A sentimental lemur

is welcome on a sentimental afternoon, a day for choosing and cutting and a putting up a Christmas tree, the sooner the better, the day after Thanksgiving.

The tree farm we patronize offers many types, making it hard to decide.

But we go for the concolor fir, just because we’ve done that before. That’s sentimentality. There’s a guy who concurs, “It’s nice and soft and smells good.”

Driving north we listen to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, their brilliant album from 1963. At one time I thought of those guys as old fogeys. The very thought of you makes my heart sing… That’s sentimental. I remember first hearing the album 30 years ago in Laurel Canyon, with a gas-powered fireplace and sky-high eucalyptus trees outside that smelled like cat piss. Looking back on a joyful winter so long ago, that’s sentimental.

It used to be that people went into the forest to collect their trees, until around the 1930s. This is the agricultural alternative. Less sentimental, but sentimental enough the way we do it now.

The day is wet, with sloughs of mud. Remember the time we came before, with my brother and his girlfriend, and everything that happened then…That’s sentimental.

It’s all we can do not to take the first tree we see.

This specimen certainly looks perfect enough. There are perfect trees all over, and some that will someday be perfect.

The shop is a bounty of sentimentality, families and dogs.

And ornaments. Something for everyone.

That one has my name on it. The lemur. Of course. There is a myth that the ornament you like was made for you, or the tree you choose is perfect for you, almost that it was grown all those years with you in mind. Our choice has been pruned back for so many years it’s ridiculous.

But then I’m a bit ridiculous too. And sentimental to a fault.

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There are plenty of majestic trees

at Hemlock Hill Farm, but none that I could see was a Tsuga.

Hemlock Hill has been in business since 1939, and there was probably a hemlock or two around then. While the farm reigns supreme as the local purveyor of natural Thanksgiving turkeys, there are other reasons to pay a visit when the holidays come.

Why is the day before the event so much sweeter than the event itself? The lull before the storm, the eye of the hurricane, the bated breath before the first kiss. The moment before the bride steps into the aisle. When you’re a kid, the time you get ready before a big dance. Or any dance. Anticipation. It’s also before any family feuds erupt, before anything goes wrong. (Like the time the crisp golden turkey slipped out of our hands onto the kitchen floor at my cousin’s apartment. Whoops!)

Tomorrow is meat, potatoes, stuffing and pie. Today is what takes you there. A crowd at the farm.

A duo belting out Landslide. Pretty well, too. A nice show and the song brings back memories of my daughter’s fourth grade play performance.

Corny decorations. I don’t lean that way at home but I like to see them here.

The farm’s herd, probably some august variety. All I know is that they are very handsome and that I purchase some of their beef in the farm store. Along with the farm’s pork and goat meat.

You used to be able to go back around the barn and see the turkeys that had not yet been slaughtered doing their anxious turkey trot on the sawdust. No longer. Today a sweet-faced Valentina rings up a pre-ordered bird.

And now, do you want to carry that like you hold a baby? she asks.

Yes. Yes to the turkey, to Valentina, to hemlocks and other trees big and small, and to the bated breath that precedes every delicious thing.

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Who’s to say if something’s beautiful?

The construction worker exclaimed over the beauty of a tree, which I explained was a Chinese elm. I agree with him one hundred percent. Wrote down the name for him to look up later.

The early afternoon cloud hanging dopily in a haze of blue, framed in the side view. Lovely.

The sprawling city sunset. It hits you with a bang. You almost want it to be over, the beauty makes you feel so small.

The awesomeness  of small stitched things, the things people overlook, like a sampler created in 1795 in Philadelphia by a teenaged seamstress named Mary Jones.

The perfect limestone posterior of an ancient Venus figurine the Metropolitan is lucky enough to own. Someone once carved it, held its power in his hand.

A delicate rainbow after a storm. Even the least corny people would find it beautiful.

A leaf mosaic, one of a billion in the world yet individual as a snowflake. You could lie under that and meditate for hours.

This post is what we call “list-y” around my house, which means you just throw things in before they’re fully worked out in the writer’s brain. List-y is usually a placeholder, nothing finished.

 Yet it might inspire you to make your own list of beautiful things. Let me know if you do.


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Late fall has come

to the Grand Concourse. Honey locust has shed its leaves, Zelkova has gone gold. And the oaks are finally having their moment.

Their moment may be browner than the others but it strikes me as majestic anyway.

Cruising the site, I see something astonishing. New York has sent a team to tidy up the tree pits, from the City Cleanup Corps, through which thousands of residents are working to beautify public spaces, at $15 an hour. Same as McDonald’s and better work, if you ask me.

Thank the god – or more likely, goddess – of tree pits! The work will move all the way from 175 Street to Fordham Road. There will be no more detritus, no glass panes burdening roots.

But will they leave anything behind? Probably. The butts.

Evidence of sidewalk camaraderie. Tree pits as a kind of mini-town square, graced by a beautiful living thing, leaves attached or fallen.

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Curious things abound

at Teatown, the 1,000-acre nature preserve in the Lower Hudson Valley, which is a good place to check out the region’s final splash of fall color. I used to live down the road. Lucky me.

Teatown is a great destination. But first we had to stop at Fable Farm, where Geoff is now selling the heirloom apples his cider mill is known for. He has four growers who get him cultivars you’ve never heard of. We like the ones with the venerable pedigree, such as like Ashmead’s Kernal, named after a doctor when it was first raised in 1750. Mustard-yellow, it has sandpapery skin and flesh with a perfumey bouquet.

Geoff himself recommends the Winecrisp.

A good substitute to the Honeycrisp, a lab rat apple patented in 1988, which everyone loves so much but has a tendency to easily bruise.

Teatown is a good place if you like rustic seating.

Ancient fallen logs. I’m sure something furry had just skipped out when I peeked in.

A lake trail just next to the glimmering water. Teatown trails are open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. What this says to me is that the teenagers that man the cash register for Geoff’s apples have a fantastic party location and the cops probably won’t run them off the way they did my friends and I in a wooded town back when.

Teatown also has some volunteers kind enough to warn you off the trail you should definitely not be on.

It’s interesting. Teatown’s woods are bursting at the seams now, a phenomenon courtesy of the pandemic, they say. The parking lots hold dozens of shiny new cars. But we asked ourselves, if Teatown was always here and always this beautiful, why was it never this crowded before?

Its burning bush (or some twin plant) has always been here in November.

The authorities have always tried to fend off marauding deer.

When we lived down the road the different factions in Ossining nearly came to blows over a plant to have sharpshooters in Teatown’s woods by night to cull the herd. There is now a small bow hunting program in place. Yet apparently the deer survive, from the looks of the saplings along the shore that have been planted in acrylic tubes. Good luck with that, Teatown.

What they need is a strongman to keep things in order.

Lovely was a word invented to describe Teatown.

I want to hear the wind whooshing in the fall branches again soon. And discover a new favorite. This time, with no one around, I admired a tree and stone so involved in their kiss they didn’t care who was taking the trails.

Something curious but not unexpected at Teatown.

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The Tree Conference rocked

or, should I say, treed.

For some reason I made up mind to teach a bit about writing to some really smart, environmentally knowledgeable folks who had probably excelled in forestry school and never gave much thought to putting pen to paper. They had most likely never studied with Elizabeth Hardwick or William Matthews or Denis Johnson, as I had (look them up). They might not feel the joy in writing (or having written) that I did. Or they might. We would see.

My workshop at the Society of Munipal Arborists ( a name change will likely come soon as the existing one is a bit stodgy for today’s world). I had 13 students. A nice tight group.

This is a tremendously exciting time for people passionate about all things green, as the government stands on the brink of allocating around 3 billion dollars for “tree equity” as part of the current $3.5 trillion spending bill. You could feel the crackle in the (rather stifling) air of the Galt House convention center in Louisville. As the legendary organization American Forests says, “Healthy forests are our pathway to slowing climate change and advancing social equity.” Arborists’ eyes are popping as they contemplate the possibilities for canopy expansion across the country. This is something that thrills us.

I wasn’t sure when I broached the idea of “Writing for the Trees” that anyone’s eyes would pop in my class. I gave everyone a yellow lined pad and a pen—more than any teacher has ever given me, I might add! We talked about the tools of the trade, even in the tree business, texting, email and longer form work, like proposals and reports.

We talked about grammar, which I don’t feel is the most important tool. Anyone can fix their grammar, but not everyone shares the same inspiration, the same heart as you. We talked about BITADs, the acronym around my house for bite-in-the-ass-details,  crucial to any great writing.

We talked about writer’s block.

I shared a quote from William Goldman: “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

And I had them write, with a series of prompts. I was pleasantly surprised that the moment I gave a suggestion for a writing exercise, pens hit paper and no one stopped scribbling until I gave the word 10 minutes later.

I asked the arborists to describe the first tree they remembered seeing, or a tree they currently have a strong connection to. On another note, they were asked to take a recent text on their phone and enlarge it into a story. We wrote about goals, what they were reaching for.

But I think my favorite exercise was the one in which they looked back to the first time they held someone’s hand. When I told my mother I was going to ask this of my class she said it was silly, “The first time anyone holds someone’s hand is when they’re a baby, and no one can remember that,” she opined. So they would have to be creative. I told them that I remembered being in summer camp when I was twelve and the bashful thrill of holding on to the hand of a golden-haired boy I liked there. The exercise got peoples’ juices flowing. When hands went up and students presented their work, two of them actually became choked up as they read. I got a bit verklempt as well. Something about Jamie sharing the story of his hand dangling from his father’s fingers as they walked when he was little was heart rending.

We talked about inspiration, where it comes from.

We talked about getting work about arboriculture out into the world, about how some contemporary authors (Richard Powers, Suzanne Simard, and others) have drawn wide popular audiences, and how that is an aspiration open to all, should they choose it.

What I didn’t mention, though I did tell about the nonfiction and fiction books I’ve already written – I have a proposal in the works, about halfway done, for a book currently called Heartwood: The Epic Battle Over America’s Forests.

You never know if a piece of writing will meet your expectations. All you can do is plow forward with the best intentions, put your whole self into it, choose some cool words and cross your fingers and toes. I hope that my arborist-students came away with a sense of that process and a desire to continue.

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Simply observe the fractals

said the woman schooled in forest bathing, midway through our tour of the trees of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Forest bathing sounds to me like a punchline.

Yet Instead of imbibing the 140 types of bourbon on the Galt House Hotel restaurant’s menu (that would come later, for some) we had embraced a different form of contemplation. The fall color here is much later here than home.

A lot of people on the tour already knew about forest bathing – these were attendees at the annual conference of the Society of Municipal Arborists, after all. But to relax your mind into the sumptuous urban forest of the cemetery was still a treat.

Hard to judge what was more spectacular, the trees or the funerary art.

For over 170 years, Cave Hill has interred members of the Louisville area. In 1848, it was founded as a rural cemetery, which meant that there was an irregular landscape – which you do notice today, as gauged by a lengthy walk along its winding roads, littered with leaves which howling leaf blowers had not yet blown away.

It became known in the mid-1800s as Louisville’s “City of the Dead.” During the Civll War both Union and Confederate soldiers were laid to rest here. Today it holds 140,000 “residents”.

As an arboretum, it excels, with over 10,000 plants and trees. A mammoth zelkova dominates one stretch.

Bald cypress with its sharp knees sticking up.

Talk about surreal, the fruit of the southern magnolia, also known as the bull bay.

People all around taking pictures of the beauty.

In one case the tree is taking over the granite.

Or the granite is taking over the tree.

Techniques of forest bathing are a little more complicated than simply closing your eyes and sinking back into a bubble bath. An expert, Dr Qing Li, published the bible for forest bathing. Our guide drew on its teachings, and also on the handbook, Your Guide to Forest Bathing, by M. Amos Clifford. Mysteries abound, like the osage orange fruit that must have rolled down a hill; its parent was nowhere to be seen.

Dr. Qing Li writes about being outdoors, “It is like an intuition, or an instinct, a feeling that is sometimes hard to describe. In Japanese, we have a word for those feelings that are too deep for words: yugen. Yugen gives us a profound sense of the beauty and mystery of the universe. It is about this world but suggests something beyond it.” Like this black walnut tree surreally  invaded by mistletoe.

What was more dazzling, though, was the self-guided tour I embarked on afterwards nominally led by a Davey business developer named Doak, whose company had done an extensive inventory of the place and who made sure we didn’t get lost.

I loved some of the granite sculpture.

An amazing combination of living and dead, an autumn sassafras leaf atop a loved ones headstone.

For some reason the cemetery is inordinately proud of its waterfowl. I’m not so sure geese should have the run of the property.

There is a tree the cemetery association likes to brag about, a 150-year old ginkgo that grew from a seed given them by Henry Clay.

Other jaw-droppers included the more delicate specimens like witch-hazel.

I found myself to be so relaxed after bathing among the doozies of Cave Hill that I welcomed a rest afterwards, missing the conference’s next event. My head swirled with images and I was sorry to live so far away from this majestic arboretum. I’d like another try at the fractals. And I’d like to go back for another look at that ginkgo. I hear that even though the tree is male, on the side I didn’t see an unusual female sport had emerged, and had dropped a pile of fruit at the tree’s mammoth base.

So much beauty. You didn’t need to bathe with water to see it.

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Women marry incarcerated men

for a variety of reasons, say experts. It might be a power trip. She has all the freedom in the world, while he has none – sometimes forever. Some women swear that there is real romance in getting engaged and tying the knot in prison, even if the wedding cake is a Twinkie, which has happened at least once.

The condition of being attracted to someone behind bars actually has a name, hybristophilia. That’s been defined by psychologists as sexual arousal and pleasure from having a partner who is known to have committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.

Sheila Isenberg interviewed female hybristophiliacs for her book, Women Who Love Men Who Kill. “If you are in a relationship with a man behind bars for life or a man on death row, then you have a lot of control over the relationship,” she wrote. “You can decide when to make the visit, when to accept the phone call, or if you will accept the call, and you are that man’s primary link with the outside world. So as you can clearly see it’s a very powerful position to be in.”

The most incorrigible of prisoners have been sought after. Charles Manson presided over a passel of shaved-head groupies, got 4 fan letters a day and sought a marriage license in 2014 to wed Afton Elaine Burton, a 26-year-old admirer who had visiting him for nine years.

Connubial bliss never arrived for Manson, who died in 2017 at the age of 83.

Ted Bundy wound up married and becoming a father after committing at least 30 murders, despite being locked up for three decades. The fact that conjugal visits were prohibited did not somehow stop the course of true love.

Marriage proposals, love letters and nude pictures appeared regularly in his mail. Both of the Menendez brothers got married while imprisoned for the murder of their parents. Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker,” tied the knot with a reporter who saw his mug shot on tv. The New York Times reported that she purchased her new husband a platinum wedding band because he told her, “Satanists don’t wear gold.”

Et cetera.

Of more interest to me are the women who research and document death row inmates’ last meal requests. I have come across two who obsess over how people have chosen to dine when they finally get a choice about the matter.

An artist named Julie Green, who died at the age of 60 last week, made a career out of it after her interest was piqued by newspaper announcements concerning the request of a recently executed man: Six tacos, six glazed doughnuts and a Cherry Coke.

She called her decades-long art project “The Last Supper,” for which she painted china plates with cobalt blue to render prisoners’ requests. It might be only two peanut butter cups and a Dr. Pepper, but it was going up on the wall. The plan was to document the meals until capital punishment was abolished, or until she had made 1,000 plates, whichever came first. She painted her1,000th plate, an oval platter with a single familiar image, this September: the bottle of Coca-Cola requested by a Texas man in 1997. Capital punishment looks to be around for the indefinite future.

So per Green we have renderings of fried chicken, birthday cake, pizza. An exhbit of her work tours the country. Perhaps you could call it an effort to salvage the humanity of society’s castoffs

Another creative type exercised her right to make something out of a dismal subject by publishing a book of recipes that duplicate last meals. Yes, she did. So one death row inmate, before dying of lethal injection in 2020, requested a dinner of sweet potatoes, spinach, a chicken patty and leg quarter, cooked apples, french fries, two oranges and an orange-flavored drink. He only got to eat one bite of this feast before being escorted to the execution chamber, but his menu lives on in “The Serial Killer Cookbook” by Ashley Lecker.

