Been doing some thinking about squirrels

and especially squirrels as pets.

John Singleton Copley painted his delightful subject, nine-year-old Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, in 1771. You can visit with the imp at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and I often have. Perhaps because I’ll dealing with some especially dark subject matter these days in my professional life, my mind likes to veer when possible toward what’s lighter, wacky, odd. The not-so-lost art of procrastination.

So, squirrels. In your house. Intentionally. It’s not the only image of a pet squirrel in Copley’s art. He also produced this intricate portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson in 1775. 

Note the attention to the luscious details of the sitter’s world, the fabrics, the way the light falls on them, the glint of the metal leash, the glow of the animal’s eye.

These creatures were surely treasured by Copley, who kept a few of his own.

Birds, cat, squirrel. Sweet.

Now, many people around the world take dogs as pets. (Perhaps not so much in Puerto Rico, where strays run abandoned in the streets before being gathered up for eager U.S. families, or in China, where they are too often raised for food.)

Maud’s Ottie, while no longer a puppy, is still the baby of the family.

For some people, just one dog won’t too. Gotta have a couple.

Or a bunch.

Famously, the royal corgis.

I’ve always loved the shot of a young Edith Wharton, who so loved her little companions.

Dogs have such soft brows and muzzles. Oliver.

So snuggle-able. A puppy so young it doesn’t yet have a name.

I’ve adored them since as a girl I hugged Shnuffles, she with her bad legs and worse temper.

But I’m distracted. Is this all just an excuse to think about my wonderful dogs of yore? Sugar.

Is distraction the better part of valor? Think that was discretion. In any case, I’ll leave it to another time to write more about dogs.

Cats, I find, hold less interest for me than they once did. I know that’s sacrilege on social media. Even exceptional specimens like the one my friend Josefa cares for.

Again I digress. Squirrels, now. When did someone think of domesticating a squirrel? And why? Benjamin Franklin wrote an tribute to a pet squirrel killed by a dog: “Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!”

By his time, squirrel ownership was faddish. Squirrels could be wild caught or sold in markets and, by the 1800s, you could buy one in a pet shop. How much is that squirrel in the window? The one with the waggely tail? Rich families bragged about them. Again, Copley. John Bee Holmes.

Copley’s masterpiece was surely Boy with a Squirrel,  in 1765, a portrait of the artist’s half-brother, Henry Pelham. See the lavish vanilla vest, the pink satin collar, the brilliant cuffs, their ruffles, the perfect glass of water, the light and shadow? What an ear.

This was a flying squirrel, one of a tribe of 50 specie in the family Sciuridae, which are not in fact capable of flight in the same way as birds or bats, but are able to glide from one tree to the next with the aid of a patagium, the furred parachute-like skin membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle. A long tail provides additional stability.

It seems funny now, but keeping squirrels as pets was commonplace through to the twentieth century. Before the family canine, the family squirrel. Here we have the Ridgely brothers in 1862, Howard and his younger brother Otho, the children of a wealthy landowning family in Maryland.

Back in around 1526, squirrel owning was significantly less democratic. Hans Holbein the Younger set a precedent with his Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

Oil on oak, it shows in addition to the lovely nibbling squirrel a bird perched on a grape vine, its beak pointing at the right ear of Anne Lovell, wife of Sir Francis Lovell, an Esquire of the Body to Henry VIII.  The grape, natch, represented abundance and wealth. As did the squirrel?

William Butler Yeats wrote in To A Squirrel At Kyle-Na-No:

Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.

People have often taken monkeys, too, as pets and occasional business partners.

In the heyday of organ grinders, it is said, around the turn of the 20th century, nearly one in 20 Italian men in the gritty Five Points neighborhood of New York City were out there with their capuchin monkeys. They only disappeared when long-time New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned the practice in 1936. He refused to renew the grinders’ licenses, saying that radio and outdoor concerts had rendered them unnecessary and with the intention of discouraging street begging. Historians suspect that La Guardia might also have wanted to discourage stereotypes about Italian immigrants (his sensitivity on the subject probably shaped by his experience putting himself through night law school by working days as an Ellis Island translator – the man supposedly spoke five languages).

Wild animals such as squirrels probably have no place in the urban jungle in any case. Court is a different matter.

Scholars have just discovered what is thought to be the first depiction of a pet guinea pig. In it, three Elizabethan children pose with their a cream, brown and white pet. “We know that guinea pigs were introduced into Europe by traders and were kept as exotic pets,” says a National Gallery spokesperson. “While archaeological finds for domestic guinea pigs in Europe are rare, a partial skeleton of one that dates from c.1575 was discovered at Hill Hall in Essex, an Elizabethan manor house.”

Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet – he talked about how the bird camped in his stable, “generally on horseback.” In more recent news, my friend Cheryl likes nothing better than to cuddle her bearded dragon against her chest.

I myself might prefer a hedgehog. Or a tapir.

Or a peacock.

A group of peacocks, by the way, is called an “ostentation” or a “muster.” In ancient Rome, rich folks served peafowl as a delicacy. Today, peacock pets are said to be affectionate, though noisy, eating out of their owners’ hands and even coming to sit on their laps. They are good at fighting snakes, too.

None of the above, I’m pretty sure, are legal to adopt in New York State. The law here clearly states that you may not own any wild animal, defined as a non-domestic feline or canine or hybrid, bear, crocodile, venomous reptile, or primate. You can be fined 500 dollars if you break the law. It’s different in Oklahoma, whose residents need only a permit to own a ferret, any primate or a coatimundi. Oregon lets you have alpacas, ferrets, bison, camels, chinchillas, emus, ostriches, llamas, lemurs, sugar gliders, and giraffes. (Not wise probably to have all at one, at least not in the same pen.) In Arkansas, you can own up to six captive-bred bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, or squirrels without a permit.

But then you’d have to live in Arkansas.

Did you know that hedgehogs are the new squirrel?

I hear they’re legal in Connecticut.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

It is Someone’s birthday today.

Someone important. A good day for strolling among the cacti.

And the art.

The community of Carefree is a good place to be carefree on a birthday. The botanical garden is small and sweet.

Unusual plantings. The miracle of water in the desert.

Back east we have tree protection, and I’ve done a lot of it. Here there is cactus protection, on a small scale.

And a larger scale.

Maybe they use ladders or a long handled tool, says my mother. And an even larger scale.

Seems like the folks here do a lot for their green things.

Sometimes they need some help I guess, says my mother. She’s helped me a lot from time to time.

The birds handle their own protection, thank you very much.

A barrel cactus flower before spring is a gift. A birthday gift.

It’s a little aloe blooming, says my mother, looking beyond our shadows.

She has always known all about green things, all her life.

Don’t get me started on the famous Carefree sundial. Why does the shadow fall at 1:30 when it’s actually 2? Is this a metaphor for life, aging, whatever?

It’s got to be right, it’s been here for a long time, says my mother, and if you look at the fine print you see that “local solar time is 27.7 minutes behind mountain standard time.” Correct again. Got to read that fine print.

We stroll by the shops. The nonagenarian by my side can tell Springsteen from the Allman Brothers in the vinyl bin, and knows that we’ve recently lost Jeff Beck.

We eschew the unhealthy treats.

Treasures of a somewhat cheesy kind in Ortega’s.

Everything’s 40 percent off, Sue, behind the counter, calls out. You’re going to have some fun. Or you can get into mischief anyway.


Maybe I need one of those. My mother doesn’t, though. She doesn’t need anything.

Some objects are rather nice here though. Owl pottery crafted by a Mexican artisan, Mata Ortiz.

91 years young. Outside, pavement footprint imprints. My mother observes, They do that in Mexico.

About owls. My mother likes them a lot. A pair sometimes roost outside her balcony. We heard they were hiding elsewhere today and adventured out to find them, unsuccessfully. Oh well. We did find an owl at a somewhat cheesy art gallery, Wild Holly.

We come upon the gallery mascot.

He’s so still he looks like a sculpture, says my mother.

Mysterious western boot display in the window of an ordinary shoe repair shop.

Free birthday advice on a sandwich sign outside a store.

Along with a friendly admonition in front of another shop.

Some of this stuff needs dusting, mom says, looking in the window.

Correct, as always.

Zimbabwean sculpture. Title: “Proud Women.”

Indeed. They got us right.

An artist is painting in the window of his gallery.

Using a cell phone. You’d think he’d use a bigger picture to work from.

Then, tea for two at a cheesy faux-Brit place near the cactus garden.

 You know someone’s hands after 65 years. Their jewelry.

That ring was my father’s. He wore it on his pinky finger. It was his mother’s, and her mother’s before that. Her name was Brown, Brown Coats. An eight-prong setting that was not raised, the original Tiffany setting. That’s what I was told. So it’s really old.

We go to dinner near The Boulders, early, to get home early. Uncle Louie’s.

Pizza and pasta. Finally, some real cheese. Tira misu with a candle. After Motown and current R& B hits, an old-time blues singer starts belting it out.

We’re leaving just as the good music comes on, says my mother. Spring chicken.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

An iconic tree in the imagination

or in memory or right in front of your eyes can be remarkable.

Trees can be so personal, loved by an individual, as well as public and admired by many. Almost everyone, I’ve found, remembers one particular tree—it burns in hindsight as vividly as any madeleine Proust ever consumed. I’ve realized this in teaching arborists writing skills, learning from peoples’ stories how many treasure the memory of a certain Malus domestica in their childhood which was their formative experience with dendrology. When I encounter a wizened backyard apple it still gives me a jolt of pleasure.

It’s not only arborists though. Some trees attain a broader symbolic meaning for many, many people above and beyond those whose professional lives are tinted green. Some aged specimens, by way of their habit, their hue, their history, just stand out.

Douglas Still, understanding this truth, recently created the podcast This Old Tree to highlight heritage trees and the human stories behind them. Drawing upon his experience as City Forester for Providence, Rhode Island, as well as stints for NYC Parks Department and as past president of the Society of Municipal Arborists, Doug focuses on the meaning and importance of such standouts as the majestic redwood Luna, Thoreau’s Concord Elm, and the 9/11 Survivor Trees.

He has said, In our psyche, we know trees are more than just functionally important. What drives me most is the thought that trees will outlast us, provide comfort and inspiration for 100 years or more, and connect life experiences between generations. Every city forester has witnessed the emotional bonds between residents and their trees. Trees create a sense of place; they shape our experience of historic landscapes, as well as our own streets and backyards. Old trees are especially valuable, meaningful and irreplaceable.

Great stuff.

I was privileged to share a short piece about an icon that meant a lot to me as one of half a dozen accounts collected in the most recent This Old Tree episode. You can check out “Tree Story Shorts” at and here is a rough approximation of my piece in that spoken segment:

My favorite tree would have to be the silvery-barked copper beech, Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea. When I was growing up in a little town in New York’s Hudson Valley, we would gather beneath what we called “The Elephant Tree.” (Photo courtesy of Hastings Historical Society.)

The landmark stood on the overgrown lawn of the long abandoned mansion of Billie Burke, famed as Glinda, the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

The tree drew kids of all ages to congregate beneath its distinctive umbrella-like branches. In her book about the beech, Casting Deep Shade, poet C.D. Wright tells us that the Druids grew wise eating the nuts of the species. And that in dreams, the tree signifies both wisdom and death. The Copper Beech. Tree guru Michael Dirr chooses it as “one of my great plant loves,” and from childhood it has been one of mine, too. Recently, thinking about that tree, at an age when some folks are starting to contemplate a condo in Florida or (more my style) retiring to a groovy vintage Airstream, I have fallen again for the beech tree the way I fell for an Adonis in my seventh-grade class. All I want to do is swoon.

A sixty-foot local attraction well-known in my home town, the Elephant Tree’s knob-kneed trunk resembled nothing so much as the columnar legs of its namesake animal. Here was every kid’s dream: a private, self-contained refuge from the wider world. From the outside, long branches twisted sinuously from the crown to the ground, spreading outward like a hoop-skirt. Inside this protected space we found ethereal cathedral light and branches that were perfect for climbing. Kids hid there, gossiped there, made out there. The trunk, as with so many beeches, was hashed with initials and hearts. Here is a similar one.

Brought to America in the 1600s, the towering, always impressive European Beech tops out at a full 70’. The cultivar atropurpurea shares the species characteristics but is distinct in color. While not a street tree, it takes its place among many landmarked gardens and properties. The grand homes of Newport are known for their beeches. Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, the former estate of robber baron Jay Gould, boasts an imposing collection. Wave Hill, the public garden in New York City’s Riverdale section of the Bronx, features two Copper Beeches that sit across park lane from each other like kissing cousins.

“We don’t know much about the beeches except that they were probably planted after 1890, when the property came under the same ownership,” Louis Bauer, former Director of Horticulture at Wave Hill, told me once. With an unparalleled view across the Hudson River to the Palisades, Wave Hill has a storied past, including notable occupants such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

The latter said of the estate: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”

Copper might be a slight mischaracterization the hue of the tree’s leaves, which can change over the course of a season from a reddish purple in spring to blackish purple by summer.

The deciduous, simple leaf is elliptic and blunt, appearing wavy, with five to nine veins on each side. Each cultivar presents itself slightly differently in color and shape. When I have visited Wave Hill’s copper beeches they were really more full forest green, with only a slight a metallic tinge.

As for those “knees.”

The older trunks have bulges and burls that are quite unlike any other tree.

Of the silvery grey bark, beech lover Dirr writes of  “a beauty unmatched by the bark of other trees.” Something about that bark begs for the jack-knives of starry-eyed young romantics. (“Your name and mine inside a heart” promise the lyrics of ‘Walk Away, Renee,’ one of the ultimate paeans to teenage love.)

At Wave Hill, the trunk of one tree has been pretty well graffiti-gouged.

While the other cousin is pristine. A mystery as to why.

We know that people since time immemorial have fallen for beech trees, their smooth grey bark, eminently useful for leaving your mark. On an old stage road in Tennessee, Daniel Boone once killed a bear. Nearby stood a huge beech tree, and Boone carved into its trunk: “D. Boone Cilled a Bar in 1760.”

Virginia Woolf name-checked to the beech in Night and Day. “It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, ‘I love you,’ or whether she said, ‘I love the beech-trees,’ or only ‘I love—I love.’”

I have discovered carved beeches in what was supposedly an unspoiled old-growth forest. Some tree people find autobiographical messages on beech bark annoying. I don’t. Thoreau said, ”I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” I like to think of some lost soul slogging miles through a mysterious, tangled forest, too shy to unburden himself to the person he cares for, and surreptitiously taking switchblade out of pocket to pronounce, on bark, indelibly, the sentiment I love-I love.

Atropurpurea has no taproot. Instead, in the open understory beneath the low-hanging branches, a pattern of interlacing roots rise close to the surface.

For flowers, the tree offers a small female cluster, and a male cluster that hangs on a shorter stem than the American Beech. The nut has long, angular sides and a deep brown color, encased in a bristly husk. Beech nuts can be consumed by deer and bears as well as by birds and rodents – and by humans, who have been known to roast and brew them in place of coffee.

A nice place to drink a cup would be under the sweeping, twisted, copper-green branches of an “Elephant Tree.”

Ghosts of Mark Twain, Daniel Boone and Virginia Woolf, you are cordially invited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

An isn’t-the-world-perfectly-beautiful moment

as the first violin sounds a note and the rest of the musicians in the orchestra respond, just before the conductor steps out and all on stage smile forward, ready to go.

The conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, Tito Munoz, hails from Queens and has been leading his pack here in the Southwest for nine seasons.

I watch him go through the conductor’s mudra, all the vocabulary of time and gesture that are essential to bringing out the subtleties of the “staples of the canon,” as he introduces them, the Beethoven and Mozart on the program today. With his infinitely tender, delicate gestures he would appear to be writing in the air, folding clothes in air, petting a cat, petting a child’s head, asking why, exactly, this or that, explaining the concept of thunder, sewing a garment, and so on. So expressive, so mysterious the conductor’s art.

To not have a tear come to your eye during the violin solo that is central to Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 in G major you would have to be a monster. Lolling back with a cough drop dissolving on my tongue and relaxing my mind into the strains of the strings is sad bliss. The soloist, Steven Moeckel, the prior concert master now moved on to greener pastures and guesting today, could fit the current first violinist in his waistcoat pocket, if he were uncool enough to wear a waistcoat.

His untucked navy blue shirt will do. He’s so large a man, and his circa-1840 violin by the celebrated French maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume so delicate, it looks like a toy, in the words of my mother seated beside me. What do the musicians think about as they watch him fill the air, unaccompanied – the pot roast in the oven at home, how they’ll pay their taxes, past loves? Just the notes?

The shine on the first violin’s patent leather shoes matches the polish of his sprightly delivery as well as the sparkle of the necklace my friend Lisa strung that I’m wearing to the concert.

He jumps around so much, I think he’s going to fly off his chair! says my mother. He is so new to the orchestra that his name is not yet included in the program notes,  but we spy a child in a frilly dress descending from the stage between the concerto and the symphony and feel sure she is the avid musician’s daughter, ready to celebrate his success after the show.

Mozart was a teenager when he wrote the Concerto No. 3 in G major, and he most likely intended to perform the solo parts himself for Salzburg’s leading tony families when he wasn’t assisting his father in the service of the city’s archbishop. A teenager!

To be musically gifted. Or not. When I was teenager I tried the cello, bluffing my way through high school orchestra performances, fond of it mainly because I loved the ritual of applying the resin to my bow, the scent of the nubby block of it. When I tired of cello I decided to try the piano again, studying under a thundering guy with bad breath and a tendency to sit a tad too close to me on the bench. Your problem is you do not play with feeling! is what he told me when I could barely cobble together the musical notes of the simplest Chopin.

Drift. Ebb. The cough drop melts. I close my eyes.

Remembering those musical interludes, what comes to the forefront is the child’s doll my mother brought from Japan when she and my father returned after his Korean War U.S. Army stint in Tokyo.

Mute and inscrutable, it stood on a shelf and haunted me, all those feelings I couldn’t express on the piano with notes. My mother not only likes the strings of the symphony but those of Keith Richards – recently we relished Shine a Light, Scorsese’s paean to the aging Rolling Stones.

Tenderness. Thunder. Sad bliss. We take it with us, leaving the concert hall.

It’s all there in those strings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Jay day on Dead Man’s Pass

and I have the trail mainly to myself.

The other day trippers, it seems, are off to The Birthing Cave or The Subway for selfies, apparently taking their cue from some meme about the five formations you must see when you visit Sedona.

They don’t know that Dead Man’s Pass happens to be the most beautiful trail in Sedona, or in fact on earth. I was blind but now I see. Amazing Grace has new meaning here.

Do you know how, when you reach the end of a book you love, you want to read each page more slowly to prolong the satisfaction as long as you possibly can? That’s how I feel on this trail – I would like to take a step backward for each step forward to prolong the experience indefinitely. Relish every sight along the way, even the old craggy logs. Especially the logs.

Passed a pair of very quiet, very private Western jays, pecking their way along in the shadows, spectacularly cerulean against the dull red earth. Red rocks – they never change and they’re so ubiquitous. Does that make them boring?

I’m walking so slowly, I’m in a dream. But a very lucid dream. It’s partly memory. I’ve had many heart-to-hearts on this trail when I wasn’t alone, and some with myself when I was.

I hear a flute in the distance. I thought that the flutist who perched on the vortex by Kachina Maiden had been chased off after he was caught feeding a bear, but I guess he’s back, and the sound carries like a liquid across Long Canyon.

Another jay squawks angrily from a thicket as I pass. Okay, I’ll get out of your feathers.

Bliss sounds hokey. But is there anything more picturesque than a dead old blasted juniper tree?

A beautiful day on the most beautiful train in Sedona, I call out to some geezers I pass. Oh yeah, one says. Another says, Despite the name, referring to Dead Man’s Pass. Or because of the name, I rejoin.

How very rare to see codgers on the trail these days, with their walking sticks and their sun hats. It’s always the people from California now with their technical backpacks and huge water jugs (I unfortunately left my H20 in the car) searching for the celebrity caves. Watch the mud, cautions one man in the group. Mud? Thanks! We look out for each other, we codgers.

Thirty years ago I came through Dead Man’s Pass on a mountain bike. It was a thrill, especially the rock slide.

Today a mountain biker cycles by just after the treacherous tumble of stones: You enjoy the rock slide? I say. Ha ha, he throws over his shoulder, It’s the funnest part. A big shaggy dog whooshes up behind.

Then a woman follows. How’d you like the rock slide? I inquire. Well, she mutters, It wasn’t my finest. Honesty. It’s good to have humility when considering rock slides you might have done differently.

Selfies at the Birthing Cave. I think I’ll only take hand selfies today at the pinon pine.

Mainly alone, I do see evidence of those who have come before: a random blue discarded mask, an orange peel, a hair tie. Some kind of crazy sticker.

Leave nothing but footprints, guys! And me with my cell phone, taking pics. Yes, guilty, I did check my mail on the trail – wanted to see if I had work. I’m human too! Must capture the mystery of the sturdy little cone.

Another hiker sweats by. We compare notes on which is the most beautiful trail in Sedona. Long Canyon, he says. I tell him I don’t usually bother, I like Deadman’s Pass so much. I suggest Doe Mountain, a mesa where I’ve seen a lot of ravens. I hiked it yesterday but turned around when the switchbacks got too slippery with mud. I’ll try it at dawn tomorrow, he promises me.

I’m free! sang The Who.

Sometimes the light falls on something so perfectly. A beacon. A benediction.

Bikers pass, white poodle in tow wearing trail shoes.

