Tag Archives: Trees

Trouble, trouble, trouble. Trouble.


How can you complain when you find yourself in the most beautiful place on earth? Can there really be trouble in paradise?

It’s like this.

I got some feedback on a just-drafted chapter from someone I trust. He said what I wrote was not perfect. It’s hard to write about nature when you’re in the presence of natural perfection. And manmade perfection, in the form of a perfectly built old stone wall. Can I produce anything that good, that lasts that long? Probably not.

I take my seat in my writing garden shed.

Inspire myself with some of the flowers that grow just outside.

Say a few words to my shed-mate Giselle.

Woe is me. Write a while. Dreck. Go outside.

Admire a few simple flowers.

Visit with some trees. The shagbark hickory. Its new leaves are the most incredible shade of green.

Look up at the black cherry. How tall is that thing anyway?

Marvel at a tangled fall of shattered silver maple against a bewildered black gum. Human-produced sculpture doesn’t get that good.

Something amazing. A seemingly robust old white oak.

Around the back, it’s clearly had a lot of problems, but fixed itself. The way trees do.

Down the path, the crazed contours of bark, this one a white ash.

Everyone has problems. Knee problems. Heart problems. Cash flow problems. I can put a check in all those boxes at least some of the time. There aren’t too many people to tell my troubles to.

But how can I complain, really?

Trying to learn from the persevering robin who hops by over and over again outside my writing garden shed and is rewarded with money-green inchworms. I mean, over and over again. All day.

Then I go, rock myself in the hammock.

Within a few paces of the just-blooming lilac.

Olfactory bliss.

So really, can I complain?

I can complain. Watch me.

I sweat my way down to the river. Think. Pick up a few what I seem to remember are water chestnuts. They might not be. They might be magic.

Think some more. All of this thinking is making my head hurt. So I stop thinking.

Pass by the cherub floating above some ripening rhododendron at the wooden loveseat.

Sometimes a thing is almost more beautiful before it’s blossomed.

When I get back to the caretaker’s cottage I find a bright green inchworm crawling on my leg. I set it outside, gently. I don’t need it.

The lawn is filled with dandelion wishes for the taking.

What the heck.

I’ll get a bigger bouquet.


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I heard about a couple of heiresses who saved woodlands

in upstate New York a good century ago, so I go to check out the story. I come home weighed down with paradoxes.

Two sisters, Maria and Rachel Williams, grew up fabulously wealthy in turn-of-the-century Utica, a town that became so rich from textile manufacturing it came to be known as the Knit Goods Capital of the World. The girls’ grandfather amassed his fortune in burrstones (used for grinding grain) as well as Pennsylvania coal fields, steamships and railroads in addition to the aforesaid textiles. Their mother Helen and her brother Samuel added to the wealth by investing in iron manufacturing, with an ultimate portfolio of probably half a billion dollars in today’s terms, and put up a mansion called Fountain Elms on fashionable Genessee Street.

Now more known for its tomato pies and Utica greens, the town was then the family’s oyster. Sisters Maria and Rachel came of age and married two brothers, Thomas and Frederick Proctor. Neither couple had children. The Proctor men, Vermont natives, made their living as hoteliers and bankers and dabbled in politics, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful elected officials of the time.

So, while their husbands furnished respectability, their wives brought the cash. They gifted the city with farmland purchased to make parks, many of them designed by leading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. — scion of the great one — starting with 7 acres that eventually became 700.

Wanting to see the lands Maria and Rachel endowed, I go to find the Switchbacks at South Woods in Roscoe Conkling Park, created in 1909. This being Good Friday, the gate admitting entrance at Master Garden Road is locked.

I manage to sneak in behind a park garage. I search out the trailhead.

I’m too nervous about my parked car getting a ticket to venture far into the woods. Dipping in, I notice first of all that this urban forest is filled with a surprising amount of noise from the wind circulating through the treetops beneath a scalloped swirl of clouds. Secondly I see some beautiful old specimens. There is a grove of white pines standing on their tippytoes.

Many trees by the trailside have ancient silver tags, a sign of the care taken long ago to inventory them for posterity. One beech is nicely autographed.

It just feels good to linger a little among these trees, some of them fully three hundred years old, including bitternut hickory and basswood, green ash and hophornbeam. To quote Thoreau, the nineteenth-century bard of sauntering: In my walks I would fain return to my senses. Black bear once roamed this forest. The place is still rife with habitat. Home sweet home.

