Ailanthus in the Underworld

Ailanthus shows up in Don DeLillo’s book Underworld. It is a very bleak chapter, describing two nuns distributing alms in a bombed-out area of the South Bronx filled with abandoned cars, cripples, utter desolation. The landscape and the people who live in it are vividly described through the eyes of the senior nun, Sister Edgar. At one point, Sister Edgar glances out the window of the tenement.

Edgar looked out a window and saw someone moving among the poplars and ailanthus trees in the most overgrown part of the rubbled lots. A girl in a too-big jersey and striped pants grubbing in the underbrush, maybe for something to eat or wear.

She learns that the girl is 12 years old, daughter of a crackhead who has gone missing. She is living on her own in the wreckage. Towards the end of the chapter, Gracie the younger nun tries to catch her, unsuccessfully, losing her when she

ran into the thickest part of the lots and then I was distracted, damn scared actually, because bats, I couldn’t believe it, actual bats – like the only flying mammals on earth?” She made ironic wing motions with her finger. “They came swirling out of a crater filled with red-bag waste. Hospital waste, laboratory waste.”

Shortly before giving chase to the girl, the nuns see a tour bus arrive, called South Bronx Surreal, giving ghetto tours to European tourists.

Gracie went half berserk, sticking her head out of the van and calling, “It’s not surreal. It’s real, it’s real. Your bus is surreal. You’re surreal.”
A monk rode by on a rickety bike. The tourists watched him pedal up the street. They listened to Gracie shout at them. They saw a man come along with battery-run pinwheels he was selling, brightly colored vanes pinned to sticks – an elderly black fellow in a yellow skull-cap. They saw the ailanthus jungle and the smash heap of mortified cars and they looked at the six-story slab of painted angels with streamers rippled above their cherub heads.
Gracie shouting, “Brussels is surreal. Milan is surreal. This is real. The Bronx is real.”

DeLillo describes the landscape of hell, and ailanthus grows there. An ailanthus jungle on abandoned wreckage. What I see would look grey and brittle. You could see partway into it before the stems grew too numerous, not a wall of vegetation but more like a fog. On really polluted ground the trees wouldn’t be thick and large. It wouldn’t be a forest in the sense of a distribution of young, medium and old trees. It would be more like a thicket, grey-white branches reaching straight up, a whole cohort of ailanthus all no more than one, two or three inches diameter, growing so close together you can barely pass through, even though there is no understory, and hardly any lateral branches. You could hide in there, but it wouldn’t give you any protection from the elements on its own. The compound leaflets would be too small to slow the rain or the cold wind. If she was living in there, she would have to cobble together some other shelter from the debris in the area. Maybe box-elder would be growing there too; then she could at least prop her lean-to against something more substantial. It is a landscape so poor it does not provide shelter, it does not provide food, it does not even provide wood for the fire. And it would stink, especially in the summer heat.


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