There are many physical markers of the long process of growing up: the improbably tiny clothes we once fit in to, the toys and gadgets that occupy us, the notches on the door jamb that record our height year over year. The metaphors for these changes, that signify the growth, transition and development of human life is trees, abound. But the one I observe used the most often is trees.
It’s obvious why this metaphor works for effectively. The small, spindly beginnings and the way the changes, so imperceptible from day to day, turn out to be enormous when examined over months or years. Anyone who has gone six months between seeing someone under the age of five years old knows what I’m talking about. The changes are small, but relentless.
I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a fortunate neighborhood with more trees than many other parts of the city, and happily sandwiched between two of New York’s finest parks. Our block was lined mostly with honey locusts, with their distinctive dark, ridged bark, and bipinnate compound leaves that turn brilliant shades of yellow. Every year their fruit – long, twisty black pods – would spin lazily in the wind before falling to the sidewalk with a clattering noise. Several of the trees have had to be replaced over the years; others have been in slow decline for some time. One, maybe the healthiest of the bunch, started as a teeny tiny slender thing in a random patch of soil right in front of my building. We all assumed it was an incredibly vigorous weed for quite a while. Now, many years later, it reaches nearly to the fifth floor of the building.
I spent a lot of time in Riverside Park when I was a kid. It’s where we would walk the dog every day, and it was also the site of countless play dates, parties, and sporting events. Our school “field days” were held in fields on the lower level of the park, above the West Side Highway and with a clear view of the Hudson River. The topography of this part of the park is still quite steep, a remnant of when it was all rugged bluffs and rocky outcroppings There are many wonderful trees in the park, but the ones I remember the most distinctly are the liquidambar. I always liked their starry leaves, and their prickly “gumball” fruit was good for kicking around. In some parts of the park there were so many liquidambar trees, the gumballs would collect in a small ocean across the asphalt paths.
There is a giant pin oak in Riverside Park that is adjacent to a lawn where a lot of people used to gather with their dogs (and probably still do). It was so large, you could easily duck under its drooping branches and wander around the cool, hidden interior. This is where I remember catching fireflies during wonderfully pink, langorous summer dusks. Does that sound too idyllic to be a memory of someone who grew up in New York City? It isn’t. Green places make those experiences possible, even in the most developed urban places.
There’s a reason trees are always used as a metaphor for childhood, and why the trees we grew up with remain embedded in the landscape of our memories. Trees, like children, mark the passage of time.
Sites consulted: City of New York Parks & Recreation