Trees

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Twenty-Five

 

“When Henry Hudson sailed up through the Narrows between Long and Staten Islands in 1609 and anchored in the upper bay almost opposite old Communipaw, and he looked over the surrounding country and, as his gaze fell upon the green plains and pleasantly wooded hills stretching away toward the setting sun, he declared his enthusiasm that it was ‘as pleasant a land as one need tread upon.'”

 

He was looking at Jersey City.

 

Pleasantly wooded hills stretching away towards the setting sun. Damn.

As pleasant a land as one need tread upon, he said.

 

Four hundred years later, there’s not a whole lot of trees left in this city.  It’s all urban sprawl. Factories that have since closed down, some of them becoming condos. Apartment buildings for the apartment buildings for the apartment buildings. Highways. Concrete. Steel and glass.

 

But there is a tree outside my living room window. I don’t know what kind of tree it is. I look at it for a while. It has a brown trunk, and green leaves. It could be any kind of tree. Oh wait, here’s another clue, there’s a bird singing in its branches.

 

I open my computer and google ‘trees’ but that’s not much help. I type in trees dot com, and it takes me to a rudimentary site with a search bar that offers quick links to ‘Christmas Trees,’ ‘Christmas Tree Decorations,’ ‘Artificial Trees,’ ‘Family Trees,’ ‘Orange Trees,’ ‘Fruit Trees,’ and ‘Palm Trees.’

 

Ah, fruit trees, that interests me, because aside from the tree right outside my window, I have also noticed another tree on my block that is blooming with white flowers. It also has a brown trunk and green leaves, there’s a song bird in its branches. But those white flowers are a telltale that the tree bears some kind of fruit. I click on ‘Fruit Trees’ which causes me to click another link to buy my own fast growing fruit tree. This is fun. I live in an apartment, on the intersection of two busy streets. I have no yard or outside space whatsoever. It’d be nice if I had ten full size fruit trees delivered here and I just kept them in the apartment and when people came over, we could climb ladders and pick apples, or pineapples, or coconuts. What should I buy?

 

Okay, according to this, the white flowering tree is either a cherry tree, and the flowers are cherry blossoms; or the white flowering tree is a pear tree, and the flowers are pear blossoms. Pear blossoms, hm, that doesn’t seem right.

 

This is also telling me that the pink trees even further down the block, which I have been admiring, and which I have been calling ‘our lovely cherry blossoms, which Pablo Neruda would like to fuck doggystyle,’ are actually crab apple trees.

 

I call Rae at work, “How’s it going?” “Good,” I say. “How’s the job hunt going?” “Great. I got all kinds of leads going on all kinds of important stuff.” “Oh, like what? Did you call about the machine shop job?” “I didn’t.” “The maintenance man one?” “Actually, spent the day learning that the cherry trees up the block are actually crab apple trees.” She is quiet for a while. “Oh, alright,” she finally says. “I may head over to the library, do you need anything?” “The library is a great idea, are you going to apply there, or hit up the job center?” “I’m just gonna get a book on non-flowering trees. I can’t figure out what the big one just out the living room window is.” “The big tree out the living room window?” “Yes, the one with the brown trunk and the green leaves and the bird singing in its branches.”

 

Yesterday, while I was lifting weights, I watched a poorly made documentary about the history of this city. Mostly, it was made up of footage of an old man sitting on a couch talking, but not really looking at the camera, more or less just looking up at the ceiling trying to remember facts as he relayed them from memory.

 

Here’s one of the facts: the Dutch found any excuse they could to slaughter the Native Americans.

 

Here’s another fact: there used to be a peach orchard near here. Henry Dyke planted it right across the river on the island of Manhattan in the mid 1600s, and put armed guards to watch over the peaches. The Natives rowed over from here, from Pavonia, and grabbed themselves some of those peaches.

 

Here’s a further fact: as they plucked the fruit from the branches, bullets came at them. A woman was killed as she reached for a peach.

 

Another fact: the Natives retaliated and drove the Dutch out of the NJ settlement, burned down all their houses, and reclaimed their land. It stayed theirs, again, for five years.

 

In 1660, the Dutch founded a village here and called it Bergen. Rampart walls kept the Dutch safe, or the Natives safe, or somebody safe. There were gates too. The plots of land were free, but if you wanted to settle in Bergen, the governor required you have a gun and you be able to shoot it. A year later, the villagers dug a well so the cattle could be watered right there in town. I guess the people watered themselves too. And watered their trees, of which there were a lot. They had trees for the trees for the trees. Godly trees. This was as pleasant a land as one need tread upon.

 

Another fact I learned was that the original village center was called Bergen Square. The square is gone now, but the documentary showed that one side of the square was what is now the CTown grocery store (which sucks, which has low quality vegetables and meat, and the canned goods are dented and covered in dust), the other side of the square is the Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school, the other side is a restaurant called Papa Donuts, the other side is a Bank of America. I also just want to quickly recommend Lucky’s Market instead of CTown. They have fresh vegetables, and fruit, and it’s all cheap and good. There’s no meat there, but you can get eggs, and turkey bacon, and any kind of bean you could want. As a matter of fact, there are many markets like Lucky’s over here. They are all at war with each other. You can buy any kind of fruit from any kind of tree you would ever want to think about. Cherries. Pears. Apples. Oranges. Peaches. You name it.

 

Another fact: the well in the middle of the square was paved over when the horse age ended. By then there was running water in the town. People started driving their cars down Bergen Avenue and honking every second, at everything. They still do that today. I can hear them now.

 

The documentary broke away from the couch for a bit, to show some modern footage of Bergen Square. Photos of these business I have just told you about. In one photo, a man in a blue uniform stands in the middle of the street. A red circle appears around him, telling us, “THE CENTER OF THE STREET WAS A WELL FOR CATTLE.” But we already knew that.

 

Another fact: today there are eight trees in Bergen Square. I just counted. I cannot confidently tell you the names of any of them. There are no birds in any branches for me to ask, either, if I happened to speak bird. The absence of birds makes one thing easier on me though, I don’t have to feel bad that I don’t know the names of the birds.

 

Here’s a little trip down memory lane…1609…looking at the sun setting over Communipaw…”Where Hudson’s men found ‘[g]rass and flowers and godly trees as ever they had seen,’ now stands Jersey City, one of the most important cities of the new world.”

 

Godly trees, that’s funny.

 

Jersey City, one of the most important cities in the world, that’s funny too.

Oh, New World. Okay. I’ll give it that.

 

This was back when Chinese peaches were a hot commodity. Back when Chinese peaches were worth killing a person over.

 

I could take my car to the library, but I don’t have money for the gas, and since I have nothing but time on my hands now, I decide to walk. I stop a few times along the way to look at various flowers, weeds, dogs behind fences, cats sitting on front stoops, clouds in the sky. It is springtime and all these things are new again. Crossing Merceles by the entrance to the turnpike I almost get killed by a truck, but I am happy to have survived that when just a few blocks up, at Varick Street, I find the fresh stump of a tree that has been cut down. Sawdust all over the sidewalk. The rings of the tree are visible. I kneel and begin to count them. I never find out the tree’s exact age because a child, blonde-haired, and snot-nosed maybe seven or so, walks over and asks me a bunch of questions. “What are you doing?” he asks. I check to see if he has wooden shoes on. I look up, “What are you doing?” “What do you mean?” the child says. I say, “It’s Wednesday morning. Why aren’t you in school.” “I’m homeschooled. Why aren’t you at work? And why are you looking at our tree?” “Your tree? First of all there’s no tree here and second of all, it’s on the street, it’s not your tree, or your family’s tree, it belongs to every tax-paying inhabitant of this city.” “You’re not homeschooled,” the child says, as if he has caught me in a lie, pleased with himself. He shakes his head and says, “But really, what are you doing?” “Counting the rings, that’s how you tell how old a tree is.” “But the tree is dead and gone, it’s No Years Old.” “You’re so smart,” I say, “what kind of tree was it?” He chuckles and I really hate it when children chuckle at me, he says, “Who cares?” “Tell your mom I said she’s doing a bang up job.” “It was my tree, that’s what kind of tree it was.” “All right, what did it look like?” The child just stares at me. I give up. I stand and say, “Did it have a brown trunk and green leaves? Was there a bird singing in the branches?” The child says, “Yes.” I say, “All right, well I’m investigating a similar cold case, and if my detective work digs up any leads on this No Years Old tree of yours, I’ll drop by and tell your mom.” “You’re a detective? You don’t look like a detective.” “I’m undercover, posing as an unemployed man, don’t tell anyone.”

 

It takes me an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the Pavonia branch of the public library.

 

The librarian is no help either. She doesn’t know shit about trees. I stand by the window near the circulation desk and point at a giant tree, with papery bark, and leaves like fat daggers, looming outside. She just shrugs. There is a bird in the branches though, which she identifies as a worm eating warbler. I ask her how she knows about birds and she smiles and takes me to a whole section of books on birds. I say, “This is very noble of you, but I’ve got some time on my hands, not all the time in the world on my hands. Maybe I should use this time for something important.” “Like what?” “Like learning about trees.” She gives me such a quizzical look. She says, “I don’t see how trees can be any more important than birds.” “Of course you can’t see it, it’s invisible, it’s called oxygen.” She takes me to the section of the library that has the field guides of interest to arborists such as myself. I check out two field guides and begin my long slow walk, uphill, back to my apartment. This time the walk takes me two and a half hours because I stop at every tree and try to identify it, which isn’t the easiest task because a good portion of the trees have no leaves on them yet, or have small green sprouts which I cannot yet identify.

 

But, ah—

 

The tree outside my living room window is a Sycamore.

 

The tree with the white flowers is a cherry tree.

 

Where I grew up, when kids were selling marijuana they’d sometimes say, “You looking for trees?” The answer often given was, “Yes, I am in search of trees,” or, “No, I do not require any trees at this specific time.”

 

The tree Pablo Neruda wanted to fuck turns out to be a crab apple tree; he’s an idiot too.

 

When Rae comes home from work, I show her my discoveries. She is very interested to hear it all, but around the one hour mark, her mood turns. “Trees. Trees. Trees. And the Dutch, so cool! But, did you apply for unemployment at least?” “I did not.” She takes a deep breath and I wonder what her heart beat is. Judging by the vein popping out at her temple, I estimate it is far too high, and I begin to worry.

But then I notice how slow my heartbeat feels, how relaxed I feel. I have my pointer and middle finger on my pulse. I am a relaxed student of whatever. My heart beat feels like a miracle.

I break the silence by saying, “The human heart is definitely more important than birds and I know nothing of it.” She looks hurt. “Your heart?” she says. And I clarify, “Not that I don’t know about love. I do know about love.  For instance, I love you, and I love not having to go to work anymore. Love may be the only thing there is to know where there is nothing to learn, you just know it. Well, that and breathing air. And now I know where our air is coming from around here…” I turn around on the couch and look out the window at the Sycamore. Rae says, “Plankton.” “Plankton?” “That’s where our air comes from. They taught us that in elementary school. Most of our air, anyway.” “Yes, plankton, you’re right. This tree here is insignificant after all.” “I didn’t say that.” I turn around on the couch, “What I was saying about the human heart…I don’t know the parts of any of it. I can’t name the chambers of it, or the main arteries, or the anything of it.” “Yeah, who can? Heart surgeons?” “I bet they start out learning and after the test they forget just like anybody ever does with a test.” “Maybe you can learn the names of the parts of the heart and become a heart surgeon. That’d be a good career move.” “Once I get down trees, I’ll move onto the heart. Once I master the heart, I’ll become a bird expert.” She grabs my shoulder, shakes me playfully, “Knowing the names of birds is the least profitable knowledge there is to possess. What kind of resume can you put that on? Pointing up at the sky, there goes a goose, and there goes a pigeon, oh wait, oh my god it’s a… it’s a momentarily air borne chicken.” I say, “Poets. Poets are the only ones who have to know the names of birds, and when they put any of the birds in the poems that aren’t like the basic bitch birds, that everybody knows, then people are just reading the poem and sweating because they have no clue between a finch and a sparrow and a worm eating warbler.” “Worm eating? They all eat worms. Show me a bird that would refuse a worm and I’ll show you a bird that’s not a bird.”

 

The next day, after lunchtime, I do the dishes, and take out the garbage. Then I walk over to the tree stump on Varick Street. After an hour or so of counting rings and looking for stray leaves on the ground that may have fallen from the tree as it was cut, the child sees me from the window and walks outside. “It’s a maple tree, you little dumbass.” The child turns and goes right back inside. “211 years old,” I shout. I see the child watching from the window, and then I see his mother with him too. I continue on my walk, heading farther east to Van Vorst Park, where I get a hot dog from a cart and wonder what there is to know about the history of the hot dog. I saw a movie where a wheelchair bound FDR gave the stuttering King of England a hot dog at a picnic in Hyde Park.

Everybody is wounded, in life, and we can all, all of us, look in any direction and find something to look at which we know next to nothing about, and learning about this thing will not save our lives, but what else is there to do but wonder? These are the kinds of things you have time to think about when you don’t have a job anymore and the bills are coming, but there’s still time for you to win the lottery or something, because, after all, you are an American and all Americans are just a short walk away from some place which will sell them a winning lottery ticket.

The stuttering King eats the hot dog in 1939, about a hundred and fifty years after the Revolutionary War made it so America owns all this, all of which I can see, and can care to try and name. A hundred years before that, the English Navy overtook the Dutch Navy, and the place all got a new name. A hundred years before that the Lenni-Lenape were having their own fun, in the peace and quiet of whatever they chose to name the days.

I walk through the shady Van Vorst, and say hello to the maple trees, and the sycamores, and the oak trees, and even a tulip tree, already in bloom.

Where I lived in NYC, there was a plaque on a boulder, identifying the spot where a giant tulip tree once stood. That spot was where the Dutch traded with the Natives for the island. And speaking of problems from the past, I head south on Jersey Avenue and complete the walk at Liberty Park. There is a science center there, with a planetarium I have never been to. The largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. You can go inside and see the whole universe and they’ll explain it all to you in words a child can understand. I stand there in the grass and look at the outside of the planetarium for a while. On a day like this, it feels better to not know everything about the universe.

 

Another fact from the documentary: the Dutch settlers slaughtered 80 Natives here, right where the science center now stands, where inside, the mysteries of the universe can be explained even to a child.

 

As pleasant a land as one need tread upon, Henry Hudson said.

 

You can get to the ferry pretty easy over here. It’ll take you to Ellis Island, where most everybody came through, and where some of them were given different names, and so on. Where the past was erased and the future was stamped on their foreheads. Some of the immigrants even decided to stay in Jersey City, settling for the rat infested wetlands of Paulus Hook. Others kept going, went to New York, or went west, or north, or south, or anywhere. You couldn’t go very much farther east, unless you wanted to go back to Amsterdam, or London, or Dublin, or Egypt, or wherever it was you’d sailed from. And here, I look at it, the Statue of Liberty. Always a nice sight. Thanks France. I’ve never visited the statue. I’ve never walked up her skirt, and never climbed up into her crown and looked out across the skyline east and east and east. I saw a movie though, where a million dollars was hidden in her ear or in her nose, I forget which. I know one thing, I could use a million dollars right about now.

 

I think—Maybe I’ll go into the science center and see if they need anybody who is an expert on trees, available for immediate hire, or starting next week, an expert on the components of the human heart.

Me, I walk back home instead, sit down at the computer, file for unemployment on the state’s website. When Rae comes home from work, I tell her I have in fact gotten a job. She is so happy. I tell her I am going to be a gravedigger at Holy Name Cemetery, where the guy who built the building we live in is buried. She knows I am joking but plays along, “Did you impress them with your knowledge of trees? Did you name every single one in the cemetery while everybody clapped and whistled?” “I did, I did, I did,” I say, “I did I did I did.”

 

 

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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