Champions Weep, Become Hopeful

New York Times

September 6, 2010, 11:00 am

For E. B. White’s Willow Tree, Chapter Ends


old willow treeEd Ou/The New York Times Nico Burnstein, 3, on a tree stump placed in his backyard that came from the old willow tree that E. B. White wrote about in his 1949 book “Here Is New York.”

In the 1940s, when E. B. White, the author and columnist for The New Yorker, looked out of his back windows onto the private Turtle Bay Gardens along East 48th Street in Manhattan, an old but picturesque willow tree commanded his view.

He draped the tree in metaphor and imbued it with immortality by writing about it in the concluding lines of his 1949 book, “Here Is New York.” A believer in world government, he wrote this passage soon after airplanes dropped atomic bombs onto Japan and just as the United Nations complex was rising at the end of his street along the East River:

It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: ‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.’ If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.

Almost 30 years later, an editorial in The New York Times took up the parable and gave it new life at a moment — the 1970s — when the city was feeling financially wretched and otherwise miserable. “As the tree endures,” the editorial concluded, “so can the city — painstakingly pruned to weather its fiscal storms, but confident still …”

But now, the tree is gone. In 2009, the thoroughly bald and rotted tree was chopped down to save it the indignity of cracking and collapsing on its own. There was a small ceremony at the time, and this summer, the enclave’s garden committee had the remains of its trunk dug out and removed as well; now the sun shines down on the garden’s nearby fountain a bit more brightly.

So what of the city?

If its symbol of hope and growth against all odds has died, sacrificed to the ravages of time and disease, does that mean New York’s demise — a fate often forecast and one that not all would regret — is at hand?

“Ohhh, noooooo. I hope this doesn’t portend ill for the city,” said Steve Dougherty, a freelance writer whose grandmother lived near the gardens on 48th Street and who himself lives near ground zero. “I hope it doesn’t mean what it symbolically is supposed to mean.”

Peggy McEvoy, a retired United Nations program director whose grandchildren represent her family’s fourth generation to live in Turtle Bay Gardens, holds onto that hope as well.

“I certainly felt very superstitious about cutting it down,” said Mrs. McEvoy, who has been on the garden committee for many years. “Several of us were very, very upset about having to do it. We only acquiesced under great pressure by some of the members when it cracked and we knew that it was dangerous.

“But certainly there was a feeling of mourning among the older members of the gardens who understood what was going on,” she said.

“I’m not going to speculate on what it might mean in light of all that’s been written about it,” said Pamela Hanlon, author of “Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood,” published in 2008.

Bill Logan, whose Brooklyn company Urban Arborists has maintained the gardens for the past six years, had the ignominy of recommending and then overseeing the slaughter of the E. B. White willow.

“I would much prefer to have kept it,” Mr. Logan said. “We tried everything, really. We had already cabled it three different ways, but it got worse and worse.”

A buckling at the base of the trunk and a break in a large branch below the spot where the ropes had secured it convinced Mr. Logan that he should prescribe the arboricide.

When his workers sliced through the tree trunk and showed that it was hollow, a thin circle of wood surrounding a cushion of air, Mr. Logan felt some small relief. It was clear that a fungus had eaten away for years at the willow, a species of tree not known for being able to fight off disease.

“White’s writing about it was so lyrical, and so prescient,” said Mr. Dougherty, who wrote about the tree in The New York Times in 2002. “I reread the book after Sept. 11 and went to see if it was still there because he cast it as a symbol of hope for the city. I assumed it was long gone and was surprised to find it.”

Once he established that it still lived after the Twin Towers fell, he became emboldened by the sign. “I thought it would outlive me,” Mr. Dougherty said. “There were no leaves, no sprouts on it at all. It looked almost like a piece of driftwood. It was beautiful, though. It had this really graceful shape to it and seemed to be lifting up toward the sky.”

Now Mr. Dougherty looked for the silver lining in the death of the tree: “It served its purpose — it gave hope at the times when it was needed, first for White and then later for everyone else after Sept. 11.”

Mr. Logan kept a couple of tree cuttings, a foot or so long. He planted them behind his business in Red Hook, Brooklyn, about as far spiritually, perhaps, as one could get from Manhattan’s East Side and still be in the five boroughs. If the cuttings lived, he said, they’d probably be two or three feet high by now. The idea at the time was, perhaps, to replant them back in the East 48th Street garden.

“Let me just walk downstairs and make sure I’ve got a couple propagated. Let me check,” he said recently when, during a telephone interview, he was reminded of the cuttings. “I’m going to have to go all the way to the back. It’s been hidden back here in a corner of our yard all this time. It’s hard to get back there.

“Oh, for God’s sake. Ha-ha-ha! Is this it?!” he said on his cellphone as he walked into his yard, with rising delight in his voice. “Yah! We’ve got quite a considerable cutting here. It’s doing fine! It’s now fully eight feet tall. It’s going gangbusters. We better decide what to do with it before it gets too big to move.”


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