This week, the United Nations released a new climate-change report warning us that we are locked into a much hotter future. The report calls this a “code red for humanity,” with global temperatures likely to increase by 1.5 degrees within the next two decades, causing even more extreme weather events. When I logged onto Twitter, I was hit by dozens of panicked tweets in response to the report — a deluge of horror and despair. I could relate.
A couple of years ago, I had a nervous breakdown over, among other things, our planet’s dark future. I started crying every day on the subway, feeling utterly helpless and baffled at how to mourn a loss of this magnitude.
But in the past couple of years, one very important new relationship has acted as an invaluable balm on my climate anxiety — my relationship with the Earth itself.
It can be hard to love nature in New York. When I moved here seven years ago, I realized that many New Yorkers are … disconnected from the natural world, to put it kindly. Like the time my father-in-law, a Queens native, sent the family group chat a photo of “a chicken in the Bronx!” and everyone was awed. It was not a chicken. It was a night heron — which looks nothing like a chicken.
I can’t blame them. I’m from Northern California, where a picturesque beach or mountaintop is often just a 20-minute drive away. In college, I literally walked through a redwood forest to get to class every morning. In comparison, New York City’s natural world seemed so sparse and underwhelming. For years, I never bothered to learn what scraggly tree stood outside my window.
Then I had a breakdown. My mental health was so fragile that I quit my job and started spending full days wandering the streets, lying on the grass in Bryant Park and ambling in circles around Bed–Stuy. And now that I had the time to notice, it occurred to me that the nature in NYC wasn’t as sparse as I thought. I used the plant-identification app PictureThis to scan the weeds I saw and bought books about medicinal plants of the Northeast, and soon I began to recognize that the leaves poking out from the sidewalks were edible broadleaf plantain, burdock, purple dead-nettle. In California, I had picked lemons every night from the tree in my yard, but it wasn’t so different in New York once I began paying attention. While it wasn’t safe to eat plants from random street corners in the city because of lead and other chemicals that might be in the soil, at Forest Park in Queens, just 15 minutes from my house, I found a bounty — blackberries, wineberries, spicebush, and cherries. Even the dismal New York winters I’d always dreaded seemed less barren when I found delicious wood ear mushrooms for stir-fries and gathered pine needles for cookies. The city was actually abundant, if you knew where to look.
Then, last year, I read Braiding Sweetgrass, a book of ecological essays by Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. In it, she writes that it is not enough to simply appreciate nature or to weep over environmental destruction. “We have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.” Wall Kimmerer returns the gift with her research and writing, but she also does so in direct, tangible ways. When she harvests a basket of wild leeks, she thanks the Earth, lays down a spiritual Anishinaabe gift of tobacco, or pulls a few weeds to allow native plants to thrive.
I was grateful to the Earth for easing some of my mental anguish with gifts of sweet blackberries and candied violets. But I wanted a reciprocal relationship with the trees and bushes I’d harvested from. I started learning about New York City’s worst invasives — plants that immigrants brought over from Europe or Asia that don’t have natural competitors to rein them in. They pull down native trees, ruin habitats for animals, and can even turn lush forested land into flat tangles of vines. I read, for instance, that English ivy was an invasive that could kill trees, so on a gray spring morning at Prospect Park, I pulled some down — then promptly got a rash from its noxious oils. So I reached out to the Forest Park Trust and asked if I could volunteer with an expert. The woman who took my call sounded surprised that I was asking to pull weeds, but she connected me with the Super Stewards.
It turned out that there was a dedicated program for people like me. It began with the city’s Million Trees program, which — true to its name — aimed to plant a million trees, especially in areas where they were most needed, like Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Hunter’s Point, and East New York. The city mobilized hundreds of volunteers and planted the millionth tree in 2016. According to Jason Stein, the Super Steward Volunteer Coordinator, that’s when the Parks Department realized “the interest among New Yorkers to steward the environment is really strong and constant … we didn’t want to just lose all that momentum.” So it created the Super Stewards program, which trains and organizes a volunteer army to protect the city’s youngest, most vulnerable trees.
