Requiem for a tree

March 21, 1996|By Peter Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Sometime during the winter, a blast of north wind toppled a huge tulip poplar that had stood near the top of a hill in our back pasture.

The tree was dead and I'd known it would fall soon, but it was still startling to find it there, stretched on the ground in its immensity like Goliath brought down by young David's smooth stone. The trunk at the base must have been eight or ten feet in diameter. Big limbs had been driven deep into the soil. No one had heard it fall.

Because of its exposed location, it had been struck by lightning several times, and it's remarkable it had lasted as long as it did. How long was that? The trunk, filled with woodpecker excavations, was too rotten to make a count of annual growth rings possible, but the tree probably emerged from the seed not long after the Civil War.

A magnificent specimen

It was a big tree, but not one of our tallest. If it had been in the woods it would have grown taller and straighter. Some forest-grown tulip poplars have reached almost 200 feet, with trunks stretching 80 feet or more from the ground to the first branch. But trees like that tend to catch a logger's eye.

Out in the open, much of our old tree's growth had been horizontal. It had developed a magnificent canopy of branches, nice for cattle in the summer. It had great mass but not great height.

And while it was certainly old, we have oaks and beeches on the farm which are undoubtedly older. Tulip poplars are not especially long-lived. Most don't live much longer than a man, although there are still said to be some at Mt. Vernon which George Washington set out as seedlings in 1795. Two planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello were alive around 1980, and as far as I know still are.

Although we call these trees "poplars," they're really not poplars. They're related to magnolias. Some foresters say they ought to be called tuliptrees, because of their tulip-shaped flowers, but that has a frivolous ornamental-garden sound to it, and this is a very practical tree.

On the farm, we use the wood for siding on buildings. It's considered a hardwood, but is softer than almost any lumber except white pine. It lasts a long time unless it's in contact with the ground, when it will rot almost overnight. It is sometimes used for fence boards, but in my opinion is much too light for that. In the woodstove it makes wonderful kindling and will produce a hot quick fire.

To me it's one of the great truly American trees of our region, along with the sassafras, the dogwood and the late lamented chestnut. There's a story about Daniel Boone making a 60-foot canoe out of one tulip poplar log and taking his family down the Ohio River in it.

What's especially notable about these trees is the speed at which they can grow when conditions are right. We have some bottomland woods we logged selectively about ten years ago, and in that short time, with the help of the sunlight the logging let in, the young poplars we left have turned from skinny little things, hardly more than saplings, into very impressive trees.

About 15 years ago one of several young white pines I had planted by my house as shade trees died. The pines were then about 25 feet tall. I pulled the dead one out with the tractor and stuck a tulip poplar shoot, no thicker around than my thumb, in the hole. Today it's taller than all the pines and almost two feet thick at the base.

Living engines

We tend to think of big trees, like the rotten tulip poplar lying sprawled in our pasture, as objects mostly mass. But what's most remarkable about living trees, like other forms of life, is their energy. They're not just objects, they're engines too.

Yet these great machines, rooted in the earth, run quietly. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, noted that a big tree can and does lift a ton of water in the course of a summer's day. "A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes; it splits, sucks, and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling. No person taps this free power; the dynamo in the tulip tree pumps out ever more tulip tree, and it runs on rain and air."

I've already cleaned up most of the branches from the tree the winter brought down, but I haven't tackled the trunk. Maybe when the ground is drier I'll push it into a gully with the tractor, but more likely I'll just leave it be.

It'll rot down into the soil from whence it came, and out of which other little tulip poplars incessantly rise. Most of those will die, of course, but maybe a few will live a century or so before they fall. That's a pleasant thought, as another spring begins.

Peter Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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