Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Of trees and aging

Bill Meredith

"Ars longa, vita brevis."
…Hippocrates, ca. 460-370 BC.

"A lot of people my age are already dead. You could look it up."
…Casey Stengel

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…."
Reinhold Niebuhr, "Serenity Prayer."

(May, 2013) If I make it through a couple more weeks, I will become an octogenarian. That in itself is not remarkable; I selected my parents carefully, so I have good genes, and several of my relatives and ancestors reached 90 and beyond. But still, being 80 is enough to make you stop and think. I used to enjoy thinking; but these days, by the time my brain gets around to it, quite often I have forgotten what the question was. Things are changing, and it’s getting harder to keep up. Of course, ecologists know the world has been changing for millions of years, but when you think of time on such a grand scale it becomes a theoretical abstraction. By contrast, the changes we see in a lifetime have an aura of reality about them, and the older we get, the harder it is to adjust to them.

Weather is a good example. As I write this, it is the last week of April, and my daughter, who is visiting from Minnesota, just got a phone call from her son. He was in need of maternal advice; he had planned to have a barbeque with some friends to celebrate the arrival of spring, and woke up on the appointed day to find nine inches of new snow on the ground. As best I could discern, hearing only one side of the conversation, she told him to go ahead with the party as planned. In Minnesota, they do things like that.

Here in Emmitsburg, the weather behaves in a more civilized manner, but it still isn’t as predictable as I would like. One of the things I always used to enjoy in springtime was watching a few new flowers and trees coming into bloom each day, starting with crocuses and wildflowers in March and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the flowering trees in my yard in April and May.. But this year, when the equinox arrived, nothing happened; if you had looked outside then, you would have thought it was still December. According to the records I keep, night-time temperatures were above average only four times from the beginning of March through the first week of April, and during that time there was no sign of anything growing. Plants may not have brains, but that is not to say they are stupid; they just sat still and waited. Then in mid-April, when we had a week of warm nights, everything came out at once. I couldn’t keep up with them.

I raked up the leaves in the yard last fall, but when spring arrived the ground was covered with them again. Some of them came from oak trees which hadn’t shed yet when I raked in October, but quite a lot came from the old sycamore tree in the yard just west of us. One morning before spring arrived I was looking out the kitchen window, and one of those leaves came wandering across the lawn, propelled by a slight breeze. It got me started thinking about aging; and that was an instructive exercise.

The sycamore tree stands beside an old stone house which a friend (who is 87) told me was already vacant and falling into disrepair when his family moved to Emmitsburg in 1940. It is not a place where a sycamore normally would be… in nature, they grow in floodplains and along streams … so I assume it must have been planted there when the house was new, which would make it between 100 and 150 years old. So for the past 100-plus years, that tree has been sucking nutrients out of the soil to sustain its growth. In its normal habitat, most of the leaves would have fallen around the tree and decayed, returning nutrients to the soil, and periodic flooding would have deposited silt with new nutrients to replace those that got away. But here, away from the floodplain and exposed to winds that blow the dead leaves away, there is no way for the soil to remain fertile. The Balance of Nature is a delicate thing.

"Old" is relative, and for a sycamore tree 150 years is not a particularly venerable age, but this one has been in failing health for several years. Like an old person who has lost interest in cooking or lacks the resources for maintaining a healthy diet, this tree’s resistance has been weakened, making it susceptible to disease. Many of its young branches lose their leaves and die back each year, probably from the anthracnose fungus that appeared around here several years ago. In addition, it has endured the expected environmental stresses of decay where windstorms have broken off limbs, insects,, and more recently, air pollution and climate change. But the last time I talked to it, it seemed content. The wisdom of a tree is to accept the things it cannot change. Perhaps that is where Dr. Niebuhr got the idea for his Serenity Prayer.

Aging is more complicated for us humans, because tradition assumes we will accumulate wisdom as we get older, and stop making stupid mistakes. This appears to happen to a few individuals as they acquire experience and education, but for many of us the experience is limited and the education is tainted by misinformation. For example, when I was 8 or 9 years old I came upon a book that was full of odd "facts" such as those in Ripley’s "Believe It or Not," which was popular in those days. One of these said, "The Greek philosopher, H_____, who said "Art is long, life is short," lived to be over 100 years old." At that time I didn’t know any philosophers, Greek or otherwise, and as I progressed through school and encountered them, it seemed that most of the Greek names started with H. There were Homer, Heraclitus, Hippocrates, and several others, and I never could remember which was which… and then when I got to High School and came upon "Ars longa, vita brevis," I thought it was written in Greek too. The crowning indignity came just recently when, checking to make sure I spelled "Hippocrates" correctly, I discovered that he only lived to the age of 90. I still haven’t got up nerve enough to look up what he was thinking about when he got the idea that art is long and life is short. Like many of the students I used to teach, that has always been my problem… getting bogged down in details and missing the really important ideas.

Even a good analogy can only be stretched so far. The sycamore is not a person, and I am not a tree. What we really have in common is that we are both living organisms, sharing the same ecosystem. We share the inevitability that eventually both of us will die; we share the practical reality that we must make the best of what we have while we are here; and we share the hope that the ecosystem will be none the worse for our having lived in it for this brief time.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith