Category Archives: New York City

The Pleasures of the Urban Arborist

I wish I could suck it all up, absorb it and remember every single thing. Driving in the black night over the highways of New York City to get to the site. The lichen on the burly oaks. Their majesty.

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The flashy red leaf plum.

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The smell of sesame oil wafting through the Chinese neighborhood at Francis Lewis Boulevard. The 7:30 am parade of children to school, holding their parents’ hands. The identical row houses of Queens. The crone who was surprised when I approached her: “She’s a lady!” which is true, though I like feeling a little bit like a man on this job. The persistent smell of exhaust from the landscaping truck. Prickly sweetgum balls, red maple twigs, the puffs that hang swaying from the london plane.

 

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The way the root of the l.p. emphatically bulges over and raises up the sidewalk.

 

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The resident who was aghast that her neighbors had had their mammoth tree butchered: “I came back from Vegas and it was done!”

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The haunted houses of Brooklyn.

 

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Learning to differentiate between a zelkova and a linden. Bad bodega coffee. The best lunch in the world.

 

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The soapy grace of laundromats that let you pee there. Proud pit bulls. The soft detritus of leaves pushed up against the gutters. Laying my palm on a fat cherry trunk, feeling its lenticels under the pads of my fingers.

Days that are poems.

 

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And always, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.

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I’ve been doing this for just under a year now.

 

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The Saddest Sweetgum in New York

Proceeding along Braddock Avenue in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens, high winds gusting all around, we went about the business of pruning street trees. I saw dozens of American sweetgums. Liquidambar is the poetic scientific name for the species, and it refers to the honeyed sap that flows beneath the bark if you cut into it. I love these trees, most especially for their fruits, prickly brown seed-filled “gumballs” that litter the ground in winter.

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They hold on tenaciously, coexisting with the waxy pinkish flowers about to unfurl in spring as though they just can’t say goodbye to mommy and drop away.

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They remind me of the coal carriers in  Hayao Miyazaki’s inspired movie Spirited Away.

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One tree I came across was well past its prime, weathered and half dead, its limbs truncated where Con Ed had cut them free of the power line that ran through its crown. Any branch that enters the “box” around the line, my pruner told me, is unceremoniously lopped off.

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It was about the saddest sweetgum I’d seen, the old girl. She had a shape like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but she was not treasured and adored but left to linger in her too-small tree pit with razor wire for a neighbor.

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She brought to mind Shel Silverstein’s disturbing fable The Giving Tree, in which an apple tree gives itself unceasingly to a boy, until all that is left of it is a trunk. The thing about a book, though, that allows children to not die from the horror of this story, is that you can go back to the beginning again and again, seeing the tree whole and gracious. Yes, the tree suffers an awful decline, but it springs to life everytime we open the book’s cover. We have a chance for a do-over. That is the power of art.

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I am writing this now as the trimmed branches from another tree rain down around me, the crew’s work almost done for the day. I’m standing fifteen blocks from the saddest sweetgum in New York, too far to pay a call before I get in my car and leave for home.

I don’t know if I want to see her again anyway. She’s old and homely, her spiky fruits long fallen. She has nothing to give, unlike the presents of the giving tree. She is all that has already been taken, in this harsh city, and nothing, no careful pruning, no perfect cut, will bring her back.

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Cutting Loose

We were in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, me and a pruning crew. It was frigid on this second day of spring, and you could see all the charcoal shadows stretching out in front of the big apartment buildings before the sun saw fit to rise fully. Going from tree to tree, all of them honeylocusts with threatening looking bristle-burrs on the branches, I noticed how people had appropriated the “furniture” of the sidewalk – the trees. In the branches I saw, to name just a few things,  strings of Christmas lights, green garlands, icicle streamers, a Lean Cuisine mini pizza box and a sign that read “MOVE 100 dollars 24 hours.”

The rice and beans are tasty in this lively neighborhood but there is a pervasive sadness, with trash blowing down the streets and many empty storefronts. I saw a dozen beggars, some of them deranged, most of them asking for 50 cents.

The head pruner on the job, who was also the head of the landscaping company, graced us with his chainsawing skills. And he was good. He transformed more than one ugly duckling tangle of trunk and branches into a cinderella honeylocust. He joked that his next career was going to be as a hair stylist.

