Sycamore Trees and Courtyards
by Ruth Horowitz
When you were a child, you put your hand on the trunk of a tree and you were comforted because you knew that the tree was alive – and you knew that it was friendly to you, or, at least, not hostile. But of people you were always a little afraid.
Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie
Overriding any other distinguishing feature of Sunnyside Gardens for me as a child were the sycamore trees that lined its streets. Something about their numbers and size, and the way their towering presence separated our neighborhood from the rest of Sunnyside immediately marked the place special - beyond the traffic, the heat, the noise - a refuge. Mornings, leaving the shelter of those shady streets to walk to school, you crossed over onto the uncertain ground of concrete sidewalks, red brick apartment houses and the vacant dirt lot on Skillman Avenue that bordered the Long Island Railroad tracks. On your way home again, the green tree canopy enveloped you and you felt safe.
“Gardens” homes were very small. For a child person, the two-story red brick houses posed no threat. Attached to one another, many with flat roofs and tiny front porches for umbrella and boot storage, they gave a family of four just enough space to feel cozy. The rooms were tiny, but tiny felt good because you were little. Each home had a tiny garden in the front and another on the back court. All the back gardens bordered a commons in the center; a narrow path allowed neighbors to visit one another beyond their garden hedge. These courtyards, three to a square block, were my introduction to the natural world. Roaming them gave me a sense of adventure.
Despite the basic layout of every courtyard replicating all the others, each had its own distinct character. On 46th Street, where I began life, the vegetation was unruly, dense and shady, with a dirt path around the center space and no fences. A child could step out the back door and into his or her own phantasy landscape, immediately becoming Peter Pan or Robin Hood or a girl on a horse.
Lincoln Court, on the other hand, the place to which my family moved when I was seven, had an altogether different feel with its weeping willow trees gracing the far ends of a carefully tended center lawn enclosed by a wire fence. No children galloped about here. Beyond the occasional grownup strolling the walkway, someone hanging out the laundry on an umbrella clothesline, a gardener or two chatting across the hedge, most days of the week saw little human activity. In Spring, robins plucking worms appeared. At the far end of the courtyard stood a large pergola covered in wisteria vines, the sweet scent of which drew me to quiet solitude. Two tall gingko trees in the alleyway, bright orangey-yellow in autumn, held my child attention. This setting may not have provided the backdrop to wild imagination, but it did much to give me needed peace.
Growing older, I sought the wilds of a small wooded area between the sandlot and the railroad tracks. Passing along 39th Avenue where the catalpas grew - the long dangling beans we kids dried to smoke like cigarettes - I crossed 43rd Street and entered a patch of stunted trees where no one ventured, to gallop about on my imagined horse, freed momentarily from the turmoil of my young life.
But if I could paint a line between my childhood and the adult path that ineluctably led me to my wilderness home in the woods of Nova Scotia, it would have to begin under those Sunnyside sycamores – the solidity of those fat patchy trunks and the leafy canopy they created - and the feeling they gave me of coming home to safety.
Ruth Horowitz has been homesteading with her husband in the backwoods of Nova Scotia since 1974.