A stream flows through. I’d heard about another brook in the vicinity, Starch Factory Creek, named for an 1807 industry on its shores, whose waters flow into the Mohawk river. This brook looks pristine in the early springtime sunlight.

How were Maria and Rachel so prescient as to know in 1909 how important it would be to secure this scrap of local forest against a future Utica that they had no idea would be swallowed up by fast food strips, tract housing and pizza joints, where fully a quarter of the population live in poverty? True, some people knew then that the urban poor needed outdoor spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. told the City of New York in 1872 that the midtown Manhattan park he was building would serve as the “lungs of the city.” It still seems amazing that the sisters were aware of just how critical it would be in the future to have a greenspace such as this one preserved.

Thinking to get some answers, I visit their house, a grand Italianate home now owned by the Munson, a Philip Johnson-designed museum originally called the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. You can access the house through a connecting light-filled corridor.

Its plashing fountain has been preserved.

Retirees crowd the lobby of the museum to see an afternoon screening of Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I have the creaky old mansion all to myself. Some of the early furnishings still haunt the place, giving a sense of Maria and Rachel’s pampered upbringing.

Most of their home now contains perfect period rooms, the same as you would find at historic house museums anyplace in America. Some of the wallpaper might be original.

The girls’ mother, Helen preferred the more traditional landscape artists over the Impressionists then coming into vogue.

Hoping for more intimate knowledge of Maria and Rachel, I enter the hallowed precincts of the Founders Rooms. Here the girls’ early lives are plumbed in photos and placards.

You can see the juvenile versions of them in an 1857 painting.

Their intricate dollhouse welcomes viewers.

Its legend tells me that the miniature world was considered by their mother to be not only for pleasure but also, perhaps primarily, for instruction in proper household organization. Her decrees to dismantle the rooms after playtime (not accepted agreeably by her daughters) forced them to place the objects in their proper locations each time they played with them.

I can imagine Maria and Rachel putting their dollies to bed the same way I had as a child. But what about the two sisters as adults, ladies with the foresight to preserve trees?

There is no placard, no legend, no mention. Not one word.

I see their silver souvenir spoon collection and their thimble collection proudly on display here—Maria acquired 125 thimbles from all over the world.

I also see the timepieces collected by their gentleman husbands.

A series of personal belongings are layed out along with faded labels in Maria’s handwritten cursive, including a funny old fake flower corsage with the legend: Worn on tenth anniversary April 9th, 1906.

I see pictures that show the women to be aristocrats of their age, including one of Maria along with Thomas and Frederick, photographed by Rachel, posed in the Adirondacks in 1910. At that time, the most affluent Americans had begun to flee cities and rusticate in the wild in deluxe wall tents with picnic baskets organized by the cooks and maids imported to service them on their vacations.

That is as close as the Founders Rooms get to the sisters’ passion for the outdoors.

Taking my leave, I ask the friendly blue-fleece-attired docent, Why is there nothing in the Founders Rooms about the sisters’ funding of the Utica park system?

I guess they didn’t really feel it was significant enough, it didn’t rise to the level of their art collections, he tells me.

I drop by the Education Department. Knock, knock. I interrupt an Educator busy at her computer. Barb takes issue with my wording, correcting me: Well, I don’t think they ”bankrolled” the preservation of the woods. I believe it was their husbands who were instrumental. That line, I know, is not strictly true. Barb brings in her colleague from the next-door cubicle. She advises me that the two girls were taught from a young age to donate part of their weekly allowance to charity.

In formal photos of grownup Maria she looks to be a woman with presence of mind, even when wearing an artificial flower corsage.

The Educators send me off to the museum library. There, a knowledgable person helps me exhume folders of yellowed clippings and catalogs from a file cabinet.

Always a thrill for a researcher to find herself elbow deep in original documents. Some experts say that Maria’s husband Thomas spearheaded the parks project, that he even rolled up his sleeves to collaborate with Olmsted, Jr. on some of the design work. That may be so. But the sisters were the ones who endowed the parks with their gigantic inheritance, and without them we would not be hiking in Utica today.

When most people think of nineteenth-century naturalist influencers, they might conjure up John Muir, Thoreau, perhaps John James Audubon or John Bartram –  rather than two urban heiresses who could have put their money towards pretty much anything they wanted and chose to safeguard woodlands. Theirs is a secret history, buried in timeworn assumptions about what women of their time did or did not do, should or should not do. Saving trees is not part of that construct.

You have only to track down the grand, over-a-century-old northern catalpas lining the lane to their South Woods to grasp the truth.

I have circled back and reentered the Switchbacks. This time I am unafraid, and go farther into the woods. A pair of kindred soul hikers suggest that my car will in all likelihood not be towed. So I walk.

When we walk, said Thoreau, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? I now see details I missed the first time around. Some tree drama.

Also a conjoined black cherry with character to spare.

Again, Thoreau: My walks are full of incidents.

Thank you, Maria and Rachel, for making it possible for me to return to my senses in your woods.

I wouldn’t have missed this walk in the park for all the pizza in Utica.


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There is really no such thing as nondescript

in any borough of New York City.

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

The human impulse toward landscape adornment reigns supreme.

People here love their cherries.

Doctor Seuss ornamentals.

Their pipsqueak lawns.

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklynites love their orthodoxies.

Of all kinds.

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

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

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

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

The belief systems here are deeply ingrained.

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

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

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

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

And handsome stone lions.

And what must be lambs.

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

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

And extremely symbolic severed trees.

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

Everything pukka on this ho-hum late winter day.

Learning about stuff.

Anticipating spring.

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Drifting along the trail around Teatown Lake at dusk

can be wondrous. A silent dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The emerald moss.

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

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

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

Clearly there is no fishing allowed here on the lake.

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

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

The ancient locust trees here nearly overwhelm with their personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overhead, in the distance, undeniable evidence of humans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the biology?

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

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

Still the water fluices down, unstoppable.

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

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

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

Somehow I think I’ve already done the math.

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


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The tale of a root in danger

is both complicated and very simple. And important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think it’s gonna snow?


Maybe rain.

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

Jeremy: Okay to put down stone?

Me: Sure, just don’t cut the roots.

Jeremy: Oh, no.

Me: And lay mesh over.

Jeremy: Okay.

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

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

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

I consider the colors of dirt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare at the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

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

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

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

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

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

Wonder what Auden would make of Gertrude.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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Bald eagle on the turnpike this morning

swooping up into the crown of a tree. Omen, sign, portent?

I believe in marvels, antithetical as such ideas might be in our modern rational age.

There is always a new unravelling of old mysteries. Naturalists have just come to the realization that prehistoric mastodons brought the honey locust with them to West Virginia 10,000 years ago.

Being partial to both grazing mastodons and spiky honey locusts, I am happy that the connection has at last been made.

I visited Bainbridge Island, floating just off the coast of Washington State, when I spent time in Seattle this past week. Bainbridge is a place of mysteries, the center of Suquamish Ancestral Territory, peopled for thousands of years and rich in archaeological sites. Made a pilgrimage to Fay Bainbridge beach, a place overlooking Puget Sound where thousands of bare, huge driftwood logs have washed up on the shore. Where do they come from? Why here? You need to pick your way over them as you make your way to the surf, they are so thick across the sand.

The eminently quotable Thoreau: We often love to think now of the life of men on beaches, at least in midsummer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beech-bird.

In the old times this place was called Salagwep, base of spit where butt end of trees are lying. Other parts of Bainbridge had different names: Xwadzus, Sharp face, or Daxkdsaxb, Place where water gets jumping, or Yeboalt, Fighter’s home where north and south winds tussle.

Even in the cold weather, now, in November, the jag of driftwood speaks. There are some telephone poles here also, obviously thinking they belong among the imperfect tree trunks. Someone has built a fortress, a home, a gathering place. Simple and ingenious.

In Danish the expression is hygge, meaning a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable. During the long, dark winters when Danes retreat inside their homes, hygge is what brings a sense of comfort and joy. Same in Norway, except there they call it koselig.

(Knowing a little about Scandinavian habits, I have a feeling it usually involves strong coffee also). Hygge usually refers to an indoor environment, but I think the structure at Fay Bainbridge is also a place of succor, the beach-y equivalent. A shelter from the storm for whoever built it or whoever came after and hung out here.


I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Elsewhere on Bainbridge, horse chestnut leaves hold the autumn light.

