About Place Journal, Volume II Issue I
WILLOW WEEP FOR ME
On August 28, fourteen months before Super Storm Sandy, there was Hurricane Irene. She careened off of the Outer Banks of the Carolinas and barreled a direct path through every major East Coast city, arriving in Manhattan the next day. Though she would be eclipsed by her enormous sister, her equatorial rage wreaked havoc due south. New Yorkers were in panic mode. Supplies flew off the shelves as people stocked up in preparation.
Here on the Lower East Side, I scrambled to La Plaza Cultural to meet my fellow plant nerd, Marga – “garden wife,” my partner Eric called her. We were headed to the community garden to put away stray objects and harvest what would likely be the last of our tomatoes. The land in this pancake neighborhood was only a few feet above sea level. I fretted over what would happen to our vegetable plots if the storm surged up from the East River.
Last week an earthquake had rocked our tenements, threatening to bury me in an avalanche of hoarded garden books. Poetic justice if my plant tomes did me in, considering how many trees died to produce them. Weeks before, a tornado had blown above our buildings making landfall across the water in Brooklyn, taking with it hundreds of trees. Many more had succumbed to a microburst in Central Park the year before.
Green spaces faced many threats in this city, but they were almost always human born: development, gentrification, terrorism. But natural disasters? These were new. For the first time I had almost no idea how to defend our little garden in the flood plain.
“This is some biblical shit!” Eric had exclaimed, a quizzical smirk on his boyish face. The forecast showed Irene spiraling up the eastern seaboard, breaching seawalls, spawning tornados, and flooding inland waterways.
Now as I considered Eric’s observation and what it meant for La Plaza Cultural, I walked up to the wood table sheltered by the mighty European lindens, old sturdy beasts with dense foliage towering more than 60 feet overhead like protective ancestors. “Hello my Tilda Europanicas,“ I said in a scientific voice. I paused, my eyes drawn upward. Although I knew real botanists frowned upon it – ascribing human characteristics and emotions to nonhumans indicates a lack of scientific objectivity – I’d given them personal names. If meteorologists did it for storms why couldn’t I with trees?
I had read that the old Germans considered European lindens holy protectors of houses, so I named them accordingly. Helmut because I thought it sounded funky; Ingrid for an unrequited love before I admitted I was gay; Uta, after a friend who stood tall, straight, and strong. The first weeping willow, anchoring the northeastern border of lawn, I called Cher. (I didn’t always differentiate between the sexes—many were horticultural hermaphrodites.) The next, shading the gazebo, became Krusty, for the crabby cartoon clown character from The Simpsons. But my favorite was a huge weeper I called Wally. He was the point at the bottom of an exclamation mark of trees dividing La Plaza in half. I chose his moniker because I liked the ring: Wally the Willow.
Tree management, especially in urban areas, could be brutal. People with dogs or cats as pets rarely dealt with the trauma of having their furry companion’s limb amputated. Yet we constantly had to cut off major branches in our little grove. And trees, like all family pets, died. I had warned my fellow La Plazans not to get too emotionally close to anything in the park, but I had violated my own rules. My hypocrisy would soon be tested.
As I gazed up at my giant verdant pets, their branches scarcely trembling in the eerie breeze, Marga stepped up beside me, interrupting my poorly timed reverie. I looked into her warm brown eyes. I knew she could see straight through to my gnawing dread. We settled onto the long wooden bench under Helmut, and she leaned into my shoulder, putting her arm around me. “Aw, Rossi, are you worried about our trees?”
I laughed nervously, nodded, and looked away. “The news advised people to thin out the crowns to allow the wind to blow through more easily.”
“When did we do that last?”
“It’s been years for most of them, but I’m not worried about the lindens. They’re sturdy and rarely lose large branches. That one’s fine, and that one just had work done,” I said indicating Cher, then Wally. “But this one,” I said of Krusty, “has a lot of dead wood.”
Several russet-colored birds with speckled breasts winged nervously from branch to branch, seeming agitated and confused about where to go. Were they thrushes? “Did you notice the birds seem to know what’s coming?”
“When a storm’s a brew’n, go the way of the birds.” Marga was from Florida. She knew hurricanes.
“Too bad we don’t have wings,” I observed.
As if on cue, a flock of gossiping sparrows descended into Uta’s leaves above us.
“Do you think the trees are aware, maybe even talking about the storm?” It was a bizarre question, I knew, yet recently we had learned that a fungal communication system, “an underground Internet,” connected flora species in forest gardens. Faced with pest infestation or disease, trees sent warnings through these vast stringy subterranean mushrooms, telling their brethren to boost their immune systems. Those growing in shade shared the energy from chlorophyll of taller sun-drenched relatives. I looked at Ingrid’s exposed roots, anchoring her into the deep brown soil. “Do you suppose they can warn one another about bad weather approaching? Are they worrying about tomorrow as much as we are?”
When the community activists planted these trees it was an act of hope: they would most likely outlive their planters. How bad does life have to be to see hope in a rubble and garbage-strewn lot, I often marveled. But it was also a force of gentrification. The forestation improved the area to such an extent it priced the ex-gang members who brought them here over three decades ago out of the neighborhood. It was early environmental action. But for me these trees meant so much more. They were sentient beings. They were my family. Now my family was in trouble.
Eric joined us and together we waited anxiously for Irene. Although it was still only gray and rainy here, we all knew she was busy lapping the Atlantic shores directly south of us.
“Are you guys going to stay in the neighborhood?” Marga asked.
“Nowhere else to go,” Eric replied. “And we are not sleeping in a shelter. Spending nights in a New York City public school? Not if we don’t have to. What zone are you in?”
“A, ‘Mandatory Evacuation.’ You?” she asked.
“B, ‘Recommended Evacuation,’” Eric replied, then shook his head.
Her apartment was further inland and higher. It didn’t make any sense and said a lot about how poorly understood and ignored by bureaucrats our complex neighborhood could be. Mostly, the laissez faire attitude worked to our advantage. They left us gardeners to make our own decisions about managing our space. But when something went wrong, we were usually on our own.
We spent the rest of the afternoon prowling the plots and harvesting the vegetables from the community beds, feeling a bit guilty. Our rationale: the produce would not likely survive the storm and this would be the last chance of the season. It was a sensitive issue, though. Recently a mother emailed the membership complaining that a cabbage had been stolen from her plot. “Cut clean from the stalk,” she wrote. “My daughter was so distraught she made me file a police report.”
“A Police Report? Can you believe that?” Marga exclaimed while we plucked tomatoes and clipped kale.
“A better lesson would have been, ‘don’t get too attached,’” I replied.
“Let’s buy a head, shred it, and leave it in her plot.”
“Yes! We’ll say it was coleslawtered.”
Our baskets quickly filled as the day waned and Irene neared. We kissed each other on the cheeks and said goodbye, promising to meet again when the storm cleared, and took our bounties home to our dingy human filing cabinets.
Later that evening, Eric and I taped painter’s tarps and moving blankets over our windows and placed towels on the sills. I looked out at a willow across the street in another garden. She stood ten feet below us and less than forty feet away. Sheets of rain cut diagonally across the gray sky. Her fronds seemed to sway in an anxious, animated conversation with the growing winds. Her hair blew wildly in the tempest like a giant green witch’s head.
We did all we could. Now it was out of our control.
I felt powerless as I bid my arboreal family goodnight. We went to bed late to the howl of the tropical winds, demons growling in the dark night.
“We lost a giant!” Marga’s text pinged me awake six hours into a restless sleep.
The apartment was pitch black. The yellow screen pierced the darkness, telling me it was eight in the morning.
“Headed down,” I texted back. Too sleepy to panic, I threw on a pair of old pants, t-shirt, jacket, hat, and rubber shoes, and hurried from the apartment down to the street. I winced as I noticed a window frame dangling from the branches of the locust tree. It hung ominously in front of the abandoned school next to our building. Crossing the deserted avenue, I noticed a drowned rat splayed in a refuse pile, clogging the storm sewer drain. There were almost no parked cars and no drivers. A couple of pedestrians, heads downcast, crossed the street a block away. It was silent.
I knew the casualty had to be one of the willows. Probably lost part of its crown. But Cher had been cut in half and she came back. Surely we could handle this.
When I walked through the gate and registered what I saw, the bottom dropped out of my stomach. The scene took a moment to reach my brain. When it did, I let out an involuntary gasp, shuddered, and covered my mouth. Irene had devastated the garden.
Wally was completely uprooted and sprawled across the tarmac. His body split the space, making it difficult to navigate. Roots, yanked from the soil, now stood upright, taller than me, leaving a crater the size of a compact car. He’d taken Ingrid with him when he fell. A sharp pain shot through my chest and I stumbled backwards.
Marga stood next to Helmut, looking down on the pentagon-shaped bench surrounding his trunk. Worry etched across her face. “I think we’re going to lose this one too.”
“What? How could this be?”
She pointed to cracked earth. The soil heaved the bench, and the once column-straight trunk angled across the steely sky. It loomed menacingly over the shed and a neighboring building.
“Fuck! I think you’re right.”
As I deconstructed the scene and visually disentangled the enormous pile of vegetation, I saw altogether four trees were downed. I fought back tears and struggled to form a response. Rain drizzled down my cheeks.
“We’re going to have to close the garden,” she said. “It’s not safe.”
I stepped gingerly through the jumbled branches to join Marga.
“Are you crying?” she asked with a nervous smile.
Then she gathered me in her arms.
“You always said, don’t get too attached, Rossi.”
The trees’ demise left a huge hole in the fabric of La Plaza. We were exposed, naked, and vulnerable. As I stood there in disbelief, a gust of wind blew through Helmut, sending leaves fluttering. Then, it was eerily calm and quiet. No avian chatter. The birds had not yet returned.
In the days following, we learned that in Manhattan, trees were the storm’s only major fatalities. They had come down all over the island. Compared to communities north of us, we knew we were lucky. Yet it was little consolation to the garden members and their neighbors. I couldn’t help but feel bad about my emotions and a bit embarrassed. People lost their possessions, their homes, even their lives.
Anybody with the equipment to take care of Wally and Ingrid’s corpses, or the ability to advise us on how to save Helmut from toppling, already had their hands full with other damages.
Folks approached the gate at La Plaza to gape at the carnage and take pictures as we inspected the wreckage.
“Is there any way to save them?” asked Marga.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Willows are amazingly resilient.” I knew they could reproduce by disassembling. Riparian, they often dropped branches in rivers that floated downstream to sprout new growth on other banks. One of the few species with rooting hormones in their bark, it was even possible a whole new tree might grow from fallen limbs. “So are lindens. But this seems so absolute.” In reality, it was too soon to tell anything. Intellectually I understood they could regrow, survive, but in my heart I wasn’t so convinced.
“Did you see that two American elms fell in Thompkins Square? They were over a hundred years old,” Marga said.
“Yeah, it’s as if a mini-tornado blew down 9th Street.”
The amateur arborist who had cleaned out Wally’s crown came by to examine the trees. “It’s hard to believe just last month I was hanging from those branches,” she said, shaking her head and pointing to Wally’s sprawled bulk.
She recommended extensive surgery for Krusty and Helmut. Krusty dropped a huge rotten branch on the sidewalk the next day as warning: he would come down if we didn’t act soon.
During the ensuing days people offered condolences and stories on how much the trees meant to them, especially Wally. One member and her small daughter, matching rubber boots, green raincoats, and blond curls peeking under pointed hoods, stood outside the gate as they held hands looking at his upended root burl. A tear trailed the girl’s cheek. “That was my favorite tree in the whole wide world, Mommy.”
Reporters and their photographers showed up. Passing cars stopped to gawk and snap shots. Neighbors I rarely spoke to approached and asked for pieces of wood or branches to remember Wally by. The New York Times called him an iconic symbol that represented the garden’s struggle.
We decided to keep the place closed to the public until we could have an expert evaluate the condition of Helmut’s lean. Marga and I snuck around Wally and sat hidden behind his whips on the amphitheater. That’s when I realized the fir tree I called Skid had been crushed under Ingrid and chopped in half. The first tree I’d planted. My heart broke anew, and a defining moment in my childhood flooded me with startling clarity.
I had named Skid after one of my earliest friends, who’d taught me about trees and the brutality of living among them. We had spent two memorable summers running free on his family’s farm in the mountains of northern Idaho, and years later backpacking through Europe. What flashed across my consciousness while I took in the destruction of his needled namesake was the moment when I first witnessed the absolute devastation and hopelessness of a fresh forest clear felling for which his father had been partly responsible. I’ll never forget the apocalyptic scene, acres of steep muddy slopes eroded by brown water, studded with thousands of overturned stumps, and crisscrossed with leftover timber deemed useless by the loggers. Arboreal genocide.
As Skid now lay before me, snapped in two, I thought about how much these trees had been through and how they’d thrived in spite of the odds against them here among the cement, asphalt, and tenements. They’d outlived three development projects funded by tens of millions of federal dollars, backed by all levels of government, and fought over for more than thirty years. They’d outlived or outlasted all the founders. Buckminster Fuller, who donated the materials and taught the ex-gang members (CHARAS) to construct geodesic domes, was long dead. So was Gordon Matta-Clark, the famous deconstructionist artist, his environmental resource center on the site a distant memory. The dome builders had passed away or left, their stories relegated to the seldom-read page or memories of their cohorts and conspirators. Ghosts haunting the branches of the canopies. But the trees met their match in Irene. She had clear-cut La Plaza.
Eventually, the city sent a team of arborists armed with chain saws to chop up our friends and take them away in big green trucks. They gave us some mementos from Wally: thin rounds from branches with “Irene 2011” carved into the wood; a cut of his trunk big enough to make a table; and his stump, righted and left behind. I was on the West Coast. It felt like I missed the funeral for a dear acquaintance. I never had the chance to say a proper goodbye.
We would mourn again with Sandy’s fourteen-foot salty surge, but would also soon transform the sunny space left behind. And now, each time I pass Wally’s remnant I will pause to imagine his braded dusky bark bursting from the earth, lime green leaves dancing in the wind, vaulting pendulous branches arched across the indigo sky. Every improvement I will make to La Plaza will be a tribute to the memory of Wally the Willow.
Ross Martin is a landscape architect by training but in practice designs, builds, and maintains high-end residential gardens in Manhattan. Holding a BLA from University of Arizona, and a MLA from the University of Minnesota, with a minor in applied ecology, he authored a thesis titled Suburban Residents’ Perception of Wildlife Habitat in Their Yards. For over seventeen years, Martin has also been landscape curator for Plaza Cultural Armando Perez community garden and park on the Lower East Side. He writes about restoring the venerable space and struggling with development. It deals with the multitude of characters, the cultural and environmental history of the place and surrounding environment, and the 60 plus other gardens in the neighborhood. The story spans nine years and the themes center on environmental, racial, social, and political issues, unique to urban areas. A lifelong obsession with trees grew from of his upbringing out west.