My Tree and I: Writing in Nature in New York

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From April through November, Central Park becomes my office. Confined from writing indoors during the winter months, nothing makes me happier than when the sun peeks through and gives enough warmth to bring my laptop to an enclave off Cedar Hill and the 79th Street entrance, where my favorite tree awaits to perfectly contour to the groove of my back. This tree and I have written many books together, and while I have come up all with the ideas, it deserves a ton of credit too.

There are some authors who can just poke into a coffee shop and get their work done, but I am not one of them. I’d focus on the chatter around me too much, unable to really sink into writing. During the winter months, I’m lucky that the spectacular Rose Main Reading Room in the library on 42nd Street with its beautiful fresco ceiling is in walking distance. You’ll be glared at if your phone rings, so there’s no danger of distracting chatter. But somehow I’m just not as inspired as when I am at my tree for eight months out of the year.

I have a few stipulations to working outside. If it’s over 90 degrees I won’t do it (after nearly frying my laptop one summer and searing the hairs on my leg). The same goes for under 50 degrees, except for one relatively mild winter when I parked myself on a bench by the Great Lawn and wrote with gloves and an overcoat. I was developing a very dark book at the time that took place in the cold. I thought that the weather would help seep into the main character’s struggles. I finished that book, but I doubt I’ll write outside during sub-zero temperatures again.

Right now, I’m at my tree and it’s chilly for a spring afternoon; but I’m bundled up in a sweater and toasty enough. The tree is located in a prime spot with a nearby bathroom off the Ramble and a hot dog cart selling overpriced water bottles. Behind me a well-worn path provides the white noise of runners and bikers sailing past. In front, stands a circle of trees that gives an effect of closing off the rest of Manhattan. I can see the elegant fifth avenue apartments winking between the trees’ arms, but the racket of the city is kept at bay. There are no sirens, no car alarms. Birds chirp, I’ve even seen a hawk perched behind a thicket of leaves, and I’m transported to a forest setting with animals other than the standard city pigeons and squirrels. Sometimes the enclave is populated with those having picnics, or reading a book, but it’s rarely overcrowded or loud.

My tree has long and sturdy branches that offer an ideal mix of shade and sun. I usually get here by noon and have lunch, go over my outline for what I’m working on and the scenes I’ll tackle that day. Then from about 1 to 5pm, I write. I don’t have Internet, except on my cell for research and any emails that need to be answered. A successful day means getting at least five pages done. Often I write 10 when I’m really in the thick of a book. A few times I’ve even written 15. And while I’m prolific at the library too, I’ve never written 15 pages there. New York City can be a hard place to think. Beyond its own non-stop clamor, the limitless possibilities and various things to do can make it hard to focus. In the park, I rarely have that problem.

As professions go, a novelist is a pretty solitary one. The majority of the day gets spent alone in my head, which is why I don’t often write from home. I’m an extroverted introvert, and while I need time in my head, I crave people as well. Central Park is perfect for this. I have a few haunts in the park when the grass by my tree starts to wilt around September, or when someone else decides to use its trunk as support. I’ll write on the benches by the Great Lawn like I did one winter. I’ll write in this fenced-in grassy spot by Belvedere Castle. I’ll go to Sheep’s Meadow, which also has a few trees with good back support or fencing that suffices. But none hold a candle to my tree.

When I’m really into the throes of a project, I’ll leave my body. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve read other writers who’ve described a similar experience. I’ll enter my book, either as an observer if it’s written in third person, or a participant if it’s written in first person. Sometimes I’m gone for hours and when I’m zapped back, the sun has moved across the sky and there may even be a chill in the air, which I hadn’t noticed. No place but Central Park allows me to leave my body as easily.

For hundreds of years, writers have advocated the appeal and necessity of nature. Sir Walter Scott gardened to distance his mind from debt. Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin to separate himself from the world. George Bernard Shaw crafted Pygmalion and Saint Joan in a small but modern writer’s shed situated on a home-built turntable that rotated to catch the sun’s rays in winter and the shade in the summer. Virginia Woolf lived on an overgrown plot of land that was turned into garden rooms and an orchard, featuring it heavily in her work. Annie Dillard won the 1975 nonfiction Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, raising questions about the horrors and beauties of nature while sitting on a sycamore log overlooking the creek.

Even though New York seems more crowded than ever due to luxury skyscrapers shooting up one after the other, between 1821 and 1855, it nearly quadrupled in population. As the city began expanding further north up Manhattan, citizens began flocking to the few open spaces, mostly cemeteries, to get a break from the noise and pollution in search of fresh air. In 1857, the state appointed Central Park Commission held a landscape design contest. Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner won. His design included a mix of his social consciousness and his belief in egalitarian ideals. He argued that the common green space must always be equally available to all citizens and could never become privatized. The need for public parks was a necessity so people wouldn’t have to use cemeteries as an escape. I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, and I can’t imagine what the city would be like without miles of a park as a refuge.

While I’m walking in the streets or taking the subway, I’ve often thought of the Ezra Pound poem “In the Station of Metro” that states, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” At the time, Ezra Pound was in a funk and saw everyone in the Metro station as ghosts sliding by, but then they managed to morph into petals. Instead of the faceless apparitions he usually noticed; the crowd became something beautiful. It’s easy to keep your head down, avoiding the traffic and crowded streets, but also missing the myriad sights the city has to offer.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.