I was astonished to learn how impactful fighting for trees really is. According to this New York City tree map, one London plane tree near me saves 2,500 kilowatt hours with its shade, intercepts 6,100 gallons of stormwater (keeping our oceans and rivers sewage-free), and removes four pounds of pollutants and a whopping 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. People who live in areas with more trees experience better mental health and have lower crime rates and higher property values, whereas the areas with the fewest trees have the highest rates of respiratory illness. Protecting trees isn’t altruism. It’s a form of self-care.
The Super Stewards gave me a few paths to choose from. Shorekeepers remove invasives from the city’s shorelines and marshes. Trail Maintainers keep trails clear by hiking them regularly to report or fix any issues, like erosion. The most popular Super Steward job, the Care Captains, organize block residents to maintain and protect their street trees — as Stein told me, they are “arguably the most accessible form of nature in NYC,” but street trees don’t get a lot of love: They suffer when it doesn’t rain enough and are vulnerable to humans throwing old paint or used cooking oil into their soil. I chose to be a NAVigator, whose task it is to remove invasive species and sometimes plant native ones in the city’s forests and parks.
Across the city, there are about 600 total Super Stewards, but it’s difficult to tell how many are currently active. In Forest Park, I’m one of approximately six active Super Stewards — six stewards for 538 acres of land, an area bigger than Prospect Park. I’ve never run into another Super Steward there.
The job’s perks include a sick NYC Parks hat and some free tools. The hat and a certificate allow me to work undisturbed, though nobody has ever questioned me. I go to Forest Park early in the morning about once a week, and work for around three hours. Thanks to training by Stein and two veteran Parks gardeners, Irena and Mike, I know how to identify and remove several aggressive invasives, including porcelain berry and bittersweet vines. The gardeners also taught me how to identify edible cruciferous mustards; how to find plants that smell like pepper and spice and burnt rubber; how to find jewelweed to rub on poison-ivy rashes —I’m getting a comprehensive horticultural education.
Nowadays, I’ll text Mike to ask him if he’s doing an interesting native-plant restoration project, and if he is, I’ll go assist — we might plant native asters or tend to a milkweed meadow while gossiping about plant-world drama. Otherwise, I’ll go to whatever spot suits my fancy that day — a mugwort patch if I’d like to take it easier in the sun, or deeper into the forest if I’m up for really tackling some vines. Hacking through thorny multiflora rose to get to stubborn bittersweet roots, then heaving a mattock into the earth to pull them up, can be exhausting. But I find the work silences any anxious, meandering thoughts coursing through my mind.
When I’m done, I face the tree I freed from the vines and smooth my hand over the scars they left in its bark. I marvel at her branches stretching upwards where they belong, pat her trunk, and say, “You’re welcome.” It’s pretty nice to save a life or two in the morning.
Wall Kimmerer writes, “Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. Environmental despair is a poison … restoration is a powerful antidote to despair.” It certainly has been for me. Stewarding the city’s parks has given me edible treats, rewarding human relationships, so many grounded mornings, and most importantly, a sense of empowerment. I no longer feel that debilitating helplessness.
One August afternoon, I go to a patch of earth at Forest Park that Mike and I had spent half a spring day clearing vines from. It’s been a few months since I last worked on it, and now that it’s summer, a dozen young sassafras trees have sprouted and are growing fast. It’s in this grove where, for the first time, I don’t feel like I’m just living in New York — I feel like an integral part of it. These young saplings are green and tender now, but they may very well outlive me — and I’ll do my damndest to make sure they do.
Stephanie Foo is a writer and radio producer who used to work at This American Life and Snap Judgment. Her book about healing from complex PTSD, What My Bones Know, comes out in February through Ballantine/Random House.