Memory lane has no potholes.

A trip to see a large old tree, rotten to the core, in my capacity as a member of my village’s Tree Board, led me to the neighborhood where I grew up. In fact, it stands right across the street from my childhood home.

That street served as my madeleine during this visit. Indulge me, recalling the cocky sprite that I was.

As T.S. Eliot said, We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

As I explored I felt awash in memories, each one a bead on a string, recalling experiences that seemed so important when I was growing up, forgotten until now.

The woods where we raked our teeth over birch twigs, relishing the taste of wintergreen.

The curb at the corner where a kid confessed he was sweet on me.

The stucco steep-roofed house, the abode of a witch in my imagination.

The street just over the line in the next town, so near and yet impossibly foreign. An early introduction to the concept of borders.

The house inhabited by my neighbors the Quinns, family of a friend we would now call “learning disabled,” dancing on her lawn to the strains of Dylan’s song Quinn the Eskimo. Yes, I know that Manfred Mann had the hit.

The Andersons’ substantial abode, and it was always a marvel that they rolled out fresh sod to replace the grass each spring.

Our house, with the long shadow of an oak in whose hollow I built houses out of acorns and twigs, now seemingly inhabited by hoarders.

Clapboard across the way, where we knew a friends’ mother was chronically “depressed,” without the slightest inkling of what that meant.

Our neighbors, whose son a jock I never conversed with but who always seemed to my teenage heart the most perfect physical specimen.

A beautifully landscaped property with massive rhododendrons – we’d sneak in and it was always totally, mysteriously desolate of humans.

A house in which lived friends whose mother and father were both, incredibly to me, doctors, and where I almost jumped out of my skin at a slumber party viewing of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

A household perfectly of the times in which the parents smoked pot and the daughters had sex with their boyfriends.

Site of teenage friend’s sudden death by cerebral aneurysm – I remember the oddest thing, that his mother used to bake a ham and leave it on the counter for visitors to consume.

The family whose house I cleaned as a maid for a day until I was asked to scrub the toilets, whereupon I quit.

The sledding hill where I stayed out so long I peed in my snowsuit.

The horse chestnut tree whose glossy conkers in their spiky green suits were the object of my fascination.

The old stone pumphouse, now defunct, with a tar roof that served as a gathering place and fort.

Memories, some of them sweet, others not so much. But they’re mine. You have your own – draw a map of your childhood street and see where it takes your imagination. Know the place for the first time. Yes.

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Little paths wind through

the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The sprawling 281-acre park was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1872 and still represents a great refuge if the crush of the metropolis (ha ha, crush? In Boston? I guess it’s all relative) begins to get to you. Of course we took the quiet, meandering little Beech Path.

There are indeed majestic beeches here. Some have their root zones cordoned off, to keep would-be vandals away from the tempting, gleaming silver bark.

Rene had obviously snuck in at some earlier time and made his mark. Or her mark. Or their mark. Whomever the culprit might be in this gender-fluid age.

The leaves of the copper beech positively glow.

A massive pin oak displays its new leaves with their deeply cut nodes.

Elsewhere, Beacon Street in Boston proper is thick with flourishing white oaks, whose leaves’ curves always remind me of old fashioned doilies. Along the venerable trolley tracks we also see plenty of green ash, with some of the urban forest in poor shape. The city began a tree inventory in Spring 2021 and vowed to examine all of its ash population to determine which ones had suffered depredation from emerald ash borer. Which ones could be saved and treated with the possibility of survival, and which would have to go. Looks like it’s more than about time to render this assessment. When city planners put these ash specimens in the soil many years ago, no one knew what would happen to them – it was imagined they would just keep on growing forever, not be felled by a lowly beetle. But, as is well known, stuff happens. We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us, said E.M. Forster.

Despite its moniker other trees also share the Arboretum’s Beech Path grove with the beeches. Eastern pines.

A Norway spruce, bristling with cones.

The fragrance that comes off the ground is reminiscent of happy camping summers. I’m ready to roll out a sleeping bag right here! Life is just one ecstasy after another, said Margaret Anderson, the publisher who founded The Little Review, early on in another century, famous for publishing Pound and Elliott when no one else thought the greats were any great shakes.

Rhododendron claims top honors among the Arboretum’s scented flowers right at the moment.

Azalea for color.

Compared with me, a tree is immortal wrote Sylvia Plath, And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,/

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Lilac, the favorite of grannies and granny wannabe’s, is still in bloom.

Sitting on a log, we speak of things that matter, with people we don’t get to see that often. Also of things that don’t matter at all. Under the trees, all that really matters is that we are here, now, with each other.

Wrote Ezra Pound:

…whatever comes

One hour was sunlit and the most high gods

May not make boast of any better thing

Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

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Today is the finest day of the season

and possibly of the year, and maybe in the history of the world, and I am going for a walk with my friend Barbara, an author, the type of person who can use the word lyrical in a sentence and get away with it.

I always like the Lyndhurst estate, acres of lawn and statuesque trees surrounding a faux castle once belonging to robber baron Jay Gould.

The dogwoods dazzle. Some people find the pink ones too garish.

 I would agree that the white blossoms appear more classic.

Note: dogwood flowers are really not flowers at all, but bracts, a kind of leaf. When the cherries and apples and redbuds have faded and the dogwoods step up, I am glad to have the last pink trees of the season.

The weeping copper beech has not yet leafed out. It shows its bones,  a ruddy red.

In her intricate book about the beech, Casting Deep Shade, C.D. Wright tells us that the druids grew wise eating their nuts. And that in dreams, the tree signifies both wisdom and death.

I love the inscribed bark of the trunk, the place of bold identity statements and love proclamations.

Another senescent one on the estate  had to go, and its fulsome branches lay tumbled in the sparkling sunlight.

Magnolia shows no sign of blossoms to come, now all waxy leaves.

We enter the private drawing room of a gargantuan old linden.

Its heart shaped leaves so delicate against the sturdy old branches.

Everything smells incredible. The lilacs. Lilac wafts on air beautifully, though its syrupy scent is somehow a bit chemical. I remember a bank of lilacs that towered over  a lawn near a cabin we lived in when we first were married, taking it for granted, believing that around every corner would stand a bank of lilacs.

We inhale the fresh cut grass. That classic smell, which seems like simplicity itself, is actually an airborne mix of carbon-based compounds called green leaf volatiles, or GLVs. Plants often release these molecules when bruised by insects, infections or mechanical forces — like a lawn mower. GLVs are small enough to take to the air and float into our nostrils, and sometimes they can be detected more than a mile from the place where they originated.

I’m not big on lawns, but experts estimate that there are something like 40 million acres manicured grass across the United States, and mowing becomes our best chance to encounter that incredible smell. According to scientists, people who live near tea plantations in China might get the same feeling from the scent of the tea harvest.

The only aroma to rival that of cut grass is petrichor, the cool word for the way the earth smells after it rains.

The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, and it also has a scientific basis, derived as it is from when chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are released. These aromatic compounds combine to create the pleasant petrichor scent when rain hits the ground. Related, at least in terms of glossing some of the finer points of rain, the Japanese have a word, potsupotsu, that describes the sporadic raindrops that you see (or feel) when it is just about to start raining.

Now that’s lyrical.

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The thing about Arbor Day

is that while for most folks it’s about planting a few symbolic trees, its reach is immense.

I attended a celebratory event in White Plains on April 29, at Highlands Middle School, produced by the White Plains Beautification Foundation, a group that believes “the beautification of our City lifts the spirits of all who live here, work here, or who are just passing through.” What grinch could argue with that?

Babies bounced.

Gentlemen gave the proceedings their undivided attention.

The ceremony included remarks by White Plains’ mayor and the commissioner of public works, and also a speaker subbing for the school’s principal in his absence (he had something more pressing to do?). The jazz band stepped up, after the requisite teenage hair styling.

Everyone in a fine mood on this chilly April afternoon. Even the stalwart edifice of the school building received its share of compliments from the podium.

The grounds seemed to have been prepped for the occasion, with bright and shining pink-blooming trees all around. Is it my imagination, or is this the finest spring on record for springtime tree flash?

Two trees were already in the ground, so no one had to get their shoes muddy: an eastern red cedar and a black gum, one dedicated to a beloved teacher nicknamed Mr. Bill and the other to a generous-minded graduate of the school district who owns a successful auto body shop in the city.

My colleague George Profous, a genius forester with the New York State Department of Conservation, attended. We cochair a committee for a group called ReLeaf, whose purpose is to educate and advocate for trees.

There are too many Arbor Day functions around the lower Hudson Valley for George to visit all of those whose municipalities he has assisted, but his presence here was gratefully acknowledged.

Finally, a literary contribution, from student and no-doubt future Certified Arborist Olivia Tuzel.

She had clearly put a lot of time and thought into the subject.

Trees, what more could they be?

Oxygen providers, contributors to cozy fires

And perhaps nothing more than suppliers

Within the grained surface, lies more than what we see

But our greed envelops our cravings, blinding us from an everlasting fee…

And so on, for six meaningful stanzas.

I liked the last one.

All we need is devotion and effort to bring change

Along with a little bit of hope

So that future generations can tell their children,

“No need to fret, that part of our past lies only as an educational anecdote.”

In 1882, the first American Forestry Congress convened in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, in conjunction with the first National Arbor Day tree planting, attended by 25,000 people. Saplings named for prior U.S. presidents got planted, their roots moistened by children wielding watering cans.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” runs the Chinese proverb. “The second best time is now.” 

How else to address the macro issue of climate change? Start on a micro scale. Plant a tree. Even a tiny seedling contributes to reforestation. It seems every organization is putting a million, a billion, a trillion trees in the ground, an impulse that serves as a poetic if not totally logical reaction to the recession of actual forest lands. I know New York is beefing up its already ambitious arboricultural effort. The ever-worthy Arbor Day Foundation has fostered the planting of nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world.

Even the Girl Scouts (or of course the Girl Scouts?) have climbed on the bandwagon, pledging that they will plant five million trees in five years. Middle-schoolers track the trees they plant on line to earn a Girl Scout Tree Promise patch.

Arbor Day can be every day – at least in the cool weather of spring or fall. So go ahead, get your shoes muddy.

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A felicitous and unexpected event

took place on Ellis Island. That’s my favorite kind of event, don’t know about you. A duck took it into her head to create a new family in an abandoned enclosed courtyard.

We have a few of these areas in the ruined hospital complex: semicircular, small spaces where patients would have been encouraged to go in order to take some fresh air. Back in the day.

Now the lovely little courtyards are crumbling, of course, and trees grow up out of the once manicured ground. Nice installation here by the French artist J.R. Perhaps not well known in America but applauded throughout the rest of the world as a photo-graffeur, J.R. wheat-pastes enlarged archival images on windows and walls. At Ellis, they lend a piquant magic to the surroundings.

How do ducks decide where to lay their eggs? Do ducks even think about it? By the way, how did a clutch of 11 eggs fit inside the womb of so diminutive a creature? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sometimes I feel like a teenager just learning about the world. And that’s something, for a wizened old woman like me. Always surprises, all around.

At Ellis Island, if you can tear your vision away from the scorching views of the lady in the harbor there are many other revelatory experiences to be had. Openings into other worlds.

But this one was not expected. I couldn’t see the mama duck, to begin with, she hid herself so well, even though I was told by a fellow Educator that she was in fact there. Then one day she appeared, and not only that, her eggs had hatched. If you know anything about ducks, you know that their eggs take about 30 days to incubate and that you should never under any circumstances try to relocate the nest, even a short distance, as the maternal progenitor might not recognize it as her own and fly the coop.

Ultimately eight brawny, uniformed members of the Parks Service came in with two by fours and built a ramp so that the mother duck could march up and out with her brood of ducklings (aka a waddle of ducklings). We’ve got it under control, the head of the team told me, a serious look on his handsome face.

Ellis is well known for processing immigrants, less famous for hosting wildlife. However, animals are abundant here, from feral cats and abandoned dogs to raccoons, a bewildered fox, geese, gulls and falcons. Also rats of course. I am hoping not to meet a raccoon on one of my tours. The critters all cross the secret bridge from Jersey, just as I do, and then I guess they like this habitat, or else they don’t know how to leave. The fowl arrive by water or air, of course.

