The Apple Needs the Tree

The Apple Needs the Tree

Julie Leibach
Published: 05/01/2009


Selah Holland, 10, waters a freshly planted tree at Floyd Bennett Field in New York's Gateway National Recreation Area. Photo by Todd Standley.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Giving Tree, by beloved children’s book author Shel Silverstein. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it was a touching tale about a little boy who befriends a tree. As the two mature together, the tree selflessly bows to the boy’s every whim and need—its branches are a living jungle gym, its wood a source of income, and its stump a place to rest and reflect. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’ll go out on a limb (oh dear) and say that Silverstein’s fable is pretty true to life: Trees are invaluable companions that we desperately need—and not just in forests, but in cities, too, where they add beauty, provide habitat, absorb pollution (not to mention carbon dioxide), and combat a nasty phenomenon called the urban heat island effect. Thankfully, metropolitan areas across the nation, from Baltimore to Sacramento, are recognizing the indispensability of our leafy friends by engaging in tree planting projects. My home—New York City—is among them.

Case in point: This spring marks the third planting season of MillionTreesNYC, an ambitious city-wide joint initiative between the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), brainchild of famous stage diva, Bette Midler. It’s also part of a larger city project called PlaNYC, launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in December 2006 and designed to ensure a sustainable future for the Big Apple by addressing issues related to land, air, water, energy, and transportation.

As the name suggests, MillionTreesNYC aims to plant one million trees in the metropolitan area—all within the next decade—in an effort to increase the city's urban forest by 20 percent. By spring’s end, we should be nearly a quarter of the way there, with an anticipated 225,000 trees in the ground.

What’s particularly neat about the program is that it encourages public participation and environmental awareness by hosting planting events, spread out across the five boroughs. "There’s certainly a key need to do something to mitigate the impact of climate change, and trees have been proven to overall be very significant in that. But also, I think there is a desire to reconnect with nature," says Cristiana Fragola, director of MillionTreesNYC, "It’s definitely a very inspiring model because it addresses different needs.”

This past weekend, I attended a public planting event at Floyd Bennett Field, located in Gateway National Recreation Area, Queens. It was one of several taking place on Saturday as part of Hands On New York Day, an annual volunteering event. At our site to help out and/or oversee were members of MillionTreesNYC and NYRP, New York Cares, New York City Parks' Natural Resources Group, the National Park Service, as well as Toyota and Audubon, through their TogetherGreen initiative.

Our site at Floyd Bennett Field was situated where the Park Service hosts its Ecology Village, an educational summer camping program. It's a mix of mostly native grassland and forest habitat, and we planted near the wooded portion in an area that had been ravaged by invasive species. Over the course of the past several months, a crew from the Natural Resources Group had helped clear the area of those invaders, which had taken over after a huge tree die off due to an attack by the turpentine beetle, which bores into conifers, and an infection by a fungus called blue stain, which the beetles carried with them. “When the cover goes, it just opens it up for invasives, and they thrive,” Justin Monetti, a Park Service ranger at the event, told me. The goal this past Saturday was to plant trees native to the area, such as white pine, in order to restore the habitat that had been destroyed. “This was a very viable site for us,” said Monetti.

And man! We couldn’t have asked for a better day—it was 70 degrees, with a slight breeze, several high-altitude clouds, abundant sun, and a chorus of birdsong from species including yellow warbler, rufous-sided towhey, and brown thrasher. (As an aside, I attended a similar tree-planting event this past fall on Staten Island, and it rained almost the entire time. Despite the deluge, volunteers remained indefatigable, planting away in plastic ponchos.) People of all ages had come to enjoy the morning, spreading a spirit of good cheer as they gingerly placed young trees into pre-dug holes. “We’re really tree people,” said Loris Holland, a musician who was there with his two daughters and wife, who works for Toyota, "We love trees." And Holland's kids obviously know the value of their contribution. “People are taking the earth for granted; they’re treating it pretty much as a big garbage can,” observed 10-year-old Selah Holland, “[Planting trees] is good for clean, healthy air. They’re going to help the future generations.” Indeed, so it appears that for trees to continue giving to us, we must give a little back.

To get involved in MillionTreesNYC, click here.