Thursday, August 27, 2009

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”—Hermann Hesse


There were over 26,000 trees in Central Park before the 18th of August. Now there are a few hundred less, though there are still quite a few lying where they fell, most of them facing toward the east, having been hit by 70 mph winds roaring across Manhattan from the west. Some are standing tall, seemingly oblivious to their amputated limbs and the fate that awaits them. Others have completed the transformation and lie with their brethren in steaming piles of mulch. A sweetly fermented air hangs over the north end of the park.

The Mister and I live a block from Central Park at the north end above 96th Street. The night of the storm at a little after ten o’clock the first flash of lightning had us stop what we were doing, put down the book, turn off the computer. Reverting to childhood anticipation, we shut the lights in the apartment and stationed ourselves at the windows in the front room that overlook the onion tops of the Russian Church directly across the street making a fine mis-en-scene for stormy theater. Our big black cat, Sidney Vicious, conceding the signs, shot under the bed. Delighting in the escalating rain and the sharp, thunderous cracks after spidery displays of lightning, The Mister still finds my insuppressible shrieking funny. The downpour came faster and heavier. Windows rattled. Soon a Mt. Sinai building that looms over the skyline a block away disappeared behind the pitch-blackness. An eerie resonance, almost like cannon roar, exploded out of sync with the expected thunder after a lightning flash and we agreed: this is pretty damned powerful. We stared at the slender trees on the pavement below, seeing them bend with the wind, each one bowing in line with the others and we began to fear for their wellbeing.

Before we knew it the storm was over. The trees below straightened. All had rejuvenated from the experience. We thought.

In the morning, alerted by an e-mail from a friend and neighbor who had walked her dogs early, I headed into the park with my camera. I didn’t take it on, the extent of the damage, noticing first the fallen limbs and branches clustered outside the entrance to the park on Fifth Avenue. Further in the devastation became painfully clearer. From then on, day after day I saw such splendid trees, grown tall and seemingly only vulnerable to threats like Dutch Elm disease and the Asian Longhorn Beetle, torn apart. Park trees have been felled in isolated incidents due to infestation, but the walker breathes a relieved sigh because it’s prevention at work. But so many had fallen to the ground in a tangle of limbs so topsy-turvy one could not tell one tree’s branches from the others toppled alongside and on top of each other. Raw craters abounded, left gaping from a wind so forceful it uprooted the trees that had once stood there. While some familiar trees in the east meadow were either uprooted or torn asunder I was relieved to see the two The Mister and I had claimed for ourselves still standing across the path from each other, their branches still entwined at the tips. Mine is the huge American elm and his is the slightly younger London plane. My elm had lost only a few branches from what I could tell, nothing life threatening.

The media did not forgo the 9/11 references that pop up in every local newsworthy calamity. “It seems like Central Park was essentially the ground zero,” said David Wally, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Upton, N.Y., on Long Island.

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