Seven American larches and one red oak

On planting trees and family ties

By Susan Augenbraun

Brooklyn gardens, or lack thereof: An apartment in Coney Island, eight stories up; a Bay Ridge row house with a backyard—the kind many gardeners would call, with varying degrees of affection, “postage-stamp sized.” The fourth floor of a Crown Heights brownstone with a sunny window good for potted geraniums; a community garden next to a building that, according to neighbors, has been a burnt-out shell since the 1990s.

These are some of the places where my father and I have lived and gardened. Even in these small spaces, we’ve had our adventures: a fishpond; bamboo; an unidentified heliotropic plant that grows so aggressively I’ve started calling it Audrey II.

But the Catskills house is something else entirely. It sits on 12 acres of land on the north-facing slope of a land formation called Thunder Hill. There’s a vegetable garden, fenced in to keep the deer away. There are streams running over the hill, and bluebird boxes that need cleaning or replacing. There is a stretch of green lawn that blossoms with daffodils in the spring. And then there’s the tangle of woods on the hillside.

As a child, I remember exploring the backyard wilderness one winter with my cousins. It was my aunt and uncle’s house then, and the woods a source of envy and awe for this city-kid. The ice-crusted streams and mossy stones seemed straight out of a fantasy novel—absolutely magical.

Years later, after my cousins and aunt and uncle made for more temperate climes (the West Coast and Florida, respectively), my parents bought their house to use as a weekend home.

“This could keep me busy for years,” my dad says, surveying his new domain.

...

My roommates and I arrived in the Catskills on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a few days before my parents. (While nothing short of staying home alone is without risk during a pandemic, we took every possible precaution.) They had given us a to-do list: Check the gauge on the heater; see if there was sufficient flour for Thanksgiving cooking; bring any deliveries inside; and most importantly, unbox and water the trees.

The long skinny box near the door had the return address, Cold Stream Farm in Free Soil, Michigan. It was...small.

I’d been expecting sizable saplings, each maybe half my height and with its own root ball. What I found was a single plastic bag with eight “trees” poking out: seven American larches and one red oak. They looked like large twigs, or small branches, each ending in a feathery bit of root. The longer ones were bent from their time inside the box.

I texted a picture to my dad. There should be 6 or 7, he replied. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what to expect.

...

The Catskill Forest Association will, for a surprisingly low price, come to your property for a one-hour consultation. “The purpose of the consultation,” per the website, “is for you to build a solid understanding of what your property holds, to understand your land management options, to have trees identified (especially hazardous ones), and to get an overall evaluation of forest health. From there, we make recommendations and work with you to develop your management goals for the future.”

The forester my father consulted pointed out the different microclimates up and down the hillside, saying it’s why some areas have thriving trees, while others are a tangle of fallen limbs and trunks. He confirmed that dead trees don’t need to be removed or cleaned up, except for aesthetic purposes: if you leave it, nature will take care of it. And he explained that all the dead trees visible from the back porch were hemlocks, taken out by the invasive woolly adelgid.

He also made some recommendations about tree planting. For this property, the pest-resistant tree of choice would be the American larch, or tamarack pine.

...

Thanksgiving is deer-hunting season in upstate New York, so my dad and I suited up in orange hats and yellow shirts. (You never know when hunters will “accidentally” cross a property line, and I had already seen one earlier that week.) Then we headed up the hill with our supplies: a bucket of compost, a pickaxe, a shovel, garden shears, a watering can, and the bag of larches.

We’d already planted the red oak and one larch down the hill by the driveway, toiling away as my roommates jogged by in hats and gloves. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s athletic, and if there’s anything I’m even less of than an athlete, it’s an outdoorswoman. Uphill, my cotton leggings snared on thorns and I lost the shears in the compost bucket more than once. We picked our way among the fallen hemlocks and got to work.

We were soon reminded that just beneath the forest floor was a layer of rock and stone, hidden under a thin layer of soil. We took turns with the pickaxe, hauling the rocks out of the way. Next, my dad would shovel a good-sized hole, and I’d get on my knees with the shears to clear it of roots and other debris. Then we’d mix the displaced soil with some compost and fill the hole back in, now with a larch in place.

Once the soil was tamped down, it was time to water. We had an empty watering can, several shallow streams, and a shovel. My dad dug into a stream—more dirt, and surprise! more stones—until we could fill the can. The water was ice-cold and, once the dirt settled, incredibly clear.

It felt unnatural to disturb the stream with our shovel, altering the water’s flow. I reminded myself we were planting trees in the woods, changing these woods in hundreds of ways, big and small. Not to mention the other, larger man made waterworks just over the hill. What didn’t make it into our bucket would run down the hill into the creek that flowed into the Rondout Reservoir, and eventually downstate and out of our New York City taps.

“How do we remember where they are?”

Luckily, next to each newly planted tree was a pile of good-sized stones. I stacked the rocks into a cairn next to each tree. Warming to the task, I sought out even more stones to lend my constructions some additional height. “This is fun! We’ll be able to find these for sure.”

Back at the house, I drew a map approximating some landmarks (a stream, a couple of cleanly cut stumps from some previous forester’s exertions) and the locations of our six trees. The next day, my roommates and I returned to the city, and my dad convinced my mom to go up the hill with him. They had to cage the trees, to protect them from curious or hungry deer. But even with my map, they only found five.

...

Postscript. The day after Christmas. Dad and I trek back uphill to try and find the sixth tree, although deer season is over, so there is less to worry about. There is a light dusting of snow on the ground.

We come upon the tree and cairn right away. “How did we miss this?” my dad asks in wonder.

To cage a tree: Drive a stake into the ground next to it, then use wire to tie a ring of metal mesh to the stake. Use two ever-present rocks to bash the pole down into the earth. Add some fluorescent ribbon, so as to not lose the twigs again as they grow into saplings.

The work goes fast. Heading back to the house, my dad says, not for the first time, “I won’t be around to see the fruits of my labor.”

There are already more buds on the trees than a month earlier.

Susan Augenbraun’s writing has been published in Waxing and Waning, The Wax Paper, The Broken Plate, and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. You can follow her on Twitter @susanaugen.


Reading list

For those who don’t know about the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (I didn’t) James Stout reports for Drilled News that in the past year members of the Kumeyaay nation have met dozens of times to sing bird songs, burn sage, and dance in religious ceremonies in protest of the construction of the border wall, which has divided families, descretated sacred land, and scarred the landscape. And construction workers have to halt what they’re doing because the law stipulates that the federal government cannot interfere with Indigenous people’s religious ceremonies and rites.

For the ophiophilist-curious I am not an innate snake-lover (although I did once try to research and pitch a story about snake fungal disease that never panned out) but I enjoyed reading Paul McAdory’s Letter of Recommendation on why he is.

For the tech geeks A brief history of Adobe Photoshop’s tree filter by Chris Stokel-Walker for Input.

For those with eyes in the sky Scientists are debating whether they should protect the Moon’s ice from contamination until samples can be taken and analyzed, which could provide insights into the history of our planet and its moon, or mine the ice as fuel for rockets to use on future lunar bases, Alexandra Witze reports for Nature.

For animal-lovers Not everything was terrible in 2020! For Monga Bay, Liz Kimbrough rounds up the top 15 new species discovered last year, including a big-eyed mouse lemur, a snake named after Salazar Slytherin, and a strange but beautiful scaly shrub.

Frustrating local news for New Yorkers Audrey Carleton reports for Gothamist on how the city has very nearly killed its composting program.

For those eating more beans If you’ve taken my advice to eat more beans this year, these guides from Rancho Gordo and Bon Appetit are essential (re)reading.

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Since last week, I have made exactly one (1) pot of black beans and showered the plants.

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