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Fiddlin' Banjo Crap

What You're Not Interested In

"It's amazing, the human capacity to not notice things that you're not interested in," Bram Gunther said. He's New York City's deputy director of forestry and horticulture and recently gave reporter Andy Young a tour of NYC's urban forest for an article in the May 23 New Yorker.

The city of New York has five million trees, a half million of which are "street trees" not associated with parks or yards. There are fowering cherry, honey locust, silver linden, pin oak, ginkgo, Japanese zelkova and pagoda, London plane, Kentucky coffeetree, dawn redwood — seventy species in all.

Beginning in June, more than 1,000 volunteer "tree stewards" — tree geeks, the article calls them — will take the first census of NYC trees in a decade. Driving along one block, Gunther points out to his reporter some of the reasons the tree population turns over so quickly: "Subway! Grate! Bus stop! Garage! Canopy! Grates! Vaults! Driveway! Awning! Light pole! Again with the canopy!" Along the way, they find injuries due to bikes chained to trunks, dog urine, lovers carving their initials, and Asian long-horned beetles.

Over the last few months, and after more than five years of working for an organization of plant scientists, I've finally begun learning to identify trees (so that's what a maple leaf looks like!). If my eye for the various species ever develops, I know it'll be one of those experiences that makes the world come alive for me all over again, much like when I learned about atmospheric optics.

I suppose learning about the urban forest has that same character that draws amateur folklorists, conspiracy cranks, poets in American, amateur scientists, certain varieties of bloggers. It's a way of turning your back on cable news, American Idol, the runaway bride, publicly-funded stadiums, Clear Channel, and inventing your own culture, your own way of seeing the world. ("There are 8 million stories in the naked city ...") It often seems that simply controlling your own attention and finding your own stories to tell is, increasingly, an act of civil disobedience.