We were looking for the old oak trees, the ones rumored to be down by the shoreline. The day was already sweat-lodge hot, at 8 a.m., the seagulls circling lazily in the morning light. We stood in the parking lot, plotting our route; the sweat boiled up under our long sleeved shirts and long pants—protection against the legions of mosquitoes that claimed this territory. If we found the oaks, however, we’d arrive at a point just before the American Revolutionary War.
Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx, New York City’s largest park, is a forested peninsula in the Long Island Sound. I was there with Neil Pederson, Ph.D. candidate in Forest Ecology and Climate at Columbia University. He had been told that some post oaks trees that were born perhaps 20 years before the War of Independence lived in these woods. Saplings when nascent America was starting to ripple, the land still home to cougars, wolves, and Lenape Indians. More than 200 years later, slope-shouldered with backpacks, binoculars, cellular phones, and cameras, Neil and I were in search of these hoary trees.
Neil had a general sense of where they might lay, out by the water, on the eastern rim of Hunter Island, but he wanted to consult with me anyway. I am deputy director of forestry and horticulture for the New York City Parks Department, and I know the park well. I looked at his small map, and then pointed at the shoreline trail in concurrence, and off we set.
We circumnavigated the vast city-manufactured Orchard Beach, 1.5 million cubic yards of glimmering sand, where sunbathers lay about in the early day. Past a few folks cooking hot dogs already in this a.m., and past the basketball courts, littered with last night’s beer cans. Past the Ranger station, empty this time of day, and onto the Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff trail, Hunter Island, the salt marsh grasses making the landscape yellow, the sky open and blue.
Then the colors turned green and dark. Into the forest we went, where the moisture lingered and puddled in the sweating leaves and humid soil, little hot patches of water in the cracks of the rocks, the vegetation thick and overlapping. The forest of Pelham Bay Park was lush enough and wild enough to be home to these trees that had survived here on the city’s outpost for so long. To find them would be like finding pottery of a lost civilization.
Neil wiped away a mosquito that had just alighted onto his face. We thought we were prepared, covered from head to toe with dense fabrics. How bad could the mosquitoes out here in the Bronx really be? But we were spared nothing, and soon overcome by a swarming mass of angry insects. They came at us with frenzy, a quivering cloud of irritable bugs descending on us, and they exploited our weak points easily—our necks and faces; the two of us were quickly reduced to desperate scratching, like dogs with tics. In the heart of the city the universal web of insects got thin, but not here in Pelham Bay Park.
Half a mile ahead, and through this throng of devils, lay the post oaks.
* * * Neil was willing to brave this urban forest (he spent most of his field time in forests considerably less cosmopolitan) because he was determined to collect wood samples for his dissertation. To come to the city to gather tree data was a bit of a leap of faith, and I imagined, although he never mentioned it, that he was somewhat skeptical about these post oaks.
His partial thesis is that Quercus stellata (post oaks) are prevented from migrating to northern points beyond the Hudson Valley because of their sensitivity to discrete temperature changes—past this line and they don’t survive. Hemlock trees, Neil said, were limited by the temperatures in the month of March. In other words, if March was within a certain temperature range the Hemlock produced substantial seed, root, leaf, and wood. Outside this range and the Hemlock struggled. Neil was looking at this phenomenon in many species throughout the northeast, but today he was focussed on post oaks.
I was very excited to be with Neil. Pelham Bay Park was a significant place for me, where I had discovered the everyday wild—all its intimacies of growth and death—a Manhattan native whose only childhood exposure to the forest was tv and summer camps. The reality of these elderly trees here in the Bronx would mean that a portion of old New York was still alive, a small wedge of habitat where ancient things had persisted. This fact was no less exciting to Neil too.
To get to where we were going we had to whack through mugwort, jewelweed, bayberry, and dogwood, vines, brambles, and exposed roots. We initially took the wrong route (despite my knowledge of the park), upwards and towards the center of the forest, past stately spruces and red oaks, yet through chewed up municipal forest, motorcycle ruts in the dirt and broken glass on the trail. The mosquitoes were so harsh that Neil and I felt nearly broken in spirit, as if we were victims of a plaque—there was simply no end in site. We felt doomed. We switched back through a meadow that was surrounded on its sides by white pines. There used to be a great-horned owl nest in these pines, and I looked up briefly, but saw nothing. This was not post oak territory; they could not compete for space with the hardy white pines, red oaks, and tulip poplars.
We re-directed towards the water, down to the shore, where the trees got smaller and less elegant, and Neil then walked out past a collection of trash (laundry detergent cartons and Coke cans) and onto the barnacle-scarred rocks. He squinted in the blinding sun, put his hand over his eyes, and surveyed the trees. Neil looks like one of the early Beatles, with straight dark hair, a bit of a bowl cut, deep set black eyes, a sharp nose—and their manner too, excited and smart. He looked, at this moment, almost insane, his face disfigured and swollen with pimples and bites, his pants hanging loosely on his hips, his flannel shirt buttoned up to the neck. He turned his head from side to side, and then said, “There,” and pointed. “It’s just the type of tattered tree I am looking for.” Its crown was flat and thin, sickly, and its lower branches were twisted and split, the darkening and debilitating age marks of time.
He headed back into the forest. Between the tree and him, however, lay a glade of poison ivy, fluttering groundcover with wicked intentions. I never get the stuff, but was scared of it anyway. Neil said he was quite sensitive to the poison, but then waded in, and I could almost visualize the moist adhesive toxin saturating his pants. When he got to the tree he looked it up and down, put his hand on the bark, put his ear briefly to the trunk. He turned back to me and smiled, as if to say, “good find.” He then took out his tree corer, felt for a point, and inserted it into its trunk and began to twist, the drill churning through the center of the tree, flakes of sawdust falling to the ground.
Bleached and whacked by salty winds for centuries, this post oak had the typical low branching of a worn down tree; it was bottom-heavy, hunched over, and tired. It had lived its life here on the forest edge, on one side competing for branch space with other trees and on the other side enduring ocean storms. There were scars of fire burns, and cankers, and chipped away bark. This tree stood in contrast to some of the giant white oaks and tulip poplars that were of similar ages. These giants resided in the inner forest away from the direct winds and in soils that were richer than the xeric soils that the Pelham Bay post oaks had evolved in, dry sandy thin and stingy earth that loses its water quickly. They were unglamorous survivors, a rich existence of scars and bruises; and therefore, in this wood was Neil’s best data—of a full complex tree life—a silent diary of good years and stressful years, in which climate might be the cause.
“This is a good find!” Neil said. “Perhaps there’s a bunch more. I hope so. For guys in my field the stressed trees tell the better story. Limited wood growth reveals limits to growth potential. Why? What’s the reason? Where’s that invisible ecosystem effect or condition that keeps this tree, or species, from reaching its potential. Maybe its climate!”
A hot wind came by and blew the mosquitoes temporarily away.
“These post oaks are at the extreme end of their range. In the Bronx, no less.”
The bugs came back on a rebound wind and landed across my face like a fan of needles.
“Come on over,” Neil said.
I looked out at the poison ivy that stretched in front of me and felt a little sick. Some of the thrill of this adventure suddenly left my system; it didn’t seem worth it, the risk of these plant-induced rashes mixed with the mosquito bites. I was less tolerant than Neil of nature’s provocations, which is why, perhaps, I was a forester in the city and not in the wild. However, it was clear that Pelham Bay Park was the wild, so I lurched my foot into the sticky poison-ivy fen, a day out of the office and away from computers and meetings, feeling a bit feral.
When I made it to him, Neil plucked off a post oak leaf, held it up, and asked if I was familiar with it. I loved oaks, bold trees, their leaves sinewy and lobed, unfazed by handicapped soils and reduced metropolitan space. In fact, they were America’s most numerous genus, with 58 species nation wide.
“No,” I said, “I’m embarrassed that I don’t know how to identify post oaks.”
“Then take a look.”
The leaf was shaped like a cross, thick sections and yellow seams, with a globular line running down the middle cutting it in half.
“These leafs,” Neil said, and then choked up a mosquito that had flown into his mouth. “These leaves are beautiful.”
* * *
He turned from me to core again, and I quickly got out from the pool of poison ivy and stepped out on the rocks, the sun beating down on my cowboy hat. I looked out over the Sound. It was dotted and blurred with boats and broken up by small islands, framed by New Rochelle and Great Neck. For an instant I thought of diving in the water to save myself from a death of itching. Down below in the crevices of the rocks I could make out a lone man sunbathing, red trunks pulled up high around his thighs.
When Neil was done he signaled to me, and then started out into the forest, which made me back track through the poison ivy to keep up with him. He said, “let’s see what else is here.” We walked back out to the trail. A couple walked by smacking mosquitoes off their faces. They looked miserable. Neil and I smiled at each other, miserable too, but determined to find out how many of these post oaks had endured the times. He found a specimen that he didn’t like. Our sweet sweaty scents brought the mosquitoes to us like vultures to vermin. It was awful. We put on tea tree oil, to repel the bugs. We walked around, heads titled up just a bit to look at the leaves. I thought that maybe only that one lone individual had lasted the times. Soon enough, though, walking round the bend in the island, out where the shoreline slimmed down to a pencil line, Neil noticed a bunch of “standout” representatives. It was as if he had just hit the center of town, previously hidden by bluffs. They were collected by the water, off the trail a bit, a diminished but leftover community of post oaks.
Neil went coring crazy, going from tree to tree, pushing the borer into the center of the wood, using his upper chest and legs to get the thing in, like a kind of nasty oral surgery, the mosquitoes an angry veil around his head. Neil has collected tree core specimens from over 500 individuals and has measured, in the field and in the laboratory, 250,000 tree rings. He had said earlier, “If tree rings were miles I’d be on the moon.” Then Neil shouted, “a beaut!” He headed towards it. “Classic scraggly, old looking tree.”
I stepped away from him and thought about these trees that it was like finding a missing link. Like I had stepped into the Hunter Island of the 1700s, a time where I would have had to be cautious for bears and wolves, and where I would have needed to be prudent in my steps, an angry Lenape Indian around the bend. It was a time when I would have been dependent on my body and hands in a way unimaginable in my life now; my body rarely tested, but by overeating and a head cold, my hands deft at computer keys and Nextel clickers. It was dizzying, and almost impossible, to think of life back before the Revolutionary War, and how different it was now, all the luscious hardwiring in place. It was life more like a tree, less language, chiefly body, sensitive to very delicate shifts in the air, plodding.
When he was done with this cluster trees, we made our way out to a small grassy island that was separated from Hunter Island by about 100 yards of marsh. We walked gingerly along some skinny planks stuck in the mud. The air was filled with black particles of thick sandy dust. There was that crackling stillness of intense heat, the cicadas hissing, and a hot wind. We walked out to the eastern edge of the island, overlooking the Sound, the rip-rap sharp and greasy with seaweed. Neil and I had been using tea tree oil to ward off the mosquitoes, but it didn’t seem to be working. We put more on anyway. The sun was gorgeous spread out over Pelham Bay.
We then walked to the center of the island, where Neil found a few more trees he wanted to core. As he was hunkered down over his borer I asked what he could hope to find in the trees rings.
“They are the elemental material,” he said.
In the laboratory, using a microscope, the rings revealed telling autobiographical signs, not just of that individual, but of the area too. The width of the ring indicated how well a tree grew in a particular year, which if thick meant that conditions were good—good sun and moisture, moderate temperatures, easily accessed nutrients in the soil, low competition from other species for space and food. The rings could also reveal drought years, severe frosts, bad fires, cold summers, and intense winters. Insect attacks could cause light colored late-wood rings. Everything left its mark.
“A sudden increase in tree growth, a doubling of the ring widths over a 2-3 period, can tell us that a neighboring tree fell over or died and reduced the competition of the surviving tree. We can even guess at logging when a stand shows a sudden increase in tree width—their neighbors have been felled.”
The yield could be great for Neil, the wood samples revealing “forensic” evidence that these trees suffered from weather extremes, and were stopped in their movements north; the evidence he needed for his Ph.D. to be a success. It was his code to break, and this was what had brought him to the Bronx today.
And the Pelham Bay post oak story turned out in part to be this:
The oldest trees date to the 1770s. Neil said, “These trees were saplings during the Revolutionary War. The second age group is 200-220 years old, sprouting up just after the war.”
The youngest trees he gathered data on dated back to the mid-19th century. Neil speculated that it was during the time of the “gentleman farmer,” when the working farms were being abandoned for the city and other pursuits. When this happens, the land suddenly un-tilled and un-controlled, the forest grows back, starts to sprout out among the discarded crops, like people living in underground returning to their homes.
The post oak chronology, Neil said, indicated elevated growth between 1790-1815, 1880-1910 and 1970 to the present. These were moments when conditions were good. For these oaks, however, it was a life chiefly of salty winds (sometimes severe), deficient soils, and rivalry for space from robust competitors. Nonetheless, this oak community has grown steadily in population, in size, and in age since the 1770s.
In two centuries, thereabouts, the area of Pelham Bay Park had traveled from a primitive age to the modern one; the city rose up out of the swamps and forests, on its own evolutionary track. Some of what was left of that time were these post oak trees, such an unlikely but marvelous find in New York City, and now Neil had collected and catalogued their story.
* * *
A jet skier whizzed by, and Neil and I walked back to mainland.
He turned to me and said, “I’ve done a bit of fieldwork over the past few years, but this is the most physically draining ever. There are mosquitoes in northern Siberia, but when I was there I was prepared with a head net. I would have used a head net today if I had one. Siberian mosquitoes act punch drunk and are generally slow moving, but endless and swarming. Mosquitoes in the swamps of South Carolina are fast, aggressive, stealthy in their biting technique and dang persistent. These mosquitoes here in the Bronx are a combination of Siberia and South Carolina.”
I laughed out loud, the entire morning’s accumulation of suffering come to a head.
I then said to Neil, “I can’t stand this anymore. I’m going back to the office, and air conditioning.”
He continued on alone.