The Golden Bough of Abingdon Square

THE fall color season has finally come to Greenwich Village. Like Brigadoon, New York has a different concept of time, and even nature adjusts its clock (a little) to accommodate a Big Apple.

Many people feel that green things haven't much of a chance in the fuming atmosphere here. Some, in fact, are even under the impression that New York trees put forth leaves that are rare, freaky things that snarl their way into existence, hit their peak one afternoon in early June, and then spend the rest of the summer chafing in their nutritionless environment.

Clearly, the people who see such things are tourists - usually from rural America - or even worse, from suburbia. In those locales nature insists on center stage, often indulging and flaunting its seasonal excesses. In the fall, so it's rumored, this excess takes shape in the covering of hill and vale with riotous color and rustling foliage. People flock from hundreds of miles away to see this display - which only shows how easily some people are awed by the obvious.

Virtue comes in appreciating the subtle. And nature in New York City could be called subtle. Last summer, for instance, while homeowners around the country were trimming and weeding lawns and gardens, some unknown individual on Bank Street dropped a single impatiens seed into a crack on the sidewalk. Like all true New Yorkers, the seed began to thrive in its tiny, apparently barren, home and throughout the hot, grimy summer villagers were treated to the sight of a solitary impatiens stem, with never more than a single blossom or two at any one time decorating it, growing tall and stately (for an impatiens stem) from the corner of the sidewalk.

As I write, with Halloween and the elections over, the trees along the route to the subway are turning yellow. More important, the trees at Abingdon Square (an area in the West Village) have just begun to turn bright at the edges. This is important, because it is here that the Golden Bough resides - that nearly legendary tree that refuses to drop any of its leaves until it has turned them all a great, truly golden bronze. It will then hold this attitude for . . . well , maybe even one or two days before late one night, when no one is looking, it releases all its leaves simultaneously.

Villagers who know of this arboreal marvel love to watch its progress each year. As the leaves become brighter, artists and singers, temporarily posing as business people, stop on their way to work to revel in the tree's beauty and audacity. At midmorning, composers and writers, temporarily posing as shopkeepers, also stop to enjoy. In early afternoon actors and actresses, temporarily working as waiters and waitresses, can't help but stop and stare. And by midafternoon, actors and actresses, temporarily working as actors and actresses, but not due at the theater for several more hours, make sure their shopping routes take them by the tree. At 5 the first shift returns from work hoping the leaves will still be up. After dark the supper crowd even notices the Golden Bough's stately silhouette. And finally, the late-night tenants of the park bed down on benches with the protecting shadow of the tree guarding them for at least one more night before winter sets in.

But all that happens after the tree changes color. Right now it's still full and green, an anonymous center to a children's playground, surrounded by scrawnier trees in various stages of hue and contrast. Only as Thanksgiving approaches does the Golden Bough show its true colors. And when the villagers walk by it one morning only to find that all the golden leaves have formed a golden mound around the base of the tree, why then we all know it's time for Christmas. For, like Brigadoon, New York loves a celebration, and so Christmas comes very, very early.

But that's another story.

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