip ice cream and mocha crème anglais.

These days I mainly consume rabbit food. Maybe the ice cream qualified, it was in fact made with fresh mint and so tasted a little medicinal, though scrumptious with a brownie right out of the oven.

The ticket-taking usher on being told we had pie: Pie is always a good thing.

Yes, and so is Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote it to honor his friend Viktor Hartmann after the artist’s unexpected death from a brain aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39.

The suite of ten short pieces was inspired by a postmortem exhibit mounted in St. Petersburg of Hartmann’s work, with the central conceit of promenading past the different works of art. As interpreted by the solo piano version it is both intimate and grand – and incredibly difficult, requiring stamina as well as passion. Beth has both in spades.

Walking in the quiet of a fall afternoon, thinking back to this haunting elegy, one creative person pouring out his soul to another.

In fall, the melancholy that is always with us as humans seems pronounced. How do you capture the feeling in art? In music? In fall the flowers keep coming.

Will this beauty never stop? I stalk a black squirrel around the trunk of a big black locust. The sound your shoes make sloshing through crisp autumn drifts.

The sound of hammering just off the trail — workmen snugging down a roof before winter comes.

Plantanus offers its astonishing platter-size leaves.

One of the most affecting passages in Pictures is “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” and it’s also one of the few extant pieces of art on which Mussorgsky based his music, a watercolor featuring costumes for a children’s production.

The things you come across as you promenade. A child’s lost shoe.

Hemingway, it is said, once wrote a six-word story on a bet: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A writer who knew a little bit about melancholy.

Mussorgsky ventures into the Catacombs of Paris after his friend’s dark and umbrous painting.

He wrote in the score: “The creative genius of the late Hartmann leads me to the skulls and apostrophizes them. The skulls begin to glow.” Sad, sadder, saddest. In fall we think about friends we’ve lost too young. How happy we were.

Winnowing down storage, coming across journals I kept as a much younger woman, replete with both melancholy and rapture in gouts that are so great as to be embarrassing. I remember feeling euphoria at the sight of a plate of ripe sliced tomatoes on a diner counter. Today, the red heartbeat of the Japanese maple.

Only connect, from E.M. Forster, served as my adolescent mantra. If you had told me at 24 I would be still connecting as a writer I think I’d be hornswalloped.

Mussorgsky never heard Pictures performed – he died six years after composing it at age 42, almost as young as his friend Hartmann. The piece would have faded from the culture entirely if it hadn’t been orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel. Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty. Keats’ perfect adage, always relevant. I meet the my new favorite cocker spaniel on the trail, Pepper. A little melancholic herself. She wouldn’t be bothered with me, but why should she be?

Scraps of saved letters surface in dusty boxes. Missives from Maud as an itty bitty.

Promenade past pictures, promenade past trees. Birches glowing in the autumn sun, bright as skulls.

As long as you make sure to promenade. Wherever you’re likely to find melancholy and rapture.


Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Frighteningstein is here

and this time it’s serious.

Any holiday that causes you to dress up your pet is a big deal for sure. And it couldn’t be a bigger deal than in the Rivertowns, where I live, and specifically Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and Irvington, where ever Washington Irving made his mark. North Tarrytown actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to make hay with the legend.

I paid an autumn visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown.

Fortified myself first with a iced CBD vanilla latte at the local café, where skeletons awaited me.

The coffee roaster, Dave, was hard at work, as always.

Is everyone named Dave these days? It certainly seems so. I was somewhat spooked while awaiting the “calm” I was assured would ensue with the CBD.

Visited my friend Stuart at the vinyl store he manages part time, also in Tarrytown. Serendipitous sighting of the Monster Mash. A childhood spooky favorite.

Witches hang out in Tarrytown these days, near the Tappan Zee.

Guess paddleboards are more popular than broomsticks these days. Witches are fun!

At the cemetery, caught a couple of Irving acolytes paying homage to the great man. Does anyone actually read Washington Irving these days?

Hannah and Kira said they came to the burial ground “because it’s only an hour and a half away.” Okay, perhaps a good reason. There are some especially nice markers here. She saw beauty everywhere.

The two ladies must have made it here from Brooklyn. Nice crypts all around.

The anonymous ones are the best kind, I think. You can only imagine the nameless ghosts that lurk here. Perfect description of the place comes from Whitman: the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

It’s easy enough to find Irving’s grave. He’s the equivalent of big business here this season.

Irving made his home at Sunnyside, his wisteria-covered 1830s “snuggery” on the east bank of the Hudson. His nieces, he said, were afraid that the vine threatened to take over the whole estate. From the veranda you could see the sun set over the Palisades. When the new long-distance north-south train tracks materialized at the back of his property in 1847, he fumed, complaining about being awoken at night by the “constant calamity” of the train. 

Though Irving is known today mainly for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in his day he produced a dozen and a half popular histories, biographies and collections of essays as well as novels and stories. He traveled extensively on The Continent – he served as an ambassador to Spain — as a true man of the world, feted everywhere, dazzling literati and royals alike with his intellect. The nickname “Gotham” for New York City originates with Irving. His only rival as a nineteenth century rock star was Dickens, whom he hosted at Sunnyside. Fans grabbed tufts of Dickens’ fur coat as souvenirs when the novelist did his American tour in 1842. Cool to imagine the two men seated on the fainting couch in the parlor, comparing notes.

Scary sights in the suburbs seem only more terrifying by day.

Everything but the kitchen sink. Dead flowers of the season. Boarded up windows a nice touch.

Witches, goblins and ghosts are the order of the day. The bigger the better.

The Headless Horseman still makes an appearance.

At Irving’s grave site, a family made the pilgrimage from Miami. They come every year in October.

I heard the father intone to his school-age kids: “If somebody is a prominent public figure, you shouldn’t take a picture of their grave.” Never heard that adage before. The tombstones seem to have a mind of their own.

Driving away from the Cemetery, a duet comes on, Sinatra and Luther Van Dross of all people, singing “Witchcraft.”

Those fingers in my hair
That sly come hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
It’s witchcraft
And I’ve got no defense for it
The heat is too intense for it
What good would common sense for it do…

Thinking about Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. It is said that her green makeup was copper-based and toxic, for which reason she couldn’t eat for the duration of the shoot and had to subsist on a liquid diet and drink only from a straw.

Of course she was even scarier as Miss Gulch.

An iconic Halloween scene appeared in Judy Garland’s star vehicle Meet Me in Saint Louis, when Tootie joins the big kids at the bonfire.

And, on a dare, throws flour in the face of a neighbor. More Judy Garland? The scariest thing in that movie, filmed five years after Wizard, was the sparkly snood she had to wear while singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Children are always a big part of the holiday, even today, when it seems every adult wants some kind of a sleazy/comical costume to wear at a drunken bash. For example, Adam and Eve. Really?

A far cry from the Victorians’ favorite costumes.

Households have set aside a big budget to decorate their homes. Some are more austere than others, in the more tony districts.

I hear every day from visitors that the Ellis Island abandoned hospital complex, where I serve as an Educator, is haunted. One was convinced that she caught the fragrance of chocolate in an area that hadn’t been occupied in a hundred years.

Are there bats here? someone asked me yesterday, with a hopeful tone. Well, I’ve seen some things… not bats though. Even some trees are zombies. Called that when they have hidden problems that can cause significant damage when you least expect it. More than a few at Ellis Island qualify, even though they are safely contained at the moment.

The paradox of the holiday. We feel safe, succored, despite the things that go bump in the night. Or, counterintuitively, because of them. The ghosts of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are contained in their crypts, and people can go about safely.

For now.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Lace lappets were the order of the day

for fashionistas centuries ago. 

When sisters Mary Ann Donaldson and Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson posed for an albumen carte de visite in 1875, they were pretty much that era’s version of Vogue models. Lappets affixed to caps had been worn since medieval times, and even as late as Abe Lincoln’s time were de rigeur for certain older ladies.

Now, if you don’t love lace, read no further – or at least don’t try to converse with me today, I’m so wrapped up in textiles.

I spent some time at our local knit shop, Flying Fingers, in Tarrytown, to get a take on the family needlework my mother bequeathed to me.

My grandmother’s sister, known to me as Auntie, crafted a harlequin jacket for my mother in soft, bright colors.

