After my father had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer but before he was
actually dying, a plant he’d never seen before appeared in the clearing in his backyard.
Though I was living in Manhattan then, I had embarked on a self-taught course of
nature study. Innocent of field guides or binoculars, I was trying to learn the ducks in the Central Park Reservoir, memorizing their shapes and markings, then racing to the natural history museum, half a mile away. In glass cabinets in a narrow side room, hundreds of bird skins hung like socks, their eye sockets filled with cotton batting. It took me several weeks to ID the common cormorant; I didn’t expect National Geographic’s legendary diver—the Japanese fisherman’s tireless aide—to be living so close to home.
Plants had presented an easier task; I was familiar with all the city trees by then,
down to their Latin binomials. So when I next went out to the house, my father and I stood together under the red oaks’ maculate shadows, sweat from the railroad trip still cooling on the back of my neck, and he showed me the specimen. It was only a couple of feet tall, a viny upstart with hunter-green leaves and tight red berries.
I had no clue what it was. Actually, I’d assumed that my inspection of it was bound to be futile: if my father didn’t know its name, I certainly wouldn’t.
My wall calendar, produced by a wildlife conservation organization, features stunning photographs of birds. One shows a whooping crane stalking through shallow water on stilt-like legs, the breeze ruffling snowy wings as magnificent as those of the angel Jacob wrestled with, as it plucks up a white crab. Or is it, I sometimes wonder, a photograph of the crab?
A few weeks after my fruitless inspection of my father’s unknown visitor, I was legging it down West Tenth Street, late returning from lunch, when I glimpsed the exact plant in front of a brownstone. I wheeled around. There was no one outside the building but, to my good fortune, a professional shingle hung from a wrought iron post. A psychiatrist had his office there. I committed the phone number to memory, and as soon as I got to my desk, I picked up the Merlin phone and left a message, telling the doctor I was sorry to bother him and asking if he knew the identity of the plant with the red berries.
It’s funny that it should have been a psychiatrist’s office: all his life, my father had
struggled with depression. For days in a row, he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning—often, not until dinner was on the table. Though maybe, my mother told me years later, it wasn’t so much depression as anxiety; some doctor had once suggested that. But no one talked about these things back then.
To my surprise, the psychiatrist called me at home that evening, happy to be able to help, almost burbling with eagerness. Yes, he knew exactly what I was asking about. It was quite a tough character, he confided. “In fact,” he said, “it’s the famous tree that grows in Brook—”
Not that one, I interrupted. The small one with the red berries: did he know what
Oh, no, he replied, crestfallen. He had no idea. It had just appeared.
I was so grateful that he’d called, I said, feeling, just before he abruptly hung up,
sorry for having disappointed him.
But of course I already knew Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” with its
pinnate leaves and winged seeds and its notorious vigor. In my apartment building’s
courtyard, one had even laid claim to a seam between slabs of concrete, its trunk oozing up over the cement—a survivor, just like in the Betty Smith novel.
That book portrays the immigrant experience: same city, different borough, a
decade before my father’s parents arrived and tried to find a foothold.
Like young parents everywhere, they doted on their new baby. They would have been watching in wonder and delight as he learned to crawl, right before the Crash wiped out the banks.
The three of them lived in a series of tenements on the Lower East Side. They
moved often—one step ahead of being thrown out for failing to pay the rent or,
sometimes, when the building got condemned.
As a boy, my father witnessed the eviction of other families, even children he
knew. They lingered on the sidewalk surrounded by their possessions, things strangers shouldn’t see: their threadbare bed-sheets, their dented pots and spavined tables. A sensitive child, he could never forget, never reconcile these scenes. They instilled in him a deep sense of compassion, but they also left a wound that never closed. He understood impermanence, caprice: how any step might be the one over the abyss.
I searched everywhere for anything that might resemble the mystery sapling, first
scrutinizing each photo in my Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees. In just a few years, the Internet would arrive, bringing with it Google and Wikipedia and wagon trains of information. Meanwhile, I turned the pages of gardening magazines, hoping for coincidence; I walked miles through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
In the gaps between the bouts of depression, my father was never melancholy. As a child, I had the habit of quietly insinuating myself into rooms to listen in on conversations between my parents and their friends, trying to plumb the mysteries of adult life. When someone said something funny, my father would throw his head back, laughing and nodding—conveying at once his own pleasure and his appreciation for the other person’s wit.
And sometimes when thunderstorms lashed our street, when even suburban Long
Island seemed like just a spit of sand abandoned to the ocean, walls of rain hammering down as if the entire Atlantic were being hurled against the land, my father would cast open the front door, relishing the fury, nature’s power and glory. As a kid, I never understood this next part, what it meant: as spray blew into the foyer and the sky sheared and cracked, he’d fling his arms wide and holler, “Zachariah!”
He never talked about the time he spent in a city orphanage after his mother had some kind of breakdown (also never spoken about) and his father was somewhere else (same deal). Except once, near the end, when he told me how if you—
Only it wasn’t if, and it wasn’t you.
Except once, near the end, when he told me how when he wet the bed, in the
morning they pushed his face into the soiled sheets.
Eventually, I got a lead on the plant; I wish I could remember how. I called from my
office and told my father that it might be some kind of viburnum. The word meant
nothing to me, but I thought it might to him, because despite his concrete jungle
childhood, he’d always known more about nature than any of us kids who’d grown up in the leafy suburbs.
It didn’t, though. One kind of viburnum, I might have said, was called “cranberry
bush,” though it wasn’t related to the true cranberries. At least that seems plausible now, because what he told me next was that while growing up in those Lower East Side tenements, he’d read about such things, “highbush blueberry” and “lowbush blueberry,” and he’d always wondered what that meant, wanted to understand what they were, but never had.
Did I know anything about them? he asked.
In Natural History magazine the other night, I saw a photograph of a hamerkop, a stocky sort of South African heron. It was hunting, and the camera froze the moment when a frog was suspended above the bird’s open bill. The hamerkop had tossed the frog into the air to position it for swallowing.
I didn’t know what “highbush blueberry” or “lowbush blueberry” meant, either. But I
never forgot those words.
After a while, my father was released from the orphanage, back to his parents. He grew up, got a job as a draftsman, and married the love of his life. They had children, four of them; not long after the youngest was born they took a big leap: to a new development on the North Shore of Long Island. It was still so rural that four houses down, the land opened up into potato fields, and acres of scrubby pines filled the evergreen farm behind our house.
Each home in the tract was outfitted with the standard landscaping, but my father
wanted more. He sought out specimen trees: Chinese elm, Carpathian walnut, silver
maple; pear, apricot, birch, dogwood; a duet of weeping willows and a tulip poplar,
which grew so tall that, he told me, its flowers were said to be only for God. Tiger lilies ran wild in the swale between our house and the neighbors’. We had almost a third of an acre, a lot he’d selected because of its size and because the backyard ended in woods.
With shovel and mower, he expanded a half-moon opening in those woods,
battling back the rampant huckleberry undergrowth, and he strung a big wooden swing between two red oaks.
It was in that clearing that the sapling with the red berries appeared.
Many of the mysteries of my father’s childhood—things he’d read about but never
seen—thrived in his backyard. Rabbits and woodpeckers and bobwhite quail, who,
calling their own name, marched their fledglings through the clearing. Years later, a little owl hooted nightly from the warm spot behind the porch light. Words transformed into bark and leaves, fur and birdsong.
In the same issue of Natural History magazine that showed the hamerkop about to gulp down the frog, there was an article about the transformation of an industrial wasteland in Ontario. One of the most damaged areas on the planet, it was healed, the subtitle noted, “by a lowly bush.”
Decades of logging and mining for copper and nickel had stripped the earth. In a
crude technique for removing sulfur from the ore, burning roast heaps released clouds of sulfur dioxide, which turned into sulfuric acid, which killed nearly all of the vegetation. When smelters were built, the devastation became absolute.
As the soil, no longer anchored by plants’ roots, washed off the hillsides, the acid
seared the exposed rocks. The reckless extraction continued to sour the ground and intensify the accumulation of heavy metals, until the toxic barrens stretched across sixty-five square miles. In summer, which should have been the fertile season, the blackened rock faces scorched at a killing 140 degrees.
Beyond this expanse of devastation, stunted birches struggled for life in a semi-barren zone with an understory, I was astonished to read, of lowbush blueberry.
Eventually, technological improvements and government legislation curbed the region’s most dire pollution, and mosses and lichens crept in. Then the lowbush blueberry, able to survive on this highly acidic substrate, followed, colonizing the barrens and the naked hills.
As they expanded, the blueberry shrubs’ wiry mats helped the earth retain
moisture and coolness, fostering birch seedlings, and as those seedlings matured, the birches’ leaf litter nourished the blueberries.
The forest had begun to repair itself.
The northern highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corybosum, is the kind grown for the green molded-pulp containers you find in the produce aisle. The nine-foot-tall plants are cultivated, the article explained, much like apple trees, in orchards.
Lowbush blueberries (V. angustifolium) resist such domestication. Commercial
growers maintain fields of angustifolium much the same way native peoples did centuries ago, harvesting the fruit every two or three years and periodically burning or mowing the shrubs to encourage new growth. When you see a label touting “wild blueberries,” that’s angustifolium.
So highbush blueberries, I could have told my father, are the grandiflora roses of
the berry world, lowbush the untameable wildflower meadow.
The hamerkop didn’t eat the frog right away. For a few minutes, while the photographer manipulated his equipment, it kept flipping its prey into the air, trying to get the angle right.
You know what they say about happy endings: it depends on where you end the story.
On the built-in shelves in the family room, my father kept an old book with a frayed cloth binding: Man-Eaters of Kumaon, about tiger hunting in India. At the base of the title page: “Oxford University Press, New York & Bombay.” A manila pocket partially obscures the back endpaper’s hand-drawn map of a mountainous swath of the subcontinent, and the pages are soft from having been turned by so many hands.
The Herald Square Macy’s—spanning a full city block, with basement corridors
long enough to let a miler to hit full stride—lent out that book; the stamp on the pocket reads, “Macy’s Employees’ Library.” My father, tall and skinny, once raced a champion runner through those halls. He was in high school and, working nights as a stockboy, his family’s only breadwinner. He’d have been seventeen the year the book was published, dreaming of something more adventurous than the grime of Rivington Street.
Although none of us kids read Man-Eaters, we prized it above all the dozens of
other volumes on the shelves. Between its pages was pressed an eastern swallowtail—larger, in that age of Raid and DDT and Shell No-Pest Strips, than any butterfly we’d ever seen. Sometimes, in the humid boredom of summer, my sister and I would carefully ease open the book and stare at the large dark wings, their blue and cream spots, the broken antennae.
We called it the “monarch butterfly.”
The lowbush blueberries that repaired the industrial barrens managed another remarkable trick. The first part of that magic occurred during an assault by gypsy moth caterpillars. That insect had also attacked our strip of woods one summer; when I stood quietly in the backyard, my ears filled with a continuous murmur, the munching action of thousands of mandibles.
In 1994, the caterpillars ate the blueberry bushes leafless. The next year, however,
the shrubs fully rebounded. Somehow, at the start of the onslaught, they had recognized the direness of the threat and moved food and water reserves from their leaves to their stems and roots.
Two decades later, an intense drought caused the bushes on the hills, where the
soil was thin and hot, to drop their small green berries. The bushes under cool shade, with sufficient moisture, then also abandoned their immature fruit—as if they had been warned of coming trouble.
This bit of wizardry astounds me. It’s so proactive: if the drought turned out to be
severe enough to kill the plants on the exposed slopes, because they’d sent a message to their relatives in the shade, those bushes would likely survive.
A plant-to-plant early warning system. Between members of a species with no
speech, no eyes to see or ears to hear. Deepening the mystery of “highbush blueberry, lowbush blueberry.”
After scrolling through hundreds of photographs on the Internet, then delving into the details of habitat and range, I’ve fixed on Viburnum lantana. The species originated in Eurasia, as did my father’s parents. For its tendency to grow along roadsides, it’s called the wayfaring tree.
My grandmother was fourteen when she and her sister, both of them barefoot,
squeezed into steerage. So I suppose that “wayfarer”—“a traveler, especially on foot”—could also be applied to her and my grandfather. As mere striplings, they made their way through a series of ports, journeying, respectively, from Smyrna and Istanbul to Ellis Island. It could even describe my father, who left Manhattan for Brooklyn, Brooklyn for Queens, Queens for Long Island, where he took root and, three decades later, came upon the wayfaring tree in his backyard.
All human stories go up and down, but they always end badly, because they end.
A decade before my father got diagnosed, his perpetually combative relationship
with his boss combusted. After more than twenty years with the firm, he was fired.
In an unexpected twist, a few months later, he found a better job. The new
position meant less driving and more money, and his boss became a good friend.
He flourished there. He relaxed.
The end came hard. The chemo and the radiation weakened and exhausted him. Having traveled out of depression, he now traveled back in. Retreat followed with it: the strings of days when he didn’t get out of bed until dinnertime.
But any end is always hard, isn’t it?
End the telling somewhere else, then: the good, happy years after he got the wonderful job, when he and my mother took vacations and walked on the beach.
Or the early years on the curving street across from the potato fields, a few of the
neighborhood men gathered at dusk in front of someone’s crescent of pink azaleas as a traveling Melnor swishes its way around the velvet lawn. All of them husbands with young children, new to the suburbs, a Levitt development, discussing when to apply lime, how high to set the mower’s blades. The air smells like cut grass and honeysuckle. Someone makes a joke—maybe the one about the insanity of fertilizing, because you just have to mow that much sooner—and they all laugh.
The hamerkop kept tossing the frog into the air, trying to turn it for easy swallowing. There’s nothing in the bird’s eye to suggest either frustration or compassion; what happened next is sealed in the vaults of mystery. The hamerkop let go. It released its prey back to the water. The frog got away.
The frog’s story looked like tragedy but ended in triumph.
Close your eyes—or, better yet, keep them open—and pretend the end is never
Or accept how it really ended, at least this time: at home, in his own house, on his land, with his family near. And, in a clearing in the woods, the wayfaring tree rising.