Thursday, May 28, 2009


#148, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

It was not my intention today to write a eulogy, but sadly, that's what I've been driven to after the day's events. This eulogy isn't for a person, and I'm thankful for that, but rather for the trees that were sawed down in my back lot this morning, without apparent reason.

There's a lot of negativity floating around the city, no doubt about it. Subways are crowded, garbage trucks collect early in the morning, and unwanted music pulses from car and apartment windows when you're trying to get some sleep for crying out loud. For the thousand and one things about New York City life there are to complain about, I like to do just the opposite and see the beauty in it, or at least the humor. You look for beauty where you can find it: a hand-painted number on a door in Greenpoint, a colorful mural on the Lower East Side, even those green highway signs erected by Marty Markowitz that alert motorists that they are "Leaving Brooklyn: Fugheddaboudit."

I'm not a hippie, but I love trees, and I think greenery is important in city neighborhoods. The rear windows of my fourth-floor apartment overlook the Statue of Liberty, the cranes of the Red Hook Marine Terminal, and a hint of the lower Manhattan skyline, where I can sometimes catch the sight of orange sunsets glinting off skyscrapers or the unexpected explosions of late Saturday night fireworks. I usually catch these festivities because I'm making sure they're not gunshots or bombs, and enjoy them all the more when I realize they're not.

In the middle of all this is - or was - the jumbled, leafy curtain of a handful of trees, which provided shade in the summer and shelter from the unrelenting atmosphere of concrete and aluminum siding, not to mention the prying eyes of the neighbors. Sparrows and wrens flitted in the branches, singing and chattering, and I looked forward every year to the first green buds that meant that another harsh winter was nearing its end.

It was Dylan Thomas who said, "All trees are oak trees, except pine trees." Every New Yorker worth her salt can differentiate a local train from an express train. But it's easy to not pay attention to names of flowers and types of trees. I'm a writer, so I like knowing the names of things. The trees that grew in the back lot were Trees of Heaven. It's widely considered an invasive tree - a weed among trees - but it's the same type of tree that grows in Betty Smith's 1943 novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The Tree of Heaven in Smith's story, doggedly growing among the tenements and visible from the fire escapes, becomes a symbol of beauty and perseverance, a glimmer of hope in a depressed neighborhood. It is a symbol, but it is more than a symbol. It is first and foremost a tree, a very real tree that brings Francie Nolan, the young main character, a very real joy in her difficult life.

I woke up this morning to a wretched crunching sound. As I got out of bed and went to the window to investigate, the noise was unmistakable. I recognized the buzzing of chainsaws, the cracking noise of a tree trunk caving in, the awful machinery that grinds a living thing down into firewood. A Tree of Heaven was being felled in a nearby parking lot. Limbs and scattered leaves lay on the asphalt, and the white arm of a truck that read, perversely, Family Tree Service hovered over a severed trunk, alarmingly fresh and pale against the dark, weathered bark. I chalked it up to the destruction of one, maybe two trees over the lot, probably diseased, and left it at that.

But the crunching continued. One by one, limbs continued to drop, branches were hoisted down on red ropes, an orange chainsaw whirring while the worker at the helm sawed off trunks and branches, simultaneously smoking a cigarette. Little by little, my curtain of trees, my daily glimpse of greenery, was collapsing around me. There was nothing I could do. The landlord had not informed us. (The landlord, I am told, is upstate.) Our downstairs neighbor was aware that trees were going to be cut down, but he couldn't get an answer from the landlord as to why this was happening. The shade in my neighbor's small garden is gone. A ladder is propped up near his small rose bush, in full pink bloom. Damage has been done to the bush. The lot is barren, exposed. Power lines buzz overhead. There are no trees left, only bushes and a scattering of weeds.

There is no beauty to this story, not even a rueful smile for the workers with their ironically optimistic tree logo t-shirts, not even a joke to be had involving Rear Window nor a one-line jab about having a better view of the salt pile.

My trees are gone. My neighbor's trees are gone. A part of my city, a bit of joy from my daily life, has been destroyed. I could see it as a symbol, but I don't. I see it for the very real loss that it is. I can see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes, but it's the trees that I will miss most.


Pierre said...

I'm sorry about the trees. You might be less concerned if you check out They're pretty on the outside but ugly on the inside.

Nice read today.

Universal Mom said...

When Frances Nolan found her tree cut down, she knew that it would return, as the "tough ones" always do. Being a biologist and Galla (the feminine fella), tree lover, I am not an "invasive species" supporter, but, in this case I have to cheer for the invader. It will return and reach for heaven once more.

Therese Cox said...

Yeah, it's a weed, it's invasive, but it was sure a lot prettier than the white aluminum siding prefab construction I stared at this morning over breakfast. It's really bleak out there today. So Pierre and Universal Mother, thanks for sending over those words. They help.

Loved this bit from the National Park Service website about the Tree of Heaven: "It is most often seen in disturbed areas." Whadda yoo insinuating about my 'hood, NPS?

Ah, fugheddaboudit.

Ray Gunn said...

Sorry about your trees, Tea. Their bastard cousins have been making me sneeze a lot lately but that's no reason to have them whacked.

dessilly: intentionally naive art, specifically drawings but extensible to other media

Therese Cox said...

NYC: home of illegitimate trees. Thanks for the condolences, Ray.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh God. So so sorry.

Therese Cox said...

Thanks, Sheila. I'm pining...

Julie said...

Yep. Good read.