“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”

in the inimitable phrasing of Walt Whitman back in 1892.

I just received news that I have been awarded a residency at Catwalk Institute in the Hudson Valley this May to work on my upcoming nonfiction book Heartwood (about Americans’ complicated love affair with our forests) – pure unalloyed time to focus and write. So I celebrate myself by visiting Wave Hill, the botanical garden in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx.

There, also as Walt had it in Song of Myself, I loafe and invite my soul. Early spring is always thrilling, but Wave Hill has every wondrous element of the season in spades. First and foremost, the glory-of-the-snow. Aka Scilla luciliae. I might be wrong about that, I’m often wrong.

One thing I’m right about is that the plant is fantastic here at Wave Hill, carpeting the grounds, every place you look. Closer.

Even closer.

And all else just as exquisite in the cold late-March air, accompanied by bird song. The daffodils.


The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

So many different magnolias. Magnolia x loebneri.

All of them awesome.

The first, freshest forsythia.

Even the lowly dandelion is stupendous here.

The mighty old linden I always admire. So buff.

I love the contrast with its delicate buds, that red harbinger of all that is to come.

That feeling in the air.

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.

Plenty of spots to rest your weary legs.

That’s an especially nice aspect of Wave Hill. They say that it’s okay to sit and do nothing once in a while, especially under a massive old sugar maple.

Colors effervesce. Cornus alba ‘Westonbirt’.

Crazy chartreuse needles hang in the air.

Yes, always more blue, blue, blue.

A reflecting pool, so quiet, a good place to contemplate future gladness.

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,

Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,

Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,

Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,

Scattering it freely forever.

But with all that me, me, me, let’s not forget that we share the earth — especially its trees — with other critters.

And yes, my favorite copper beeches are ready for their moment. The sheer scale astounds.

The silver of her trunk.

Glory-of-the-snow snuggles between the roots.


Do you take it I would astonish?

Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?

Do I astonish more than they?

This hour I tell things in confidence,

I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

In the distance, the sheen of river and sky.

I am happy.


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A bent tree and a black butterfly

figured prominently in my hike along the northern section of the Old Croton Aqueduct on a day so early in spring that only a few plants were peeping up green.

Also peeping up reddish-brown with yellow streaks, in the case of skunk cabbage.

One of my favorite plants, the skunk cabbage enjoys an interesting chemistry which allows it to create its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts, and always comes dressed in some of my favorite colors. It could be an official Pantone Color of the Year. (The Pantone Color Institute Program, begun in 1999, previously has included such boring hues as Classic Blue and Tangerine Tango.) Once popularized thus, you could buy a ball gown or paint your walls with it. Actually, the Pantone Color of the Year has already been chosen for 2023, and it is Viva Magenta, which is not that far off.

So then, the Color of the Tear for 2024! Skunk Cabbage. It may be poisonous for us, but pollinators find it delicious.

I was fortunate on the OCA trail to have naturalist Diane Alden as my guide. Some years ago, Diane showed me around Wildflower Island at Teatown, a gorgeous place that you can’t visit unless you tour it privately, they are so dedicated to not mashing down the precious horticulture. Here we saw a white wood aster just poking out.

Wild plants are Diane’s passion, and she has devoted herself to rooting out invasives on the OCA trail so that native flora can flourish. I don’t believe I had ever set foot on this northern portion, which soars above the Croton River Gorge.

Since 2014, Diane’s initiative with Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (she’s a board member) she has had a great deal of success, pulling in tons of volunteers of all ages, especially on I Love My Parks Day every spring.

On our promenade, I saw some familiar things I knew the names of, as well as those I’ve seen a million times but couldn’t name, and those I’d never even noticed. It was that kind of a walk, when all your synapses are wide open and you want to commit every observation to memory.

Diane pointed out Christmas ferns, which it turns out has the remarkable ability to self mulch.

Lift off the new growth to find the old fronds mouldering underneath, ingeniously protecting the roots. Diane pointed out some rushes, and reminded me of the lyric that helps naturalists differentiate grass-like specimens in lieu of an ID book: Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, Grasses have nodes all the way to the ground. We talked about lichen.

This one is crustose, one of three major kinds. There are also the foliose and the fructicose. Lichens are a type of symbiotic organism made up of a plantlike partner and a fungus. Known colloquially as smokey-eye boulder lichen, the one we saw featured an exquisite tapestry of tiny dots if you bothered to take a close up view.

Crustose, Diane said, “can’t peel off.” Guess that’s a handy survival tactic.

Just then a mourning cloak butterfly appeared. “That’s the first I’ve seen this year!” said Diane. I could not capture it with my camera, it swooped and flitted so fast, but I did Google the species later.

Nymphalis antiopa, native to both Eurasia and North America. has a name which came over with Scandinavian or German rather than British settlers. There is a cool historical nugget concerning the species. British lepidopterist L. Hugh Newman ran a butterfly farm in Kent that supplied the creatures for Sir Winston Churchill’s enjoyment and also wrote many popular books in the 1940s and 50s (Butterfly Haunts, Butterfly Farmer, Butterflies of the Fields and Lanes, Hills and Heathlands… and so on). He likened the wing’s pattern to a girl who disliked having to dress in drab mourning clothes and defiantly let a few inches of bright hem show below her black dress. I like just about all defiance, so I love this butterfly.

We walked by the bane of the invasive-eradicator’s existence, multiflora rose bushes, just now beginning to leaf out.

Native to Asia, the multiflora rose first came to the U.S. in the 1860s, when it was employed by a well-meaning but somewhat naïve horticultural industry as an ornamental garden plant. Fast forward to the 1930s, when the USDA Soil Conservation Service thought it would provide a nice natural barrier to roaming farm animals (a “living fence”). Well, the bush skedaddled out of any confines that ever held it back, and has since been classified as a noxious weed in many states. Scores of volunteers have pricked their fingers pulling out the shrub along this trail.

Diane described garlic mustard, which “exudes a fungicide so we are eager to eradicate it to preserve our valuable mushrooms that are so important to the health of the forest.” Also, those “pretty little yellow flowers all along the edges of the trail” are lesser celandine, and they crowd out the much more beautiful wild violet.

Invasive plants have no natural enemies. Even the deer eschew them. Diane pointed out a stalk of the particularly evil wild raspberry, whose sumptuous fruits I have sampled many times but which wreak havoc with birds’ digestive systems, “kind of like junk food.” It’s nearly as bad as porcelain berry, and that’s saying something. I wondered if well-meaning invasive whackers ever yank up anything good by mistake. Diane told me that once a fellow who had not been adequately trained proudly displayed a plant he had ripped out by the roots, believing it to be porcelain berry. Sad ending, it was actually a rare doll’s eyes plant.

We want the birds to eat good foods and prosper! As if on cue, a lovely little nest appeared.

Something that survives when Diane’s volunteers succeed are intricate stone walls dating back to the mid-1800s. These have the most beautifully pink-streaked quartz.

Robert Frost is famous for these lines:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Recognizing that historic walls are vulnerable, the Friends commandeered stone mason George Cabrera to shore them up. I had to confess to Diane that I love old, tumbling-down structures better than any tidied-up restoration. But the farmers who originally assembled these stones – probably employing the same stonemasons who built the underground Aqueduct itself – would have repaired them so that they would last forever. So it only makes sense to honor their efforts by doing so now.

Speaking of stone, we passed through rock that was split apart by gunpowder at the time the Aqueduct was installed, between 1837 and 1842. Yes, gunpowder.

Diane pointed to chutes cored out from above where the powder would be dropped down and ignited. Boom! Impressive technology predating dynamite’s invention by Alfred Nobel in 1867.

