A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

SMELL: The Alley Pond Giant, the oldest living organism in New York City

A few steps from the diesel roar of the Long Island Expressway, at the edge of Flushing’s Alley Pond Park, there grows a tulip poplar tree. Honestly, it’s not much to look at. Drifts of candy wrappers, torn homework pages, Amazon Prime packaging—the detritus of modern life—buffet the chain-link fence surrounding its base. Even its height, an impressive 134 feet, is masked by an adjacent embankment. You would not notice it if you were passing by on foot, much less in the Hampton Jitney.

This is the Alley Pond Giant, rumored to be not only New York City’s tallest tree but, at somewhere between 350 and 400 years of age, also the oldest living organism in the five boroughs. The tree is challenging to find, particularly in the warm months, when the forest shrouds it with foliage. I decided to visit in early spring, when its branches are still spindles against the sky.

After following a paved trail that skirts the shoulder of the expressway, I headed into the forest in what I hoped was the right direction and followed a faint path through the underbrush to the Giant.

Circling the tree, I found a narrow cavity, about twelve feet tall, that led into the hollowed-out base—it was unclear whether from fire or age or both. With utmost care to touch the tree as seldom and as reverently as possible, I slipped inside. The fumes of the highway, and all traces of the modern city, melted away as I was enveloped by the scent of history.

The air inside was loamy, redolent of leaf rot and earth, with a minerally tang. It was easy to imagine that the tree had smelled exactly like this for four centuries, and when, reputedly, George Washington passed close by on his tour of Long Island, and the Matinecock Indians shuffled past.

This being New York, many trees vie for superlative titles. In fact, the Parks Department has compiled a database of sixty of the city's Great Trees, and one intrepid fellow blogger has set out to visit them all. Besides the Alley Pond Giant, my favorite contestant is the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Tree” located on a sleepy suburban block in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, and maintained by one man for the past twelve years. (Needless to say, it is not included on the Parks Department list.)

Unlike some of its kin, the Alley Pond Giant is humble. It holds its secrets inside, in the furrows of its hollow trunk, in the scent and texture of its hoary bark. Like a true New Yorker, the Giant minds its own business as it lives and grows in increasingly unlikely surroundings, getting what it needs from the city's light and air, and from the unexpected visitors and messages that find their way to its roots.