Book Talk: It’s Easy Bein’ Green in Our City

February 6, 2012 | CUNY Matters, The University

That man from Stratford was an expert on the arboreal. He knew from deciduous.

Take Macbeth, who wistfully observes just before his demise, “My way of life/ Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf….” Or the speaker in Sonnet 73 who, in midlife crisis mode, admits, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold….”

What better time to contemplate the leafy splendors of our city than in the dead of winter, when we New Yorkers have no choice but to stare out on “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”— and yearn for the coming of spring? And here is a perfect new book to excite any and all vernal fantasies: Leslie Day’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Day is a CUNY Baccalaureate graduate who attended City College and is now a biology teacher at the Elisabeth Morrow School (her husband is Brooklyn College biologist James Nishiura). She has produced a comprehensive, sturdily bound manual on good paper stock that will stand up to frequent thumbing. It is a sequel to her first Johns Hopkins book, Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. “This book was written for those who want to learn more about their green neighbors,” Day says in her introduction. She guesses there are more than 600,000 of them within the city, and she obviously is cheering on Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to plant a million more by 2017 (visit www.milliontreesnyc.org).

Street Trees contains many photographs of the 50 species in question, almost all taken by Day herself, and every one of the featured trees gets a superb watercolor illustration of a sample leaf by the writer and photographer Trudy Smoke. She began her botanical painting under Dick Rauh, the eminent teacher at the Bronx Botanical Garden, who was featured in CM several years ago. Smoke’s day job is professor of English at Hunter College.

The guide begins with an overview of “Leafy Neighbor-hoods of the Five Boroughs,” which includes maps giving local neighborhoods and main green spaces, and identifies prominent indigenous tree activists. One comes upon some delightful tree trivia, too. We are told of a London plane tree in front of 55 Willow St. in Brooklyn Heights, then get Truman Capote’s description of it in his essay “A House on the Heights.”

The pages on the Upper West Side feature the story of the neighborhood’s Greenkeepers organization, whose distinctive T-shirts are ubiquitous. Day reports in Queens on volunteers who hand-transport water to trees or hasten to call 311 to report a tree in distress. On Staten Island we meet Parks Department urban forester John Kilcullen, who is noted for his “Great Tree” walks to visit some venerable green senior citizens. We don’t get them without “tree stewardship,” which he says is crucial in the first five years of life. Same principle as kids, it seems.

Next follow a few pages devoted to “Tree Terminology.” There is size (small trees are under 30 feet, medium ones up to 85 feet and large ones over that) and type (conifer, evergreen, deciduous). Then each species’ leaf type, flowers, fruit and seed forms are described. Here one learns such terms as samaras or keys (winged fruit) and lenticels (horizontal breathing pores on the bark of a tree). The ginkgo bilboa, for example, is dioecious (having male and female flowers on separate trees).

There’s also an illustrated “Glossary” on leaf arrangement and the parts of a tree’s twig and flower — the stigma, ovary, pistil, stamen and anther, for example. One thinks immediately of Ogden Nash’s tiny poem: “If you’re called by a panther/ Don’t anther.”

The heart of Street Trees is the section of two-page entries on each species, giving the common English and Latin botanical name, then specific street addresses in each of the boroughs where the species can be viewed. (One hopes that the arboreal carnage of Hurricane Irene in late August spared the trees Day has listed.) Each entry also asks “What’s in a name?” The callery pear was named for a French missionary who discovered the species in China in 1858. The bald cypress gets its name by losing its needles in autumn.

Other desiderata covered in every entry are its typical size, the shape of its crown, the texture of its bark and twigs, leaf structure, flowers and fruit. Each entry then includes comment on its urban habitat. The saucer magnolia “thrives in well-cared-for city medians,” while the sycamore maple is “highly salt-tolerant,” which is why it thrives on City Island in Long Island Sound. The hedge maple must be happy in our midst: it “tolerates pollution, compacted soils, drought, and other tough urban conditions.”

Every entry concludes with the tree’s “ecological value.” The northern red oak is “an excellent shade tree” and its acorns are a feast for squirrels and a variety of birds. The littleleaf linden provides dense summer shade, has fragrant spring flowers, and “a graceful form all winter.”

The American linden is one tree that had local artistic value: the Japanese sculptor Yama, who lived at the 79th Street Boat Basin for years, created massive statues from fallen lindens in Riverside Park. “He appreciated the soft, beautiful, easy-to-carve wood.”

The guide wraps up with some tree-care tips, a short bibliography, and excerpts from Day’s interviews with some of the city’s notable “tree people.” Among them is Adrian Benepe, Commissioner of Parks (“I honestly think that New Yorkers care more about trees than people in any other city”) and Wayne Cahilly, who is closing in on 30 years at the Bronx Botanical Garden (“I don’t know anyone who has more knowledge about trees than Wayne,” Day writes).

Day gives the last word to Eric Thomann of the Community Garden Coalition. Thomann’s cadre of tree stewards-in-training recently drew up a list of the valuable attributes of trees, and the last bullet point best explains why we can’t plant enough of them: “trees bring people together.”

Street Trees of New York City got me to thinking about Stephen Sondheim and the song he considers the best of his storied career. It was for “Pacific Overtures” in 1976, and its title perfectly captures where Leslie Day would like to be, if only in spirit: “Someone in a Tree.”


NEW TITLES / CUNY AUTHORS

Occupying  All Streets

Predating the Occupy Wall Street movement but timely because of it, The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces, by Benjamin Shepard, assistant professor of human services at City Tech, and Greg Smithsimon, assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, examines some activist struggles in the city as an example of the tensions between privatization and public uses of space in the contemporary United States. Published by Excelsior Editions.


Analyzing The President

Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption is the most recent presidential analysis by Stanley A. Renshon, who teaches political science at Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Political psychologist Renshon, who previously profiled Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in this book published by Routledge says the current president’s ambition has been fueled by a desire for redemption — his own, that of his parents, and ultimately for the politically divided country he now leads.


What Do Conservatives Want?

In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin traces the philosophy back to its roots in the reaction against the French Revolution. Robin, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center, says some conservatives may criticize the state, others celebrate it. But underlying their differences, he says, is the impulse to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality. Published by Oxford University Press.


Protecting Flipper’s Family

In The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center professor Diana Reiss provides proof of these sea creatures’ high intelligence — including a description of her own experimental work demonstrating dolphins’ self-awareness and her struggle to get these findings published in scientific literature. She also aims to build support to stop the annual massacres of dolphins in Japan and elsewhere.


Quotable Gotham: Views of Fans And Critics

Compliments and criticisms about city features from subways to skyscrapers by hundreds of notables — including Walt Whitman, Helen Hayes, Robert Benchley, Calvin Trillin, Lenny Bruce and Fiorello La Guardia — fill New York: The Big Apple Quote Book edited by Bob Blaisdell. The New York Times has called it “a jaunty sampler of aphorisms.” Author Blaisdell is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College. Published by Dover Publications.