We went up and down Broadway nipping and tucking overgrown trees. The street was set for new asphalt and the milling machine had to have room to move along without getting hung up on branches. The son was there too, an awkward guy in his mid twenties, having been doing this job, said his father, “since he was two.” I wasn’t sure what piece of the job he did when he was two. Standing with me, he admired his father’s handiwork as he stood up in the bucket with his saw roaring. “So hard to do an elevated cut without lion’s tailing,” he commented, and I nodded sagely.

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A banner across the front of a school caught my eye: “None of us is as strong as all of us.” The limbs of the trees rose from the trunks like a chorus of spring.

Later, on a break, the father bent my ear about clients who want him simply to top a tree to reduce its size. “I would never do anything to harm a tree,” he emphasized. “I can justify every cut I make.”

I like the idea of justifying the cuts you make. The first cut is the deepest, as the song goes. Are the lyrics actually about pruning a tree?

The son had just told me something critical about another arborist who works for the company: “Every cut he makes is perfect, but he is just too slow.” Of course I’d rather be slow but perfect, but I didn’t say anything. The young guy is fast-fast-fast, in his twenties after all.

After the job was over I picked up my car at a garage, standing next to a ruddy faced young man in a yarmulke holding a gigantic bouquet of red roses. We were shifting our feet impatiently as the garage took its time bringing our cars out to us. He spoke to me. “I’m getting engaged tonight,” he said. His name was Dan. On the assumption that his girlfriend would say yes, he had arranged an engagement party for the evening, with friends, music, food, dancing. I asked if he was pretty sure she was going to say yes. “We’re Jewish,” he said, “We talk a lot about these things in advance.” He didn’t have a ring yet, he told me. There would be time for that. Now he had to go home and change his shoes, if they would ever produce his car.

I hope Dan and his betrothed make many perfect cuts together. Not too fast, either.

 

 

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“I Like Trees, but…”

“Cut ’em all down, babe, cut ’em all down!” The man called out to me from his bicycle as I stood by a tree in my orange vest, taking notes on my clipboard about a giant white oak standing between the sidewalk and the street. Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment expressed, but always disappointing.

“It’s too high and too many mosquitos come into my room,” one woman complained about the specimen outside her window.

Three guys stood around a driveway on a mild March afternoon, shooting the shit. “Little things come off the trees and make a mess,” said the man with the pushbroom, clearing the gutter of maple twigs that had fallen in the recent rain.

“Can’t the city get us some little trees instead of these big ones?” asked his friend.

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Sometimes, rolling up on a big old black locust, the kind that casts its welcome shade all summer, the resident of the house behind it runs out: “Are you taking the tree down?” Not aghast at the prospect but delighted and hopeful that “their” tree would disappear. “The sap drops all over the tops of our cars,” I’ve heard.

Two times recently, in Queens and in the Bronx, I saw maples that had been girdled. Someone had stripped a wide circle of bark from around the trunk’s base — a technique for killing a tree.

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But why? Trees protect from the sun, they pour out oxygen to breathe, and on top of it all they’re beautiful to look at. Wouldn’t you like to have a statuesque linden in from of your house? But, but… trees are messy, with their litter of acorns dropping on the roof,  the pom pom london plane seed balls scattered across the sidewalks. If you walk barefoot when the sweet gum seeds come down the prickly pods would cut your feet!

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Ouch! But who walks barefoot in New York City?

Someone has to rake up the perfect leaves of the pin oak. What a pain.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t manage it I will.

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Pruning the Urban Forest

Going out to nurture the trees of New York City has given me plenty of surprises, not the least of which is the number of species to be found alongside the urban curbs. I was out in the snow recently to help put together a site survey, and I was blown away by the patterns and textures of the trunks we encountered — grey and furrowed, yes, but also yellow or red, with scruffy bark or horizontal lenticels that were dramatic gashes. When I used to think of trees it was mainly their leaves that appealed to me, green and elegant or the colors of a sunset. Now, having entered the urban forest to count specimens and prune them, I’m especially in awe of their stature, their trunks and branches naked, undisguised by the leafy canopy that usually cloaks them.

Here is an item I wrote for The New York Times Metropolitan Diary column which was published today.

