The Brooklyn tree that belongs in a fairy tale

New York has many famous trees: the elms that form a canopy over the Central Park Mall, Peter Stuyvesant’s 200-year-old flowering pear tree, the infamous “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park.

But none are as dreamy and enchanting as the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park, gifted to the young park in 1872 by an East New York florist named A.G. Burgess (who after a career cultivating beauty, sadly committed suicide in 1883).

Grown from a mutated branch of an elm tree in Scotland, Brooklyn’s Camperdown Elm looks like it belongs in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Its gnarled, knotty trunk and thick curly branches give it an ominous fairy tale vibe.

On the other hand, the tree has a magical and protective quality to it. With those weeping branches growing parallel to the ground, the tree’s curtains of leaves serve as a shield against danger. Seek solitude or privacy under it, and it will keep your secrets.

No one described this Camperdown Elm better than Marianne Moore, the poet who began her writing career in the West Village before moving to Fort Greene in 1929 and then back to Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

Her 1967 ode to “Brooklyn’s Crowning Curio” gave the tree, then neglected and often a target of vandals, a new appreciation.

“I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
our crowning curio.”

Save it the city did, with cables to support the Camperdown Elm’s branches and a cast-iron fence to keep admirers at a safe distance.

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10 Responses to “The Brooklyn tree that belongs in a fairy tale”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Wonderful post again! Now I know how to share on Facebook! And I did!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Penelope!

  3. Victoria Allen Says:

    This is beautiful. I love both Brooklyn and Marianne Moore.

  4. Zoe Says:

    I don’t know what I find more beautiful & fantastic; that fairytale tree — or poet Marianne Moore’s elegant ensemble here. That super shiny wide brimmed hat!

    Ephemeral you’ve become one of my sartorial history sources.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I like that! But you know, any opportunity I have to showcase incredible poets in fabulous clothes, I take it. Apparently after Moore moved back to the Village in the mid-60s, she was often seen around town in a black cape and tricorn hat, making her almost as cool as Djuna Barnes.

  6. John Kissel Says:

    Nicely written piece! Especially liked your insightful comment on the florist.

    Thanks for introducing us to this tree

  7. Tom B Says:

    Keep showing us artist and poets from the past. Do we have any in the present?
    That tree reminds me of some Banyan trees in Florida. Not exactly alike, but could be cousins with their gnarly looks.
    “A cast-iron fence to keep admirers at a safe distance.” Really! Why do we refrain from calling out the evil in this world?

  8. David Lippman Says:

    Lovely story and I hope that tree lasts forever.

  9. Wendy Walker Says:

    You might be interested in my most recent book, The Camperdown Elm…
    It consists of drawings of the Prospect Park tree (and other trees) and explores the connections between drawing and narrative.

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