Trees border a green field at Prospect Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York on May 10, 2020. Writer Jennifer Lehman found solace being near trees during the darkest days of the pandemic and in the months that followed. (AP Photo/Jennifer Lehman)

NEW YORK (AP) — When the virus was raging in New York City, I found solace on the arm of a flowering tree. I embraced a low-hanging branch, rested my head and mourned for my city.

It was April, and I was afraid. Afraid for Brooklyn, the other boroughs, family far away, strangers and neighbors I knew must be suffering. Afraid for myself.

I was and have been among the safest and most privileged in these times, and in the Before Times, too. But sometimes fear and sadness do not care what you should be grateful for. The haunt of mortality certainly does not.

That night, I headed out to Prospect Park, an expanse not far from my home in Brooklyn. I went because part of my body was convinced it could not breathe, while other parts knew better. I stood in the grass and counted to five again and again, steadying my breath.

Amid the city’s staggering daily hospitalizations, new case counts and deaths, there was another visual I couldn’t shake: More than 3,000 New Yorkers hooked to ventilators, most of them in the city. That number later peaked at roughly 4,500.

A unique life sheltered each pair of lungs, and I imagined the individual characteristics of their breath lost to a computer that calibrated their inhales and exhales. Plugged to a machine out of desperation and hope for bought time, many never woke again.

In the distance, two trees covered in pink-white flowers stood out in the dark.

A large branch, easily a foot in diameter, extended from one of the trees. I ran my hand over the bark and laid an arm over the branch. My eyes welled and marveled at the buoyant blossoms against the night sky. Comfort and heartache. I leaned in and held tight.

In the days and weeks that followed, trees flowered throughout the park. Blossoms wilted and fell, Other trees took their turn. (I learned my flowering tree was a kind of magnolia that blooms early.)

And the green: brilliant leaves of all kinds, breathtaking, blinding in the right light. Perhaps the brightest and richest shades I’d ever seen. Or maybe the weary, narrowed world of the pandemic brought them out in great relief.

In a $5 Zoom class with a local tree expert over the summer, I learned how trees can be identified by leaf shape and serration; bark texture and seed production, the shape in which a tree grows into the sky. Most memorable fact: Trees respire through lenticels (our instructor also called them breathing holes!), visible pores that speckle their bark.

I found myself staring at individual trees around the park for stretches of time, overwhelmed by their beauty or a curve in a particular branch, and wondering about the history of a life that I could not know.

Once, a soft grey face looked out from a hole high up in a tall tree, and I gasped like a child. I thought this only happened in cartoons. When my breath caught, the raccoon stared back in the moonlight. We held that gaze until she disappeared inside. When I returned in the following days, three babies, like kittens, clung to their mother, navigating the rough bark.

There is a balm in these rooted beings continuing on their mortal path alongside us, likely unaware of our suffering, joys, failings, our toil for redemption, for greatness, for love. Perhaps they bear silent witness to our humanity over these millennia. Perhaps they do not even notice.

Summer has now tipped into fall. Layers of leaves in the park are starting to take on shades of gold, brown, red, signaling the next turn. The next turn of the virus for New York may be out there, too.

May we all hold it steady. Take heart. Be generous. Be kind. Hug a tree.


Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow New York-based AP journalist Jennifer Lehman on Twitter