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Of Trees and Mortality

Bill Meredith

Having spent a couple of fruitless days trying to think of a topic to write about this month, I did what I often do in such circumstances: I paid a visit to one of Emmitsburg’s oldest residents. It is a sycamore tree that stands on the bank of Toms Creek just south of town. There is no way to know its age… like most of its kind, it is probably hollow… but it has lived long enough to achieve a circumference of over 15 feet (for the record, I didn’t hug it; I measured it with a tape). I estimate it to be above 90 feet in height, and my best guess is that it is about 150 years old. While it is a big tree by comparison to others in this area, it is not a giant of its kind; the sycamore is the largest species of tree east of the Mississippi, and the record for its size is presently held by a specimen in Kentucky that has a circumference of 36 feet. By comparison, the Wye Oak was 32 feet in girth.

Trees are the basis of some of my earliest memories. When I was just a toddler, my favorite pre-bedtime activity was to sit on my father’s lap and have him tell stories of working at his grandfather’s sawmill when he was a boy. His job as a ten-year-old was to drive the team of horses that dragged logs off the hill to the sawmill, and I would go to sleep dreaming of the time when I would be big enough to do that myself. Later, still as a pre-schooler, when we would go to get the cows for evening milking, he taught me to recognize all of the local trees. Thus when I reached school age, I found I was the only one in the first grade who knew the difference between red and white oaks; it was the beginning of my training as a biologist.

When the Wye Oak blew down this past June, it prompted a series of articles about big trees in newspapers all over the country; a typical example is the clipping my sister sent me from her local paper. It cites the largest trees in West Virginia as a sycamore that is 26 feet in circumference, and a Tulip Poplar that is 18 feet in circumference and 200 feet high. In the virgin forests three centuries ago, trees of this size would not have been unusual; but most of them were cut down early in the country’s history. Individual specimens, like the Wye Oak, were left standing at crossroads, or as surveyor’s markers. One corner of my father’s farm was marked on the deed, which went back over 100 years, by a white ash tree; it was still living when we rebuilt the line fence in the 1950’s. It was over 18 feet in girth, and it towered over the surrounding trees. The area had been lumbered many times; it survived only because it marked the property line. Its success doomed it; as the tallest thing in the area, it was struck by lightning a few years later.

Other big trees survived as shade trees. When I first came to Mount St. Mary’s College, there were four huge chestnut oaks in the lawn near the Administration Building. One of them fell over in a storm in the mid-’60’s, and Father Coad, then in his late 90’s, remarked, “I told Father DuBois [founder of the college in 1808] those trees wouldn’t last if he planted them so close together!” When the tree was cut up for removal, I counted 162 rings in the lowermost section, which brought Fr. Coad’s story into question, but did date it to the time of the college’s founding. Like most of its kind, it probably was planted by squirrels rather than by Fr. DuBois. Two of its mates still stand, now at an age of some 200 years and a girth of about 12 feet. In wandering about the local forests for the past 40 years, I have not found any of that species that approach their size; all from their birthdate were cut down long ago.

Every time I walk along Toms Creek, I stop and commune for a bit with the sycamore. It has touched the lives of many local citizens. Years ago someone built a suspension bridge by stretching two steel cables between it and another tree across the creek; I suspect there are still people living in Emmitsburg who played on the bridge as children in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. When I first met it, in 1960, the tree trunk had almost engulfed the cables, but the old bridge still had enough intact planks to allow you to walk across it if you cared to take the risk. The remnants of the bridge washed out in a flood in the mid-‘70’s, and the other tree fell a few years later.

The severed ends of the cables still stick out of the sycamore’s trunk; the remainder of the cable is now covered by several inches of wood. Sometimes as I stand beside it, we contemplate universal problems such as the probability that the same molecule of water might have flowed past it twice in the creek during its lifetime; but lately we have tended to focus on more personal things. We are both past our prime, still reasonably healthy but on the downslope of life… my arthritic joints are matched by the anthracnose disease that wilts some of the sycamore’s uppermost twigs every spring, and both of us are probably rotting out at the center more than is evident from the surface. We are approaching the time when quality of life becomes a concern. 

Although modern society seems determined not to recognize it, old trees and old people eventually die. The oldest person whose age was accurately recorded was the Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calmet, who died a few years ago at the age of 123; she was blind, deaf, and unable to walk for her last decade. The Wye Oak survived on life support for the last 60 of its 460 years; its limbs were supported by a mile and a half of steel cable, and its trunk was patched with tons of cement. When it finally fell, its rotted trunk snapped off cleanly instead of splintering as a healthy tree would have.  

The sycamore will not have to worry about such an end; each year the spring floods wash away some of the soil around its roots, and eventually it will topple into the creek and wash away. Whether that happens in another year or another century, it will be the way nature intended; it will not linger on life support. There’s a lot to be said for that.    

Read other articles by Bill Meredith