Fried chicken and chicken fried steak were common, she found, along with ice cream, which was chosen by about 80% of inmates Lecker researched. One Robert Buell, convicted for the murder of an 11-year-old girl, requested a single black, unpitted olive. What’s a cookbook writer to do? She translated the request into a single-olive tapenade recipe. Rickey Ray Rector, executed for the 1981 murder of a police officer, shot himself in the head and caused a lobotomy. He managed to summon up a request for pecan pie–but then said he’d ‘eat it later.’ Aileen Wuornos declined her last meal, saying she was too nervous to eat it.

I wonder if Lecker and Green shared notes from their research. Or if either of them had any contact with a death row individual before the inevitable end. I know that neither woman had a romantic relationship with an inmate. Food and food choices are personal enough. Me, I would order up a feast prepared by the world’s finest chefs. But I wouldn’t necessarily want the world to be privy to the one last choice I had.

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Lest you think I do nothing but prattle on

about history, trees, the weather, or whatever else captures my fancy, on some occasions I find myself dumbstruck.

I have written before about Seneca Village, the community of African-Americans that flourished between the 1820’s and the 1850s in Central Park before it was Central Park. New York’s great green gem of a park came about through the brilliance of landscape designers Olmsted and Vaux. The Park that we see as natural was in fact anything but, brought about by huge amounts of dynamite and landfill and the labor of who knows how many men. Workers moved nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone, earth, and topsoil, built 36 bridges and arches, and constructed 11 overpasses over the transverse roads. They also planted 500,000 trees, shrubs, and vines. Those gracious hills and dales were all built by hand.

Slight problem: those pesky families who already occupied a chunk of the property designated for the Park. They had around 50 homes, 3 churches, cemeteries and a school, and people determined to make their living often times in the precincts of Manhattan itself. Real people, real lives. Rather than the make-believe greensward then rising up in the middle of the city. The citizens who had pushed for the Park, the uppertens who had voyaged to Europe and enviously gazed upon the grand parks in London and the other major cities there, would certainly not be thwarted by the likes of Seneca Village. They had only to breathe in the right direction, and eminent domain dissolved the community, whose residents were absorbed into the rest of the city. What was lost: a strong black presence in New York (also, it must be said, some Germans as well), long before there was a Harlem or any other neighborhood-of-color.

Of course, Central Park is great. It is truly amazing to go up to the Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop and look upon the swathe of emerald that rolls out ahead of you.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Fairly easy to get to (it’s just off the armor display) at the Metropolitan is a new production that is an homage to Seneca Village. I have wondered why no one seemed to be giving any props to that history, even though some ambitious narrative signs appeared a few years back in the Park offering information. Of course park-goers just walked right on past on their way to the Sheep Meadow or other sun-bathing spots.

You will not walk past this display. The Met’s creative curators built a period room inspired by Seneca Village. It does not resembled the museum’s other period rooms, which I love despite (or maybe because of) their fustiness.

Even the Frank Lloyd Wright modernistic period room has a caught-in-amber flavor.

The Met’s take on Seneca Village is quite different. A long-term installation, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room “will unsettle the very idea of a period room,” according to the museum’s information. And here I admit that upon first viewing, I might have preferred a room furnished with the few Seneca Village artifacts archaeologists dug up in Central Park.

They do exist, or at least early New York artifacts can be seen here. A comb, complete with a chain design said to represent slavery.

A pottery urn emblazoned with “Corlears Hook,” a prominent waterfront neighborhood in the old days, manufactured by a black New York artisan.

But this display incorporates not only the past but the present and future as well (as my artist friend Josefa gently reminded me when I grumbled about the look of the place.) Lead Curator and Designer Hannah Beachler says, “This project is important to me because it is a necessary conversation with time, loss, community, and hope.” In African tradition, all times are coterminous.

So there is a head by an African sculptor made of black leather high heels and supposed to represent the “sole/soul,” inspired by masks from Cameroon.

The room itself is a kitchen. You know, table, chairs, etc.

Your typical futuristic 5-screen tv.

This kitchen is presided over by a kind of ornate goddess homemaker. Looks like me on one of my good days.

To the side hang paintings. “Andrea Motley,” based on a photo, depicts the first woman and first black woman to serve as a deep sea diver for the Army.

Another work by activist, filmmaker and writer Tourmaline involved research into the history of underrepresented queer and trans figures of color in 19th and 20th century New York.

So the installation becomes a mash up of the past, the present and the future. Much of which was lost to us when the real Seneca Village was rolled over to give us the park — occupied by the Met, which gives us Rembrandt and Pollock and Picasso (my favorite, his portrait of Gertrude Stein).

Okay, a hifalutin’ quote from someone a lot more knowledgeable than me: another curator, Dr. Commander says,

“The untold story of Seneca Village underscores that we walk on hallowed ground right here in New York City. Aspects of our history often fall out of conversation because of the passage of time. In other cases, they have been effectively buried or intentionally silenced. When these significant histories resurface, we ought to show reverence for those who came before whose lives and sacrifices paved the way for our very being. In this period room, archival and archaeological truths meet a range of art from across several centuries, cultures, and geographies. With the guidance of informed speculation, we imagine what was, what might have been, and what is yet to be.”

Leaving the Museum, I realized that besides my beloved fusty period rooms we were now lucky enough to have a curious new addition. “Every period room is predicated on the fiction of authenticity,” says Co-curator Sarah Lawrence, describing the exhibit’s purpose. “Using this fiction as our starting point, how could we imagine the domestic spaces of individuals previously omitted from our period rooms?”

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Pretty things

don’t dominate the Grand Concourse. But you do see them if you keep your eyes open while rolling around the site for six miles a day, as I do.

Here are a few.

Lacebark Chinese elm almost bursting the bounds of its tree guard.

Flying cupcake, created by some wildly cheerful person.

Flouncy sweet-sixteen dress to delight a neighborhood teenager.

The seller peels his oranges on a small spit every day, and the scent wafts on the air as you go by. Useful, too, as you don’t have to muck up your nails peeling one.

Speaking of nails, this photo advertises some kind of luscious pedicure.

Christmas cactus all budded up and ready to go. I might go back and get that plant.

Silver Shar Pei puppy, new in the pet store window. I know, puppy-mill puppies, terrible! This little girl (another admirer guessed her gender, and I’m going with it) is too beautiful to not find a wonderful forever home soon. Someone on the Grand Concourse is anxiously awaiting her arrival.

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Grass is okay.

Where would Andrew Wyeth be without grass?

If you didn’t know, the Christina of Christina’s World had to stay low to the grass – she had polio and preferred crawling to a wheelchair. True.

Is grass only for the country, as Wyeth depicted it? Increasingly, no, since landscapers are wild for it. This isn’t exactly the country, where I’m working, although there are animals like the fat one I nearly tripped over this morning.

Or the flock of seagulls that descended where we were planting, much like the many we saw in the wild at Jones Beach summer. One took a bite out of some thing lying in the middle of Grand Concourse and flew off vigorously. Proudly.

A lot of plants have been organized for the northbound median.

Including grasses. Know what this is? Don’t peek.

Sporobolus heterolepis. Prairie dropseed, for those not schooled in Latin.

I remember a few years ago I had to attend an arborist sales conference where we learned about grasses from a Colonel Sanders-type guy who knew everything on the subject. His specialty was Lawn, and he was famous in the company for his great knowledge. Around 30 of us sat in horseshoe formation for his class, and he passed around pieces of different grasses. Little nuggets of grass, really, bits of soil attached to a few spears each. We were asked to write down the name of each grass bit that came our way. Everyone was examining and pulling apart the pieces they were handed, sniffing them and crumbling the soil they were stuck in or that they grew in, and writing down their names on exam paper. Colonel Sanders then revealed the answers, and asked how many got 100%, how many got 50%, and so on. A pleasant smirk came over his face when I raised my hand, still stained with dirt – I was the only one he had ever seen get a zero in grass class, apparently. Later in an elevator we had a laugh over my failure. But I don’t think Andrew Wyeth knew the names of the grasses in Christina’s World! I was an arborist, a tree person, not a Lawn expert. I continue to believe that everybody should leave their yards splendidly weedy.

Prairie dropseed on the Concourse finds itself interspersed with shrubs.

Of the plants selected for the medians, I prefer the honeysuckle. When I was a teen, essence of honeysuckle was the first perfume I got for myself, so I’m a sucker for it.

A young man from the New York Department of Transportation, the entity in charge here, tells me when I ask what part beautification places in a road project that it’s been proven plants by the edges slow traffic. “Traffic calming” is a thing.

Researchers found that  “simply viewing nature in urban settings has a strong restorative and calming effect. These findings also have applications on the road, in particular for preventing emotionally charged confrontations known as road rage. A healthy roadside tree canopy can help offset angry and aggressive reactions by keeping drivers calm and reducing stressful responses. A 2010 report revealed that drivers who view nature as opposed to heavily built-up surroundings ‘reported feelings of relaxation.’”

There is a lot of planting to be done, but I don’t dig the holes and pop in the roots, only take note of the truckloads as they arrive, count what comes, and ponder things like the place of grasses in the design.

That wheelbarrow full of greenery might seem somewhat inconsequential. However, one of the finest poems of the modern age, by William Carlos Williams, tells us:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


No rain today, and no chickens – only seagulls.

And grass.

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Dioses de la muerte makes sense

when you’re in this sometimes spooky part of the Bronx.

Why, I had been asking myself, did the ladies selling plants on the sidewalk offer pots of marigolds to willing buyers.

Why was I feeling so unsettled?

Why did the ghosties look so dangerous, hanging against a dead tree?

Of course it’s all in fun.

Isn’t it?

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Fall nostalgia

hits everyone. At least it does me.

So back we go  through the just-reddening woods to the happy place of 35 years ago: a cabin in an artist colony. The place was founded in 1902 beneath Overlook Mountain, in Woodstock, by wealthy Brit Ralph Whitehead and his wife Jane Byrd McCall of the Philadelphia McCalls.

Whitehead designed the 40 or so buildings on 1,200 acres of oak, white pine and hemlock as an arts and crafts utopia. Every building has a hue of Pantone-Byrdcliffe-Brown, and to some degree replicates a  mix of the two design styles Western Stick and Alpine chalet. Some of the structures were roomy.

Ours was tiny.

It was the summer after we were married. We were Writers; this was our retreat from the real world of New York City.

I pulled a table and straightback chair onto the screened-in porch to make a summer study. Fooling around with his new gold ring, Gil dropped it through a crack in the uneven floor boards and had to crawl under to get it. This must be good luck!

The tub was fully seven feet long, taking up most of the space in the bathroom. All the cabins had them. Whitehead installed modern plumbing, opining that there was much value in “the use of the tub.” Baths all around! But Whitehead was a stuffy old coot who believed in the very important aesthetics of pottery and furniture. To tweak him, artists not at Byrdcliffe began to shave shapes on their scalps, smear paint on their clothing and refer to the famous artist colony as Bored-Stiff.

Artists that we were, we spent out time chucking champagne corks over the roof, roasting a whole pig for Bastille Day and impaling its head as a garden ornament a la Lord of the Flies.

In my summer study I wrote poems combining my aging (turning 30) with the call of the mockingbird. Trying hard to be grown up. The lilacs formed a magical mound along the road.

One night the Fugs performed a reunion concert in the barn. (“Do you like boobs a lot?” delivered with gusto.)

Even the water was perfect. It came out icy cold from a hose fed by a spring house above.

A chestnut oak guards the remains.

Thinking about the past, we headed up the road to the property Dylan occupied at Byrdcliffe.

Was he home back then when we would sneak in to go night swimming in the grotto below his house?

The water still shines, and a worker was manicuring the grounds with a leaf blower. (Woody Guthrie: As I went walking I saw a sign there and the sign it said No Trespassing/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.)

Making our way through Woodstock, we stopped at the town cemetery.

