Yesterday I walked west on 83rd St. from the subway to meet my writing group. I passed a tree on the street. It was the nondescript kind of tree that was like any you’d pass in a Northeastern city. This tree had clear packing tape wrapped around its trunk, which was holding down a scrap of paper that read: Missing Cat. The bottom part of the sign, the part with the cat’s picture and information, had been ripped off. (Hopefully, the cat had been found!) “Someone should really take that tape down,” I thought to myself…

Last year the students at my school did an activism project on street trees, and I learned several things I didn’t know before:

The trees on any given block in New York City are not necessarily kept up by the city. The city comes, plants, tends for a year or so, then that’s it. After that, it’s expected that they’ll be cared for by the citizens who live on that block.

What kind of care could a tree need? A lot, apparently. Trees are healthiest when they have their soil raked periodically, when dogs stay off of them, when they’re watered in dry weather, and when their limbs are free of human “stuff”—like lights or taped up signs—for starters.

All this time that I lived in New York, I’d been thinking that caring for these trees was “someone else’s job.” Every tree I pass as I scurry about this chaotic city means the difference between hard, cement despair and civilized living. And I’ve been unknowingly indebted to generous citizens all along.

This weekend, I’m going to take a walk back over to 83rd St. to see if I can find that tree, and try to take that tape off. Sure, the person who put up that sign should probably be the one to take it down, but I know the whole thing only works if we’re sometimes willing to do what may seem like someone else’s job…