Wednesday, July 10, 2013

71. The Magnificence and Insolence of Trees

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Twigs of the tree of heaven.

     There are wonders all around us, but we don't look.

     I have always loved trees.  It began in my childhood in Evanston, where the streets were lined with arched elms that provided welcome shade in the summer.  The most unathletic of boys, I still loved to climb in the willow trees on a nearby riverbank.  (I say "riverbank," but it wasn't really a river, just a sewage canal.  Unpoetic, but at least it didn't smell.)  Right on our street, and on many other streets, was the tree of heaven, or ailanthus, which gave off no heavenly scent but a stink.  And if you stripped a twig of its leaves, you had a pliant switch.  I know because an older friend of mine, having provided himself with just such a weapon, challenged me to a duel, and when I declined, lashed my bare legs with his switch, which sent me rushing home with tears of rage.

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This is the stuff my brother loved to set on fire.
         But the great tree of my childhood was a giant cottonwood that towered in a neighbor's yard just across an alley from our own back yard, a tree so huge that it robbed our neighbor of sunlight, but so costly to remove that he simply had a few branches severed and left the rest.  In June it gave its cottony seeds to the breeze, and everyone's lawn was whitened for many days, and I went about sneezing, since I was allergic to the stuff.  My older brother took delight in setting fire to those seeds, ostensibly to spare his kid brother some sneezes, but really just to create a little havoc.  Fortunately, he never set the neighborhood on fire.  In summer I would lie on a flat roof next to our sleeping porch, hoping for a tan while watching a breeze ripple through that vibrant mass of silver-flecked green: a pulsing continent of life.

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Eucalyptus leaves and fruit.  I loved to crush the
leaves and breathe in the intoxicating scent.
Emöke Dénes
     Yes, this blog is supposed to be about New York, and I'll get there soon enough, but allow me one more digression, a side trip to Southern California, where I went to college.  There, one Easter vacation when everyone else flocked to the beaches for sun by day and erotic and boozy revels by night, I myself, stuck carless in tranquil Claremont, trekked its tidy streets studying the trees of that strange clime, most of them imports from distant places.  There were palm trees both native and from the Canary Islands, acacias from Asia, eucalyptus from Australia, and the Mexican pepper tree.  One huge pepper tree loomed in an undeveloped lot that I often crossed on my way to classes, breathing in a subtle aroma of pepper.  But the most memorable fragrance came from the crushed leaves of the eucalyptus, the headiest, most intoxicating scent that I have ever experienced from a tree.  As for majesty and sublimity, I encountered them later when I went to Muir Woods, an old-growth redwood forest near San Francisco, and had my first glimpse of redwoods, some of them 1200 years old, towering giants that made us humans seem like puny little creatures indeed.

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Redwoods in Muir Woods.

     So at last we come to New York.  Within two blocks of my apartment there are magnolias, cherry trees, gingkos, redbuds, and a mystery tree I was for years unable to identify.  The mystery tree is 30 to 60 feet high with white flowers of the rose family (5 petals and a cluster of protruding stamens); it's all over on the streets, blooming every April.  None of my friends could identify it, but my online query to the Parks Department finally received a response.  It is the callery pear, a name I had never heard of before, and the second most common tree on the city's streets.  (And the most common one?  They didn't tell me.  My candidates: gingko biloba, Norway maple, American basswood.)

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My mystery tree in bloom.

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The fan-shaped leaves of the gingko.
     The gingko biloba is a strange thing with fan-shaped leaves often divided into two lobes.  A native of China, it has no close living relatives but resembles fossils from 270 million years ago.  A common cultivated tree here and elsewhere in North America, it was long thought to be extinct in the wild, but now may still grow in two small areas in eastern China.  A rarity, then, but here it is on West 11th Street, turning yellow every fall and bearing soft fruitlike yellow-brown seeds that smell like rancid butter or vomit, as I discovered one autumn when, an amateur forager (see post #23, September 2012), I investigated it.  Suburbanites complain of the smell and mess of the fallen fruit, which can render sidewalks slippery as well as stinky.  Yet at the North End of Central Park I have seen Chinese women busily gathering the fallen fruit, which is believed to have both culinary and medicinal values, and value also -- though I haven't checked it out -- as an aphrodisiac.  In any case, the smell put me off, so I gave up on foraging it.  Yes, I know it's prized by herbalists and used by Western medicine to enhance memory and treat dementia, and for other stuff as well, but my God, that smell of vomit!  But it's a tough baby, so tough that six gingko trees survived the atom bomb in Hiroshima charred but intact, and in time became healthy again.  One of the strangest trees I've ever known, growing almost on my doorstep.  It will probably survive us all.

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The fruit of the gingko, beneficial but smelly.

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A redbud in full glory.
     Less mysterious and exotic is the redbud, a small tree of the pea family that bears pink flowers in the spring before the leaves appear.  My mother once came back from a spring visit to rural Brown County, Indiana, raving about the beauty of the flowering dogwoods and redbuds in the woods.  Dogwoods I have seen in every forest I have visited in the spring, but redbuds never.  So redbuds became an elusive but sought-after prey, once prompting a special expedition to Inwood Hill Park that proved fruitless.  Then, a year ago, I found one, labeled and blooming, in the little park just across the street, and this year I have seen them in that park and elsewhere in the neighborhood.  A lovely little tree bearing pea family flowers clustered on its branches, well worth my quest through the years.

     There is no way I can mention all the trees in city parks that I relate to, so I'll just mention a few.  In my post on foraging (#23 again) I told how I have harvested wild apples in Van Cortland and Pelham Bay Parks and the Staten Island Greenbelt.  If I finally gave that up it was because the yellow apples were small and afflicted with dark spots that had to be cut out, leaving not much apple, while at the same time the greenmarkets were full of large, ripe, often flawless apples with a superb taste that you get only from freshly picked apples for a month or two in the fall.

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No, these aren't apples, but black walnuts still on the tree.
Sue Sweeney
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The dried nut.
     Another attempt at foraging likewise proved a fiasco.  Black walnuts grow wild in the city parks, and I had heard that they, like their cousin the English walnut, are edible, which sounded good to me.  The nut is contained within a green, fleshy husk, rather like a shrunken tennis ball, that falls to the ground in autumn, so you might think harvesting the nuts is easy.  Well it ain't.  First of all, the husk clings to the nut, so to remove it you're advised to stamp on the fruit with old shoes to get the husk off.  What you then have is a corrugated brown nut that stains your fingers if you touch it, so rubber gloves are advised.  (If you get the stain on your fingers, don't worry, it will come off -- in a few days.)  So now you have to let the nuts dry on newspapers for a week, so as to eliminate the stain.  Even then you don't have the edible kernel, which is locked inside the nut.  But you can get at the kernel; all you need is a heavy-duty nutcracker, a vise, a heavy hammer, or a large rock.  (At this point I'm tempted to say a boulder.)  So finally you crack the nut open and there, inside, is the long-sought meat, which you remove with a pick.  I'd been told that black walnut has a strong, rich, smoky flavor with a hint of wine, and that it can be used in any recipe that calls for nuts, but it must be used sparingly, or it will overpower the other ingredients.  After all this to-do -- the gathering, the stamping, the stain, and then the long week of drying, climaxed by the bashing and cracking -- I expected something wondrous, a taste that would vault me to pinnacles of bliss.  No go: the taste impressed me as unimpressive and certainly not worth all that effort.  Since then I've been quite content to consume the commercial English walnuts readily available in stores and requiring no such lengthy preparation.  But good luck, if you want to try.

     Most mature trees have dark, ridged bark that doesn't help laymen much in identifying the tree, but three exceptions come to mind: the mottled bark of the sycamore, the papery bark of the paper birch, and the smooth bark of the beech -- all three of them to be found in city parks.  My favorite sycamore is a huge tree in Van Cortlandt Park, its trunk some four or five feet in diameter, with the typical sycamore bark showing green, gray, brown, and white patches that resemble U.S. Army camouflage, the kind you see very unmilitary-looking young men wearing on city streets.  A giant of giants, yet few park visitors stop to admire it.  (Fewer still notice the stand of poison hemlock growing nearby -- the stuff that did Socrates in -- but that's another story.)  The bark of the paper birch peels off in horizontal stripes, leaving black marks on the trunk.  As its other name "canoe birch" implies, the Native Americans of the Northeast used it to make canoes.  And the smooth gray bark of the beech invites graffiti, often the initials of lovers cut into it -- avowals that may be embarrassing in a year or two, since fervor fades, whereas beech bark endures.

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Sycamore bark.
Jim Thomas

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Paper birch bark.
Sue Sweeney


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Beech bark with graffiti.

     I won't go into the colors of foliage in autumn, since it's not the season.  Instead, I'll mention what about trees grabs me most in any season: their architecture.  Their roots plunge deep in the soil, their trunks rise nobly, and their twigs reach for the sky.  This is seen best in those that tower, when they stand singly and assume their full proportions: beech, cottonwood, sycamore, and above all oak.

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David Lally

     Trees figure prominently in myth and legend, where the roots are identified with the underworld, the trunk with the middle world or earth, and the soaring branches with the upper world or heaven.  Connecting all aspects of creation, they become the World Tree or Cosmic Tree, whose fruit has healing powers or confers immortality.  In my post on gardens (#57, April 2013) I mentioned the Tree of Life in Eden and the tree bearing golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides.  Both conferred immortality, both were forbidden to mortals; to prevent Adam and Eve from eating of the fruit and becoming immortal, Yahweh drove them from Eden and placed cherubim with a flaming sword to guard the Tree of Life.  So obviously, those trees have got a lot going for them.

     The Tree of Life appears in the myths and religions of ancient Persia and Egypt, Assyria, China, the Baha'i faith, the Kabbalah, Mesoamerica, and elsewhere, and has inspired many artists.  In Egypt it was sometimes portrayed as a nurturing mother, another manifestation of the Goddess (aka Big Mama) discussed in another post (#59, May 2013).  Christianity has identified it with the Cross; the tree of death of the Crucifixion becomes the tree of life of the Resurrection.  It also appears in a vision in the Book of Mormon, where a path leads to a tree symbolizing salvation.

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The Tree of Life from the Book of Mormon.
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A modern Tree of Life in a Swedish church.
Hakan Svensson

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From the tomb of Thutmose III (1500-1450 BCE).
The Pharaoh is fed from the holy tree.

The Tree of Life: stained glass by Tiffany.

     In Norse mythology the world tree Yygdrasil is a holy tree where the gods assemble daily to
hold court.  Various creatures reside in it, including an eagle, a squirrel, and four stags.  The three Norns, who rule the destiny of gods and men, bring water from a holy well and pour it over the tree, so its branches won't rot away or decay.

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Yygdrasil and the creatures that inhabit it.
From a 17th-century Icelandic manuscript.

     By now, I hope that the magnificence of trees is apparent, and you can understand why, in passing a park, I always stop to admire the grand, leafy fullness of trees.  But why do I also mention their insolence?  Here we go into fantasy.  In a poem I have imagined a dialog between the trees and myself.  In it the trees put me down as a fruitless, rootless creature who dithers about, lacking their calm, earthed fixity.  When I protest that my daily motions and varied feelings are meaningful, they laugh contemptuously and dismiss every other claim of mine to a significant existence.  Finally, when I mention my vitamin-rich, fiber-crammed diet, pesticide-free and locally grown, they answer scornfully, "Runt, what do you eat?  We eat the sun!"  Finding no answer to this, I retreat to a more comforting communion with weedy fields and tufts of small grasses, which, despite my memories of towering sun-flecked continents of green, are reassuringly squat and sensible.  So trees in their magnificence can be seen as dwarfing us and reminding us of our puny dimensions, our insignificance.  Not a bad note to end on, but for a final touch I'll quote the ending of a poem by Joyce Kilmer (not my favorite poet, but relevant here):

          Poems are made by fools like me,
          But only God can make a tree.

To which I'll simply add: Yes, but with the help of Big Mama, who sticks her nose (and other apparatus) in everywhere.  (Again, see post #59, May 2013: Earth Goddesses: Big Mama.)

     Note:  One year ago, on July 11, 2012, this blog began.  The first post: 16. My Love/Hate Affair with WBAI.  That affair continues to this day.  Prior to that I was sending e-mails to friends; those e-mails appear as 15 vignettes in this blog.

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, Liars, Cheats, and Manipulators.  Also, fittingly, a note on two New York politicians disgraced and ousted from office by sex scandals but now rising like the phoenix from its ashes to run for office again: Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner.  Their resurgence confirms yet again the name of this blog: No Place for Normal: New York.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder