New York City doesn’t usually have tornadoes or hurricanes, although we are in the path of such storms. The city heat produces a high pressure bubble that usually pushes storms away. Well most of the time. A freak storm toppled 500 trees in Central Park last August and a tornado dipped into a coastal neighborhood in Brooklyn in April. Last Thursday we had two small tornadoes which cut through Brooklyn and Queens in a period of about 20 minutes, with winds up to 80 miles an hour and “microbursts” of 125 mph. One person was killed and a few others injured. When it finished 3000 dead street trees lay in its wake, with the branches of untold others ripped from their trunks.
New York City has, or had until Thursday, about 5 million trees including 650,000 street trees. When I came here as a teen, raised on West Coast horror stories of the city, I was stunned at how green New York City was, especially compared to San Francisco which was relatively bereft of trees at the time. There are oaks of various kinds, London plane trees, maples, beeches, mulberry trees, Callery pears, lindens, ginkgos, blight-resistant elms, birches, liquidambars, osage oranges, sycamores, horse chestnuts, sumacs, catalpas, alianthus trees, magnolias, weeping cherries, various pines and hundreds of other species. My neighborhood has trees that range from a seedlings to 150 years old with much older trees in Prospect Park’s secondary forest where at least 100 trees were killed. But the average life of a street tree is only seven years, making the grandfather trees true treasures.
Their life is difficult: trucks break off branches, cars drive into their sides, sidewalks strangle their roots, soil is compressed, pavement restricts water, dogs leave acidic urine at their bases, vandals may damage them and pollution, hot weather and early snowstorms which break their branches, stress them. The ginkgo in front of my home has been struck by lightening, survived numerous other assaults and lost another chunk of branches this week, but stubbornly perseveres, far from its ideal pyramidal shape.
Through it all the trees clean the air, cool us from the sun, and provide visual relief from the geometry of the built environment. Our city’s trees store about 1.35 million tons of carbon which holds back greenhouse gasses and remove over 42,000 tons of carbon each year. One tree can remove 26 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, the equivalent of 11,000 miles of car emissions. The NYC trees intercept 890.6 million gallons of stormwater annually, averaging 1,525 gallons per tree. They lower air conditioning and heating costs, reduce asthma and feed wildlife. The trees provide physical and psychic comfort.
The tree damage Thursday was unexpected. My husband entered the subway in Manhattan in sunshine, emerging a half hour later at Grand Army Plaza where broken oak trees littered the streets from a storm that was long gone. During the storm I worked in my office facing a lightwell between brick buildings. I noted the sound of hail on the air conditioner and an unusually strong rain, with gusts of wind that unusually brought moisture through my window screens. When I went to leave an hour later, the sun was shining again. But the sidewalk was full of branches. I had to walk on the street along Eighth Avenue because a tree covered the sidewalk. When I turned the corner onto First Street the sidewalk was blocked by half of a 150 year old sycamore which had split down the middle. Further down the block, the street was blocked by London plane tree branches sticking 20 feet up. Neighbors circled in disbelief, snapping photos of the trees with their cell phones.
I had a special relationship to some of the trees. In the mid 1990s I designed a garden for the Old First Church, two blocks away. We brought in soil that was once under Dodger’s Stadium, planted a lawn and stretched our pennies to purchase whips of bush cherries and an apple tree for espaliering against a five story brick building. Over the years the apple tree, never actually espaliered, reached 30 feet and the bush cherries reached 15 feet, hanging over the slide where children would pick them. In minutes the apple tree was ripped from the earth, uprooting the cherries on the way down, burying the gym set in branches and trunks. A friend’s daughter was so upset by the loss of her favorite tree that she took a piece of cherry trunk home to sleep with, testament to the value that trees can have to children.
A number of beloved trees came down throughout the two boroughs. In Middle Village Queens, a 180 year old oak was stripped of its symmetrical branches in the All Faiths Cemetery, leaving a stripped 12 foot piece of the 90 foot tall trunk. An immense 110 year old scarlet oak in the Pullis Farm Cemetery, an early American farm family burial ground in Queens also came down. At the entrance to Prospect Park, I crawled through an immense grandfather tree that had guarded the trail, while another nearby stood untouched. A neighbor lost the top 12 feet of a juniper, filling her back yard. The Botanic Garden was relatively untouched except for a few trees along the ridge where the ginkgo path runs, probably a testament to good preventative care. But a Callery pear near Greenwood Cemetery, a favorite of the feral gray parrot flock, split in half. Most of the trees in the Forest Hills’ MacDonald Park were damaged.
So we mourn the loss of old friends, or at least the greener landscape. We hope the trunks will sprout new branches or that shoots will emerge from the ground. We cut up downed limbs, for firewood, mulch or even tree medicine. In a time of fiscal scarcity, it may be difficult to replant trees lost to the storm. The trees with large leaves like maples or plane trees or weak wood like the Callery pears are looking less desirable. But already we are envisioning new layouts, cultivating old roots, searching through garden catalogs and looking for trees that can stand our conditions while delighting our souls.