My New York Obsession

My New York Obsession: The Trees of Prospect Park

Wherein a thinking spot briefly becomes a thinking stump for a Brooklynite with a 526-acre “backyard.”

Photo @ocean_pkwy

There are roughly 592,130 trees on the streets of New York City. By one estimate, if you lined them up with 25 feet between each tree, you’d have a leafy route stretching all the way to Las Vegas.  

Of those trees, about 30,000 of them are planted in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the rolling, 526-acre urban paradise designed by the same people who brought you Central Park. (That’s Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, in 1867, for those keeping score at home.)

Trees in spring.

And of those 30,000, a few are so precious to me that my fondness rises to the level of genuine obsession. That’s not because I’m drawn to a certain variety of tree—oak, say, or maple. Do we even have maples in NYC? The truth is, I’m as clueless about identifying tree types as I am about changing our car’s oil. But a few trees in Prospect Park have provided me and my family with emotional and even physical support when we’ve needed it most. There have been times when certain trees of Prospect Park have been integral to our very existence. I’ll explain in a minute.

First, I should tell you that my wife and I moved across the street from Prospect Park way back in the winter of 2003, when Catherine was pregnant with our first daughter, Oona. (Daphne would come along a couple years later.) We’ve lived in the same apartment on a busy traffic circle in a once-grand, six-story building ever since. So in many ways, our kids are true city souls, spending much of their early lives on a handful of square blocks in Windsor Terrace. But then, the park.

Trees in winter.

When the kids were small and wanted a backyard in the suburbs, mostly because they wanted a dog, we’d tell them the park was their backyard. That didn’t go over real well. Soon enough, however, they were exploring mysterious paths; the lake where ducks and swans hang out; “dog beach,” where they could dream about having their own dog; and the pungent Sunday drum circle near the southeast elbow of the park. Baby’s first contact high!

And then Oona found a tree. Her tree. The one she decided would be the first tree she’d climb alone. It was up the hill from us, along the jogging path and not far from the park entrance marked by a movie theater. It was shaped like a question mark. Bent in the middle. Slight but sturdy. I can still see Oona squirming up the narrow stalk and then standing proudly on top of the main (only?) branch. I was so moved by Oona’s passion for this modest sapling, I snapped a pic of it in 2012 and posted it to Instagram. Yes, that’s how moved I was.

Oona’s tree.

That tree is far from the only one I’ve photographed over the years. In fact, scrolling back through time just now to find Oona’s fave, I was reminded that there were pictures of trees madly blooming cherry blossoms in spring. Of trees packed in glistening snow. Of psychedelic trees in fall, fall, fall. Of trees just because.

And of stumps, too. Well, one stump in particular. It wasn’t always a stump, of course. It used to be a tall and magical tree, whose base around the roots formed a kind of seat or woody throne. Like the most artisanal chair in all of Brooklyn. That tree grew on the outskirts of the Long Meadow, not far from Grand Army Plaza. I first encountered it while running the park’s loop and needing a break. Even from a distance I could see how well the roots created a good place to sit. I hobbled over and plopped down. Gazed out across the emerald lawn. And then a weird thing happened: I actually thought about life and death. What it all means. I thought about friends and family members who had died too young, about getting old with Catherine, and about our kids. Always, the kids.

It wasn’t hard to decide very quickly that this place should be My Official Thinking Spot. I hadn’t meant to do so much thinking when I sat down and yet here I was: thinking. I stood up and jogged the rest of the way home.

That became my routine. Run a couple miles, hit the thinking spot, do some quality thinking, then run another mile or so back to the apartment. This went on for many months, until one day I ran up to my thinking spot and saw that it had been replaced with a bumpy stump. The tree must have been sick (calls to the NYC Parks Department with questions about the tree were inconclusive). I was bummed, but not surprised—I’d done enough thinking by then to know that things change. Sometimes quite suddenly.

Here lies the former Thinking Spot, which briefly became a Thinking Stump.

I sat down, optimistically hoping this could become My Official Thinking Stump. It couldn’t. The stump was prickly and slanted. Perhaps too artisanal. As anyone who has a thinking spot of their own can tell you, it’s not easy to think when you have a splinter in your butt. I’d either need to give up thinking or find a new thinking spot. And now I was hooked.

So I set out to find a replacement tree. I knew this would not be easy. There aren’t many trees, even among the 592,130 trees on New York City’s streets, that have such elegant roots perfectly grown for sitting. I scouted for a few weeks, but nothing I saw matched my original thinking spot’s organic excellence. No tree, as far as I could tell, was as good. There was a decent-size stump overlooking the lake, but honestly it was better for hamstring stretching than for sitting. To say nothing of thinking.

Eventually, a sad but practical thought formed in my head. I began to think I might not be able to replace that original spot. And that was OK. I began to think I might have to settle for My Official Thinking Bench. With a good view of the trees.

Mac in a tree. / Photo by Mark Romano

We are also obsessed with the women’s bathroom at The Frick Collection. For real!