Matthew Power [1974-2014] was an award-winning freelance print and radio journalist and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.

A Treehouse Grows in Brooklyn

OnEarth Blog  |  April 2013

[read here]

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a lush 52-acre respite in the pulsing heart of New York City’s most populous borough. Its cherry esplanade and rose gardens are a world apart from the honking chaos of Flatbush Avenue, which runs along the garden’s western edge. Generations of New Yorkers and visiting tourists have marveled at the garden’s 6,000 species of plants and trees from around the world, from towering native oaks and tulip poplars to a vast collection of bonsai.
So it was a bit disconcerting, on a recent blustery March afternoon, when visitors to this urban oasis were greeted by the sight of a bright orange Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, surrounded by piles of sawdust and the sliced-up remains of some of the garden’s stateliest specimens. Thick slabs of oak, walnut, and cedar lay neatly stacked. This was not some attempt to close a fiscal gap with an ill-advised harvest; rather, the garden’s stewards were making creative use of the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy.
When the massive storm hit New York City in late October -- and was followed, just a week later, by a freakishly early nor’easter -- the damage to the city’s urban-forest canopy was extensive. An estimated 8,000 street trees were uprooted, along with untold thousands more in New York’s parks and natural areas. In Central Park alone, 650 trees were damaged or destroyed; the cleanup created a pile of debris 20 feet high and two city blocks long. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, many of the scores of trees that were lost were tall and mature specimens, whose high canopies, many still in leaf, caught the full brunt of the 80-mph gusts. Rows of oaks lay fallen like dominoes.
For weeks after the storms, the city’s parks roared with the sounds of chainsaws and wood-chippers. Clean-up crews’ first priority was to reopen the parks to the public; at the same time, there was fear that allowing any commercial reuse of the fallen timber might spread disease or destructive insects like the invasive Asian Longhorn Beetle. In the interests of expedient clean-up and liability worries, then, nearly all the destroyed trees in the city were turned into mulch.
At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, however, administrators sought some kind of alternative to mulching so much beautiful wood. “We wanted to come up with a way of turning the disastrous events of these storms into something positive,” said Kate Blumm, a garden spokesperson. As it happened, a much beloved nest-like sculpture of woven branches by the artist Patrick Dougherty had also been damaged in the storm. The garden issued a call to artists and landscape designers for site-specific proposals, one of which might ultimately take the sculpture’s place. That’s where Roderick Romero came in.
Romero, a spry, bearded 47-year-old, is one of the country’s foremost designers of tree houses -- an occupation he came to late, after careers as both a theater set designer and a professional musician. He has designed tree houses for celebrities like Sting, Julianne Moore, Donna Karan, and Val Kilmer, with elaborate designs that have (sometimes) cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to realize.
Romero walked the botanic garden’s grounds in the weeks after the storms, and found inspiration in the destruction. “I thought, why don’t we do something that’s more for the kids, make like a little observation nest,” he told me. “And why don’t we use all the wood that got blown down in Sandy? They liked the idea.” He had already done a similar project, repurposing hurricane-damaged trees in Carayes, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Since the trees would never have to leave the garden, there were no worries about infestation or the need to quarantine. The chance to salvage all that wood, and to keep it right there in Brooklyn, was simply too good to pass up. “I would be working with a museum of lumber,” he said.
The project was approved, and a few months later, Romero set to work in a corner of the garden, close by two of the most iconic trees in its collection: the weeping beech and the Caucasian wingnut. At the project site, Romero’s carpenter, Ian Weedman, ran his hands over a huge oak board. John Duvall, an arborist whose tree-salvage company, Local Sawyer, had donated his portable sawmill and volunteered his time to the project, milled the fallen trees into broad planks. “You can’t find this kind of wood in the store anymore,” Weedman said, laughing. “And if there was, who knows what it would cost? It would be prohibitively expensive. So it’s a real treat to be able to work with that, knowing that nobody went and cut down a forest to do it. It’s as sustainable as you can get.”
Weedman once worked as a tall-ship rigger, and brings many of the classical skills he learned on that job into the framing and building of treehouses. He is ultimately in charge of making Romero’s ideas a reality, and as the two have worked together throughout these first weeks of spring, that vision has finally begun to take shape.
On a recent visit, it looked like this: support pillars of thick logs holding up a large octagonal platform, decked with broad planks of chestnut, oak, and linden. A set of steps had been made from the butt-ends of logs, cut into polygons and fitted together. Weedman told me that the stair pattern was inspired by the irregular geometry of columnar basalt geologic formations: a whorl of patterned bark and branches is splayed around its perimeter, while fragrant red cedar intermingles with the scaled bark of persimmon. Pieces of Patrick Dougherty’s original, storm-damaged sculpture have been woven throughout.
“It’s a nest that would have been created by the hurricane,” Romero told me. “Imagine that all the trees just burst, and landed over here, randomly, in this shape. And yet it’s structural.” The stairway does, indeed, almost resemble the wind bands whipping off the eye of a hurricane, as mapped from above. Extending the motif, Romero has made the stage itself into the storm’s center, with an octagon of walnut serving as its symbolic eye.
Against a late-winter flurry of snow, Weedman and Romero recently hurried to put the finishing touches on their platform, which opens up for public viewing this weekend. After a long season of unprecedented destruction to New York City’s natural landscape, their repurposed and newly imagined “nest” in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden should be ready just in time for spring-like weather and the many visitors it will bring.

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