New York

Old City Tree


Felled for its fertility, the tree above no longer shelters its Chelsea courtyard.

(photo: Jay Muhlin)

An old Rousseau-like tree grew beside a private courtyard next to my apartment building in Chelsea, against a wire fence separating the courtyard from the rest of us in the neighborhood. Four thick branches extended up and out across entire buildings. The tree was probably 70 or 80 years old. Late at night, when things were quiet, wind rushed through the branches and made whooshing sounds, like surf, and I could imagine an ocean outside somewhere in the concrete city. People in the courtyard sat beneath its branches at candlelit tables, and the clink of their dishes blended with the sound of leaves in a breeze. Full moons appeared through the branches, and evening stars, storm clouds, lights from planes. In the morning, voices of schoolchildren echoed through the leaves. Green wooden benches and beds of manicured flowers bordered the courtyard on all sides.

Some trees live inside maintained gardens; others stand outside, withering on sidewalks. Some live a life of Russian roulette. I wrote about this tree and photographed it for over 10 years. It was an autumn blaze of topaz; December snow rested on its branches like hankies; in spring and summer it was alive with cardinals, blue jays, finches, and sparrows; pigeons rested like old people in rockers. Its branches stretched like mammoth arms, an unconditional friend at the end of unforgiving days, community in the best sense of the word.

courtesy of Magie Dominic

One year I had a terrible accident and spent months recovering from facial reconstruction; the tree changed right along with me. One winter in the ’90s there was a frozen thaw, and a sudden temperature drop caused melting snow to freeze in place. Dripping water turned to ice and hung suspended. I photographed the bare tree with its surrealistic ornamental limbs.

This week, following my mother’s death, I returned to New York, paid the animated cab driver, carried my bag and my mother’s ashes up four flights of stairs, put water on for tea, walked to the window, and looked through the glass to utter and complete emptiness. The tree had been chopped down. A fresh, sawed-off stump stood in its place. Everything else was intact. I yelled, why? to no one. It was the middle of the night and there was no one to ask.

In the morning the man who looked after the garden was checking something in a flower bed near where the tree once stood.

“Can you hear me?” I called down.

“Yes,” he said.

“Why was the tree chopped down?” I asked.

“Because six weeks out of every summer it drops things and no one can sit here,” he said.

I was too heartbroken to ask why they couldn’t sit somewhere else; the courtyard was the size of an apartment building. In time, a new building may displace it. As we spoke, a bird flew in a path toward where the tree once stood, then stopped short and landed on a hedge adjoining the fence. There was already an emptiness, an unwanted silence and a very clear view of buildings and cement.

There’s a theory that plants have an ability to communicate with one another, and possibly, with sufficient equipment, may in time communicate with humans. Plants may one day testify at a trial. That they respond to care and tenderness is a proven fact. Plants in my apartment faced the tree for years and witnessed its destruction. The city has one less old tree now, and two buildings are under construction around the corner. Cranes and trucks are uprooting the earth.

Trees can be messy. They shed leaves and little green seed pods; birds build nests in their branches, dropping feathers and, occasionally, other things. Strong winds can tear away limbs. Old trees are noisy; branches creak at the end of a day, and leaves rustle. They’re unpredictable, changing color, growing, and adapting. Weather and hardships determine their shape. Trees are constantly bending toward the light. We could learn a lot from trees.

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