7 min read

The Guardian of Dead Tree

Located on the perimeter of Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York, The Guardian of the Dead Tree dominates the perspective from the adjacent pedestrian path leading onto the Kosciuszko Bridge.

"Opened on April 27, 2017, and keeping the same name as the original, the new Kosciuszko Bridge was designed to alleviate one of New York City's most notorious bottlenecks.

The old structure, which connected Brooklyn and Queens over Newtown Creek, was replaced by a five-lane eastbound span and a four-lane westbound span, with a bike lane and pedestrian path.

On August 29, 2019, the westbound span opened to the public, providing a new connection between the boroughs for cyclists and pedestrians."

For three years I lived near Calvary Cemetery in Sunnyside, Queens.

By NYC cemetery standards, Calvary is one of the most prominent. It is the final resting place of numerous notable New Yorkers, including Ruth Orkin, who captured the famous "An American Girl in Italy" photograph, jazz icon Louis Armstrong, Hollywood legend Mae West, composer Leonard Bernstein, and many working New Yorkers.

Calvary has also been featured in the classic mobster trilogy of 'The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos,' giving it a certain underbelly of New York aura.

Despite living so close, I've always been hesitant to walk through cemeteries. My attention would typically gravitate to the names and dates etched on the graves, creating a fleeting index of death and time.

After reading enough of them, the sense of mystery in the cemetery would overwhelm me, and I would have to leave to find a tree to contemplate.

On November 18, 2018 I made my first walk up onto the pedestrian bridge overlooking Calvary. It was a gloomy, cloudy day but the scene from the bridge caught my attention because of the juxtaposition of the cemetery, expressway and city skyline.

I didn't realize it on that walk, or when I was photographing, but the tree in the background and on the edge of the frame would become a prominent point of interest during my final years in New York City.

During the summer of 2019, I undertook a project on the pedestrian bridges in New York City. My approach involved mapping out every bridge in the city and charting walking routes that would allow me to visit as many bridges as possible during each walk.

Utilizing satellite views in Google, I became obsessed with the idea of walking every bridge, as it seemed both achievable and a worthy challenge for a project with well-defined parameters.

The Calvary Cemetery bridge was included in my list of bridges to visit during a walk along the Queens Midtown Expressway. This route leads directly into the heart of a grinding, noisy industrial freeway landscape in the middle of the metropolis. Additionally, it was my first time walking on the pedestrian path over the Kosciuszko Bridge.

At the end of the walkway, I noticed two chairs - a plastic one and a sturdy deck chair - perched incongruously within the surrounding environment. Yet, as I looked around, they somehow fit right in.

Sitting on the bridge overlooking the cemetery with the hum of the expressway in the background made sense to me. These spaces are unique and for some city folks they are probably the most peaceful retreat they can find to escape to.

Of course, I was drawn to how it looked as well, so I fixated on the skyline and the magnificent tree on the edge of the grounds. I was fascinated by how the tree appeared as though it was on the verge of being engulfed by the expressway, yet it persevered and thrived with a remarkable fortitude.

I was certain I would return to this spot again, as it marked the edge of my neighborhood, and I had made a connection with the location. However, I did not return until February 23, 2020, during a walk through Greenpoint and Long Island City.

Little did I know at the time, this would be my final walk before the onset of the existential dread.

I find it difficult to write about personal events from the pandemic because it feels like trivializing what happened. I was extremely fortunate, and by some odd twist of pandemic fate, I ended up spending many hours just walking around the city to alleviate my anxiety and avoid the crushing bleakness of the news.

On May 7th, I walked over to Mikey's Hookup in Greenpoint to pick up my MacBook which was under repair for an exploded battery. Before heading over the Kosciuszko bridge, I stopped by the tree and admired the scene with clear blue skies.

Upon reaching the top of the bridge, I noticed a piece of cloth tied in the shape of a heart. While it is not uncommon to see such things while out on a walk, given the circumstances, it was a cool and momentary symbol of perseverance.

For two months, I had been collecting photos and maps from those walks, while taking notes about the small events and ideas. However, the project came to a sudden halt at the outset of the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Walking in the city had taken on a new significance. The events of history had created a stopping point for the project, which is still in the editing stage today.

As the latter half of 2020 unfolded, I established a more regular routine of weekend walks, including a birthday saunter in October that featured a stop at the tree.

In December, the weather fluctuated between cold, wet, and snowy, and warm and spring-like. The wonky Instax served as a reminder that sometimes we have to embrace the mistakes and integrate them into the work.

In January 2021, following the passing of my father, I made the decision to leave New York City after 12 years. My primary objective during my last month in the city was to visit as many significant locations as possible and bring an end to these projects, or at the very least, the fieldwork.

Visiting the trees, bridges, and desire paths one last time was a surreal experience that left me feeling both exhausted and exhilarated.

In February, I completed a walk around the perimeter of Maspeth that passed by the tree. Walking under the BQE on 54th St felt like a grand entrance into the orbit of the Guardian of the Dead Tree.

These are the connecting points where neighborhoods and infrastructure collide, creating interesting transition points on a walk. Often, the vibe shift pushes you into a new rhythm.


Youtube Version: https://youtu.be/wbNrEVdeqAg

On March 3, 2021, I made a walk to the Guardian of the Dead Tree to record a final video. I stayed on the overlook for about 10 to 15 minutes, contemplating how many other bikers, joggers, and pedestrians had caught a glimpse of the tree and perhaps stood in wonderment of it, just as I had over the years.

Perhaps it has many nicknames, each with their own story about the slice of Queens it occupies.

I felt grateful for the moments of inspiration and calmness it provided me, allowing me to take in a view of a city that has taught me much about the narrative and meditative significance of green spaces within the urban landscape.

I have spent the month collecting and editing the photographs and text from those walks, making prints and drawing maps. As I was going through the materials, I stumbled upon the damaged Instax from the November 27th, 2020 walk, and for the first time, I wondered if the Guardian Tree still stands.

I am uncertain of its fate. I have not come across any photos of it on Instagram, but then again, I have not looked very hard.

As I was preparing this article, I became intrigued by how the dates and times of my visits could be represented visually. Glancing over the list, I realized that the dates and photographs were etched into my mind, almost as if I had intentionally imprinted them onto my memories as a way of preserving the walks: "this is precisely how I want to remember these spaces."

Those visits to the Calvary bridge maybe lasted about an hour collectively, but every time I passed by and made the photograph of the tree, I felt a sense of joy. In those moments, I was in dialogue with the landscape, and the guardian tree served as a reminder of how nature can be a steadying force during times of societal trauma.

As I examined the dates, they felt kind of like an invitation, or a train schedule, and maybe they are, in some peculiar way.

In my head, I can hear it:

"You are cordially invited to the Calvary Overlook to sit with the majestic Guardian of the Dead Tree of Queens, New York. The dates and times have been carefully chosen. Mark your calendar accordingly."

I’m an artist and marketing strategist from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This is my newsletter on art, walking, urbanism and mindfulness.

Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram.