Tag Archives: Trees

Forests just exist out there somewhere.

Don’t they? They just grow and will go on growing forever.

We all know that animals go extinct.

Think of the thylacine, whose species died out in New Zealand toward the middle of the twentieth century. This incredible dog-like marsupial with the jaw of a crocodile was hunted out of existence, and the last one spent its final days in a cage.

Or the passenger pigeon, in the nineteenth century. They flew in clouds so gigantic that they blocked out the light of the sun. But their numbers were ultimately decimated for food and sport.

Or the elephant bird, a flightless wonder 10 feet tall that disappeared from Madagascar, the island where it made its home, around 1,000 AD. Think mega-ostrich.

When fauna die off, we mourn their loss  — at least I do. And now people are taking steps to ensure the survival of some, like the mountain gorilla, and the leatherback turtle. Only two northern white rhinos remain on earth, and they are kept carefully fenced in a Kenyan nature preserve. A third rhino, a male, died a few years back and so these two females have no way of continuing the line of succession. It’s over. Actually, not if some crazy Italian scientists have their way — they developed 12 embryos of the northern white rhino and we’ll see what happens.

It might come as a surprise to learn that certain trees also stand in danger of extinction. To be precise, as science has been on this point, one in three of the world’s tree species are now at risk of becoming extinct. A consortium of experts called The Global Tree Assessment has done its homework and found that In fact there are twice as many threatened tree species as there are mammals,  birds, amphibeans and reptiles combined.

It is crushing to learn that more than 400 tree species have less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Some are familiar, say the members of the Global Tree Assessment – even magnolias, oaks and maples, surprisingly, are at risk.

 But a lot of these endangered species grow far away, in tropical forests, and it’s more or less out of sight, out of mind. These forested areas have been logged out, cleared for farming, or invaded by various pests and diseases. When the trees go, habitat for birds and animals goes too. It’s devastating.

Forests cover approximately 31%of the world’s land surface and their total economic value has been estimated at around $150 trillion.  They contain around 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon and help provide 75% of its accessible freshwater. These benefits could be lost if tree species go extinct.

Here are a few examples of trees in trouble. Blink and they may disappear.

Mahogany might be the best known threatened tree. Swietenia macrophylla is one of the most valuable hardwoods, used for furniture and musical instruments, cherished for its beauty. One tree alone can be worth many thousands of dollars. Native to the tropics of the Americas, it was one of the first to be called out as endangered, due to illegal logging.

African Cherry’s bark contains a compound that has proven useful in treating medical disorders such as prostrate problems, malaria and kidney disease. The international trade in the bark of Prunus africana is fully $200 million. Overharvesting has led to its demise.

Highly fragrant Agarwood produces a resin that is used in perfume and incense. Aquilaria malaccensis has a global trade value of $32 billion. The production of the resin is stimulated when it suffers the attack of a dangerous fungus. Overharvesting, again, has led to as many as 20 species being threatened..

Dipterocarps can be found in Southeast Asia – 680 species grow there. Often the most abundant trees in the forest canopy, it produces high quality timber. From the island of Borneo alone come $3.5 billion worth of exports each year, and 182 species face extinction. The tallest known tropical tree, Shorea faguetiana, may ultimately disappear.

Closer to home is the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, the source of the anti-cancer drug Paclitaxel. Logging threatens to wipe the tree out.

What can a person do? Well, don’t take forests for granted. Don’t take trees for granted. If we do that, some may go the way of the thylacine. Also, develop alternatives. Different medicines. Different flooring. A guitar made with a different type of wood. Or learn to play the banjo.

It’s a change of mindset. By the time we start feeling bad about it, it will be too late.

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Are butterflies intelligent?

Yes. If intelligence is the ability to seek out nectar and pollinate flowers, yes. In terms of long-term travel to their southern climes and back, Monarchs in particular never cease to amaze.

But are they dependable? In terms of showing up when they’re expected, to bask in humans’ adoration? Not so much. 

The events of the day at Wave Hill, the century and a half old estate that is now an arboretum and horticultural center, were supposed to highlight butterflies. There was a “Nature Walk: Butterflies in the Garden” and special arts and crafts activities for families. The last expedition had just gone out when we arrived mid-afternoon, so we thought we’d go it alone.

We saw brilliant flowers.

Of all colors.

Shapes. Sizes.

Surely some that would appeal to a butterfly.

Look, there’s a monarch! said Gil. But it had vanished.

I see a little white one, said Josefa. A cabbage moth, corrected Gil.

There were some bees of different types. Where there were bees wouldn’t you expect butterflies?

We learned that Louis Bauer, the horticultural director at Wave Hill, was going to be honored at a party in a couple of days. I met Louis when I sold him a tree inventory for Wave Hill a few years ago. I remember asking him how he kept everything so beautiful in the greenhouses there. I go in three or four times a day and stick my finger in the soil to see if they have enough water, he said. Simple genius.

The greenhouses, of course, had no butterflies, but some prehistoric looking desert plants.

And a buxom cactus.

More flowers. Nothing fluttered by.

Quiet trails.

Vistas in every direction. Some of them private.

The most fabulous view out over the Hudson was getting ready for its closeup with white wedding party chairs.

We just about gave up. Not only did we not see butterflies, we didn’t see anybody looking for butterflies. Was this some colossal joke?

A sculpture on the lawn made use of succulents, moss, and a tire fetched out of the Bronx River.

Wave Hill has a pair of copper beeches to die for. One of the elephantine pair has pristine bark that you just want to go up to and pet. The other’s branches drape down to the ground and hide a trunk covered with a venerable array of  carvings. I have always liked beech bark carvings. It makes for a good place to meet a friend for a private assignation. I feel like I’ve done that sometime, in another life.

We stretched out in the adirondack chairs that make Wave Hill an even more perfect place. In the mellow shade of a white oak. The burnished glaze of fall made us collapse with thirst.

So the winged creatures missed the cameras and the oohs and ahhs. They took the nectar and ran. They had better places to hang out. They’re that smart.

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Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

to some people, but others take painstaking care to preserve them.

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

His job is exclusively to build and repair tree guards on the Grand Concourse construction site. He is, he told me, officially a carpenter by trade, as far as the union is concerned. That’s an honorable and well-paid profession. But we’re lucky to have him doing what he does. He squares up the enclosures and hammers the boards together, often standing back to scrutinize them before he starts to correctly gauge the tenor of the job.

We’re chatting.

You must get tired of this, I say, referring to the orange snow fencing, a bale of which he carries around with him much of the day. It’s constantly getting ripped from the frames and he is constantly fixing it.

No, he says. I used to be. But now I covered my house with it inside and out, that’s how much I like it.

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

What I see is a skinny, herky jerky guy who dances down the Concourse like a leprechaun, cigarette in mouth, hammer in hand, tool belt clanking, working his magic to protect the trees from harm.

It’s good you do it, I say. Otherwise the crew would knock down the trees.

No, they wouldn’t, he contradicts. They know they’re living things. I tell them that that tree there was Jesus’ original crown of thorns.

He means the honey locust – the site has a forest of them. Tree workers hate them because they get pricked so bad.

No, says Jimmy. The guys appreciate the trees. They are sweethearts. Really.

Well, shut my mouth. Sometimes I think a particular machine operator takes some sadistic joy in breaking branches with his bucket.

Still, I know that one day these tree guards will come off and the honey locusts and American elms and London planes and amur maples will once again introduce themselves to the world, and the neighborhood will be the better for it. It takes work to preserve them, but it’s well worth it.

Jimmy is a lot of things, a philosopher, a comedian, even an arborist. I told him I appreciated what he does and he told me he appreciated me appreciating what he does.

And he may possibly an actor. A producer discovered him on the job and told him he wanted him for a bit part on screen.  Then he came back. He told Jimmy they decided they wanted him for a bigger role. He was just too good to be a cameo.

That would be great, he’d get his SAG card and hobnob with hot shots. But it would be a loss for the Grand Concourse to have him no longer nurturing the tree guards, butt in mouth, a hammer in his hand.

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It started out a good day

and wound up even better. At 7:30 am I stood on the Grand Concourse sidewalk petting Spartacus, a dog belonging to a neighborhood guy.

