Spring Brings Glorious Redbuds
A friend who operates a landscape company in Maine phoned the other afternoon to see if I would require his services while I'm away this spring and summer.
He seemed embarrassed when I reminded him that we sold our house in Maine two years ago next month on the heels of a brutal winter, just as the national real estate market collapsed like a $2 beach chair.
"So who looks after your garden now?" he wanted to know, referring to the faux English woodland garden I spent years of sweat equity and most of my disposable income trying to make into something special.
My wife liked to tell friends the purest indication of spring in Maine was when a large shrub or tree passed the kitchen window. Somewhere beneath it would invariably be yours truly, moving it to a potentially better spot on the estate, counting the days until I could start mowing grass. I even gave my redneck Anglaise jardin a proper name - "Slightly Off in the Woods."
I hated to admit to my friend that I hadn't directly heard a peep from the folks who bought our place - and perhaps that was for the best. Last year, about this time, my son and daughter briefly dropped by there to pick up a wrought iron chandelier I'd mistakenly left in the barn, and all the new owner could do was bitterly complain about the house and the grounds, the absence of closets, the unfinished this or that. The gardens were too much work, he grumped, and the road was prone to wash in the spring rains.
"So why did you buy the house?" my slightly offended college-boy son asked the dissatisfied new squire of "Slightly Off in the Woods," just as I surely would have, only I'd have been recalling the lovely young couple from Connecticut who'd wanted the property so much they actually wrote us a three-page handwritten letter explaining why ours was their perfect house for their young and growing family.
Unfortunately, they couldn't sell their house in Connecticut, and the perfect transition never happened, though nothing would have pleased me more than to think of another set of children growing up in that happy house and forever changing garden slightly off in the woods. The new owners had Doberman pinchers.
To be fair, the complaining man's wife walked my children to their car and apologized for her husband's spring grouchiness, pointing out how much she actually enjoyed the gardens and house, how happy she was to live there. They dutifully passed the message on to their old man, who to this day finds himself in unexpected reveries about the place we left behind.
"So what's your garden like down there?" my landscaping friend who started this cascade of memories felt compelled to ask.
"A small terrace garden," I said, explaining that the rambling old house we rent in Weymouth for the moment is plenty sufficient while I edit a magazine, work on books and attempt, with their mom, to send a pair of grown-up children through a pair of ruinously expensive colleges.
Meanwhile, I admitted, until I find a patch to call my own again, I live vicariously through my neighbors' gardens, which I shamefully covet on my morning and afternoon walks to and from work.
"Jack Webster's amazing redbud bloomed this week," I explained. "Plus I attended the birthday party for a 462-year-old longleaf pine."
Favorite Redbud of All
My friend Jack Webster, a gardener's gardener, passed on two years ago this August, but his amazing redbud tree lives on quite heroically, a gentle affront to time, in his tranquil front garden, putting forth a cloud of iridescent pink blooms that light up the budding spring branches around it.
The average life expectancy of an Eastern redbud isn't terribly long - maybe 50 years at the outside. Jack once told me he figured this tree was at least as old as his house, which was constructed in 1917. Famed landscape architect Arthur Yeomans did the garden. That would make the tree 93 years old, a Methuselah of redbuds.
It certainly looks the part, blackened by time, knotty with age, with a yawning portion of its base actually carved out by critters and time, apparently holding the secrets of the universe. Rather amazingly, a whole new redbud tree appeared to be growing from the decaying portion of the tree, putting out glorious blooms, an ideal metaphor if there ever was for Easter week.
"It's been part of our family's life forever," Jean Webster said to me when I stopped off to say hello to her on my afternoon walk home Wednesday afternoon. I was actually counting neighborhood redbuds in bloom when I came upon my favorite one of all.
"Our children and grandchildren have loved it because we always use it for treasure hunts. It's the perfect tree for hiding things in, you see," Jean explained, running a hand over the ancient bark. "Until very recently an old man's face was quite visible in the bark. But I think perhaps a workman may have bumped it off. A shame. Still, he goes on. Rather amazing, I think."
I quite agreed, giving the venerable redbud a neighborly pat.
Oldest Longleaf Pine
As I explained to Jean, owing to a boyhood spent knocking around in the woods of the Piedmont and Blue Ridge mountains, I have a special fondness for Eastern redbuds, for they are usually the first bloom to light up the spring forest.
But I also have a checkered, secret history with them I must now disclose. For years, in a noble but misguided effort to replicate my vernal boyhood, I transported innocent young Zone 7 Eastern redbuds across half a dozen state lines from North Carolina to my Maine -garden, hoping I could find the perfect sunny spot where they might stand against the Yankee winter and flourishing Yankee spring, but it was none to be.
A succession of them perished until I heard rumors of a hardy hybrid Eastern redbud surviving in Minnesota and tracked down a nursery and secured a pair for my south-facing garden.
The spring we sold the house, they bloomed for the first time.
On Friday afternoon, I attended the birthday party of the oldest known longleaf pine, which stands in an old growth section of forest not far from Weymouth Center. Ranger Scott Hartley of the Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve led a group of 50 tree-partiers up a sandy horse trail to a thick old monarch that biologists have determined by core ring samples and weather records to be 461 years old, give or take a redbud spring.
"Golly," remarked a small white-haired woman in a green parka standing beside me, a retired history teacher, "that tree is older than the Mona Lisa. America wasn't even a country yet." Halfway up the tree, which in its own way looked as gnarled and wise as Jack and Jean Webster's redbud, a colony of honeybees was abuzz with activity, making honey while the sun shined.
Thank You Boyds
When English settlers arrived at Jamestown 75 years after this tree's supposed birth, Ranger Hartley explained, they found a forest of longleaf pines that stretched from coastal Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 90 million acres of trees. By the time James Boyd's grandfather got off the train to stretch his legs with his daughter in the barren outpost of Southern Pines in or around 1885, hiring a coach to look around a bit while repairs were made on the steam engine, the mighty longleaf domain had shrunk to a few million acres, mostly in the Carolinas.
The longleaf was first widely harvested for its excellent strong timber, specifically well suited for use in the shipping industry. Millions of trees were cut down and sent back to Europe to be turned into masts. The slow-growing tree was also a prodigious producer of resin, which created North Carolina's first major industry - the production of tar and pitch and the distillation of turpentine - but hastened the tree's demise.
By the time the Boyds of Harrisburg got off the train to kill a little time and stretch their legs, most of the surrounding Sandhills were a moonscape left by indiscriminate clear-cutting, a wasteland of over-harvesting.
"Boyd was so moved to find this one large tract of old-growth forest remaining," Scott Hartley said, "he purchased several hundred acres simply to preserve these remarkable trees. Because one person fell in love with these pines, we have this, the oldest longleaf pine in the world - and this surrounding forest - today."
A little later that afternoon, back at Weymouth Center, there was birthday cake and lots of fine conversation about how fortunate we are to live in a surviving forest of longleaf pines. I took piece of cake and walked home eating it, still counting redbuds in bloom.
Jim Dodson, frequent contributor to The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
More like this story