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The Shipwreck Rose: The Highest Bough

Wed, 12/27/2023 - 16:17

The silver lining to having postponed the dog-walking until the old grandfather clock was chiming 11 on Christmas Eve was that, although we were exhausted, it really was a silent night, holy night on Main Street by that late hour. The dog had been poking us with one paw and prodding us with her tender nose since about 7, asking with her eyes to be taken outside, but the kitchen had to be returned to something approaching order — dirty dishes corralled in the vicinity of the sink; rendered fat from our duck-breast dinner poured into a container for use later, not left on the stove for the cat to lick — before it was time for the Christmas Eve stroll.

I had to forcibly beat my children with a roll of gift wrap to get them to join me: “Come see the Christmas lights!” I cajoled, swinging my arm and chasing them around the living room couch. “Come have a jolly time! Come with me!” Santa was revving up the sleigh, taking a last nip to the North Pole water closet before his long journey, as we pulled on our winter coats. 

I’m not a Christian, exactly, but I do believe in the winter solstice celebration of lights. The older I get, the closer I feel to ancestral rituals involving trees and bonfires; it has become obvious that Jesus’s birthday was pinned to this other festival for legitimate symbolic reasons, having to do with rebirth, but that the other festival is more ancient, primordial.

During dinner, at which only half of the party were wearing paper crowns — the other half being too dignified (that is, party-poopers) — a young guest told us about St. Martin’s Day in Germany, in early winter, when children parade with colored lanterns in the street, singing (“I go with my lantern, and lantern with me / Up above the stars shine, down here we shine.”) Another had seen St. Lucy’s Day in Stockholm, when girls in white robes wear crowns of white candles. My friend Maria, in Sag Harbor, having grown up in a family that celebrated Christmas in Baltic style — as the Yule was celebrated a hundred years ago in northern Germany — used to place small candles on the boughs of her Christmas tree, inevitably resulting in an exciting Christmas Eve conflagration in which someone had to leap up from the dinner table to tackle the tree with a damp beach towel. Yule Time is the midwinter rite of trees and lights.

“There are hardly any lights,” complained my children, as we walked Sweet Pea south on the sidewalk toward Town Pond under a charcoal sky, with low-lying fog in the air, no stars, and no wind, quite warm, strangely still. “I wouldn’t call this cheerful.”

My children have been to Dyker Heights and expect Brooklyn-level voltage and wattage. Unless there are animatronic snowmen and an exterior sound system that coordinates the chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” with an animated LED display, it doesn’t register a blip on their jolly meter.

From my perspective, East Hampton has never boasted more holiday lights. We’re getting more Bensonhurst by the year. Like anyone with a heart, I rather like it. How can your heart’s cockles not be warmed by twinkling lights in the bleak midwinter darkness? My point is, that’s the point of the Yule. Holly and ivy, branches and boughs, logs and candles and dancing flames. That’s the Yule.

Even so, we seem to be working in some sort of diametric balance, or imbalance, when it comes to artificial lights and trees: As one increases, the other must decrease. More lights, fewer trees.

We need to talk about the trees.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, this year, I ventured out alone into Northwest Woods once again with a handsaw to collect a white pine to stand as our Christmas tree. I feel proprietary when it comes to the woods. It’s irrational, but it’s deep-seated. I do remember the woods when they were dense, thick with life, soft mosses and flowers underfoot, thickets of surprising holly, Indian pipes, inkberry, wintergreen. They were dense. You could get lost in them. I did get lost in them, one year in the 1970s, when we went a-tree-chopping and I wandered off, and got frostbite in the small toe next to my pinkie toe, in my right foot, and it still goes numb when I’m not wearing adequate boots in snowy weather.

It was because I remember the woods as they once were and always had been that I felt gaslighted by the authorities about the state of Northwest Woods when the woodland ecosystem began to fail, about a decade ago. And it was because I was feeling gaslighted that, back in the spring of 2018, I commissioned a feature for East magazine about it. Everyone seemed to be pretending that the woods looked as they’d always looked, or that any unhealthy symptoms were merely cyclical, Mother Nature doing her thing — but I wasn’t having it. I’m no ecologist, but to the naked eye, it was swiftly becoming obvious that the forest ecosystem was in the throes of a horrible crisis. The undergrowth was gone. White pines remained in the millions, thriving especially in the sunny spots where there had been clearing for driveways or house lots, but everything else was disappearing.

We titled the East magazine story “When the Bough Breaks,” and sent out an emergency call in the subheadline: “An ecosystem is failing in Northwest Woods. Trees are being felled en masse to stop an invasive insect. Animal populations are totally out of whack. Rare native flowers are becoming rarer. And residents can suddenly see into their neighbors’ windows. . . .” 

It was a depressing article, and the response from the public was nil. No one rallied around.

The first line of the story was: “Northwest Woods is dying.”

That was almost six years ago.

As we head into 2024, toll the bells.

Northwest Woods is dead.

So are the pitch pines at Napeague.

We painted a picture, in 2018, of what was unfolding: “Some trees are thinning and falling down; bigger swaths have been chopped to stop the spread of an invasive insect. The foliage is patchy. Native groundcover — wood pinks (trailing arbutus), lady slippers, the rare persimmon — has thinned.”

No one seemed to care much.

“Given how many woods-dwelling residents are directly impacted,” East said, “the public outcry has been surprisingly muted. East Hampton is a community that has always been almost peculiarly passionate about its trees.”

The reporter, Zinnia Smith, spoke to several environmentalists and other experts, none of whom was able to propose a big-picture fix or posit a plausible scenario for turning the disaster around, although more than one of them remained, inexplicably, we thought — inexplicably, I thought — optimistic. The town had hired contractors to fell trees infested with the southern pine beetle, but they were leaving the felled trees in place. “The woods are healthier now that the infested trees are down,” one of the town environmentalists was so bold as to say.

It all seems rather sad, feeble; in retrospect trying to hold back the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon.

Another environmentalist interviewed for that story six years ago was taking small groups of walkers to collect pitch pine cones that would be grown into seedlings at a nursery for a small-scale reforestation effort. Another suggested the reintroduction of the coyote, a native predator, to help restore an ecological balance.

This winter, I’m worried about wildfires. New York State is doing some dead-tree removal to reduce wildfire risk at Napeague, but there seem to be more dead trees in some neighborhoods than live ones. The dead trees lie all around. We live in brightly lighted houses surrounded by ecological collapse — a riddle that isn’t a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma that isn’t an enigma. The mystery is that we’re all pretending we aren’t careening toward global ecological collapse. The trees lie there through the rolling seasons, drying out in summer and autumn, and when the winter wind comes blasting in from the northwest in January and February, it could be a tinderbox at Napeague and north of the Sag Harbor Turnpike.

I’m fully pro-coyote, myself. Let’s go, coyotes. Mother Earth doesn’t just need the sweet and adorable animals — the deer and dolphins, the Bambis and Flippers — she needs the sharp-toothed animals, too, the orcas and the wolves. (See again: Byung Chul Han, and the philosophy of “constructive negativity.”) But the coyotes aren’t going to save us, let’s be frank.


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