We passed some incredible trees. A broken off trunk with loads of character and a nice hidey hole at its base. Dead trees often go underappreciated for their important role as habitat.

A soaring hemlock. Hello up there!

I remember asking a more seasoned arborist if losing all those lower branches meant the tree was dying. The answer: No, the tree just wants to conserve its energy in order to keep growing. And, as Diane pointed out, to reach for the sunlight. Trees, as usual, are smart.

Some impressive roots here too.

And a sight that struck me as almost too amazing. A branch bent up at a right angle. Was this just an unusual growth habit? Sometimes trees do grow in ways that might be construed as strange – say, conjoined trees, my favorite. This might be different, though.

Could it possibly be what is called a Trail or Marker Tree, or more technically a Culturally Modified Tree? These specimens, which curve and grow sideways at such an impossible angle, often turned sharply up toward the sky, are historical curiosities found all around the country, whether out in the woods or in city parks or front yards.

Experts say that CMT’s once helped the Native Americans who trained their growth find safe paths through rough forests and locate river crossings or natural springs, shelter or encampments Tom Belt of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma explained their purpose: “The bending of trees was essentially part of a great highway system that allowed people from many tribes to interact with each other, and there was an inordinate amount of trade going on.”

I don’t know if the one on the trail today was a Marker Tree, but I want to believe.

We racewalked back, late to meet a friend for lunch. Diane’s house has a rapturous view of the Hudson, dozens of birds attendant at the bird feeder – she tracks their comings and goings daily – and one hundred or so thriving houseplants. She offered to gift me with one. Would I prefer a walking iris or a jade plant? Decisions, decisions. Once, long ago, I kept a jade plant that I sadly, shall we say, undernurtured. I figured I’d make atonement for that fiasco this time around.

The jade plant has taken up residence on my office window sill. If you peer out the window into the distance, the ridge you see is the top of the Palisades. Not a Hudson River view, but close enough on this day of small but impressive sights in early spring.

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It takes more than luck to play music at Lucky.

It takes skill – and also guts, especially if you happen to be a 16-year-old pianist making your debut leading a jazz trio in New York City.

The Jasper Zimmerman Explosion appeared at the intimate establishment a couple of nights ago. No cover. No minimum. Just lots of cool. Lucky’s on Avenue B, after all.

My friend Nora, also a musician just back from a voyage to Zimbabwe, organized the series of events in which the Explosion appeared. She has two groups of her own, Maputi, which is traditional, and Timbila, original music based on tradition.

Every Sunday after the main event comes piano night.

Nora’s favored instrument is the mbira. Mbira is the spiritual music of Zimbabwe, used to communicate with ancestral spirits. Nora told me about playing mbira in a mermaid ceremony there, an all-day event that also featured hosho (gourd shakers), drums and singing. Mediums on these occasions become possessed, and it’s amazing, she said.

Nora first traveled to Zimbabwe to study in 1996 and has been back many times.  She loves it there and is always inspired by the musicians she plays with.

Jasper happens to be my nephew, but I’m not the only one who considers him a great talent at his young age. He has already shared the stage with some phenomenal musicians, recognizable names in the field.

For this gig he was playing with some other outstanding musicians. Ruby Farmer on bass. She’s in 11th grade.

Coleman Breining on drums. He was respectful of the small space and peoples’ endless desire to yak over drinks, and made great use of the brushes.

They’re so cute, I couldn’t help but comment to Nora as we stood entranced by the side of the bar. I don’t think you can call them cute when they’re so good, she said. And of course she was correct.

Lucky proved to be a great venue for this startup appearance. Abby Ehmann owns the joint. As the sole proprietor, she has had an interesting career trajectory – one perhaps more typical for New York City than elsewhere – from graphic artist for web projects to photographer’s rep to ad agency proofreader to Penthouse magazine editor to cyber-fetish party planner to… barkeep at this fabulous boite.

She told a newspaper interviewer once that she came up with the name of the bar one sleepless night: “I thought there would be a million places with that name but I Googled it and there was no bar in America called Lucky.” She also opened sober bar Hekate just across Avenue B, where patrons like me can get a delicious exotic mocktail and no one laughs at you for eschewing booze.There is witchy stuff for sale at Hekate, too.

The name of Abby’s perpetual ornament, her teacup toy poodle, is Scribble.

Lucky had held a vernal equinox celebration earlier in the day, so everyone was gussied up and had a happy afterglow. Spring flowers bloomed on the bar.

The place is New-York-City-Loisada hip. The décor.

Moneyed ceiling.

The people. I had a bond with someone I met at Lucky for the first time, Alison Collins – I’d helped her out in a very minor way by transporting one of her sculptures when she was out of town, at the suggestion of a mutual friend.

Now she presented me with something wonderful, a little nest sculpture, suitable either for hanging or displaying on a flat surface.

The Explosion’s eclectic set list included I Didn’t Know What Time It Was by Rogers and Hart, Epistrophy by Thelonius Monk and Wayne Shorter’s Fee Fi Fo, along with Jasper’s original compositions Balloon Ping Pong and Interstellar Cable Car. When they played Cole Porter’s Just One of Those Things at Gil’s request, delivering the tune impeccably with no charts, no music, nothing, Gil pretty much kvelled. They really showed their chops. He overheard Ruby’s deadpan response when Jasper told them they’d be playing the number, Yeah, I think I played that once.

I talked to Jasper afterwards about the experience. Last night was so much fun, he told me. Ruby, Coleman, and I have been rehearsing together for so long, and it was really nice to play together in a performance setting.

About the venue: Since Lucky was such a small space (we could hardly fit the bass and drums!), and the piano was just a little upright, I didn’t expect much of the acoustics. However, the piano, bass, and drums all cut through and I was told that people in the back could hear us clearly. Playing at Lucky reminded me of the bygone days of New York jazz, where musicians performed in dive bars similar to it.

Pretty sure the rest of the Explosion, Lucky’s owner, the bar’s patrons and the other performers in Nora’s line-up would feel good about that dive bar lineage.

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A warm and moist hush prevails

in the exhibition area of the New York Botanical Garden’s Annual Orchid Show.

And is there any better kind of hush? Especially on a cold and blustery late winter day in the Bronx.

Orchid lovers endure heart palpitations all around. At least those not too consumed with taking pictures.

Photographers are legion here. So many photo opps, so little time.

Orchids posing throughout the place. You’d think they know they’re beautiful.

Who cares if they are vain? They deserve the attention.

Some amazing specimens here. The cane orchid.

So rare and yet so common.

As Chet Baker has it most cornily in My Funny Valentine:

You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

I can name them if pressed. Not if the flowers are pressed, I mean if it is desired that I know their names. There is the slipper orchid.

The ghost orchid.

The moth orchid.

Most familiar is the corsage orchid, the one you’ll find at every prom.

But the anonymous ones, or the ones in front of which I am muscled aside by fellow Iphone snappers, are really just as fine.

I can also tell you the orchid’s biological features: the fused male and female parts in one structure, called the column; the solid, sticky masses of pollen, called pollinia; a modified petal called a labellum, which insects use as a landing platform. The lip might be small or large, ridged, ruffled, or pouch-shaped. Somehow it all sounds too sexy. Let’s have some innocent flowers, shall we?

After a turn or two down the humid pathways, Gil asks, “Have we been this way before?”

Who knows? In a haze of orchid splendor, before and after fade. It is total tropical immersion. My head spins. My mind fills with fantasies, dreams, nightmares, poetry. Didn’t a monster grab me last night in my sleep?

