A Crazy Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 1.45.51 PM

Follow the slope downward, to the east, toward the meadow, to where the earth levels off and there are crocuses coming up through a damp layer of wood chips. This is where the tree is. Behind the tree, the ground rises into a sort of berm between the Botanic Garden and Flatbush Avenue that breaks the siren howl and traffic rumble. A wide asphalt pathway meanders in front of it. On a typical spring day visitors usually pause here to admire the tree, and read the placard with its name and chuckle, because it’s a caucasian wingnut.

The tree’s branches are thick and deeply ridged, twisting out from a dense thicket of knots and gnarles in its wide, wide trunk. One branch sticks out from the base at an extreme low angle, and bears special mention in Richard J. Berenson and Neil Demause’s The Complete Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: “[the branch] charges off to the east with seeming disregard for the laws of gravity, suspended in midair by only the most tenuous hold on its trunk.” It’s the kind of branch that — were Sherwood Forest in the Caucasus Mountains — Robin Hood would leap upon. It’s no longer suspended in midair, but held up by a log, cut into a crutch. The whole thing is a patched-together tree, really: Metal cables strung between some of the tree’s higher branches keep them from falling, too.

On a recent, cold and drizzly spring morning, I met Chris Roddick, an arborist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He’s responsible for the wingnut, and most every other tree, too. Roddick has been at the garden for 20 years, but you wouldn’t know it. He has a boyish face and a surfer’s drawl; indeed, he paddles out in the Rockaways when he gets the chance, though he doesn’t go out enough. I told him I didn’t think anyone who surfed felt they went surfing enough, and he agreed.

When we got to the tree, we stood for a moment in silence, considering it. Roddick broke the quiet and said that he thinks the tree’s magic has to do with its architecture. “It just has the form of looking ancient,” he said. It isn’t, as far as trees go. It was planted in 1922 from a sapling, not a seed, so it’s maybe about 100 years old — which is about as old as caucasian wingnuts get. Plenty of oaks in the gardens are older. Still, “it’s a veteran tree,” he said. “That’s what we call it. We have about a dozen or so veterans that require careful management.” I asked him what he meant by management and he replied, “Well, you don’t want the tree to fall over and kill someone.”

That the tree is falling apart, yet still standing, is another aspect of its allure. There used to be some black walnuts nearby. Because they are tall, sturdy trees, when Hurricane Sandy swept through, they bore the brunt of the storm, sparing the wingnut. Unlike the walnuts, the wingnut is a relatively short tree, with branches that arch outward, not up, and grows as wide or wider than it is tall. It seemed to me an evolutionary misstep — growing branches it could not support. Far from it. “Wingnuts create millions of seeds — the seeds look like wingnuts, which is how it gets its name,” Roddick said. “Anyway, as the tree falls apart, the wood breaks down, creating really nice soil. It creates a nursery underneath itself. For the individual tree, it may not be so smart. But for the species, it’s great.” He said that a few years ago, a pair of scientists from Georgia visited the gardens and told him that back home, in the Caucuses, certain forests are almost nothing but wingnuts. “These trees take a stand in the forest and outcompete everything else,” Roddick said, then added, “It’s because they’re about the group, not the individual.” He pointed to a strand of four-year-old wingnuts coming up on the berm — offspring of the veteran. They’ll have to be pulled out, eventually, because they’ll get to big, and room will need to be cleared for other species of tree.

As Roddick was considering the strand of wingnut saplings, and what he may have to do with it, a trio approached. Roddick introduced me to Palmer Koelb and his wife Debbie, who were taking in the garden with Brian Funk. Funk maintains the Japanese garden, and Palmer and Debbie were down from their New Hampshire nursery to deliver a pair of dwarf white pines. Together, we approached the old wingnut’s wide trunk and peered into a vast hollow. Most of the wood inside had decayed. Through the darkness, in the bottom of the hollow, a raccoon carcass was rotting. “That’s good,” Roddick said, unironically. The decay would feed the soil, and feed the tree. He ran his hands along some of the gnarls surrounding the gash that opened up into the hollow. “This is the woundwood,” he said, “the densest wood in the tree.”

Along with their nursery, the Koelbs run a Japanese stroll garden. The grounds — and their business — is called Shin-Boku. “It means the principal tree,” Palmer said. Years ago, in Japan, Palmer and Debbie saw a 400-year-old black pine that was the principal tree in a strolling garden. It was so beautiful that they took the name for their nursery. I asked Palmer how old the dwarf pines were, and he said, “We’ve been taking care of them since the seventies.” They’re what’s called specimen trees — carefully cared for and pruned to grow just so, a little like bonsai, but larger. Palmer and Debbie said goodbye, but as they wandered off, Roddick pursued them to ask if he could take a picture. As Roddick walked back towards the wingnut, still grinning, I thought of a true and great thing John Fowles once wrote in his essay, “The Tree”:

We feel, or think we feel, nearest to a tree’s ‘essence’ (or that of its species) when it chances to stand like us, in isolation; but evolution did not intend trees to grow singly. Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or a hermit.

Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor in New York.