While we celebrate July 4th--Independence Day--with fireworks and barbecues, America's Revolutionary War still can seem like an event in the distant past. After all, 1776 was 243 years ago. Yet, traces of the war are apparent, vestiges written into, if not shaped by, the topography of the landscape itself--even in New York City.
Central Park's steep bluffs overlooking the Harlem Meer were important strategic features during the American Revolution, their elevation and expansive views providing the site for the military fortifications Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, sites still on view today. During America's War of Independence, George Washington defended New York against invading British forces from this high-ground position that is now the northeast section of Central Park. The British defeated Washington in the area and built a series of fortification extending from the bluffs to the Hudson. In addition to Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, the British constructed a chain of blockhouses, the site of one of which is in Central Park's Northwoods, adjacent to 109th Street. Each of these locations was subsequently used by Americans to defend against the threat of British invasion from the north during the war of 1812.
McGowan's Pass was another key topographic feature during the Revolutionary War in what is now Central Park. Located along the steep hill and switchbacks of what is now the park's East Drive north of 102nd street, it was a Hessian (conscripted German soldiers) encampment for much of the war, from 1776 to 1883. At the war's end, the Hessians and British retreated north through pass, while George Washington reentered New York through the pass.
Gazing at today's runners and cyclists traversing topographies of Central Park that during the Revolutionary War were strategic locations suggests more than weekend warriors. One can, with a little imagination, time travel and conjure warriors of the American Revolution traversing the same terrain and making use of its features. Landscapes carry memory.
Botanists call flowers that have either male or female sex organs "imperfect", whereas flowers that contain both male and female sex organs are called "perfect". What a contrast to the negative views about human sexual diversity among all too many communities!
June marks the arrival of "Pride Month", celebrating sexual diversity and gender variance. The month includes parades and other events to foster a positive, self-affirming stance against violence and discrimination toward LGBTQ people. June, 2019 promises to be the largest celebration of LGBTQ pride in history as it marks the 50th anniversary of the rebellion at NYC's Stonewall Inn in response to a police raid.
Tolerance for human gender diversity may be an ongoing struggle, but gender variability is well recognized in the plant kingdom. Some trees, such as white ash and willow, have male and female flowers on different trees (that is, individual trees bear either male or female flowers). Others, such as beech and oak, have separate male and female flowers on the same tree. And others, such as magnolias, serviceberries, and elms, produce flowers with both male and female parts.
That gender isn't binary is apparent in the plant kingdom. And, as the courageous people standing up for LGBTQ rights have shown us, gender isn't binary among humans either. Rather, among many natural creatures, ourselves included, there are variations of gender expression, with gender manifesting along a spectrum rather than black or white.
There is much that plants can teach us, including that sexuality manifests in diverse ways.
Invasive species upset the delicate balance of natural ecosystems. They disrupt food chains, destroy nutrient-providing resources, and overwhelm native species. Though invasive creatures can be introduced by storms and climate shifts, more frequently they are introduced by humans. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, it can seem close to impossible and perhaps futile to attempt to eradicate invasive species. Yet, responding to them is necessary.
New York City is particularly vulnerable to invasive species as an international city. Visitors arriving from around the world sometimes accidentally carry seeds lodged in the soles of their shoes. Cargo ships inadvertently carry other stowaways. A number of invasives can be found in our parks. Tea Crabapples, a native of China is found in woodlands such as Central Park's North Woods and has been described as "the little apple that ate the Big Apple without careful management". Japanese Knotweed, grows so rampantly that it can crowd out other, more desirable plants. English Ivy wraps around tree branches, making it more difficult for native trees to receive the sunlight they need to grow.
As with natural ecosystems, the delicate balance of a nation can be upended by hostile intrusions. Such attacks can require aggressive responses, at great sacrifice. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives protecting and defending our country and its allies from militaristic threats and intrusions. We pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice and the unfathomable loss felt by their loved ones.
They stand tall, nurturing their offspring to enhance their chances of growing steadily and sturdily. They support their neighbors, transmitting messages across vast and intricate networks to ensure the community’s safety and well-being. They have withstood the cycles of many years, including challenging conditions, yet persist with grace and beauty. They are mothers – mother trees.
Much attention has focused lately on the networked nature of forests. Trees exist not simply as individuals but within a highly collaborative, interconnected system, communicating through elaborate circuitry of fungi and root tips. "Forests", notes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies" Key to this interconnectedness are "Mother Trees", a notion pioneered by Scientist Suzanne Simardin (who appears as a fictionalized character in Richard Powers' The Overstory, the subject of the prior blog). The dominant trees in forests, Mother Trees function as central nodes for extensive underground networks of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. They nurture young trees by spreading fungi to them and conveying needed nutrients.
Mother Trees also restrain the unfettered growth of young trees so that they can grow in ways that make them sturdier and more resilient.Writes Wohlleben:
" Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem a all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offspring with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This canopy lets only 3 percent of available sunlight reach the ground and, therefore, their children's leaves. Three percent--that's practically nothing. With that amount of sunlight, a tree can photosynthesize just enough to keep its own body from dying. There's nothing left to fuel a decent drive upward or even a thicker trunk .... [S]low growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. ... Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking in storms."
Slow growth also makes trees resistant to disease-bearing fungi,, which has difficulty penetrated the their tougher trunks. In the meanwhile, over a period that could last 200 years (the equivalent of 40 human years), the Mother Tree passes along sugar and other nutrients to the offspring. "You might even say they are nursing their babies," notes Wohlleben.
Thanks to the attentiveness of Mother Trees, young trees can grow up strong and resilient, and forests can thrive. The same can be said for the roles of mothers (and fathers) within human families and communities. On this Mother’s Day, consider the Mother Trees around you.
Trees invite expression of love, especially beech trees. With their smooth gray bark, it's difficult to find an older beech tree that does not have a heart with initials carved into its trunk--at least in Central Park.
Much as hearts are among the more popular tattoos inked onto human skin, the tendency to etch hearts onto the elephant hide-like bark of beech trees suggests that memorializing love comes from a place deep within us. There is something that impels us to mark our feelings of love in ways that pierce below the surface, perhaps because love itself is so deeply felt.
Above are samples of hearts carved on beech trees in Central Park (alas, such etching harms the tree, inviting disease and if deep, disrupting the flow of nutrients).
Did the love last? Did the lovers grow old together like the tree that display their affection? We will never know. But the expression of love lives on, preserved for decades on the bark of trees.
Few trees are more celebrated than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a tradition that goes back to 1931, when workers building the area’s structures during the Great Depression pooled funds to buy a 20-foot balsam fir and decorated it with homemade garlands. The first public lighting, of a 50-foot tree, was in 1933, when Rockefeller Center made the tree an annual tradition.
Over the years, the tree’s decoration has taken on various themes and reflected the issues of the times. As described by Dana Schultz:
“During WWII, the tree’s décor switched to a more patriotic theme, with red, white, and blue globes and painted wooden stars. In 1942, no materials needed for the war could be used on the tree, and instead of one giant tree, there were three smaller ones, each decorated in one of the flag’s three colors…. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was once again adorned in patriotic red, white and blue.”
The 2018 Rockefeller Center Christmas, a 72 foot tall Norway Spruce, was sourced from Wallkill, New York, 75 miles north of Manhattan. Following the holiday, the tree’s lumber will be donated to Habitat for Humanity for home building, a practice since 2007.
A media sensation surrounded by gawking crowds and adorned in 50,000 LED lights and a Swarovski crystal star weighing 900 pounds, the 2018 Rockefeller Center tree has come a long way from its more humble origins. Yet, it is a reminder of how every tree is a star in its own way, and how it's in our nature to be awed by trees.
September is here, a time of transitions. Children return to school and, with summer vacations now a pleasant memory, work tends to ramp up. With the days getting shorter many of us turn indoors earlier. We are nearing a time of harvest, and here and there we might notice a leaf’s changed color, a harbinger of the radiance of autumn to come.
In the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, we are nearing the end of the month of Elul, the days that lead up to the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Whether or not you are Jewish or religiously-minded, there is something apt about this time of year being the New Year, a time of reflection and a time of a long cycle of new beginnings.
A parable teaches that in the month of Elul “God is in the field”. That is, God is not sequestered on the palace throne, surrounded by guards, but rather has ventured into the countryside to meet ordinary people and grant their requests. God is outside and accessible. This time of year thus asks that we be attuned to what is around us and to open our senses to an awareness of a divine presence in nature. It reminds us of the feeling of “what is bigger than ourselves” that we can experience when in nature.
Others have noted the sense of the divine in nature. As Thoreau wrote, “Nature is full of genius, full of divinity. (Journal, January 5, 1856). He defined his “profession” as “to be always on the alert to find God in nature—to know his lurking places. To attend all the oratorios—the operas in nature.” (Journal, September 7, 1851).
Consider the wisdom of opening one’s senses to the divine in nature, to attend its “oratorios” and “operas” and to be reminded of what is bigger than ourselves.
The sun will set on Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13, as usual, if it can be said that a sunset is ever “usual”, with endless variations in moisture, temperature, season, cloud cover, axis of the earth relative to the sun, and even air pollution making every sunset unique. Those of us living in Manhattan will experience a particularly spectacular astronomical phenomenon: Manhattanhenge.
Manhattanhenge occurs twice a year, in late May and early July, when the setting sun is perfectly aligned with the grid of New York City streets.
It is the continually changing relative axis of the earth to the sun that results in Manhattanhenge. From the first day of winter until the first day of summer, the sun sets increasingly north on the horizon. And, it sets incrementally southward on the horizon from the first day of summer until the first day of winter, rising and setting due east and west only on the spring and fall equinoxes (the first days of spring and fall). With the Manhattan street grid--a design proposed in 1811--tilted at 30 degrees east of due north, rather than exactly aligned north-south/east-west, the alignment of the sunset with our street grid occurs off-calendar from the equinox.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, "For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas." Full sun on the grid will take place at 8:20 on Thursday, and half sun on the grid will take place at 8:21 on Friday.
Think about observing this local phenomenon, how it can remind us of our relative place in the universe and the continual, awe-inspiring cycles that intersect the chasms of our very human-driven metropolis.
With the United States commemorating its 242nd birthday comes an opportunity to consider creatures that were alive on July 4, 1776 and are still alive today: trees. New York City is fortunate to have several trees that were alive during this time.
Manhattan’s oldest tree, estimated to be at least 315 years old, is an English Elm located in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. Though named the “Hangman’s Elm” it has not witnessed any hangings. In 1827 Alfred Pell sold 2.5 acres of land that included the tree to help create the park. As English elms are not native to the U.S., the tree is thought to have come from seeds brought to the continent on a Dutch West India Company ship, and thus is an early immigrant that now stands sturdy and tall.
The Hangman's Elm is not the only tree in Manhattan that was alive in 1776. George Washington is rumored to have watched the 1776 battle of Washington Heights from the shelter of an elm at 163rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, a tree named “the Dinosaur” that is over 300 years old.
In an isolated part of Alley Pond Park in Bayside Queens, near the intersection of the Cross Island Parkway and the Long Island Expressway at 58th Road and East Hampton Boulevard sits “the Queens Giant,” a 134-foot tall tulip tree estimated to be 350 to 450 years old. And, a 145-foot talk tulip tree in Staten Island’s Clove Lakes Park is at least 300 years old.
The Bronx and Brooklyn do not appear to have trees that were alive in 1776. However, they do have some very old trees. The oldest tree in the Bronx is thought to be an over-200 year old white oak located near the 18th hold of Pelham Bay park’s Split Rock Golf Course. The oldest tree in Brooklyn is likely to be among one of the 30,000 trees in Prospect Park’s vestige of the last remaining natural forest in Brooklyn. In 2009, a 220-year old black oak in Prospect Park was uprooted in a storm.
With longevity that stretches the imagination, for the entirety of their lives these ancient living creatures have stood in the same place. Hangman's Elm, The Dinosaur, the Queens Giant, and Staten Island's tulip tree were alive during the times of the Dutch and British occupation, before the United States was a sovereign country.
In 1776 the population of New York City (at least of those of European origin) was about 20,000 and plummeted to nearly half of this following the American Revolution, with the departure of the Tories. Inhabitants clustered at the tip of Manhattan. Canal Street was sparsely populated, and Greenwich Village and beyond were rural. The population would grow to 38,000 by 1790 and would multiply over time.
And throughout this time stood the very same trees described above, witnesses to generations of immigrants--including my ancestors from Eastern Europe--crossing vast oceans, witnesses to streets paving over the land and to bridges and buildings rising; year after year and ring after ring, they have witnessed New York City transforming from a small overseas outpost into a world city.
One wonders what stories the trees would tell if they could speak.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.