Really? The animal pauses next to me, alert. Come on, Sally! She trots off. Wonder what she scented.

Perhaps the coyote whose tracks I notice by the side of the trail. Poodle would make a nice snack.

Say there’s something you want to get rid of, some anxiety, and you think you never will. And then you just age out of it. Amazing the way that happens. Well, a good way to speed it along is to immerse yourself in the scenery of Dead Man’s Pass. I’m leaving it all behind me on the trail. All the anxiety, all the pain. Someone I care about is very concerned about the downward Dow. Let it go.

Let go, let go, let go.

A helicopter glints overhead. Zoom, it’s there.

I biked the rock slide 30 years ago and never fell off. I biked on a level trail a year ago and took a bad tumble. Will never get rid of that scar on my shin. Things change, of course.

It’s fun to zip through the Pass on a bike, get to where you’re going fast. Perhaps even better though to take it slow and see all the small things.

Smell the air.Think.

Give thanks.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Remember the ravens hanging in the air above Doe Mountain.

The simple things are purty.

I set my intention on finding a juniper berry in the sand. Not hard. Go easy on yourself, set a simple intention.

A gaggle of millennials passes. Good morning, I say. Good morning! one says. Another says, I forgot it was morning!

Please, don’t forget it’s morning, ever. It’s the only morning.

Good morning, I say to another couple. It’s refreshing, says the man. A little warm on your back.

I’ll say.

Ecstasy. (Perhaps I finally got my medication right.) I leave my body. I’m a blue jay. A javelina, a coyote. I see my own tracks. The clouds whisper to me.

I am ageless. I am sexless. I am dead. Alive. Merely an idea about time. I am, however, getting thirsty.

When I hear the Woo-hoo! of climbers mounting the vortex across the canyon, I decide it’s time to turn back around.

That Alejandro Escovedo lyric in Castanets, I like her better when she walks away. That’s not true of this trail. It’s better going in.

Still, got to go back. It’s time. Chug water, blow nose, eat salad, be human.

You don’t see coyote tracks from the seat of a mountain bike.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Same old same old

wonders close to home.

Yes, when your sometime home lies at the mouth of Boynton Canyon in Sedona, and snow dusts the ancient red rocks, of course everything is wondrous. But when I worked at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx last year, I thought is was pretty marvelous, too.

Look, see, absorb.

Yes, the sky is white. Yes, it’s cold out. Are you dressed warmly enough? says my mother. Yes. I happen to be hotblooded. Like the lizard we found on the kitchen curtain this morning is coldblooded, and not doing much of anything, just existing.

If anything, the manzanita in the pygmy forest looks even more perfect with a dollop of snow.

I’ve always loved how the old and the new intertwine.

I’ve gone to the end of this trail once, but I’ve started at the beginning so, so many times.

The trail flaky orange like peanut butter.

People whiz by. What’s the rush? I visit old favorites. The twin-stemmed alligator juniper.

How important is it to conquer the trail, conquer the world? Is there something I need to be doing? I am unencumbered by a book contract (for now) with not a penny in my pocket to weigh me down. I think that might be alright, at least for today.

I’d like to branch out like an old tree. Reevaluate. Reassess. Probably won’t come to a conclusion any time soon. That’s okay.

Why do I do this thing, writing? Does it matter at all? Is it ego? More like id! No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, said the sage Samuel Johnson. Someone recently suggested that I put way too much time into this blog. Why would you do that? I felt stung, a bit. Well, it is true that as W. H. Auden famously, said, poetry makes nothing happen. (His words actually come from a great poem, in which he honors fellow poet W. B. Yeats. Auden goes on to say of poetry: it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.) A blog post is that idea of nothing happening squared. I am aware of that.

Well. Why then? Because I get a chance to write about white skies and white snow. Snow glow. The old twisted with the new. My doubts. My quest, such as it is, on any given day. Solipsistic? Caught. Some other people like it too. I know that, and I appreciate it. Close, closer, closest.

Someone I know with a long, storied career in trees told me he’s just begun singing at cabaret open mics. None but a blockhead ever sang but for money, certainly. He’d never done it before, and occasionally bombs. All things new and grand and unexpected.

I am searching for inosculated trees. Kissing trees. I’ve found them before and written about them before, but not yet today. Same old same old.

But what is your blog about? demanded the pleasant stranger. Well, I do things, and then I write about them. That’s it. Isn’t there a limit to the amount of Jean-juice anyone can digest? That’s why we have Alka Seltzer.

On the trail I pass a juniper that’s old and fat. (Like me. No complaints. I had granola this morning. That’s more than some of our friends on the southern border.) Something I never noticed before, it has a scroll of hieroglyphics hidden beneath the bark. The magic of beetles.

So many trees here fat and sassy, with intricately detailed and colorized skins.

Maybe it’s my way of escaping reality. I set my intention to find inosculated trees. Haven’t seen one example yet this morning, though I know I have on this trail before. That’s why we do it again and again.

A mess of needles.

I work things out in my mind as I go and as I write. Consider it a character flaw.

Beautiful and common shadbush.

Stalking the forest, seeking conjoined trees. They didn’t know what they were doing, and through a trick of the wind they grew closer and closer and decided to join forces.  I like the junipers with twinned trunks because they confound dendrologists who would love to count their rings to determine their age. They are ageless. It’s so brilliantly confusing.

But I love the inosculated ones because they’re more rare. Spotting them is hard, sometimes, they’re a secret hiding in plain sight. You sort of have to catch them in the act. Someone I know used to say all the time, We are so lucky. Perhaps. But of course you have to make your own luck, yada yada. And how do you do that? Sometimes by retracing your steps over and over and over again. I’ll feel lucky if I can find a conjoined tree. I know there’s one here someplace.

Finally I find a pair.

My work here is done.

Someone stops me on the trail: Do you know the way to the subway? Is she making some kind of hiker’s joke? No, I say, but if you continue on you’ll find the Indian cave. What do you mean, subway? Turns out it’s some kind of tunnel formation. Other hikers mention it too, everyone looking for the subway in Sedona. It’s supposedly a turn off the main trail by a red and green tree. Red and green tree? Interesting concept, said the supercilious arborist. Then I met up with this hand-painted trail marker, went in and looked around and didn’t find the subway, but maybe next time.

There are surprising numbers of hikers here today. Questers all.

Abel is 15 years old and hiked most of the trail before getting pooched. Others are taking pictures of the same sights I’m showing here.

Overheard on the trail: Do you ever feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop? Absolutely.

An old soldier. I’m impressed.

Sometimes you’re just hanging on for dear life.

There is an oak being beautiful around here, though I don’t see it at present.

I’m a trunk, you’re a stone. Would it be okay if we cohabit this place?

Pretty sure I’ve met up with this old geezer rock before.

Animal pee. Yes, we live here too. A hawk overhead, scree. The sound of snow plopping all around as the morning warms. Am I going to see something amazing now?

Place one foot in front of the other.

There’s so much to see.

Just don’t slip on the ice.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

What are your dreams for the new year?

What are your hopes? What are your prospects? What do you want to leave behind?

I like to prolong the transition from old year to new as long or longer than the next guy.

My tree stays up throughout January. Our decorations include quotes from favorite poems.

Auden, You shall love your crooked neighbor/ With your crooked heart.

W.S. Merwin, Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle./Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Frank O’Hara, oh god it’s wonderful to get out of bed and drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes and love you so much.

I love my Moby Dick ornament and don’t want to put it away too soon.

On the other hand, it’s time to move forward. All kinds of new ideas pertain to Christmas tree disposal. Let it become something new. Evolution.

The Berlin Zoo is known for furnishing trees to its elephants as playthings.  Closer to home, so does The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The North Georgia Zoo in Cleveland, Georgia, gratefully accepts trees for the “enrichment” of its kangaroos, porcupines, camels and wolves. Zookeepers swear it keeps their minds stimulated.

I’ve begun my own mental stimulation for 2023 by re-reading some Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun known for her pithy statements about how to experience life more fruitfully, including the kinds of run-of-the-mill disasters we all face and try to sweat through.

She has observed, so wisely: The first noble truth says simply that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort. Phew! I feel better already. I’m hoping that my habit of chasing rainbows will result in fewer catastrophes in the new year if pots of gold don’t materialize.

Feelings are not facts, in the trite psychology espoused by many a therapist, so let’s stick to what’s been proven.

Still… we chased a rainbow outside on the first day of the new year and guess what, it turned out to be a double.

I want to learn some new things in the new year that I didn’t know I wanted to know. Started today with Adventures in Great Symphonic Music, a delightful class taught by Bruce Pulk, principal timpanist with The Phoenix Symphony. A smart and emotional teacher who brings both his portable keyboard and conducting baton to class.

The subject: Alexander Borodin’s Symphony #2 in B Minor. Borodin, I learn, was one of the “Mighty Five” Russian nationalist composers in the second half of the nineteenth century, along with Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Moussorgsky and Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov. Only halfway literate in classical music, I appreciate mainly the andante with its sweet clarinet and other wind voices. The espressivo stuff.

Yet I can relate to what Pulk says about Shakespeare, in talking about how different conductors interpret famous works. To be, or not to be? That is the question—is only words on a page until it gets channeled by the likes of John Gielgud or Mel Brooks as they play Hamlet.

Or even, I would add, Sarah Bernhardt, she who played the gloomy prince in 1899.

I would like to bring my own interpretation to the world in 2023, and respect the interpretation of others so different from myself.

Listening to the allegretto, the tremolo, the poco piu animato, I have that fidgety feeling while experiencing music I don’t quite understand. All around me sit my classmates, people who have lived through probably two decades more new year’s transitions than I have, all perfectly quiet and attentive. No fidgeting. They’ve all learned to be still. To be there.

Will there be less fidgeting in 2023? More poetry? More pear tarts?

The possibility of living with discomfort, even welcoming it? Evolution. Both feelings and facts. All interpretation. More rainbows.

After all, rainbows are real, too.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Gulls get a bad rap but they are so freaking cool.

Saw two with fish on the secret bridge recently.

One flew overhead, the shiny wet corpus dangling from its beak, the other perched on the bridge railing, head tilted back, chugging its catch.

Gulls love to hunt from this Bailey bridge, a cool structure that was invented by British engineer Sir Donald Coleman Bailey during World War II with function of quick construction and the ability to bear great loads. This one, all of 400 yards long, connects the coast of New Jersey with Ellis Island. It cost $2.4 million to build in the 1980s and is invisible to most people – unless they are on staff at Ellis, or perhaps a contractor, or making a delivery or a park police. It’s how I drive to work.

Me and the gulls. They’re always working, even when they are standing stock still. Ever alert, ever watchful. Steely-eyed. Focused. Did you know that seabirds’ sense of smell is excellent? As good as their eyesight.

And please, don’t call them seagulls. There is no such thing. Thirty-four species of gulls can be found throughout the world. They belong to a large family named Laridae, which also includes terns, kittiwakes, and skimmers, with a Greek derivation meaning “ravenous sea bird.”

I think I’m being followed. Are they everywhere? Or is it just me. Here is the WPA-commissioned mural at LaGuardia’s Terminal A, which I noticed as I waited to enter security this morning.

Flight, imagined by James Brooks in 1940, got painted over in 1952 by rabid McCarthy-ite forces who thought it was pro-commie. By a miracle it had been preserved beneath a coat of varnish, to emerge just as beautiful when restored in 1980. It tells the story of Icarus and Daedelus and Pan Am all at the same time, accompanied by, what else, a flock of gulls.

In fact, gulls are everywhere. Gulls thrive in the thousands, the millions, all the world over. Naturalist Adam Nicolson in his masterful work The Seabird’s Cry focuses his attention on gulls as well as puffins, gannets and the mighty albatross. It is required reading if you want to understand these canny creatures.

You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open sea. It goes, that’s all. So said Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor famous for round-the-world single-sailing adventures, who knew a thing or two about disappearing toward the open sea.

When you take note of gulls you’ll see differences in their appearance – herring gulls, most common around New York Harbor, feature grey wings, while the ring-billed have, of course, a black ring around the bill. There are others too, but the point is they all, as Nicolson puts it, share the same “mentality, their opportunism, their particular mixture of the brilliant and the obtuse.”

Yes, they can be greedy, yes, they can be loud and obnoxious. But can’t we all? Nicolson observes that unlike most sea birds, gulls are “coastal creatures, living on the ecotone, that margin between life systems, picking at the leavings of the tide, relishing the comings and goings of a beach. They are not unlike us, who have always thrived on the shore, shuffling our way through its multiple resources, turning to the sea when the land is inadequate, to the land when the sea refuses to deliver. We and the gulls are co-habitants of the same world, uncomfortably recognizing each other, thriving in the same way, behaving badly in the same way.”

I’ve noticed them during the past year strutting their stuff at Ellis. They like to lurk near the outdoor café tables, begging for table scraps, which people gladly give them even though they might know that feeding wildlife human victuals is bad for beings not human. They make a lot of noise because they are expert communicators. Again, Nicolson: “This is the herring gull’s long call, its neck down first, hieeee, then a sudden jerking up, the head high, undulating, yellow mouth wide open, its throat visibly oscillating with each syllable, the whole body gradually bending forward, a marshalling cry, ay ay ay ay ay, slowly lowering so that the gull ends nearly horizontal, its urge to call exhausted and all conviction gone.” Crisis over, it settles.

In coastal nesting grounds, colonies of thousands, they engage in complex social behaviors. They mince, dance and vocalize about everything from hunger and possible predators to anger, to submission, to, yes, coupling.

In fact, gulls have a noble history in the study of animal behavior. Nobel-prize-winning expert Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen studied the vocalizations of herring gulls in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In The Herring Gull’s World (1954) he observed that while at first a colony would appear to be utter chaos, “it soon becomes evident…that it must be an intricate social structure, organized according to some sort of a plan. The individuals are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”

A ritual called a “choking display” takes place when gull partners dispute the proper site for a nest. The behavior includes a repetitive, delicate murmur given by one member of the pair who thinks it has found the ideal spot on the ground: the huoh-huoh-huoh choke call. They might be better at negotiating this kind of thing than we oh-so-intelligent humans are.

I had a long confab recently with a juvenile ring-billed gull near the secret bridge. She still bore some brown speckles, which she would ultimately grow out of. The day was soare cu dinţi – that is the perfect Romanian phrase for a sunny but briskly cold day. It means, if you want to be literal, sun with teeth. Gulls like cold, wind, ice, you name it. They’re the opposite of fussy.

She was pecking at crumbs on the seawall and barely seemed to notice me.

I had some corn muffin crumbs of my own, left over in a paper bag from breakfast, and shook them out for her even though I knew it was wrong. They’ll eat anything. Even baby gulls. Don’t hate them for it.

They’re survivors.

A bigger, older gull chased her off. I was sorry to see her go.

As I noted, some gulls are cannibals. Others do nurture their young, but so privately that you’ll never ordinarily see a chick. Spot Baby Speckles here?

Even their color is smart.

Why are gulls mainly white? It is in fact “aggressive camouflage,” which allows birds that dive for their prey to get closer to fish without being noticed as they would if they were darker in hue. Some gulls have black faces, which researchers have found makes sense from a territorial standpoint. A black face, it seems, can frighten other gulls away.

“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them,” writes C.S Lewis about the capital of Narnia. “Before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you ever heard it? Can you remember?”

Gulls can fly as fast as 28 mph. They can even drink salty ocean water when thirsty – each one has a special pair of glands right above its eyes to flush salt out through openings in its bill. What this means is that they can remain out at sea for longer to forage for food without needing to return to shore to get a drink of fresh water.

These acrobats of the air live between 5 to 15 years in the wild. Their roots are ancient. Fossils of the species Gansus yumenensis, first found at Changma in northwestern China, and nearly all water birds, including loons, grebes, penguins, pelicans, and gulls, can be traced back to this single common ancestor 110 million years ago, in the early part of the Cretaceous period.

They’ve had time to reach a sort of liminal perfection, if you ask me.

Next time you see a gull, don’t give it a crust of bread. Just give it some respect.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Magical miniatures everywhere you turn

at New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show.

A smart novelist named Christopher Moore said, Children see magic because they look for it. Yes, especially on Christmas Eve. Today. If you want to conjure up A Visit From Saint Nicholas, by another writer named Moore, Clement Clark Moore, go to the New-York Historical Society (so genuine a place they kept the hyphen). They have both his desk and the original manuscript.

Here at NYBG you’ll have to make do with a perfect replica. All the New York icons are here. A Macy’s behemoth.

A diminutive Bethesda Fountain, the original installed in 1873, presented here in a small jewel of a Central Park.

Everything is hand crafted of natural materials: pine bark, black cherry, eucalyptus stems, grapevine, acorn caps, magnolia leaves and many more.

The trains range from the traditional locomotive to the cutesy ladybug.

Childish wonder prevails. Most people are rapt.

Some not so much.

I hear a father counseling a bored pre-teen daughter: Just take it in. Another grinch opines in a loud whisper: Is there an adults-only time slot? True, there are many puffy coats jostling up against each other in front of the more popular displays, and lots of fidgety kiddos. But most visitors are delighted to be out of the deep freeze and crowded in to the steamy Enid A. Haupt Observatory, marveling and posing.

I think I love the most the way some structures glow from within.

And of course finding my old favorites here. The New York Public Library, complete with its lions, Patience and Fortitude.

Because it is New York, where we tend to color outside the lines, locations outside the city limits can also be found here at the train show. Like Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s snuggery in Tarrytown, complete with a perfect little wisteria vine.

The George Washington Bridge, of course, but also, nestled beneath it, the Little Red Lighthouse.

Always something new. I notice a rendition of the Freedom Tower, as if the Freedom Tower was constructed of glass. What natural material was used to create this effect? Dragonfly spittle?

If you can drag your eyes away from the trains you’ll find some equally amazing plant life. Goeppertia insignis hails from Brazil. Ripe green smell of the rain forest.

A wonderful program started in 1992 in New York City. Called Poetry in Motion, it features brief poems by famous and not-so-famous writers posted in metropolitan subway cars. Poet Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate whose work manages to straddle both critical acclaim and popular appeal, has said, I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program. One of his poems, Grand Central, features a building here miniaturized.

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

At the train show, Grand Central is a standout. I kinda wish there was a tree stump large as this one framing the real magilla. That would be cool.

There are no subway cars here. I ask a Botanical Garden staffer to explain. The “MTA cars wouldn’t have the proper gauge to fit on the tracks,” he articulates before wishing me a Merry Christmas.

I don’t know why, if in this universe they can perfectly capture a vanished Coney Island, it’s not possible to produce a subway car with poetry in it.

Charles Simic also has contributed to Poetry in Motion.

Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.

Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.

The art of the train show manages to be both mundane and sublime. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. So do these small, intricate, perfect displays. What would New York be without its water towers? Look closely, they are here throughout.

By the way, if the holiday season finds you in need of poetic sustenance, you can make a toll-free call courtesy of the Poetry Society of America and hear the work of Pablo Neruda read aloud by Billy Collins. The number is (212) 202-5606. You can do it while standing in the cold at the New York Botanical Garden or in the steamy enclave where the Garden has perfectly reproduced itself.

Or just gaze in backlit windows of these sublimely silent tableaux.

You might relate to the following, The Moment, by Marie Howe, also from a subway car posting:

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
when,     nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe    half a moment
the rush of traffic stops. 
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Bye the bye, my New Year’s resolution for this as every year is to eliminate the word should from my vocabulary. Life becomes more magical. It’s tough to do, but I think worthwhile. You should do it too.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman


is the best word to describe the remarkable images photographer Patrick Tierney captures while roaming around his native Los Angeles.

Mainly in the dark.

Many of his subjects project a kind of glow from the inside.

Makes me think of the creepy Tom Waits song: What’s He Building In There? Often featured, something I love, vernacular signage.

Pat Tierney knows every inch of South Bay in general and Torrance in particular, Quentin-Tarantino territory. He has talked about how he was inspired in his youth in a conversation he had with Eric Saks, his co-director on the amazing film Don From Lakewood. “When I was a child, I had these vivid memories of atmosphere and mood, just these pleasurable memories of place and time when I was alone.”

“I was an infant, and I was in my crib on the front drive. My mom was washing dishes watching me. The wind was coursing through this stand of bamboo. For some reason, it was so pleasurable, I never forgot it, and I think of it even now.”

About walking home from school: “All the fathers’ cars were at work, and the streets were empty. If you can look at it from today’s perspective, it looked like an empty movie lot, the whole neighborhood. In the middle of the day it was long shadows and houses, sterile, new tract homes, lit by these long shadows. There were Japanese gardeners silently working in the flower beds, and I would see one or two. Just this whole quietude, no cars on the street. The mothers were all inside doing housekeeping. It struck me, it was ecstatic.”

A lot of his current work focuses on light industry or fast food places or gas stations.

But also questionable residential areas.

Don’t know about you, but I find the images thrillingly mysterious.

“These scenes are silent and lonely,” he says. “It’s this sweet quietude.”

Someone give this man a show, or publish his work, or something! He deserves it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

I was gifted with tree books recently

and it’s not even Christmas!

My brother the vagabond decided to clean out his storage space, getting rid of books among other things. Knowing I was writing a book about trees and forests, he thought of me. I get it. We just did the same – winnowed down storage and some books had to go, whether to sell to the Strand in New York City or to donate to the local PTSA. It’s hard to part with books you love if you’re a writer, or a reader.

I take a walk with my writer friend Barbara to clear my head. Exquisite waterfront park in charming Irvington, New York.

Right by the Hudson.

On the other side, the southbound train.

Everything picturesque.

Do you have a friend you walk with? Nice to speak of things that matter, and also things that don’t matter so much. The holidays, recipes, health challenges, problems, possibilities, writing. Books. Some of the books my brother gave me are famous, like Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Others not so much.

But still sure to be fascinating. So many tree books on the shelf already!

So many trees in the park. Dazzling zelkovas with their rain-drop jewelry.

Honey locust, always over the top with its textured bark.

Gorgeous plant life all around.

We pass one tree after the next, talking, talking.

Good to look down once in a while as well as up.

As the weather changes, it’s good to come home to a book. To give a book – it doesn’t have to be about trees. My brother’s book, The Jazz Masters: Setting the Record Straight, would be a nice choice for a Christmas present. He interviewed the finest musicians, now elderly, and got some fascinating stories.

Most of the trees in this park have dedications inscribed at the base.

One is still available.

As if it were a library. Reserve yours today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Turning over the controls to Jasper and Tyler

as the 16- and almost 16-year-olds celebrate biscuits! We had our biscuit-making tutorial yesterday to the strains of Mozart’s wind instrument concertos, in between talk of a class lobbying trip to Washington (Tyler), musical endeavors (Jasper) and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Their own effort (“Poetry always has crazy indentations!”) followed by their recipe.

ode to biscuits

o, sweet (or rather 

unsweet) biscuit

of leaf-lard and table-salt


and self-

       rising flour



ferocious and


let rest

then rise 

o, biscuit 

eternally biscuatious

jasper zimmerman, tyler levan, 2022



  • 4 cups self-rising flour, plus more for the work surface
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tbsp baking powder
  • ¾ pound (3 sticks) salted butter, cold, cut into ½-inch pieces pieces or grated
  • 3 butter sticks or 2 butter sticks and half a cup of lard

To make self-rising flour, mix

  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Mix ingredients in a bowl. Use a pastry cutter to turn mixture into a consistency between the size of cornmeal and peas. Add the buttermilk. Mix with a large fork. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

After 30 minutes, put some flour on a cutting board, and plop dough on it. Coat the baking sheet with flour. Roll the dough out to ¼ inch thickness. Then, use a Mason jar or a cookie cutter to make biscuits. Finagle the biscuits out if they’re stuck in the jar. Put them on a baking sheet, and put the sheets in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool, and spread butter and jam on the biscuits. Enjoy!


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Let’s go to NYC!

Let’s go! seems to be my pet phrase of the moment. I must use it a dozen times during every tour at Ellis Island. So when friends said they had had the archetypal NYC day recently, visiting the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street followed by the famed Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, I had just one thought.

Let’s go.

Crispy, crumbly elephant ears on the train to Grand Central are a must. And the view along the Hudson. Even after the millionth time. John Cheever said, Better views than the Mediteranean about the Hudson Valley.

Manhattan in December features the usual fashionista tourists, and also the always welcome juxtaposition of hats for sale and tall buildings to gawk at. The lions that greet you at the front of the Library, Patience and Fortitude, have received their holiday adornment.

The exhibit currently on view at the Library, Treasures, features an assortment of the most extraordinary things from the 56 million the institution is lucky enough to own. For example, the custom-made dress shoes of Arthur Toscanini, the dramatic conductor whose shenanigans while performing resulted in many broken batons and chronic pain in his right shoulder and arm.

A 1908 poster advertising one of Houdini’s most death-defying feats.

A powerful 1971 sculpture by American feminist Elizabeth Catlett called “Political Prisoner.” Maybe Houdini could offer some get-out-of-shackles pointers.

Just down the way, the original Winnie the Pooh, given to the real Christopher Robin Milne on his first birthday, and, even more interesting because I had never glimpsed it before, the original Tigger. And because I always really liked Tigger the best.

A sumptuous altar gospel from 1791. Silver and enamel. Nothing else in the world compares. Sort of like you or me.

A comic book about Harriet Tubman. What?

From the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime, with a picture of three greats, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, captured by jazz bassist Milt Hinton, who also happened to be a great photographer.

Of course it makes sense that the most important library in the world (to me) would have some amazing literary artifacts. Some I’d seen at an earlier exhibit but never tire of include Dickens’ lecture copy of David Copperfield from 1861. The writer loved giving over-the-top performances of passages from the book, and wrote to a friend, I read “Copperfield” and positively enthralled the people. It was a most overpowering effect, and poor Andrew [a lieutenant in the Royal Navy] came behind the screen, after the storm, and cried in the best and manliest manner. Also on display, Dickens’ paper knife, embellished with the mummified paw of his beloved cat Bob.

And the desk chair where the great man plopped his bottom down to produce his amazing work.

Also a favorite, the walking stick Virginia Woolf took on her final walk in 1941 to her drowning death in the River Ouse. They recovered the cane later.

At this point it would do well to note that some of the most impressive things at the Library are not in the exhibit proper but the exhibit’s surroundings. Look up at the intricately carved ceiling.

Or down at the floor, at the buffed brass electrical plate. Another gem, and it didn’t cost them anything.

A couple of other favorites. The Castello Plan, the first street map of New York City, dating to 1660.

And the Greensward Plan, the original map of Central Park.

I happen to know because I wrote a book about a man named I.N. Phelps Stokes that he was responsible  for salvaging both of these precious items from obscurity — the Central Park map mouldering in the City Arsenal basement, the Castello Plan disintegrating on the wall of a remote Italian palazzo. But I see no mention of Stokes in the extensive write-ups of these treasures.

So let’s go elsewhere in the Library for more Stokesiana. I spent much time here when I was researching the mighty collector of New York history – he was one of the founders of the library back in the day and had an office here on the second floor. In these uncertain times, security is tight all around the place. I couldn’t wander back to see his old office as once was possible. Two stern volunteers prohibited my passage before posing for the camera. “Do you have a gun?” asked one, smiling politely.

One flight up, more rules. It is no longer possible to simply walk into the Rose Reading Room, or along the echoing marble corridors, which have new barricades and guards all around. A nice person named Sam who was there in some official capacity escorted me around to see the changes the digital age has wrought – you no longer submit card catalog requests via a pneumatic tube, for example, one of the wonders of doing research here in the past. To return the favor, I introduced him to the wonderful bit in the lower right hand corner of one of Edward Laning’s monumental murals, dedicated to Stokes, who had them installed here in 1940. Except for his unfailing helpfulness and encouragement these paintings would not have been. Indeed.

Enough with the nostalgia and out through the new, expanded gift shop. A chachka in every pot.

We pass one more nostalgic favorite on our way, surely the last remaining phone booth in New York City, where I dropped many a quarter back in the day.

Hungry? Let’s go. It’s time for the Oyster Bar, founded in 1913 at the behest of Cornelius Vanderbilt himself and pretty much exactly the same now. A good way to enter is the back-door staircase to the Saloon, strictly for cognoscenti.

The cognoscenti also sit at the counter and know to ask for the oyster stew, made to order. You can get a lot of other fancy stuff at the Oyster Bar, but why would you? Carlos has been at the restaurant 31 years.

He filled me in on some closely held Oyster Bar secrets. Have you ever noticed that people will tell you secrets, if you only ask?

There are six oysters in each plate of stew, he confided – more if the chef decides he likes you. The oysters in the stew are all bluepoints, because that particular variety is neither too salty nor too sweet. Customers also order bluepoints on the half shell – sometimes two, three, four dozen at a pop. Yum. The place shut down for 18 months during the Pandemic. What did you do during your time off, go fishing? I asked. No! he said. Porno and pot.