There is actually poetry conveniently installed here by the powers that be, verse by Wang Huizhi:

I release my feelings among these hills and streams;

Carefree and detached, I forget all constraints…

If you can tear your eyes away from the petals, NYBG has other treasures. Look up.

Or look down.

A king anthurium hailing from Colombia.

A floss-silk tree, from Peru.

As a break from the sometimes-a-tad-too-sweet orchids, I also like to observe what goes on behind the scenes. The vegetation trash in a bin.

Staff gardeners comparing notes.

All around above our heads there is a sound… kind of like birdsong. Are there birds in here? asks a woman, focusing her camera above at the staghorn fern.

Also, what is that thing? I tell her there is a label, it’s a staghorn fern. Oh, she says, I think it’s the sound of the wind.

Go through the flame-draped tunnel…

And you will find… more orchids.

I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while, says Gil, quoting Groucho Marx.

Yes, there are a lot of orchids here.

Strangely, it turns out we know the young lady who “designed” the show.

She is the daughter of an old friend, and I happen to know that her big brother is named Huckleberry. She did a great job here.

Along the way it is possible to learn that the most rare color for orchids is blue. But I see no blue orchid among the thousands here. I ask a security guard, Have you seen a blue orchid here?

No, he says helpfully. But I think there’s one at the library. In a pot. Nice idea, but then we’d have to take ourselves out of the fragrant sauna into the cold gale outside. We’ll stick to the fleshy white ones here.

Eventually it is necessary to exit. You like orchids?… Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption. That’s from the noir classic The Big Sleep.

The gift shop offers johnny jump ups, a welcome respite from the orchidium.

And… more orchids, of the 24-dollar variety.

Let’s pretend orchids are really as special as they seem to think they are.

They deserve the glory.

At least once a year.

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A thing that is mysterious, evocative, meaningful

–at least to me: a plate. It is an old plate. I’m going to call it a cake plate.

It belonged to someone in my family. I never knew her. She lived a long time ago.

Her name, oddly, was Brown. Even odder, her last name was Coats. So her name was Brown Coats. If you want her actual name, of course, it was more normal: Mary Susan Dudley. But she was known as Brown. She was my mother’s father’s grandmother – my great great grandmother.

Families usually have one person who is the historical navigator, the genius of genealogy,the generational scribe. The one who plots out all the branches of the tree, scrupulously investigating the nooks and crannies of the past that everyone else is too busy to look into. In my family, that person is not me, but most likely my brother.

I’ve always been interested in a more global narrative, in female fur traders or heroic housewives or hot jet pilots of earlier eras. Not necessarily individuals I’m related to, but all of us. I’ve always told myself that investigating the stories of these people not in my actual family is essential.

I’ve loved the stories and the artifacts that have come down from people I knew in my family. On my mother’s side, my great aunt, Mary House, who sewed a fantastic quilt I’m lucky enough to have in my possession.

A home economics teacher, Auntie kept a neat home in a converted potato barn in small-town Greenfield, Tennessee. We used to go there and visit – I remember eating buttery corn on the cob at her kitchen counter, picking green beans out front, playing with a new litter of kittens that lived under the wooden porch boards. She helpfully stitched a label for the quilt on its back.

Auntie had a sweet face and she was a sweet woman, but strong, too.

She knew everything in the world about needle crafts, being an expert in sewing and tatting, and she taught my clumsy fingers a little bit about crochet.

She was my grandmother Virginia’s sister, my mother’s mother’s sister.

On the other side of my mother’s family, her father’s relatives, matters have always seemed a little murkier. I know about Brown’s cake plate because I have it on a shelf. I know about a series of pictures in a burned-wood frame because this prized artifact was the product of my grandfather’s mother’s hands. The images were from a trip out west by train to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Her name was Lockie. My great grandmother treasured her magnificent little son – my grandfather – and poured herself into raising him until she died in 1920, at the age of 43, probably of pernicious anemia.

A teacher and a religious woman, Lockie claimed in her diary to have read the entire bible to Jean, my grandfather, when he was 13 years old. She had artistic skills, evidenced by an oil painting of a child, a drawing of horses and embroidery or “fancy work” depicting a rose that have survived the years, along with my framed western tryptich. She was an active member of the Women’s Temperance movement and probably — thinks my mother—a suffragist.

I recently came across a photo and a newspaper clipping that describes the people in it.

The article talks about Lockie and her “pretty little baby” and her husband Andrew Coats, about Brown and her husband John Hawkins Coats, and their Dudley and Hillis parents. It seems all four generations lived on the same street in little Greenfield, “enjoying the blessings of life.” Main Street. Long afterwards, I spent time there, visiting my grandparents in the tall, rambling Victorian house my mother grew up in. Swinging on the porch swing, so novel for a modern suburban kid like myself.

I’ve tried to read the faces of these people in my family. Especially the women. I am forever interested in women’s stories. I would love to learn more about the lives of Lockie and Brown, of Virginia and Mary, to not take them for granted. To treat the members of my own family as a worthy historical subject. I know so little. Brown Coats—more than a funny name or a faded sepia photo.

The last words of my great grandmother Lockie’s diary before she succumbed: “May we each and every one be prepared to meet that day.”

Real history. Personal history.


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A shout out to nurses everywhere

on this rah-rah chest-thumping holding-up-half-the-sky International Women’s Day 2023. Nurses are the lifeblood of our society. I may be a bit biased because my daughter is an RN, soon to be a nurse practitioner. Here she is all rigged out to do battle with Covid.

Brava Maud! I like to talk about nurses when I give Hard Hat Tours of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island, because they were so fundamental there.

As they always are. Ellis Island Hospital employed great doctors – it was a fine hospital, one of the best in the country in the early years of the 20th century. But nurses’ great skills and essential kindness were absolutely vital.

Elements of their existence persist in the ruined spaces. A scrap of shower curtain holds on in one of the washroom’s in the nurses’ quarters.

I always point out a rainbow that appears on a wall there every day, at some times fainter than others, which I’m pretty sure is the nurses’ way of communicating with us.

One nurse who was pretty much the patron saint of Ellis Island is someone everyone’s heard of: Florence Nightingale.

I love this photo because in it she looks so old-fashioned, sort of like an old fuddy duddy, but in fact she was anything but. She was a radical, a pioneer. Her beliefs when applied at Ellis Island probably account for an extraordinarily high survival rate among the 500,000 people who were treated there over the years before the hospital closed in 1954. A British nurse who practiced during the Crimean War–before antibiotics, before penicillin–she believed in a few simple tenets. Sunshine. Fresh air. You can see a vestige of her philosophy in the baby-cage rage of the 1930s.

Another of her beliefs was hygiene, translated specifically at Ellis to handwashing. She was nicknamed the Lady of the Lamp for her personal vigilance in soldiers’ wards.

Life before hand washing could be dirty, yes, but also dangerous.

Before the nineteenth century a bacterial infection known as childbed fever claimed the lives of the many thousands of women going to hospitals to give birth. Doctors hadn’t yet come around to the idea that handwashing was important. Ignorant about germs, they didn’t bother.

Most doctors, naturally, were male. Puerperal fever was both common and tragic. Two of Henry XIII’s wives died this way. So did Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the seminal Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.

 It seems obvious now, especially with the Pandemic, when we’re always washing our hands. But in the mid-1800s, birthing practices had not come far beyond what they were in the seventeenth century.

And childbed fever continued to be a scourge, though so few people remember it now.

Women’s history, please! Let’s be more than a footnote.

Around 350 babies came into this world at Ellis Island. In the abandoned hospital you can find handwashing sinks throughout, not placed there by accident or as a nicety — evidence that medical practitioners knew how important it was to simply wash your hands before and in between procedures so as not to spread infection.

I had a smart teenager on a tour who termed them the Nightingale sinks, his eyes filled with new knowledge.

The grounds at the Hospital once featured beautifully landscaped gardens, compared by some to the finest spas in Europe, so that patients, doctors, and sailors would be able to get that sun and fresh air that Nightingale considered so critical. The wards were created with huge windows to admit light and ventilation.

One medical researcher who was crucial to eradicating childbed fever was Hungarian physician Ignaz Semelweize. Scorned and ridiculed  by the medical establishment, he wound up dying in 1865 in an insane asylum after a savage beating by guards left him with an untreated gangrenous wound on his hand.

In 1847, Semelweize famously decreased death from the disease in the First Obstetrical Clinic of Vienna from nearly 20% to 2% through the use of handwashing with calcium hypochlorite. He had observed that some women even preferred to give birth in the streets rather than going to a hospital. A street birth, they knew, was more survivable than delivery by a doctor with dirty hands. Much later, Semelwieze would receive his due.

When doctors got with the program and finally began washing their hands, the incidence of childbed fever plummeted and women survived. At around the time the Ellis Island Hospital opened its doors in 1900, handwashing was just becoming routine.

The nurses at Ellis were reportedly formidable. There’s a story about a patient who suffered from mental anguish after a horrible ocean passing and typhus – she tried to do away with herself by jumping into the harbor in winter, and a heroic nurse jumped in after her and saved her. Try to fathom that.

Long since the hospital’s abandonment by humans, we see other critters’ nurturing here.

Nurses at Ellis didn’t make a lot of money. They had to remain single. We know that they went out of their way to teach immigrant children reading and writing. Seventy percent of immigrants did not speak English, and nurses knew how important that was to being successful in their new country.  We also have a set of directives for nurses, and while some are ho-hum one pops out: You shall not kiss or hug your patients. What does this suggest? It’s probably not wise to embrace your measles patient, you might catch measles – but these nurses were so caring and compassionate, they had to be told not to. Nurses knew how important nurturing was to the healing process.

As they still do.

At the end of a tough day at the hospital where she works, Maud comes home and decompresses by relaxing with her pups and husband and tuning in to true crime podcasts.

We have only scant evidence of Florence Nightingale’s personal life, how she might have decompressed, so I appreciate these artifacts. Comfy moccasins!

She deserved them. And then some.


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If you want to know where the bodies are buried

I can show you – at least the ectoplasmic ones at the Ellis Island Hospital ruin. If you come on a photography tour, we get to snoop around the old, crumbling areas we don’t usually take visitors on our regular Hard Hat Tours.

Today I went around with Chris, who moved to NJ from the UK five years ago and was lucky enough to be gifted with the tour by a family member. (If an immersion in an amazing ruin interests you either as a professional or amateur photographer, let me know and I’ll steer you to the right person at Save Ellis Island to set it up.)

The “new” morgue/autopsy room, dating to the 1930s, features refrigerated cabinets which held cadavers, and aspiring doctors would sit on bleachers to learn about anatomy.

A previous morgue, more intimate, was repurposed as a laboratory where guinea pigs were research subjects.

The pharmacist’s quarters, still containing essential potions in a locked cabinet. Since the Middle Ages, colloidal gold was famous for its curative properties.

Random corridors.

Random rooms.

The paint itself evocative of all the years the buildings were used – around 1900 to 1954, when the federal government walked away from Ellis Island, declaring it “surplus property.”

Psych wards where blue paint was often used, supposedly because it was considered a calming color.

What do you suppose the experts meant with green paint?

Other psych wards, single rooms.

Windows barred in the event that depressed patients might take matters into their own hands.

Doors prohibited exit.

Ancient graffiti says it all.

Please, come in.

No, really.

After you.

Be my guest.

Even the smallest details.

Historical gems. To me, anyway.

Don’t think they make radiators like they used to.

Sometimes it’s a relief to gaze out a window.

Yes, that is Our Lady of the Harbor in the distance.

Hang up your coat.

Stay a while.

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There is really no such thing as nondescript

in any borough of New York City.

Here I am in an ordinary neighborhood of Brooklyn, rather humdrum, really, inspecting and preserving trees, and so many things have a hint of the marvelous.

The human impulse toward landscape adornment reigns supreme.

People here love their cherries.

Doctor Seuss ornamentals.

Their pipsqueak lawns.

Their rose bushes, now hesitantly broaching the subject of spring.

But why wait if an artificial bloom looks just about as lovely on a late winter day?

Their Himalayan cedars, for goodness sake! Who woulda thunk it, on Brooklyn’s 58th Street? Yes, I know, a tree grows in Brooklyn.

I ponder the idea a friend shared today that there may be more trees on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way. Not all that many trees here, but the ones that do exist are clearly treasured. I’m looking after some young London plane trees today. Someone has to protect them, and at this moment that someone happens to be me. A privilege. Thank you.

Barbara Kingsolver once said something cool. She talked about how important it is “to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And then another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learn to be in love with my life again.” Yes.

Brooklynites love their orthodoxies.

Of all kinds.

The abbreviation INRI stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which translates to Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews. The reason for this, if you want the abridged version, is because the first complete combined bible was translated by St. Jerome into Vulgate Latin. People became used to the Latin and continued to use INRI. Such an ancient concept in our awfully contemporary age.

I’ve always found the mysticism of the boroughs fascinating. The abundance of shrines.

Might this placid gentleman be some saint or other? I’ve never been good at keeping them straight. They’re all important, though.

The people I meet have a kindliness that I think might surprise folks elsewhere in the country. The foreman at the gigantic construction project down the street pointed me in the direction of the Mobil station down the road where “they have gas! Restrooms! Food! Everything!” And the Rite-Aid clerk proved equally hospitable, glancing once at my reflective vest and waving me on to the employee bathroom.

The belief systems here are deeply ingrained.

Driving down to the Mobil station along Bay Parkway takes you right through the middle of Washington Cemetery. As if on cue, Lucinda Williams comes on the radio: You’ve got to get right with God.

Gigantic, and plunked down right in the middle of this residential neighborhood, the cemetery was founded in Kings County in 1850, outside the independent city of Brooklyn, and from the first served primarily German Jewish immigrants. I feel like I might stumble upon some long-lost relative here.

 You can wend your way through the grave plots on paths called Rose, Hyacinth, Jasmine, Aster, Lotus, Evergreen, Cedar, Maple, Cypress, Orange, Sycamore, Spruce, Aspen, Balsam, Oak, Magnolia, Arcadia and Birch. The burial ground has its share of both Yiddish theater stars and gangsters.

Never pass up an opportunity to walk through a cool cemetery. Especially when there are tombstones with photographs, the latest style in death, which has always got something new going on.

And handsome stone lions.

And what must be lambs.

Some of the deceased seem not to have been caught on an especially great day.

But as is often the case in graveyards you can find greenery captured in stone.

And extremely symbolic severed trees.

You know me, I prefer the old-old. The namelessly poetic.

Everything pukka on this ho-hum late winter day.

Learning about stuff.

Anticipating spring.

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Drifting along the trail around Teatown Lake at dusk

can be wondrous. A silent dream.

A wolf could probably take this one-and-a half-mile trail in around ten minutes, loping the loop.

If a wolf inhabited these woods. Which is improbable. Bears, though, might. And beavers, definitely. Evidence of their newly gnawed work abounds.

It’s gloriously somber and moody today, but could be restful if you took advantage of the benches carefully placed along the way.

I’m hiking the opposite direction of the way I usually go. Clockwise, starting in the wildflower tract, now of course devoid of flowers in winter. The lake itself at the 1,000-acre Teatown Lake Reservation was created in 1924 when Bailey’s Brook was dammed.

Yes, I would like to climb you. Thank you for the invitation.

I’ve heard exactly one sound in the thirty minutes I’ve walked: a lone dog barking in the distance. And now the geese, skidding to a landing on the surface of the lake. They sound as if they’re yelping as they go.

I know from speaking with a knowledgeable person on the Goose Patrol at Ellis Island that the ones passing through on their migration are about to start mating, hatching goslings. I can’t wait. I also find I cannot wait to go around the next turn here and see what awaits me.

It begins to seem silly, the baggage I carried in. Worries over money, love, work. They have no place here among the fallen brown leaves and the lichen.

The emerald moss.

The roots that sprawl over the path. My only worry here is that I might trip and break an ankle, so I take it slow.

I recently heard the buzzphrase slow travel, which means immersion in a place, being present in the moment rather than whisking yourself along a route to see more, more, more. This is a slow hike.

Yes, if you go up, then you must go down. Hikers always say the downhill is harder. I don’t know. Today I don’t care.

Clearly there is no fishing allowed here on the lake.

They mean it when they say so. Another bench, a graceful one.

But I’m not stopping. Some trees are funny. You have to ask yourself sometimes, What do they think they’re doing? There is surely a reason for it all.

The ancient locust trees here nearly overwhelm with their personality.

I think I’ll walk as far as I can. I’m never going home.

The surface of the water is so placid. I watch the ducks dunk for their supper. It’s so easy for them. Or at least it looks easy. Maybe it’s not! Maybe every day is a challenge, even for ducks.

Scouting for beaver dens. Where are they? I see protection against them all over the shoreline.

I scare up a pair of mallards, male and female. I’m sorry! Pardon me, but do you mate for life?

I start to cross the bridge. Sometimes don’t you feel so alone? At those moments it feels good to be actually alone, physically alone.

Then a couple of humans approach out of nowhere, male and female, all in black. They seem to be racewalking toward me. Really? There’s so much to take your time for here.

Teatown does a nice job maintaining this place. Someone recently repaired the bridge walk using great care.

It’s cultivated woods here, not forest. The fifteen miles of trails have been well tagged, in every color of the rainbow, practically.

Overhead, in the distance, undeniable evidence of humans.

It seems every bench and small bridge is named for someone special.

Might not mind that so much if I knew the people. I like things that are nameless, though. Anonymous stone walls mark a different era.

I used to live near here, in Ossining, just down the road. In an old, old log cabin. Seems like such a long time ago. I don’t want to go back there. But I still love these woods.

Ever have this feeling that you might get lost, even though you know you can’t possibly get lost? I know that if I hug the shore of this lake and keep going, I will return to where I started. Still. I don’t quite remember being here before, in this exact spot. The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety. Goethe said that.                                                    

 The dog barks again. It’s not as if I’m out in the wild.

But it is so deserted here, so devoid of immediate human presence that I feel I can void my bladder trailside. Pee like nobody’s watching! to paraphrase about a million folks.

Thank you kindly, Mr. Root, said the fallen branch, for offering me a place to rest myself.

Some things just look staged, even here. There’s red oak with a humorous burl.

Probably more comical if you’re a tree person. Will someone please explain what happened here, that a stone wound up grasped between twin trunks?

What is the biology?

The beech leaves hold on through the winter. Beech leaf disease is having a moment. I don’t care to think about it today.

I have hit the dam, so I know where I am, though they’ve “improved” this area so much with riprap I barely recognize it.

Still the water fluices down, unstoppable.

When will I get back? Dark is falling. Still, no one is expecting me. I could fall asleep out here for long time, years even, and nobody would miss me. Perhaps in this old rustic shelter.

I see lights in the near distance. As night descends, things just get more and more beautiful.

I’ll be back just in time for what really got me here – a panel discussion at Teatown about trees, and how great they are. All about ecosystems, carbon sequestration, thermoregulation.

Somehow I think I’ve already done the math.

On the other hand, there might be cookies there. Or at least granola bars. I better show up.


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The tale of a root in danger

is both complicated and very simple. And important.

I spent some time with a root yesterday, or rather a root system, looking after one particular tree. So much time, in fact, that I began to think of giving the tree a name – Hamlet, say.

But that didn’t seem quite right for this particular tree. So let’s say Gertrude, who was less brooding than her son, and quite imperious.

I work for a company that consults with the city of New York to protect trees on construction sites. But what do you do on a job anyway? people have asked.

Well. Trees don’t protect themselves. At least on construction sites. Especially in New York, which is strict about tree protection. Companies receive stiff fines if they do any damage to one, and when work is underway it is required that a professional arborist monitors all that goes on. The city compensates the contractor for hiring that expert.

When a new sidewalk is being installed, with a pedestrian ramp, and a big old London plane tree stands close by, humans must pitch in and help. We know from digging a small trench where the ped ramp will go that roots run underneath, probably far enough below the new concrete that they won’t be affected.

But how will the rest of the site look, the part that hasn’t yet been excavated? Usually the back hoe removes the fill to a dump truck to be carted away, but that will be too indelicate, too potentially damaging, for a tree growing this close. So other techniques must apply.

This site happens to be in a quiet neighborhood of Queens, ringed with red brick apartment buildings.

As an arborist or an inspector or a tree consultant, as I’m known on this site, the role calls for a good bit of hurry up and wait. Another inspector, Jeremy, who represents the Department of Design and Construction for the city, and I stand around observing as workers dig a swathe fully 34 1/2’ by 8’ by 13” deep by hand in order to protect Gertrude’s roots.

The men even use a pick axe to remove the curb, something highly unusual but necessary as the roots like to run along the curb, where water tends to flow.

There are quite a few roots. Yes, my work boots are purple.

The London plane, Platanus × acerifolia or as some in the tree world would have, the l.p., is the most common of 168 tree species in New York City, which is home to around 5.2 million trees. Roughly 15% of the total. That’s a lot of l.p.’s. (Following closely behind are the trees people continue to find noxious, the Norway maple, Callery pear, and my favorite, the honey locust.) The London plane’s origins are something of a mystery.

A cross between the American sycamore and the Oriental plane, it can be traced back to the seventeenth century when P. orientalis and P. occidentalis were hybridized. Perhaps, it has been surmised, the match took place somewhere in Spain, or perhaps in Vauxhall Gardens in London, where aristocrat John Tradescant was an avid plant collector and botanist and possibly had the bright idea, or even in Tradescant’s back yard, almost by fluke. In any case, it turned out that the l.p. had the best traits of its parents. Kind of like me.

Preternaturally tolerant of bad growing conditions – it doesn’t care about smoke or grime, cramped roots, salt or drought or pollution, growing well in soils that are acidic, alkaline, loamy, moist, sandy, well-drained, wet or clay. It transplants easily. It isn’t picky. As a result, it became a superlative street tree, both in London and in NYC. And it has the most beautiful camouflage bark.

The tree can top out at 100 feet tall, and can live a century or more. Gertrude is a relative youngster.

In some ways, actually, trees are great at protecting themselves. In the phenomenon known as compartmentalization, known to tree people as CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees), when a tree is wounded – say, scraped by a truck backing up in the city –  it begins to protect itself by slowing or preventing the spread of disease and decay, forming “walls” around the wounded area. The walls run in every direction, ingeniously, and help the tree survive.

Humans have a similar defense mechanism. My daughter Maud has spent some time in emergency rooms as a registered nurse. She says the same idea holds true there when you have to deal with pain and suffering. Compartmentalization. I know quite a few people now who are having a very hard time dealing with our current dire political situation. They can’t eat, can’t sleep, dream of taking up a new life in Canada or on Fiji. We might do well to emulate the trees—put aside a set amount of time each day to wring our hands and think dark thoughts.

