Tag Archives: Trees

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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Mommy, where does paper come from?

I remember when I first visited Marathon Park in Wausau, my husband‘s hometown, to attend the Wisconsin Valley Fair, an event I loved for its fried cheese curds (of course) but also the Mason jars of ripe peaches and pickles in the Home Arts pavilion, all canned seemingly by the same blue-ribbon winner, my namesake Jeannie Zimmerman.

It wasn’t until years later when I returned as an arborist that I even registered the “old-growth forest” embedded in the 78-acre park, hundreds of soaring poker-straight white pines smack in the middle of town.

I considered myself a country soul in a city person’s body.

Hadn’t I loved living in a farmhouse in the middle of an orchard with an impossibly fecund vegetable garden?

Didn’t I cherish the memories I had of Auntie, my great-aunt, a home economics instructor in rural Tennessee?

I had always been enthralled with her needlework. The tatting I inherited from her mystified me; it seemed like the best kind of magic.

I nursed a fantastic collection of vintage recipe booklets.

I’d lived in a cabin for 10 years and immersed myself in nature there – the sound of night-time cicadas got me high.

Hadn’t I doted on flowers forever, planting vintage rosebushes and rare daylilies purchased from one Mrs. Jörg, who sold the plants out of her neat little house down the road?

Couldn’t I can peaches and pickles with the best of them?

Yet I knew nothing about trees. I associated Wausau with paper products, because pulp mills  in nearby Rothschild made the stench of paper production palpable in the air –“the smell of money,” as they liked to say. I thought it was funny at the time, but never considered where the paper came from. Now I noticed the convoys of log trucks on the highways, a surviving vestige of the region’s lumbering past.

Gil was an expert in some aspects of the outdoors.

His father had been a cardboard-box salesman, an affable guy inclined to woo clients over late afternoon Cutty Sarks in the local tavern.

The packaging Acton Reavill sold to cheese companies and pizza makers was generated here from local tree farms, as are so many American paper products. Long, lean white pines, the bread and butter of the midwest. We take these products for granted.

Especially, as Gil likes to remind me, here on Wisconsin’s Fox River, toilet paper. The math: thirty-six percent of harvested wood is used for paper every year. The average tree weighs over 1,000 pounds and produces about 800 rolls of toilet paper. The average person uses about a roll per week, so this is a fifteen-year supply for one person. You can easily go on Amazon to purchase jumbo rolls of Marathon two-ply toilet paper. We wipe our butts with it every day. 

I am not the only person without a clue as to where something so crucial as our toilet tissue comes from. My book-in-progress American Heartwood will chronicle the rich but largely forgotten history of logging in the United States.  In this work of narrative nonfiction I will relate the historic tension between exploitation and conservation that has characterized the relationship we in the United States have with our woodlands since well before the Mayflower landed. I plan to tell the story of my journey from writer to arborist, and intertwine that adventure with a larger tale, the story of our long and complicated love affair with our forests. When I became an arborist, I began to find it sweet as maple syrup, the complexity of the woods around me that I had formerly experienced as one green whoosh passing when I drove on the highway.

My book won’t make an expert canner out of you – you’ll have to study under the other Jeannie Zimmerman for that –but I hope it will make you take sit up and notice of those majestic beings around you. In Wausau’s Marathon Park or Manhattan’s Central Park. Much more exists than at first meets the eye.


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Boat rockers unite!

I have been going around with a smile on my face all day. Why? Because today I saved a tree. A big, beautiful linden in my home town. Yes, utility wires thread through its branches, but it has so far avoided becoming entangled.

It stands lined up with two other mature lindens on the tree lawn in front of a house on Euclid Avenue, the nicer part of town. Its diameter is large enough that I am far from being able to touch my fingers together when I wrap my arms around it.

It could be that I care about this tree in part for sentimental reasons. Growing up, I had a friend who lived in the house, and there were parties… well, suffice it to say the lindens stood there back then, though they were of course a bit less impressive.

A new homeowner contacted the Village to say he was worried about the tree. A landscaping company examined it and – surprise, surprise – said it was a hazard and had to be removed. Tree companies, counterintuitively, always seem eager to cut down trees, especially when they can convince some responsible but naïve resident who worries that a big old tree might crash onto his house in the dead of night. Tree removal is tree companies’ bread and butter.

My town has a lot of people who like trees. It’s a long-time Tree City USA, with  a conservation-minded municipal government and many citizens who are dyed-in-the-wool green. We have an active Tree Preservation Board (at the moment I chair it). All of it couldn’t necessarily equate to keeping this particular tree alive. It turns out the other Tree Board members also thought that perhaps this tree was on its way out. It featured a burl and a cavity. Why rock the boat?

While birds and other critters love cavities in trunks, humans can be very afraid of a hole in a tree. People, compartmentalization is a thing, okay? According to what tree people call CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees, of course), when a tree is wounded it begins to protect itself by slowing or preventing the spread of disease and decay by forming “walls” around the wounded area. Suffice it to say that the walls run in every direction, ingeniously. So a tree can live and prosper with a hole, even a big hole, in its gut.

I called up my friend, a brainy DEC forester, who told me that while the state is not permitted to conduct such evaluations, he would take a look. There was indeed some decay, he observed, describing the linden as a “high-value” tree. Get a licensed consultant to do a level 3 Tree Risk Assessment, he said. I appealed (nice word for my continued agitation) to the Village. Finally, finally, they brought in their favored professional arborist, an impartial expert who put a stop to all the funny stuff and said the tree must stay.


Boat rocking doesn’t always work. I recently lost a battle to save trees that were being removed from our leafy downtown streets in order to lay new sidewalks. That was unfortunate, and I grieved. 

Now, lindens are beautiful trees. Not the most beautiful, to me – beeches are. “It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, ‘I love you,’ or whether she said, ‘I love the beech-trees,’ or only ‘I love—I love.’” That’s Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite writers, from Night and Day. We know that people since time immemorial have fallen for beech trees, their smooth grey bark, eminently useful for leaving your mark. 

Thoreau said, ”I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” I like to think of some lost soul tramping miles through a mysterious, tangled forest, too shy to unburden himself to the person he cares for, and surreptitiously taking switchblade out of pocket to pronounce, on bark, indelibly, the sentiment I love-I love.

So beeches are great. But lindens come pretty close, with their heart-shaped leaves, their dangling bracts, their grey-grooved bark.