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Goodbye to All That Merchandise

Today was my last shift at The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store. No, I was not fired. My tenure as seasonal sales associate concluded in the same way it always does, at the end of winter, with the bright smocks and palazzos of spring entering the shop in dozens of boxes, and fewer and more pennypinching customers visiting to plump up their wardrobes. I am now extraneous.

So goodbye to fringed wool jackets, lace-edged tops and “girlfriend jeans”. Goodbye to daily sales goals and meeting the weekly plan. So long, Swiffer lint and the glint of bobby pins in the rug. Adios, the mask of makeup. Certain customers, I’m glad to see the back of you. You know who you are. On the other hand there is the man yesterday with wavy grey hair, kind eyes and a nose on him, who, passing by, saw the striped blouse in the window and knew it would look great on his wife. It would be a surprise. Husbands do the darndest things, I learned at the store. (Mine recently baked me a welcome-home cake, so there.)

I bought too many clothes with the seductive employee discount. Didn’t need any of them. The store was itself seductive, an explosion of color and texture that sometimes felt like a riotous dream. I felt trapped there sometimes, bored out of my skull, and at other times deeply fascinated by the intricacies of selling that dream to women and the rhythms of commerce. I think I learned more about modern American reality (something I usually do my best to avoid in my writerly life) from working there than any other experience I’ve had.

Today I left with one purchase, deeply discounted. A pair of earrings.

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Why do I like them so much? Well, what do they resemble? Nothing so much as glitzy acorns. A pair of earrings, a minimum wage souvenir, a transition, a talisman.

I’m going to prune trees in Queens tomorrow, the start of another season. Lipstick will not be mandatory.

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A Conversation in Snow

You should see how I look in summer, he told me. Not from the beach. Dark just from being up in the branches.

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Today there were driving snow showers in Queens. The tree pruner and the arborist hid from the cold for a while in the cab of the landscaping truck. He chainsmoked Newports, I warmed my fingers in the blasts of warm air from the windshield vents. He smokes up in the bucket too, wielding his saw at the same time.

When you prune a tree, you write your name across it, he told me. You have to be able to stand by that name. Out the window we could see those crazy old maples, the ones whose bark glints chartreuse with moss in the sun, now outlined in fresh snow. He had trimmed trees in much worse conditions, he said.

Sitting there, we listened to a radio show that scolded about climate change. The tree pruner never studied his art, he said, he learned by observation. Was I a Republican or a Democrat, he asked. He thought the two were basically identical, that the system was rigged. Was I a 9/11 truther, he asked. He was.

I was bundled like an Eskimo. He wore a windbreaker. He knew all the trees by their bark alone. He called london plane trees l.p.’s. After 25 years in the business, he had no pension to retire with.

Sometimes he looks back on his tree climbing days, he said. He was hired to scale mammoths, reporting back on infestations of Asian Longhorn Beetles, in Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens. Sometimes he misses going up with the other guys, way high up, above it all, where they would play cards in the branches and drink soda and joke around, hitting each other with things.

He hopped out of the cab. A woman had come from her house in the snow to get his attention. He spoke to her briefly then hopped back in. She told me she was ninety-two years old, he said. That’s a life, said the pruner.

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Skipping History

A girl I knew in college used to tell me she had a crush on the subject of Anthropology, in which she had taken so many wonderful courses. She like to say she was having an affair with Anthro, until she came to her senses and settled down with Economics as her major.

I know what she meant. I feel as though I fell in love with history early in my writing career, that it was exciting and wild and soulful, everything I wanted in a subject. (It never disrupted my marriage, however.) As I continued to write, I got deeper into history – I never jumped to economics! – with forays into different periods, especially colonial New York and Gilded Age Manhattan. I was thinking about how the lure of the past grabbed me when I re-shelved some of my research books the other day. I came across a thick, illustrated book about the world of historic textiles, then a compilation of maps dating back to when New York wasn’t yet New York. And I felt a thrill about being connected to all the lives led in the past and being able to access meaning through calico and vellum… yes, and pot shards and iron nails and beaver pelts and all the material goods you get to commune with as a historian.