On the site with Gertrude, a few things happen. Talk is terse. The weather.

Do you think it’s gonna snow?


Maybe rain.

Standing silently with Jeremy and with George, the contractor’s manager on the project, we scuff the fill with our work boots.

Jeremy: Okay to put down stone?

Me: Sure, just don’t cut the roots.

Jeremy: Oh, no.

Me: And lay mesh over.

Jeremy: Okay.

Stone, by the way, is another word for gravel. It goes under all sidewalks.

Everyone smokes. The aroma from George’s cigarette drifts over, and I feel like bumming a cigarette for the first time in years.

This tree is strong, I mention to the men with the shovels when they take a break. Big smiles. Then one says, Okay if we cut? He refers to a small root, under one inch, that sprawls beneath the work area, inconveniently. Okay, if you do it cleanly. Gertrude is so robust. I’m fairly certain losing this tiny root won’t hurt her.

I consider the colors of dirt.

Gertrude has a slight lean toward the street, but that probably will never present a problem. So many street trees do lean. She’s not going to fall.

The root surfacing in the fill as they dig reminds me of the whale I read about this morning that just washed up in Lido Beach on Long Island.

A humpback whale, he actually had a name, Luna. He was 40 plus years old, 41 feet long, weighed 14.5 tons, and had died after being hit by a vessel, in a typical case of stupid humans.

Plenty of time on lunch break to pay a visit to nearby H-Mart, the huge Korean chain supermarket, a good place if you need to find kimchi in bulk.

Or a festive preview of spring at a parking lot florist.

Plenty of time back at the site while on root patrol to muse about W.H. Auden, who was born on this day in 1907. Auden published around 400 poems in his lifetime, including haikus, villanelles, ballads, sonnets, and limericks. He lived for some 30 years in a Brooklyn brownstone and wrote some amazing verse. One of my favorites, As I Walked Out One Evening, contains these tremendous, terrifying stanzas.

‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare at the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

We’re almost finished here. It’s beginning to rain. The bucket rests next to one of the big roots.

I say to George, I appreciate the care that you’re taking.

Auden’s poem winds up on a different note, a more hopeful one.

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

Lines about belief in the face of uncertainty. It is our belief on this site on this particular day in New York City that we are saving a tree by taking every precaution to protect her roots. Nothing is sure in this world, but that’s about as close as we come at this moment.

Wonder what Auden would make of Gertrude.

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Combine two teenage boys, eight potatoes

and a heaping spoonful of enthusiasm, and you get a lesson in making latkes.

Once again, thanks to Jasper and Tyler for documenting this edition of Eclectic Home Cooking 101 in my small but sturdy kitchen.


8 potatoes

2 onions

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

6 tbsp flour

1 cup vegetable oil


Hermeto Pascoal

While his music can get pretty loud and crazy at times, Hermeto Pascoal’s music is really interesting harmonically and rhythmically, and combines many different kinds of Brazilian music with jazz.

Emilio Solla

Versed in many different styles from Argentina and elsewhere, Solla’s music is textural, intricate, and beautiful, with a fair amount of complexity and sophistication.

Maria Schneider

One of the most prolific big band composers of the current era, Maria Schneider’s music is forward-looking and hopeful, always with an underlying touch of elegance.


Peel the potatoes, then grate them into a large bowl.

Chop the onion into thin (but not too thin) pieces. Jasper: “The hardest part of making the latkes was cutting the onions and trying not to cry!”

Mix the onions with the grated potatoes.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the flour. Add pepper and salt.

Combine all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix.

Put a pan on the stove.

Scoop some latke batter and put it on the pan. TIP: use an ice cream scoop. Then pat it down. It doesn’t have to be a perfect circle!

After a while, flip the latke over to cook the other side. 

Tyler says, “The part I think I struggled with most was knowing how much time to let the latkes bake so they’re not over or undercooked.”

When the latke is done, put it in the oven to keep it warm.

Repeat until the batter is all gone.

TIP: Combine and conquer. You can scoop multiple latkes into the oven at a time!

Serve with applesauce or sour cream (or both)!


“I love latkes because they are delicious (of course) and go so well with many different toppings,” says Jasper.

Tyler says, “One of the reasons I love latkes is my aunt always makes them for my family during religious holidays (I am Jewish) so when I eat them that’s what I associate them with. I also just love the taste of latkes, especially with apple sauce.”


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Is the High Bridge redundant?

The High Bridge is indeed pretty high.

It soars 138 feet above the Harlem River, with a length of 1,450 feet. But how often have you seen a low bridge? Really? Perhaps the bridge skipped across by the three billy goats gruff.

Or the Bow Bridge enjoyed by rowers in Central Park.

In any case, when this High Bridge first went up over the Harlem River in 1848 it duplicated nothing. It was a blast of the new.

Remnants of that time exist when you walk its length between the Bronx and Manhattan today.

Small details, relics of an earlier time. An original gate house.

A decorative detail. A doodad, if you want to get technical.

The High Bridge, an engineering marvel, brought the miracle of fresh drinking water by gravity from upstate New York to New York City in the form of the Old Croton Aqueduct, with a source that originated 41miles north in Westchester County.

It took an incredibly brief five years to construct the Aqueduct, which was largely the painstaking work of expert stonemasons specifically brought over to the U.S.  from Southern Italy.

Fear of disease, especially cholera, drove city planners to import pure water. When it gushed forth in the island’s first decorative fountain in City Hall Park on October 14, 1842,  the people celebrated.

“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” read the article in The New York Times

Author Lydia Maria Child exclaimed: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!” It even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step.”

The new High Bridge, designed by John B. Jervis, had 15 Roman-style masonry arches. When completed, it was the longest bridge in America.

Earlier, the site had been farmland, owned by such settlers as the Morris family, remaining undeveloped until bought by New York City in order to install the bridge. It is the city’s oldest.

The bridge itself immediately proved a destination for strollers.

Much like the Reservoir at 42nd street, also fed by the Old Croton Aqueduct – now occupied by the Research Library and Bryant Park –  where the uppertens liked to promenade.

You can still see a chunk of the Reservoir’s granite if you search it out in the Library’s substrata.

For a century, the High Bridge existed as a tourist attraction. In 1899, Jesse Lynch Williams of Scribner’s Magazine wrote: “There is a different feeling in the air up along this best-known end of the city’s water-front. The small, unimportant looking winding river, long distance views, wooded hills, green terraces, and even the great solid masonry of High Bridge…help to make you feel the spirit of freedom and outdoors and relaxation. This is the tired city’s playground.” Restaurants and beer gardens sprang up on both banks.

In 1927, the architecture of the bridge changed, when engineers replaced five of its arches with a single steel span that would allow larger vessels to use the waterway.

A few decades after the bridge went up, a hexagonal water tower was constructed as the city expanded northwards and the Aqueduct’s gravity-based system proved not strong enough to deliver water to the higher elevations, especially as flush toilets came into use. The tower contained a 47,000-gallon iron tank. One contemporary critic has called it “more picturesque than beautiful.” Okay, if you say so. It still stands proud over Washington Heights, though its reservoir has been reduced to a swimming pool.

I want to take you higher: Sly and the Family Stone. If you’re feeling blue, this is not the place to go to resolve your life by suicide. A preventive fence takes the High Bridge even higher.

 At the Washington Heights terminus, a chunk of rock finds itself displayed.

Is it Manhattan schist or is it Manhattan gneiss? Does it matter? One is schist as gneiss as the other, has Gil likes to remind me.

When you walk the neighborhood streets you can see how the rock was blasted away to make for sidewalks.

Water flow to the city via the Aqueduct ceased in 1958. The bridge closed in 1970, partly due to incidents of pedestrians throwing over sticks, stones and bricks that seriously injured passengers on Circle Line tour boats making their way up the river. Highways came to dominate the old majestic view. In 1972 the bridge and water tower went on the National Register of Historic Places, but the site continued to atrophy.

Restored in the past decade at a cost of 61 million dollars – it originally cost 950,000 to build – the High Bridge has been a park since 1937 and is now managed by the NYC Parks Department.

Landscaped areas on either side of the bridge afford the customary parks accoutrements, places for chess or checkers, depending on your skill level.

The neighborhood, its once-bucolic nature hard to fathom today, still sports some distinctions.

Plenty of yucca.

If you need some Bronx-style sustenance at the eastern end of your High Bridge promenade.


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In the hidden history of Connecticut’s Charter Oak

my colleague Doug Still and I uncovered several things: the facts, the legend, and then the legacy.

Doug and I had fun producing an episode about it all for his podcast This Old Tree.

You can tune in to the podcast here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2044179/12144180.

Oaks get pretty famous all over the world. Austin, Texas, has the Treaty Oak, supposedly already standing when Columbus got to America. A crazy spurned lover poisoned the tree in 1989 but it was saved by dedicated arborists and continues to stand proudly behind a chain link fence downtown.

Edwinstowe, in Nottinghamshire, England, has its own oak, the Major Oak, now a purported 1,000 years old, which made a pretty sweet hideout for Robin Hood and his merry band, if the story is real.

But only Connecticut has the Charter Oak. The Connecticut oak, I was to find, has a lot of admirers throughout the State. It does appear on the Connecticut Seal and at least one postage stamp, after all.

The state tree is a white oak, and there is a reason for that. The Charter Oak was a white oak.

Now, here are the facts. King James II tried to revoke the royal charter issued to Connecticut in 1662. Sir Edmund Andros met with colonial leaders in a Hartford tavern on a dark night (it was a dark and stormy night) in 1687 to get it back. Suddenly, all the candles in the place blew out. When the lights came back on, the parchment had vanished. Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the charter in an old white oak on Wyllys land and saved the day.

Enough history for now? I guessed as much. Keep in mind that the tree was already venerated by local Indians, written about by Dutch explorer Adrian Block in his log of 1608. It constituted so important a symbol that the local Eastern Woodlands tribe known as the Sauklog called it the “peace tree” and actually met with the landowner to insist he never take it down. Counting rings is famously imprecise, especially for a tree with a big hole in the middle, but the standard estimate suggests that the tree dated back to the 12th or 13th century. Really?

What interested me in working on the podcast with Doug is the mythology of the tree. The mysticism surrounding it.

Back in the day, the oak became imbued with a certain magical aura. Jack Hale, the chair of the Hartford Tree Advisory Commission, told us that when it blew down in 1856, a funeral was actually organized. People wept, a band played dirges, church bells tolled. And then they began gathering up the bits and pieces, some bigger than others, to sell or hoard or craft into hundreds of different artifacts.

Upon visiting Hartford, we saw some of these relics in the Museum of Connecticut History, right next to the state Supreme Court. All around us, high on the walls, was a parade of the great white men who had served as governors. On the floor beneath us, an inlay of the state seal.

On the wall, the Charter itself.

The famous Charles Brownell painting of the tree, with its remarkable branching. And in display cases all around, artifacts such as a whiskey label, a brand of sewing thread. An ad for the Charter Oak Six Plex. A State Fair poultry prize.

Do a little digging and you’ll find Charter Oak Cigars, Charter Oak Venetian Blinds, Charter Oak baseballs. The State Senate Chamber houses the “Charter Oak Chair.”

Mark Twain, longtime son of Hartford who knew everything about most things, delivered this rather snarky bit about the Charter Oak:

Anything that is made of its wood is deeply venerated by the inhabitants, and is regarded as very precious. I went all about the town with a citizen whose ancestors came over with the Pilgrims in the Quaker City – in the Mayflower,I should say — and he showed me all the historic relics of Hartford. He showed me a beautiful carved chair in the Senate Chamber, where the bewigged and awfully homely old-time Governors of the Commonwealth frown from their canvasse overhead. “Made from Charter Oak,” he said. I gazed upon it with inexpressible solicitude. He showed me another carved chair in the House, “Charter Oak,” he said. I gazed again with interest. Then we looked at the rusty, stained and famous old Charter, and presently I turned to move away. But he solemnly drew me back and pointed to the frame. “Charter Oak,” said he. I worshipped….

Thank you, Mr. Twain, you may return to your comfortable study now. By the way, did you know that feeling of warmth when you occupy a seat occupied by another individual just before you is among the least pleasant sensations known to humans? The Japanese have a term for it.

Another son of Hartford, Samuel Colt, made his fortune coterminously with the tragic felling of the Oak, and his story and that of the icon became intertwined. After sending his crew to the tree to gather up the lumber, Colt had a lot of it made into stuff. Idolatry of the Colt name became synonymous with awe of the Charter Oak, as he had it made into a wooden revolver, and other icons.

In the Wadsworth Athanaeum you can see a lavish cradle Colt commissioned from the Oak’s wood in 1857.

When I had my child a good friend presented us with a handcrafted wooden rocking cradle complete with an inset decoration carved of apple wood from our orchard. Talk about iconic. The cradle at theAthenaeum features figured satin and big chunks of Charter Oak Wood.

A chair made for a bigwig mayor the year after the great tree fell.

Something I really liked was the meta quality of some of the pieces – you see a frame around a painting of the Charter Oak that is itself made of wood from the Oak, which is in turn carved into oak branches, leaves and acorns. Meta meta! I was kvelling to see it all.

I spoke with Allan Fenner, a consulting arborist, and Christopher Martin, the State Forester, both of whom raved up the white oak’s strength, its beauty, its stately qualities. Martin told me it’s no accident that the state fashions park picnic tables out of white oak. It’s that durable.

Durable and enduring. Doug and Jack and I ventured around town to see the important Charter Oak locations. The intersection of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place in South Downtown, where the original tree stood.

It is now marked by an obelisk put up in 1907 by the Connecticut Society of Colonial Wars.

The more specific, actual site is a few yards away, now occupied by an apartment building that sports a stone plaque.

All well and good, but what about the living legacy in Hartford? Well, that exists in spades. If you go to Bushnell Park – we did, of course – you’ll find the Hoadley Oak, which is a scion of the original, planted here only a few years after the Charter Oak fell, the product of one of its many acorns, which were also scooped up by eager Hartfordians or possibly Colt employees.

We visited after one of the big storms that we now have so many of courtesy of global warming. Ida did damage in the park, requiring a certain tree company’s services. But the Hoadley oak seemed unhurt. The scions themselves are ancient now!

Just up the path from the Hoadley Oak stood an even more magnificent specimen, another scion of the original, this one planted in 1871.

The plaque beneath its 50-inch diameter trunk brags on its history.

We admired the mulching, the care the city had taken with it. The roots had been air spaded several years back, and the tree looked great. Look up, as I always like to do when given the chance, and you could see its muscular habit. It is an extremely handsome tree.

In the 1970s, during bicentennial fervor, the State of Connecticut distributed seedlings that were descendants of the original to municipalities who requested one. There were quite a few propagated at that time, and you can go on line to find out where they are – from Avon to Windham —  and then go pay homage to the Charter Oak’s power, beauty, longevity. And, of course, its importance as a symbol of sturdy colonial independence, representative government and self-rule. All things we cherish in trees and in life in general. In our high tech society, a natural being still matters to so many people – that was my central takeaway from the experience of investigating this arboreal footnote of American history. Can a community learn to love a tree? Yes.

