Tag Archives: Trees

Today is the finest day of the season

and possibly of the year, and maybe in the history of the world, and I am going for a walk with my friend Barbara, an author, the type of person who can use the word lyrical in a sentence and get away with it.

I always like the Lyndhurst estate, acres of lawn and statuesque trees surrounding a faux castle once belonging to robber baron Jay Gould.

The dogwoods dazzle. Some people find the pink ones too garish.

 I would agree that the white blossoms appear more classic.

Note: dogwood flowers are really not flowers at all, but bracts, a kind of leaf. When the cherries and apples and redbuds have faded and the dogwoods step up, I am glad to have the last pink trees of the season.

The weeping copper beech has not yet leafed out. It shows its bones,  a ruddy red.

In her intricate book about the beech, Casting Deep Shade, C.D. Wright tells us that the druids grew wise eating their nuts. And that in dreams, the tree signifies both wisdom and death.

I love the inscribed bark of the trunk, the place of bold identity statements and love proclamations.

Another senescent one on the estate  had to go, and its fulsome branches lay tumbled in the sparkling sunlight.

Magnolia shows no sign of blossoms to come, now all waxy leaves.

We enter the private drawing room of a gargantuan old linden.

Its heart shaped leaves so delicate against the sturdy old branches.

Everything smells incredible. The lilacs. Lilac wafts on air beautifully, though its syrupy scent is somehow a bit chemical. I remember a bank of lilacs that towered over  a lawn near a cabin we lived in when we first were married, taking it for granted, believing that around every corner would stand a bank of lilacs.

We inhale the fresh cut grass. That classic smell, which seems like simplicity itself, is actually an airborne mix of carbon-based compounds called green leaf volatiles, or GLVs. Plants often release these molecules when bruised by insects, infections or mechanical forces — like a lawn mower. GLVs are small enough to take to the air and float into our nostrils, and sometimes they can be detected more than a mile from the place where they originated.

I’m not big on lawns, but experts estimate that there are something like 40 million acres manicured grass across the United States, and mowing becomes our best chance to encounter that incredible smell. According to scientists, people who live near tea plantations in China might get the same feeling from the scent of the tea harvest.

The only aroma to rival that of cut grass is petrichor, the cool word for the way the earth smells after it rains.

The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, and it also has a scientific basis, derived as it is from when chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are released. These aromatic compounds combine to create the pleasant petrichor scent when rain hits the ground. Related, at least in terms of glossing some of the finer points of rain, the Japanese have a word, potsupotsu, that describes the sporadic raindrops that you see (or feel) when it is just about to start raining.

Now that’s lyrical.

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The thing about Arbor Day

is that while for most folks it’s about planting a few symbolic trees, its reach is immense.

I attended a celebratory event in White Plains on April 29, at Highlands Middle School, produced by the White Plains Beautification Foundation, a group that believes “the beautification of our City lifts the spirits of all who live here, work here, or who are just passing through.” What grinch could argue with that?

Babies bounced.

Gentlemen gave the proceedings their undivided attention.

The ceremony included remarks by White Plains’ mayor and the commissioner of public works, and also a speaker subbing for the school’s principal in his absence (he had something more pressing to do?). The jazz band stepped up, after the requisite teenage hair styling.

Everyone in a fine mood on this chilly April afternoon. Even the stalwart edifice of the school building received its share of compliments from the podium.

The grounds seemed to have been prepped for the occasion, with bright and shining pink-blooming trees all around. Is it my imagination, or is this the finest spring on record for springtime tree flash?

Two trees were already in the ground, so no one had to get their shoes muddy: an eastern red cedar and a black gum, one dedicated to a beloved teacher nicknamed Mr. Bill and the other to a generous-minded graduate of the school district who owns a successful auto body shop in the city.

My colleague George Profous, a genius forester with the New York State Department of Conservation, attended. We cochair a committee for a group called ReLeaf, whose purpose is to educate and advocate for trees.

There are too many Arbor Day functions around the lower Hudson Valley for George to visit all of those whose municipalities he has assisted, but his presence here was gratefully acknowledged.

Finally, a literary contribution, from student and no-doubt future Certified Arborist Olivia Tuzel.

She had clearly put a lot of time and thought into the subject.

Trees, what more could they be?

Oxygen providers, contributors to cozy fires

And perhaps nothing more than suppliers

Within the grained surface, lies more than what we see

But our greed envelops our cravings, blinding us from an everlasting fee…

And so on, for six meaningful stanzas.

I liked the last one.

All we need is devotion and effort to bring change

Along with a little bit of hope

So that future generations can tell their children,

“No need to fret, that part of our past lies only as an educational anecdote.”

In 1882, the first American Forestry Congress convened in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, in conjunction with the first National Arbor Day tree planting, attended by 25,000 people. Saplings named for prior U.S. presidents got planted, their roots moistened by children wielding watering cans.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” runs the Chinese proverb. “The second best time is now.” 

How else to address the macro issue of climate change? Start on a micro scale. Plant a tree. Even a tiny seedling contributes to reforestation. It seems every organization is putting a million, a billion, a trillion trees in the ground, an impulse that serves as a poetic if not totally logical reaction to the recession of actual forest lands. I know New York is beefing up its already ambitious arboricultural effort. The ever-worthy Arbor Day Foundation has fostered the planting of nearly 500 million trees in more than 50 countries around the world.

Even the Girl Scouts (or of course the Girl Scouts?) have climbed on the bandwagon, pledging that they will plant five million trees in five years. Middle-schoolers track the trees they plant on line to earn a Girl Scout Tree Promise patch.

Arbor Day can be every day – at least in the cool weather of spring or fall. So go ahead, get your shoes muddy.

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Weedy but wonderful redbud

buds out at the end of April-early May, strutting its stuff alongside highways and abandoned roads. Then it explodes into bloom. There are a few I pass going to and from Ellis Island, in Liberty State Park.

No one pays them any mind.

But the tree also plays well with others, at home in a civilized suburban yard, behind a chainlink fence.

I love this specimen because of the magical way its blossoms stray from the expected place, bursting forth straight out of the bark on its branches and trunk, like the one I caught alongside a busy street in Austin. The botanical term for this habit is “cauliflory,” and I think I like it because it is just so preposterous.

Redbud’s fuchsia is a color unparalleled in nature. Soon it will have heart-shaped leaves.

Ezra Pound wrote of “petals on a wet dark bough.”

That’s redbud, ravishing and ephemeral. Just like spring.

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My father fell for an orchid

late in life. It was a simple series of white flowers on a stem, nothing fancy, yet he insisted that it accompany him from the hospital to his room in the Care Center. A friend had brought it as a gift, and it somehow spoke to him, he who had never had a thought for plants earlier in his life. Orchids can be magical.

The ones at the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show practically knocked me to the ground.

I was lulled by the piped-in yoga-class soundtrack. Then reawakened again and again by the five greenhouses’ worth of tropical specimens.

How can something be unique yet generic, astoundingly beautiful yet ho-hum, run of the mill? That was my honest assessment of the oxymoronic goods on hand.

The orchids went on and on.

Moth orchids, ghost orchids, slipper orchids, rainbow orchids. Moonlit orchids, which attract nocturnal pollinators, and are also especially fragrant by the light of the moon.

Sugary.

Clownish.

Ever so slightly obscene.

A bit of TMI, thank you very much.

Easy on the signage, New York Botanical Garden horticulturalists! Sometimes I prefer my facts optional, at least when viewing the natural world.

I found myself admiring other living beings in the vicinity, anything not obviously pretty, the ones with thorns, like the South American floss-silk tree.

Or the non-orchid plant that that presented itself in an extraordinary, almost indescribable shade of green – a jade vine, it grows only in the Philippines.

I was drawn to the womb of a tunnel that connected parts of the exhibit.

And my fellow visitors clicking, clicking, clicking, intent on capturing the essence of a particular flower. Human beings, cameras, nature, always fascinating. Note: it is impossible to take a bad picture of an orchid.

Outside, the catkins dangled from the April birch.

A prickly sweetgum seedpod lay nestled in the grass beneath its parent, a sweetgum tree not yet leafed out.

And the equally prickly human being waiting on our bench for the next tram.

The orchids are always going to be splendiferous, whether they come from the supermarket or the Enid Haupt Conservatory show. The ones I saw today made me realize how exquisite everything else is, too.

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Life being somewhat complicated and challenging

at times, it is awfully good to focus on the basics: coffee, tacos, and dogs. Fortunately there is an abundance of all three in Austin, Texas, where I happen to be sojourning for several days. I knew good things were in store when I spotted the taco food truck actually inside the airport terminal. It was 11pm and the place was hopping. The millennials seemed all to be heading back from Las Vegas.

Nothing too weird yet, but I feel something could be about to spring up.

Until then, got a jump on the caffeine thing with a cosmic coffee, a spring specialty at Maud’s favorite joint that pairs cold brew with Mexican vanilla, orange honey and oat milk. Pretty decent. Next time might go for the root beer latte.

Texas mountain laurels have just come into bloom and it seems every little old fashioned bungalow has one out front.

The western redbuds are popping too.

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Now a latte and a stop at the Korean nail salon. The man getting a gel manicure next to me wants it to be known that he is getting a special design on each of his pinkies: a peace sign rendered in yellow and blue.

Not quite a Rothko, but very much in keeping with the spirit of the times.

Canines run free in the dog park except when they pause awaiting the flight of a ragged tennis ball.

I wish our lives had the simplicity of Fetch under the live oaks. Everyone here wears flip flops, so I got a pair. Ahhh, instantaneous simplicity.

Are you hungry yet? You’re in luck.

Criispy pork belly tacos with fried parsley and mandarin orange pico.

Extra fat included at no charge. Fingers are for licking.

Two of my favorites come intermixed in a dirty horchata–horchata and coffee, silly. You knew that.

Home again, home again. Baths and naps all around. The simple life.

No freak show.

Perhaps that will come later. It is Austin, after all. I feel we’re just gearing up.

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The ghosts of immigrants past

congregate volubly at Ellis Island for those who would pay attention.

Some fortunate people enter through a back door bridge from Liberty State Park in New Jersey rather than the tried and true ferry.

If you insist on visiting the Statue of Liberty, fine. I’ve seen her enough and I’ll probably never scale the heights to the torch, even if it reopens. At Ellis Island there’s a nifty view of the Lady of the Harbor’s back.

But there’s a lot I find more thrilling. It’s good to stoke up with a humous and kale sandwich in a café thronged with high school students. Check out the ho-hum view out an ordinary window. Just the Freedom Tower, up close and personal.

But nothing at Ellis Island is ho-hum for long. The high-ceilinged, well-refurbished, shiny Great Hall offers a view of how some of our ancestors arrived in America. One in four of us, in fact, have some tie to an immigrant who arrived here on Ellis.

If you take the Hard Hat Tour on the unrestored south side of the island, be prepared for a different view.

And this is why I love it. You can feel the presence of the past. The walls breathe magic.

There are 29 structures on the south side that have long since fallen into ruin, and lucky visitors get to go behind the scenes and see it all. The fantastic organization Save Ellis Island raises funds to restore the complex, and there is a long way to go. In the meantime, being there means immersion in a fever dream.

These were all hospital buildings, constructed in the most up-to-date manner, with proper ventilation.

Our guide points overhead to where the nurses lodged, in a bunk room we are not now permitted to enter because of its fragile state.

It was a mandate that all nurses be single. There were four female doctors on the premises as well. But the story becomes largely about nurses and the children they cared for, in addition to the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases, the problems that detained so many immigrants here until they could be released into the general population.

We are introduced to a nurses’s station, long disappeared.

Then and now. A sick ward—can you imagine it?

Here is a visual aid.

A French artist named JR created blown-up images from photos taken at Ellis in its heyday, then wheat-pasted installations throughout.

This was the era’s version of a psych ward. Spooky.

American sycamores across the site received the designation “Ellis Island Sycamores” in 1987 to honor the Bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, and their seeds are now being propagated. It’s said some of these trees get to be 500 years old. The name is derived from the Greek sukomoros, a type of fig native to the Mediterranean. The leaves of the sycamore resemble fig leaves.

Here on the south side of the island, the practices of arboriculture need a bit of attention. Pruning shears, anyone?

I would like to offer my attention. And in fact I plan to spend much more time among the ghosts of Ellis Island as an Educator, leading these Hard Hat Tours. I can’t wait.

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Fans of mighty trees

were happy when Susan Orlean’s recent New Yorker article focused on a sylvan topic — The Tallest Known Tree in New York Falls in the Forest. Yet it rose some hackles in arborist circles as well.

Yes, the January 2022 article actually singled out a white pine in that dated all the way back to 1675: good. Trees do not usually receive such focused treatment in The New Yorker (perhaps because there are so few forested areas in the City? But check out John McPhee’s wondrous Pine Barrens coverage, culminating in a classic 1968 book.)

The profiled pine grew to 160 feet tall, and fell only when a neighboring tree crashed down upon it. Again, good coverage of a tree story, and stuff happens, as is said.

But, said my dendrological friends, the article was so silly! It concerned itself with the invention of Mr. Potato Head and the Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s classic The LocoMotion to somehow chart human progress as the tree stretched up and out in its Adirondack environs. And it seemed to make fun of the practice of measuring champion trees, and even the biggest specimens themselves, jibing the living circumstances of some as cushy – “most live pampered lives, getting fat in the luxury of a suburban lawn or a wide-open pasture.”

I somehow don’t think our friends at the Official Registry of Champion Trees would agree that being a champion tree in any place, at any time, was an easy existence. Still, Orlean managed a popular tone that differs refreshingly from some of the tomes released by the environmentalists. But being a champion tree is no laughing matter.

The Official Registry of Champion Trees comes out every year, compiled by the venerable outfit American Forests. It features the very biggest of each tree’s species, as reported to the organization in the most current year. In 2021, 561 trees held the title, but that figure doesn’t quite reflect the ardor of nor miles trekked by citizens vying to get their tree on the list. American Forests has worked for over 140 years to protect and preserve forests. Over 900 Champion Trees have been found and measured to date by tree lovers from all backgrounds: backpackers, arborists, school classes and land owners. American Forests supples documentation of these majestic giants on its website should the public wish to check them out. 

The enterprise was first launched to engage the public in forestry activities. National Champion Trees can be discovered in rural and urban landscapes, scattered throughout forests and fields, along roadways and (yes, Ms. Orlean) in suburban backyards. Discover, measure and nominate the largest trees you can find. The public is welcomed to measure a contendor and compare it to the current National Champion. It’s a point system with no cheating.

Here is the  formula:

x = Tree Trunk Circumference (Inches)
y = Tree Height (Feet)
z = Tree’s Average Crown Spread (Feet)
x + y + (z/4) = Total Points

Think your nominee can match the dimensions of the soaring Cupressus nootkatensis, in Washington State, with a trunk circumference of 454 inches, a height of 124 feet, and a crown spread of fully 28 feet?

How about the Arizona Alder in New Mexico? Its trunk circumference is 199 inches and its height is 128 feet, while its crown spread is 58 feet. The Pumpkin Ash, in Missouri, offers a trunk circumference of 196 inches, a height of 104.5 feet, and a crown spread of  78 feet.

Remember, this isn’t a beauty contest. Measurable size rules in the Champion world. Still, six photographs of each tree are required for for a nomination to be considered fully eligible. You’ve got to think physical beauty would matter to some extent in the judging, even the gnarled and rough-skinned beauty of the elderly.

The National Register of Champion Trees works with state-level Champion Tree Programs and volunteers from the National Cadre of Tree Measuring Experts to confirm the validity of nominations and the credible.

But here’s the thing. If you might be thinking of a road trip to visit these beautiful monsters – I know I was – American Forests remains closemouthed about the location of any tree either nominated or listed, in an effort “to protect the health and wellbeing of large trees.” And that is that. “Written and verbal inquiries requesting the location information of National Champion Trees will be declined.” There is to be no cloning, no seed propagation, and neither age nor historical value matter. Just size. Get the stats in before your favorite blows over in a stiff wind.

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I’m not much for views.

I’d rather look up to the peaks than down to the valleys. So I’m fortunate that any number of stupendous trails wind around the base of the mountains at Brown’s Ranch in Phoenix.

Desert vistas abound at this former cattle ranch, which dates back to 1917.

But first you must pay attention. A warning.

I find I like the living desert, with features like this fishhook cactus.

But I equally like everything that is dead or dying.

It’s like the memento mori of the Renaissance, artwork that has ancient roots. Latin for “remember that you will have to die.” Or as I would put it, embrace death and you will live. In some accounts of ye olde Rome, a companion or public slave would stand behind some triumphant general during a procession to remind him from time to time of his own mortality or prompt him to “look behind”.

Especially meaningful to me as I watch my father wend his way toward the end. And I would like to see a death-whisperer behind some of our more insensitive politicians today.

The saguaros here are ginormous, as they say. I think the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Carnegiea gigantean counts itself a member of the cactus family, not a tree (but you knew that) and takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm. It only grows about one inch per year. This one’s a small fry.

The arms are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity, bearing more flowers and fruit.

Near Scottsdale, one known as the Grand One is 46 feet tall, measured by a representative of the National Register of Big Trees in 2005 (though, note, not a tree!), burned in the Cave Creek Complex fire and might not have  survived if not for treatment of bacterial infections and the creation of waddles, small structures made of straw that help channel streams of water towards the thirsty saguaro. I think some of the specimens I’ve seen today could reach grand status one day.

Their skeletons are amazing.

We were standing underneath a palo verde, a tree whose name translates to “green stick”, remarking upon its stature and probable age, when we heard bird noises and looked up to see a pair of Harris’s hawks tearing apart a mouse. They noticed us and fled the nest, of course, and we saw the unmistakable white color at the base of their tails.

Harris’s hawks are only one of two hawk species that hunt in pairs, like wolves. I was glad not to be descended upon!

A morning in the desert is like any morning in the desert and no other morning, all at once. It’ll weary your legs as it restores your spirit, hawks or no hawks. But they were pretty superb.

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The most famous tree guy

that no one now has ever heard of is William Bartram. Maybe you are the exception.

If you visit Bartram’s Garden outside Philadelphia you will find the oldest ginkgo tree in North America, grown from a seedling that was imported to Bartram in 1785  as a gift from noted plant collector William Hamilton of The Woodlands, in England. The Garden is now a 50-acre botanical garden on the banks of the Schuykill River, but it was once the home of naturalist and wilderness champion William Bartram.

Bartram lived out his years in the house where he was born, built by his father John and added onto over the years. John before him was a well-known botanist, in 1765 designated the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, which meant that he shipped exotic native American  seeds and plant samples across the Atlantic to not only his majesty but grateful wealthy gentlemen for their estates.

William Bartram wasn’t always a success. Though his artistic skills impressed people at an early age, he first embarked on a career as a merchant in Philadelphia and a rice farmer in the Carolinas before his father welcomed him into his botanist world in his mid-30s. He is most famous for a four- (or five-? apparently his counting skills were uneven when he was out in the woods) year stint in the unsettled wilderness of the southern United States, beginning in 1753, which he wrote about in the illustrated Travels in 1791.

Bartram waxed rhapsodic about wilderness. The key descriptor of the time was “sublime,” as in  “the sublime wilderness,” just as Thoreau would in the next century. Thoreau, a true kindred spirit, would write a friend, “I grow savager and savager every day, as if it fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness.” Not sure I totally get that grammar, but it sounds much like something William Bartram would have felt in spades out in  forest. The two of them could have gone camping together.

For Bartram, many places he goes are sublime. Camping next to Florida’s Lake George, he talks about being “seduced by these sublime enchanting scenes of primitive nature.” I love the story about his specimen collection in Georgia. He climbed far up a range “from which I enjoyed a view inexpressibly magnificent and comprehensive…. of the mountain wilderness through which I had lately traversed.” Then he adds, “my imagination thus wholly engaged in the contemplation of this magnificent landscape… I was almost insensible… of…a new species of Rhododendron.” He was a wonderful artist.

Both William and John Bartram thought snakes were great and only killed them on the trail. when absolutely necessary, even rattlers. Black snakes they judged harmless enough to keep around the house as mice hunters. (We had families of black snakes at the Cabin and I never cared for them much.) Bartram drew many gorgeous if dangerous snakes. You may still find some if you hike Bartram Trail, which follows his approximate route through the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. I’d like to try at least a part of it, though admittedly I’d rather drive down to Philadelphia and walk the more civilized pathways of the gardens where he spent so much time—the site is open 365 days a year, dawn through dusk.

He was also a champion of the afternoon nap, best performed in the shade of a favorite tree in his yard. Let’s hope that when George Washington visited the homestead he didn’t have to shake Bartram awake.

Which would you  rather do, hike Bartram Trail or visit Bartram’s Garden?

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Trees are winter poems

and, like written poetry, sometimes you must talk yourself into reading them. Lyndhurst, the estate near where I live, makes it easier, because its 67 park-like acres offer an arboricultural bounty. Forget the house –a gothic revival castle designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, when romanticism reigned. (Where was Frank Lloyd Wright when we needed him?)

The place is known best as the familial headquarters of rapacious banker Jay Gould in the Gilded Age, and his daughter Helen added a bowling alley and immense greenhouse, the skeleton of which remains. Carriage roads with precisely wrought stone gutters.

The Old Croton Aqueduct cuts across the landscape, which might have been somewhat annoying to the residents of the mansion in the nineteenth century. But it was progress, and the pre-Gould-era occupants were civic minded. New York City must have pure water!

You can still follow the trail’s path up a rise.

In fact, that’s the only place you’re supposed to go off season, for some reason.

I have other plans. I have resolved to break more rules in 2020 and I think I won’t wait to set my intent.

Andrew Wyeth has an oft-quoted line: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.”

Lyndhurst in winter is all bones. A stand of oak on closer inspection reveals itself to include a burr oak (you can call it a bur oak if you want to be ridiculous.) They have the mossiest, shaggiest caps of all acorns, a look that surely serves some dendrological purpose, like keeping from being eaten.

Look closely and see that there has been some living creature here.

I know an arborist who likes these oaks for “the deep lobes and lustrous green of the leaves.” Only visible in the imagination now, of course. “The very large acorns can be the size of golf balls, which gives this oak its Latin name…  Quercus macrocarpa is a slow grower that can become quite large in maturity. Better suited for parks than street trees due to its size and the size of the acorns.“ Exactly! Here at Lyndhurst it can really spread out.

Wyeth also said: “I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.”

Live bones. A slightly scary concept but one that I like. The magnolia looks like it’s already ready for a warmer season.

Wait a bit. Enjoy your dormancy. You can explode later.

An arboretum in all but name, Lyndhurst has a number of mammoth beech trees that is so large as to be almost unfair to the rest of the world’s estates. I know that Newport has its share also. The Preservation Society of Newport County has even established a beech tree nursery “to ensure the future of the iconic landscapes of the Newport Mansions.”

Magnificent is a word undeniably coined to describe European beeches.

Weeping bones. Easier for any arborist to ID some specimens after leaf-out than now, but a beech can’t fool you.

Strong emotion on display with statuary scattered about the grounds, which I suspect no one but myself has examined closely for some time.

Some of these carvings gave off a strong whiff of an earlier era, when sexuality had to be expressed clandestinely. It was only proper to reveal oneself in all Nature’s glory if you were a nymph of some kind.

We’re still squeamish about some things even going on 2020, like depicting the litter of scat all around the Lyndhurst estate – deer, of course, and goose, and – this. First to identify it (dog, bear?) gets a mention in these pages.

I don’t know the intended meaning of this image. I’m sure it had one when carved. Bacchus wiping the wine from his face?

But it reminds me of one of my very favorite poems, written by William Butler Yeats in 1892 (the Gould epoch at Lyndhurst, though it’s hard to believe he ever read it). This poem is a douzaine, meaning a 12-liner, and in it Yeats wears his heart on his sleeve for wild woman – Irish republican revolutionary and suffragist –Maud Gonne. She knew how to break rules and she knew how to break hearts. One good way is to find a poet to make you immortal. Wish I knew her.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

That’s what that little guy hiding his face in the statuary says to me, out in the beautiful dormant cold.

I took a burr acorn cap with me when I left. To quote Jay Gould: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

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Forests just exist out there somewhere.

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

We all know that animals go extinct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are butterflies intelligent?

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

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

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

We saw brilliant flowers.

Of all colors.

Shapes. Sizes.

Surely some that would appeal to a butterfly.

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

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

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

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

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

And a buxom cactus.

More flowers. Nothing fluttered by.

Quiet trails.

Vistas in every direction. Some of them private.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

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

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

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

We’re chatting.

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

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

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It started out a good day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some great band names.

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

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

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

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

And the Black Pumas?

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

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Median Cool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designs have been sketched.

I want to go there and be calm.

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

We have trees. Lots of honey locust.

Some of the areas farther downtown have already been finished.

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

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