We have some great old trees on our property, but the tall one-hundred-year-old elm tree is the grandest of them all.
It rises straight up from the roadside like a geyser, and then opens up like a fountain in the sky.
I have many fond memories of gathering with friends around a picnic table in the shade of its great canopy. Our sheep like to take their siesta in its ample shade, and in summer its crown is filled with songbirds. We have even seen the pendant nest of the Baltimore oriole suspended from its uppermost branches.
It is odd that friends who have been to our place many times are surprised to learn that there is an elm tree here. That may be because its telltale tall straight trunk is disguised by the maple that grows with it like a conjoined twin.
A few years ago a botanist from the University of Vermont stopped by to study the tree; he told us it might be the healthiest American elm tree in the state. More recently, someone with the Nature Conservancy knocked on our door – he was passing by when he happened to notice our elm. The Nature Conservancy is searching the region for the largest and healthiest surviving elm trees for its floodplain forest restoration project, with the goal of planting seven thousand disease-resistant saplings over three years in Connecticut River Watershed. *
Only last year another large old elm tree in Richmond succumbed to the disease that has taken 77 million elms since the 1970s. The tree was removed by Vermont Tree Goods, which makes unique handcrafted furniture out of very old trees. The Tilden Street elm was made into a conference table that now dignifies our town offices, and can be admired and used by the people of Richmond for generations to come.
Before I learned about the Tilden Elm, I had been rather complacent about our own, believing that if it has survived this long then it is not in danger.
Then I learned about the death of another elm, this one the largest elm tree in Vermont – called the Vermont Elm – last November in Charlotte. Vermont Tree Goods took down the tree, milled and kiln dried the wood and turned it into furniture. The bottom 20-foot long section alone weighed 25,000 pounds.
The elm tree once dominated the floodplain forests in New England and was planted along city streets to form living arches, in city parks and town centers. They are fast-growing, robust trees that can tolerate urban environments and all kinds of storms. And they are beautiful.
We did love the elm tree to death, however. Planting rows of elms along city streets was, in effect, to create monocultures that made them susceptible to epidemic disease. When dutch elm disease arrived, it swept through these plantations, spreading from treetop to treetop, and then, infected elms in their natural habitats as well. Trees that remained isolated from affected trees, and those with genetic resistance, survived. Our elm is one of those.
American elms are still abundant in floodplain forests but they do not survive to maturity. No other tree has come to take the ecological place of the largest, longest- living tree in the floodplain forest. Elms with their deep strong roots kept soils from washing away and maintained water quality of rivers and streams, while providing habitat for osprey, eagle, barred owl, songbirds, bats, and flying squirrels.
Trees have a trenchant psychological power over us that may be difficult to explain. But it makes sense, given the importance of trees to our survival, and given our origins as tree dwelling primates. In his beautiful essay, “The Brown Wasps,” Loren Eiseley writes that he passed his life the shade of a non-existent tree – a tree that took root and flourished in his memory as it failed to do in the patch of soil where he planted it, with his father, as a young boy. The house and the street where he lived had both rotted away, but not the memory of the tree, which, he learned many years later, had perished in its first season, just after his family moved away. “It was part of my orientation in the universe,” he wrote, “and I could not survive without it.”
I know what it is like to lose a big old tree. Before I moved to Richmond, I lived beside the New Haven River in an old house surrounded by large trees that were badly damaged in a late summer thunderstorm. One tall black locust tree lay sprawling across the road, others lost their tops. A neighbor broke a leg when a tree fell on him during that storm, which whipped around and twisted like a cyclone. For a long time I mourned the loss of those trees, and I felt that sense of disorientation– the kind that comes with grief, when we stumble about on our sea legs, stunned and unanchored in a world we dimly recognize.
It was a bit like that for us when the twin towers fell – we lost our physical orientation in the city, and in some ways, our orientation in the world as well.
Our farm is exposed to the most violent winds that are funnelled through the river valley, picking up strength as they barrel across open farmland. In the aftermath we find tree limbs and branches wrenched from their bodies, or whole trees felled and uprooted. In her poem, “Tornado at Talladega,” Gwendolyn Brooks describes the wreckage after a storm:
Stick across the road.
They are unimportant now.
They cannot sass anymore.
Not a one of these, the bewildered,
Can announce anymore “How fine I am!”
Here, roots, ire, origins exposed,
Across this twig-strewn, leaf-strewn road they lie,
Mute, ashamed, and through.
Though there is some danger, or sentimentality, in personifying trees, it is hard not to, as a tree’s life cycle so uncanningly parallels our own. Gachelon Bachelard writes, “the suffering tree is the epitome of pain.” But storm-ravaged trees recover, limbs grow back, a hole in a forest canopy lets in light for the growth of young saplings, and the rotted wood from downed trees is host to whole galaxies of life. This may be where the mimesis between the human and arboreal life cycle begins and ends.
Another favorite poem, “B.C.” by William Stafford, imagines the millennial history to which a single sequoia has borne witness. (“Great sunflowers were lording the air that day; this was before Jesus, before Rome…”) I like to think about the history our elm has observed from its transcendent position in the sky—the disappearance, and recovery, of the forests; the meadows dotted with sheep, then cows, and now, a pox of subdivisions and their cul de sacs. This old farm. The raising of the seven-story-tall monitor barn, its slow decay, and its resurgence, lazarus-like, from its ruins.
Our elm tree does not have a name, but perhaps it deserves one. I would suggest: the Monitor Elm.
Our box alders have been split and wrenched and mutilated so many times they are by now shapeless malformed trees, with all their amputations and perversions. The birches do what they are supposed to do – they bend over backwards and never get up again. But the elm – the elm lords over all of this mortality and remains unscathed, with its canopy high in the stratosphere.
As the climate becomes more and more deranged, there will be more storms and more lost limbs. The elm – if it remains untouched by dutch elm disease – with its immense trunk and tenacious roots, may be poised to weather the storms to come. We will need these giants in our floodplains to hold back the waters of the deluge, and the forests to hold the world together through its pain.
[In memory of Larry Hamilton (1925-2016), whom I first knew as “the tree guy” in Charlotte, lifelong conservationist and peace activist.]
* The cultivation of hybrids should not be confused with genetic engineering. To learn about the dangers of genetically engineered trees go to the Global Justice Ecology Project website (globaljusticeecology.org).
Nature Conservancy Connecticut River American Elm Restoration Project (nature.org/ctriver)