Magazine article The New Yorker

Tree Person

Magazine article The New Yorker

Tree Person

Article excerpt

Benjamin (Benjy) Swett has lived in New York City for most of his fifty-three years, and can show you trees that have been here nearly five times as long. In 2001, he left his job taking photographs and writing texts for the Parks Department and became a freelancer. His wife was teaching high-school English, and they had three young children. A career swerve like his would have been soul-trying anywhere; one imagines that the example of the venerable trees, already well known to Swett from his Parks job, sustained him. Season after season, Swett photographed trees and did research on them. His excellent book of photographs and descriptions, "New York City of Trees," will come out in April, coinciding with an exhibit of his photographs at the Central Park Arsenal gallery.

One recent bright, cold morning, he showed some of the city's eminent trees to a fellow tree person. Swett is a slim, agile man, and his hair, eyes, windbreaker, and jeans are all more or less the same dark color as his Hasselblad camera. In his Chrysler Town and Country van, with his ten-month-old Brittany spaniel, Lulu, he drove the fellow-t.p. first to Pelham Bay Park, where they walked along the shore of Hunter Island to the oldest documented trees in the city: post oaks that started growing in the early seventeen-seventies. Leaning from the shoreline, these medium-sized veterans held their branches outward and down, like someone pitching underhand, while their twisting roots cinched their bases tightly to the rocks.

Were the city's trees to be parcelled out to residents on an individual basis, each New Yorker would get about five-eighths of a tree; that is, there are about 5.2 million trees in the city. But the city has far fewer famous trees than famous people. A mile or so from the post oaks, in the same park, Swett led the fellow-t.p. to the city's largest white oak. Against the blue of the sky, airplanes followed straight lines through the huge tree's branches, whose ramifications went this way and that, like a stop-motion picture of Tae Kwon Do hands. The second-largest white oak, which stood beside the tee of the ninth hole on the nearby Split Rock Golf Course, fell during Sandy. Swett drove to it next, because he wanted to photograph its remains. …

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