Writing for the Trees: Drawing an Iconic New York City Tree

In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author and blogger Jean Zimmerman shares her experience at a Tree Wonder gathering in Washington Square Park. All photos by Jean Zimmerman

Would you like to draw the oldest tree in Manhattan?

You can.

Join the group Tree Wonder, which gathers every Sunday morning from 11 a.m. to 12 noon at the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, under the shadow of the towering English elm (Ulmus procera). The specimen dates back to 1663, it is said. That’s not exactly the same time that the Dutch stole Manhattan from the Indigenous folks, but pretty close to it.

A photo can barely do justice to its girth.

I arrive a little early. This must be the place, I say to myself, looking up at the gentle giant. It’s taller than the Washington Arch itself, and that’s saying something.

A lot of things are said about this tree. It has been called The Hanging Tree. Georgia Silvera Seamans, the co-founder and weekly host with artist Kristin Jones of the plein air workshop, does not agree with this designation. Nor do other knowledgeable historians, although the urban legend has wormed its way onto the websites of the NYC Parks Department and the New-York Historical Society. The Parks Department, Georgia, says, has proposed an informational plaque for the tree with a new name that probably doesn’t exactly convey the importance of this tree: Elma.

Have to agree there.

Sometimes passersby want to know if money is charged to participate. Of course not. Like all the best experiences in life, this one comes free of charge. You pay only with a few minutes of your attention, and that is utterly pleasurable.

Georgia, as random strollers pass by: Would you like to draw with us? We provide the paper… Everyone around is looking up, toward the treetops, something you don’t always see in Manhattan. They seem happy, too.

Sometimes Tree Wonder will attract fifty artists at a time.

I often see art students sketching in museums. They hunker down in front of a famous sculpture, say the nineteenth-century Perseus with the Head of Medusa at the Metropolitan Museum, and apply their charcoals to paper. The skill level matters not a whit, it’s the effort, the focus and the gratification of connecting with something beautiful that counts.

That is true of trees, too, it turns out. Here, at Tree Wonder, the people intent upon their sketchpads connect with a particular tree. In our contemporary world, simply identifying a tree is a gift, one that Georgia presents to participants.

Well-behaved Maggie and her person come by to attend to the resident squirrels, who are plump due to these ministrations and those of another gentleman who dumps bags of treats from time to time.

The animals will take a nut from a human hand then race back up the tree to hang on upside down and polish it off. I try offering a lagniappe and happy to say I don’t get nipped. You gotta think, squirrels have been making their way up and down this particular incline for more than three centuries.

Life goes on elsewhere in the park this cold, bright Palm Sunday, and most people don’t know they’re in the presence of tree history. A lot of the drug dealers are still sleeping in, though a few have come out to showcase their wares.

I brought my winter tree identification booklet but don’t need it. Anyone can see that this is a black locust.

And this a dawn redwood.

Metasequoia might seem to be an exotic species for Manhattan. You’ll actually find them all over, and this one is a beauty.

Cool deodar cedar.

The cherries here dazzle along with their counterparts everywhere else in New York.

When you can walk in the park and know the names of the trees around you, the black locusts and the dawn redwoods, the deodar cedars and the cherries and the English elms, it brings the world alive, in color, in a way it was not before.

Around the central plaza, typical New York attitude.

People posing for goofy pictures.

Fat and happy pigeons.

I’ve seen old timers trap these birds to bring home for an old-style Sunday dinner.

Fat and happy children swinging.

Antique water fountains.

Washington Square Park itself is historic, after all. This water fountain was here when Henry James promenaded around the block. He set his novel of 1880 here, titled Washington Square. The English elm was extant as well, and it was already ancient.

Washington Square was in an earlier incarnation the site of a potter’s field. Recently some remains were dug up and reinterred with a fancy legend.

Georgia teaches a class at NYU called Washington Square Park Revealed, convened in a classroom that is, unfortunately, windowless. Fortunately for the students, their teacher takes them to the great outdoors pretty often to get some hands-on knowledge.

We look up as Georgia points out a woodpecker perched on one of Elma’s uppermost swarthy branches. There are 118 bird species that have been sighted in the park, she says, as calculated on eBird.

Georgia is one busy urban forester. In addition to teaching, she hosts a podcast called Your Bird Story, contributes articles to City Trees and other publications, and heads up Washington Square Park Eco Projects, for which she sends out a biweekly e-blast.

We talk about Minetta Brook, which still courses underground through the West Village. You can lift up a certain manhole cover several blocks from the park and spot it flowing beneath the pavement, Georgia tells me. Streams once were visible all over Manhattan Island. It’s hard to imagine that now, but some individuals have a talent for imagining. George is one such person.

Always, your gaze is brought back to that magnificent, crusty old elm.

It is incredible to see humans connect with a tree as they do this morning at Tree Wonder. When I take people out on tours at Ellis Island, I always ask who can identify the mature trees on the lawn. Who knows the name of these trees? It is rare that one out of twenty people pipes up to say these are sycamores. (The person with that knowledge is always delighted to get a junior ranger sticker for their correct response.) I tell the group that when they go home, if they want to brag to their family and friends, they can tell them about these trees. They are distinctive for their camouflage bark and their age of almost a century. They were designated Ellis Island Sycamores in 1987 to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. (FYI, not a cultivar, an honorific.) If you do go home and brag, I tell my visitors, I saw the Ellis Island Sycamores, you might draw a blank expression, but you can explain it all to them and look like a big shot.

But it goes beyond bragging rights. It can enrich your life just to be able to name the trees you see. It makes the world more vivid, a change from seeing trees just as one green whoosh along the highway.

Oftentimes, someone has indelibly in their mind the name of the street they grew up on – there must be millions of Oak and Maple and Elm Streets all over America – but draws a blank when it comes to recognizing the tree their street was named for. No shame in that. It’s just the way we live now.

It wasn’t until I became an arborist that I knew those funny trees with the multiple trunks and flaky bark in so many front yards actually have a name: river birch. I don’t know all the trees, either in the woods or on the streets. I envy people who have that much knowledge. Small consolation that even professional foresters don’t necessarily recognize every species, hence, the many winter tree ID guides on the market, including the one I have in my bag today. I still rely upon a phone app called Picture This, though now often to double check a tree I already have some clue about. Shingle oak? Woo hoo! I got that one.

At Tree Wonder, I chat with a Columbia Journalism School student sitting sketching, who tells me that later today she must pen 2,000 words of an assignment about city street trees. Her Australian Shepard, Blue, has taken up occupancy on the picnic table. She tells me about new live oaks being planted in Green-Wood Cemetery – her article focuses on southern tree species that are now able to survive in northern regions due to climate change. She reminds me that there is another tree in the running for the oldest tree in New York, a tulip tree in Queens.

I snoop-listen as the guest artist of the day counsels someone, You either have to draw it really small, and figure out where it’s going, or it’s going to run off the page. Her own effort is, of course, flawless.

Even I attempt a sketch.

It’s like Samuel Johnson said about a dog standing on its hind legs, It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Every artist gets a photo taken with their drawing for the ‘gram.

Tree Wonder assembles every Sunday. You can just swing by. If you’re in the city anyway it’s worth making a detour to attend for an hour. The experience will make your day, I can assure you. Afterwards, you can stroll in the park, toss a donation in the bucket of the local hot band and admire the daffodils.

No Tree Wonder participants yet from the chess playing set or the pot dealers, but some PEP Officers stopped by and sketched one time. They were pretty good.

Try learning to recognize the shaggy silver bark of the silver maple or the fuchsia pea-size blooms of Eastern redbud or the wedding veil of white cherry blossoms to see what a simple thrill it gives you.

And then you can brag to your family and friends. Who doesn’t want to do that?