Mysteries. No one is here. Even a bit of plant fluff can appear miraculous atop a human hand.

A puff of breath in the cold air can seem miraculous. So can someone sighing in their sleep. The miracle of Klimt.

What is he dreaming? It can only be good. I wonder sometimes, do I sigh in my sleep? I don’t think so. I sleep like a rock, when I sleep at all. I take my dreams in the daytime, thank you very much.

Returning from Bainbridge, we see Mount Rainier rising in the distance. It looked the same to ancient eyes.

But what did the sight of a snowy, iconic mountain on a clear, crisp day such as this portend? We can only imagine.

At Ellis island, touring the measles ward, one person said he was sure he was tapped on the shoulder by an unseen presence. Another guest said she smelled chocolate in a room where no one had been for 100 years. What do these occurrences signify? Are they portents?

If you listen, things speak to you. Today, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She hasn’t been alive for 30 years. Yes, it was all in my mind. That didn’t make it unreal. She told me to re-read Ulysses, by James Joyce, her now-tattered copy, bought as a first edition in Paris a century ago. She was so smart – she came from nothing, and wound up living well on New York City’s Upper West Side. I remember climbing on the big Manhattan schist boulders across Central Park West. You could see them from her window.

The rocks, were they signposts? Central Park would be an integral part of my life eventually. Did those rocks speak to me even then?

There are marvels wherever you look. Sometimes they’re audible. Don’t we always find signs in songs?

When Ella scat-warbles Chelsea Bridge, does it send a shiver down your spine? Is it a sign? Is it important? It’s mysterious. Or, if you prefer, Leon Russell singing Tightrope.

The wire seems to be
The only place for me
A comedy of errors and I’m falling
Like a rubber-neck giraffe
You look into my past
Well maybe you’re just too blind to see

 I loved it when someone once told me I had a musical soul. But doesn’t everybody have a musical soul? It’s just the music that differs. For me, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, the duet sung by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Incomparable. Doesn’t that just wring your heart out? Or Julia, by The Flatlanders, also referencing a circus, a different kind.

Night wind blows
Stars above the blue
Heaven knows
Only love will do

Or do you prefer Do You Realize, by The Flaming Lips – Do you realize/That you have the most beautiful face? Or, of course, Smokey Robinson, Ooh, Baby Baby. The Miracles, indeed. The Beach Boys, that big whomp of a single drum beat at the beginning of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, what does it signify? Everything, I think. Or J.S. Bach, Concerto in D Minor.

Whatever music makes you both smile and cry. Listening to a transistor radio late at night as a child, under the sheets, so no one would know. Private. Secret. I want to hold your hand. Mysterious. Did I say secret?

The marvel of scent. The fragrance of wood smoke. Whatever smells hold magic, release magic.

I saw a newly released Polish film, EO, about a donkey, in which a circus performer memorably presses her smooth face against her donkey co-performer’s rough fur.

A very sad movie, very scary, but still something so magical about the animal’s eyes. Polish poetry.

A 16-year-old girl on my Ellis Island tour after peppering me with questions the whole time: I’m sorry for asking so many questions, but I just really want the answers! Yes, so do I, missy. When I was younger I thought of mysteries as things that must be solved. Something to get to the bottom of. Now…

I’ve always resonated to cabinets of curiosities, those neatly arranged treasures you find depicted in artwork of earlier centuries. Like the famous collection of one professor of medicine in Copenhagen, a studio stuffed with animals, plants and minerals and including both a crocodile and an armadillo.

The sole purpose of the Wunderkammern was to elicit awe. The wondrous was a cult that combined “variety, whimsy, and extravagance “ in the description of one of my favorite books, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. Unicorn horns (really narwhal tusks) and griffin claws (bison horns) were prized along with nautilus shells and sharks’ teeth. Churches suspended giant eggs, teeth and bones from their vaults to prompt admirationem. Folks also believed in exotic human races, including the Cynocephali, dog-headed inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.

Debate existed about whether they were civilized and rational or cruel cannibals who preferred the meat of strangers raw and highly spiced.

Marvels, wherever you look. From bald eagles to dog-faced humans to hovering pink clouds.

Another ho-hum sunset over the Palisades just across from my home. A talisman of… you tell me.


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Catching an airborne salmon

is the thing you supposedly do at iconic and touristy Pike Place market in Seattle.

Always a go-to for foodies, this year it also drew tree people attending the Partners in Community Forestry/Society of Municipal Arborists conference, one of the main annual gatherings for the industry. I wandered down to the market while waiting for events to get underway and found a lot that got my juices flowing. First the coolest non-fish eatery downtown, Biscuit Bitch.

Take out a sausage-egg biscuit to a picnic table overlooking Puget Sound and you will have many darling starling friends.

The weather is perfect.

Who said it rains in Seattle? Not on my parade it doesn’t. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.

I want to cook!

There are indeed people throwing salmon around, though luckily not in my direction.

Salmon everywhere here.

Of historical interest here, the original Starbucks with an eternally long line. It all started here, for better or for worse. A logo to become better known than Coca Cola.

Eat enough at Pike Place and you will begin to resemble one of the bronze beasts stationed around the market.

I’m pretty sure that these macarons are the best in the world.

Wild strawberry and passion fruit, thank you much.

Somebody’s got my number. I was born in ’57.

Tree people share a language, concerns, enthusiasm. Of course I like hearing about making vacant lots into permanent urban forests in Syracuse, as described by the city’s brainy forester. Especially important in low-canopy, low-equity neighborhoods. Pretty cool to hear about the Urban Food Forest Project, also in Syracuse, which features persimmon, paw paw, ramps, hickory and currants.

In the typical airless hotel conference room we hear about wonderful green vistas in Washington, DC: adding tree boxes to the rights of way, where you will also find a road diet, in other words shrinking the dimensions of a street and adding medians to make them safer and increase canopy cover. Canopy, canopy, canopy! Other terminology that would be arcane elsewhere is instantly understood here: ground-based Lidar, green infrastructure, utility conflicts, community engagement, eco-ambassadors, bump-outs. Climate-ready tree-planting palettes. Did I hear that right? Most important, in terms of a takeaway, questions about the pipeline, in other words the future generation of urban forestry. The time for trees is now. Rock star urban forester Beattra Wilson, a big shot at the U.S. Forest Service, exhorted her audience to continue with successess in diversification to better reflect the population. Advocacy is for everyone.

But I keep coming back to salmon. Not the hokey salmon toss in the market. Something tree conferences do well is take participants on tours of the area that highlight shared interests. So we set out by bus to check out bioswales altering the topography of a street in the suburbs, which was cool. Beautiful Pacific Sunset maples, a cultivar first developed in the early ‘90s.

Even cooler was Part 2 of the tour, a stop at a waterfront park, where a city naturalist explained the steps being taken to restore the local salmon population.

Micronutrients that are usually found deep in the ocean have been discovered at the tops of the trees here, a result of the salmon entering the rivers after their years in the Pacific. We’re all connected. We observed chum salmon making their way up a shallow steam to spawn, hauling themselves, thrashing, really almost crawling.

Dozens of them, something I’ve never seen before aside from in nature flicks. Their efforts so moving. As a colleague said, watching their massive struggle, I can’t help but think about my own life. The naturalist showed us one old grandaddy after his struggle was over.

“We need the tonic of wildness,” said Thoreau. “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

As much as we try to deal with tree issues, as professionals and as a society, that mystery is paramount. Watch the spawning salmon and you will know it.

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Melancholy and rapture

would be pretty good words to characterize the music I heard recently, performed by my friend pianist Beth Levin at Merkin Hall in Manhattan. Outside the concert venue, pin oaks held tight to their leaves in the autumn gloaming.

The piece Beth played, Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, has stayed with me. The composer was a product of the Russian nationalist movement of the late nineteenth century, but remains fresh today.

Beth’s self effacement in person is matched by her thunder as a performer.

We treated ourselves to dessert beforehand at the classic New York diner Old John’s Luncheonette, across West 67th Street.

Good place to go if you want a Broadway mojito (rum, muddled lime, mint, soda), or a brief Prossecco, or a ginger ale, or “momma’s meat loaf.” Or, more my speed, a warm brownie with fresh mint chocolate chip ice cream and mocha crème anglais.

These days I mainly consume rabbit food. Maybe the ice cream qualified, it was in fact made with fresh mint and so tasted a little medicinal, though scrumptious with a brownie right out of the oven.

The ticket-taking usher on being told we had pie: Pie is always a good thing.

