RON SUTTON: Tribute to Trees: They Have Their Roots in Our Creation
Editor's Note: Today, which falls in between North Carolina Arbor Day (the first Friday after March 15) and National Arbor Day (the last Friday in April) seems an appropriate time to run this piece, which documents one man's love affair with trees.
Trees have been much in our local news this past year:
-- When they were cut down for the traffic signal at Longleaf.
-- When "Lady Deodara" was cut down for the steakhouse project.
-- When it was revealed that a fairly large number of trees would be destroyed for the proposed traffic roundabout in Pinehurst.
-- When it was discovered that a Weymouth Longleaf was/is 459 years old -- and aging!
As a matter of full disclosure, I am a certified, tree-hugging liberal, a loyal member of the Arbor Day Foundation. I have loved trees since my childhood.
I remember as just a young lad of 5 or 6 going to the nearby Conodoguinet Creek with my dad to dig some river birches that still stand today in the backyard of that property in Camp Hill, Pa. I remember, too, the double pair of silver maples that he and a neighbor lady by the name of Auntie Ott put in the jointly owned lot between our houses where a single house crowds in now. They were chosen for their fast growth and friendliness to wildlife.
Trees come and go in our lives. I will forever owe a debt of gratitude to my alma mater, Swarthmore College, for instilling in me a sense of being nurtured by trees. The campus of the college was (and remains today) the Arthur Hoyt Scott Arboretum. Trees were planted in a giant circle around the campus, illustrating the most ancient species known to man to the most modern. And they all had name tags -- ones you could read easily and remember.
Our least favorite was the female Gingko. When its fruit ripened and fell, you had to detour well around the stinking mess to get from my dorm to the train station and town of Swarthmore at the foot of the campus.
Magill Walk stretched from that train station nearly an eighth of a mile up a fairly steep grade to Parrish Hall, the main administration building for the college. It was lined with majestic, towering oak trees that had been planted when the school was founded in 1864. At the 50th reunion of my Swarthmore class of '57, it was thrilling and inspiring to walk under many of the same towering oaks that still line Magill Walk. Some have fallen to age and disease, but most of these old friends of my college years are still there.
For my graduate work, I went to Drew University in Madison, N.J. That campus, then as now, nestled in the Drew Forest. Daniel Drew had provided the land for the school. And down through the years, the wise caretakers of the institution had preserved the forest. It was a calming and peaceful place in a rapidly urbanizing area of the Garden State.
My first professional work assignment was in the Williamsport area of north-central Pennsylvania, just on the lower edge of the Black Forest. My ancestors on my mother's side had emigrated from Germany to this area, called East Liberty, to lumber out those forests. Unfortunately, the trees had all been cut by the time they got there. Tanning offered the only jobs available. My great-grandfather chose railroading instead. The fields and woods he farmed and hunted were the same ones that awaited me.
There were new stands of trees and a few large specimens that the loggers missed when I got there in 1961. They stood protectively on the banks of the colorfully named creeks I fished for rainbow, brook and brown trout -- Little Pine Creek, the Loyalsock, Larry's Creek, Muncy, Lycoming and Young Woman's Creek, both the East and West branches.
These creeks rose near the New York-Pennsylvania border and emptied into the broadening Susquehanna River that swept on down past Camp Hill, my boyhood home, near Harrisburg, and then into the Chesapeake Bay. The trees in the Black Forest became my friends and companions over the four years I hunted and fished among them.
I also became best friends with a young man named Joe Carey, who lived on a tree farm started by his father in Montoursville. After getting a master's degree in forestry from Penn State University, Joe eventually became a lumberjack, developed his own timber company and later in life became a modest timber "baron" evaluating, buying and selling timbered land for profit.
He taught me the meaning of growing and harvesting trees as a "crop." He taught me the difference between saving trees as a species and saving specimens for their grace, beauty and value, both as a natural resource and a product. When he looked at a forest, he saw trees, the same ones that nurtured him and me as we fished and hunted together. But in addition, he also saw board feet!
Washington, D.C., came next in my life, and I fell in love with the flowering cherry trees around the tidal basin at the Jefferson Memorial. I also was in awe and challenged by the huge silver maple that stood in my own front yard in Bethesda, Md., planted in 1935 by the first owners of the modest Cape Cod we lived in there for 20 years.
We hired some arborists to prune the mighty tree to prolong its life. They had come east for work all the way from Wyoming. They so fascinated me as they swung high among the upper branches that I shot a super 8mm film of them at work. Their work and grace in doing it still amaze me.
In 1997, we retired from that house (the maple is still there and going strong) to Pinehurst and its unique tapestry of green. I was quickly introduced to the marvelous ecology of the longleaf pine. What a tree! What a history! Millions of acres of these long-lived giants had extended from Southern Virginia to Texas -- a huge primordial forest, now almost gone.
Their history, their unusual relationship to wiregrass and fox squirrels, their odd cycle of life requiring the fire that Smokey the Bear had taught me was the enemy of all forests, their need for current preservation -- all impressed me as they became my newest friends. The discovery of that one that is 459 years old has impressed us all. What longevity in a world known for quick turnovers.
My respect and appreciation for trees, though, comes not just from memories and nostalgic associations from childhood, youth and adulthood. I can remember exactly when my affection, my friendship with trees deepened into a true love affair. It happened here in Pinehurst. I suppose, in retirement, one has time to notice -- really notice -- such a simple thing as cutting down a tree.
When we moved to our home in Pinehurst, we put some trees in the wrong place. A number of them could be transplanted elsewhere on the property. But a few, a Bradford pear and a couple of Leland cypress, were too big to move. I mumbled an apology to them for my mistake in planning. And then, as I slowly began to cut into their five to 10 years of overall growth, I marveled at how they were put together.
I simply had never noticed how well designed the branches were as they spread out from the main trunk. The twigs stretching out at just the right angles, the leaflets such a vital part of this delicate life-giving system -- each was placed in just the right spot to do its job of collecting the sunlight that triggered the amazing process of photosynthesis. The leaflets, the twigs, the branches, and the trunk -- all made up the connective tissue that delivered the nourishment the tree needed to survive and grow.
As I snipped and then lopped and then sawed the ever-thickening branches, I realized I was dismantling a really complex organism. By the time I got to the thick stump and its attendant roots, I was really in awe of this marvelously structured life form -- this tree.
With some help from the strong back of a younger good neighbor, we were able by hand to wrench the Lelands from their tenacious hold on the ground that protected their roots, the soil that provided them with the water and minerals they needed to grow. But the Bradford was another matter.
I remember uttering an even more specific, sincere apology to the tree for the rough treatment I was about to visit upon it. I then fired up my four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee, wrapped a chain from it around the base of the trunk and with no small difficulty pulled the tree from the nesting place in the ground it was so reluctant to leave.
There is still a slight depression in that part of our yard. Every time I step into it, I think of the long-departed Bradford.
I don't mean to be overly sentimental about this. I have cut down a large number of trees in my life, and they indeed must go when safety or building needs require their removal. This is certainly what was operative at the Longleaf intersection. I just wish they hadn't left the stumps sticking up for such a long time. For some reason that offended me.
This is just as obviously what was at stake with "Lady Deodora" in downtown Southern Pines -- private ownership conflicting with public sentiment. For a time it looked as if a third way might be found. However, the landowners decided the risk that the tree was too old to be built around -- was just too big a risk to take. Some of us were sad. Others were mad that we had made such a big fuss about one tree.
Some of these same issues are part of the dynamic struggle that swirls around the Pinehurst roundabout. Presently we all await the next chapter in that saga. And I suspect these issues will repeat themselves many times in the future as development encroaches on what many of us feel is the charm and beauty of the Sandhills.
I respect all the trees that make up the Sandhills, even the ubiquitous, unwanted turkey oaks. Imagine a tree so smart it can turn its leaves sideways to avoid the sun or get more of its warmth. No wonder there are so many of them!
To do my small part, I've planted more than a few trees at my Pinehurst home -- four or five hollies, two magnolias, a few redbuds, a smoke tree, two wondrous crepe myrtles, and four longleafs that we have watched grow from six feet to 60 feet in the 10 years we have been here. We all can do that on our own land. It's a way to preserve what we have.
I'm also trying to work with others to form some official groups to salvage smaller trees, especially longleaf pines that are in the way of developments of all kinds, buildings, roads, parking lots, etc. What we would like to do is salvage them, bed them in a strategic nursery and then replant them in selected locations that would benefit our communities now and in the future. This is certainly not beyond the reach of those of us who care.
I guess you can tell from the way I write about all this in my 72nd year that I care and that I have developed quite a love affair with trees. I thought sharing these thoughts might help some folks in the community to understand why we "huggers" take the relentless loss of our trees -- the special ones like Miss Deodara, and the unnamed ones at the Longleaf intersection and the proposed roundabout so hard.
For me, to say the quality of our life here in the Sandhills depends on them is not too extreme a statement. We deplete their number at our peril, for the trees are very special gifts to us from the Creator of it all.
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