Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Of Trees and Men: A Lesson on Aging from a Nonegenarian (Erwin A. Thompson)—History of two Hemlock Trees that made it through the Great Depression from a man who did too

After dinner (that's the mid-day meal in the country, folks) on the back eating porch, my father rested his eyes gazing outdoors to the garden and the hemlock tree.

Pop working in garden

"I planted that tree 60 years ago," Pop said, "It's grown some. I can remember the day I planted it. We had some hemlocks for sale, but no one would buy them. I took the best one and planted it right where it stands now. Thought it would be nice to have some shade here.

"No sooner than I had it nicely settled into the ground than a couple came by and wanted to buy it. I told them, 'You could 'a bought it two hours ago, but not now.' Yep, 60 years ago. It's some bigger now," said my father with a smile, looking out at the tree towering maybe 80 feet in the air.

"We're going to lose the hemlock in the front yard," he continued, ruminating on a tree none of us can remember when it wasn't there--not even my father and he's 91 years old. This hemlock tree overlooks the view downriver on the Mississippi and is the tree we always took formal family portraits in front of, especially at Easter time.

"Like people, trees age, and deteriorate in their own special way. The woodpeckers have dug holes in the trunk, hunting the delicacies that it harbored. It may take awhile, but we are resigned to lose it sometime.

"We almost lost it in the thirties. It was dry. Dust storms hardly made the news; they were so common. We had just gotten 'city water' a couple of years before. Principia College, up on the bluffs six miles up river, wanted city water. The logical route was through our farm, Evergreen Heights.

"Principia allowed us to 'hook on,' and even paid to get the line run up to our house. We used it sparingly, even though it came out of the pipe with no effort. It cost money, and money was a scarce article in 1934.

"But we saw the needles of the old hemlock turning brown in July. My aunt turned the garden hose on and moved it from time to time around the perimeter of the roots. She saved the tree.

"Old age ---. Trees age in their own way. Especially evergreen trees. The branches grow long. They 'over reach themselves.' As the branches grow, the parts near the tree get so that they do not produce new growth, or sustain the green that it once was so proud of, because of the lack of sunlight.

"This pattern of growth produces some rather scrawny limbs, sometimes. The snow and ice weigh down the branches, and often they do not ever regain their former graceful arc out away from the trunk of the tree," Pop concluded.

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2 Responses »

  1. This is a very moving commentary on aging, linking man and nature...linking a man with his connection to one tree is powerful.

  2. Lovely essay!

    We have massive cedar elms on our place. I knew they were old, but I had no idea how old until a tree expert came to take care of a huge dead oak for us. The oak turned out to be about 100 years old. That's when he told me that the cedar elms are much older. . . which means they were here when the Indians were here and made the arrowheads we still find from time to time. Talk about connections!

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