Arts & Entertainment

Lifelong Tree Climber Plants ‘Great Spruce’

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By Krista Madsen

9780399160844A grand Norway spruce stands, rootball and all, awaiting a plot somewhere in Irvington where it will rise up to 100 feet. The tree, now about 15 feet, all lit up in the courtyard adjacent to the Red Hat restaurant, comes as a generous gift to the village, to plant where it sees fit, from local tree climber-turned children’s author, John Duvall.

Duvall’s book celebration for the launch of The Great Spruce, already well-received by reviewers, began on an early December evening outside the Red Hat with the tree lighting. Duvall thanked those who made this first book possible, from his wife Ruth Katz to British illustrator Rebecca Gibbon, and the support of friends surrounding him. Little cups of rich, warm cocoa sweetened a toast.

Proceeding inside, the upstairs of the Red Hat was reserved for a book party, bolstered by wine, beer and a steady stream of staff with trays of appetizers. There was much nostalgia and talk of trees. An old colleague of Duvall’s (“he was my mentor in sound recording”) wore a clear plastic ball ornament as a necklace with a 25-year-old pine cone inside from the tree that once grew in her childhood yard. Elisa Zazzera now bemoaned the plan in Hastings to cut 200 trees to make way for a ball field. “Living in this area, all these ‘Tree Cities,’ they give us oxygen and shade,” she said.In other Hastings news, she had praise for the Little Leaf nursery school in the village,connecting kids with seniors and nature.

Matt Gussler, who came down from upstate for the party,climbed trees for a living with Duvall since the ‘70s. His wife brought up how he fell from a tree once –60 feet down, breaking his back and both legs, but “he got right back up,” she said. “It was a good living, but really hard,” Gussler said.

Duvall began this work in his 20s on Long Island. Although he enjoyed another career as a documentary sound recordist for network television, he always continued this freelance work in the tree care business. He had grown to love the view up there, and the trees themselves.

John Duvall

This love got him wondering about the giant evergreens that get sacrificed annually to festoon Rockefeller Center, and if it was always this way. In fact, as he wrote in a 2009 New York Times opinion piece, there was a short span in the 1940s when they used smaller, living trees. An agent wrote to him in response to the article and suggested a children’s book.

“I’m not a writer,” he said, even now at his book party. Duvall described the painstaking years of back-and-forth emails and over 40 drafts. “It can be a real process and deeply frustrating,” he said of a book that was really “50 years in the making.” Nonetheless, he’ll do it again: a second book is in the works. No particular timeline or title yet but he does know it will follow the theme of appreciating the magic of nature.

The Great Spruce is about a family who is approached by Big City tree scouts for their beloved tree. The son is devastated by the idea of that, so he proposes a compromise that can keep everyone happy, including the tree. Duvall’s gift to the village plays out a version of this story – keeping a tree intact and allowing it to thrive and bring pleasure to people for many years to come.

For now, there are readings and a bit of a book tour, which isn’t the most natural thing for a humble guy who might rather be sitting way above it all, enjoying the view.

“It’s absolutely wonderful and totally overwhelming,” he told a friend at the party. He signed the books for them, “Go climb a tree.”

To learn more about John Duvall and The Great Spruce, visit



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