Coastal Oregon in the spring is wet, cold, miserable, and beautiful. I loved it. I lived there once upon a time as a field technician on a seabird project, a job which did not require shoes nor a shirt. Living in feral bliss, my daily commute was a sandy and soggy walk from my tent through a driftwood labyrinth to a bird blind about 1/2 mile away. While walking to the blind one day, I unexpectedly came face-to-face with this furry harbor seal pup alone on the beach. Seal pups are often stashed onshore by their mothers while they forage just offshore, so this seal was quite safe. Legislation also protects these beached pinnipeds, so I snapped a quick shot before backing off and climbing over the driftwood berms to circumvent the cached seal on my way to the terns. By evening, it had retreated into the tides back amongst the anadromous fish.
I often think about this image.
Today is a day to reflect on love and love takes many forms.
I took this photo on a shitty camera phone in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem sometime during 2012. I was walking through the park on the way back to my brownstone apartment and this stump totally floored me. I sat and contemplated it for almost an hour thinking about the entwined narratives of this tree’s existence. I thought about this life of the tree in that somewhat underserved city park. Marcus Garvey (a fascinating Civil Rights activist and Pan Africanist of whom I was shamefully ignorant until I lived in Harlem) Park lacks the grandeur of Central Park or Fort Tryon Park – in the years I lived there, it was ranked as the worst park in Manhattan - but it is an invaluable green space for the residents of central Harlem. Although I frequently found syringes and condoms on the upper level, the lower level was a place for children swinging on playgrounds, basketball, drum circles, dog walking, and chess. It was a place for community. This tree was most likely planted by some municipal worker as it was a small sapling. It was potentially neglected by maintenance crews but still managed to grow in the shadows of the offices and housing projects surrounding the park. As it grew, it somehow found a special place in the heart of at least one of the area’s residents. In an environment of constant motion like that in Manhattan, I can appreciate solace of constant constants. Storytelling is a crucial component of humanity and it is often rooted in experience and attachment to place. We tell stories about the things we know and things we love, and this tree was a familiar life in denizens of this neighborhood. It was a life that could be reliable in the high paced environment of urban living and I love how others acknowledged its existence and its struggle for survival.
At lot has happened in Harlem since the 1950’s. It is a place that has been the cultural center of a political and racial movement that has played a key role in African American culture. And -if the date sharpied into the stump is to be believed – this tree witnessed a huge shift in that movement. Not long after this tree sprouted, it would have seen the turmoil of this neighborhood in riotous days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. This tree would have been but a sapling when tens of thousands of people descended on what was then known as Mount Morris Park to celebrate the culture of this neighborhood in Harlem’s Summer of Soul in 1969. This tree remained a strong presence through the darkest days of the crack epidemic that plagued this area for over a decade starting in the mid 1980’s. And in a post 9/11 and post Giuliani NYC, this tree experienced the quiet and abrupt gentrification of a Manhattan north of Central Park.
Beyond all of these culturally iconic moments, my most visceral reaction to this stump was rooted in my appreciation for an emotional connection to another being, a sense of sadness when that connection is lost, and a need to memorialize that relationship to grieve that loss. I love that someone was able to find solace in a plant that was hopefully able to give them some sense of peace in the frenetic pace of Manhattan. I love that someone loved this tree.