The Legend of the Service Tree
Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9
Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden
“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.
In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.
“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”
“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.
Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.
“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”
Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended
Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill
“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.
“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”
George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”
And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.
Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan
I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.
Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.
“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”
George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.
Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to email@example.com. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.
Is Brooklyn J’Ouvert Dead?
Ray Allen, Brooklyn College
Following weeks of debate over new security measures aimed at curbing violence, Brooklyn’s much scrutinized 2017 J’Ouvert celebration thankfully took place without incident. But New Yorkers might have missed this news amidst the plethora of media stories incorrectly attributing criminal activity to the event. “Bullets fly at J’Ouvert: Bloodshed despite changes” barked the September 5 headline of the New York Post. Even the New York Times and the Daily News, publications that tend to be friendlier to Brooklyn’s black Caribbean community, felt obligated to list several shootings that occurred over Labor Day morning and afternoon. It seems that any violent crimes committed during the holiday weekend in central Brooklyn are now routinely linked to J’Ouvert and Carnival.
A close read of the reports, however, reveals that none of those unfortunate episodes were actually associated with J’ouvert—all occurred blocks away, before or after the event. The Post’s recounting of a shooting in Crown Heights took place at 5am, an hour before the J’Ouvert procession began, and more than two miles from the start of the parade route. The real news is that there was no reprise of the deadly shootings that tarnished the event in the previous two years.
Decisions to move the start time up from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., along with increased police security, metal detector check points, and a no-alcohol policy, came as a result of intense negotiations among the event’s organizers, J’Ouvert City International led by President Yvette Rennie, the NYC Mayor’s Office, and the NYPD. These measures may have been responsible for a more peaceful J’Ouvert, but, as many participants asked, at what cost? The loss of the magical darkness to dawn transition, which could only be experienced with the traditional 4am start, was troubling for some. Odie Franklin, arranger for the Despers USA steelband that chose not to participate in J’ouvert this year, complained that the later time start “dishonored” the tradition of the culture. Michael Manswell of the Pagwah mas band was appalled that costumed members of his group had to be individually wanded and seemingly treated as potential criminals before entering the parade area. Many others felt that the excessive security created a police state atmosphere that stifled the spirit of the celebration. Had this year’s J’Ouvert, as the Times reported, been “sapped of its usual energy”?
Not completely. The crowd might have been slightly smaller than in past years, but there was no shortage of exuberant art and play on the streets. Fourteen masquerade bands, eight steelbands, and six rhythm bands participated in the JCI-organized competitions along the route. And there were hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, of revelers who had donned home-made, raggedy costumes accented with paint and powder. There were sightings of oil-drenched jab jab devils, mysterious midnight robbers, cross-dressing Dame Lorraine figures, and other traditional ole mas characters that have been absent from the Eastern Parkway’s fancy mas for decades. The Oil Downeres band lampooned Trump and his wall with a mas titled “Dey Showing Their True Colors.” Crowds thronged around Radoes, Pan Evolution, and the other steelbands. They wined and sang along in a high-spirited pan-on-the-road performance, another Carnival tradition that has been lost on the Parkway due to competition from deejays and mobile sound trucks. Those who played J’Ouvert mas and jumped up to the steelbands did so with unabashed enthusiasm.
Fortunately, the new security measures did not prevent the crowd from melding in with the musicians and masqueraders on the road. J’Ouvert, more than any other aspect of Carnival, has always been a participatory affair rather than a spectator sport. This in contrast to the big Eastern Parkway parade where metal barricades and police separate onlookers from the fancy mas bands and sound trucks. When what was once a participatory ritual becomes a presentational spectacle, something deep is lost. Brooklyn J’Ouvert, at least for the moment, has managed to maintain that core communal sensibility.
Now that this year’s J’Ouvert has come and gone, members of Brooklyn’s Carnival community must ask themselves some tough questions. Did the sunrise start and heavy police presence constitute a necessary price to pay for a safer J’Ouvert? Or was the original emancipation spirit of the pre-dawn celebration so deeply violated that many will opt out next year? As a non-Caribbean Brooklynite I’m not going to weigh in on that one, but as a folklorist I can offer some historic perspective. Ever since the first Afro-Trinidadians took to the streets of Port of Spain in the 1830s to celebrate their emancipation with dance/drum/masquerade processions known as camboulay (the precursor to J’Ouvert and what would become the opening of the pre-Lent Carnival), government and civil authorities have been trying to shut down, curtail, or control Carnival. In the early 1880s police clashes with bands of stick fighters led to the banning of drumming and stick fighting during Trinidad’s Carnival season. The ex-slaves responded by developing bamboo and metal percussion groups that eventually led to the emergence of the steelbands. Committees were formed to “improve” calypso lyrics in the 1920s by censoring the most lewd and offensive lyrical themes, but calypsonians continued to lampoon their colonial masters and compose ribald songs. British and American authorities cancelled Carnival during the WWII years, only to have it return stronger than ever in 1946 led by the newly constituted steelbands. Following 1962 independence, a national Panorama competition was established in part to move steelbands from the chaos of street Carnival to the more controlled environment of the Savannah stage. But many grassroots steelband men maintained their rebel persona and continued to aggressively dominate the streets during J’Ouvert.
Caribbean migrants established the first street Carnival in Harlem in 1947 only to see the event shut down in 1961 following a so-called “riot” that consisted of a handful of rock and bottle throwing incidents and an unlucky bystander being clubbed over the head with a steel pan. Carnival resurfaced in Brooklyn in the late 1960s, and came close to being shut down in 1991 following the Crown Heights riots. Over the years, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and J’Ouvert City International have faced a barrage of hostile coverage from the mainstream media that too often characterized their Eastern Parkway Parade and J’Ouvert celebration as violence-ridden, mob scenes that threatened public safety and order—not so dissimilar from the racially and class-tinged charges voiced by nineteenth century Trinidad papers that called for the dissolution of Carnival.
History tells us that J’Ouvert has been under attack since day one. This should come as no surprise, given the ritual’s legacy of celebrating liberation from tyranny, resisting colonial authority, and satirizing the rich and powerful. So, is Brooklyn J’Ouvert dead? I doubt it, especially in these current troubling times when standing up to xenophobia, racism, and class inequity has taken on new levels of immediacy for all American immigrant communities. J’Ouvert, with its spirit of resistance, has survived for over a century and a half, and there is no reason to suspect it won’t continue to do so. Of course, exactly what form it will assume next in Brooklyn remains to be seen. Stay tuned for J’Ouvert 2018.
For additional background see “J’Ouvert! Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn Carnival” by Ray Allen at: http://citylore.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/jouvert.pdf.