Having spent a couple of fruitless days trying to think of a topic to
write about this month, I did what I often do in such circumstances: I paid a visit to one
of Emmitsburg’s oldest residents. It is a sycamore tree that stands on the bank of Toms
Creek just south of town. There is no way to know its age… like most of its kind, it is
probably hollow… but it has lived long enough to achieve a circumference of over 15 feet
(for the record, I didn’t hug it; I measured it with a tape). I estimate it to be above 90
feet in height, and my best guess is that it is about 150 years old. While it is a big
tree by comparison to others in this area, it is not a giant of its kind; the sycamore is
the largest species of tree east of the Mississippi, and the record for its size is
presently held by a specimen in Kentucky that has a circumference of 36 feet. By
comparison, the Wye Oak was 32 feet in girth.
Trees are the basis of some of my earliest memories. When I was just
a toddler, my favorite pre-bedtime activity was to sit on my father’s lap and have him
tell stories of working at his grandfather’s sawmill when he was a boy. His job as a
ten-year-old was to drive the team of horses that dragged logs off the hill to the
sawmill, and I would go to sleep dreaming of the time when I would be big enough to do
that myself. Later, still as a pre-schooler, when we would go to get the cows for evening
milking, he taught me to recognize all of the local trees. Thus when I reached school age,
I found I was the only one in the first grade who knew the difference between red and
white oaks; it was the beginning of my training as a biologist.
When the Wye Oak blew down this past June, it prompted a series of
articles about big trees in newspapers all over the country; a typical example is the
clipping my sister sent me from her local paper. It cites the largest trees in West
Virginia as a sycamore that is 26 feet in circumference, and a Tulip Poplar that is 18
feet in circumference and 200 feet high. In the virgin forests three centuries ago, trees
of this size would not have been unusual; but most of them were cut down early in the
country’s history. Individual specimens, like the Wye Oak, were left standing at
crossroads, or as surveyor’s markers. One corner of my father’s farm was marked on the
deed, which went back over 100 years, by a white ash tree; it was still living when we
rebuilt the line fence in the 1950’s. It was over 18 feet in girth, and it towered over
the surrounding trees. The area had been lumbered many times; it survived only because it
marked the property line. Its success doomed it; as the tallest thing in the area, it was
struck by lightning a few years later.
Other big trees survived as shade trees. When I first came to Mount
St. Mary’s College, there were four huge chestnut oaks in the lawn near the Administration
Building. One of them fell over in a storm in the mid-’60’s, and Father Coad, then in his
late 90’s, remarked, “I told Father DuBois [founder of the college in 1808] those
trees wouldn’t last if he planted them so close together!” When the tree was cut up for
removal, I counted 162 rings in the lowermost section, which brought Fr. Coad’s story into
question, but did date it to the time of the college’s founding. Like most of its kind, it
probably was planted by squirrels rather than by Fr. DuBois. Two of its mates still stand,
now at an age of some 200 years and a girth of about 12 feet. In wandering about the local
forests for the past 40 years, I have not found any of that species that approach their
size; all from their birthdate were cut down long ago.
Every time I walk along Toms Creek, I stop and commune for a bit with
the sycamore. It has touched the lives of many local citizens. Years ago someone built a
suspension bridge by stretching two steel cables between it and another tree across the
creek; I suspect there are still people living in Emmitsburg who played on the bridge as
children in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. When I first met it, in 1960, the tree trunk had almost
engulfed the cables, but the old bridge still had enough intact planks to allow you to
walk across it if you cared to take the risk. The remnants of the bridge washed out in a
flood in the mid-‘70’s, and the other tree fell a few years later.
The severed ends of the cables still stick out of the sycamore’s
trunk; the remainder of the cable is now covered by several inches of wood. Sometimes as I
stand beside it, we contemplate universal problems such as the probability that the same
molecule of water might have flowed past it twice in the creek during its lifetime; but
lately we have tended to focus on more personal things. We are both past our prime, still
reasonably healthy but on the downslope of life… my arthritic joints are matched by the
anthracnose disease that wilts some of the sycamore’s uppermost twigs every spring, and
both of us are probably rotting out at the center more than is evident from the surface.
We are approaching the time when quality of life becomes a concern.
Although modern society seems determined not to recognize it, old
trees and old people eventually die. The oldest person whose age was accurately recorded
was the Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calmet, who died a few years ago at the age of 123; she was
blind, deaf, and unable to walk for her last decade. The Wye Oak survived on life support
for the last 60 of its 460 years; its limbs were supported by a mile and a half of steel
cable, and its trunk was patched with tons of cement. When it finally fell, its rotted
trunk snapped off cleanly instead of splintering as a healthy tree would have.
The sycamore will not have to worry about such an end; each year the
spring floods wash away some of the soil around its roots, and eventually it will topple
into the creek and wash away. Whether that happens in another year or another century, it
will be the way nature intended; it will not linger on life support. There’s a lot to be
said for that.