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Monday, June 4, 2012

SOUND: Wave Hill’s copper beech tree before a rainstorm

There’s something different about the air at Wave Hill, the public garden in the Bronx on the cliffs above the Hudson River. Perhaps it’s because the wind usually comes from the west, straight from the Palisades across the river and hits you right there on the bluffs.

Perhaps it’s because the garden’s juxtaposition of sweeping vistas and intimate nooks creates unpredictable air currents. Or perhaps it’s because the trees here are generally not clustered in groves but stand alone, free to interact with the elements on all sides. When the wind blows, all sides of the tree move with it, and often don’t touch any other trees. Walking through the garden on a windy day is rather like meandering through an orchestra pit in the midst of a symphony: as you pass each tree, its unique tone sounds out for a moment against the sibilance of the trees around it.One such tree is the venerable copper beech located on a quiet patch of lawn between the aquatic garden and the shade border. More than a hundred years old, it has elephantine bark, silvery gray and in places marked by wrinkles so intricate it seems to be melting. The boughs dip to brush the ground.

One afternoon last week, as I wandered the gardens, I felt the breeze stiffen, and the sun shuttled behind clouds. A stray raindrop splattered onto my bare arm. I took shelter beneath this beech tree and was struck by the sound of the leaves rustling in the building wind: a susurration that moved in a wave around the circumference of the tree. The leaves whispered with brief pauses in between movements, almost as one might to soothe an anxious child: shhhhh (now) shhhhhh. And as the breeze died, the sound died in a hiss almost like the tide receding along a sandy shore—only to build again.

I moved to stand closer to the leaves, which were thick, oily, and mahogany colored, gently cupped like hands waiting to receive the coming rain. But up close, the sound was not nearly so remarkable, more of a papery touch, barely audible.

Stepping back from the tree into the garden, I saw the tree’s bodily sway in the breeze was just as soothing, as parental, as its sound: a listing to accommodate the strange, changing air, just enough to keep it flexible, just enough to keep it strong.