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Of Trees and Life

The Retired

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer….."
 …Shakespeare, Richard III.

"I will go to my shop and make me a bowl,
and only I will judge its beauty, and only those I love will share it."
…Vannevar Bush, Pieces of the Action

March, if you define it as the windy month, came early this year. It started in the middle of February, when we had a windy period that lasted several days and produced gusts in the range of 40 mph. After a few days to recover, the cycle was repeated and re-repeated well into what really was March. On one particularly windy Thursday, after the garbage crew had finished their appointed rounds on Lincoln Avenue, the garbage cans apparently decided collectively to bolt for freedom before their owners had a chance to bring them in. Encouraged by a westerly wind of 35 mph or more, the cans rolled merrily off down the road past the pool, clattering gleefully to each other as they bounced off parked cars and speed bumps, frightening dogs and cats, and ignoring stop signs with abandon. Owners eventually recaptured most of them, but one particularly exuberant can managed to vault over the chain-link fence into the playground of the elementary school, where it basked in the sun for the next week or so before being hauled back into servitude.

Garbage cans may have enjoyed it, but the wind was a more serious matter if you were a tree. As I drove around the local countryside, some of the woodlands looked like war zones. Limbs were broken off, trunks were split, and whole trees were uprooted where the ground had been softened by frost-heaving. Much of the damage will be long-lasting; insects and fungi will enter where branches broke and bark was stripped away, and tissues that are now healthy will rot over the coming years. The worst damage was in places where formerly open areas such as roadsides and abandoned farms are being colonized by the succession process that leads toward a forest ecosystem. The trees found in these areas include species such as locust, silver maple, tree of heaven and mulberry; they grow fast, and often have shallow roots that make them prone to fall over, or soft wood that is easily broken. These species usually do not live a long time anyway; eventually they will be crowded out by native hardwoods like oak, beech and hickory, which have stronger trunks and root systems. Wind and ice storms are normal components of the environment; the trees that will make up the permanent forests must be able to survive them. But even the oaks sustained damage; broken limbs that heal will give them the gnarled character that we associate with old trees. Eventually they too will surrender to wind or disease; it just takes longer. Nothing lives forever.

Around 1970 we planted 300 white pine and 200 Scots pine seedlings in the field behind our house. It seemed like a good idea at the time; I envisioned a stand of stately trees providing habitat for birds and wildlife, and my wife dreamed of making a fortune in the Christmas tree business. But it was not a good place for pine trees; the shallow red clay soil was too wet over most of the area. The Scots pines quickly succumbed to disease; only one or two still survive, with their bark scaled off to reveal a sickly orange color. The white pines did a little better; at the upper end of the field where the soil is well drained, they grew well, but at the lower end where the soil is waterlogged, they died. The effect was so striking that I used to bring my ecology classes in to see them; we would measure the trees from the top of the slope to the bottom and make a graph of their height, which correlated perfectly with the water content of the soil.

At the upper end of the field one white pine got a head start and outgrew all of its neighbors, and that proved to be its undoing. Being tallest, it was exposed to the worst of the wind, and it was uprooted by the February windstorm. Its diameter at ground level was 15 inches and its circumference was 50 inches. Its height was harder to measure precisely because the top got caught in another tree and broke off when it fell; as best I could determine, it was around 70 feet tall. Looking at it as it lay there on the ground, I reflected that growing almost two feet per year in less than ideal conditions was a respectable achievement.

Respectable, perhaps, but not remarkable; white pines can grow more than 3 feet per year when soil and climate are ideal. They are reported to attain the greatest height of any tree east of the Rockies. The tallest living specimen, the "Boogerman Pine" in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, is 188 feet tall; it was 207 feet before its top broke off in a hurricane in 1995. White pines cut from virgin forests in colonial were said to reach 230 feet, and to be over 400 years old. And, of course, Paul Bunyan claimed trees in Michigan were hundreds of feet taller….

In Shakespeare's play, Richard III is using winter and summer as metaphors for his own prospects for becoming king when he speaks of "the winter of our discontent." I recall President Kennedy using that phrase in a news conference when asked about some political event that had not turned out as he had hoped, and many other people have used it more or less correctly. But trees are literalists, and not much given to metaphors. To them, every winter is a time of discontent, and summers with their droughts and pests are not much better; spring is their time to celebrate. If the tallest tree is king, the pines in my field will look at their fallen monarch and say, "The king is dead; long live the king," and pass the crown on to the next-tallest one in the grove. Then they will get on with life and enjoy spring while it lasts.

Looking at my pine tree, my thoughts went back to 1940. I was learning to whittle with my first pocket knife, and white pine wood from orange crates was the ideal material to work with. I reminisced about assorted cut fingers and wooden chains that never got more than three links long before breaking; and then my mind segued to Vannevar Bush, who was President Roosevelt's science advisor during the Manhattan Project. Bush liked to putter with a lathe in his shop, and when writing of his approaching retirement in his autobiography, he probably came as close to poetry as an engineer can hope to. I quoted the line at the head of this column at my own retirement dinner, and the fallen pine tree brought it back again. So as soon as the ground dries out enough, I will cut a slice from the base of the trunk and take it to my shop, and I will make me a bowl. Pine is not the best wood for turning, but with patience it can be used; and with luck, it might even be beautiful. If it is, those I love will share it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith