November 20, 2017

Brook Park Wetland, Bronx, NY

I visited Brook Park in February 2014 and spoke with Harry Bubbins, then director of the Friends of Brook Park about a proposal for a wet meadow in the park which sits on the historic Mill Brook. The project summary below is excerpted from the post, 5 Lessons from NYC Stormwater Projects for Rebuild by Design. A project update is provided at the end of the excerpt.

The Friends of Brook Park have undertaken a restoration plan for a wet meadow and rain water catchment system along a section of the historic Mill Brook. The planning for the restoration project began long before Hurricane Sandy but claims about the project’s ability to reduce upland flooding and reduce contributions to downstream CSOs align it not only with the city’s pre-storm sustainability and green infrastructure plans but also with the post-storm rebuilding and resiliency plan. The Brook Park project exemplifies the creative grassroots and capacity building of the Friends.

When former Mayor Giuliani proposed to sell the city’s community gardens, South Bronx community groups coalesced around open space preservation. The park was created when its founders transformed an underutilized lot with the support of school principals and the larger community to start an after-school program for with funding from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. The restoration plan was initiated when a neighbor showed the Friends group maps of the historic creek in 2005. The park received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service Living Memorials Project to plant trees. Currently, the restoration project is in the design and implementation phase and funding is provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the South Bronx Waterfront Partnership which is funded by Congressman José E. Serrano and managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Although navigating the city’s green infrastructure bureaucracy has been challenging, this step-wise process has meant that the park’s stewards have been, borrowing from Marcia McNally, "car[ing for] and feeding" their own grassroots. Grassroots does not imply lack of sophistication. The design for the stormwater capture wetland system is elegant.

Although the original brook flows under the site, it will not be daylighted in the traditional sense. An impermeable layer will separate the constructed wetland and the original creek flow. The wetland is conceived of as three separate ponds that will be fed by precipitation that falls on the site. The other source of water for the ponds will be rainwater harvested from the roofs of twenty-eight adjacent townhouses. Runoff from a different set of five townhouses will be used for gravity-fed irrigation. The estimated combined total rainfall from townhouse roofs and the park is 39, 281 gallons during a 1” rain event and 1, 571, 250 gallons annually.

Brook Park Passive Landscape Construction Schematic, source: NYC Parks Capital Project Tracker

The design phase of the project began in April 2014 and was completed in April 2017. The project is currently in the procurement phase and this phase is expected to be completed in January 2018. Construction should follow. The project is being funded by the Offices of Mayor, the Borough President, and the City Council. The budget is between $500,000 and $1 million.

October 10, 2017

Books about Witness Trees

A witness tree can be an ordinary mark on a surveyor's map or an observer of extraordinary events. Trees used to indicate the corners of parcels in land surveys conducted in the thirteen east coast colonies were classified as "witness trees." The historic moniker has been adopted by the National Park Service (NPS) to designate trees that are located at sites of significant events in U.S. history. NPS and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) created The Witness Tree Project. Students enrolled in the project's courses at RISD conduct historical analysis of fallen witness trees, their biophysical and cultural settings, and make place-based objects from the wood. Consider these additional definitions of witness tree: a narrative device to talk about culture, the botanical partner in an interspecies relationship with a human, and an indicator of a significant, contemporary phenomenon. Here are four books that express the breadth of the witness tree concept.

In Trees of New York City (2017), Benjamin Swett profiles "great trees" and "ordinary trees" in all five boroughs. It's more accurate to describe each entry as a historical narrative of that particular tree and that species place in American arboriculture. Swett's photographs are a fantastic complement to his writing. The English elm in Washington Square Park is one of my favorite trees and it is featured on pages 64-65.

There are many famous trees in New York City, and among that number is the fictional tree of heaven in Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1934). The tree, growing outside Francie Nolan's window, is both a witness to her life but also a symbol of how one can flourish despite poor conditions. Did you know that the tree of heaven's optimal biophysical environment includes moist and loamy soil? However, it will grow "lushly" as it did in Francie's tenement neighborhood in poorer soil conditions.

In Witness Tree, by environmental journalist Lynda V. Mapes, we encounter a single tree in a rural forest. Mapes essentially conducted a silvicultural ethnography of a red oak in the Harvard Forest. Combining her first-hand observations of the tree's phenology over four seasons and the research being conducted by scientists in the forest, Mapes makes the case for the ties that bind humans and non-humans and how our actions, especially as they relate to climate change, impact not only forests and wildlife, but people, too.

The fourth book is The Tree in the Courtyard (2016) by Jeff Gottesfeld. This is a picture book but it not fictional. Outside the room in the annex building where Anne Frank hid during World War II grew a horse chestnut. Gottesfeld gives the tree agency; she is the narrator. After the tree witnesses a kiss between Anne and boy, we read, "The tree made her blossoms extra bright that spring." Later on, when people attempt to save the tree, the tree recalls "how few had tried to save the girl." The tree died in 2010 after a lightning strike. Her seeds and saplings were collected and planted around the world. The illustrations by Peter McCarty are absolutely lovely and I especially like the depiction of tree keeping vigil as the seasons changed.

Book cover images via Google Books, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury, Penguin Random House.

September 5, 2017

Washington Square Park Loses Three Canopy Trees

Image: Inonotus dryadeus-infected pin oak in Washington Square Park

On a routine walk about in Washington Square Park on July 18, 2017, I observed fungal growth at the base of one of the red oaks, a pin oak specifically, in the large NW lawn of the park. I uploaded photos of the fungus to iNaturalist for identification. On July 21st, I tweeted photos of the fungus, Oak bracket (Inonotus dryadeus), and the infected pin oak from the WSP Eco Projects account and copied NYC Parks and NYC311. A formal report of the infected tree was made by WSP Eco Projects on July 24th via Twitter DM per request of NYC311. Also, on July 21st, the photos of the fungus, unidentified at the time, were published on the WSP Eco Projects Instagram feed. The WSP conservancy commented that they shared our sighting of the fungus with NYC Parks Manhattan Forestry (Forestry). On August 7th, the WSP conservancy announced by email that NYC Parks would begin a course of tree work in the park beginning August 8th. I don't know if the pin oak had been tagged for removal prior to my reporting the presence of the oak bracket.

Image: Plane tree being removed from Washington Square Park

The tree work was contracted to Emerald Tree & Shrub Care Company based in Scarsdale, NY. A double crew performed the tree work under supervision of master arborist Kevin Wyatt and crew leader and arborist Pedro Meza. Emerald Tree Care discovered problems with two additional trees during the course of their work. The large plane tree in the SW corner of the park was found to have rot and a crack in the crown. The third tree to be removed was the smaller of the two ashes in the "webs" playground was removed after buttress root damage and multiple cavities in the crown were detected. Emerald Tree Care communicated the status of the trees to NYC Parks and the agency made the final decision to remove the trees.

Image: Ash tree being removed in Washington Square Park

What were the size stats for the three canopy trees? According to the diameter records in the WSP Eco Map, the plane tree was 47 inches, the pin oak was 28 inches, and the ash was 25 inches. Washington Square Park lost at least 100 inches of diameter urban tree canopy in August. A total of 270 trees were on the original work order, of which three were removed.

As most of my readers now, I direct WSP Eco Projects. The Eco Map will be updated to reflect this loss in the canopy. While the park has approximately 35-40 species, several species have many individuals and there is less diversity at the genus level. I don't know when NYC Parks will replace the lost trees nor do I know what species the agency will choose. I hope at least one will be a tulip tree. The park only has two tulip trees and adding a third or more could point to the significance of the park and the tulip tree species in Lenape culture.

Washington Square Park Blog also covered the tree work here.

A final note, I watched the Emerald Tree Care crews prune and remove trees in the park over the course of a two period. They were professional in their approach to tree care and maintained a safe work environment.

August 9, 2017

Family Adventure - Mount Cardigan, Pond Study

Last month marked another tradition from my husband's family that I am likely to embrace. This one is not a hard sell except for the mosquitos but it was a warm, wet spring which might not be the case ever year, right? The tradition is: Mount Cardigan. My husband, his siblings, and his parents spent parts of many summers at the Appalachian Mountain Club Cardigan Lodge in New Hampshire. They would rent two platform tents, one for the parents and one for the children. The platform tents have been discontinued which is a good thing. I heard they were moldy and drippy when it rained. You can still pitch your own tent just beyond the lodge, though, or hike two miles up to the High Cabin. We stayed in the lodge proper in a private bunk room with shared bath for a few nights.

One of the activities we completed at the lodge a pond study with Katie, one of the naturalists on staff during our stay. Our family of four were the only participants which made for an intimate and meandering lesson. Katie was a natural with our children. She has a great rapport with children in general; we had listened to her presentation on beavers the previous night. Outdoors she really shone. My son strode into the pond immediately and with encouragement from Katie and her dad, my daughter waded in and eventually became so absorbed she was chest deep in the water.

Katie talked about ponds in general and the pond at Cardigan specifically in terms of the wildlife we could expect to find there. Given the time of year, we could see various frogs and the red-spotted newt. We also observed the blue dasher dragonfly and a few other insects we could not identify. I liked that Katie was honest about what she did not know but she also worked with us to figure out an answer or to get closer to one. We learned that the dragonfly spends much of its life as an aquatic animal. When we see a dragonfly, it's in the final phase of its life. My son was adept at netting aquatic adults of the red-spotted newt. We had seen a terrestrial-bound juvenile on one of our hikes. It took a group effort to net a bullfrog. It's a quick and intimidating amphibian. We were less lucky when it came to the green frog.

Our aquatic study was pleasantly interrupted by a skirmish between blue jays and much smaller birds which I could not see clearly enough to identify. We had seen blue jays and cedar waxwings the day before in the same area but the second set of birds were too small to be waxwings. I really should purchase a pair of travel-light binoculars. We wrapped up the pond study exploring the transition area between the pond and the nature trail.

If Mt. Cardigan is accessible to you, I recommend a visit. I hope to write about the two hikes we did during our stay. We did not hike to the summit but the there's much to see at lower elevations. If you have children under five and would like a guided experience, AMC offers a Wee Wanderers program.

July 14, 2017

Summer Reading List 2017 - Trees

There's a particular friend who always introduces me as holding a PhD in trees which is incorrect but it's accurate to say that I am passionate about trees and nature especially in and of cities. Since folks in this particular circle consider me a tree doctor and know that I also love books, I'm often asked for tree book recommendations. Here are my current five favorite tree books listed in no particular order.

1. URBAN FOREST by Jill Jonnes

2. THE NATURE FIX by Florence Williams

Read my reviews of Urban Forests and The Nature Fix on this blog.

3. TREE: A LIFE STORY by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady

In a nutshell or in a cone since the tree is a Doug-fir, this book read likes a poetic biography of one BC based Douglas-fir. It's possible that I will review the book here.

4. THE SONGS OF TREES by David George Haskell

I've only read the second half of this book. I was drawn to the trees with a more urban connection: the cottonwood in Denver, the Callery pear in Manhattan, the olive tree in Jerusalem, and the Japanese white pine in Washington, DC though its story began on Miyajima Island, Japan. The writing is phenomenal so I don't doubt I will read the first two chapters. Another reason I enjoyed the portion of the book I read, and it's clear that this thread is woven throughout the entire book, is Haskell's exploration of relationships between people and non-human animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi as well as the relationships among these non-human beings. He writes,
Bonsai does not escape life's network. Instead, like olive groves, bonsai trees bring to the surface what is harder to discern elsewhere: that human lives and tree lives are. made, always, from relationship. For many trees it is nonhuman species--bacteria, fungi, insects, birds--that are the primary constituents of the network. Olive and bonsai trees bring humans to the center, giving us direct experience of the importance of sustained connection.

Not a traditional summer read, Dr. Leslie Day's field guide to NYC street trees is a must have for New Yorkers. I think most city folks in the U.S., at least, would find this a useful book to own as many of the species discussed in the book populate many North American cities. I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Day several times and attended her nature walks in Washington Square Park. She is a lovely person and very knowledgeable not only about trees but about birds and bees, too.

June 17, 2017

Walk and Draw Tour of Greenwich Village

Despite my best intentions, I did not participate in Tidewater Gardener's Winter Walk-Off 2017, an annual call to photojournal what's within walking distance of home. Fortunately for me, I was given a redeeming opportunity by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in the form of its Draw and Walk event with artist Nick Golebiewski. If you don't already follow Nick on Instagram (and Twitter), check out his Nick's Lunchbox Service daily drawing series on Instagram.

We convened under the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park. Each participant was given a sketchbook and pen courtesy of Jerry's Palette Shop on 4th Avenue. This was a very nice touch, I thought. Nick spoke briefly about his background, outlined the program which included drawing at four locations in the neighborhood (the Arch, the Washington Square North townhouses, Jefferson Market Library, and Patchin Place), and offered drawing tips. I made several sketches of the Arch but only took a photograph of one drawing which is shown above. We spent a long time at the arch so skipped the townhouses.

I had not fully read the tour description I received by email so did not know that the library stop included climbing the clocktower. The tower's historic function was a fire lookout. Learn more about the library. When we arrived at the library and were led to the clocktower door, I might have squealed. Touring the clocktower felt like I had won a golden ticket. The tight, spiral staircase could be a challenge for those with weak knees and those who suffer from claustrophobia (ahem). There is a break in the tower where a landing marks the transition from stone steps to metal ones. At the end of the metal steps is an attic area where the Halloween spider(s) and an octopus are stored. Beyond the door is the balcony and a 360 degree view of Manhattan.

I made many sketches at the library balcony, of the grillwork, the lower roof line, the skyline, and of Patchin Place which was our next and final stop on the tour. When we first moved to Manhattan I explored some of the mews and alleys in the Village and in Lower Manhattan but I did not know until this GVSHP tour that Patchin Place is a public street. It was one I had walked by many times but never attempted to walk through the gate. It's a lovely reminder of old Greenwich Village, and it's shaded nicely by Ailanthus altissima. Looking down on this street from the library balcony reminded me of the book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!

P.S. For more photographs of this tour, visit the GVSHP Walk and Draw album on Flickr.

June 7, 2017

20 Minute Nature Tour of Washington Square Park

For the second time in two years, Washington Square Park (WSP) Eco Projects participated in the World Science Festival. This year the collaborative offered a Guided Nature Bingo through the park - a 5-stop tour in 20 minutes. The tour was offered three times (the fourth time slot was cancelled due to rain) on June 4th, Ultimate Science Sunday. We did not use the bingo card (and it is not included in this post). The participants were mostly adults and the only child opted of playing the game. One participant said, "I learned so much in 20 minutes!" You can use the map and notes below for a self guided experience.

If you'd like WSP Eco Projects to host a free Guided Nature Bingo tour, or if you'd like this 20 Minute Nature Tour document as a PDF, send an email to