Monday, May 17, 2010

They Killed This Tree Three Days Ago

Trees being what they are, I suppose it isn’t really dead yet. The leaves are still green. Sap still flows. But the tree won’t survive. No one’s going to sit it upright, no one’s going tend to it.

The killing wasn’t personal. I’m sure they didn’t have any special animus toward this particular tree, nor toward any other tree, or plant, or animal that was killed, nor even for discarded trash that got moved around when they came through. They had a job to do, clear a path to the construction site, and they did it. This tree just happened to be in the way and so it was uprooted.

Seeing the tree like that made me sad. Though I had no deep attachment to the tree, I was attached. I knew it as a specific tree, an individual. I thought of it as the “Y” tree because of the way it branches. This is my oldest photo of the tree, taken on 6 July 2007:

You can just barely see the “Y” tree on the right, just beyond the mouth of the tunnel, all but hidden among the foliage. You can see its form more distinctly in this photo, taken on 9 December 2007:

Here’s what it looked like on 7 October 2007:

There’s some graffiti on the rock wall just behind the tree:

If you look to the left, just below the center, you’ll see some white marking on the rocks. It says “Free Werds”:

I know nothing about Werds except that he’s a graffiti writer, and a good one, who’s respected among his peers. There’s a fair amount of his work in this area – in and around the Bergen Arches in Jersey city – and much of it has been left untouched in the three or four years I’ve been photographing local graffiti. That other writers do no go over Werds’ work is a sign of respect. As for why Werds was in prison, I heard it had something to do with drugs, which is plausible.

But this isn’t about Werds. It’s about that place where his friends put graffiti on the wall, and the tree in that place where one of them painted a face:

If this were, say, Papua New Guinea, and an anthropologist saw such a face, the anthropologist would likely conclude that the painting is of a Tree Spirit, the particular spirit of that tree. The artist was not using the tree as a surface on which to express himself, but rather was using painting as a means of making visible that which already existed in the tree.

I don’t know what the graffiti artist, who goes by the name of Loser, had in mind when he did this. But it might not be so very different from the thoughts and feelings of our hypothetical Papu New Guinean. The tree, after all, is biologically a specific individual, and it is alive. Why not say it has a spirit? That’s only a way of talking about something we don’t quite understand.

In any event, here’s something Loser did on rusted iron not too far away (photo taken on 31 October 2007):

It appears to be an old furnace someone tossed over the edge of the cut. There’s a lot of trash down in there. Notice the tire atop the furnace. A lot of old tires down there as well. And someone arranged a bunch of them along the path, like this:

All of which is to say, this is not some pristine wilderness. This is a long patch of greenery carved into the middle of Jersey City, NJ, not too far from the Holland Tunnel, which takes traffic to and from Manhattan. This is a densely populated urban area. And people have been throwing their trash down into the Erie Cut for years. Still, I found this a bit shocking when I first saw it:

That is no longer a path worn by people walking through time after time, day after day. That was cut by piece of heavy machinery, the machinery that killed the Y tree.

I have no beef against the machines, nor the men who operate them. They’re just going about their work, good work no doubt.

There’s a freight line near the Erie Cut, aka the Bergen Arches, a mile-long trench blasted through the southern end of the Jersey Palisades, and it’s being upgraded. A single-track roadbed is being widened to accommodate two tracks and the ceiling of the Bergen Tunnel is being lifted. The Erie Cut provides convenient access to the construction zone at the west end of the tunnel. Lots of rail freight moves through this general area – the New York metropolitan area – and so the track improvements are no doubt necessary. Who knows, maybe the money being spent on those improvements is economic stimulus money.

The track work started a couple of months ago, but the guys I talked to said they cut this path on Friday. They were from Kentucky, didn’t know anything about Jersey City. I told them a little of the history about the Bergen Arches – solid rock, 250,000 pounds of dynamite, early 20th Century, thriving port, etc. – and they seemed interested enough. They were a bit surprised about the graffiti, some of which is quite stunning. They just wanted me to know that there was going to be lot going on back in here and I should be careful. I thanked them. And they went their way and I went mine.

Still, the Y-tree is dead. I don’t know whether or not it was far enough toward the side of the cut that it didn’t have to be knocked over. Nor do I know how I would have tried to explain why that particular tree was important, spirit face, free Werds, graffiti, and all. For that matter, does the fact that some graffiti artists bestowed some of their spirit on that particular tree make it any more important than any other the other trees that were destroyed?

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