I know you are a friend of trees. I’m a friendly acquaintance of trees; we have a great time when we meet, but I don’t know much about them, or even many of their names.
With the exception of my Significant Trees:
1. My next-door grandparents’ ginkgo tree, which was visited by the local arbor society as a rarity in Omaha, Nebraska. It hung over their circa 1900 bungalow, providing a ladder to the roof for our cat Sammy, who could never quite get back down on his own. I ironed its leaves between waxed paper sheets and took them to school for show and tell, impressing no one but myself. The ginkgo is still there, now large enough to be a prize specimen in a botanical garden. I wonder if the current occupants appreciate it when the pale yellow leaves rain down, all of them falling on the same day. I wish I could travel back in time and ask my grandma, how did we get the ginkgo in the first place? There must be a story, but I took it for granted that we had Omaha’s only ginkgo—of course we did.
2. The same grandparents’ two tall elms, which perished in the 1960s to Dutch Elm disease. The city came and took them down, and the grief-stricken atmosphere between our two houses on that day is a sharp memory. My grandfather worked on removing the stumps for years, hacking at them with axes to little effect, later burning them with slow fires. I think of them when I cross Central Park, where there is a fenced-off grove of majestic Dutch Elm survivors.
3. The tall black pines of Southampton, New York, which are succumbing rapidly to a plague of beetles. Looking out the window at just the right moment, I’ve seen 50-footers swoosh to the ground, twice now. On our constant woods strolls this past year, we walk through fields of jagged fallen pines, and have to scramble over trunks that bar the path. When we first moved here twenty years ago, we took care not to disturb the tall pines with our various projects. They fell, or are falling, anyway, and we’ve reached the stage of having to have them taken down to spare the other trees in the woods, not to mention houses and hikers. It’s brighter back here than it’s ever been, but hopefully the scrub oaks will take advantage of the sunshine and enlarge their canopies.
4. A small grove of elegant beech trees in the corner of my front yard, “volunteers” according to the Tree Guy, who addresses them reverently and doesn’t seem to care how close they are to the house. I like that they don’t let go of their leaves until the new buds come in the spring. I appreciate their cautious attitude toward life; their branches may get raggedy, but they are never bare.
The famed actor Judi Dench is a lover of trees, and I happened on her hour-long BBC program from 2017 called My Passion for Trees. I spent a happy lunch hour knitting through it, and coming close to tears in a couple of spots. There’s Shakespeare recited from memory, the names of departed friends and husbands carved on tree plaques, arbor glyphs, and Henry VIII’s battleship Mary Rose, whose curved timbers were formed from the natural curves and crotches of tree branches. There’s a whole story about mushrooms—your favorite fun guys, Ann!—and the miraculous role they play for the trees.
Dame Judi adds a lot, letting the audience share in her astonishment and humor. As she walks through the forest, taking the arms of various scientific guides, I can’t think of anyone aging as beautifully as she, showing the way.