Was Rick Danko your favorite member of The Band, too?

I wonder where he was when we were playing house at Evening Star, a time long ago that has a sparkling immediacy.

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When I was a teenager

I was agog at Henri Matisse’s painting La Danse. The Museum of Modern Art has changed since then, upwards and outwards. When you go out on the sixth floor terrace you do feel lofted by glass and steel.

Everything has been re-curated, the contents of the collections shifted around so you get a new view of this Dali (The Persistence of Memory), or that Van Gogh (Starry Night). But walking amid the great painters I’m always drawn back to Matisse’s masterpiece.

The canvas was commissioned in 1909 by a Russian businessman, who wanted two decorative panels for his mansion, Dance and Music. What hangs on MOMA’s wall is actually a rough draft for the final image. While critics attacked its simplification of the human body and radical elimination of perspective as inept or willfully crude, Matisse stood up for his vision, saying that it evoked “life and rhythm.” It was this approach that earned him and other painters of the era the dismissive term “Les Fauves,” the wild beasts.

Perhaps it was this very bestial nature that drew a girl of sixteen to La Danse. Unclothed bodies in wild activity – so unlike our relatively sober jeans and t-shirt attire – were more than acceptable, they were exciting beyond words. I think for a while my attention was drawn away from words (I already considered myself a poet) to art, to creating brilliantly vivid figures on a luminous background. Bare butts, too–frisson! Totally freeing. I tacked a reproduction postcard onto my bulletin board and dreamed.

Matisse wrote in Notes of a Painter that he dreamed of “an art of balance, or purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”

Matisse and La Danse were about joy, which we all crave, don’t we?


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In this patch of paradise

known as the Grand Course, we have our distinctive urban forest.

Just as the southwest has the ubiquitous saguaro, these precincts have the ubiquitous honey locust.

Yes, there are some oaks in the tree pits along the avenue. You can recognize red oaks among others by the sharp points at the tips of their leaves. Also there is the occasional pin oak, with deeply carved nodes on their leaves. Pin oaks rock, if you ask me.

A Chinese elm with its crazed, beautiful bark.

A gingko with fan leaves a-flutter. Somehow, dating back eons, it just looks just right with prayer flags adorning it.

Elm, whose leaves in this case reveal that some nibbling has taken place.

A few London planes, with their distinctive camouflage bark. You can call the London plane an l.p if you want to seem in the know at an arborist get-together. If you do attend such a gathering, prepare to quaff a lot of beer.

Even an amur maple, with its sinuous silver trunk.

But the honey locust dominates the landscape in this part of the Bronx.

It’s an creature with an unusual pedigree, the honey locust. Gleditsia triancanthos comes to us from Central North America, where its feet like the damp soil of river banks. The flat plates of its trunk are instantly recognizable.

Sometimes it’s called thorny locust or thorny honeylocust. The reason is obvious.

The trunk and branches protect themselves from eager eaters with noxious prickers, probably evolving from long-ago protection from hungry Pleistocene megafauna. The tree is invasive in Australia, where great tangles of tree thorns prohibit cattle grazing. On a side note, it is said that American Confederate soldiers used the thorns to fasten their uniforms together. Just saying. Few knew how to sew, I guess.

Well, to make use of its advantages – honey locust is fast growing, hardy, able to withstand bad soils, drought-resistant, possessed of a delicate canopy, perfect urban tree in so many ways – those thorns would have to go. Come the botanists, those magician scientists who cross this with that plant and come up with a (usually) improved variety. We now have Gleditsia triacanthos var inermis, which lacks those pesky thornsYou won’t see a Gleditsia with thorns in New York City.

Though I happen to agree with poet Marianne Moore in Roses Only, “Your thorns are the best of you.” Perhaps that is why I like the thorny version so much.

It may not be widely known in our parts that the fruits of this tree are long pods containing seeds surrounded by a bright green legume pulp which is edible and sweet and has historically been used by Native American people for food, medicine and tea.

Not at the moment considered a gourmet delicacy here on the Grand Concourse, where chicharrones reign supreme. Perhaps worth some experimentation, though, for a high school science project or some such.

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