Now, however, I am discovering the sometimes jarring beauty of something else – How We Live Now (a literary reference, to Anthony Trollope’s most famous novel). Working as a seasonal sales associate in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the mall has brought me up close to retail, and retail is unremittingly of the present. Especially the glimpse of the fluorescent, perfumed corridors in the moments after the stores close, when each storefront is a goldfish bowl that shows the private lives of the people who work there. When the doors are locked, I walk past the Godiva store, where two young men dunk strawberries for themselves into the milk chocolate goo that is usually reserved for the paying customers. I’m fatigued, my feet are sore from pacing the floor and rehanging merchandise, but I can’t help but be struck by relationships between these and other sales associates, like me, with the imagined David Mamet flavor of their interactions. At Ann Taylor, a shoplady sullenly pushes her swiffer around the linoleum. Behind the Apple façade, kids in red logo’d polos bob like maraschino cherries around the Ipads and watches, laughing and loose after their hours serving patrons. I feel wide awake, taking it all in.

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But in the morning, before the stores open, I also get an infusion of non-historic pleasure. Of course we have mall walkers, a sizable number of them, in pairs and threes and fours, deep in conversation as they motor past my store before it opens. I am constantly amused, though, by the gaggle of about a dozen young mothers with strollers, exaggeratingly skipping as they push their babies, all in a line. This, my friends, is today, when legging-attired women drive themselves to be their best first thing in the morning, burning calories as they go, only to consume those same calories with their venti soy lattes at the Starbucks around the corner, the one that is just getting ready to open its doors. You don’t need a history book to appreciate that scenario.

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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

Yesterday, the first day of winter, I bought jonquils, the hoity toity term for daffodils. I had taken my fill of soup dumplings and braised seaweed in Flushing, NY’s Chinatown and was rolling out to the car. Could that really be daffodils they were advertising in the shop window — cut flowers, an unexpected bouquet?

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Turns out they were not cut flowers but bulbs. I have another bulb working at home, an ethereal amaryllis, given to me by a botanically inclined friend, someone who knows how to grow everything. I had been lamenting the death of a fine cactus inadvertently left on a remote windowsill. Having something come to life in my house was very welcome.

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Daffodils in winter. The trees don’t show their green now, but the flowers will flaunt their yellow before long. In China they believe that forcing daffodils in the new year will bring good luck. I’ll put them in dishes on a nest of gravel from my driveway and hope they bloom, hope I have the luck to get good luck.

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These are some of the strangest looking bulbs I’ve ever seen. They will be mega-daffodils I’m sure. It’s hard not to think of Wordsworth writing in 1804 on the flower:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A touch of the arbor in my living room as 2016 comes on.

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The Secrets of Washington Square

I have always been fascinated by the early history of New York City’s Washington Square. Once upon a time, as shown in a 1782 document called The British Headquarters Map, a waterway called Minetta Brook passed from around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square and on to Greenwich Village. The waters of this ancient stream still run through some downtown basements.

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The early topography of Manhattan was to change rapidly in the 19th century, and the park changed too. Graceful row houses went up on Washington Square North in the 1820s. But the reputation of the square was mixed, and public executions still took place there– in 1820, for example, a servant named Rose Butler was convicted of arson and hung there.

And it was a potter’s field, after its swamp was drained in the 1790s, interring the City’s indigent, receiving 22,000 bodies over time. Residents were spooked by a yellow fever epidemic so the graveyard moved uptown. The city bought more land around the square and the Washington Parade-Ground was established, opening July 4th with that mainstay of early America, an ox roast. A crowd of ten thousand attended. More elegant homes gradually went up on the south and north sides of the park. Henry James would situate his incisive novel Washington Square in one of them in 1880.

 

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But all those bodies underfoot. Did you say potters field? Walking under the arch (erected as a temporary grace note in 1889 out of plaster and wood, then made permanent in Tuckahoe marble, designed by Stanford White in 1892), I found myself obsessed with what lay beneath my feet.

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In June, I accompanied a Con Ed team to install a new gas line at the junction of Washington Square East and Washington Square South. It was a cloudy day, spitting rain. The canopy of a forty-foot honeylocust tree spread above us, its trunk behind the park’s iron fence, in its maturity at least 75 years old. A short distance away, also on the park grounds, stood its neighbor, a nearly-as-tall linden. The three-foot-deep trench the crew was excavating along the sidewalk turned out to be dug on top of a previous trench, and there were no roots of any kind to protect, so all I did was observe.