Everyone deserves to have a favorite tree the way everyone deserves to have a favorite birthday cake.

Yours might be a yellow sponge cake, mine might be a fudge tunnel cake. Or a strawberry cake–the best kind, made Southern-style with white cake mix, jello and oleomargarine. Or even a gourmet hazelnut torte. It’s up to you.

You might be a birch person.

Perhaps flouncy cherries do it for you. They can be pretty irresistible at their peak.

Or you might have a thing for the alligator juniper, the species that favors coming together with other alligator junipers for a little pleaching party.

You might even favor the saggy, baggy London plane, a sentinel of our city streets. 

If you live in the southwest, you might eschew real trees altogether in favor of the imposter saguaro, which also stands sentinel, though in deserts. That’s your right.

In any case, you need to protect what you love. Probably for a lot of people reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory, the term tree hugger might resonate. What about the original tree huggers? In 1730, 294 men and 69 women belonging to the Bishnoi branch of Hinduism took it upon themselves to shield the trees in their Indian village from being mowed down for a palace, and were massacred by foresters. They literally clung to the trees, and died for their bravery. Happy ending, the government decreed there would be no tree cutting in any Bishnoi village, and now the place is a green oasis amid an otherwise barren landscape.

That story sounds like it might be a little burnished by time. But the next chapter of tree huggerism is indisputable. A group of peasant women in the 1970s in the Himalayan hills of northern India took inspiration from those earlier folks when they fought to have the trees in the vicinity preserved, throwing their arms around the trunks to do so. This was the Chipko movement. “Chipko” means “to cling” in Hindi.

They had success; before long there was a tree-felling moratorium in Himalaya. The tactic, called tree satyagraha, had spread across India and forced reforms. 

Satyagraha! The original boat rockers.

The future is vast, and we don’t know what awaits us. But one thing is for sure. It feels good to save a tree, a large old linden that wasn’t doing anybody any harm. It was just being beautiful. And will go on being beautiful. If I have anything to say about it.


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If you are a perpetual learner

(I am) this is the job for you.

Haitian Inspector’s name is Jean, too. Jean-Robert, he tells me. Explains that where he comes from, the Catholic church would put the name Jean first in front of all the boys’ names because men should be in front of women. Doesn’t happen these days, he says. Phew, good to hear. Jean-Robert is one of the careful New Yorkers who still wears his mask shield religiously.

Start location today, corner of Orloff Avenue and Cannon Place in the Bronx. Little crinkum-crankum streets in this neighborhood that someone outside New York would probably not expect. Two juvenile Eastern redbuds flank the entrance to Van Cortlandt Library. One might stand in the way of a pedestrian ramp to be constructed here. Hence the presence of a tree consultant.

Nearby, honey locust dangles its acid-green seed pods. One worker on a previous site was intent upon the question of whether these seed pods are edible. He brought one home to investigate. People are curious, no matter how jaded we might think everyone is.

In fact, when the legume of Gleditsia triacanthos ripens, its gooey green contents may be devoured by cattle. Digesting the pulp, cows and horses then part with the hard, tannin-rich seeds contained within the pod, and so junior honey locusts are born. Not, of course, in the Bronx. Native Americans had a use for the pod–they had a use for everything, of course– it was utilized for food and medicine and also for tea. Europeans had the bright idea of using the tree’s thorns as treenails for shipbuilding.

Success always demands a greater effort. Thus spake Winston Churchill, a man whose greater effort customarily required great quantities of alcohol. We have a doctor’s note to be used on the statesman’s trip to the U.S. during Prohibition.

In a letter to his wife, Churchill mentions drinking “champagne at all meals & buckets of claret & soda in between.” There was also the beverage his children called a “Papa Cocktail”: a tipple of Johnnie Walker Red to cover the bottom of a glass, to be filled with water and sipped throughout the day. However, as is well known, the man loved champagne the best. And Cuban cigars. Perhaps he would like this shirt on display in a Bronx shop window.

Thinking recently about when I first transitioned into the field of arboriculture and had a lot of learning to do, a major effort. In the tree industry as in other fields you need a credential to define you, and so I devoted many late nights to preparing for my certification exam, offered by the International Society of Arboriculture. I remember that I couldn’t quite believe I was studying for a multiple-choice test, at my stage in life—and that the material was so grueling. The memorization is challenging, even for people who have had years in the field. There were late nights spent at my desk studying diagrams of xylem and phloem, fortified by repeat listenings of a pop song by the band TV on the Radio that had as its chorus Everything’s gonna be okay! Everything’s gonna be okay!

That wee bit of hypomania I had been diagnosed with decades before now worked its charms. My love of language trailed me into the profession like the long shadow of a tall old pin oak, Quercus palustris. Would I really have to learn Latin? AP English had been more my speed back in the day. When I was growing up, what I knew of trees confined itself to the apple tree I climbed as a child and the oak tree by the driveway in whose crevice I created domestic worlds out of acorn caps and twigs. I was to find later on, teaching writing to arborists, that many had a Malus in their childhood which was their formative experience with dendrology, that the wizened backyard apple they encountered as an adult was their madeleine.

Now, even if I had wanted to I could not shake my obsession with the names of the exotica I was learning, terms like lion tailing, thimble, water sprouts, whoopie sling, gymnosperm, cow hitch, come-along grip, antigibberellins.  Yes, Winston, greater effort.

I newly fathomed the phrase, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Mr. Samuel Beckett, of course.)

Clevis, inflorescence, bucking!

By day I mused over the petiole, the slender stalk that connects a leaf with its stem; my night dreams overflowed with phosphorus, oxygen, h2o. I filled my Five Star composition notebook (once the incubator for my book ideas) with the qualities of biotic diseases such as fire blight, nematode, black vine weevil, frass borer and  adelgids, leafhoppers. I still wasn’t sure if I’d be able to identify gummosis in the field, but now I knew at least that it was the exudation of sap or gum from a wound or other opening in the bark. Asterisk! Important! Field-grown no longer brought to mind farm-fresh green beans or juicy tomatoes but ball-and-burlap saplings that would survive transplant shock, no fertilization necessary. And of course, to the repeated rock-and-roll exhortation Everything’s gonna be okay!, the vital necessity of organic mulch. Yikes! How would I remember it all? Later I was to learn that even the most grizzled arborists customarily looked up the more arcane facts, there was no shame in it.

I recall sitting in front of a computer terminal at a bland Manhattan testing site near Grand Central Terminal and sweating over the questions, not sure I could make the grade. All around me people were proving their worth as correctional officers and real estate brokers, probably going on to great things, not grubbing in the arboricultural dirt (yes, tree people do call it that, not the more p.c. soil.) Yet I was excited. This project of mine was blowing up – it was heady, it was real. And, somehow, I passed.

On to the Bronx, years later, where ginkgo leaves flutter.

As do the latest fashions.

Haven’t had to use a cow hitch yet.

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Road trip revelations big and small

included some arresting sights, such as the Wisconsin highway barn painted in mile-high letters by people who obviously wanted to get their message across. These guys should work on Madison Avenue. OKAY, WE HEAR YOU!

A flock of blue jays, one of which left a memento behind for someone (me) desiring signs and best wishes for the future.

Earlier on our journey, another blue jay, by the road side. Good effort to whomever created it, and good tidings to all travelers passing by.

A message dishtowel I seem to have absconded with from the family reunion cottage on Green Bay. Yes! Agreed.

Flowers lush, fresh, unexpected. Euphorbia milli.

A rainbow, always a good harbinger, this time at what is called the American Falls at Niagara. Eschewing the yellow ponchos they give out to tourists who stop under the torrent, I looked down over the whole scene and was impressed by a) the majesty, of course and b) the tawdriness of the surroundings. Have three quarters of all commercial establishments (hotels, restaurants, etc.) shut down during the pandemic, or does it just seem that way?

Wanted to find a memorial to Annie Edson Taylor, the 63-year-old nearly penniless widow from Bay City, Michigan who thought she’d achieve fame and fortune by braved the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel in 1901. Challenged by a reporter to reveal the skimpy outfit she might wear to make the journey, Taylor responded, it would be unbecoming a woman of my refinement and my years to parade before a holiday crowd in an abbreviated skirt!

Apparently her only monument stands in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, where she died as a public charge – only 17 minutes of fame for her and no gold at the end of the rainbow (bad manager blamed). A schoolteacher, she fitted herself out in barrel weighted down with a 100-pound anvil and went for the ride of her life, only getting slightly banged up.

Farm-stand raspberries just picked, before being gobbled down. Summertime, summertime…

WOW! Seemingly defunct art gallery in Manetowac, just before the Canadian border. Peeking in, dusty easels and all.

Apple plucked from the grass beneath an old-old tree, the kind of fruit people used to go crazy for in the days before candy for everybody all the time – mainly sour, cottony, with skin of leather, instantly oxidizing – which I ate down to the core before tossing out the window.

Johnny Appleseed fantasies. An interesting fellow, not a myth. John Chapman, born in 1774, was a pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of the eastern U.S. He was also a missionary and when he traveled around to various states distributed materials about the New Church along with his apple seeds, giving sermons that cautioned against such indulgences as calico fabric and imported tea. 

The Runway Bar in Door County at the small airport for private planes, Bad Lands in the back (bordello?), shut down in the ‘90s but still offering a side-of-the-road sight for sore eyes, tree busting through the roof and all. A dive bar that took a nose dive, says Gil.

Another way sign I grew instantly fond of. Beach Harbor, baby. Let’s go.

Sleek windmills all along the highway. I’m told not by Cervantes not to tilt at them — they might be evil giants — but I insist. Saw some on the road being transported, accompanied by a robust police convoy.

Well-groomed Motorcycle Memorial Park way off the road.

A place to raise a beer to fallen comrades, apparently. But remember, bikers don’t let bikers drive drunk.

Aldo Leopold bench kit at The Ridges nature center at Bailey’s Harbor – 120 bucks will get conservation-minded carpenters the great naturalist’s name brand for their garden.

A canoe setting sail with family members at sunset. Sweet dreams are made of this, as the Eurythmics would have it.

In other boating news, a homemade flotilla and race at Sturgeon Bay – only plywood and caulk allowed – and almost all sink to general, gentle Midwestern hilarity.

In still more boating news, a Gideon’s bible graces the cabin on the coal-fired ferry from Manetowac, Wisconsin to Luddington, Michigan, across the great lake. Will put reading that old thing on my to-do list.

Odd tree habits. I don’t get this, but I love it. Maybe there is a biblical allegory here?

The moon that followed us as it waxed, flaming yellow and orange, so close you could see the ancient, impossible face. No Iphone pic can do justice to this fever dream of an evening sky. Truly the magic hour.

It was hard to get enough of Ottilie the German short-hair pointer taking cat naps in the back seat.

But don’t mention cats to Ottie, who has a thing about cats and other small creatures. This great bird dog, without a hunting trip to focus her, once put a chicken out of its misery at doggie day care.

And speaking of dogs, nine puppies for sale at a crossroads farm – parentage impeccable, Red Aussie/Red Heeler/ English Shepherd/ Border Collie.

Like fur-covered jelly beans, all of six weeks old. Callie the home-schooled farm girl (not sure what grade I’m in — ninth, I think?) shares a picture of the father. Pretty formidable presence, I’d say.

Will we adopt one of his progeny? I am currently petitioning my dog-loving husband, who cherishes his freedom now that all our prior dogs have crossed the rainbow bridge, as some people like to put it. Probably originated with some of the same people that put up the JESUS IS LORD barn message.

Perhaps the blue jays will bring me luck.

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The meaning of a cairn

is debatable. It’s a marker or a meditation of some kind, says Sarah.

An ode to the fact that people have been here. Yes. Sarah swims in the cold, rough ocean, and knows something about everything.

Traditionally, in the Andes or Mongolia, say, rock cairns were used to mark routes to safety, to food, and to villages. Three or more stones piled up, usually.

Thomas believes that they were first used to prevent marauding predators from defiling corpses, but remembers that in Boy Scouts, hiking, they built them to use as a sign for those who follow. That must surely have been fun.

Finding your way in the world can be fun. Or not. It’s always an adventure. Even pain lets you know you’re alive. Can help you find your way.

All kinds of signs, not just cairns, in this Midwestern sortie. The wall leading to the beer hall restroom.

The supermarket aisle, full of Midwestern cute-isms.

The roadside wayfinder to the coming old-time thresheree. Missing it. Rats.

Even the fish store has its own signpost, useful for dinnertime filet crust-creators.

Something called a chambered cairn in ancient times featured a grave underground and a cairn above.

Marking your way, finding your way, figuring out where the heck you should go. You probably have heard that men and women organize space differently, and wend their ways differently when they take to the road. Women determine where they’re going by landmarks, men by maps.

Here on the shore of Green Bay, sticks and stones.

Sticks and stones won’t hurt you. Stones might. Hundreds of thousands of spiders swarm the shore and clamber whooshingly into the cracks when you make your way across.

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy is known for his sculpture at Storm King sculpture center in New York. With the help of five men he built a wall 2,278 feet long out of rough stone dug from local fields—1,579 tons of rock. Incorporating an old farm wall, it wends its way through groves of trees before “disappearing” into a lake and “emerging” at the other side. Goldsworthy has noted, Trees, stone, people—these are the ingredients of the place and the work. The stones connect to past and present. Touching the wall can bring luck, as Maud knows well.

Past and present. Mimi told me that cheese shops were commonly built at the crossroads in rural Wisconsin. Whaaat? Gil and I call such facts when used in written works bite-in-the-ass-details. Almost too delectable to be true. BITAD’s.

But I checked in with Rick, a Midwesterner born and bred. His grandpa was a cheese professional – got his degree in cheese-craft at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1930s, then went about the cheese business in rural Wisconsin at crossroads cheese factories. Seriously.

What if you find yourself at a cheese crossroads?

Sometimes –usually — a hammock is the best place to reflect on the tides of life.

My proposal for a book about American forests is out there, wending its way through the publishing quagmire, looking for a home. Waiting to find a home is hard, but I like to think I’ve done good work and the rest will come.

Over every mountain, there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley. That’s what Theodore Roethke said. Lyn said that she recalls a kind minister helping her overcome some of her shyness by appointing her the church’s liturgist – she didn’t foresee that path but will always be grateful.

Charlie used cairns as a backpacking counselor. One trail was on Bomber Mountin in the Bighorns of Wyoming. The group found the WW2 wreckage near a peak, then cairns guided them down a 1,500 foot descent to safety.

Only one thing for certain: there will be peach upside-down cake for dessert.

How many more perfect sunsets will you view in your life?

How many perfect cedar skies?

How many slices of peach upside-down cake? How many Midwestern Van Gogh sunflowers kissing the light?

How many cheeks will you kiss? How many times will your own face be kissed? 

How many sweet summer vacations? I hate to break it to you, the number is finite. 

The ways are innumerable, though, I hope. Keep an eye out for signposts.


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“Intuitive meandering”

read the words on the Cook-Albert Fuller Nature Center blackboard. Is there a better kind?

Jane Whitney, citizen-scientist, makes every tiny detail on our meander come alive.

Consummate guide, she leads an ungainly gaggle down a boardwalk at The Ridges preserve in Door County to goggle at things both tiny and large. Not the wilderness of a John Muir, but accessible to those with mobility issues. And that is important.

It’s an orchid-y place, she says. Citizen-scientists have been conducting an inventory with GPS and found 29 kinds here. None blooming now, unfortunately. Otherwise we would see the blossoms of the ram’s head lady slipper, about as big as your little finger. Orchids, it turns out, will not germinate without a fungal partner in the soil. Something she says that I distractedly miss about a baby and a lunchbox. Sounds amazing but my tummy still hurts from all the chocolate-covered almonds I ingested at the bonfire last night. Each orchid contains a fairy dust of 10,000 dust-like seeds. Just DNA on the wing.

Now you’ve got my attention. You know, of course, that Latin names exist for all these plants. Those are for smart alecks, not for us. Did you take Latin in school? It was all I could do to master AP English.

Cat-tails. Where we live, back east, these have all been replaced by phragmites, noxious invasives.

The hardest part of being a citizen-scientist is getting down and getting up again, she says, especially when you’re in your eighth decade.

Ridges and swales, the geographic features of this biome. Turns out this discrete spot in Door County thinks it’s much farther north, and thus earns the title of boreal forest, hosting a northern community of plants and 17 species of warbler that nest here because they think it’s north. Silly warblers. Bailey’s Harbor offers a straight shot down to Chicago. A paleolythic boreal forest, and we’re in it. That must be the magic I sensed. Even the soil beneath our feet is special.

Jane shows us Joe Pye weed, a wonderful plant for your garden – a monarch magnet, and swamp candle a native kind of loosestrife, and therefore okay, not like the purple loosestrife that haunts the byways of America. Joe Pye, named after a New England man who used the plant medicinally for helping people with typhus fever.

Boneset, its close cousin. Self-deprecatingly, our guide points out little short plants on the ground – where else would they be, Jane? Dwarf lake iris, with a purple-yellow bloom in May, this was shoreline once.

Cedars are manifold. The bark, people once knew, could cure scurvy.

Now it is only picturesque.

Only? Differ.

And makes a trail like this give off an aroma better than the finest chi-chi spa.

Even Mimi, a teensy bit anxious to get us here on time. is becalmed.

Goldenrod gets blamed for allergies but ragweed is the culprit when pollen gets up your snoot. Spatter dock. Narrow-leafed loosestrife. Water parsnip. The poetry of wild plants, now forgotten by all but a few. Kalm’s Saint John’s Wort used to be used medicinally by ancient people, the smart people. Kalm traveled to North America from Sweden in 1747 and wrote the first scientific papers on Niagara Falls and on the 17-year cicada, among other marvels. He identified 60 new plant species.

We see tufty things. Standing beside the harebell, my pen runs out of ink, and Jane kindly lends me an extra from Door County Eye Associates. I am reminded of the tours I give at Ellis when she heads us into the shade. You need to be comfortable when learning about the doodlebug, or ant lion, one of nature’s premier engineers, which always goes backwards into an ant hill and knows perfectly the angle of repose. Funny, I thought I had the skinny on that.

A sedge meadow is a good place for mating dragonflies. Or mating anything, if there’s no room at the inn.

Spurred gentian doesn’t get any prettier than this – it’s just a blush, non-spectacular. Yes, gotcha, we all have those days.

In case you worried (I did), the only reason the lower branches of the cedars look dead is because the tree in shade finds it’s too much effort to maintain needles for photosynthesis.

But there are particular signs of continued life for this conifer forest. A recent wind-throw caused a canopy opening that was a gift to the forest floor, making a place for baby balsams to grow. Nurse logs coated in moss sprout seedlings, so if you have a wood lot, leave your wind-throw down. I hear wives rib their husbands: I don’t think you’re going to do that anytime soon. The usual guy-who-knows-everything points out berries that even Jane didn’t see. Mansplaining as popular a pastime in the Midwest as anyplace else.

The black-eyed susans are having a great time. Happy plants. Did you know that lilies of the valley are that modern curse word, invasive, also daisies, brought by European settlers?

I want to take a hot second and talk about… the tour is almost done, time to think about heading to the local brewery. This is Wisconsin, after all.

First, though, the old-old lighthouse with its amazingly small lens.

Its history of being powered by lard, its nationally recognized outhouse.

It’s not all about the wildflowers, you know. But they’re the best. Especially with common names.

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You can read an old-growth forest

if you can interpret signs. It’ll still be tough, they’re so mysterious.

It’s easier if a very astute naturalist has come before you and shown everyone how important it is to preserve these ancient environments. In this case, A.B. Williams, who embraced a stand of woods in Ohio, with the great name North Chagrin Reservation, in the 1930s.

Williams was working toward his doctorate and established a trailside museum here (since burned down and replaced). It’s a maze of a forest rich in 300- and 400-year old beeches, sugar maples, tulip trees, hemlocks and other species. The United Nations has defined old-growth forests as naturally regenerated stands of native tree species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.

Not all trees in an old-growth forest, also called a climax community, are old. Counterintuitive, but true.

Some are though, big old honkers.

This one has significant wounds. It’s still alive! says Maud, looking up.

Compartmentalization. Something trees are great at, humans not so much. What happens is that, according to what tree people call CODIT (compartmentalization of decay in trees, duh), when a tree is wounded it begins to protect itself by slowing or preventing the spread of disease and decay by forming “walls” around the wounded area. Getting into the specifics of this process would take a year and a day, but suffice it to say that the walls run in every direction, ingeniously.

Maud has spent some time in emergency rooms as an r.n. How to deal with deaths there? Yep, that is what she says, compartmentalization. How a person stays sane when there is insanity all around. I know quite a few people now that 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, et cetera. They might do well to emulate the trees. Put aside a set amount of time each day to wring your hands and think dark thoughts. Then you can at least enjoy your dinner, and catch some sleep at night.

Wildflowers fringe the forest.

Here in North Chagrin, there are some signs that are a bit inscrutable. How to explain this marking on bark? All suggestions welcome. A map created by druids?

Or this stretch of marked ground where a fallen tree decayed. Looks like someone dragged a body through here.

The hills have eyes. So do some young trees.

We know that people love beech trees, their smooth grey bark, useful for leaving your mark. It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, ‘I love you,’ or whether she said, ‘I love the beech-trees,’ or only ‘I love—I love.‘ That’s Virginia Woolf, from Night and Day.

Despite the fact that this forest is old growth, that doesn’t in this case mean unspoiled. Some people find peoples’ autobiographical messages on beech bark annoying. I don’t. Thoreau said, I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines. I like to think of someone tramping some miles through North Chagrin, too shy to unburden himself to someone he cares for, and surreptitiously taking switchblade out of pocket to say I love-I love.

There are also black cherries here, some of them quite opinionated. What are you trying to say though, standing there akimbo?

Gigantic hemlocks. Bark that is positively prehistoric.

Soaring tulip trees. They can reach 200 feet tall. Indigenous Americans used their straight solid trunks to build dugout canoes.

Delicate leaves.

Toadstools/mushrooms (your pick) thrive here in the humus.

Craggy roots lay upended, fairy tale characters.

All around, insects buzz. The only sound, aside from the panting of excited dogs. We fall quiet. Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me? Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road.

Here is shagbark hickory, bearing fruit.

There aren’t that many trees whose names denote their appearance. Think: apple, linden, oak, pine, chestnut, on and on. Shagbark is what it is.

When a tree falls in an old-growth forest, you let it lie. Well, most of the time. If it crosses a trail, it’s only mannerly to remove it.

Old-growth forests in the United States are rare. One estimate holds that stands of century-old forest now account for only seven percent of forest cover in America. Another expert puts it at less than four percent. Yet another, six percent. Whatever, it is indisputedly small. Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. It’s sad because they harbor extraordinary amounts of biodiversity, including rare species. The percentage of the world’s forests that are old growth is a bit larger– 21 percent, according to the World Resources Institute.

Occasionally a view opens up, appearing out of nowhere.

Let’s try to interpret the signs. Preserve the canopy, the rot, even the bark scars (nothing is perfect, and sometimes imperfection is wonderful). Visit an old-growth forest near you and place your palms on the trunk of one of these giants.

Fall silent. Dream.

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The most pathetic park in the Bronx

might be Corona Parkway Malls, at Southern Boulevard and Elsmere Place. Pathetic as in pathos, evoking pity or sadness.

Never visited? Trash is everywhere.

Despite avid, well-peopled efforts by the Parks Department to keep it clean.

I snapped her photo right before she told me No photos allowed. Really?

Lots of people make this park their home. People that don’t have a roof over their heads are up early, combing their hair, performing ablutions. Washing up at a fire hydrant. Fresh NYC water, among the best in the country (ranked 13th if you must know). Delivered from pristine reservoirs in the Catskills, and furthermore treated with fluoride, chlorine and ultraviolet light so it’s safe to drink.

Nodding out, first fix of the day. Good morning. On to another New York City day collecting bottles. This is what they refer to as an underserved community. Underserved? An understatement, that.

There might be a better city in which to be homeless. But how would you get there? Without anything in your wallet?

One person smoking, scowling, scratching, weeping, dancing by her bench in the style of Indian mudra, delineating shapes in the air with her hands and fingers. Wasted. Grime-tan. I watch her for a while, can’t help myself. She takes her time opening a sleeve of crackers, then polishes them off. Hard to know where crackers go in that skinny little body.

Waiting for my man. (Lou Reed, of course.) This Man comes through in a spiffy pork pie hat and anime tee shirt, collecting fistfuls of cash and deposit ing product in palms. Someone had an open fire one recent night. At 7am, only cinders remain. And a half-full beverage

Amid the wreckage, beauty. Life. Even nature. Red in tooth and claw. (Tennyson.) Pigeons walking the tightrope of a branch. A young London plane.

Common buttonbush – Cephalanthus occidentalis.

Buttonbush in the wild can attract more than two dozen species of bird, including kingbirds, towhees and hummingbirds.

Everlasting roses.

This is Jade. She sticks close, doesn’t need a leash. Nuff said.

Coneflowers that would present the same glowing amethyst countenance in a luckier person’s country garden.

A well-endowed shrine on the site of a historical obelisk.

Memorializing two loved ones short-term visitors to the neighborhood will never know.

Lest you wonder what I’m doing here, I have a job — inspecting the site of a working sidewalk construction crew to make sure no trees in their path some to harm.

So far, no harm, no foul. I’m watching over a 90″ American elm, doing my best to shield it from the ravages.

What is compassion? Is a trait we reserve for humans (sometimes!) or does it extend to trees? Trees care for us, of course – they cannot help it, it’s the way they roll.

Flaggers, lifeblood of the construction industry. Keeping us all safe. Thank you, men. (These flaggers happen to be male, but the women flaggers I’ve met are some of the most fierce mama bears in existence.)

You’d have to work pretty hard and pretty carelessly to break a honey locust. Here they are bringing forth their young seed pods. Cattle in another place like to feed on the green goo that grows inside once they ripen and fall.

Great as these trees might be for urban areas, the powers that be where I live have seen fit to demolish mature honey locust trees in our downtown in order to install new sidewalks. Including half a dozen mature, shade-throwing specimens.

Here in Corona, honey locusts thrive. To the credit of a powerful Parks Department, we do not damage trees in New York City, let alone cut them down.

The shade they cast has been proven crucial to keeping people alive in the sizzling temperatures we have had recently, as the earth fries.

We all need canopy. It’s not an extra, an add-on. It is a life preserver.

Bystanders like to check out what’s going on. Take the morning air, catching what faint breeze there is.

A lucky tree – hurting, perhaps, damaged, yet soldiering on. As if the tree pit wasn’t small enough already, you can see three types of unwanted material dumped at its base. Yet it grows.

Is there still a chance to do better by these folks who call Corona Parkway Malls home? Tree canopy is a start. That goes for everyone, not just the most obviously broken. Which is why it’s a privilege to do a little something to protect this tiny piece of the land, this patch of urban forest, even if only to ensure the backhoe keeps away from the roots.

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The concept of “soft fascination”

was I think my favorite takeaway from the tree conference I recently attended, put on by New York ReLeaf. That is the advocacy/education outfit which has a chapter I chair with my friend the DEC forester George Profous. Exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate, according to Attention Restoration Theory,  developed in the 1980s by researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. Visit a forest and you will let down your guard and enjoy the soft fascination of everything around you. In other words, as speaker Dr. Donald Rakow said, people need a break.

Remember Leadbelly? Famous lyrics of his tout soft fascination in a different way: Relax your mind, relax your mind/ It’ll make you live a great long time/Sometimes you’ve got to relax your mind. Perhaps this Ohio buckeye will give you a start.

Rakow spoke of kids who spend time in the woods growing up, of how they score higher on cognitive tests and have a lower risk of bad behavior in adolescence. About ecological grief (or eco-grief), nomenclature which describes the sense of loss that arises from learning about environmental destruction. Also nature deficit disorder, not currently recognized in the DSM but coined by scientist Richard Louv in his groundbreaking 2005 Last Child in the Woods. There is nothing really new under the sun; back in the 1890s, children participated in a radical Nature Study Unit at Cornell, which took as its motto “Study nature, not books.”

I remember when I had a big vegetable garden amply fertilized by aged chicken manure — my own favored exhortation to lazy weekend guests was “Weed, not read.”

Like any industry, the tree business has its own favored locutions, and over the several days of the meeting you could hear percolating up out of the general conversation terms that might be inscrutable to the general public. Phrases like beech disease …  air spadetree diapermulch volcano … and so on…

Why are trees good? Yes, they are majestic. Yes, they breathe out oxygen so we can live. But, in addition, phytoncides produced in the forest are volatile chemicals taken in through the nasal passages which actually increase our natural killer cells and have  an antiviral effect: phytoncides in, illness out. Related, there is a kind of microbiota that is common in soils; it stimulates increased levels of serotonin. Why just getting your hands dirty makes you feel good. I adored Marjorie Winslow’s Mud Pies and Other Recipes, growing up, even when I had officially put away my childish things.

Does what we do matter? asked Ian Leahy, a big wumpalump at American Forests, the premier tree organization in the country. He gave a plenary address that was informative, philosophical and even spiritual at moments. It’s an existential time, he said. He quoted poet Mary Oliver, talking about this one wild and precious life, and transcendentalist Thoreau, with the question of how do humans and nature combine? Leahy talked about the 12,000 heat-related deaths in America currently, projected to be 100,000 by the end of the century – many of which could be avoided with increased canopy cover. Tree equity is the concept popularized in 2018 by American Forests (and a program now overseen by Leahy), meaning that a map of trees in a given community is too often a map of income and raceThis is our moment, he said, this is our calling, but we can’t just throw trees in the ground. Knowing your city’s tree equity score – go to the Vibrant Cities Lab web site for guidance on how to do that – can help citizens tell the story of why trees are so urgently needed.

Cool corridors in Phoenix allow kids to walk to school without sweating their brains out. A recycled urban wood project in Baltimore excites the musical instrument community as the ash trees the industry has always utilized disappear. Leahy finished with an inspirational quote from environmental rock star Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the inspired book Braiding Sweetgrass, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation: The land knows you, even when you are lost.

This is an urgent time for forestry and urban forestry, as more people seem to grok how trees relate to the larger issue of climate change and mourn the terrible fires in our western big-tree forests. Between downing vats of coffee and oceans of beer, arborists spoke of things that matter.

Some of it wasn’t so serious. My companion on a bus headed to a walking tour of Watertown, New York, told me of her love for the pawpaw tree. You may think of Asimina trilobal as inhabiting southern climes, but because she is a fan Kat Korba has coaxed it into producing for the edible ecology corridor she is helping to create in Syracuse.

It is wonderful, she waxed, kind of like a cross between a mango, a banana and an avocado. You eat it with a spoon. The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States.

Watertown, according to the arborist and historian who tag-teamed our tour, has many distinctions. After a series of ice storms and microbursts in the 1990s, the city embarked on a crusade to replace lost old trees with new healthy ones in a downtown arboretum. We talked under the shade of beautiful old lindens and katsura trees.

And saw a library built during the gilded age by a wealthy resident as a tribute to her father, with the largest rotunda north of the thruway

Bet you didn’t know that the paper clip was invented in Watertown, as were Little Trees, the car deodorizers, the 1952 brainstorm of Julius Sämann, a German-Jewish chemist and businessman who had fled the Nazis. Another famous product of the city is Viggo Mortensen, whose homecomings are assiduously tracked. The Black River flows through and powered Watertown’s original prosperity, during a time when mansions like the one housing the historical society currently were replacing the early settlers’ log cabins.

I love it when civic-minded people tow old structures to one property so you can see all the stages of development at once. Sure enough, here beside the grand historical society stood the wizened log cabin, among the black locusts and catalpas and the weeping beech. Oh yes, Sinatra had an album called Watertown.

History, trees. Everything great. We were introduced to a recently planted hybrid oak from Cornell, Quercus bicolor x vaseyana, in plain English a swamp white oak crossed with a sandpaper oak. Nearby, showing off its fringes, a juvenile dawn redwood.

And so on. A wonderful effort, Watertown’s urban forest, presided over by sensitive and smart city arborist Mike DeMarco, who likes the shade of a big old tree as much as the next guy.

Over 45 species can be found downtown, from redbud to red oak to red jade crabapple. As far as I know, no pawpaw. Yet. Just a suggestion, Tree Watertown.

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Are some trees bad?

Well. Depends who you ask.

Norway maples, callery pear, ailanthus, ash. Spotted lanternfly adores laying its disgusting eggs on the bark of the ailanthus, commonly known as the tree of heaven.

So ailanthus deserves to get whacked. But what about grape vines? Apple trees? These host the same invasive insect.

As for the callery pear, you might have some gracing your downtown sidewalks or your apartment complex. Offering bright white blooms for a week or two in early spring. Arborists’ assessmen: Pyrus calleryana is a nightmare. Why? Inquiring minds (mine) have investigated. These trees, originally from China, were widely introduced by landscapers in the 1960s, and displace native trees and plants. Also, they don’t smell sweet, as you would expect them too. Communities around the U.S. can’t cut them down fast enough – some are even offering rewards to those who destroy them.

Ash trees play host to another noxious bug, also imported from Asia, known as the emerald ash borer. Cities are eliminating dead trees by the thousands as well as infected ones as a kind of stay of execution. Last year I accompanied a crew in Queens that was feeding axed ashes into the chipper.

Whole blocks were decimated, and once-graceful allees of mature trees vanished, much to locals’ shock and confusion. Everywhere these strange diagrams exposed by peeling bark, the sure sign of disease.

Where is the tree I grew up with, whose branches swayed outside my window my whole life? No more birdhouses.

Thinking about the nature of bad and good trees as I stand in the grueling heat of an early Queens morning. The parade of Norway maples along 145 Street in Flushing provides the only shade separating residents from an New York-style Hades.

People tend toward puzzlement when the sidewalk crew comes along. Are they taking down our trees?

Don’t get me wrong. Sunshine is good! If you asked medical pioneer Florence Nightingale, she would have touted its healing properties. In the nineteenth century, she espoused the wondrous effects of sun and fresh air in the absence of cures we take for granted, antibiotics and penicillin and the like. One approach in the 1930s was to suspend a babe in need of fresh air out a tenement window!

But today, what we now call the heat island effect afflicts neighborhoods like this one in Flushing disproportionately. They need all the cooling they can get. Even the shade of the “invasive” Norway maple plays a part.

Researchers have noted that individuals with mental health issues (e.g depression, for example) are more at risk when faced with high temperatures and “need to take extra care” as cognitive performance has been shown to be differentially affected by heat. People with diabetes, are overweight, have sleep deprivation, or have cardiovascular/cerebrovascular conditions should also avoid too much heat exposure.

Residents need shade. These trees, in the words of an arborist friend, are working hard. And they’re not getting paid, either!

What’s the use of being house proud, like so many Queens-ites, if you haven’t any trees?

Residents love their flowers.

Some even plant small-scale farms – more ambitious than my raised tomato beds.

But others bake. The heat island effect means that people are cooked, literally, in their homes and neighborhoods. Fried like so many sidewalk eggs. Within the United States alone, an average of 1,000 people die each year due to extreme heat.

Mainly poor people. Those without recourse to decent air conditioning, swimming pools – and trees. Trees are a necessary feature in combating most of the urban heat island effect because they reduce air temperatures by 10 °F and surface temperatures by up to 20–45 °F.

Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. The process of taking up water through its roots, up through the leaves and out again as vapor into the air, called transpiration, is something all trees excel at. It’s nature’s air conditioning. Canopy cover is always important, but nowhere more than in the places where it can’t be taken for granted.

In the suburbs we have grand old tall cedars.

In urban areas, not so much.

Nothing makes up for the simple, absolute value of coolness in hot weather.

Some surprising trees make it to a good old age on these mean streets. A Siberian elm somehow thrives in a 4×4 inch tree pit.

I stand outside a nondescript bungalow on 107 Avenue.

There is a robust swamp white oak. How nice.

These are some of the exotics you might stumble across in the boroughs of New York. Older specimens have obviously offered shade to strollers for quite some time. London planes thrive in the most destitute circumstances, and we are all the better off for it.

When you hear about property owners razing “good trees” to build additions or housing projects or basketball courts, it’s common sense to mourn their loss. Mature oaks, sweetgum, lindens don’t just spring up overnight and surely don’t deserve to be disappeared. We know we need them, though some knuckleheads will always come along to say they don’t matter and remove them.

But what about the specimens sometimes dismissed as trash trees? Are honey locusts expendable simply because they are so common in this city?

I think that logic is mistaken. Honey locust has its own sharp-shouldered beauty.

Even the city version without the spikes can make itself welcome as a shade tree where we need shade.

Trees can’t help the species that spawned them, or the whims of the city planners who once planted these sometimes struggling urban forests. A Norway maple has gotta right to live too! And we deserve their shade. All of us.

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I do like pin oaks

and especially those in groves, urban oases, such as in Flushing, the massive ones ringing Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Whoever laid the concrete sidewalks here most recently politely made room for the spreading roots of venerable Quercus palustris.

Excuse me, said the tree, we were here first. And the City complied, which is more than happens in other municipalities. New York’s rigor regarding tree protection is legendary.

A breezy day in Queens. Anthony the flagger on a well-deserved break: It ain’t a hard hat, but it keeps off the sun. Not a day over 40, indeed. 

Deeply carved sinuses, the scallops that distinguish the pin oak leaf.

The tree has a unique habit – its branches hold up the sky at the top, stick out straight as a t square in the middle and droop a bit at the bottom of its shape. There is a monster of a pin oak square in the middle of this sprawling burial ground.

Mount Hebron opened its gates in 1909, and its permanent residents include Holocaust survivors and people who lived through the pogroms leading up to World War II. For example, a monument to the immigrants and immigrants’ descendants from the city of Grodno in today’s Belarus is dedicated to those who were “brutally persecuted and slain by the Nazis.” A stroll reveals many people in their mid-30’s and 40’s who died in the 1930s. Beyond tragic.

I couldn’t find acorn litter today. Someone here stays on top of autumnal sweeping. The nut would poison us but make a fit snack for a squirrel. Critters are more present that most people think here in the greater metropolitan area. I watched a woodchuck dive under a scrim of shrubbery recently in Liberty State Park. I’ve seen raccoons in a Flushing alleyway. This morning at six a.m. as I drove onto the Parkway, headed to the work site, an eight-point white-tail stared and stood stock still at the edge of the woods. Haven’t seen deer in New York City proper but surely it’s a matter of time. Do they like hydrangeas? Then they might like Flushing.

The chain link surrounding Mount Hebron had been conveniently pulled aside as an unofficial entrance for me to slip inside. No one I approached in the neighborhood seemed to know the name of the 250-acre burial ground in their midst, not the Mobil station attendants on the next block (5.59/gallon, with the cleanest restroom in Queens), not even the grave digger, who rose above the dirt he was shoveling to Google the query on his phone. The Yiddish theater industry produced  quite a few of the souls buried at Mount Hebron. 

The lady with the daisies hadn’t a clue as to where they might be.

Plenty of observant Jews have payed tribute to the dead here, leaving stones atop the graves.

Also abundant, the gnarly limestone faux tree trunks known as treestones. As a sculpted quote from the Biblical tree of life, they represent both eternity and humanity.

By serendipity, I came across a friend’s great grandparents’ plot – they fled Kyev when the pogroms came through and wound up in the Bronx, where Abraham was an expert jeweler and watchmaker.

But I knew the Yiddish actors were someplace – though my favorite, the ever entertaining one-time vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red-hot mamas” – had been buried elsewhere.

As a child, Tucker regaled diners in her parents’ restaurant between waitressing duties. She recalled later that she would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The chanteuse’s hit Some of These Days made her super famous, kind of like the Taylor Swift of her day, if Taylor Swift were a middle-aged red hot mama and had a ribald sense of humor. Tucker’s version of The Lady Is a Tramp is the best out there. Banned in Nazi Germany: My Yiddishe Momme.

Plenty of mobsters here. Perhaps the most famous was Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944 for the 1936 murder of Brooklyn shopkeeper Joseph Rosen after six judicial reprieves. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commented after the funeral, Well, they certainly tried everything. Pressed as to whether there would be another Lepke in New York, he was certain: Yes, there will, if we turn government over to the politicians. Take the rackets, the slot machines, gambling – that’s where the Lepkes find their pickings and their perquisites. LaGuardia put himself through law school at night by translating for immigrants at Ellis Island during the daytime. During his tenure as mayor he outlawed organ grinders with their capuchin monkeys, eliminating a source of much color on the streets and a certain career for many first-generation Italians.

LaGuardia believed that organ grinders perpetuated a stereotype of his countrymen. He spoke half a dozen languages: Italian, Croatian, Yiddish, German, French and Hungarian.

Mount Hebron sits on the former 2,000-acre Spring Hill estate of Colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, who died in 1776, four days after the British claimed New York. Colden acted as the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Confederacy and wrote the first history of the Five Nations. A doctor and botanist, the polymath was a patrician pioneer of public health, an expert on the subject of yellow fever. Looked okay in his crimson regalia.

Colden was reportedly not a nice guy. A slaveowner, he reputedly sold one female member of his chattel, a “good House Negro,” for a cargo of “white muscovado” sugar. He got a lot of flak from American patriots, who to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 burned him in effigy along with his coach after smashing it to smithereens in a celebratory bonfire on Manhattan’s Bowling Green (note: then a small green park where you could still go to bowl).

Cadwallader Colden had a number of distinguished children, but the standout was his daughter Jane, who followed in her father’s Linnaeus-inspired footsteps and became the first botanist of her sex in America. Most famous for her untitled manuscript describing the flora of the Hudson Valley that featured her own ink drawings – she was the first scientist to describe the gardenia! – Jane died  tragically from complications of childbirth in 1766, at the age of 41.

A visitor to her home noted that she actually made “the best cheese I ever ate in America,” a skill she detailed in her Memorandum of Cheese in 1756.

Cadwallader is buried here somewhere, in present-day Queens, in a plot on his old property, where he now rubs shoulders with mobsters, Yiddish stage stars and survivors of evil. Jane lies interred at the family’s upstate estate near her beloved flowers. I think she might have liked the pin oaks that line Main Street as much as I do.

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A nice trail at a nice time

if you happen to be a dog. Not.

Or the owner of a dog. Nope.

Or people temporarily in possession of granddogs. Yes. Their actual, official humans are in Italy for the week, so Gus and Ottie are making do with us.

Magic hour. Rowley’s Bridge.

Nice trail if you happen to like white mulberries.

Swamp white oaks.

A sugar maple mysteriously tagged long ago.

We buried a dog here once. Grave undisturbed, good to see.

A stand of mature osage orange trees, probably celebrating their millionth birthday. No production yet this year, of course.

Maclura pomifera is not actually an orange at all, though its oversize pimply fruits do resemble citrus. It is linked more closely to the mulberry. Native Americans preferred its wood for war clubs and bows, so much so that they would travel many miles to harvest the trees.

A nice place to pick raspberries, now still holding tightly to their promise.

The Hudson, majestic. A word coined specifically to describe the Hudson.

Tracks looking very Stand By Me.

I’m pretty sure we once parked here to speak of things that matter.

A nice place for a Golden mud bath in a filthy stream.

Just a start if you are a German short hair. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, according to  Seneca. Apt words for dog ball chasing.

Back at home for more wind sprints under the sycamore maple. Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure. Another quote applicable to ball chasing from another sage, Mr. Stephen King.

Why not stop and smell the tiger lily blooming out of a patch of fennel?

It’s a granddog’s life. Food, water, a ball chase at magic hour. Soak up all the mud while you can.


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