Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn


While walking in a local Brooklyn park this weekend I came upon this tree which immediately reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite books:

"The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a
hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated
from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green
umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed
fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up
lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out
of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts."

- Betty Smith

The Tree-of-Heaven, or Ailanthus Altissima, was used as an inspirational metaphor in the classic Betty Smith's 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The Ailanthus' obvious persistence to survive and grow despite all odds was equal to the book's characters aspirations for a better life despite enduring hardships. It’s a coming of age story about Francie Nolan as her family struggles with poverty, alcoholism, and the realities of life in the tenements of Brooklyn, New York in the early part of the century.

While the tenacity of this tree is a noble metaphor for the book's protagonist, this tree in nature is an unwanted invasive species, as it is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket as you can see in the photo above from the same park. Ailanthus trees also produce toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. Their root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations

It grows stout and tall to about 100 feet with a "fern-like" compound leaf that may be 2 to 4 feet long, and now has wide distribution in the United States, occurring in forty-two states, from Maine to Florida and west to California.

I took this photo of the side of a building in Williamsburg neighborhood Brooklyn a few weeks ago. It shows two pervasive examples of urban blight...the Ailanthis tree growing literally out of cracks in the building foundation and the ubiquitous graffiti that seems to be the fate of many blank city walls. It seems that the tree that "grows in Brooklyn" is still growing strong, just as there are still children and adolescents who face the same harsh realities of life that Francie Nolan did. Perhaps that is why this book is such an enduring classic. No matter what generation you are from, or where you live, or what your socio-economic background is, growing up can be a struggle with many adversities to overcome. A reader can not help but identify with Francie as she escapes the confines of her life by reading her beloved library books, aspiring to become a writer herself one day.

Does the Ailanthus Altissima also grow where you live? Do you have a favorite book from your youth that you revisit time and time again? One where you've recognized characteristics of yourself, or a book that transported you to a favorite time or place?

I'd love to hear about in your comment....thanks!

24 comments:

black eyed susans kitchen said...

Good morning Pat...you really made me think with this question. Favorite childhood books, well, there were many. My husband and I have always been avid readers and have passed this on to our children. When I was very young, The Wizard of Oz was the favorite. I loved that Dorothy had an adventure full of mystery, danger and whimsy. As I grew, the Nancy Drew series was a favorite. One of the biggest perks of bringing up kids is having the opportunity to reread books to them and read new stories that are more recently published. I think this post may have opened a floodgate of thoughts for me.
♥, Susan

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Nice post Pat - I loved that book too growing up, as well as the Nancy Drew stories.

Queenmothermamaw said...

What a wonderful, well written post today. I read all the Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott books. I did not read A Tree...until I was an adult. I love that book. Yes that tree is in Kentucky. We are constantly pulling up little ones. They are strong and tuff. Love your stories about NY. Blessings
QMM

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Excellent post, Pat. I'm not sure about that tree in Florida. But we have a beautiful tree called the Rain Tree that drops seeds, and you have to pull them out of flower beds and everywhere else due to the tree's invasive nature.

A favorite book from childhood? There are many. In truth, my favorite books as a child (aside from Golden Books such as MR. DOG, CHRISTMAS IN THE COUNTRY, and RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS) were biographies. I enjoyed reading books about famous people like Clara Barton and George Washington, and I still love biographies and histories. And I loved, loved, loved our Bible Story book and the Psalms.

I read all the standard books that young girls read, but I always liked things that were different. I enjoyed, for example, my much older sister's series about Uncle Wiggly, a rabbit who had many adventures. I loved the book PENROD AND SAM. I loved PIPPY LONGSTOCKING. I loved Twain. I loved the Uncle Remus stories about the animals. I loved Winnie the Pooh. I loved THE LITTLE FUR FAMILY. And my mother said that I memorized every nursery rhyme in my storybook, and if she skipped a passage reading to me, I would stop her no matter how sleepy I was. LOL! So if I had to pick a common thread, I would say books that taught a lesson about being good, honest, true, dilligent, kind (in other words moral lessons) combined with animal characters.

XO,

Sheila :-)

P.S. Books I love now and would have loved then: THE GIVING TREE, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT (for some reason, I read this when I was a little older... though Cecelia says it is too sad), THE MISSING PIECE, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (I really think this is for adults), and so many more!

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Excellent post, Pat. I'm not sure about that tree in Florida. But we have a beautiful tree called the Rain Tree that drops seeds, and you have to pull them out of flower beds and everywhere else due to the tree's invasive nature.

A favorite book from childhood? There are many. In truth, my favorite books as a child (aside from Golden Books such as MR. DOG, CHRISTMAS IN THE COUNTRY, and RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS) were biographies. I enjoyed reading books about famous people like Clara Barton and George Washington, and I still love biographies and histories. And I loved, loved, loved our Bible Story book and the Psalms.

I read all the standard books that young girls read, but I always liked things that were different. I enjoyed, for example, my much older sister's series about Uncle Wiggly, a rabbit who had many adventures. I loved the book PENROD AND SAM. I loved PIPPY LONGSTOCKING. I loved Twain. I loved the Uncle Remus stories about the animals. I loved Winnie the Pooh. I loved THE LITTLE FUR FAMILY. And my mother said that I memorized every nursery rhyme in my storybook, and if she skipped a passage reading to me, I would stop her no matter how sleepy I was. LOL! So if I had to pick a common thread, I would say books that taught a lesson about being good, honest, true, dilligent, kind (in other words moral lessons) combined with animal characters.

XO,

Sheila :-)

P.S. Books I love now and would have loved then: THE GIVING TREE, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT (for some reason, I read this when I was a little older... though Cecelia says it is too sad), THE MISSING PIECE, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (I really think this is for adults), and so many more!

Judy ~ My Front Porch said...

Your tree reminded me of the sumac trees with beautiful foliage that grow around here...and sure enough, it is a sumac. I have been eyeing the 'Tigers-Eye Sumac' for some time...a dwarf shrub in many pacific northwest gardens. But it seems they should too be grown in pots...as they like to spread themselves around.

As for books that transport me back in time...Dr. Doolittle and Pippy Longstocking take me back to my grade three classroom...with Mrs. Smith reading aloud every day after lunch. Then came Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. There's nothing like a good read at any age.

pammiejo said...

It looks alot like our "staghorn sumac" and they do spread all over the place. I was an avid reader as a kid - still am. I read Trixie Beldon, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Kay Tracey mysteries (can you tell I'm a "mystery fan"?). I loved reading aloud to my kids in school too so as an adult I'm a fan of so many children's authors! Good post! PAM

Oliag said...

I would guess that that tree does grow in RI...but I am not familiar with it...just as I have never read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"...I will have to read that one soon!

I was an avid reader as a child and loved many, many books but the ones I remember off the top of my head are all books by Louisa May Alcott; Anne of Green Gables and all of L.M.Montgomery's books; Trixie Belden books; Jane Eyre; and almost every book we received in the mail from The Weekly Reader's Book Club...

Paz said...

I love all this nature in the city. Awesome photos.

There are a lot of books I loved. I was most proud when I could save my own money and go to the then B. Altman's to buy my Nancy Drew books and add them to my collection. I just recently had to give away my Nancy Drew books away, since I have too many books and not enough space for them. *sniff*

Of course, I've heard of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but I never had a chance to read it. I think my sister did, though. I suppose it's never too late to read it. One of these days, I'll pick it up.

Paz

Lisa's RetroStyle said...

According to the distribution map we do have this variety of Sumac where I live. However I'm not sure I'm familiar with it. We also have a variety that I believe is called staghorn sumac, which does not pose the same problems as your variety.

I have fond childhood memories of sumac "forests". These sumacs grow in large clusters. They would only grow to maybe 5 feet tall and formed a dense canopy. There was a "forest" of them in a vacant lot near our house. My siblings and our neighborhood friends would set up camp under the sumacs in the summer. We would crawl underneath them and selectively remove, by cutting some trees out, to make a labyrinth of "rooms" and "halls". We could play under the canopy in the cool shade unseen by adults all day long. It was our secret place. We loved our sumac fort.

I'm not one to re-read books. But I do have a few favorites whose characters and stories have stayed with me. My childhood/youth favs where Charlotte's Web and Catcher in the Rye. Fern and Holden will always be a part of me.

Nola @ the Alamo said...

I see someone else thought as I did; that looks a lot like the sumacs we have around here. Not sure if we have that same tree or not, I'll have to look around, maybe google it.
I'd spend summer reading when I was a child, and any well written book could take me away to another world. It still can! Thank goodness I had teachers that instilled in my the love of reading.

Lynn said...

I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklin on New Years Day AAALLLLLLL
day and night long! I loved it and actually remember certain parts of it, even though it was my senior year in high school.
1963.
Yeah, I know.

Linda Lou said...

Love the book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I still have a book I loved as a child, The Five Little Peppers and How THey Grew, story of a very poor family, kind of like the Waltons...I suggested to my daughters that they read it, but not interested....they would rather get lost in Harry Potter books, or The SIsterhood of the Traveling Pants....but summertime ha always been reading time for me!

Rhonda Hartis Smith said...

Hi Pat, I loved the Nancy Drew series too and my earliest favorite was a big Mother Goose Book. I'm an avid reader or was before I took up oil painting (lol). As a teenager I loved the Agatha Christie mysteries.

M.Kate said...

Beautiful collection of trees there Pat, I can never have enough of them in my garden :P

Tracy said...

Love those fern-live leaves...I loved that book, and the film it was based on. Some of my very favorite childhood books was Little Women and others by Louisa May Alcott, and Anne of Green Gables and all books written by L.M. Montgomery, as well as Little House on the Prairie and that series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Such a lovely post today, Pat...very nostalgic and I feel homesick all of a sudden--LOL! Happy Day, my friend ((HUGS))

Claudia said...

You brought up some wonderful memories of my reads (there were a few) with A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. I've never had a favorite "anything" - it goes with my mood. But titles bring up sights, sounds and the age when I was reading a particular book. I love the history of the tree - never put two and two together. Lovely, lovely remembrances and beautiful post.

Joyce said...

Love that book and your post. Happy 4th of July.
Joyce

Vee said...

Oh yes it does and in proliferation, but we know it as "sumac." I adore it in autumn when the leaves are a brilliant crimson.

Vee said...

Oh, forgot to mention that those crimson leaves were once boiled in buttermilk making a wonderful, long-lasting, paint for barns, hence the ubiquitous New England red barn.

Catherine said...

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was a favorite book of mine and later the movie. That plant also grows in Philadelphia.

Willow said...

My first thought about the trees was 'they grow up to be bullies' and sometimes those taggers do too. Unless they get clipped and trimmed...

Trees from childhood: Douglas firs and walnut trees. We had two walnut trees in our garden and I often went to school with brown stained hands in the fall because it was my job to pick up the walnuts and shell them. We also lived surrounded by the huge fir trees in the 'woods' next door.

Books: Mrs. Meyers read to us every day after lunch and I'm sure that is where I first heard The Little House books read to me. And the Sugar Creek Gang series.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Thank you all for sharing your favorite young adult books with me! I've read many of them , if not as a child then with my daughter as she grew older.

Tracy, the movie "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" was based on the book, and not the other way around. It's a sweet movie and almost all parts of it can be watched on Youtube!
:-)

Tracy @ comfortandluxury said...

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was one of my childhood favorites and I recently received a copy as a gift from my mother. (haven't read it yet though... 'saving it' for I don't know when). At that same time in my life, I was reading books like "White Fang" and "Treasure Island" but still loved the Little House and Babar books. I was ten or eleven when I started to work my way through the family library. My mom stopped me when I got to "In Cold Blood".
Sorry I can't tell you how I found it the other day, but I love your blog. Haven't ever been to NY but your pics and stories make me want to visit all the more. One day...