Secrets and surprises are my favorite things. Something else I like, making mistakes. It’s humbling, and that’s how I grow.

Apparently the lady mallard nests in the same courtyard every year. The new family has to be helped out and led along the damp dank dark corridors of the contagious disease hospital to safety. And they made it.

Hooray. Nature triumphs over adversity, with a little help from burly humans. Good to know. Just watch out for hungry foxes.

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Weedy but wonderful redbud

buds out at the end of April-early May, strutting its stuff alongside highways and abandoned roads. Then it explodes into bloom. There are a few I pass going to and from Ellis Island, in Liberty State Park.

No one pays them any mind.

But the tree also plays well with others, at home in a civilized suburban yard, behind a chainlink fence.

I love this specimen because of the magical way its blossoms stray from the expected place, bursting forth straight out of the bark on its branches and trunk, like the one I caught alongside a busy street in Austin. The botanical term for this habit is “cauliflory,” and I think I like it because it is just so preposterous.

Redbud’s fuchsia is a color unparalleled in nature. Soon it will have heart-shaped leaves.

Ezra Pound wrote of “petals on a wet dark bough.”

That’s redbud, ravishing and ephemeral. Just like spring.

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My father fell for an orchid

late in life. It was a simple series of white flowers on a stem, nothing fancy, yet he insisted that it accompany him from the hospital to his room in the Care Center. A friend had brought it as a gift, and it somehow spoke to him, he who had never had a thought for plants earlier in his life. Orchids can be magical.

The ones at the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show practically knocked me to the ground.

I was lulled by the piped-in yoga-class soundtrack. Then reawakened again and again by the five greenhouses’ worth of tropical specimens.

How can something be unique yet generic, astoundingly beautiful yet ho-hum, run of the mill? That was my honest assessment of the oxymoronic goods on hand.

The orchids went on and on.

Moth orchids, ghost orchids, slipper orchids, rainbow orchids. Moonlit orchids, which attract nocturnal pollinators, and are also especially fragrant by the light of the moon.



Ever so slightly obscene.

A bit of TMI, thank you very much.

Easy on the signage, New York Botanical Garden horticulturalists! Sometimes I prefer my facts optional, at least when viewing the natural world.

I found myself admiring other living beings in the vicinity, anything not obviously pretty, the ones with thorns, like the South American floss-silk tree.

Or the non-orchid plant that that presented itself in an extraordinary, almost indescribable shade of green – a jade vine, it grows only in the Philippines.

I was drawn to the womb of a tunnel that connected parts of the exhibit.

And my fellow visitors clicking, clicking, clicking, intent on capturing the essence of a particular flower. Human beings, cameras, nature, always fascinating. Note: it is impossible to take a bad picture of an orchid.

Outside, the catkins dangled from the April birch.

A prickly sweetgum seedpod lay nestled in the grass beneath its parent, a sweetgum tree not yet leafed out.

And the equally prickly human being waiting on our bench for the next tram.

The orchids are always going to be splendiferous, whether they come from the supermarket or the Enid Haupt Conservatory show. The ones I saw today made me realize how exquisite everything else is, too.


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My own personal cherry tree

may not be the biggest or the buffest, but it is the best because I see it outside my office window every day.

It grows outside the municipal building in our village. I’ve been looking forward to the moment it blooms.

The cherry trees are not the only ones to boast the perfection of spring – window box planters down the street are filled with blooms so perfect they look like they’re not even real.

Why is it that trees that weep make us happy? Weeping willows, weeping beeches. I know that it is the pendulant cherry trees which I like the best.

In Branch Brook Park, in Newark, New Jersey, 5,200 white and pink trees burst into bloom at approximately the same time in April. That’s more than they have in D.C., and quite a bit closer to home, so we thought we’d go for a look. First, fortify with a “belly buster” hot dog from JJ’s food truck, the finest New Jersey has to offer in that department.

Clouds of blossoms appear everywhere you look. The park received its first cherry trees, called sakura in Japan, as a gift in 1927.

Branch Brook is an urban park. Roads cut through it, creating an interesting counterpoint between the natural, graceful trees and the hard-edged automotive energy. Reminds me of Central Park in Manhattan, probably because the hills and dales and automotive conduits were designed by Olmsted Brothers, the successors to Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind Central Park’s greenscapes.

Picnics under every tree. The Japanese call the practice of imbibing under a blooming sakura hanam, and the tradition goes back centuries, to the Heian period (794–1185).

Part of the modern tradition, posing for pictures.

Quilts of dandelions dot the lawns.

If you look closely, what I consider perhaps the cherry tree’s best feature: Its lenticel-scored bark. That’s how it breathes.

Cherry trees are not universally cherished.

I knew that protesters had chained themselves to cherry trees in a park on the lower east side, on Manhattan’s East River, so I went to have a look. NYC is shoring up the edge of the island to make it more flood-resistant, to the tune of $1.4 billion, and the sakuras, among others, would have to go. This conflict has to do with what needs to be taken away to achieve the city’s goal. Protesters are having none of it.

Taking the footbridge over the FDR to Corlears Hook Park,  I saw the classic sneakers hung over a wire –a practice whose meaning has been disputed. Gang activity, loss of virginity, mere hijinks?

In this case, it did not indicate anything positive. Everything had been bulldozed, everything was gone.

Early Saturday morning, a pair of protesters were charged with criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration. The city plans to cut down 1,000 trees for the project. The irony of cutting down trees to fight climate change was not lost on protesters. It’s a tough call, certainly.

Back home, my own personal tree, the weeping sakura, though small, stood tall.

I felt fortunate that it wasn’t going anyplace anytime soon.

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It seems they wouldn’t know a sycamore

from a sasquatch.

Peoples’ lack of knowledge about tree species comes as something of a surprise as I begin to lead tours at Ellis Island. It has dozens of mature sycamores lining a landscaped lawn just in front of the main immigration building, as well as elsewhere in the complex of 29 buildings.

Pose the question, Do you know what tree this is, and everyone draws a blank. That provides a good opportunity for me to natter on about the cream-and-brown camouflage bark, how these amazing trees grow, how impervious they are to difficult natural conditions, how old they can get. Five hundred years, I have read, though I doubt it. These are somewhere under a century old.

Elegant, substantial, even hearty. Yes, some have seen better days. Some have been cared for better than others.

There are always surprises on Ellis.

Bagpipers assembled today to celebrate Scottish-American Heritage Month.

It created a nice musical accompaniment to the opening of my tour, in which I introduce myself as a proud product of Ellis Island, having a grandfather who came to America as a child in 1900, fresh off a Polish shtetl, with nothing but five dollars in his hand. The sight of the Statue of Liberty out a hospital window would have been a surprise, even a revelation to him.

Sycamores are often called plane trees – they belong to the genus Platanus, an ancient kind of flowering tree with fossils confirming it to be at least 100 million years old. The American sycamore is Platanus occidentalis, but there are other recognizable versions, including the London plane tree that clots the sidewalks of its namesake city, yes, but also New York City. Somewhat confusingly, the London plane is a hybrid, Platanus x acerfolia, a cross between Platanus occidentalis and Platanus orientalis. I’ve heard it said that the two species sort of randomly commingled in the back yard of a London botanist some time in a previous century, but that would appear to be myth. Somebody, surely, intentionally crossed the two kinds — maybe Dickens? He knew everything about everything.

Another Ellis surprise – to me – came when I asked the guard at her post on the New Jersey end of the 400-yard back door bridge to the Island how she liked her view of the daffodils in front of her window.

Oh, is that what you call them? she asked in perfect English. I didn’t know! I texted my friend to say what’s with these crazy yellow flowers? She said to send her a pic.

Yes, they are daffodils, blooming in profusion everyplace In Liberty State Park, along the Turnpike, in our Westchester yards. Everywhere. Daffodils. New life.

The London plane tree was planted throughout London during the Industrial Revolution and it proved to be astonishingly good at thriving in the soot and smoke.

Some have called the sycamore the buttonwood tree, a name deriving from the seed balls that bounce from its branches. The terms of the New York stock exchange were hammered out in the shade of a buttonwood tree down on Wall Street in 1792. Yes, totally true story. Okay.

More current, and definitely more accurate, the trees in front of the immigration station were designated Ellis Island Sycamores in 1987 in honor of the Bicentennial of the United States constitution. At that time, the ruined, abandoned historic facility had been taken in hand, cleared of trees, poison ivy and squatters. The Guastavino ceiling tiles had been polished, buffed and restored. The landmark was about ready to receive its hundreds upon hundreds of tourists and ancestry-seekers. Welcome! Now, we care for our trees.

I have not yet established when these particular sycamores took root here. But they lend a calm and stolid presence to the many people bustling by in the quest for their own roots. The sycamores and the daffodils. Let us name them.


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Spring, season of music and madness,

is here. And magic. Trees are still budding out, but in planters on the street flowers bloom.

At Hekate, a “sober bar” on Manhattan’s lower east side, there is a little of all three.

The music is the band Maputi, with Nora Balaban on the mbira, Banning Eyre on guitar and Rima Fand playing violin. Traditional Zimbabwean rhythms, lulling, hypnotic. Trance music.

The magic, served up by a witchy wench of a bartender, consists of elixirs designed to elevate your mood.

I find The Healer refreshing enough to quaff in one gulp: Apothekary’s Blue Me Away, lemonade, seltzer and lavender simple syrup. Don’t try this at home. Or if you do, make sure you invite me over.

The madness? That would come at 1 pm, 7 days a week, when the wannabe druids “gather to listen to the trees” at Corlears Hook Park on the East River. “They are smarter than us! They have been here longer!”

But is that really so crazy? I’d like to join the assembly with a Healer in a thermos and Maputi rocking my earbuds.

Spring. It’s here.

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Geez, only bluebonnets are in bloom!

was my first thought upon entering the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

 Not true though.

It’s only that they have such a massive presence everywhere you look.

Other flowers also are poking up.

Most of them I don’t know by name, though the garden is if anything overboard with its signage. Now even I can recognize coral honeysuckle.

I know what I like. The shy kind of blooms. I feel that way sometimes too.

Trees flowering also. Mexican plum.

Other fetching amusements. Tiny lily pads in a discreet little pond. Tiny tadpoles, soon to be tiny frogs.

A hobbit door for children, unfortunately not open for visitors small or big at the moment.

Something else wonderful, a gazebo that has benches of repurposed wood, with each of the boards labeled. Live oak, harvested from Dell Medical School campus in Austin.

You can run your hand along the grain and know the tree that gave it to you.

Sculptures of wildlife dot the woodland trails.

This forest is wonderful, private, shady. A massive post oak.

But you always come back to the native beds.

What is the name of those wonderful flowers? Who cares? The air has a syrupy sweetness. There’s mountain laurel.

A few monarchs already float by, though many more will come to this pollinator sanctuary. I rest on a bench, and something tickles the back of my neck. Oh, wouldn’t you know, Anacardiaceae, in the sumac family. Should’ve recognized ya.

I’m leaving to fly home to New York, but will definitely come back when the beds are a riot of color.

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Here is what happened.

First off, seedlings are available at 79.95 a pop. They’re rare. They’re historic. They’re cool.

The story of their parentage goes back a ways.

Let’s start with the more recent history. A crazy guy in Austin was spurned by his would-be lover under a gracious old Southern live oak that stood downtown amid all the glass high-rise buildings. It happened in 1989. He took revenge by poisoning the tree, injecting it with the powerful herbicide Velpar—actually the amount that would kill 100 trees. The tree nearly died. A crew of arborists came together to save the magnificent specimen, bankrolled by Ross Perot (and aided with the unheralded expertise of tree company Bartlett, it is said). Dupont, manufacturer of Velpar, offered a 10,000-dollar reward to find the culprit. The crazy guy, who confessed he had been trying to cast a spell on his counselor at a local methadone clinic, went to jail for nine years for this heinous act (he’s now deceased).

The Treaty Oak, as it is known, still stands, surrounded by a protective metal chain.

It’s hard to kill an icon.

Just leafing out.

In the Lone Star State things are immense, and the Treaty Oak is no exception. Sturdy, husky, stout of trunk. Still, almost two-thirds of the tree went to tree heaven.

The story stretches back. The Treaty Oak had already stood for a century before Columbus landed in the New World, according to current estimates. The Comanches and the Tonkawas met in its sacred shade to hammer out agreements. Thirteen other equally magnificent oaks stood nearby, in a grove now called the Council Oaks. Legend holds that women of the Teias tribe would drink a tea made from honey and the acorns of these oaks to ensure the safety of warriors in battle. Dances performed there, war councils commenced, etc. Important stuff.

Also it is said that Sam Houston rested beneath the Treaty Oak after his expulsion from the Governor’s office (look it up).

In 1927, the city of Austin purchased the tree from a local family for 1,000 dollars. That same year, the tree obtained national status as the most perfect example of a North American tree, and was entered into the National Forestry’s Hall of Fame. Downtown surges all around it.

So many years passed. The Treaty Oak nearly perished, as we have seen. The intensive efforts to save the historic, even mythical tree included applications of sugar to the root zone, replacement of soil around its roots. the installation of a system to mist the tree with spring water. Although the more negative-minded expected the tree to die, the Treaty Oak survived.

Finally, in 1997, this legend once again bore acorns. Hence the 79.95 dollar saplings. “The creation of a thousand forests,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is in one acorn.” A Texas company called Legendary Trees markets youngsters along with the offspring of 10 other famous trees, including Texas A&M University’s Century Tree (the most popular one, reports the company), Comanche’s Fleming Oak and New Braunfels’ Church Oak.

What would make a man, even a crazy guy, poison a tree?

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Life being somewhat complicated and challenging

at times, it is awfully good to focus on the basics: coffee, tacos, and dogs. Fortunately there is an abundance of all three in Austin, Texas, where I happen to be sojourning for several days. I knew good things were in store when I spotted the taco food truck actually inside the airport terminal. It was 11pm and the place was hopping. The millennials seemed all to be heading back from Las Vegas.

Nothing too weird yet, but I feel something could be about to spring up.

Until then, got a jump on the caffeine thing with a cosmic coffee, a spring specialty at Maud’s favorite joint that pairs cold brew with Mexican vanilla, orange honey and oat milk. Pretty decent. Next time might go for the root beer latte.

Texas mountain laurels have just come into bloom and it seems every little old fashioned bungalow has one out front.

The western redbuds are popping too.


Now a latte and a stop at the Korean nail salon. The man getting a gel manicure next to me wants it to be known that he is getting a special design on each of his pinkies: a peace sign rendered in yellow and blue.

Not quite a Rothko, but very much in keeping with the spirit of the times.

Canines run free in the dog park except when they pause awaiting the flight of a ragged tennis ball.

I wish our lives had the simplicity of Fetch under the live oaks. Everyone here wears flip flops, so I got a pair. Ahhh, instantaneous simplicity.

Are you hungry yet? You’re in luck.

Criispy pork belly tacos with fried parsley and mandarin orange pico.

Extra fat included at no charge. Fingers are for licking.

Two of my favorites come intermixed in a dirty horchata–horchata and coffee, silly. You knew that.

Home again, home again. Baths and naps all around. The simple life.

No freak show.

Perhaps that will come later. It is Austin, after all. I feel we’re just gearing up.

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The ghosts of immigrants past

congregate volubly at Ellis Island for those who would pay attention.

Some fortunate people enter through a back door bridge from Liberty State Park in New Jersey rather than the tried and true ferry.

If you insist on visiting the Statue of Liberty, fine. I’ve seen her enough and I’ll probably never scale the heights to the torch, even if it reopens. At Ellis Island there’s a nifty view of the Lady of the Harbor’s back.

But there’s a lot I find more thrilling. It’s good to stoke up with a humous and kale sandwich in a café thronged with high school students. Check out the ho-hum view out an ordinary window. Just the Freedom Tower, up close and personal.

But nothing at Ellis Island is ho-hum for long. The high-ceilinged, well-refurbished, shiny Great Hall offers a view of how some of our ancestors arrived in America. One in four of us, in fact, have some tie to an immigrant who arrived here on Ellis.

If you take the Hard Hat Tour on the unrestored south side of the island, be prepared for a different view.

And this is why I love it. You can feel the presence of the past. The walls breathe magic.

There are 29 structures on the south side that have long since fallen into ruin, and lucky visitors get to go behind the scenes and see it all. The fantastic organization Save Ellis Island raises funds to restore the complex, and there is a long way to go. In the meantime, being there means immersion in a fever dream.

These were all hospital buildings, constructed in the most up-to-date manner, with proper ventilation.

Our guide points overhead to where the nurses lodged, in a bunk room we are not now permitted to enter because of its fragile state.

It was a mandate that all nurses be single. There were four female doctors on the premises as well. But the story becomes largely about nurses and the children they cared for, in addition to the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases, the problems that detained so many immigrants here until they could be released into the general population.

We are introduced to a nurses’s station, long disappeared.

Then and now. A sick ward—can you imagine it?

Here is a visual aid.

A French artist named JR created blown-up images from photos taken at Ellis in its heyday, then wheat-pasted installations throughout.

This was the era’s version of a psych ward. Spooky.

American sycamores across the site received the designation “Ellis Island Sycamores” in 1987 to honor the Bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, and their seeds are now being propagated. It’s said some of these trees get to be 500 years old. The name is derived from the Greek sukomoros, a type of fig native to the Mediterranean. The leaves of the sycamore resemble fig leaves.

Here on the south side of the island, the practices of arboriculture need a bit of attention. Pruning shears, anyone?

I would like to offer my attention. And in fact I plan to spend much more time among the ghosts of Ellis Island as an Educator, leading these Hard Hat Tours. I can’t wait.


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Victoria Woodhull for president!

I really think her time has come. Finally.

“They cannot roll back the rising tide of reform,” she said. “The world moves.”

Yes, she had her problems. She was born into an abusive household on the rural Ohio frontier, one of 10 children, and didn’t start elementary school until the age of 8. Her mother was a mystic-spiritualist, her father a snake-oil salesman. When she was all of 15 she married a doctor named Canning Woodhull who drank and cheated on her. When she left him she kept their two young children and his name.

She led a lot of lives. As a young woman she worked as a traveling clairvoyant, teaming with her sister Tennessee Claflin to tell fortunes and contact spirits, offering cures for deathly diseases, selling elixirs, giving massages. Tennessee was her much younger sister and known to all as Tennie.

Jump ahead a few years. Woodhull married again, to a Colonel James Harvey Blood. She and Tennessee became the first female brokers on Wall Street. Railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, said to be Tennessee’s lover, backed the two sisters in Woodhull, Claflin&Co. They netted $700,000 during the gold panic of 1869.

Woodhull became an ardent suffragist. She testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1871 that female Americans actually already held the right to vote based on the recently enacted 14th and 15th enactments. She was now a star among those who advocated “woman’s rights.”

When she ran for president  — she was not yet 35 — she did so on a platform of women’s suffrage, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, abolition of the death penalty, among other issues. Her weekly newspaper, Woodhull&Claflin’s Weekly, propelled her into the public eye, and she organized an Equal Rights Party, which held a convention in 1872 and nominated her.

Though Frederick Douglass was named as Woodhull’s running mate, he never accepted and in fact campaigned for Ulysses Grant. Her name appeared on the ballots in some states, but apparently the votes were never counted. Her paper was the first to publish an English translation of The Communist Manifesto.

What did she do next? Using the news, promoted a national scandal by exposing preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer. Beecher’s supporters lashed back, claiming that the newspaper amounted to obscene material sent through the mail. The sisters were ultimately found not guilty. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe called Woodhull an “impudent witch.”

She was no prude. In fact, she promoted free love on the lecture circuit, also saying that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies.

“Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week,” she wrote.

She wound up in England, where she met her third husband, ran another newspaper, worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors and became a car enthusiast before there were many on the road. Forever in the vanguard.

She also ran for President of the United States – again, in 1892. She had a lot of energy.

Susan B. Anthony had a bone to pick: “Both sisters are regarded as lewd and indecent,” she wrote in a letter.

Portrait of American feminist reformer Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838 – 1927), the first woman to run for US president from a nationally recognized ticket as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872, 1870s. Claflin Woodhull, along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin, was also one of the first female stock brokers on Wall Street as the cofounder of the brokerage firm Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She was ahead of her time, and we love her. She also knew her way around a hat.

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