Earth Amid a Pandemic, Finding Rootedness in An Urban Forest
When I walk the dog or run errands, I pay attention to the trees around me. It roots me in the now.
My now-husband convinced me to move to Ditmas Park in Brooklyn three and a half years ago by taking me on a walk through its quasi-suburban streets. He knew I liked greenery, that I found peace in walking through Prospect Park, and Ditmas Park is the rare slice of the city where front lawns are the norm. But what really enchanted me were the trees.
Six-story-tall London plane trees, their exfoliating bark peeling in patches of cream and yellow; pin oaks with fat, wide trunks shading half a block; Japanese maple trees with crimson leaves like the ones that littered my yard when I was little. These Ditmas trees, their roots sprawling in the curb strips of grass, felt so much grander than the ones hemmed in by steel tree guards in our slice of Park Slope, so much more settled in their environment.
Trees are a grounding force in a world from which I sometimes feel detached. My parents both died of cancer when I was a child—my mother of lung cancer when I was twelve, my father of prostate cancer when I was fourteen. In college, when I was finally ready to unbox my loss, I was seeing a therapist for the first time in many years, dredging up my grief and riding the anxiety that came along with it. My therapist told me that when I felt unmoored, I should pay attention to the trees and how they endure.
Of course I knew that trees could die or fall. Years earlier, I watched my dad and uncle pull up the dead roots of that Japanese maple in my yard. I saw half the branches on our Callery pear tree fall into our driveway during a spring thunderstorm. But looking at trees—and reaching out to touch their bark—has steadied me since. Taking a moment to pay attention to the trees around me while I walk the dog or run errands pulls me out of my ruts of anxiety and roots me in the now.
Last spring, as the trees around Ditmas Park bloomed, the wonder I felt around trees shifted into a desire to know more about them. I became obsessed with the New York City Street Tree Map , which features information from the Parks department about every tree planted on city property in the five boroughs. The map lists each tree’s species, diameter size, and ecological benefits, as well as the care that volunteers perform on it and a recent photo of it.
I found myself clicking on every green circle in our neighborhood. I learned that the tree around the corner that grows clusters of fuschia flowers on its branches is an eastern redbud. The tree whose slimy, bean-like pods my dog always tries to eat is a Japanese pagoda.
My dad taught me how to observe the world around me, how to see. Every day in those two years between Mom’s death and his, he would ask me about my day at school, and I would sulk and complain. He would chide me, ask me to describe at least one good thing, remind me that, to describe, you need to live with eyes open.
I think of that now as I click on the tree map, which has cemented these individual trees in my memory and helps me bear witness to their seasonal cycles and growth. In studying the tree map, I map my life in Brooklyn and claim these trees as part of my lived experience, part of what keeps me rooted.
The London plane tree with the snarled fifty-inch trunk and two fat boughs that make it look like a pitchfork is in the plot of grass where our dog first learned to go potty outside. If I stand on our outdoor subway platform so that when I look up, I can still see the pin oak on the street above, I will get on the car that lines up with the staircase at Times Square, where I need to transfer during my commute to teach writing.
Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the grounding I have gained through the tree map is something I am holding onto fiercely. As I write, my mother-in-law, Gloria, is two states away in the hospital. She is in a high-risk group, and after nearly two weeks of illness, her COVID-19 test finally came back positive. She spent the last week in the ICU on a ventilator, and is incredibly lucky to have slowly improved enough now to no longer need the ventilator to do her breathing for her.
But we cannot visit her. No one can. We stay home. We call the hospital morning and afternoon and night and speak to the nurses and PAs and physicians who are caring for her. We learn a new vocabulary: arterial and venous blood gas and positive end expiratory pressure, measures of how well her lungs are working to oxygenate her blood, how much help she needed from the ventilator. She’s still in the hospital, though, and we still feel terrified, helpless.
The grounding I have gained through the tree map is something I am holding onto fiercely.
One of the only things we can safely do now is walk our dog in our neighborhood. We have taken to walking the same route each afternoon, passing the same trees: the Japanese flowering cherry with its weepy branches studded with pale pink flowers, the apple tree starting to show buds. We observe their new growth, how over the course of a week the white magnolia in the grassy median on Albemarle Road hit full bloom and its petals started to float down to the grass.
Our neighbors are out, too, standing six feet apart and looking at the trees, taking pictures of them to claim them. When we get home, I cross-check the map, memorize more trees: the serviceberry with its white buds on Buckingham, the tulip trees on Beverley with their fluted leaves starting to peek from the tips of branches.
Staying at home, life feels at once stagnant and on hyper-speed. The days bleed into one another in their sameness and yet are immensely packed, as though each contains a week’s worth of information, emotion, thought. I teach my college students on Zoom, where they log in across the country, across the ocean, grappling with being torn from the lives they just started on campus and thrown back to hunker down in the places they were leaving behind, places where their differing levels of privilege are once again laid bare.
I feel lucky to still have this job when family and friends are losing theirs, joining the ranks of the ten million people, as of writing, who have filed for unemployment in the past two weeks . I read the news and feel lucky to live in a neighborhood that isn’t yet pierced with the ring of ambulance sirens at all hours, to only know one person who had to be hospitalized, to not be sick myself. I feel lucky to have a home at all, and especially one here among my trees.
Since Gloria entered the hospital nearly two weeks ago, each day has felt interminable, untenable, and yet not quite long enough, because still she has not healed. Staying at home feels like grief. Grief means being powerless in the face of loss, being able only to sit with that loss, dwell in it.
The trees outside still grow and cycle at their own pace. Right now, I do not reach out to touch their bark, but witnessing them gives me hope that Gloria, too, can endure. That we, too, can endure.