It is likely that you will not be able to pay homage to the Hoadley oak much longer. The same tree company we saw in Bushnell Park recently assessed its health, and recommended its removal. In our risk-averse society, a cavity in a tree no longer represents a wonderful place to hide a historical document but instead makes the thing a hazard to be destroyed.

I wonder if there will be a funeral.

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I’m a little child who’s lost in the woods

of miniaturization. Sinatra sang that line–well, not the last part.

That’s the hand of Hubert Lengdorfer with one of his marvelous miniatures. There are a lot of people out there creating these tiny environments, whether they’re called shadow boxes or doll houses or dioramas.

I can’t help being attracted to small, perfect rooms. I guess it all started with Alice in Wonderland, with our girl’s exquisite terror at being oversized in a house. A gentle giant, as portrayed in the original Tenniel illustrations.

Or the Disney animation.

I also loved The Borrowers, the lively family who lived in a cigar box beneath the floor boards. Was it that?

Or was it simply my industrious play in the hole at the base of the oak outside my house when I was small, building interiors with twigs and acorn caps.

I always treasured those little wooden scenes you get in different counties. I no longer have the ones my grandparents brought me as souvenirs from Mexico. But my mother recently shared a version she picked up in Japan in 1955.

The detail is exquisite. That word again. Helen Keller said, What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us.

In any case, small things still grab me by the throat. That tea pot.

And especially those scenes at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I went to tour the Thorne Rooms.

In a case of I go there because you probably never will, I’ll share my experience of seeing the Rooms, each one more extraordinary than the next. And bring you in close.

A philanthropist and patroness of the arts, Narcissa Niblack Thorne I1882-1966), the socialite wife of Aaron Montgomery Ward’s nephew James Ward Thorne, donated the Thorne Rooms to The Art Institute of Chicago, to the Phoenix Art Museum and to many other institutions. She made them all, hundreds of them, from the 1920s up until the 1960s. She hired dozens of artisans to help her, benefiting from the Great Depression by utilizing the skills of people who would otherwise be out of work and who knew a thing or two about carving eensy wooden picture frames or executing the intricate canework for chair seats.

Thorne taught herself some of these skills, such as the needlepoint required to create the area rug for this scene.

Pablo Neruda wrote:

So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.

In a novel I am working on, the reclusive adolescent heroine spends her time duplicating the lavish historical Manhattan home she resides in with her family, furnishing a chest-high dollhouse with period furniture she crafts herself. Perhaps it’s easier to build pint-size rooms with pint-size fingers. Though brilliant older miniaturists seem to do okay. Check out this marvelous interior.

As a little girl, Narcissa Niblack had been encouraged in collecting miniatures by her uncle, a rear admiral who sent her his finds as the U.S. Navy sent him all around the world. Growing up, not a lot was thought of her intellectual prospects, and she only was allowed to attend finishing school. She later recalled, “The trouble with my childhood was that I was given no education. Knowing how to put my hat on straight was supposed to be enough.”

It wasn’t until 1930 that Thorne bought two miniature chandeliers and designed her first shadow box. Soon she rented a studio near her Chicago mansion to hold her projects.

In 1934, approximately 300,000 people paid twenty-five cents each to see 26 or Thorne’s recreations of English, French, Spanish, Italian and American rooms at an exhibit called A Century of Progress. She traveled the world collecting appurtenances for her miniature rooms, filling steamer trunks to bring home.

In 1940, Thorne and her sister went to San Francisco to supervise installation of an exhibit of her works in an airplane hangar on Treasure Island. The San Franciso Chronicle reported that the Chicago Historical Society’s Blanche Sudlow came along to clean the Rooms with “tiny brushes and cloths.” Over 1,000,000 fans waited in line to see the small wonders.

Walt Disney felt inspired by the tiny masterworks to begin collecting miniatures of his own. See the little knitting kit?

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place, wrote Zora Neale Hurston, and I think that these tiny spaces do that as well.

I’ve been drawn to snow globes recently, even though they tend to feature a cold landscape and the kind I’d really like is one with a fireplace and a puppy, a warm sort of hygge snow globe that I could keep on a shelf and know that I always had it for the shaking. The story of the snow globe begins around 1900 when Austrian Erwin Perzy, a surgical instrument maker in Vienna, Austria, got a request from a doctor for a lightbulb that would produce the strong  illumination needed for surgery. Experimenting with ways to amplify light, he inserted metal flakes into a globe, thought they resembled falling snow, and tried filling the globe with semolina to enhance the effect. Shook the globe, saw his familiar winter Vienna, and the snow globe was born. Supposedly his company created the snow globe made famous by Citizen Kane: “Rosebud!” It would be fun to work as a consultant on contemporary globes today.

Miniatures are not necessarily as wondrous as a snow globe or as small and neat as Thorne’s rooms. At around the same time that Thorne worked, Frances Glessner Lee produced her now rather famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of 1/12-scale dioramas based on real-life criminal investigation cases. Even today the dioramas are used to train investigators in the art of evidence gathering, meticulous documentation, and keen observation of crime scenes.

Glessner Lee also came from a wealthy upbringing and enjoyed limited schooling.

She learned about forensics from a friend who became the Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Once she began her life’s work, already in her early 60s and benefiting from a large inheritance, she aimed at precisely recreating the scenes of each crime that had actually happened. Each corpse she rendered—from clothing to blood stains to level of decomposition—had to be precisely crafted. She made sure that the locks on the doors and even a tiny mousetrap all actually worked. A rocking chair moves when pushed. It’s all true, as true as any miniature can be.

 Only 19 of the scenes still exist.

People still dedicate themselves to building dollhouses. Today’s artists, like Jason Dillard, often prefer moody or dreamy effects rather than the tightly controlled Thorne Rooms or the grisly works of Glessner Lee.

It’s all amazing stuff, perhaps because the results are so finite, so intimate, as opposed to huge, messy life itself. There’s a prismatic clarity in each contained space, especially when the light shines in through an open door, as in this Thorne interior.

An exquisite detail. Come closer. Closer.

We saw a piece today at the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, Untitled (Glass House) by Thermon Statum, which shows how intimate transparency can be.

Sometimes it’s good to come down from out of the clouds and take a much closer look at life.

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice, Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. Now that’s good advice.

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Rock steady baby

sang the Queen of Soul, back in the day.

Why am I so attracted to the desert’s blasted, the desiccated, the half dead?

The mistletoe hanging on for dear life to the tree no longer alive.

Zombie cacti.

The juicy rind left behind.

Mysterious fissures.

Perhaps because in the tiniest organisms you see the pulse of life.

The exquisite crucifiction thorn. I’m taking some prickers home with me in my thigh.

Chuparosa just barely emerging.

The rare lush places where a javelina might bed down.

New growth out of blight.

A glint of a tag. Someone bothered to tell what this is.

Brown’s Ranch Trailhead was once Brown’s Ranch, you know. Brown’s Mountain a blunt force in the distance.

Stories so old they’re almost forgotten.

Saguaro skeletons litter the landscape.

Sloughed off skin. The ribs, once strong enough to hold up thousands of pounds of flesh.

Now forlorn.

Tough, ancient, tenacious seed pods.

And then, of course, the scatter of granite. Rock steady.

Volcanic outcroppings everywhere you look.

Solemn. Dull. Glittering, gorgeous.

Above it all a tiny, nameless twittering.

What are you? I don’t know. I can’t remember.

Just a stone.

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