The foreman was late to the job, I noted, then smoked a cigar and threw the butt in the pit. I had already taken a turn through the park and learned from a handy Parks Department sign that the goldenrain tree was introduced to America in 1763 from Japan. Not this particular specimen, which would then be over 200 years old. I hopped over a metal chain-link divider and held one hand against the bark – as usual no one bothered me with my blaze orange vest, which invests me with instant authority. The trees of Washington Square Park were all so beautiful, especially against the wool-grey sky.

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But did you say bodies underfoot? Six months after my work there a tremendous discovery was announced. Just down the street from where my Con Ed crew was digging in the rust-colored fill that day, a little up Washington Square East, another crew of diggers, these preparing to install a new water main, hit a brick arch only three and a half feet beneath sidewalk level. Through a gap they saw human remains. A second vault was then discovered. A stone was removed, a line of sight. And there were coffins, two dozen or so, including, poignantly, the small coffins of children. Some of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped identification plates.

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Excavation stopped, of course. Who were these people? Archaeologists came on site and revealed that at least two churches had cemetaries in the vicinity in the 1820s, and these could be them. It turned out that the first vault had been discovered once before, by Con Ed workers, years ago, who saw about 25 skeletons.

I felt as though I just missed the discovery, back in June, distracted by the honeylocust and linden trees. If only we had known to dig a little deeper. Six inches would be enough. There is so much to find beneath the ground, if you know where to look.

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Putting the Season to Bed

The leaves have just about all fallen. I was able to identify a horsechestnut – compoundly palmate leaves, in other words resembling your hand – only by a few crisp specimens that hadn’t yet crumbled in the gutter.

Leaf Horse chestnut

I spent a day driving around Brooklyn visiting tree pits that had been disturbed in the process of putting in new sidewalks and that needed fresh topsoil. A young, ceaselessly energetic landscaper named Byron and I hopped from Hendrix Street to Bergen Street to Benson Avenue, giving modest Ginkgoes a light blanket of earth the color of pumpernickel. We were putting them to bed.

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The topsoil provides nutrients for those roots that had just been nudged by shovels and backhoes, but beyond that it’s just a beautiful coating, a frame for the urban trunks and limbs that deserve the best exhibition possible. If it were me walking out my front door in the morning, I would like to see a tree with its feet in that rich, dark dirt.

Visiting tree after tree, I felt melancholy. I knew that this was the last gasp of the season for me. From now on it will be too cold to pour concrete, too frigid for planting, and an arborist has nothing to do but hibernate with the bears. This has actually been three seasons, spring, summer and fall, but it feels like one rush of communion with trees and tree culture, which I’m so grateful to have stumbled into.

I’ve loved the prehistoric looking roots of plane trees pushing out over the sidewalk. Nothing can stop them.

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It’s difficult to tell the types of deciduous trees without their leaves, and so I don’t know whether the two dead giants that crashed across our driveway this fall were oaks or maples or sweetgums. Gil’s chainsaw rendered them into neat circles ready to decompose in pieces in the forest, the final stage in the existence of a tree. Meanwhile, the stored power of the living trees all around is banked like a fire, waiting for the warm weather, which I think of as I lie on the couch watching the kiln-seasoned logs burn in our fireplace, with half an eye watching the men wage war in Kagemusha.

Sad as I am to leave the world of trees until the end of winter, I tell myself that the change of season is not a dying, but a gathering of energy, required for the buds that will soon enough come around.

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Lucky Charms

I’ve tried to wean myself from portents, omens, tricks of the light.

Colors that pop have always seemed to be telling me something, like these asters I saw recently at a botanical garden. I took a deep breath, feeling good things were coming my way.

 

Asters

Today I was on the southern shore of Staten Island, supervising tree planting in a New York City park, and everything seemed loaded with meaning. It wasn’t a cheery day, per se. The skies hung dark and grey. This body of water was Arthur Kill, off of the town of Tottenville; the view across was to Perth Amboy, probably not the most swellegant spot in the world. I was chilled beneath my fleece. Still, the sweep of the coast was ravishing.

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Colors popped. The detritus on the beach seemed hallucinatory.

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So did the incredibly complex needle structure of the Pitch Pines (Pinus rigida) we were planting, along with sweetly bushy Junipers.

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A perfect little lighthouse floated in front of me. Fishing boats. Buoys. All around brambles, the vivid red of rusty blood. The near-black loam – until recently a dump filled with lovely things like burned cars – was thick with enormous weathered oyster shells. They spoke to me of good things in the past, Indian oyster feasts on the shores here, and in the future, oysters on the half shell that I would consume on ceremonial occasions. The air itself grew more briny, more aromatic, as the day went on.

I’ve always been able to say a) this wonderful thing is happening, therefore b) this wonderful thing will happen. The trouble with that is there is no actual causal relationship between felicities. Life throws things up like a packet of sparkling pins and they don’t always land back in the pincushion.

But today. We were erecting a small forest, perfect in every way. It could have been painted, a brilliant illustration.

trees in a line

One of the crew was leveling an American Sycamore in its pit. The tree held onto one leaf at its very top like a Christmas star.

Christmas sycamore

The planter, Robert, was like a cheerful Bluto, with a pierced eyebrow, an extravagant beard and those tribal lobe-stretching earrings that it was a little surprising to see on a landscaping guy. The tree was straight as a yardstick at the bottom, but leaned south with its upper limbs.

“I hope that rights itself.” I said.

“It’s like in life,” said Robert, smiling. “Everything gets better.”

The crew told me a humpbacked whale had visited just off shore a week ago, chasing baitfish. I wished I had seen it. Maybe I could come back. Now that’s a sight that would pop.

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The Giant Killer

I’m not overwhelmed with joy about the Christmas tree that just rolled into Rockefeller Center. A Norway Spruce, the 78-foot specimen came from a town called Gardiner in upstate New York, where it towered over its owners’ diminutive house. Or diminutive in comparison, anyway. I always wonder who the tree spotters are, the tree scouts who go out and scour the countryside to find the one that will be massive enough for New York City. In this case the head gardener for Rockefeller Center got wind of the family’s shaggy green heirloom online and ventured up to see for herself.

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I admit, I like my tree over the holidays, but I don’t like to see any of them cut down.

This past week I was surveying tree pits I’d worked at in the last couple of weeks to see that topsoil had been added in the right proportions. My job, of course, is saving trees by protecting the roots that come uncovered when the construction crew excavates the old sidewalk. Now I pulled around the corner and drove down 78th Street in Brooklyn. I was looking for a sizable sugar maple (Acer saccurum), a handsome guy whose roots had been a muscular tangle that needed special care to keep them intact.

No tree. Where could it have gone? Then I saw, lying on the sidewalk, falling into the street, the maple, hacked into thick pieces. The wood was so fresh it looked wet. Sawdust and leaves, everywhere.

1)551 78 St, Brooklyn

I was sick. Who had taken the tree down, and why? I looked back at my notes, which indicated that a long, heavy branch extended over the street. That didn’t seem reason enough to lose the whole thing. You invest yourself in this living being, its branches and leaves, its stout trunk. And then it’s cut.

The man who presented his tree to Rockefeller Center recalled growing up with it, climbing its ladder of branches with his siblings, getting in trouble for getting pitch on their clothes. He said that the tree was just getting too big for his yard.

I don’t really get it. It’s just not a possibility, that I would ever take a saw to a tree because it was too large. Selfish, I know – all those happy tourists in Manhattan for the windows and the sparkly lights, yep. And the lumber’s going to go to Habitat for Humanity in January.

But when it comes down to it, we’ve killed another giant.

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Peak’s Peaked and Pin Oak Drops

Peak has peaked. Peak has punked out.

In the great northeast in the fall we always talk about whether the leaves are peak. When you head upstate to pick apples and pumpkins you want to know: Is it peak? In other words, are the woods in all their glory?

As our peak is beginning to peter out, I began to wonder what the concept meant more precisely, so I asked the nearest folks I could find.

Gil (scanning the horizon over the marsh): Well, there is still some green and there’s brown too, so… I dunno.

peak over marsh

Maud: Isn’t it different for everybody?

Yes, when the leaves on the trees are as yellow as butterflies, that is some person’s idea of bliss. The best ever. And when the hills are a patchwork of gold, red, orange – but it has to be a perfect day, too, with a vast well of sunshine lighting it all up – and things are going well for you, too – that’s peak for some. Identifying what is beautiful with some kind of precision, it’s a way we define ourselves.

maple leaf

For me, I like the browns. In fact I’m the only person I know whose preferred color is brown. Today I spent time with two handsome pin oaks, currently my favorite tree. They have the leaves with points so sharp they take their name from them, and deeply scalloped sides – called sinuses in the tree world. The pointy parts are lobes and the leaf body itself is a blade, in the department of things we all really should know.

These two fairly massive pin oaks, Quercus palustris, one with a caliper of 21 inches and one fully 26 in diameter, stood in front of a small Asian lady’s house on East 55 Street in Brooklyn, shedding acorns as our crew put in a sidewalk around their roots. Wasn’t Sir Isaac Newton inspired by an apple falling and striking him on the head? I got a lot of ideas today from acorns bonking me on my skull.

oak tree

“I remember when they brought these trees here to plant them,” reminisced the homeowner, talking about the City. “Thirty years ago. They were so small. They carried them in burlap bags!”

I knew what she was talking about, having spent time last week in the Bronx planting Ginkgoes, and having held my hand against the wet burlap before the heavy root ball was set in the earth.

burlap

Today’s pin oak leaves were still green and red, but they were beginning to droop and to turn a russet brown, just the way I like them.

oak leaves

How we apprehend peak reminds me of when people talk about what age they are internally. You may be forty, but do you feel you are twenty-six in spirit? Sixteen? Three? (I hope not, that would be weird). I always think I am all the birthdays scrambled up. Yes, in actual years I am getting close to retirement age, but I turn on the radio and the music makes me a college student.

When I write I am no age at all. Age-free, that’s like being an angel.

Wild boars love those acorns too, but when they snort and snuffle around the oaks in the forest the fallen nuts are called mast. You don’t need to ask what is peak for a pig.

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To Wee or Not to Wee

Let’s talk bodily functions. One bodily function.

I have crisscrossed Brooklyn many times now saving trees. The availability of a place to pee structures my day. After my commute to the site, always on a residential street with nary a store, the first thing I do is trek to the nearest commercial stretch to beg some bodega owner to use their restroom. It’s 6:45 am. Few places are open. Sometimes the person behind the counter just says No, with a cold, distrustful look in his eye.

Out of order! he sometimes says.

Really?

Women behind the counter more often take pity. One said, after the automatic Out of order! and after I begged her, plucking at my orange vest to show I was somehow for real, Only wee-wee? Yes! So I won her over.

The vest counts for a lot.

The day goes on as we proceed to lay new sidewalk and save trees at different sites throughout the borough, and I take breaks when I can to walk off to find facilities at a pizza parlor, a 7-11, a candy store, a diner. The stall at a diner is bare bones.

bare bones

I come back, the workers are digging. The men are pouring concrete, smoothing it out with their floaters. They’re throwing big hunks of old cement into the bucket of the back hoe.

Did they pee while I was gone?

I ask the engineer on the job: Where do they go?

He laughs. He seems surprised that a woman would raise such a distasteful subject with a man she barely knows. Really, I say. I’ve never seen them leave.

They have their ways, he says.

A laundromat I went to with a kind and respectful proprietor had Halloween decorations all over the walls, including framed ghoul portraits and red bloody handprints across all the washers and driers.

The woman had even decorated the bathroom, so that when you turned to the side this skeleton is what you would see. Giving the paying/peeing customer a little chuckle.

skeleton

We traveled across the country once, Gil, Maud and I, and before we left Gil ordered some kind of device off the web so that we wouldn’t have to stop so often at rest stops. Maud and I were disgusted, we didn’t even look at it. But now I sort of see the point.

I think the crew might have a pail in the back of the truck. One of them dumps it at the end of the day, like a chamber pot.

Female jet pilots take their facilities with them into the sky. When you’re flying for 11 hours, trekking to a bodega is not an option.

There are books and websites devoted to finding women’s rooms in various cities, including Manhattan. As far as I know there is not one on Brooklyn. But the quest leads me into some nooks and crannies I might otherwise regard as unworthy of my time, like a little Mexican grocery on Avenue U. The owner was polite in directing me to the back of the store, and as I walked through, past the kitchen, the aroma of fresh tortillas nearly knocked me over. So did the pic on the back of the bathroom door.

mexican

People ask if there are any women on the construction crews I’ve worked alongside. No, I say. Why do you think that is? we wonder. They’re just so strong, I say, It would be a very unusual woman who could do that kind of heavy labor.

There are dozens, hundreds of women macha enough to work construction. But that’s not the real reason, of course. It’s that a woman couldn’t hold it in.

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