I have always felt an affinity for nature, a deep atavistic sense of kinship or belonging when walking in the woods, climbing a mountain, or strolling along a deserted beach. Strange, I suppose, for a kid from the Bronx, but there you have it, a connection where least you’d expect it.
We didn’t have many trees in our neighborhood when I was growing up. In fact, we had none at all in the unadorned urban stonescape of our block. The closest trees were marooned in the middle of Fordham Road in a small crescent island of soil surrounded by lanes of bustling traffic. Banana Park, we called it. There were many more trees, of course—in Poe Park, three blocks north; St. James Park, four blocks west; Moshulu Parkway, about ten blocks north; and the Botanical Gardens, a good ten blocks east, though we were mindful in such places of being beyond the pale of our Tiebout Avenue neighborhood.
But trees themselves were nondescript in our world. While Eskimos are said to have some twenty words for “snow,” given their exposure to the various kinds of precipitation in their arctic experience, our lexicon of trees was strikingly impoverished. Those of us growing up devoid of much direct contact with nature were largely unaware of the rich diversity of tree species. With two delightful exceptions, to us a tree was merely a tree.
We knew, of course, that a Christmas tree was an evergreen, but of pine or fir or spruce we knew nothing—all that mattered was to nudge our noses among the branches for a fragrant whiff of the season. When the holiday was over, we’d watch the annual ritual of the burning of the green as the older crowd gathered the trees discarded curbside in the neighborhood, and set them alight in the gutter. The dried-out bristles and branches would flare and snap, illuminating the night, and the sap would pop in the hard January air of the city.
The only other trees we could identify were chestnut trees, though without their shiny brown pearls encased in itchy balls and dangling like sneakers from the telephone wires, we’d not recognize them from any other tree. Of the furrowed bark, or the serrated leaf, or the symmetry of the chestnut tree, we knew nothing. But we knew where to find them on the campus of Fordham University four blocks away. Every autumn, as the seasons turned, the kids in the neighborhood somehow instinctively knew it was time to gather the chestnuts. In a rite handed down from one generation to the next, with boasts and dares and dreams of neighborhood glory, we’d open the itchy burrs and lift out the shiny chestnuts, rubbing their gleaming hardness between our fingers and our thumbs. To harden them even more, we’d soak the nuts in white vinegar in a mayonnaise jar and go to sleep that night with visions of grandeur in our heads. Some days later, we’d remove the soaking chestnuts and drive a nail through their cores. Then we’d slip a shoelace through the hole, tie a knot on the end, and head for the streets looking for conquest.
The object of “chestnut fights,” as we called them, was not to beat each other with them, though that inadvertently happened when we’d miss the intended target from time to time. The idea was to hold high the shoelace, then lift the tethered chestnut as far back as you could and fire it at the chestnut your opponent dangled in the air. If your chestnut eventually cracked your foe’s, you added his total number of victories to your own and strutted about the block in search of another victim. It was a ritual, I was years later to discover, that must have been brought across the sea with the Irish immigrants in the 19th century, for there it is in the pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its reference to a “seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty.” Well, we’d hack away at those dangling brown beauties until the next street game vied for our attention—spinning tops, or Skully, or stickball in the spring, by which time we were once again largely oblivious of trees
Then, thirty-seven years ago now, we moved to the outer suburbs of Putnam County, where I was to become acquainted with a host of oak, and maple, and birch, hemlock, choke cherry, ash, and spruce, along with an abundance of other species, coming eventually to know each by sight and by name, and to relish the form, beauty, and presence of each tree. I came to know them as if they were old friends I was recognizing for the first time, for among the trees—especially in the woods—I felt a familiarity, a sense of feeling attuned, of being in a place where I belonged. I felt the oneness of God’s creation.
And so it came as no surprise to me that I should feel a similar affinity in another place I’m fond of, Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where Portals & Passageways: An Environmental Art and Sculpture Exhibition, opened this summer at Highfield Hall & Gardens. All along the road leading up to the mansion, as throughout the grounds and in the adjacent woods, regional artists have installed yarn, glass, and wood creations intended to transport the viewer to a higher awareness of the rhythms and energy of nature. Branch arbors, rough-hewn wooden chairs, hand-blown glass orbs dangling from branches adorn the site, and crocheted or knitted patterns cling like colorful sweaters to the trunks and limbs of birch, and beech, locust, maples, oaks and sycamores. A wooden walking labyrinth beside a rhododendron garden invites further contemplation of one’s place in the grand scheme of things.
With the sun dappling the woodlands, birds trilling, the trees wear wool in a cool summer breeze. I am a far cry from the urban landscape of Tiebout Avenue and Banana Park. This is a place of soothing harmony with its natural surroundings, a passageway in what Joseph Campbell calls “a threshold moment” when one is poised between two places, two worlds, two realities. Not surprisingly, it strikes a chord in me. In an instant, I am reminded that Nature is a part of us, and we a part of it, reminded that no matter where we are, we are one with the earth.