More than just a tree

Poplar: A crowd gathers to say goodbye to a centuries-old, decaying yellow poplar that has to be cut down. It has been a familiar sight to many visiting the Woodstock grounds.

January 12, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

From its hilltop perch at Mount Pleasant Farm in western Howard County, a lightning-scarred, woodpecker-pocked, breathtaking giant of a tree has had a good view for a long time.

It watched over generations of the family that gave it life. It saw a country born, a county form, a population boom. For the past decade, since the farm was left for a conservancy to manage, it has stood as a living landmark for thousands of schoolchildren, artists, gardeners and ecologists passing through the Woodstock grounds.

Arborists believe the yellow poplar is more than 260 years old.

In a few weeks, it will be cut down.

The tree - 98 feet tall, 87 feet wide from branch to branch, 20 feet around its trunk - is decaying from the inside out.

Its Howard County Conservancy caretakers, who have had the tree pruned repeatedly and even cabled to hold it together, unhappily concluded last year that the poplar is a potential danger to those who work and linger nearby, not to mention the 300-year-old house behind it.

Trees usually die unmourned. However, this one is deeply loved, and a small crowd gathered recently to say goodbye in a solemn farewell ceremony.

"Nature rained upon the day, and I thought that was very apropos," said Shirley J. Merkle, who lives across from the farm.

Elizabeth J. Stoffel, the conservancy's director, cried when a tree expert first delivered the bad news months ago. She sought not just a second opinion but a third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

She thinks the experts are right about the risks - she can see straight through the tree in places. But she feels sadder by the day as she takes bids for its removal. Her office is in the old farmhouse to the rear. For five years, she has gazed out her window and admired the tree.

"There's so much I'm going to miss about it," Stoffel said. "As a naturalist, I have a connection to all trees, but particularly to that tree."

At the farewell service, co-worker Marianne Pettis played the flute. Visitors, including a couple married under the poplar, wrote messages to the tree and placed them in a fire for a Native American burning ceremony.

Stoffel read Robert Frost's "Tree at My Window," then a poem she had written for the silent companion who "looked big and strong/as if you could withstand any storm/and shelter me from any more harsh winters."

In 1976, it was named a Maryland Bicentennial Tree because - the metal plaque explains - it was born before the revolution and "has stood its ground." It's a rarity in a state where much of the land was once farmed. Steve Parker, Howard's arborist, knows of only about 10 trees in the county that predate the Declaration of Independence.

Still, the Woodstock tree is not the tallest yellow poplar in Howard County, nor is it the oldest.

Mount Pleasant Farm has a 350-year-old tree of the same species elsewhere on its 232-acre expanse. But no one serenades that poplar with poetry and music; it is hidden far away from where people usually roam.

On a property full of trees - 18,000 planted in the past five years - the lightning survivor on the hill gets all the attention. Its likeness appears on the conservancy's letterhead, and every year people sit on the grounds to sketch the poplar's gnarled bulk, its wrinkled bark, its branches that reach out like a welcoming embrace.

"There's really a human quality to trees," said Peter Collier, a painter who brings his Howard Community College classes to the conservancy every spring and summer to do landscapes. "This tree was the old man, this wonderful old man. It had a real craggy quality about it, like age and time and weather. It's seen so much stuff, and you felt that when you looked at it."

Sandy Lee, a digital artist who spent the summer of 2000 painting the tree, felt its personality so strongly that she imagined it pulling out its roots at night and taking a stroll.

"It's like losing an old friend," she said.

Some are not ready to say goodbye. They think the tree deserves more time. John Riddle, who was born on Mount Pleasant Farm and lives next door, is convinced the poplar has 30 more years left in it because it still bursts into leaf each spring.

"Mother Nature has got something there that we can't replace," he said angrily.

Ruth and Frances Brown, the last of their family to own the farm and the sisters responsible for its preservation, also adored the poplar - so much so that Frances left instructions in her will to keep it "as long as is practicable."

Stoffel never wanted to see this final moment come. But she and others are working out a plan for the tree to live on in a fashion.

When it is cut down, they say, the small pieces will be chipped up and scattered on the farm's nature trails. Bigger parts will become mementos. If all goes well, some of the wood will end up in the new environmental education building that workers will start constructing on the farm this spring.

Parker, the county's arborist, thinks that is an excellent idea. He wants people to remember this tree.

Stoffel has promised the tree that she will.

"I think she's pretty majestic," Stoffel said, and impulsively gave the poplar a hug.

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