Auntie was an inspiration to me – she lived in a converted potato barn in Greenfield, Tennessee on a highway beside a bean field, and had a whole room devoted to yarn and fabric. She was a beloved home economics teacher, and she schooled me in how to crochet. Impressively skilled, she found it possible to knit and purl in a darkened movie theater, I am told.

Auntie did wonderful tatting as well as knitting and crochet.

The word “tatting” derives from the French word frivolite – it’s known in Germany as schiffchenarbeit, which means “work of the little boat”, referring to the boat-shaped shuttle used, or in Italian chiacchierino. It requires a steady hand to make this kind of lace, by looping and knotting a single cotton thread around the shuttle, though some use a needle, and there is even something called cro-tatting that fuses both arts. I treasure the 29 pieces of her work and that of other female family members, stowed away from the depredations of moths or human hands.

Another heirloom I shared with Louisa at Flying Fingers came from the hands of my paternal great-aunt Gus, here shown as a wee one.

Its delicacy has always amazed me.

I never advanced much in crochet or knitwork, unlike the celebrities that have sometimes posed with their needles, such as 1930s cinema siren Sylvia Sidney.

I did love the kitten-soft pink silk-angora and soothing click of the needles.

Have you ever spent time with someone plying a needle? It is so relaxing, somehow, so reassuring. As it is to attempt it yourself. I tried my hand at knitting a sock. Even an amateur like me enters a zone of peace, dropped stitches and all.

I didn’t get much in-depth feedback at Flying Fingers on the two items I brought in – I’d thought I would somehow unlock the key to how these marvels came to be. All I was told was that Auntie’s harlequin, a “mitred square,” was “not so hard, you could learn to knit that,” and that Gus’s crochet was “super hard.”

The bark of the Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, has always reminds me of these women’s creations. It is actually also known as lacebark elm.

I stopped in to an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in Manhattan to find out what exactly the organizers meant by its title: Threads of Power. I have always thought that women’s work is powerful as a way of finessing and succouring, beautifying, shoring up. Handiwork of love. I found out a lot about the intricacies of lace. First of all, there were plenty of examples of art featuring collars and cuffs from bygone eras.

This lovely lady, Queen Elisabeth of France, was married at the age of 13 to 10-year-old Spaniard Felipe, Prince of Asturias, and became Princess of Asturias. When his father died, in 1621, he became King Felipe IV, and she became Queen Consort of Spain.

Of her eight births, only one survived childhood. Historians believe that she had these childbearing woes as a result of a venereal disease passed on by her husband from his many mistresses. Don’t worry, what is sauce for the goose – she also purportedly had an affair with the diplomat who was her gentleman in waiting. The last of her miscarriages killed her in 1644, at the age of 41.

But what concerns us here is that fantastic ruff that frames her face. The exhibit spelled out the differences between bobbin lace and needle lace, beginning its history in the 1600s, when crafters employed cushions to work their magic with thread. Here is a genius bobbin-lace pillow with thirty bobbins and in-progress torchon lace from 1897 Switzerland.

The bobbin lacemaker would attaching a parchment pattern to a curved pillow, then twist and braid individual threads to produce a variety of stitches. In this 1656 painting by Nicolaes Maes, a woman focused on her work is kept company by a child wearing the protective headgear known as a pudding cap. We are clearly in the zone of peace.

The specifics of technique shown in the exhibit impress me less than the finished product from those early days and that these textiles have by some miracle been preserved. The way things were produced changed over time. But the beauty of lace prevailed.

Today, feminists have reclaimed the art of textiles, though not lace-making so much as embroidery, which lends itself to expressions of strength and purpose. This sampler comes from the workshop of what is called the Tiny Pricks Project.

Shannon Doherty, who calls herself Badass Cross Stitch, is a queer art activist who lives in her RV traveling the United States and giving women the tools to create their own samplers, the bobbin lace makers of our day.

“Stab it until you feel better” is her motto.

On display at the Bard Center is the work of artist Elena Kanegy-Loux, who took inspiration from old textiles to spend 200 hours creating an intricate fire-engine red collar.

Able to out-tat the best tatters of her day, Auntie was surely one of the strongest women in Weakley County.