At Doughnut Plant, the Marzipan Star special “just dropped yesterday,” the haughty counterperson told me. Worth every calorie.

Just outside the Oyster Bar is the famous whispering gallery, low ceramic arches designed famously by Guastavino. If you stand in one corner and speak in a low tone, through acoustical wizardry your buddy standing all the way across the hall at the other side of the arch can hear you perfectly. Everybody standing around like in Blair Witch.

Am I hearing I love you or Let’s go! Does it matter?


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

If you ever have known anyone who died “too young”

you probably get a hitch in your chest around old graveyards, places where mysteries exist as to cause of death but not the carved-in-stone age of the person buried. Thinking about it, I drive to work along all the tangled metropolitan-area highways before dawn, the tips of the tree branches brushing the tarnished gray skies. Thinking about a burial place I visited recently. The Community Church of Yorktown cemetery wraps itself softly around the historic structure dating to 1848.

Situated on Baptist Church Road in Yorkville Heights, the place originally belonged to a Baptist congregation, serving a community known as Huntersville, which largely disappeared when the New Croton Dam sunk much of the area under water after its completion in 1906.

In a beautiful spot on a country road, the burial ground has dozens of pre-revolutionary graves. It’s a site that can’t help but make you wonder about the people who have come before, all the ones who used a big old key in the church’s big old front door.

This morning, as I crest the hill on the highway, a strip of orange flame appears on the horizon. Sailors take warning. At the cemetery, I poked around among the stones. So many appeared to have died too young.

Either really, really young. Babies.

Or many in their 20’s.

Or 30’s.

It seemed as though if you just survived your 30’s you might get all the way to your 80’s.

This is why I like to go to do tree work in Queens, nice and early: the horizon glows, salmon, blush pink, cotton candy pink, all the tired descriptors for the endlessly new phenomenon of dawn. We don’t have words adequate to describe sunrise. Or death, for that matter. All you can do is experience it. I drive beneath the chain of lights glimmering on the Whitestone spans. The pink ribbon of sky dazzles beyond the burning red taillights, and then, finally, over the site I’m bound for, a thicket of red brick housing development buildings.

Everyone has someone they know who died too young. Or probably more than one. For me first, a boy, a friend who was found suddenly dead when we were teenagers. Also, a friend robbed of her life by cancer when our kids were just graduating high school. Or an aunt, a dazzling person, a beauty queen with substance abuse problems, at around the age of 40. Too soon, too soon.

The graves on Baptist Road, haunting. Haunted.

I always find myself wandering off to the edges of a burial ground, as if I’ll find some answers on the outskirts. Every one of us is losing something precious to us, said Haruki Murakami. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.

Answers about what? The people here? Death? Life?

Anyway, it’s the ones on the fringes, the unmaintained, I like the best. And I always love it when stones nudge up against trees. The person who carved one of these monuments in all probability personally knew the person buried beneath it.

Today thinking about my New York grandmother—she died in her 80’s and had a good life but still I felt she went too early, just as I was getting to appreciate her as an adult. So it’s not only a question of age. There was an older woman I worked with, helping her write a book when I was just learning to write books. I sure cried when she died, and it felt too soon, though she was already a grandmother. I felt broken.

By total coincidence, as I drive into Queens a song comes on the radio called Hollywood Forever Cemetery by pop god Father John Misty: But someone’s got to help me dig/Someone’s got to help me dig. Always good to go do tree protection. Doesn’t it sound grand: tree protection? It’s something of a privilege to help save trees in New York City. Today, a London plane standing obstinately in the area designated by some city official as the proper place for a new pedestrian ramp. The soft-hearted field engineer wants a tree consultant to weigh in. Well, no, the excavation would in fact damage the roots and hurt the tree. Danger averted. We’re both relieved. And rather proud.

I wonder what Nat, my teenage friend who loved nature, would think about saving this London plane. Or my pal Debbie. Or my grandmother. What if the people you lost too soon could come back for a bit to have a cup of coffee with you, say, what would that be like? You could catch up. Just for a few moments? Or my father, for that matter, now gone not quite a year. He knew I became a late in life arborist, but what would he think of this bright sunrise, these bland brick buildings, their doorways and decorative plantings draped in twinkling holiday lights?

Helen Keller said, What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us. You don’t need to climb the steps of a church, even a picturesque church, to know what she meant.

The beautiful uncut hair of graves, wrote the immortal Whitman. Sometimes shorn, but still breathtaking.

And that’s something, a way of coping with too soon, too young. Shakespeare recommended: Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break. So though I am not sanguine about death, that works to some extent. The impulse to give sorrow words.

There’s also, for some people, protecting trees. Splendid sawtooth oak on 33rd Avenue agrees, shaking its shaggy branches in a gust of wind.

Too soon? Not me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

A rainy tree day is better than no tree day at all

if you happen to be heading north to New England for your holiday Concolor, the evergreen that gifts your home with the scent of citrus.

Is there anything cornier than a Christmas tree farm?

Sleighbell’s, in Sutton, Massachusetts, even has a food truck with corn on the menu…28 different varieties of kettle corn, including Coal in Your Stocking, Buffalo Bang and Bananas Foster.

Better get an early start, while the neon on the sign of our Village’s main drag diner still glows.

This is the smallest tree farm I’ve visited, with mainly pipsqueak specimens.

Have the larger ones been harvested already this year? All that are left come about up to your chin. Time to reimagine the look of your holiday great room.

If you have a great room. We don’t, so we’re fine with what Santa has made available to us this holiday. What’s here is undeniably hokey. The air in the shop is thick with sentiment and has a toy train running and a great vintage display.

But still, less corny than some places. There is real atmosphere under the lowering skies. A mammoth white oak muscling up over it all.

A pond, beyond.

A nifty bird house.

A bird’s nest someone saved, displayed on a perfect spot, a trailer hitch.

A warming fire where you can chow down on your turkey sandwich picnic. Mulled cider, bourbon optional.

A very nice young couple with a very nice couple of dogs.

Oh, wait, they’re the ones we’re meeting here! Maud and Dan. Gus and Ottie. Excellent. Saws for all.

When your tree is small you only need to take one or two rest breaks while cutting it. Easy for me to say.


As if that’s not enough corn, a trip to Vaillancourt in Sutton, the long-time, globally celebrated designer of snazzy ornaments, shipped all over the world. The store is also a museum and a workshop where little old ladies paint Santa’s and snowmen and Christmas trees as if their livelihoods depended upon it. Which they do. Mr. Vaillancourt happened to be giving a presentation and he spoke about an employee who decided to call it quits at the age of 85. He said to her, Why are you retiring so early?

Snow globes galore. I’ve been dreaming about how I’d like to move into a cozy snow globe, shut out the world, perhaps with a fire and a couple of puppies and guests I like. A private life of magic.

Hard to figure which are the most amazing.

Sometimes spooky items for sale here.

Plenty of Belsnickles, anyway.

All I know is that at 100 or more dollars a handcrafted trinket they are too precious and too rich for my blood.

The rain held off until the long highway slog home. Would be nice to have some of that Buffalo Bang right about now. Time to shake out the tree, throw on the lights, string cranberries. We’ll make our own corn at home.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman