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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Malcolm St. Clair, center, and Lucy Gardner, right, planting a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
Malcolm St. Clair, center, and Lucy Gardner, right, planting a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Lucy Gardner and Malcolm St. Clair with their new oak tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.
Lucy Gardner and Malcolm St. Clair with their new oak tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Other than having a baby – perhaps even including having a baby – what’s a more profound vote of confidence in the future than planting a tree?

Particularly in the current epoch where we daily read dire warnings about melting glaciers and mass extinctions: I believe the proposed name for this geologic era is the Anthropocene because of the dramatic, not altogether felicitous, impact of humanity on the planet.

Some cynics might go so far as to say that with fossil fuel industry lobbyists now running the show at agencies such as the EPA, and making the world safe for air pollution, planting a saplings is a fool’s errand, the arboreal equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

But it didn’t feel that way Monday morning when we joined our daughter Lucy and her fiancée Malcolm St. Clair in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. They were celebrating their upcoming marriage by planting an oak tree, a bur oak to be precise. The specimen is centrally located, overlooking the park’s Long Meadow. At almost a mile, the lawn -- the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, also the makers of Central Park -- is possibly the longest stretch of urban meadow in the country.

The tree was on their wedding registry, generously purchased by seven of their friends. Lucy also works for the Prospect Park Alliance, the non-profit that runs the park. The tree project is part of the Alliance’s Commemorative Giving Program, which allows people to donate or adopt trees and benches throughout Prospect Park’s 585 acres, to memorialize an occasion or a loved one.

And while Lucy’s work for the organization obviously played a role in her desire to plant a tree there, it went beyond that.

I can’t put it any better than Malcolm, a school teacher, and Lucy, who’s developing into something of a wordsmith, did on the commemorative plaque that was attached to the protective fencing around the tree.

“For the benefit of birds and Brooklynites,” it reads, “planted with love in the park where ours grew.”

It also didn’t hurt that the weather was unimproveable that morning, the temperature balmy with a light breeze at 9 a.m. and predicted to rise into the 80’s by late afternoon.

After weeks of rain and cold it felt as if both spring and summer had exploded simultaneously. It was one of those giddy-making days that sparked dormant synapses that evoked the elation one experienced as the end of the school year approached and you could finally shed your overcoat, feeling especially rakish in just a jacket and tie (I, unfortunately, went to one of those schools that required a jacket and tie.)

Indeed, the only reason Malcolm was able to attend the planting was because it was exam week at the school where he teaches and he didn’t have to report to work until 10:30.

So we gathered around the long, lean sapling – its ridged bark a small preview of the august tree it will eventually become -- while a Prospect Park crew dug a generous hole and lowered the substantial root ball into the cavity.

We were joined by several of Lucy’s co-workers, as well as John Jordan, the Alliance’s director of landscape management, and by Lucy’s college classmate, Hally Wolhandler. Hally was representing the seven friends who’d chipped in to buy the tree.

After it was centered Malcolm read “Under the Greenwood Tree” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and then the couple tossed ceremonial shovels of dirt into the hole, the rest of us joining them.

As festive as the occasion was, it was impossible to forget that the last time I’d joined in such an undertaking was when my mother died in February and we participated in the Jewish tradition of mourners dropping dirt onto the coffin.

Some consider the ritual painful; it’s certainly a dose of reality, especially if you consider death the end of life. I prefer to think of it all as part of a circle, a process that encompasses birth, growth, decay, death and rebirth.

Looked at it in that way, my mother’s burial and the planting of a fragile young tree in Prospect Park isn’t unalike. They’re different varieties of reverence, but reverence nonetheless.

If I had any criticism about the occasion it’s that the commemorative plaque is only temporary. I’d have preferred something more permanent – perhaps copper that develops that bluish green patina with age.

But when I gave it a little more thought I remembered all those trees I played among in Central Park as a child, their memorial plagues dedicated to fallen soldiers from various wars.

There was something vaguely depressing about them.

Fallen heroes no doubt deserve to be remembered. But there’s really no more eloquent testimony to life than a tree allowed to grow anonymously, for the benefit of all, including birds and insects. The implicit faith in the future by those who planted it, like Lucy and Malcolm, is obvious. A faith that perhaps envisions eventually sitting under its spreading canopy with friends and possibly even children and grandchildren on many more gentle days like this one was. That’s really the only recognition required.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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