I sure would like to know what this formidable person would have made of those adepts of an earlier time – or the textile whizzes making statements with cloth and floss today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Do you like dead trees? I do

and especially, it seems, when they stand sentinel along the New Jersey Turnpike. Every day I see a big old hawk on a big old tree along the highway. The perfect spot for waiting to catch your supper. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift said that.

When I first started working as an arborist, I felt all the trees along the road should be alive and magnificent, and I was almost offended if I saw a bare branch sticking up out of the canopy.

Now I know that trees cope with their living conditions in different ways. Cladoptosis is the process by which trees shed their branches or “self-prune” as part of their normal physiology or in response to stress. All large trees will have some dead branches, it’s part of their life cycle. There’s even a phenomenon known as Sudden Branch Drop, first identified in 1882 by a botanist named Kellogg, who wrote of trees “said to burst with a loud explosion, and strong limbs…(which) unexpectedly crash down, the fracture disclosing not the least cause of weakness.” Of course when you drive along the highway you might be seeing the effects of emerald ash borer or beech leaf disease, two current scourges of the forest. Not good.

But sometimes in nature death and life intertwine, as is the case with one of my favorite phenomenons, the manzanita, grey and red braided together as the plant grows.

Hawks’ habit of perching perfectly still, making use of those bare branches, impresses me. They are doing anything but nothing. It’s so hard to maintain that kind of patience. I’ve observed it also with seagulls that hang out on the secret bridge at Ellis Island.

Sometimes as I drive across a gull will fly over with a crab, but they usually just pose with drops of harbor water hanging from their beaks. They are intensely focused, gazing out with that reptilian look they have, waiting, waiting.

It’s hard to be patient. The gulls and hawks teach us that patience is an art. It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing. So said Gertrude Stein. Hard to stay waiting for someone to return.

Waiting to consume the pie until it cools from the oven. Waiting for the soup dumplings to cool so you won’t burn your tongue on the delectable broth inside.

Waiting for the coffee to brew. For beauty to unfurl.

For some special someone to smile. I feel that all the time on my tours, as I wait for a visitor to crack a smile, to respond. Waiting for my daughter to have children. Drop your babies already! You know you’ll be happy when you do! But no, it’s on somebody else’s timeline, not mine—as it should be.

Waiting to grow up. We’ve all been through that. And then, later, you wonder why you wanted to hurry.

The patience to wait before opening a present. Or even (especially?) an envelope when you know there’s a holiday check inside. I love presents but you can’t rush it.

Waiting for the Bartlett pears to ripen, the pineapple. Hard to fathom when a pineapple will ripen, or an avocado. You cannot rush it. Waiting for a book to find a publisher.

The patience you need when someone is slow to forgive you. The patience you need to begin forgiving somebody. Patience is not learned in safety, says Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest, wrote William Least Heat-Moon. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.

Soon the trees will lose their leaves, and we won’t even know which branches are dead and which ones aren’t. When snowfall comes, the pristine white that coats every branch will be just as beautiful.

The age of the bristlecone pine called Methuselah, which stands in Inyo National Forest in California, has been gauged at 4,600 years. Somehow it seems to be both alive and dead, a natural miracle.

I am paying attention.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

A secret note awaits me

when I climb the stairs to the attic above the administration building at Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex. A central spot there, the admin building, it is the place where all sick immigrants checked in a hundred years ago, and is also the place where nurses were quartered, upstairs. The air in the attic is dense with the aroma of old wood. There’s rusted machinery here, the workings of the original Otis Elevator shaft, and the note, age-yellowed, was carefully taped there by somebody, once, who believed it was important.

Also, on the floor below the attic, the ruins of wards, right down the way from where the nurses lived. So they could get there right quick if their help was needed.

Is there anything better than a secret note? I don’t think so. I remember long ago I wrote a poem called The Back of a Love Note, now gone with the wind, as is the life of a poet I fancied myself having. I still love secrets, whether they’re the back of a love note or any other kind. Ellis Island has them in spades.

I saw a lot of secrets today, secrets I hadn’t seen before. In the attic, a trick of the light which somehow produces a mysterious green shadow.

A bird’s nest in a light fixture.

Mysteries everywhere. Spirits? Possibly. Somebody told me yesterday on my tour that they smelled chocolate in the empty corridor. Today, when I took around a group of photographers, they were sure they caught the scent of laundry soap in the nurses’ dorm. Olfactory hallucinations.

I am well aware that ghosts may not be real. I know some people don’t believe in them. I believe that ghosts are the thoughts and ideas and emotions and need we bring to certain spaces. When I enter the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Staff house, where doctors lived with their families, my chest seizes up. The presence of the past is that strong. People lived here. Loved here.

One ward with locked rooms for psychiatric patients has graffiti that someone was smart enough to preserve. Men undergoing treatment here scrawled their names by the door frames. Johnies Room.

Secrets of the past. Someone thought it imperative to pencil a crude drawing of the Immigration Station. And to offer his thoughts on the sad way of the world.

Where the nurses lived a rainbow is a constant on an otherwise neutral wall.

Do the nurses speak to us, sending this prismatic message across the decades? Sometimes things just glow here.

A guest came with me into the room that was the equivalent of hospice a century ago, a place for the sickest of the sick, where many died of multiple ailments, tuberculosis and syphilis and heart disease.

She told me that something had popped up on the ghost hunter app on her phone when she entered the ward. Just three words. Simple: We are everywhere. Make of it what you will. Of course, 40 percent of Americans can trace their family lineage through Ellis Island so perhaps it’s not such a stretch that we are everywhere.

If you look closely, you’ll find secrets. We are told to stop then let go. A fairly wise message, applicable every day, I think.

A resident felt it was important to decorate the edge of a shelf in a hidden closet.

A secret bathtub under the eaves.

Even the textures of wall paint, remnants over remnants over the years, offer their own secret story.

Secrets. Mysteries. Sometimes, love.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

October roses and fairy tales

have inspired me recently. Curiouser and curiouser, as our dear beloved Alice would say. I re-read Alice in Wonderland recently, in a gulp.

Why? For some reason childhood stories move me specially now. Maybe because in sorting through boxes in storage I came upon baby books and elementary school report cards.

This is the season when roses fray and fade, yet still appear wondrous.

Likewise, the stories of childhood, long forgotten, sometimes reappear, floating in our adult consciousness. When you think about a child in a fantasy world, the first image that comes into your mind is probably Alice. Dipping in, I was surprised to find how rock-solid were the characters and scenes in my mind.

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 masterwork originated in a story he told to a friend’s daughter, the captivating Alice, and her sisters.

The story-book Alice copes with her bizarre environment after the rabbit hole by eating and drinking foods and beverages to grown bigger and smaller. (I used to amuse myself with drawing dessert after dessert with crayon.) Alice is in awe of all she sees. When I was a child, I discovered upon reading my early teachers’ commentary, I was also awed by the world.

My beloved second-grade teacher Marcine Weiner had high hopes for me. She wrote:

Jeanie is a happy charming youngster with a vivid imagination. She has a wonderful talent for organization, both in her oral presentations and in her other work. With her ease in speaking, coupled with her excellent reading ability I eventually expect to hear about some truly imaginative creative writing. She is interested in everything and participates fully in all phases of our daily program… 

When I was a kid, probably around Alice’s age, I already had intentions about my future. In addition to coloring, I filled composition notebooks with my signature in my new childish cursive, thinking that that’s what grown-up writers did. (The parents thought I was wasting paper, as I recall.)

Flowers figure prominently in Alice, of course. She enters a beautiful garden and tries and tries to get back to it over the course of the book.

John Tenniel drew the original pictures for Alice in Wonderland. He was a graphic humorist and political cartoonist, and one feature of his illustrations is that Alice maintains an expressionless face in most of the scenes. She is stoic. When I was a child hearing of Alice for the first time and fancying myself a bit of a writer, I was anything but sober. Alice’s snake neck fascinated me.

I loved the world. I also loved fairy tales. The Blue Fairy Book was my touchstone.

I only had the first two of the color-coded books, the Blue and the Red.

Andrew Lang’s anthology of stories grew tattered through use. I went back to Beauty and the Beast recently. Originally the work of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, who wrote it after hearing a servant tell the story, it it was re-worked by Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756 for an “educational manual” and became famous throughout the world in different forms.

Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim called Beauty and the Beast an “animal groom” story, intended to reassure virginal brides about sex. I never saw it that way!

I loved the part about Beauty asking her father to bring her back a rose, something so simple, from Beast’s magnificent castle, which contained jewels and art and gold beyond compare. I don’t think it would have mattered to wise young Beauty if the rose was an October rose, a little tattered.

We all know the Disney version, in which the Beast starts as the incarnation of the rich bad-boy, whose awkward yet diefast love for Beauty transforms him into a brave and generous hero. Belle reforms him and loves him.

In the Disney version, Beast gives Beauty a mirror. “Take it with you so you’ll always have a way to look back … and remember me,” he says. So poignantly.

The confident and spunky heroine finally discovers the amazing prince within the beastly exterior, and has only three words: “It is you.”

When I was growing up, this and the other fairy tales made a big impression on me. Now, entering those years when I am more Red Queen than Alice, their texture and themes strike me as completely fresh and yet completely famliar.

I’m sure I was pretty fresh back then, too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

The finest mofongo in New York City

would be hard to identify, there is so much fine mofongo in New York. But I have a hunch it might be prepared in the unassuming kitchen of 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, on 188 Street, just off of Grand Concourse in the Bronx. 

I worked around the corner for six months last year protecting trees, meeting some incredible people along the way.

Anthony Bourdain agreed with me, chowing down here in Parts Unknown, and his signed glossy adorns one wall of the joint, where patrons customarily ignore it and go on with their ordering and chewing.

The specialty is Puerto Rican/Latin cuisine. The crunchy pork chicharrons Dominicano are out of this world, a nice challenge to your Lipitor. It’s a boomerang of a bone, cleaver-chopped and served in bite-size wedges of crispy skin, meat and fat.

The place has other distinctions. It is as far as I have seen the only restaurant in town with a dedicated Lotto booth on the premises. A busy one, too. Made a former New Yorker happy by taking her here to dinner.

You can fill your stomach here every day of the year, from 9 am to 11 pm. It has been in business for 30 years, and even has a Facebook page. Whether you go for breakfast or dinner it is jammed, a line for takeout snaking through the door. The counter people efficiently juggle phone orders and packing up meals.

I tend to like any handwritten sign, so the menu board at 188 Cuchifritos is a delight.

Customers cut across a wide swathe of the population.

Usually there is a fairly high proportion of street people wandering in and hoping for a handout, alongside the paying customers. The common denominator here is a craving for sustenance.

The mofongo al pilon – a plantain dish derived from Spanish, Taino and West African cuisines–is stuffed with pork cracklings and served with a tomato-and-garlic infused gravy. The cook mashes starchy platanos in a classic wooden mortar and pestle and it comes to the table as a dome that you explode with your fork. One foodie reviewer described the taste with the buzz-word umami, and I think that as pretentious as that is, it’s not far off.

While waiting for the mofongo to emerge from the kitchen you might study the cartoon tiles on the wall. I have translated some of them, albeit clumsily.

Married man, spoiled donkey.

Two children and a mother are three devils for the father.

The guests are happy but that’s when they leave.

Okay. I never claimed to study Spanish in school, and anyway my mouth is watering too much to make good sense of the jokes. There is also some fine artwork on display.

Home-made hot sauce readily available and in an awesome recycled container.

The frituras, fried snacks displayed in the window, include one I love but don’t know the name of.

I just tell the wise waitress “the football shaped one,” indicating the oblate spheroid with hand gestures, and she knows what I mean.

I have now done research and found that it is more correctly alcapurria, a yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo, the classic Latin American blend of beef, tomatoes, and olives. I’ll try to remember that for next time.

It is possible to order pig ears, tongue, or stomach, though I haven’t done so. Yet.

I can’t decide which I like better, the counter or the five or so tiny tables. The service is always superb no matter where you sit. If you order like we do you and sit at the counter, though, you can barely fit all the plates in front of you. Yes, you can even get a salad to cut the fat if you insist. Plenty of rice and beans to take home, though of course you’ll have to eat without the cartoons for entertainment.

“I don’t know any place porkier,” was Bourdain’s summation. I would just add: when you are next in the Bronx, get lucky and go.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman