What You Don’t See

Walk past any of the hundreds of parks and gardens in New York City and look around. What do you see? Perhaps you see an array of red oaks or London planes, towering over small apartment buildings like giants. Or rolling meadows, filled with families and friends all enjoying a beautiful beneath the blue sky, far away from the smog and noise of the urban jungle. Or maybe you see hidden paths, winding through perfectly maintained brush, towards vales unknown or forgotten to time. Look around and you will see a park, a garden or even a forest, emerald islands amidst a sea of asphalt and concrete.

Here is what you don’t see: Us! The park crew! We climb the oaks and London planes, we mow the meadows week after week and we curate those paths, ensuring they always lead toward wherever they are going. That is not to say that you won’t ever us, bedraggled, tired, aching and cracking beneath the weight of the large equipment we carry. We become part of the background. Wildlife in matching colors. Unless you are very lucky to stumble across a wild park crew member, think of us like the wind. Our only presence is felt on the leaves of the trees, shaking as if by magic. So to is our work here in the park, unnoticed until you stop and feel the breeze on your face.

Recently, in the area of Highbridge Park known as Fort George Hill, we of the Highbridge Crew cleared three fallen trees from our 2012 planting site. An ancient Ash tree had split in two, threatening the sustainability of the entire site. 

Nor is it ever just one tree that falls in a forest. Think of it like dominoes, the one knocks one down knocks another and another and soon: chaos. 

So far, we have spent three days on the job. There are many people who could have done the job faster, without regard to the reforested planting site, but in the process of cutting back the downed trees we managed to save sixty to seventy five percent of the planted trees. It was tough, nuanced work. We snipped branches here, grabbed and yanked vines there and even deployed the liberal use of the chainsaw!

Think of a tree snarl like a pile of tangled rope. The process requires more than just brute strength, yanking and cutting. There is far more thinking about how to do something than there is actually doing! The process for this particular job involved leveraging cut wood with rope to keep it from falling onto planted trees, chainsawing larger pieces of lumber so they broke slowly and maneuvered away from the existing plants and then combing through the debris and chaos finding trees and shrubs pressed to the ground and standing them upright again. All while avoiding the poison ivy. So very, very much poison ivy, growing everywhere, crawling up the trunks of trees like some fuzzy, elongated caterpillar.

Trees are resilient organisms. They would have to be considering that they are unable to just up and walk out of a tricky situation. But, even they can’t compete against the combined forces of pressure and gravity. So, when a tree bends in a forest, it is up to us to straighten it out. To do this, we have several tricks up our sleeves. The simplest solution is called ‘Y-Sticking’, in which we use…Y-Shaped branches from downed trees to prop up bent ones. It’s so simple, you’d honestly never think of it. The other method is just as simple: using medium sized logs and rolling them against the trunks of bent trees.

Firmly resetting the trees with the Y-branches and log blocks, the time had come to prune the damaged twigs and branches. Here’s a fun fact: there are no truly wild areas in New York City. Everything you see is the careful coordination, perhaps domination, of man over nature. We can control how a tree grows, looks and behaves. With a few strategic cuts and snips with our loppers and pruners, we can dictate the future growth of younger, more accessible trees.

Most single trunked trees operate under a concept called ‘apical dominance’, in which the highest new branch controls the growth of the rest of the tree. This ensures that branches do not start growing like weeds on the tree’s canopy. So, with that in mind, we established a new ‘leader branch’ across many of the specimens on the planting site, giving us more control over the future of Highbridge Park. A few cuts here, some judicious pruning there and voila, what once was lost now is found. Behold!

What you see as you travel through the many crisscrossed mountain bike trails that run through northern Highbridge Park and Fort George Hill is the end result of numerous thought processes and plans over many years. Our little bit of repair work and removal from those paths is but a small part of a larger purpose: restoring Highbridge to its former glory. You see a wild area on the tip of Northern Manhattan. What you don’t see are the many employees and volunteers who work tirelessly, day after day, to keep it all wild.

Look at the before and after photos. What you don’t see is all the work and sweat and, yes, poison ivy ointment that went into just this one planting site. What you don’t see, when done right, is nothing at all.

What you don’t see can be extraordinary.