Two Trees Take Root In Big City Soil

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I begin my journey to work by walking in Central Park. I walk in the park every day, whatever the weather. During the severe winter of 1994, I plodded through the drifts produced by 17 snowstorms.

I walk south and enter the zoo, nodding morning greetings to the polar bears and sea lions.

This is a special day. Instead of proceeding to the subway, I meet Lorraine Konopka, the assistant director of horticulture for Central Park, by the sea lion pool. She is going to show me two southern magnolia seedlings planted in memory of President Franklin Roosevelt to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death.

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I had arranged for the seedlings to be sent up from Warm Springs, Ga., where they were grown from trees planted there by the president. The two places FDR loved most were New York's Hyde Park and Warm Springs. He also loved trees, the southern magnolia being one of his favorites.

We walk through the zoo to the area where the old pony track used to be. As a child, I remember being placed in a pony-drawn cart and led around the track.

Lorraine opens the wooden snow fence, put there to protect the newly grown grass, and we go over to the magnolia seedlings. They seem very small to me, not reaching my knees.

She has told Angel, the young park maintenance worker with responsibility for this area, something of the life of President Roosevelt, and has asked him to give plenty of tender loving care to these southern trees planted in a northern climate.

In due course, Lorraine tells me, the seedlings will develop roots in the city soil and grow into trees. If all goes well, they could enjoy a life on this spot for 50 years or more.

But life is never easy for trees in New York City. I learned this years ago on a trip to Rikers Island, the city's largest jail, when I visited the tree nursery there. Under the supervision of the Department of Parks, trees are grown for future planting on city streets and in city parks.

While the inmates of Rikers Island spend most of their time in enforced idleness behind steel bars, locked doors, and high chain-link fences topped by gleaming razor wire, the trees in the nursery are being prepared for their different life in the city where they will face threats from humans and nature. In the nursery, the trees receive nourishment in the form of water and fertilizer. Branches are pruned to strengthen the trunk and roots. Windbreaks and stakes help to keep them growing straight.

Every day now, when I pass the seedlings in Central Park, I look to see how they are doing. They suffered, along with trees everywhere, from this year's severe summer drought. I no longer think of showers as a torment for umbrella-bearing city dwellers caught in massive traffic jams, but as vital sustenance for my trees.

I have never owned real estate. The seedlings in Central Park are my closest tie to the land. To friends, I point them out with pride. They form yet another bond linking me to my city.

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