Category Archives: Photography

The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.

uniforms.JPG

About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

little linden.JPG

The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.

lions.JPG

The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.

Roland.JPG

At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .

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All This and a Cow Face Too

It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.

Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.

I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone.  It’s amazing.

The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.

testing concrete.JPG

Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.

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What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.

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I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.

good life.JPG

I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.

ginger.JPG

And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.

potato.JPG

The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.

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The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.

fish.JPG

There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.

Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.

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Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.

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A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.

cow skins.JPG

I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.

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Beauty That Is Chill

This is real rain, real life.

It’s a particularly beautiful deluge. The young cherries have shed their ballet-pink petals in a skirt around their grassy roots. The sassier pink of the dogwood blossoms shines against the low gray sky. Banks of azaleas adorn the sedate  streets of Fresh Meadows, Queens.  

I’m hiding from the drops temporarily in my car, where I have a good vantage on men laying pipe for a new water main. It’s a cold rain, and the chill magnifies the lucid gorgeousness of this spring morning. The workers have labored under wet conditions many times before. A friend with relatives in construction told me that on rainy days they crowed “tavern skies!” before ducking into the bars. I don’t see much work stoppage though–the crews I’ve been with hit it rain or shine. Maybe those were different days. “The water is wet!” says a big guy named Juan, today, and he is roundly ribbed by the foreman. I don’t see anyone complaining.

Work proceeds. I am cold just watching it, cold from having ventured out suggesting to the foreman that he erect a tree guard around a delicate specimen that has a pile of heavy black pipe piled at its feet.

Trying to make something happen in the world.  No, he’d prefer to have his guys doing other things. He’s got the tougher job of getting those pipes put into the ground (and it has to be foolproof, they can’t leak). But for me to be in the world in the rain is new. Writing, sitting at my dry desk, hands on the computer, my feet lodged warmly in their slippers, I would put together words about rain. Characters might meet in the rain, take their leave in the rain. Kiss in the rain. It might pour outside my window over the marsh, I’d see the reeds bend their feathery heads, but no storms for me, I didn’t feel a thing. Didn’t really see the new green.


Just the excitement of creating the storm, making it rain on the page.

Now I go home shivering, chilled through my thin raincoat. Do you know what a just-hatched oak leaf looks like? Fingernail sized, fragile and the softest of greens. It will grow up to be strong and tough, but for now it’s a pretty baby.  You can see them if you come out, eyes open, to work in the chilly spring rain.

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Budding Out

Long ago, probably 50 years ago, someone planted a grove of oaks along the Kings Highway in Brooklyn, running from Farragut Road to Clarendon. A greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” I surveyed trees there on the two medians that bracket this frantically fast and loud urban speedway. Old, gnarled, rough-trunked trees are not what I think of when my mind goes to NYC normally, especially its fast roads. But here there was a forest, the inheritance from the days of monoculture, when people in charge of planting in New York thought it was ideal to plant all one species. You could tell you were not deep in nature, however – many of the trunks were marked similarly with gross tearing of the bark at the bottom, about knee height. I asked a homeowner about it. “Yeah, we have a lot of traffic accidents on this road,” he said. But however victimized the oaks were by human car culture, they stood tall and survived.

Bruckner.JPG

Today I’m standing on the margins of another highway, the Bruckner Expressway, a Robert Moses creation. Bruckner Boulevard is the service road that runs along both sides of this freeway, and it has trees that need pruning. The trees are in bud, about to leaf out – zelkovas, london planes, ash trees, cherries all coexist with the traffic fumes and grit and wild traffic patterns of the Bronx. Another grove of sweet green in the midst of concrete, cars and trucks.

I watch a plump squirrel carrying a wisp of something scurry across the pedestrian overpass, headed for its nest. There’s a collection of ash trees here, too, though emerald borers have had their way with them. London planes bulge with a girth of 30 or more inches like satisfied Buddhas. And there are the pink and green infant samaras so delicately dangling from the branches of the sycamore maples.

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Here are some whirligigs posed in the palm of the landscaper’s son, a millenial who knows how to wield a chainsaw and has already received his tree climbing certification. Still, he prefers to surf.

samaras.jpg

One resident left her love on the bark of a juvenile london plane.

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Spring comes to the highways of New York, just as it does everywhere else, and it is brought there by trees above all.

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O Christmas Tree

Went to a Christmas tree farm the day after Thanksgiving. I never thought I’d be a person to get a tree before finishing the leftovers but here I was. Battenfeld’s, in the Hudson Valley, had as many cars as it did trees. The weather was like spring.

tailgate

And dozens of tailgaters made me jealous. I wished we’d brought some chairs and a cooler.

The ranks of trees were mapped in an app you could download: Balsam, White Pine, Douglas Fir, etc., conveniently organized. There was no paper map. Among the beefy, eight-foot specimens you could find the stumps and relics of past years, someone’s Christmas come and gone.

years past

We comparison shopped, topping our fat Concolor with a glove to mark our spot.

tree w glove

Concolor is another name for the White Fir. The most ancient of these eastern trees can get to 350 years old. I heard one of the workers explain that his mother always wanted one because they have the scent of oranges.

A friend was intent on bringing home a blue spruce.

blue spruce

They have that beautiful hue, but their needles make you understand why they are called needles, they are that spiny.

Someone had to cut down our tree. That would be Gil. Ours was, he said, the Plato’s Cave of trees.

gil cutting tree

Peter took plenty of pictures, documenting our U-Pick adventure. Then the day was over, except for dragging the tree away. I learned how wonderful it can be to wander among the conifers, as unnaturally as they are grouped and bred and groomed at a farm. Nothing is left to accident. In the world we live in, it is reassuring to spend time in a place that is accident free.

dragging tree

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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.

staten island beach

Colors popped. The detritus on the beach seemed hallucinatory.

seaweed

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

pine

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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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I saved a tree on this industrial stretch of Williamsburg-neighboring Brooklyn today. Or at least I saved a root.

cooper

I was on a job at the city-owned Cooper Park Houses, constructed in 1953, which means that the London Plane trees circling the housing project had had plenty of time to grow stately and plump, even if they weren’t grown in a wilderness. These are their siblings in Central Park, the beauties with camouflage patterned bark.

plane-tree

The work day was almost over. When the crew dug up sidewalks in order to install new concrete, my role was to see that all at the border of tree and pavement was well. So far, uneventful. Then the engineers yelled for me, madly gesticulating. And there it was.

London Plane root

A long, red-brown root, encased in fill like an otter swimming through grit. I saw the Plantanus x Acerfolia it was attached to, waving its leafy limbs in a gust of wind. I made sure the workers at the site left the root intact. Preserving it was the only really important thing I did all day. But it was enough.

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