This massive animal, an Italian Mastiff (or Cane Corso) was a puppy at 150 pounds and destined to grow bigger. He was gentle as a kitten.

The afternoon progressed as usual, inspecting trees and their roots in trenches, munching plantain chips, drinking too much iced coffee.

Then we head to a concert at a place called Brooklyn Steel: Black Pumas, the psychedelic-rhythm and blues band whose smash Colors has had everyone entranced in the past year.

First, to eat. A Taste of Heaven pops up as right around the corner from the concert, in east Williamsburg.

You here for the venue? says Tony, who owns the place and is chief cook. Well, yes.

Jerk ribs, cabbage, collard greens from an aluminum dish with a plastic fork. From a steam table. A quart container of mango KoolAid to slake the thirst, because everything is popping with spice.

We dine outside, no indoor seating, at a tiny table. About the best grub I’ve had recently, and that includes a fancy restaurant high in the air where you had an extraordinary vision of verdant central park stretched out in front of you. The food, not so extraordinary. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dined out someplace supposedly fantastic and said I could do better at home.

Not here. I can’t fathom how he turned out this food in his tiny kitchen, but it is magical.

We’re number one on Yelp, says Tony, leaving his station and setting another tin of jerk ribs down in front of us gratis so we can both try them. And, in fact, checking out Tony’s boast, A Taste of Heaven stands out on Yelp as number one out of 184 soul food restaurants in New York. Unfortunately they have no dessert, but an elderly lady sitting on the one chair inside pulls a yellow supermarket cake out of her plastic shopping bag and offers to give me a slice. She urges me to take it. It’s lemon! she says.

In case you want to find a Taste of Heaven, it stands at a crossroads.

Marked by the eternally ubiquitous sneakers that hang from a wire above the street.

A short drive takes us to find something sweet, through Brooklyn’s gentrified blocks with their clean sidewalks and glossy windows. Mature willows tower over young ginkgos..

A super-spare and clean gym open to the street.

Some great band names.

Entertaining murals. Note: you can’t see JFK’s face with the naked eye, only with the camera. A mystery how it’s done.

A chocolate cone is good on this end-of-summer evening, yet brings us up close to a ghost bike, one of the shrines you find all around town to bicyclists killed in traffic. Descansos, as they’re called in the Southwest, where the victims of highway accidents are sometimes memorialized by side-of-the-highway assemblages of car parts, in addition to photos and other sentimental items.

It gave me a frisson of PTSD since I recently had a bike wreck which left me banged up and bruised and slightly concussed. All better now.

The venue was jammed, the last of a four-night stint.

And the Black Pumas?

They rock. Almost as much as Tony’s jerk ribs.

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Median Cool

A raised traffic median is just a long trough with soil in it. And, of course, plantings, and sometimes trees.

The City of New York has applied its hive mind to widening the street medians of the Grand Concourse, which is what brings me here – to inspect the existing trees that might be impacted by the street construction, and to check out the importation of shrubs etc. when it takes place later this fall, in the cool planting season.

So… why is this happening? We’re talking about a raised median, which is rare in NYC. Yes, there is the West Side Highway, which I was lucky enough to tour in a golf cart earlier this year when bidding for a job to maintain its vegetation.

There’s a strip of beautiful trees and roses in season dividing two lengths of highway, all with a phenomenal view of the Hudson River.

Every median holds 24 inches of soil above the roadbed, according to the Department of Transportation Street Design guidelines. Hard to imagine this collection of construction debris materializing into a cohesive bed of plants, but that’s the plan. And crews are hard at work making it happen.

It seems that the point is not only beautifying a thoroughfare but controlling the vehicles that use it. Lane narrowing, which comes about when more space is taken up by medians, has the effect of what the experts call “traffic calming.” Sometimes cities remove an entire lane, which is known as a “road diet.” In this case the road will still be wide, 2 lanes northbound and southbound and service lanes on either side as well.

There is a famous, old traffic median in this city, running the length of Park Avenue north of the Helmsley building, which straddles it. It might be worth visiting NYC just to drive through that twisty tunnel. The median’s tulips and begonia beds date to the 1950s.

The park narrowed over the years but I’ve always found it beautiful, and obviously diligently cared for.

Back in the day, traffic was a bit unwieldy in NYC, especially at the turn of the century, when horse carts jockeyed for space with street cars, pedestrians and even some automobiles.

Pictures from the turn of the 20th century  show traffic going every which way. It definitely needed some calming! Park Avenue, though, was a respite – it was actually a pedestrian park seated in the middle of a tamer Park Avenue.

People could stroll, sit, push prams, whatever, in safety. Now the powers that be are planning a remake for Park Avenue to become more like it once was.

Designs have been sketched.

I want to go there and be calm.

But I think that the Grand Concourse will be completed first.

We have trees. Lots of honey locust.

Some of the areas farther downtown have already been finished.

It’s hard to imagine the stretch of the road where I monitor trees botanically beautified. I can’t wait to see it.

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Come for the oak trees,

stay for the polka dots.

That was my idea at the New York Botanical Garden, along with hundreds of other visitors still drying out after being pummeled by Ida.

Yayoi Kusama has been the artist in residence for months, transforming outdoor and indoor spaces, populating them with her whimsical works. Now 92 and one of the most prominent Japanese artists, she drew acclaim in the 60s for organizing happenings where the naked participants would be painted with polka dots.

This installation is a bit more tame, though it has plenty of dots.

Eschewing the rock garden, the stand of virgin forest and the rose garden – a sacrifice, with the later bloomers at their peak – we visited Kusama-world.

Some works can be found in the peerless Victorian greenhouse, designed by Lord & Burnham, the preeminent designer of glass houses in the U.S. in the nineteenth century,  in the Italian Renaissance style, which houses the Garden’s collection of tropical plants. You can find flourishing palms like this one from Brazil.

Or this quite remarkable phallic charmer, also hailing from South America.

Now Kusama can be found here as well, with a pumpkin sculpture. The Garden has cleverly included a quote from the artist with each work.

I parted a row of zinnias and reached in to pluck the pumpkin from its vine. It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner. It was still moist with dew, indescribably appealing, and tender to the touch.

Everything is saturated with color. Even the flower beds are intended to mimic her work. I am happy that I have painted flowers. There are no objects more interesting.

Step outside. The lily pool, like everything else horticulatural here, has been annotated for your edification.

Personally I think lilies can speak for themselves.

Especially in the late summer sunlight.

The koi in the pool could probably eat a man. Are they alive or did Kusama paint them?

A path leads to a little Kusama-designed hut. You are handed a sticker with an image of a poppy and are told to place it wherever in the room you like. A lot of people have obviously preceded us.

The whole “house” is awash with poppies. Some prefer to take their poppies home with them.

A memento of a day spent with Yayoi Kusama.

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The scents of the Grand Concourse,

both pleasant and foul, follow me as I walk the avenue inspecting trees to make sure they’re not injured by the major construction project underway, alerting the contractor to tree pits that have had stuff dumped in them.

First is citrus heaven, as I go past the many small produce stands where the proprietor peels oranges on a spit, afterwards bagging them for the clientele. The aroma wafts out to the sidewalk, freshening the morning.

One not so lovely, the smell of the pet store. Canine poop and pee rise like a cloud in front of the shop.

Puppy mill puppies include that little Golden in the window,  and can cost 2,800 dollars in the case of this English bulldog.

Which I would love to bring home, but can’t afford. Plus I prefer pit bulls.

Speaking of pets, the bodega I patronize just acquired a kitten named Winston, who is kept in the bathroom but has perfumed the whole store already.

Hard hats do not usually patronize shops here, but I go in if I’m interested.

I enter a nail salon to use the facilities – they really seem like every other store in the Bronx, alternating with hair braiding places – and I’m hit with dense, choking smoke from the acrylic shaping that goes on here. The bathroom is sparkling clean, as is the case in every establishment run by women here.

A relief to pass by the other big presence, the laundromat, with its sudsy air emanating from the open doors. 

The trees themselves offer a green breeze, especially if you harvest a few to determine the species – some sort of elm, as yet to be determined, with a problem as evidenced by the pin pricks.

And at the fish store, where the fish seem to have just swam in from the sea, the tangy salt breeze begs me to take home a salmon, bluefish, anything but the shark, a species which is now being overfished. In the morning they take them out of boxes of ice and line them up in an orderly fashion for choosy shoppers.

Or you can go to the cuchifritos restaurant, a hole in the wall that doesn’t even have a name in the window. The smell of the best fried pork in the neighborhood draws long lines, and when I wait I have the most delicious pina colada I’ve ever drunk.

It’s the only eatery I’ve ever patronized with a Lotto booth. Well used, too.

And finally, the garlic that hits my nose when I rip open the tostones package, its contents rich with grease and salt. Every day I promise myself I won’t indulge, a promise inevitably broken.

It’s an aromatic distinction of the Grand Concourse, one of so many. I’m going to get a bag of Tostones right now.

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Some biology etymology

for the curious, and useful in dinner party chat.

Canopy cover is vital in arboriculture, in description of those overhead limbs that weave together and block some of the sun’s rays, but what about those trees whose branches seem to avoid touching those of other trees? Do they actually exist? There are several. The phrase describing them is crown shyness, and it takes place in some forests, particularly those with lodgepole pines, eucalyptus, mangroves and some other tropical trees. Why? Botanists don’t have an answer yet, but it might have to do with a far-red (one down from infra-red) light reflected from neighborhood foliage which makes twigs at the end of branches shy away from each other.

Crown Shyness of a Rain Tree

On a completely different note, two unrelated  creatures have a similar problem and thus develop similar solutions. Like porcupines (rodents) and hedgehogs (insectivores). Convergent evolution describes how they develop similar spines. You knew that, probably.

Perhaps Illegal to Keep as a Pet

Dewlap is a word Dickens might utilize to describe the chins of an elderly person to comical effect, but in biology it refers to the wobbly flap of skin under the chin of large herbivores such as the moose, eland – African antelope —  or kouprety — a rare species of wild cattle in Asia. Iguanas also have dewlaps that fold up until they need to inflate them to impress females. As if they’re not cool enough already.

An Eland in the Sunset, Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The cute little worm lizard, termed an amphisbaenian, is blind and legless, and neither worm nor lizard. What it has is a sharp set of teeth, and it belongs to a distinct set of reptiles found mainly in Africa and the Americas. They spend their lives burrowing under the ground. Fun! Some scientists believe they are closely related to the ancestors of mammals.

Worm Lizard Camouflaging Itself on a Human Finger

Conservationists sometimes seem to focus a little too heavily on flagship species such as the giant panda or wolves or elephants in order to gain funding. No matter how tired you might be of panda appeals (or maybe you’re not and never will be sick of pandas) it’s a good thing. The protection of their habitats protect less charismatic threatened mammals, amphibians and bird.

An Especially Fetching Panda

Batesian mimicry occurs when a harmless insect, say the marmalade hoverfly,  mimicks the markings of more dangerous insects like wasps and bees to gain protection by association. I know they would fool me. Named for Norman Bates?

Episyrphus balteatus or Marmalade Fly, a very common hoverfly.

Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, their way of extracting oxygen from their surroundings and expelling carbon dioxide. These are enclosed in under-body pouches that resemble a loosely bound book – it’s thought that they evolved from the underside of an aquatic ancestor resembling horseshoe crabs. Are horseshoe crabs edible? Just an idle query.

Scorpion (Opistophthalmus carinatus) in defensive position, Kalahari desert

Scientists have described it as the single most important event in anyone’s life: gastrulation, the moment when a simple cluster of cells folds in on itself to produce a gut, a front and back end, and the basic tissue types. In vertebrates (us, but also creatures like the starfish) that first dent in the cluster’s surface becomes the anus. In everything else it becomes the mouth.

Impossibly Beautiful Starfish

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More spooky doings

in the Bronx. A fresh length of topsoil is laid down in one of the new medians at 175 Street on the Grand Concourse. This will bring shrubbery and trees in all shapes and sizes to the neighborhood. It will, we hope, transform the lives of people here in some organic way.

Meanwhile, I happen to look up, and floating above, grey against the grey sky, is the cupola of what I am to find is a derelict church over one hundred years old.

It is all locked up so I can’t get in to see it. A fellow inspector tells me that homeless individuals had holed up in part of the building, until they were finally evicted, after years of effort.

The church was built in 1910, by Christ Congregational Church of Mount Hope, of Georgian-style red brick and white trim. Spacious and handsome, it was designed by  Hoppin & Koen of New York City, the same architectural firm that created the Albany County Courthouse and other distinguished structures. In the center of the building, the sanctuary has a domed roof of tin, painted green, and an entrance framed by a portico with four columns. I can vaguely see them behind the chain link fence. Above the portico is the square tower that is still visible, and which once held up a tiered steeple.


For decades the church had a large and worshipful congregation. There is an auditorium that can hold almost 400 people, as well as a gymnasium and meeting rooms. Recently it was owned by the Pilgrim United Church of Christ.

When things fell apart, paint and plaster peeling—supposedly because various pastors let the structure go to ruin – this was the result. It carries myriad Department of Buildings violations.

Its magnificent organ was silenced.  Made by M.P. Möller, in Hagerstown, Md. in 1914, it had a deluxe tubular-pneumatic action. It was tested in 2012 and found to be ruined.

Various residents of the neighborhood have fought so that the church would not be razed and turned into a proposed homeless shelter. The local Community Board sees potential for the building as a cultural venue for the Mount Hope locale. 1,000 people signed a petition. A determined few congregants still huddle in a side room to pray. Outside the locked gates, I meet a couple of young men who would probably be candidates for that shelter – they were standing, shuffling, seemingly waiting for someone. They inform me that the current Dominican Pastor is a fraud – they had in fact been living on the first floor and he evicted them and he doesn’t even own the 

building, they gripe. They don’t mention ghosts, but I am sure there are plenty around in the cavernous church.

They leave and the pastor arrives in his shiny red  SUV. Unlocks the gates, backs his car inside.

That must be Reverand Israel Martinez, he of the Iglesia Evangelica Los Peregrinos.

Maybe someone will succeed in saving this sad, crumbling architectural once-gem. In addition to new plantings and trees outside, the people who live in the neighborhood, could use a beautiful place to go, and to pray if that makes sense for them. It could be as beautiful as the new trees on the medians.

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New York Trashy

Should be the nickname of this small piece of the Bronx. You can’t escape the litter.

Maybe there just aren’t enough appropriate receptacles?

Someone carefully put her half-full cup on the ground. I don’t like Dunkin iced coffee either, but I don’t leave it just hanging out there.

There are guardians of the clean everywhere if you look for them.

Every day I walk past Darion hosing down the sidewalk in front of the defunct Paradise Theater.

His job is to keep the place clean, “and it’s big!,” he told me. It sure is — in its heyday it was one of the biggest in the city, if not in the country. Some of the other shopkeepers water their sidewalks, too – I like that as it cleans the soles of my workboots when I walk by.

Others use a ubiquitous small broom and dustpan to get the litter.

Tidy.

The proprietor of a juice bar told me, “You have to keep it clean. It’s better for business.” I will go in to get a green smoothie today.

First thing in the morning, 7am, they are out creating order out of chaos.

Discarded masks lay around everywhere.

What happened? Did someone just get tired of wearing it and fling it to the ground? Three quarters of the residents here wear masks inside and out, everybody, old and young. I don’t know whether this means they haven’t got the vax or that they got it and they’re protective anyway.

I engaged a sanitation bigwig in a starched forest-green uniform and badge and a driver in her streetcleaning vehicle about the trash. Number one, he intoned, there are three types of trash – homeowners, shops, and garbage on the ground (duh).  It’s much worse, he said, since Covid. Alternate side of the street parking was suspended, which I took to mean that it was hard for garbage workers to get through the cars to get the bags. He said that when they have the resources the City makes inroads with the sidewalk trash. And oh yes, he said, noting my hard hat and reflective vest, the contractors working here are responsible for much of the garbage. What else should he say when I asked him why there was so much garbage lying around. He did not wish to have his photo taken, nor did she.

I don’t think this bench/table is trash, it was simply left in front of the supermarket overnight and serves some purpose.

There are clean shiny things in the neighborhood. Scooters and sanitation vehicles.

Sometimes you have a jarringly deep glimpse of a person’s life.

What happened to this individual and how did so many important documents end up scattered on the Grand Concourse? There is a story there.

Sometimes it’s a glimpse you don’t want, like a used Q-tip.

Tree pits grow yuck as well as trees.

There I draw the line. Each tree should enjoy a pristine growing environment. Although I’m biased, of course.

And I haven’t even gotten to New York Shitty. All the kindly sweepers and washers couldn’t banish what the dogs leave behind.

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The beauty of street trees

is the subject of Matthew Lopez Jensen’s Tree Love: Street Trees and Stewardship in New York City, https://www.terrain.org/2021/unsprawl/tree-love-new-york-city/. I highly recommend the article’s beautiful photos and elegant prose.

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If you go to the High Line

don’t expect to have it to yourself. Once upon a time if you happened to be passing through Chelsea you could wander up to the one and a half mile long park and the sensation would be one of openness, a respite from the claustrophobia that comes with living in a city with 8 million people. Now you need a timed pass to gain entry.

The guy in the Willie Wonka hat gave us a break though, letting us by like a couple of celebrities.

What first inspired a coalition of people to create the High Line–once the railway for provisions headed to lower Manhattan and making its way directly through some buildings as it went–was the realization that the railbed had become host to a veritable meadow in its years of disuse.

It also hosted junkies and hookers, needles and condoms, but the coalition was made up of visionaries. This part of town had had many lives. In earlier years, the 1920s, a different train had gone down 9th Avenue proper, killing so many pedestrians that cowboys were called in to warn people away from the tracks, waving red bandanas as a visual aid. For a time the area was known as Death Avenue.

Once the tracks were elevated, transit of foodstuffs was assured. Meat, especially, came down to Gansevoort street and the warren of warehouses that made up the meat market. The trains stopped running with the rise of trucking, ending in the ‘80s. When I first lived in New York during that decade I remember seeing beef carcasses hung in open bays and cobblestones slick with blood and lard.

There is little residue of that time today, though the rails remain.

The gardening team has created a gem that changes with the seasons.

Today, purple coneflowers dominated. The rails show through.

Since the High Line opened in 2009, the birches have grown up.

And some trees you wouldn’t imagine would flourish, like this big leaf magnolia.

Art is everywhere.

Though sometimes you have  to seek it out.

But what also has grown is the throng of new buildings that crowd the park on every side.

Some apartments are so close that you feel like a snoop just walking along.

In fact, when I first started going to the High Line it was rather famous for a glass building that housed sexual exhibitionists.

Many views are blocked, though you can still look straight down 23rd street, and if you happen to be in the right spot you can see the Hudson.

But the main thing you see is people.

It is a babble of foreign languages, with the High Line featured in guide books all over the world.

And everyone is marching along, phones held aloft for pictures (me included, obviously). It’s a place that is quintessentially urban, a crowd scene – but isn’t that why we visit New York City?

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Even at seven a.m.

you could tell something was going on. The tiny park across the street on the Grand Concourse had been miraculously covered in clean mulch overnight, its tree pits and the ground all around and under the benches dark brown and shredded, all new.

The sign announcing the name of the park, the Bergen Triangle, is almost as large as the park itself.

Two Parks employees wielded leaf blowers to chase away stray shreds. Then blue tents marked NYPD went up along one side. A cop brought over a metal barricade to divert traffic from the Concourse side road. Cars parked inconveniently found themselves towed.

Sanitation vehicles, street sweepers, began to circle the triangle – three, four times. Someone wanted this area to be spic and span.

This park is usually distinguished not by cleanliness but by its canopy.

People settle in there to talk, play music, sometimes rap with a  speaker, and feed the pigeons – hence the thick coating of bird droppings on the sidewalk, something hard to avoid as I’m walking up the avenue to the work site. Some of the park sitters are lunatics, but most sit calmly enjoying the shade, which is what much of the Concourse lacks.

Recent studies have revealed the immense importance of shade on both health and mood.  When urban areas lack tree canopy people suffer.

I smelled a visit from a dignitary in all this tarting up activity. The Governor? the Mayor? Lady Gaga? I figured the action would be coming from the direction of the 94thPrecinct stationhouse a block away on 181 Street.

The Bergen Triangle originated when New York City acquired the land “for street purposes by condemnation” according to the web site of New York City Parks and Recreation. After Anthony Avenue was completed, the Department of Highways and Transportation turned the leftover lands to Parks in 1932. Parks created the bluestone-curbed, cement sidewalked, turn-of-the-century-style benches with shrubbery and pin oaks. These are the type of benches that Robert Moses favored.

Note: there are a few pin oaks still but honey locusts dominate as always in this neighborhood (the kind mercifully without thorns).

The park’s name came from William “Billy” C. Bergen (1862-1925), a one-time policeman known as the “millionaire cop” because he made a fortune developing empty lots in the Bronx at the beginning of the 20th century after starting a career as a beat cop. Walking his beat, Bergen couldn’t help  but notice large land lots as yet undisturbed by the new subway lines just coming through. When the Third Avenue El and the Jerome Avenue El opened, bringing people and industry, Bergen bought and sold with gusto, eventually becoming a developer and builder and finally a mover and shaker in Democratic politics. A small number of his houses still stand in the Bronx.

Millionaire Cop

Bergen Triangle is bounded by Anthony Avenue (the aforementioned street with the empty land — hard to imagine now), Grand Concourse and East 181 St.

Sirens start to sound. Is it starting? No, that’s just an ambulance wailing as usual.

Friendly cops congregate all around the park.

A temporary bandstand appears, hammered together by Parks workers.

At 4:00, “National Night Out Against Crime” will start – in over seventy locations!—with the purpose of improving police-community relations. One officer tells me the Mayor will indeed “stop by.” Stop by? “Alright, he’ll speak.” There are to be barbecue, face painting, musical acts. And, probably thinking there is clean mulch in the Bergen Triangle every day, the Mayor.

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Shelter, below and above ground

is fundamental on this Grand Concourse construction site, where I am the resident arborist.

I’ve always had a penchant for the plywood trenches built for the crew to go down into the bowels of the earth to repair the sewer pipes.

They look so much like upside down houses, and the carpenter on this crew, Joseph, builds the house as the men proceed with the work, not before. People are always scrambling down long ladders to get to the pipes below.

It would be like living in a house as you construct it. This one is so deep that the walls have to be immensely sturdy and perfect – a person could easily be squashed in a collapse. It has happened.

I remember as a child building tiny dream houses in trees out of acorns and twigs. I climbed the apple tree sometimes but was more drawn to creating a home at the base of an oak trunk in the front yard.

Same, a little later, when I fell in love the The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, the novel which portrays a family living in a cigar box.

I would have given anything to do that, live in miniature, especially since I loved the smell of cigar tobacco.

I can also relate to that other essential element in construction – tree guards.

What is their purpose exactly? Someone who has gone down a street lined with them might inquire. Of course, they are created to protect the tree during construction, in particular to protect the critical root zone so that it doesn’t get trampled or mashed (compacted) in the course of the work, impairing the health of the tree. They’re also great for making sure a piece of heavy equipment doesn’t knock the tree over. Trees are perishable and need this protection. When the tree guard gets mangled by heavy equipment, you can knock the box back into shape pretty easily.

But who’s got the time to set them up straight the way they should be? Eventually, the foreman orders one of the crew to do it.

I’ve seen neighborhood people make tree guards a part of their lives, ornamenting them. These ribbons wind up from the tree guard.

Or using them in some kind of stunt, like hanging a chair over the top, ha ha.

Or just making use of them in some fashion. Mop drying.

They are inherently house-like, the perfect temporary home for a tree under assault by forces engaged in making roads and sidewalks.

So you may find their orange snow netting unsightly, but it serves a crucial purpose.

Tree protection–as the trench is person-protection.

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Outside of NYC

you wouldn’t guess we have

native plants

waterfalls

towering old trees (this one a kentucky coffee tree)

wildflowers

magical floating spheres amid reeds

more wildflowers

But we do.

When you come to New York, go to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, by all means, but visit the Botanical Garden in the Bronx if you want to get your green on.

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