Yes, and so is Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote it to honor his friend Viktor Hartmann after the artist’s unexpected death from a brain aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39.

The suite of ten short pieces was inspired by a postmortem exhibit mounted in St. Petersburg of Hartmann’s work, with the central conceit of promenading past the different works of art. As interpreted by the solo piano version it is both intimate and grand – and incredibly difficult, requiring stamina as well as passion. Beth has both in spades.

Walking in the quiet of a fall afternoon, thinking back to this haunting elegy, one creative person pouring out his soul to another.

In fall, the melancholy that is always with us as humans seems pronounced. How do you capture the feeling in art? In music? In fall the flowers keep coming.

Will this beauty never stop? I stalk a black squirrel around the trunk of a big black locust. The sound your shoes make sloshing through crisp autumn drifts.

The sound of hammering just off the trail — workmen snugging down a roof before winter comes.

Plantanus offers its astonishing platter-size leaves.

One of the most affecting passages in Pictures is “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” and it’s also one of the few extant pieces of art on which Mussorgsky based his music, a watercolor featuring costumes for a children’s production.

The things you come across as you promenade. A child’s lost shoe.

Hemingway, it is said, once wrote a six-word story on a bet: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A writer who knew a little bit about melancholy.

Mussorgsky ventures into the Catacombs of Paris after his friend’s dark and umbrous painting.

He wrote in the score: “The creative genius of the late Hartmann leads me to the skulls and apostrophizes them. The skulls begin to glow.” Sad, sadder, saddest. In fall we think about friends we’ve lost too young. How happy we were.

Winnowing down storage, coming across journals I kept as a much younger woman, replete with both melancholy and rapture in gouts that are so great as to be embarrassing. I remember feeling euphoria at the sight of a plate of ripe sliced tomatoes on a diner counter. Today, the red heartbeat of the Japanese maple.

Only connect, from E.M. Forster, served as my adolescent mantra. If you had told me at 24 I would be still connecting as a writer I think I’d be hornswalloped.

Mussorgsky never heard Pictures performed – he died six years after composing it at age 42, almost as young as his friend Hartmann. The piece would have faded from the culture entirely if it hadn’t been orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel. Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty. Keats’ perfect adage, always relevant. I meet the my new favorite cocker spaniel on the trail, Pepper. A little melancholic herself. She wouldn’t be bothered with me, but why should she be?

Scraps of saved letters surface in dusty boxes. Missives from Maud as an itty bitty.

Promenade past pictures, promenade past trees. Birches glowing in the autumn sun, bright as skulls.

As long as you make sure to promenade. Wherever you’re likely to find melancholy and rapture.


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Do you like dead trees? I do

and especially, it seems, when they stand sentinel along the New Jersey Turnpike. Every day I see a big old hawk on a big old tree along the highway. The perfect spot for waiting to catch your supper. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift said that.

When I first started working as an arborist, I felt all the trees along the road should be alive and magnificent, and I was almost offended if I saw a bare branch sticking up out of the canopy.

Now I know that trees cope with their living conditions in different ways. Cladoptosis is the process by which trees shed their branches or “self-prune” as part of their normal physiology or in response to stress. All large trees will have some dead branches, it’s part of their life cycle. There’s even a phenomenon known as Sudden Branch Drop, first identified in 1882 by a botanist named Kellogg, who wrote of trees “said to burst with a loud explosion, and strong limbs…(which) unexpectedly crash down, the fracture disclosing not the least cause of weakness.” Of course when you drive along the highway you might be seeing the effects of emerald ash borer or beech leaf disease, two current scourges of the forest. Not good.

But sometimes in nature death and life intertwine, as is the case with one of my favorite phenomenons, the manzanita, grey and red braided together as the plant grows.

Hawks’ habit of perching perfectly still, making use of those bare branches, impresses me. They are doing anything but nothing. It’s so hard to maintain that kind of patience. I’ve observed it also with seagulls that hang out on the secret bridge at Ellis Island.

Sometimes as I drive across a gull will fly over with a crab, but they usually just pose with drops of harbor water hanging from their beaks. They are intensely focused, gazing out with that reptilian look they have, waiting, waiting.

It’s hard to be patient. The gulls and hawks teach us that patience is an art. It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing. So said Gertrude Stein. Hard to stay waiting for someone to return.

Waiting to consume the pie until it cools from the oven. Waiting for the soup dumplings to cool so you won’t burn your tongue on the delectable broth inside.

Waiting for the coffee to brew. For beauty to unfurl.

For some special someone to smile. I feel that all the time on my tours, as I wait for a visitor to crack a smile, to respond. Waiting for my daughter to have children. Drop your babies already! You know you’ll be happy when you do! But no, it’s on somebody else’s timeline, not mine—as it should be.

Waiting to grow up. We’ve all been through that. And then, later, you wonder why you wanted to hurry.

The patience to wait before opening a present. Or even (especially?) an envelope when you know there’s a holiday check inside. I love presents but you can’t rush it.

Waiting for the Bartlett pears to ripen, the pineapple. Hard to fathom when a pineapple will ripen, or an avocado. You cannot rush it. Waiting for a book to find a publisher.

The patience you need when someone is slow to forgive you. The patience you need to begin forgiving somebody. Patience is not learned in safety, says Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest, wrote William Least Heat-Moon. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.

Soon the trees will lose their leaves, and we won’t even know which branches are dead and which ones aren’t. When snowfall comes, the pristine white that coats every branch will be just as beautiful.

The age of the bristlecone pine called Methuselah, which stands in Inyo National Forest in California, has been gauged at 4,600 years. Somehow it seems to be both alive and dead, a natural miracle.

I am paying attention.

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The finest mofongo in New York City

would be hard to identify, there is so much fine mofongo in New York. But I have a hunch it might be prepared in the unassuming kitchen of 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, on 188 Street, just off of Grand Concourse in the Bronx. 

I worked around the corner for six months last year protecting trees, meeting some incredible people along the way.

Anthony Bourdain agreed with me, chowing down here in Parts Unknown, and his signed glossy adorns one wall of the joint, where patrons customarily ignore it and go on with their ordering and chewing.

The specialty is Puerto Rican/Latin cuisine. The crunchy pork chicharrons Dominicano are out of this world, a nice challenge to your Lipitor. It’s a boomerang of a bone, cleaver-chopped and served in bite-size wedges of crispy skin, meat and fat.

The place has other distinctions. It is as far as I have seen the only restaurant in town with a dedicated Lotto booth on the premises. A busy one, too. Made a former New Yorker happy by taking her here to dinner.

You can fill your stomach here every day of the year, from 9 am to 11 pm. It has been in business for 30 years, and even has a Facebook page. Whether you go for breakfast or dinner it is jammed, a line for takeout snaking through the door. The counter people efficiently juggle phone orders and packing up meals.

I tend to like any handwritten sign, so the menu board at 188 Cuchifritos is a delight.

Customers cut across a wide swathe of the population.

Usually there is a fairly high proportion of street people wandering in and hoping for a handout, alongside the paying customers. The common denominator here is a craving for sustenance.

The mofongo al pilon – a plantain dish derived from Spanish, Taino and West African cuisines–is stuffed with pork cracklings and served with a tomato-and-garlic infused gravy. The cook mashes starchy platanos in a classic wooden mortar and pestle and it comes to the table as a dome that you explode with your fork. One foodie reviewer described the taste with the buzz-word umami, and I think that as pretentious as that is, it’s not far off.

While waiting for the mofongo to emerge from the kitchen you might study the cartoon tiles on the wall. I have translated some of them, albeit clumsily.

Married man, spoiled donkey.

Two children and a mother are three devils for the father.

The guests are happy but that’s when they leave.

Okay. I never claimed to study Spanish in school, and anyway my mouth is watering too much to make good sense of the jokes. There is also some fine artwork on display.

Home-made hot sauce readily available and in an awesome recycled container.

The frituras, fried snacks displayed in the window, include one I love but don’t know the name of.

I just tell the wise waitress “the football shaped one,” indicating the oblate spheroid with hand gestures, and she knows what I mean.

I have now done research and found that it is more correctly alcapurria, a yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo, the classic Latin American blend of beef, tomatoes, and olives. I’ll try to remember that for next time.

It is possible to order pig ears, tongue, or stomach, though I haven’t done so. Yet.

I can’t decide which I like better, the counter or the five or so tiny tables. The service is always superb no matter where you sit. If you order like we do you and sit at the counter, though, you can barely fit all the plates in front of you. Yes, you can even get a salad to cut the fat if you insist. Plenty of rice and beans to take home, though of course you’ll have to eat without the cartoons for entertainment.

“I don’t know any place porkier,” was Bourdain’s summation. I would just add: when you are next in the Bronx, get lucky and go.

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I set my intention to notice kindness

as we amble off through the Thain Forest–the largest enduring old-growth tract in the New York City vicinity–at the New York Botanical Garden, paying heed to the recorded forest bathing app the Garden has thoughtfully provided. These woodlands offer just some of NYBG’s 30,000 trees.

I’ve been thinking about kindness. Have been telling folks on tours at Ellis Island that back in the hospital’s heyday, people were kind to each other. Were they really? Are they still? Here at the NYBG, they’ve been kind to one of the iconic tulip trees, bandaging it up against the exigencies of old age. The equally senescent little-leaf linden, brawny as it is old, doesn’t need any help, thank you very much.

I see a sweet chestnut hull. It had been kind to its seed, cushioning it and fending off attackers with its prickers. Kousa dogwood offers its fruit so generously for the birds.

It’s a quiet day, cool, calm, lucid. The season offers its early-autumn bounty.

A gentleman shows off his skills with a stick. Good for your balance, and your fingers! he tells me with a smile.

At the NYBG farmer’s market, a person generously offers worms for composting, to the strains of a nearby harp – something you do not see every day in the Five Boroughs, a kindness here in the Bronx.

We find ourselves distracted by the rose garden. The kindness of the head gardener, who although camera shy and quite busy with raking mulch takes a little time to talk about the various cultivars on hand. Wish it were possible to capture fragrance in a photo.

The kindness of schoolgirls willing to pose for an old fogey with an Iphone, their faces blossoms.

In Thain Forest, the forest bathing app drones: Bring your attention to your ears…feeling whatever sensations are happening…be aware of the sounds around you… you might feel tingling sensations…all that matters is that you notice them…and drift away…

NYBG cares for the oldest, the biggest, like one impressive American elm – and also the smallest and most vulnerable, in their plant nursery.

Be kind to the bedding plants! Water on hand, ready to provide protection even in the virgin forest, which is after all really a part of New York City.

We took our time. The farm stands are winding down. One is kind enough to sell eleven dollar’s worth of yellow onions and white donut peaches as they pack it in for the day.

Sometimes – not always – kindness abounds.

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When I said my favorite color was brown

one time, everybody laughed.

In writing class, teachers use a prompt to get everybody’s creative juices flowing. I hiked the Old Croton Aqueduct trail today, using brown as a prompt.

The familiar sandy light brown soil. Hadn’t been here for a while. The sound of the mid-afternoon breeze rustling the leaves, late summer insects’ buzz. Black cherry trunks snake up, brown.

Underfoot, my own personal school-days madeleine, a horse chestnut, glossy brown in its miracle of a small spiky package. 

Sun-browned old brick from one of the brickyards along the Hudson, a booming business back in the day.

Across the river, the light brown strip of the Piermont marshes, ancient, brackish, mysterious in a canoe.

Thinking about dog-nose brown.

Iced-coffee brown. Always great, but especially when consumed recently at MoMa before paying homage to Matisse’s magnificent canvas The Red Studio.

I’m not saying how much coffee I drink, only that if it keeps me up, the more interesting thoughts I get to have. Recently stumped by midnight riddle: what would happen if you combined orange soda with grape soda? The answer? Plenty of sugar buzz. But also the color brown, carbonated.

Thinking about young-hair brown.

On the trail, wizened mulberry trunk brown. Where I live, somebody petitioned the Village wanting to remove an elderly specimen from their property, saying the fallen berries were “messy.” Really? Messy is good, it’s what makes us alive.

I love mulberry trees with their misshapen mitten leaves.

Brown shadows. In the immortal lyrics of John Prine, Shadows. Shadows!

Fungi brown.

Fruiting bodies, if you want to sound like a supercool arborist.

Thinking of cattail brown.

Peegee hydrangeas’ pink tinged ever so slightly brown.

Oak leaves verdant, still, yet stems and acorn cap brown.

Grey cherry trunk with its delicate brown lenticels, my favorite feature, the stitch-like pores that allow oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.

Finally, coming home, the brown face of a late-summer sunflower.

You may have your run-of-the-mill rainbows. I will take my beautiful brown all around.


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