Forty feet in the air, I perched hesitatingly on the uninviting, creaky metal slats of my friend Kate's rusty fire escape in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was a deceptively cool summer morning in 2020 and one perfect for a coffee alfresco. I’d wedged myself “gracefully” through the apartment’s window moments before, managing not to send any notebooks or pens plunging below as I maneuvered myself, akimbo. At the window sill, Kate's dog, Djola, (and my charge for the weekend), had surveyed my acrobatics with concern until I found myself a seat. Savoring slow, quiet mornings like this one had become my standard: a coffee, a crossword, a few pages of a book. The cozy, quotidian sounds of muffled city traffic as background music, I settled down with that day’s offerings, content, and realized: I had always wanted to be here. Not so much here, literally, but here in the larger sense, in New York City—as my home.
The seed (pun intended) that planted my love for the Big Apple was sowed by Betty Smith in her classic 1945 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. On my mom’s urging (her mom had loved it as well), I first read the book in middle school at about the age we meet its protagonist, Francie Nolan. Francie was a balance between dreamy and observant, earnest, reflective, bookish; I identified with her and romanticized the New York City world she inhabited. I loved Smith’s rich descriptions of Francie’s life in Williamsburg in the early 20th century, particularly of the many characters Francie encountered as she walked her block or gazed out from the perch of her fire escape. Of all the neighborhood’s residents, the book opens with a description of its most famous one:
On the fire escape in 2020, I could easily have been looking out at the same scene. A tree effortlessly towered over the 6-story apartment buildings that crowded it. Its canopy lent dramatic shadows that covered the dusty and cement yards below; I followed the outstretched branches with my eyes, tips to the trunk, to really make sure they all came from the same tree (they did).
What tree was this?
Welcome to Planted!
Hello! I am Katherine, a graduate student in anthropology, new to my 30s, and fairly new to New York City. A transplanted species, native to Texas, I traded the Lone Star for the Empire State in 2015 to pursue my doctorate at Stony Brook University, in the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences, or IDPAS.
My research interests concern the extent to which animal communities can persist in human environments: what happens as human populations 'creep' into wild spaces? How adaptable are species to this change? What interests might animal and human communities share, and are there any opportunities for conservation in human landscapes?
The possibilities to learn about Madagascar's endemic flora there are practically limitless. I love learning their names and function as my team and I work together on data collection: we encounter the towering bararatra (Gaertnera phyllostachya), the thorny fantsy (Carissa sp.), and ever-persistent, invasive mazambody (Clidemia hirta), the last closely associated with human disturbance.
You know what I don't know much about though? The plants outside the window of my New York apartment, plants that may prove just as interesting as those dotting the fields and forests of my Malagasy home. With COVID-19 causing all international research to come to a (momentary) grinding halt, I have time to get to know my, shall we say, more photosynthetic neighbors. What's the story behind the plant species immortalized by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Where does the Rockefeller Christmas tree come from? What the heck is that shrub by the laundromat? I am so excited to use this blog to discover the science and stories of the plants of NYC.
Part personal blog, part field and tourists' guide, I hope we can learn here, together, about the biodiversity to be found just a few steps outside my front door.
Now what's outside of yours?
Planted Header image: Utsman Media on Unsplash
Ivy: Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash
NYC Skyline: Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
All other images are my own.
Welcome to Planted!
Hello, Katherine here! An ecologist and anthropologist by training, I am here to talk about plants: broadly, how they shape human spaces and persist within them, and, more personally, how they are helping me feel at home (one might say, rooted) as I adapt to life in NYC.