roberta hershenson photo central park autumn

Central Park Autumn by Roberta Hershenson

I took a shadow selfie with a medium-sized street tree on a recent September morning. It was a nice tree at the corner of Park Avenue and East 37th Street whose shadow branches seemed to embrace me.  Six weeks later it was gone, replaced by a metal plate.

Street trees live short, brutal lives in New York. Dogs pee on them, lights are strung from them, cars back into them, and scaffolds are built around them, depriving them of light. Street trees are expendable, removed daily for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My selfie tree was felled for some kind of repair work, a doorman told me.

In contrast, the trees of Central Park live privileged lives. They are nurtured, protected, and adopted in fund-raising campaigns. Park trees soar to their natural heights without restriction; their branches grow unimpeded, they are glorious to behold. It is news when a park tree succumbs to wind or lightning; most endure season after season even as their leaves flame and die.

Trees have become caught up in the major issues of our time. A recent “citizen-scientist project” in New York found that fewer trees are planted in poorer neighborhoods, which leads sidewalks to become significantly hotter than those in wealthier areas. The protective canopies of trees, as well as their cooling breezes and absorption of carbon dioxide, are recognized as crucial assets to a healthy environment for all people.

I disagree with the macro view of trees, which goes like this: since millions and millions of trees exist in the world, why lament the loss of one ordinary street tree? My micro answer is that each tree is an individual. Whether symmetrical or misshapen by wind and pruning, each in its own way strives to survive, connecting through its roots with other trees, conserving and expending energy, fighting to resist insect blight. But no tree can win a fight with a chain saw.

Each year a super-tall evergreen that might have lived for years is sacrificed for a short afterlife as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. This year it’s an 85-year old Norway spruce weighing twelve tons and standing 79 feet. A more natural spectacle takes place in Central Park as leaves die in a synchronous color spree, scattering across the landscape. Soon bare branches will be etched across the city sky, crisscrossing in a wild calligraphy. I will miss the street tree on East 37th Street, but I’m glad it lives on in my selfie.